View of the Sycamores

He stared down at the shirt in his hands – the once stiff denim was worn, a loose thread telling the tale of several chilly summer evenings, a pocket flap coming away at one corner. Only a couple of the buttons still matched. It was the kind of item people would toss away at the last minute, an afterthought. But it was here.

The spring breeze snaked over Bill’s cheeks, through his hair. The sun was getting low in the sky after only three hours of driving. He’d set off later than he’d wanted to. The morning had been spent pulling weeds, hanging laundry, refilling sugar bowls while Cathy was at her friend’s. Somehow, he hadn’t been able to tear himself away at the last minute, even though he’d spent the last thirty-one years dreaming of doing exactly that.

The only other car at the rest stop was an old Chevrolet with a fine coating of red dust on the sides. Beyond the single pump stood a small shack of a coffee shop, a faded cartoon rooster announcing the specials on the front sign. He could see someone in there, chatting with a woman behind the counter. The woman was laughing. He dumped the shirt on the backseat where he’d found it, next to the suitcases and cardboard boxes that had become the sum of his life thus far.

Filling up the tank, he did some calculations. At least another four hours to his brother’s place demanded a piss stop, a cup of coffee for the road. A sandwich if they had it. He made to go inside but resisted at the door. This was the kind of area where strangers made road talk, lifted their index fingers from the steering wheel as they passed each other – the country driver’s wave. Years selling fertilizer and soil nutrients had made him savvy to the quirks of the southwest, the little idiosyncrasies of the road. Bill had nothing he wanted to say.

As he turned to leave he heard the woman greet him. Too late.

Inside, he ordered coffee, nodded at the other traveler. He made a beeline for the seat at the far side of the counter, reconsidered, took a closer one instead. Ever dutiful, even with strangers. The waitress rewarded him with a slice of pie and continued her conversation with the other guy. They both seemed to have picked up that he wanted to be left alone. Either that, or they didn’t give a shit. He briefly pondered which was better.

Cathy had made apple pie like this only last week. No, hers had always been slightly gummy, the filling too sparse. He had eaten it without comment for just over three decades. Now, chewing on this vastly superior pie, he wondered why he had never said anything to her about it. A twinge in his chest told him to stop thinking. Stop remembering.

All that mattered was now. Now and the day after. Finish the pie, get to Frank’s, live your life for you and you only.

As he was looking at a road map he became aware that the man was looking at him. Bill fixed his gaze on a small collection of contours, willing the stranger to leave him alone until it became obvious what he was doing. He looked up, struggling to keep his mouth from twitching at the corner, a betrayal of resignation.

“Where you headed?” the guy’s face was open and friendly. Bill had thought him much older, in his sixties. Up close, however, he guessed him to be only a couple of years older than himself, only with thinner hair.

“Just outside Boulder.” Light, noncommittal.

The man brightened. “Not Firestone?”

“Nope, Lyons.” Bill didn’t understand why people became animated at the prospect of sharing familiar places, as if comparing notes on everyday small towns somehow unlocked hidden understanding. Where was the excitement in the familiar?

“Too bad. Interstate 76?”

“Uh huh.”

“There’s a faster way. Let me see that map?” The guy scooted closer and took a pen from his shirt pocket. He scrawled lines on a napkin. “This is State Highway 7, see?” He drew a long snake down the middle. “The twenty-five. Easier to cut straight across.” He signaled to the waitress. “Could I get another refill, Deb?”

Bill looked down at the man as he explained various routes and shortcuts that Bill would forget the moment he walked out the door. He looked at him, looked at his wedding ring, and knew immediately what kind of person this was. This was the kind of guy who asked strangers for help with crossword puzzles. The kind who threw impromptu barbecues when the neighbors’ kids came home from college because his own kids were long gone and didn’t give a crap about him anymore. The kind who sat around and chatted with the wait-staff at roadside diners because the conversation had dried up between him and his wife the moment the dog had died. He could have been this guy, if he hadn’t gotten out when he did.

“So you’ll probably want to make a stopover there.” The guy put the pen away, a crude tapestry of napkins at his elbow.

“Thanks.” Bill drained his coffee and began folding the map away. He stood up to leave.

If the stranger was put out by his abruptness he was good at concealing it. A quick quirk of the space between sparse eyebrows. “Well now,” he said, putting out a hand, “safe driving.”

Bill reciprocated. It occurred to him that he had never shaken hands with someone without learning their name. That sense of duty struck again. “Bill,” he said.

“Steve. You should drop by Firestone sometime. Nice town.”

“You live there?”

“Yeah.” There was an earnestness to Steve’s face that irritated Bill more than it should have. He saw the darkness there in an instant, recognized the strains of a well-concealed familial situation that only the initiated few could notice. He saw it all.

“Oh. Well,” Bill put down some notes and pocketed the change. He was becoming restless, eager to get on the road and out of here. Free man, baby. “See you around.” The door squeaked on its hinges.

Back behind the wheel, Bill ignored the missed call notification on his phone and congratulated himself on making the right choice.

 


 

Frank’s house was spacious and Bill was glad to have an entire room to himself. No sleeping on couches. Frank and Lily were hardly at home as it was – they were still venturing into retirement and spent their time at lodges, friends’ ranches, the odd trip to the Rockies or even Vegas with their kids, grandkids.

Lily had been all pursed lips and meaningful glares when Bill had shown up. The body language between her and Frank had been unusually stilted – the sign of a recent argument. She had shown him to his room but left the bedding in the closet, put no flowers in the vase on the windowsill. He’d heard her hissing at Frank (“-if he thinks I’m going to take his side over hers….”) behind the closed door. The girls had been close.

The weeks had passed quickly. Now Bill lay in bed, watching the sycamores shed their leaves outside. His own house wasn’t even half the size of this one, and definitely didn’t have trees in the garden. From where he lay a kite could be seen peeping from the branches, a great-nephew’s recent failed voyage. This house, this whole space, was designed with kids in mind. Here, kids weren’t afterthoughts, but the main event. He thought back to the phone call from the day before.

“Come home, Dad,” Cody’s voice had sounded tired, older than his thirty years.

 Bill had been looking at fertilizer samples from his boss. Now the case lay open on the floor, sachets spilling out onto the wood.

 “Your mother alright? Getting the checks?”

 “She misses you. It’s been – what, two months now?”

 Bill’s son was a social worker all the way over in New Jersey, working with inner-city kids whose daddies didn’t love them. Cody was a good kid. He phoned his mom every weekend, had come down to see them every couple of months. Or rather, to see Cathy. Bill had never really had that play-catch-in-the-yard relationship with him. Now Cody was helping children find new people to care for them, and taking them away from the ones that didn’t.

 Bill had tried to stall. “Big houses out here, Cody. About time you started thinking about getting settled down, too.” He was aware of how ridiculous he sounded.

 A bitter laugh. “Dad, really?”

 “It’s not the same. It’s different with your mom and me.”

 Silence. The grave listening of someone who had heard the same words many times, from blacks, whites, alcoholics, schizophrenics, pedophiles.

 “Dad, tons of guys go through this. It’s normal at your age-”

 A flash of fireworks behind his eyes. Bill gripped the phone tighter.

 “You listen Cody. I was young when… You were…”

 He had almost said it out loud. An accident. He paused, shocked at how close he had come to saying the ugly truth, the root of it all. “But I did what I was supposed to. I did good by you. And your mom.”

 More silence. Bill struggled, composed himself. “You know? I had stuff I wanted to do too.” His voice softened at the end, sounded almost pleading despite himself.

 Finally Cody spoke. “Well, I guess you’d better go and do that, hadn’t you?” he said softly, then a click and nothing else. Bill stared at the samples, at the flowerless vase, and told himself he was doing the right thing.

 


 

Winter came, bringing with it some of the worst snows Lyons had seen for a while. Bill helped around the house, shoveled snow so Lily could back her car out. Her lip curling had gradually thawed to aloof tolerance. She sometimes packed a lunch for him when he went out to farms, home centers, clients. He would often catch her eyes on him as he turned soil over in the yard, arms crossed, her phone in her hand. He knew whom she had just been speaking to, but he never asked any questions. Nor did she tell him any details.

A few days short of Christmas Eve he rediscovered the denim shirt in the back of his car. It had dropped down to the floor and lain forgotten for the best part of eight months. He gave it a cursory sniff before he was aware of what he was doing. For a second he smelled Cathy’s white musk perfume, even though she hadn’t worn that brand for many years. He put the shirt on the backseat and began his drive back to Frank’s.

Bill let his mind wander as evening set in, bathing the road in milky blue light. Headlights from passing vehicles became watchful, wide-open eyes. Watchful, but not menacing. He felt that he was being smiled at by cars that seemed to have faces, which somehow was far more alienating than any scowl. Bill knew that this wasn’t possible, that deep down he knew that he was the problem, not the smile itself. His own shadows reduced sunflowers to weeds and greetings to curses. Friendly words of advice were a hindrance to escape from. He recalled the last time he had felt that way. He turned off to the right instead of going straight.

The WELCOME TO FIRESTONE sign was brightly colored and flanked by snow-covered spruces. The streets were almost empty. Two children tramped through slush with their mother, gloves bouncing from sleeves. A snowman smiled benignly at him from a front yard.

He drove around for a while. He had to admit that the Steve guy was right – it was a nice town, although it lacked the relative opulence of Lyons. There was something in its simplicity that was charming. The houses were small, their Christmas decorations cheery. The best way he could describe it was sincere – if towns were capable of being sincere. He wondered which home was Steve’s, if the family inside missed Steve when he was helping out travelers at rest stops.

Firestone was a lot like his own town. He had considered it cramped, claustrophobic, a necessity instead of a choice. He had never believed that people lived in this kind of place because they wanted to. Now the warm glow from the houses and taverns seemed to be gently scolding him, telling him otherwise.

Was his own house decorated this year? Would Cathy have bothered, now that she lived alone? He remembered the time he had grunted when she had shown him a new star for the tree. The time she’d shyly pointed at the fake mistletoe she’d taped to the living room doorframe when Cody was six. He remembered how he’d turned back to the television and then wished he hadn’t remembered.

It was then that he saw the Chevy parked out front of a modest little house. He saw Steve laying down salt on the driveway. The house had a yellow door. Bill’s old house had had a yellow door. In the porch light, Steve didn’t look so old, his balding head covered with a knit cap. He paused in his work to wipe at his face. Bill stared into the yellow of the living room window, saw a woman watching TV. He looked into the window and wondered if the woman was happy. He looked at Steve to see if he was happy and saw that Steve was looking right at him.

He got the hell out of there.

Bill spent Christmas Day playing with his great-nephews and nieces in the snow. He had felt awkward at first, almost hearing the creak of his limbs, limbs that had thrown no snowballs and built no snowmen for decades. Now, fairy lights twinkling in the sycamore branches, he thought of Cody. How Cody had stared in astonishment at the whiteness of the yard, had screamed uncontrollably when Bill had put snow in his mittened hand. How he had clutched his mother’s hair and turned his red little face to her jacket. He thought of the collapsing igloo they had built together, when the concept of family was still new to them all. Over the following years, Bill’s igloos had reduced in size then disappeared altogether.

That year, even Lily grudgingly admitted that the fat, cheery snowman in the backyard was the best they’d seen in a long time.

 


 

The snow thawed. Slushy lakes formed on lawns all over the neighborhood, providing additional chores for the men in the households. Bill wondered how the garden back home looked, if anyone was caring for it. He thought of old Steve over in Firestone, salting away.

Frank and he had gone out for drinks with a few of Frank’s old office buddies the night before. He had told himself he was enjoying himself, had gotten worse for wear while checking his phone, a habit he had developed over the past few weeks. There were no missed calls, no messages.

He had thrown up in the restroom, steeled himself against the wall and thought of how he had held Cathy’s hair out of the way when she was in the throes of morning sickness, like a good husband was supposed to do. He had leaned against the tiles, cellphone in hand. His thumb had hovered over the first digit but did not press down. Frank had come to fetch him a few minutes later.

Now he was back at the little rest stop with the rooster sign, looking around and feeling the effects that alcohol brings to those in their fifties. He had half expected to see the dusty Chevy, and was surprised at his disappointment that it wasn’t there. Without fully understanding what was propelling him forward, he entered the coffee shop.

No Steve guy this time, but what was her name – Deb – nodded at him. If she recognized him she didn’t let on. He removed his jacket and asked for coffee and pie.

Country music played in the background. He picked at the pie, thought of Cathy and imagined it was hers. Deb was bent over a newspaper behind the counter. She was somewhere between forty and forty-five, the concentration marring her features into another five years or so. He wondered if she was doing a crossword, and if he should offer help. Another of the odd thoughts he’d been having lately.

Two customers entered, a couple in their thirties. They only stayed long enough to ask directions and stock up on water. Bill watched them leave and listened to the music for a bit longer. Ten more minutes passed. Deb was still reading the paper when he got up to pay.

“No Steve today?” The words were out before he knew he’d spoken them.

Deb seemed to regard him properly for the first time since he came in. She paused in handing him his change, her eyebrows furrowed.

“It’s just that… I got the impression he came in a lot.” He felt the heat on his face. And I need to ask him some stuff, he added silently. He could feel Deb trying to place him, searching his face for familiarity. He took the change from her outstretched hand. “I came in last year and I…” She continued to stare at him. He gave up and headed for the door.

“Steve died.”

Bill turned.

“It was in the news,” Deb had both hands on the counter, her eyes watchful. “Just after New Year.”

Bill suddenly had an image in his mind, an image of a circle made of scribbled lines that span around and around without stopping, getting bigger and bigger and sucking bits of houses, debris and scraps of paper into it like a tornado. But the room stayed still. He shook the thought away and cleared his throat. “How?”

“In his garage. Things weren’t… His wife wanted a divorce.” Deb lowered her face, as if ashamed at giving away Steve’s secrets. Bill nodded dumbly.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and he was. He left.

He sat in his car for a long time and tried to feel surprised, then tried to feel surprised that he wasn’t surprised. He stared at his reflection in the rearview mirror, all the lines there. Had Steve sat staring at his reflection, counting his lines to pass the time as the fumes engulfed him in the confines of the garage? Had he sat there remembering every neglected chore, every forgotten kiss goodnight, and tallied them all up against himself? Had his wife cried when she found him, or was it a neighbor who rang her doorbell, interrupting her favorite show, or a phone conversation with a girlfriend? Did she cry?

Would Cathy cry?

Bill looked at the dime-store shirt on the backseat, grabbed it and held it up. In that moment it lost the frayed edges and he saw Cathy in it, her hair golden and still long as she posed for a photograph in her mother’s yard, the last few buttons undone to accommodate the bump underneath. He remembered the day she had stolen it from his closet and how he’d feigned indignation. How he had marveled at how she looked in it before the enormity of their permanence had set in. He looked at the shirt and saw how stupid young men could be. He looked at the crumpled up shirt and felt the dread that only comes with knowing you have made a mistake.

Back at Frank’s, he sat on the front porch with the shirt in his lap and waited for Lily to come home from the nursing home she volunteered at sometimes. It grew dark.

“I was only twenty one,” he addressed the sycamores in the yard.

Lily’s car pulled into the driveway. She got out, stood in front of him and waited. Bill looked up at her.

“I was only twenty one,” he said. She nodded and walked past him to open the door, led him to the living room and the phone. He dialed.

“I was only twenty one,” he said into the receiver. Silence on the other end. Bill ignored the circle doodles in his brain, the slight buzzing sound they made as they rotated. He waited for the click and dead tone that signified the end.

Finally Cathy spoke. “I was only eighteen,” she said. But she didn’t hang up.

From the doorway, Lily smiled.

 


 

Bill’s house had a yellow door. He always salted the driveway and he always kissed his wife goodnight.

 


Written in the midst of a smalltown USA fetish around 2012. I still like this story. I like Bill. He’s going through a stage of reinvention, and doing a bad job of it. We’ve all been Bills. 

Does Not The Mouse Wish to be a Fox

Does not the mouse wish to be a fox

Skulking through the night

Does the fox wish it were a goose

Cackling in a perfect V of flight

 

Does the lion long for the giraffe’s neck

All the better to see its foes

Does the cheetah long for the hippo’s mud

A place to soak away its woes

 

Does the lawyer ache for open land

To feel the wind upon his face

Does the farmhand resist throwing down his trowel

And suit up for the clack of a keyboard’s pace

 

The mouse scurries in cracks

Its tail nipped by a crow’s curious dive

The fox eats bluebell bulbs

Succumbing to frosts it won’t survive

 

The lawyer waits for the day’s end

To sigh and down his glass

The farmhand packs away his tools

And dreams of marble instead of grass

 

Does the animal long to be human

And sculpt the world to suit its whim

Or is covetous man’s alone

Belonging to only him?

Deutschland 83 – We’re Not Stupid After All

Audiences are becoming smarter.

It wasn’t always like this.

TV rots your mind! Chewing gum for the eyes, as Father Ted says in one episode. And it’s quite hard to deny, having grown up in the UK with the likes of terrible laughter track sitcoms such as Birds of a Feather, One Foot in the Grave, and, later on, the atrocious My Family. Lines were spoon-fed, we were told when to laugh, and every double-entendre about drainpipes/drawers/bedsprings was rolled out for our despair on cue, like a hungover clown before an audience of snivelling toddlers.

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Ahahaha! Kill us all.

Today’s comedy is a different animal. The evolution of the cringe comedy à la Ricky Gervais ushered in the arrival of such shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, a mockumentary following the life of a cantankerous old man. It was basically Victor Meldrew all over again, except this time no one was telling us when to laugh. And thank goodness for that – it was, and still is by today’s standards, a pretty good series. The lack of canned laughter is now the comedy standard – no one tells us what to do!

No one has to.

What about drama? We’ve had a spate of ‘clever TV’ in the past decade, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to the Ayn Rand stylings of Mad Men. Perhaps the greatest sign that the TV execs don’t just think we’re a bunch of thickos is evident in the decision to broadcast the excellent German spy thriller Deutschland 83 over here. Not an English adaptation like The Experiment, not redubbed, but subtitled. It’s also the first German language drama to air in the US. We follow a young East German spy’s foray into the West for the first time, where he is just as overwhelmed by the choice of brands in the supermarkets as he is by the covert operations he must undertake in the name of the DDR. It’s a new world for him, and, in many ways, for us.

It takes a huge leap of faith in the audience to launch a historical show that, for the most part, does not concern us. The two Germanys and their polar ideologies might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Why take the risk?

Because it’s damn good TV, that’s why. With a coveted score of 100% on RottenTomatoes, the show is slick, clever, and totally gripping. It injects life into the spy genre, and scenes where young “Moritz Stamm” (his spy alias) plants bugs and retrieves floppy disks from hotel safes are so painstakingly nerve-wracking that they have the viewers covering their eyes. He’s not a pro, but a football-loving everyman plucked from his normal life who just wants to go home. He is us.

It’s the small stuff that makes Deutschland 83 outstanding. It’s watching downtrodden East Germans savoring a cup of naughty (verboten!) Nescafé, instead of their usual state-issued shit. It’s Moritz silently marveling at the array of bath products in his luxurious Western hotel room, or listening to the Eurythmics in bemusement. It brings Goodbye Lenin! to mind, where we watch Daniel Brühl’s character scramble to replicate minute details of the DDR in a reunified Germany, so as not to upset his ailing, fiercely socialist mother.

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Don’t turn around.

The small details are what make drama compelling. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner points out how watching ad man Don Draper scrub his mouth out with dish soap after cheating on his wife is far more daring, and far more revealing of character, than what any other show was doing at the time. It’s worth noting that Weiner cut his teeth as a writer for The Sopranos, perhaps the first of the dramas to take a far more ‘internal’ approach to story and characterisation. Every look, every nuance, even a sip of a drink has meaning, and the camera picks that right up. Tony Soprano’s trips to the psychiatrist add another outlet for inner struggle. As he pours his poor old mob boss sob story out to the aloof, mostly silent Dr. Melfi, we are able to pick up on when he is putting on an act, trying to elicit sympathy, or even admiration. We call out his shit right along with Melfi, and not because we are told to.

sopr

Matthew Weiner elaborates:

“…Because to see something that was that good be financially successful was very important. To prove that the world was not filled with idiots. And even if they liked it for the wrong reason. Every argument that you heard in a writers’ room, every time you tried to do something good, was that people wouldn’t understand it. And they wouldn’t like it and therefore it wouldn’t sell. And everything good that had ever been made had flopped.” 

The audience doesn’t need to be told. We can decide for ourselves.

Here’s a bit more from Weiner about how we aren’t morons.

 

And here’s the trailer for Deutschland 83, if you haven’t seen it yet.

When the Muse Doesn’t Show

Most of us are busy people. We have all kinds of junk to do in between writing sessions – most of us have some kind of job or another, loved ones and not so loved ones to deal with, and all the usual menial tasks that make up our lives. We therefore have to fit our writing around our routines – we don’t have the luxury of brooding at oversized desks in unfathomably plush apartments, as any rom-com about literary professionals would have us believe. We have to make time for that crap, in between cooking dinner, buying groceries, and watching TV like normal goddamn human beings.

“If I had the time,” we might wail, baby puke all over our necks, “If I had the time, I’d be on my third bestseller by now!”

And so it goes. But then, a miracle happens! You get a week off work! Your kids finally sod off to university! Your dishwasher starts working again!

You seize the opportunity. You set that time for writing your masterpiece – you’ve finally got the chance to start that novel/write that screenplay/get a couple of short stories under your belt! This time next year, you’ll be a freakin’ millionaire!

So there you are, sitting at your desk or kitchen table, your coffee freshly brewed. You’ve got your notebook, Word doc, Celtx programme, or (hell’s bells) tablet in front of you. You raise your trembling fingers to the keyboard…

And nothing happens.

You can’t think of a single thing to write about. Perhaps you have a vague idea of the kind of thing you’d like to create – a short film about how things never go right for someone, maybe, or a story that makes the reader question what’s real and what isn’t. Maybe you have the perfect opening sequence – you can practically see every shot, you can even imagine the expressions on the characters’ faces, and you might have an idea of what will happen at the end. But the stuff in between? You realise that while you have great bits, you don’t have a story at all. Well, crap.

Writer’s block is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to a writer. You don’t get banker’s block, or software engineer’s block, after all.

The problem with vague ideas is everyone has them. I bet that if you’ve ever told anyone that you write, at least one person comes back at you with, “Well, I’ve got this idea for a film about a guy who…” Yeah, buddy, we all have ideas. Doesn’t make you a writer though, does it?

Writers have to sweat it out and go beyond the idea. They have to reword, redraft, and pick over every single little detail for the reader’s benefit. In my opinion, the ones who aren’t prepared to do this are arseholes. I went to a short film screening not too long ago, and the audience was left with more questions than answers about the storyline. When we dared to ask the writer what the hell was going on, he merely sniffed and said that it was all explained and clear. We just didn’t ‘get it.’ He also starred in it, incidentally.

Some cynics might say that if you don’t have ideas, then you aren’t a writer. I think that’s true to an extent – only if you aren’t writing anything. If you sit and wait for a story to fall into your lap before putting anything down, then you can’t really call yourself a writer. I found this floating around on the webz recently:

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This whole idea of refusing to wait for the muse isn’t new – Stephen King puts it fairly well in his On Writing memoir:

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”

Here’s another Stephen King gem:

amateurs-sit-and-wait-for-inspiration

So what do you do? Do you just sit there staring at the screen? I don’t think so. You might try writing anything. You could write about something that happened to you long ago. You could even write out a stream of consciousness on bits of paper, which, as far as I know, is how Bob Dylan often writes.

You could even buy an ‘inspiration’ book. I used to have one called ‘Creative Block.’ It was full of nuggets of advice like, ‘make a really long paperclip chain.’ I couldn’t tell you if it worked or not – I never used it. I don’t think it would have worked for me. That’s not to say that the books wouldn’t work. I have one now by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto – 642 THINGS TO WRITE ABOUT. It contains some pretty good prompts, actually:

writersblock

Incidentally, I once read a murder mystery novel about just that – two smalltown kids who overhear a series of conversations. I can’t remember the title, or even if I enjoyed it. I wonder if the writer had read such a prompt. The point is, he got something written.

Write anything, but don’t furrow your brow at a blank screen.

My own little hero, Buster Keaton, puts it like this:

The daily story conferences at the studio usually lasted from ten to six… …What I never could understand was why I got so few good ideas during those long story conferences. My best notions would invariably occur to me at home, more often than not in the least inspiring room of the house, the bathroom.

Perhaps his 1926 masterpiece, The General, was dreamed up while he was on the can.

I think it’s true that our best ideas come to us when we’re not trying to come up with something. I once got an idea for a short story when I was on holiday in Florence. The story wasn’t about Italy either. But my mind was relaxed enough to get out of staring at the screen. J.K. Rowling allegedly had the idea about a school for wizards while riding on the train. Was she racking her brains for a story at the time? Perhaps not.

Charles Bukowski takes a different tack with his ‘Don’t Try’ philosophy. In his 1990 letter to William Packard, he writes:

When everything works best it’s not because you chose writing but because writing chose you. It’s when you’re mad with it, it’s when it’s stuffed in your ears, your nostrils, under your fingernails. It’s when there’s no hope but that.

He goes on to say:

We work too hard. We try too hard.

Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.

You might think that if you can’t think of anything, then writing hasn’t chosen you. When we think this way, we can feel like failures. We shouldn’t.

Switch that laptop on, write just about anything. Write a list. Write about a dinner party that went horribly wrong. You’re not writing to get published. You’re writing because writing makes you feel good. And if you want more of that feeling, you’ll keep on writing. The stories are in there somewhere. Even if you have to spend hours in the john, or keep on writing things that you don’t feel flow well. From time to time, it will flow. That’s when we know we’re on the right track.

Making Sense of Your Own Nonsense

Sometimes I write down thoughts as they occur to me, only to forget them and discover them years later.

It often looks like this:

 

1/27 2013

I dreamt of a picture in black and white that resembled a child’s drawing more than anything else – it was crude and looked like the sort of design you might see on a brand name tote bag, masquerading as an off-the-cuff one-of-a-kind piece but actually designed by a team of graduates wearing glasses they don’t really need and woolen hats indoors. A line split the page horizontally and appeared biro-like while strange appendages, random lines and an odd weeping eye hovered indecisively above it, eyelashes spiking out of the cornea directly with no mention of an eyelid. Beneath, shaded capsule shapes submarined aimlessly, creating a ying yang balance. There was an innocence to the image that irritated me, that you would expect to find on your Facebook mini-feed, posted with fake casualness by a girl whose internship was about to take her to high places. In my dream I was suddenly struck by my own genius with such vigor that I couldn’t see straight for a moment, then hastily sketched out my own interpretation of the drawing. My version, titled “Nothing Is As It Appears” showed the world as I saw it for what it was – the eye was not weeping sightlessly, but intently ogling a naked rear end beneath the horizontal line, the capsules were sharks circling beneath a collection of lines that transpired to be seagulls. I posted it to my Timeline, knowing that in doing so I was securing my place in the World of the Interesting.

I woke up before I could receive my first Like.

 

I have no recollection of writing this. It feels like it was written by someone else. What goes through our minds when we write? The passage above looks like pretentious drivel, but I’m sure it meant something to me at the time. I suppose that could apply to all writing. But I don’t think that’s true. There are some stories that I look at and can’t believe I wrote them, they’re that darned good.

However, there is a grain of truth to the passage – this wasn’t the first dream I felt like I had created something stupendous, and that I had better wake up and write it down before it eluded me. Upon actually awakening, however, I quickly realised the joke that had seemed so funny in sleep was complete and utter bollocks in the waking world.

In our dreams we are fearless geniuses on the brink of discovery. Once we are awake, we dismiss our ideas as the ramblings of a sleep-addled lunatic. That’s a shame.

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #10 – The Spitwad

I found this to be such a riveting story that I had to reblog. Wow!

Jacke Wilson

Here’s something I’ve learned: teachers are human.

They’re not superheroes or gods. Not saints or demons. They’re human beings, with flaws and weaknesses like all the rest of us.

Don Ward was a fine man who taught high school biology to undeserving students in the same crumbling, run-down building for forty-three years.

How bad was our school? When I was there, ceiling tiles used to fall crashing to the floor. I’d never actually seen one drop, but at least once a month we’d see one in the hallway by the lockers, broken on the ground with a cloud of white smoke that was probably 100% asbestos. In the ceiling, there’d be a gap that stayed there forever, never to be filled. No money in the budget. Or maybe nobody cared enough to bother.

Not such a great workplace for Don Ward. How did he do it? Why did he stay? It…

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Stephen King Prompt – Write a Lot, Read a Lot

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Helping Japanese kids learn how to write isn’t exactly what I thought I would find myself doing once I returned to the UK, but hey, it’s what I’ve got.

Living in Japan was great, but it had to come to an end eventually. Some people do end up staying for the rest of their lives, and hell, there are times I wonder if coming back was a good idea in the first place. London’s just… London. It’s a harsh, dog-eat-dog sort of place at the best of times, and without the safety net of a nice, cosy Japanese school to take my shoes off in, it can be downright uncaring.

However, something must have kept me yearning for the UK for all this time, right? I cut all my ties with Japan.

Well, almost all. See, I grade essays for kids aiming for elite schools. It’s a cool side gig. These kids are bilingual little brain rockets who I have no doubt will end up becoming future leaders.

Sometimes the essays are straightforward, thesis statement-topic sentence x 3-conclusion deals. They write about times they’ve experienced hardship, times they had to make tough decisions, that kind of thing. And sometimes, just sometimes, they write fiction.

Getting out of the ‘Arrgh! Robots are attacking the school and my new Xbox exploded and killed all the aliens I forgot to mention earlier!’ levels can be hard. My advice to the struggling kids is to read. A lot.

And some kids do read – I remember teaching a boy who’d already worked his way through the Sherlock Holmes series, a shedload of Tolkien, Crime and Punishment, and a smattering of Shakespeare for good measure. I remember blushing and stammering out an excuse when he asked what I thought of Tolstoy.

You can tell the kids who don’t read. Their stories feature messy dialogue, (‘Argh! A bee has just buzzed in my ear and made me go deaf, oh no!’) lots of grammar mistakes, and words like ‘good’ and ‘crazy’ reign supreme.

So – Write a lot and read a lot. Stephen King said that.

In Stephen King’s On Writing, he stresses these points frequently. It’s one of my favourite books. If there were fewer instances of shit and cunt, I’d make it one of my students’ favourite books as well.

It’s a dream to read. I remember when a lecturer called on an excerpt during a screenwriting class at university – by the end of that day, I’d bought and read the whole thing cover to cover. It’s less of a textbook and more of a set of guidelines – think more along the lines of the Eightfold Path than the Bible (apologies to the saved). It’s more like a memoir than a rule book. You don’t so much learn from it as simply enjoy it.

I should probably confess that apart from On Writing, the only other stuff by Stephen King I’ve enjoyed is the Different Seasons novella collection (some of the best work I’ve ever read). Horror and suspense just aren’t my bag, I think.

A memorable part of the book is when Mr King actually sets a writing task for you. What is this, school? But you know what? It works pretty well. Apparently, writes King, stories are fossils in the earth, just waiting to be found. Our job as writers is to find the fossil and ease it out of the soil. Some people use a jackhammer to get the thing out of the ground, and force a plot out of their novel, destroying the whole thing in the process. All we need to do, he says, is think about the situation. Plot schmot! Just worry about how the characters react to a situation, and the rest will follow.

Here’s the situation in a nutshell: Jane’s abusive husband, Dick, is a controlling, jealous bastard, and he’s been incarcerated for his violent ways with her. She’s safe at last – she’s dropped her daughter off at a party, and she’s about to go home and relax with a cup of herbal tea. But when she gets there, she’s overcome with a strange feeling – something’s wrong. Something is different. She brushes the thought aside, gets the hot water going, and puts on the news.

What’s this? Three men have escaped from the local jail! Two have been caught, but one’s still at large. Jane knows for sure which one. After all, she now knows why she felt so uneasy at the door – she could smell Dick’s hair tonic.

A great situation. King tells us to write what comes next. Only – and this is a big only – we have to switch the genders of the characters. Boom!

Based on what we know, we can simply write the way the characters react to the situation. It’s a kind of written improv, I reckon. It’s a fantastic exercise, and it can make writers out of all of us.

Here’s what I came up with.

Dick’s eyes stayed on the TV. He gritted his teeth a little, felt the little muscles in his cheeks jump. The smell of the Miracle Moist shampoo, a brand he hadn’t bought since… since a while, seemed to fill every corner of the room.

The footfalls were getting louder. He fancied he could hear a slight irregularity to the pace of them, as if the wearer hadn’t donned this particular kind of shoe for a long time. He could feel his tea was cold in its porcelain cup. He gripped it harder.

A rustle outside the living room door. He didn’t move his eyes. A couple were having a good natured fight on Neighbours, a show where the highest level of family conflict seemed limited to forgotten birthday parties.

If he didn’t look up, he wouldn’t have to acknowledge the door slowly opening. He wouldn’t have to see her or speak to her. He would ignore her and watch his programme, as he had done so many times before while she screamed and accused him.

Youfuckinbastardmakinmefeelstupidwithyourdirtysluts

He could feel her behind him. Dick watched Neighbours.

“Dick.” A hand on his shoulder.

It faintly came to him that he was being rather rude. He turned then. He saw the white chiffon before he saw her, and smelled an overwhelming mix of Custard Apple Miracle Moist and mothballs. She was wearing her wedding dress.

“Hello, sweetie,” he said.

And so on. You could probably do this for as long as you can stand it. It’s a great writer’s block tool. I don’t think it means you’ll produce the next bestseller, but it certainly demonstrates that you can write something. At the very least, imagining how characters really react might save me from reading more dialogue about crazy robots taking over the island in a Lord of the Flies reimagining.

Write a lot, read a lot. I like it.