Writing Practice – 4/19/19

Snoring loudly over there…

It’s okay that you snore. I wasn’t really sleeping anyway. I’ve had a lot on my mind, and tonight is no exception. I’m really worried about your brother. He’s been so depressed and down lately. Have you thought of taking him out for a guys’ night? I think it could be good for him. I’ll try to remember to tell you when you wake up.

I won’t wake up. I’d have to sleep first. I haven’t really slept in six months. Did you know? Do you notice how I am exhausted during the day? Oh, I snooze, I rest a bit. But sleep? Actual, physical, Deep sleep, the kind where you feel as if you’ve just sunk three feet deep into the comforter,the kind where you body recharges and supercharges like one of those ridiculous mad scientist lightning-bolt creations things, have you ever noticed that I haven’t had that in soo, so long?

I don’t remember when it started. Certainly before you started snoring, so I know I can’t blame you. Not that I would, of course. How can you be blamed for what your body does while unconscious? I’ve had a lot on my mind. And that’s making it so I can’t sleep.

Sometimes I will lie here and count your snores, every five minutes, or ten, or fifteen, to see how regular you are. I stare at the neon-blue bars indicating 2:20 then 2:25 then 2:30 then 2:35, and I wonder when the time ends. Not where it goes – I know it goes into the past, into the “there“, the “beyond.” But where does time end? When do we get to that last moment on the clock. We try to review, to account for it, and we for some reason also like to reset often. It’s like we don’t know how to count to more than sixty. I wonder why not.

Are you dreaming? Your cadence has decreased. Slightly. Ten minutes ago you were at seven per minute. Now it’s down to five. Does that mean you’re deep down, into the REM, into the dreams of purple walruses and flying cars, and sexual fantasies about e-girlfriends. I know they exist, it’s not a problem. Back when I dreamed, I dreamt of your ex-girlfriends, too. They were very attractive. And, again, I can’t blame you for your body’s unconscious rebellion of the conscious rules you have established.

I wish I could dream again. I would dream us on a vacation or maybe having an adventure. Perhaps we are detectives in old London, traipsing across the Bowery and into Big Ben and the Tower of London searching for clues. Maybe we are not together, but we are searching for one another. Maybe we, rather than being lovers as now, are simply friends, and each is attached to someone even more specially suited to such romanticism. Do you dream of us together? Do you run again? Do you walk? Do you relive the accident, which took your mobility and our relationship? I do.

Writing Practice – 4/16/2019

chaos

Chaos abounds in the darkness. In the light, even if there is motion, or disorganization, or interaction, or conflict, these are all seen, are all understood, are all mapped inside our consciousness and prepared for, planned for, contemplated by those lovely lumps of brains atop our spinal cord, and we have no fear. We do not stress. We do not wonder. Seeing is believing? No, seeing is truth, and acceptability, and regularity, and pattern, even if it is wild, incoherent, and random-ish.

But in the dark, in the absence of light, in the places where you sense with infrared and ultraviolet in the realm of navigating the world through our other nine senses (smell, taste, touch, hearing, balance, time, ESP), these are still not enough for us, for humans, to feel as if we have control of the situation. For is that not what chaos really is, but lack of control? We may not have authority over the teeming mass of wandering hordes out for destruction, yet if we see them we fear them much, much less than when they come under cover of darkness.

No other sense, no other attribute, contributes as much to our fear as our lack of vision. Were we to see but not hear, their terror in us would, paradoxically, be lessened, for that is one which, by its absence, reduces th threat. We don’t believe silent things can hurt us. For, what do we fear more, the snake’s rattle or the owl’s quiet wingbeats? precisely.

We fear those things which are loud, and unseen, and so adding a chorus of clanging boots and rattling armor to the darkest night is a combination fit to turn even the most self-professed brave soul into a withering baby. This combination takes away the one sense which adds assurance, sight, and adds another element which increases terror in its own right, sound.

The others – smell, taste, touch, we are too undeveloped in yet to have a way to know whether these will increase or decrease our fear. At long distance, that is. In the immediate presence, if you can smell the putrid, rotting flesh of the zombie horde, you may as well give up, because if they’re close enough for you to smell, they’ll be on top of you soon enough. And at the same time, touch, taste, require a physical intimacy which beggars belief of fear. So, then, this fear of the unknown, this fear of change, of the “other” out there, is heightened, and is birthed out of, chaos, disorder, unreality, irrationality, and the way the world works is far, far beyond our own mortal capacity to understand. WE have limited scope of using our brains, and we have devoted much of that to sensing in the visible spectrum. When a creepy-crawling comes approaching outside of that spectrum, then is when our distrust kicks in, our fear of chaos (destruction, impermanence, intransigence, ending, power, power to finalize, power to transform, power to erode) takes over, and we turn away as soon as possible, as strongly as possible, and we seek out that alternative, of places of light, and order, and permanence, and connectivity.

***

Commentary: So, this isn’t a great essay. It doesn’t hold any special revelations. I didn’t find any unique turns of phrase. I didn’t really “lose control” at the end. I felt like I sort of stopped a couple of times along the way, and just sort of plodded through it all. I could go back and edit, to make it flow better, to make it more impactful. It doesn’t even really end well. So why do I post it? Why do I let you see it? Why do I expose my soft underbelly of semi-incompetence?

Trust me, it’s not to fish for compliments. If that were so, I’d be ultra-negative on myself and expect someone, anyone, any reader, to correct me and tell me it’s fine, it’s great, it’s still inspiring. No, I don’t do this to garner sympathy or comments or feel-good-ness.

I post this in its mediocrity as it is because that’s what writing is about.

Writing is about doing the writing. Writing is about doing it even when it doesn’t feel great, even when it’s kind of boring at the end and you’re like, “yeah, nobody’s ever going to read that.” And you know what? They’re probably not. But you do it anyway. Because that’s how you get through the really low periods to the points where it’s great, where your pen is just banging, where you’re in the flow and you’ve got it all good and things just couldn’t get any better. Those things don’t just happen because you decided to show up once or twice or even ten times. Those things come when you’ve put in the work, when you’ve been steady and faithful to the muse, and when hit happens… damn. There’s nothing like it. So that’s why you write the crap pieces, the drudgery, the stuff about chaos and leadership and boring descriptions of shoes and conversations. So that you’re there and ready to strike when called. If you’re skipping out, you’re missing out.

Writing Practice – 2/17/2019: Imaginary Friends

Imaginary friends…

My imaginary friends are having a real war, and it’s taking a toll on my room. Last night Katie threw my Spider-Man across the room at Jacob. It missed him but hit the mirror and knocked it off the shelf.

Mom says that she doesn’t believe me, that it’s not me doing it, but Dad does. He always takes my side. I wish they weren’t so made t each other, but, sometimes I don’t get what I want.

Katie told me she doesn’t want to be my friend any more, if Jake is still coming around. She said I have to choose – who am I going to pick her or him? I told her I don’t want to pick. Why can’t I have both? Why can’t things be like they used to be?

It started like two years ago. Mom told me that’s when I started having nightmares, but I don’t remember that part. She says she would hear me screaming about monsters. She would come in and check on me, tell me it was okay, and leave. I didn’t remember that part. I do remember that a lot of times I would wake up and Dad was lying in the bed next to me, his arm around my shoulders.

“Hey, big guy,” he’d say, when I woke up. “You were having another bad night, huh?” I didn’t remember him coming in to my room, either, but i do remember when I met Katie and Jake. I was out at the swingset, no – maybe it was the little creek out at the community park – anyway, all of a sudden I heard two other voices and they were arguing, too.

I was able to stop them from that argument, and they made up. They were okay, and I was okay with each of them. I like Jake a little more; he’s about two years old than me, he doesn’t like to ride bikes like I do, so I have to play at the park when he’s already there.

We don’t hang out with Katie much any more. We did for a while. She’s a little younger than Jake so she’s just a little older than me. She likes to ride bikes, so we do that together. She says her grandma promised her a gear-shifter bike for her next birthday, but when ask when that is, she always says, “oh, in a couple of months.” I’ve had two birthdays since I met her, and she hasn’t had any.

I’m afraid if I keep going to like this that she’s not going to get any older, but I will. I might grow out of my imaginary friends. I grew out of my hi-tops last year and my older brother grew out of his shorts and that’s why I have his. I don’t want to grow out of my friends. I want them to stay with me.

But Mom says that I need to leave them behind. It’s not that they can’t help me anymore, she says. It’s just that they don’t need to be there every day. Dad says it’s okay. He thinks as long as I have a way to “process” those things it will be fine.

Sometimes, I wish I did just leave them behind – you know, go out and live by myself. But then I realize I’m only ten, and I can’t give them up that easily. Who’ll take care of me? I can’t get a job. Now way I could take care of myself.

Writing Practice – 8/7/2018

Write about paperbacks…

Okay, confession time. I was originally not supposed to write about paperbacks. If I had followed my rules for deciding a topic, I would have done something different. I opened the notebook, to the list of writing topics I had done once, and the first thing I saw was “write about wetbacks.” Now, according to my instructions for myself, I’m not supposed to judge a topic – just go. But today I felt it. I felt a hesitation, a fear, an apprehension I can’t write about that, or maybe, I just don’t care if [illegible] I’ll be racist or I’ll try not to be but it will show anyway, or maybe my misperceptions will all come tumbling out, so I won’t be able to pretend that I’m not racist any more. So I skipped it. I went right to the line above, which happened to be “write about paperbacks”, which seemed safe, seemed okay for a Tuesday morning in a strange place while my kids are sleeping, seemed like I wouldn’t have to dive very deep on that one, so I bailed out. I pussied out. I felt the urge to go hard on something and I chickened out – I forgot my own instruction, my personal mantra of “no judgment”, just let the writing flow as it does, and I judged. I judged the topic, I judged what I would write about, I judged my readers who would eventually see what I’d written and then perhaps also my [illegible], I judged my person [illegible] insufficient to carry the weight of such a subject.

So – paperbacks, huh? Real, weighty, important stuff there, eh? Ah, no, that’s bullshit. Paperbacks is a cop-out.

Why do we call it a cop-out? Why don’t we call it giving up? Why are giving up and giving in the same thing? Why don’t we have a simpler English language, one in which words mean what they mean, not something in one context, “house”, and something else in another context, “house”, but it’s completely unrelated to one another? Okay, “house” is a bad example of that, but I can’t think of another example on the fly like this without thinking, getting logical, which are two things that are part of the rules of writing Practice that I’m not supposed to do.

and I usually follow those rules. The Rules of Writing Practice, I review them every session. Every. Session. it’s part of my ritual each time I write. I start with the date, and a topic, then review the rules, then do a mental preparation exercise, and then I write. I always follow those rules. The rules say to let go. I often do. The rules say to go for the jugular. I do. The rules say to ignore spelling, punctuation, Don’t worry about margins or lines_ you should see my notebook. It looks like an epileptic chicken got a hold of a swirly pen and went to town.

Boy, that took a turn for the weird. Glad I’m not trying to read this afterward. I’d wonder whether I need to be in a sanitarium. Perhaps I do. Perhaps I do.

Composing a Story – Part 2 of (?)

It’s been enough time since the first draft of a story I wrote, and now it’s time to start refining. This week I read through again, made some notes about things I’d like to see different or changed, and made some revisions.

A couple of times I’ve seen this (Stephen King comes to mind):

2nd Draft = First Draft (minus) 10%

So I often target at least cutting out 10% of the words. This usually makes the prose tighter, removes a scene or two, and generally moves things a long a little faster.

Here’s an example paragraph.

Before

It stood silently in the hallway, apparently staring at the number 17 screwed tightly to the frame. As Marcus watched, it raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and what looked like actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward, then, poised, and grasped the handle of the — what –-sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

After

It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the — what –- sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

A bit tighter, a bit smoother. Most of the words remain, just the fluff taken out. And I did remove a few whole paragraphs, because they just didn’t make sense.

Overall, first draft: 11,420 words. Second draft: 10,200 words (10.7% cut) So I managed to meet that baseline.

There are some markets where 10,000 words would be the limit. Should I wish to submit to those, I’d have to cut just a bit more. Which, at this point, would be a scene or some action, rather than just words here and there. But I don’t think I’ll have to do that. I’m now going to ask for some feedback from readers and writers. Based on those comments, I may change again. This might be cutting a few scenes, or adding something necessary. So the fact that I’m close to an arbitrary limit doesn’t mean a whole lot at this point. We’re still in development.

Okay, here it is, the first scene. If anyone would be interested in reading the whole thing and making a critique (which is, by the way, not just saying, “I like it,” or “I hated it,”), then please let me know.

Oh, by the way – I don’t have a title yet. So we’re working with “Untitled” for now

Untitled

by Stephan James

Had he been able to pay attention, he would have noticed the semi-darkness descending upon him. For as much as the sky overhead might be attempting to transform into an overbearing, oppressive presence, the fluorescent lights along the city sidewalks pushed back against the intrusion, and would have aided his attempt to fight back.

But he was preoccupied, and could not take the moments to look up, look around, and notice the gloom slowly settling over his environment as he walked home from his office, late, on a Tuesday evening.

It was only seven blocks. Not really worth the time and money to go out of his way a block to the subway, then backtrack two more. So a nothing man walked home from a nothing job in a nothing city to a nothing apartment, listening to his now-grown-up brother whining about said brother’s wife and daughter spending too much of said brother’s money on spa trips, and all Marcus could think was At least you have someone.

As soon as he thought it, he was reminded of his counselor, a mid-fifties woman who’d been divorced and remarried, who tried to tell him that he wasn’t washed up at forty-seven, who continued to push him to see the good in his life, who would have said, “Well, Marcus, why do you continue to berate yourself like that? It’s been fifteen years. You have to let her go.”

He found the door handle and pulled, automatic, thoughts swirling through his head as they always did, overwhelming, overpowering, a tidal wave of the past and all that had been taken from him. His feet moved of their own accord, his hand pressing his cell phone to his ear, into and out of the elevator, eighteenth floor, well-trod floorboards and empty picture hangers on the wall, down the hall and turn left, voice droning on and on. He couldn’t stop thinking that maybe he’d –-

There was someone at his door.

No, something.

Some thing.

It looked to be at least a foot taller than him, wearing a hooded dark brown robe. And was that one of those farm tools with the long handle and ridiculously curved blade slung over its shoulder?

Was that Death at the door to his apartment?

Waiting?

Waiting for him?

It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the — what –- sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

It put two hands on the scythe and stood waiting. Nothing happened. Why would it? Marcus wasn’t in his apartment, though he should have been for at least the last hour. Normally he would be sitting on his couch in his underwear, second drink in hand, mourning all that had been taken from him, television droning on unattended.

But today that phone call had distracted him, had made him stop in his office building lobby instead of heading out into the night so he could concentrate before the traffic sounds overwhelmed the conversation, had slowed his walk on the way home, had kept him from his usual routine enough so that he was now on the outside when he would have normally been on the inside, on the outside here where he could take a look at this ridiculously stereotypical picture of Death waiting to claim him, Marcus Jeffries, for the underworld or the afterlife or Heaven or Valhalla, he was outside the door and not inside and his brother’s voice came again through the phone and it startled him, startled him into movement, startled him into action, startled him into saying “I’ll call you back,” sliding the phone into his jacket pocket and taking two steps towards the monstrosity.

At the sound Death turned and pointed its hood towards him, four apartment doors away. He couldn’t see a face buried under there. The hands were veined, strong. Useful hands. Hands that did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. He admired that. His “career” had been spent updating electronic spreadsheets to meet another’s goals. Hardly anything to be proud of, other than that he had no debts outstanding and he’d never really hurt anyone, never really done anything wrong.

Death stepped towards him and spoke. “Marcus,” and the voice was female, surprising him. Deep, and raspy like a smoker, but definitely female. “You’re late. It’s time to go.”

Marcus held up his hands in front of him. “Uh, seriously? Do you know how ridiculous this seems?”

She moved even closer and now he could see the outline of a chin in the shadows of the hood. It moved up and down. “I have little time to play, Marcus. You’re on my list, let us be done.” She was now just a few feet away. She raised the scythe above her head.

“Wait, what?” He retreated, hands still in front, and felt his pulse spike. Adrenaline flooded his system. “I’m too young to die!”

“That’s not my issue,” she said, and swung the scythe at his neck. As it moved, the blade screamed into the hallway, the sounds echoing off the corridor walls with a banshee wail. He ducked and felt the whoosh of air as the blade swooped through the space where he’d recently been. The hairs on his arms stood out, at the sound, and at his proximity to his own demise.

“Holy hell!” he shouted, surprised at the emotion. He felt so alive! He hadn’t felt like this in twenty years or more. She cocked her weapon again and approached even closer. Two more steps and he could have grabbed her robe.

She swung again, the blade howling, and this time he dropped to the floor. The point passed within inches of his face and buried itself deep into the plaster wall of the hallway, scattering white dust into the stale air. Marcus scrambled back, crablike, and around the corner, while she struggled to release the blade from its new sheath. He got to his feet and sprinted to the elevator. He felt sweat beading on his forehead, and all those fight-or-flight chemicals had him hyped up so much he thought he might levitate.

He glanced back the way he’d been, but saw nothing, heard nothing. When the door finally opened he threw himself inside, landing against a handful of people, and grasped his jacket tight to his chest. Finding his breath coming hard, he stabbed the lobby button.

And prayed for the first time in a decade.

#

Writing Practice – 3/20/18 – Bad News

Write about bad news…

It’s worse when the delivery is poor, too. It’s easy to hear when it comes from someone who loves you, who cares about you, who will be there to hold you after the revelations sink in and your heart has disintegrated into the void in your chest at the announcement. Because then you have someone to be there while you stumble through the next few moments, the next days, as you struggle to understand, to experience; as you fight to perform the monumental task of keeping on, keeping going, when all you want to do in the face of such insurmountable odds is to walk away.

Bad news is not the opposite of good news. Good news makes you happy. It’s on a spectrum, an axis, a dimension. Sad on one end, happy on the other. So good news drives you along the happy-sad line from less happy to more happy. It’s maybe linear, maybe exponential, maybe logarithmic, maybe discontinuous. But at least it’s on that path, that pattern, a graphable subset of the whole.

Bad news, though, that shit is a different breed. It doesn’t do the opposite as good news. It doesn’t drive us down that axis, doesn’t make us sad, doesn’t make us less happy. Bad news is an altogether different bitch.

Bad news incites feelings of revolution, of betrayal, of hatred, of incompetence. It is not on the happy/sad spectrum – it is not on any axis at all.

Not perpendicular – not even a dimension at all. Bad news brings feelings completely uncorrelated to the news itself. It brings inspires installs turbulence within the spirit.

It enlightens destructive tendencies, destruction to self, destruction to environment, destruction to imagination, destruction to hope. Bad news irradiates the possibilities of future happiness with ultraviolet, emotion-destroying, logically-consistent-and-yet-absolutely-incomprehensible emotionless arguments.

Bad news fucks you up. And not in ways that can be protected against. There is no “bad news life preserver.” No “this is gonna fuck up your head, so grab an emotional prophylactic” condom. It is not random, not linear, not predictable, and yet also not incomprehensible.

Bad news is bad – not for the outcome, but for the period in between, that space, that time, those days or weeks or months from the time when you first hear it and the last acts are complete. “Oh, he’ll die in 2 months.” Well, then, my life is a shitshow for 2 months and for twenty years after, as the echoes of that bad news reverberate through the empty chambers of my heart forever.

Bad news. It’s bad news, man. It’s the torture that just keeps giving, long after it should have stopped, long after the events unfolded. Long after the “healing” is done. Long after the heart has moved along, the society has moved along, long after your counselor says “I think you’re good here,” long after the surface scars have healed. Bad news is a poison waiting, slowly working, beneath the surface, eating out the insides in a perpetual, relentless destruction of the body from the soul outward.

Writing Practice – 2/17/2018 – Bad Date

Write about a bad date – on the calendar:

You see it coming from far away. The anticipation begins to build well before. It’s like it is hunting you, stalking you, lying in wait to ambush you as you creep along the forest path. It is a panther, large, sleek, terrifying, destructive, waiting for you, and you are helpless to stop it.

You see the beast ahead – you recognize the telltale signs of its lair, or its path, or its spoor, mocking you, teasing you, berating you for days, weeks, a month ahead. “Ha, ha,” it says, “You’ll be here soon enough! Can’t avoid me!”

And as much as you hate it, it is right. You cannot avoid its presence. You cannot avoid the memories it contains. Whatever happened, way back when, will continue, through our collective conscience, to surface, time and again, every year, like clockwork. April 7? March 24? January 30? These happpen. All. The Fucking. Time.

You cannot ignore them. You cannot go out of your way to ensure they don’t happen again. We don’t get the option to jump from May to July and totally skip June, forever avoiding that date on the 24th that reminds us of when dad died, when mom left, when our heart was broken, when we broke another’s heart.

We don’t have that luxury. Our path through the forest is one way, and there is no deviation from it. We see our enemy, our predator, our anti-joy lying in wait for us, and it fills our hearts with dread, with desire to turn, to run, to flee, to scream “No! Not this time!” And take to our heels, crashing through the undergrowth and breaking free of its inevitability. We long to separate, to dissolve whatever unimaginable bond it has over us; to rid ourselves of the mental & emotional shackles it somehow still holds – but we cannot. This is an impermeable chain. The metal binding us is of our own making – we have forged these bonds in the fires of our own emotional turmoils, and so they come with the strongest tempers of all – those of the heart. As much as we may wish to break free, we know we cannot, and we resign ourselves to press forward, one day more, one day again, one more day, creeping towards that midnight maw waiting, waiting, waiting to devour us. We go. We go. We go.