January 2011


The Story

I must tell you this.
You must listen.
You’re thinking, no I don’t, but
you keep reading, wondering—
And here it is five lines in
or even more, if I
get all wonky with the line
breaks and these long parentheticals—
leading you on,
leading you nowhere,
leaving you wondering
How did I let this happen?
Why did I listen?
What did he say?
How did I get here in
The End?

Is This a Good Time?

I look out the window
At the last moments
Of the last moments
Of the day,
When streetlamps get the idea it’s dark,
And hound dogs bark when they’re put out to stay,
And Mom calls to ask,
“Is this a good time?”

And I say what I always say,
“It’s always a good time, Mom.”
Though Mom doesn’t really call
Since she passed away.

But now would be a good time, Mom.
Ideal.
You must have news—it’s been years.
Even no news would reveal so much,
If you would reach out and touch me here
In my living room lit by a streetlamp in the dark
Listening to the neighbor’s dog’s lonely bark—
No?

Is this a good time? I ask the night.
Is this a good time?
“Don’t bother,” the dog bays,
“The night never answers.
“The night never cares.
“Only the moon rises.”
Howl.

Davy Crockett Junior High, 1960
Survival of the Fittest

Smart Guy.
Think you know all the answers,
Smart Guy?
How do you like that, huh?
How does that feel?
Gimme that. Lookee here. The math homework.
You don’t mind if I borrow this, do you,
Smart Guy?

You might want to throw in a few errors in addition—
to avoid any possible suspicion
that it isn’t your work.

Yeah. Right. Good idea. Thanks. See you around.
Hey. You’re in Hull’s History right?
Why don’t you sit next to me at lunch?

I’ll probably have more to say about this when I’m done, but I’m in the process of rereading my first published novel, Wilderness, written 20 years ago, because Tom De Haven is teaching it in his American Fantastica class at VCU, and I’m guesting.  Except for a few scenes I draw upon for “greatest hits’ readings, I haven’t reread the novel.  It’s fun how often it surprises me.  The characters certainly smoke a lot of cigarettes and have red-hot libidos.  It’s nice to know I’ve gotten better, I remind myself as I read, but the damn thing does keep me turning the pages.  Let’s just see if it can make me cry—one way or another.

Practice

Practice dying:

If it were now,

How would that be?

Having had a glimpse,

I often do this,

Just, you know, to see

If I can do it right.

Some days it’s hard to get inside the fictional dream I’m creating, and I have to pick the lock with a little revision.  Even something small and local can get you inside.  Verbs are especially helpful.  Why that verb?  Does that really capture the character’s intentions, emotions, and circumstance?  Let’s ask him.  That’s better.  Next thing you know, four pages.

I was recently prompted to write Nancy Kress after reading her interview in Locus. I was struck by how similar our writing processes are, and how similarly we speak of them. I could have written her description of her process, including the apologetic disclaimer that it’s scarcely a process at all.

In short, I start with almost nothing, a character who’s scarcely a character, since she hasn’t done anything yet (though this one just became female). She may have an interesting voice, be in an interesting place, or be faced with an interesting situation. Then we see what happens next, what she wants to do about it. However many pages later—6 or 400—the story ends.  I’m leaving out lots of details from this recursive, revision intensive journey that I suppose crawls right out of my unconscious onto the page in some weird dance with the paper people I hang out with.

The guys with the real process make outlines, write detailed character sketches, know the ending before they begin the journey.  I know good writers from both tribes, though I have no statistical survey and there are certainly many hybrids.  The Planners are perhaps more prescriptive.  The Vagabonders tend to apologize for their meandering ways.  Why the disclaimer? I’m sure I pass this insecurity onto my writing students of the same ilk at the same time I’m trying to persuade them to have faith in their process. The ones who like to make outlines and detailed character sketches and so on before ever getting underway suffer from different self doubts.

I make outlines, maps, floor plans and such on the fly, as needed.  The outlines are more often of where the story’s been than where it’s going.  Revision of the past propels the story into its future.  I see the ending along the way.  Some journeys are scuttled.  Though often, if one traveler hooks up with another, they manage to get the whole thing going again to a place neither had imagined before setting out.

No matter what sort you are, trust your process.  Whatever works.  Have a good time.  Set out.

“Sir,” people address me in increasing numbers. Not “Hello,” but “Hello, Sir.” It’s the overwhelming whiteness of the hair, the bald pate, and the beard, I suppose. “Old-timer” is out of fashion, so I get “Sir.” I know this is supposedly a term of respect or something, but I detect a note of fear in it—that I might pass along some unwelcome wisdom or gas if they give me half a chance. I know my young wife, barely eligible for AARP and with a pitiful bit of gray to show for all her years on the planet, has an equal affection for “Ma’am.” I like a simple “Hello.” It makes me feel young, and you know how we old farts like to feel young.