How To Be A Writer: Be A Reader.

Years ago when I was in college, and studying English literature and writing, I took a course called, How a writer reads. It’s been many years since the course, and I can’t even remember which professor taught the class, but there were a few key elements that I took away from that course that I think are useful when working on a book, or a short story, a screenplay or even a poem.

The best teachers in writing are the books that you read. It took years for that to sink in, but it’s true. You want to be a romance novelist you read romance novels. If you want to write YA fiction you read YA fiction. If you want to write literary fiction but all you read are crime fiction you’re not going to write a very good literary fiction piece, but you’ll probably write an awesome crime novel. If you know how to read, and if you can teach yourself how to read like a writer, then you can skip the college course and learn everything right at your own finger tips. I’m in serious debt for this information so let me share it with you freely. It’s all there for you for the taking- you want to write a book read the kind of book you want to write, and then, read some other genres of books to get your well-rounded, well-read education. You want to write a memoir read memoirs, but also read some fiction, and read some non-fiction non memoirs, but read more memoirs than anything else because that’s the class you are taking.

No one can tell you how to write. You just have to write, and then write again, and again, and again, and again. You get the picture. Books though, they can show you how to write.

A reader reads. Writers write mainly for readers, unless you are James Joyce, or William Faulkner then you write for writers. If you are Toni Morrison you write for writers and readers, and if you are Ernest Hemingway you write for readers, and writers, and journalists. If you are Stephanie Myers, or Charles Dickens, or Suzanne Collins you write for readers. Most writers write for readers. A reader wants to loose themselves, to be enlightened, to learn something about the subject, to hear a story, to be entertained, to be a part of the story. A reader picks up the book and reads it till they finish and then puts it down, and picks up a new book.

A writer reads like a reader too, but a good writer reads like a writer. A writer may read a book that is not fun to read because it is work to read. A writer takes notes then pulls the book apart—not in a criticizing way because the writer is not interested in writing reviews (unless you are a critic and like to do that)—a writer pulls the book apart in order to figure out how the author put it together. How did the author craft the book? What is the trick to their magic? The writer is looking for the tools that build the nuances, mood, tone, structure, the plot and so on. There is always something below the surface. One can even argue that something shallow can be more than it appears just by the very fact that it is shallow.

You don’t always have to know the academic language behind crafting a story in order to learn how to write one. It can be useful. It’s easy enough to find online. Type in how to craft a story and there will be hundreds of possible links. Or, take a class. Classes are good because a teacher can introduce things to you in a way that you may never have looked. They will make you write because you have to for the class. You’ll have the opportunity to meet other writers. Workshops are great too and cost less money (sometimes), but if you can’t afford school or workshops it doesn’t have to stop you from writing, and writing well. A book can teach you how to write even from the very first sentence.

It was a queer, sultry, summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. –The Bell JarSylvia Plath

I love the first line from the Bell Jar. Even if you haven’t any idea what the book is about you have the sense that something ominous is coming. It’s a hot, queer sultry summer and you know the character is in New York, but doesn’t know why. It is also the summer that the Rosenbergs were executed. You don’t have to know the significance of the Rosenberg executions to understand the book ( but it does gives you a better understanding of the cultural climate) just having the word execution in the first sentence tells you death is coming or has come, and obviously not a natural death. As I mentioned before you don’t have to know about the Rosenbergs to understand the story (you should because it’s a very important part of American history) but it does give you a time of reference. It is the summer of 1953. If you do a little info check or you are already familiar with this part of American history you know that the Rosenberg’s were executed on June 19th 1953. We don’t know exactly when Sylvia Plath’s story takes place but it’s at least the duration of 3 months. Isn’t that a great first line? We know the time, setting, temperature, temperament, and we have a character that doesn’t know why they are where they are, a character that is basically admitting she is lost. All that in 23 words. It’s a great first line. Sylvia Plath didn’t just throw that sentence together. She crafted it. She could have said it many different ways:

  1. I didn’t know what I was doing in New York the summer that the Rosenberg’s were executed, but what I did know was that there was something odd about the feeling of the place, and it was hot. 
  2. The weather was hot and humid the summer that I lived in New York.
  3. The Rosenberg’s died the summer I lived in New York.
  4. The summer that the Rosenberg’s were executed was strange and humid, and I didn’t know what I was doing there.
  5. I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
  6. The summer I lived in New York the weather was queer, and sultry. The Rosenberg’s were executed during the time I had been living there. I wasn’t sure why I was there. 

The first sentence sets the tone. Here is another great first line:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.- The Sound and the FuryWilliam Faulkner

What? Your English teacher would roast you for that sentence. What’s happening? Someone is speaking or thinking out loud to themselves, and they are looking at some people or things. They are describing the action of hitting. This narrator also looks through the “curling flower spaces.” Who actually notices something through the curling spaces of flowers? Unless they are hiding, maybe? The Sound and the Fury is written from the point of view of different characters in the book. Benji is the first character and he is mentally disabled. Faulkner chose to write in how he believed Benji’s thinking and pattern of speech was. Benji thinks and notices things differently then an average person, but if you look carefully at the sentence you’ll see he thinks things in the order he sees them. 1) Through the fence. 2) Between the curling flower spaces. 3) I could see them hitting. 1) I am standing at the fence. 2) I am looking. 3) I see them hitting. Benji is not with whoever he is watching. He is on the other side of a fence peering through the slats or a hole maybe. There is a lot of description without even using a properly formed sentence.

They’re out there.- One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest- Ken Kesey

Whose out there?

 

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.- On the Road– Jack Kerouac

So, we know that the narrator is recently single. Ready for a road trip!? Whoo! Sex, drugs and Jazz!

If you understand the value of the first sentence then you can imagine the importance of the last sentence. Dickens’ book, A Tale of Two Cities was so good it has one of the most well known and quoted first lines and last lines.

Stay on the Path- if you want.

Stay on the Path- if you want.

Not too long after ending my class I picked up two small pocket sized journals. One journal I titled: Beginnings. The other: Endings. For every book I’ve read I have copied the first sentence in to beginnings, and the last sentence into endings. I do this for me to study. I am gathering my lessons like investigations.

Another thing I do that is a fun practice, and I learned it in this class, is I try to write something in the exact voice of the author I am reading. Maybe something like directions:

Head to the house on the left, and if perchance you should see my fair maid on the corner, it is a right that you must take from there, and if you keep walking for a fortnight or so, you’ll see the blue colors much like the color of my mistress’s eyes, and that my fine sir will be the post office.

(My weak impression of Shakespeare, but you get the idea).

The point behind this practice is not to plagiarize, but to feel how the author writes, do you notice any technique from the writing? How do they create images. Are they heavy into dialogue? What kind of metaphors do they use and how do they put them together? What about their use of vocabulary? Never ever forget vocabulary. If you don’t know a word- look it up- it will enlighten you and increase your own vocabulary. Words are your tools. The more tools you have the better houses you can build.

In the end when it comes to writing your own book or short story, no one can tell you how to write one. Not really. The only way to write a is sit down and write. Besides, the real work is in the re-write, so you might as well get that first draft done.

Next time you pick up a book to read and read it like a writer. You’ll get a really low cost lesson- maybe even free, and read a book.  Or don’t, just read it, and enjoy it, but know that you have all that knowledge at your finger tips.

 

Testing. Testing.

Chuck PalahniukSurvivor

Cut-Up Method for Creating a Short Story

cropped-dsc_0326.jpg

William S. Burroughs was the first writer I had ever heard about that did something called “the cut-up method“. I think it is a well known practice by now, and in fact, many famous songwriters and modern writers follow the same example of writing or exercising of the writing mind.

I had tried it in the past, and never got too far, but looking back on the experience I think my obstacle had to do with control. I really wanted to craft the “perfect story”. A story that could be award winning, and because of this need of perfection when I wrote I could never really let go. This cannot work when doing a cut up. In the art of the cut up you must let go. The cut up can be likened to staring at clouds, only when you relax your eyes can you see the multitude of images and stories rapidly unfolding above you. 

I didn’t follow Burroughs guidelines exactly but I followed the basic idea which was to see what could be created out of what was already there. It isn’t plagiarism, the story is completely new, it’s just the words that are taken from a context or source and then put together like a puzzle.  The following short story is completely created from the cut up exercise I did recently using the same concept as the cut-up. I had taken and article from a magazine and I began placing words next teach other based on how they sounded in a sentence. Sense did not matter to me. In fact, the more illogical the more freedom I had in the creation. When I did I revision that is when I put in a little cohesiveness and order, but not much. I worked quickly, not allowing myself to “craft” a story and just allowed the words to find the best fit. It was the most fun I had writing in a long time.

As I had mentioned in the previous paragraph, the story posted below is a cut-up story.

Lessons From Hilla

Passing Hilla on a street in Potsdam, a visual figure came to the stages of my mind, and because of this image of a figure, I decided to follow her on her lifelong postwar journey.

You may ask me what war is she post of? She is post all wars. She is the story teller of struggles, she is the recorder of our destructions, and she holds the secret to our peace. Her oeuvre is inextricably fused to her backbone like a lamppost, and I walk secretly beneath her light. If she had been a photographer trained in the art of lighting she would have noticed my shadow as it swung beneath her feet or off to her side, but she was not, she had studied typography, and had no interest in looking at what blocked the light. If you are asking yourself with a snide sharp snuffing that comes from the top your nose, “how can a topographer have an oeuvre?” I say to you: ask yourself, if you can not see the subtle and sublime in the surface of the earth then how can you say you know what art is?”

Hilla hopped from one region to another like jumping puddles the primacy of which was to discover at what point of oppression does the artist reveal itself to a person if that person never believed they were an artist in the first place. Hilla believed great works of art came from the oppressed as a form of final expression of the human condition.

 

You may wonder how one can survive when they spend their life following in the shadows three to five feet from another human being in order to find the answer to the great questions because one, myself as the one, believed with reverent faith that no other than Hilla could carry those answers. It may seem an unusual occupation to you, but I had obtained labor in the business of carrying umbrellas on particularly bright days. I will admit that in the moment I had found the proposition unusual, but it payed me well enough to survive and it did nothing to interrupt my followings. All I had to do was await a call early in the dull light of the day that would inform me of what umbrella to carry, and where to procure the chosen umbrella of the said day. I had never thought, under my obligations of carrying umbrellas on days that it never rained, that is was Hilla who hired me to carry the umbrellas. I was under the impression that I was stealth and invisible. I often muttered thoughts out loud because  Hilla never listened to me because I was not really there. I was invisible and had always been so.

“All my future friends are artists who comprehend the complexity of a simplified map situated between historical contradictions of east and west,” Hilla was speaking her voice hard and Germanic in accent, “—notice how no one ever says North or South, other than the Americans of course because that was their only on-soil war. If you listen carefully you will hear people say that all the wicked witches are from the east.” Hilla was giving a lecture to the pigeons, and I was taking notes under my umbrella. Obviously, it was a bright and sunny day and my unknown employer had requested I carry the light coral satin umbrella which coincidentally matched Hilla’s shoes. Remember reader, I did not at this time know who my employer was and therefore still felt that I was a man hiding in the shadows inconspicuously holding a light coral umbrella on a sunny day.

I had just written down the words, all wicked witches are from the east, when I muttered to myself, “she wasn’t the most wicked; she was heartbroken, after all her sister had been murdered by a house.”

“Halt-“ Hilla barked. “Stop with the melancholia of cultural continuity and bring me some euphoria of resuscitation— you post-fascist cosmopolitan.”

 

I must clarify that at the times that Hilla did speak to me I only believed she was speaking toward me as if I were a photograph that she did not take. She spoke to the aspect of me which in her limitless archival of archetypes broke down to her speaking to herself or the pigeons or whatever she was standing beside. This is what I believed. Paradoxically, I was aware she was speaking to me by the architecture of her language, especially when she built sentences with words like post-fascist. I thought she had often mistook my compassion for misused communism commonly regarded as socialism and never looked at as pacifism, but truly was only compassion —wasn’t it compassionate to see the witch as mourning her sister’s death? The ruby slippers were only a side-note.

“You are making excuses for pedophiles and murderers because you like their paintings.” Hilla shouted. “He makes great literature, he diddles children. It is yes indeed great literature, but he still diddles children there is no excuse to make for the behaviour of that madman or her cruelty accept that you love the work of a pedifile. The art and the deed have been done and neither can be changed regardless of how influenced and inspired they had at one time made you. Were you inspired by the crime or the art? Lines in the sand, lines in the dirt everyone drawing lines for others, for themselves and no one being honest.” Hilla threw a handful breadcrumbs to her rapt audience of pigeons each one flapping their wings in grand applause. They always gave her standing ovations.

I had supposed she may have been correct.

 

As I continued to follow Hilla through the industrial mapping of her language I noticed my own structure of vocabulary was beginning to breakdown or perhaps it was already broken and crumbled; washed away by a chromatic ocean searing tonal cliffs and swallowing too many sailors. It came over me like a prophetic revelation that Hilla was rigorously imposing enforced limitations to my thought patterns and therefore she was creating a little oppression in my mind, perhaps to test the capacity I had for finding expression under her personal regime. She could do all this without ever acknowledging my existence.

“You should learn to spell.” She said as she made drawings of bees gathering pollen. “Your writing looks like a holocaust of the English language; each misplaced vowel and consonant is a massacre of the alphabet. You should be accumulating languages not slaughtering your own.” Hilla was at the top of her game in the absence of humans and often criticized the pigeons and bees of their misuse of the English language. I had always thought this was a little insensitive since english was not their first language.

 

I have yet to describe Hilla. What could be so compelling in a woman that one would follow her across a post war world while suffering at an angle her slings of insults and accusations of post-fascist beliefs. Physically she was a goddess of imagery. She was built like a water tower and had hard nipples the color of coal that you could see through her light colored and often times white linen blouses. Her nipples may have been pink and soft at one time only darkening when touched by the cold or excited fingers, but she dyed them black so many times they stained and eventually hardened. I had heard her say that it gave her great pleasure to watch the leering faces rotating in lust to get a better look at her breasts only to quickly dissolve in expression to that of horrored discomfort with the realization that there was something very unnatural about a pale white woman with onyx volcanic nipples. If those uncomfortable with the discovery didn’t quickly avert their faces with their potential quips stuck in their throats, but instead lingered on her appearance a little longer they would realize that she was really very white, but not that of a natural skin tone. She had painted her skin the color of canvas so that she was blank and new and always ready to create herself. The average man and woman did not understand this and you could see it written on their faces. Often times, since I was a few steps behind, carrying an umbrella of whatever color was requested for the day, I would quickly pass on the following comment, to a person who had completely taken in the look of Hilla, as I wanted to contribute to the novel on their face.

“You should see her vagina.”

It was a marvel to me as I think she would sometimes hear me, this was of course before the days that I had discovered my employer, and she would turn to the overly shocked and pre-disgusted person and say, “You should see my vagina. It is the most beautiful cerulean blue like a deep sea waiting to swallow too many sailors. I have a penis as well and it is as grey as a whale.”

She always used the words vagina and penis so that she could easily create the acronymic anagram VP for very perfect. It was a part of her architecture. No one knew what was true because her lovers never spoke about her they only blushed at the mention of her name.

 

“A minimalist in thought is a minimalist in the mind, but a minimalist in space is a purist of ambivalence.” She said tossing more crumbs to her loyal birds. I continued to copy word for word her lectures. It occurred to me that I was recording- in my own dystopian way, a catastrophe of enlightenment. I was on a mnemonic journey after a woman with nipples like coal and a vagina with a whale of a penis. Very pretty.

 

“It is no longer adequate for you to appear so uncannily close to my shadow.” She said. This time I knew she was addressing me, in fact I felt quite, certain as she turned to face me and looked directly into my face. It had been many years’ since I had passed her on a street in Potsdam, so many that I had forgotten how old I was and where we had traveled. I was struck with dumb sentiment when she had demanded me to hold her umbrella directly above her as she was tired of the sun. She was aware of me, so much so that she had been my benefactor. My keeper.

“Tell your own stories”, she said. “Mine are the literalization of my heart and mind. You may inquire clear-eyed with unrestrained curiosity to the sources and inspirations of my literature; you are even welcome to decode them, but don’t fool yourself into believing any of my thoughts are your achievements— after all is said and done, when everything’s right with your world you’ll uncover your authenticity of your fetishized trauma and lick the scabs of your wounds till they heal. I propose you find you your child-self.”

And with that, she knocked the umbrella out of my hand and left her puddles of regime for me to reflect. She turned on her heels like the Morton salt girl, my childhood crush, and faced the streets of music of which she followed all the way to Latin America where the colors are brighter, and left me on a monochrome street on a day of heavy rain in Stuttgart where the tanks had once rolled in and out.

 

“Don’t fool yourself about the tanks”, she had once said, “they are everywhere.”

 

I was wounded and plagued at her sudden parting. Assemblages of my twenties self that had shattered while I was attempting to tell my child self what to do, confettied the ground at my feet. I felt my fear of a million years flood my face in an ephemeral shower, and that’s when I saw it– my enlightenment- suspended between water and concrete; those were not regimes they were only puddles spinning out my illusions of desire.

 

Writing Exercises for Generating Ideas

Originally posted: July 6, 2008

A story always starts with an idea, and the following exercise was designed to get the brain working on an idea for the purpose of writing a screenplay, but all things start with an idea so I think the following list is applicable in all forms: one idea can be the same theme for a poem, song, painting, a story, film, and so on, it’s nearly endless.

In class we were meant to write a 10 page simple story- I say, try the magic ten minutes of writing out an idea, but if you have a problem coming up with an idea, here is a list of things to try to get your mind flying.

  • your life- some real experience- for example the book I’m working on is taken from events in my life that took place while I lived in Prague.
  • News stories events- In the movie Bad Education the character who was a writer would search through news articles to find ideas for stories- in it he found and article about a priest who had died the priest happened to be someone who had a profound affect on the writers life. If you can make it relate to you great if not let your imagination tell the story.
  • Historical events- I once had the idea to write a short story about a young man who was a tunnel rat in Vietnam, I had gotten the idea from reading real life accounts of these men during the war.
  • Fantasy- we’ve all been kids- remember sitting with your legs straddling a low hanging branch pretending it was your pirate ship and the twig in your hand was your sword? You had it raised as winged monsters flew towards your great vessel. Or was I the only one who did that?
  • memories-I say this also falls under your life although it could be someone else’s memory. It can be a brief fleeting memory- the story doesn’t have to be truth.
  • a single image- in Write Around Portland we would often take pictures from magazine like an image of a single tree in a desert and then have a prompt like-“by this time next year” then have people write about the image- you don’t have to use a worded prompt.
  • a philosophical idea- this could get one going on a really wild story- I love science and philospophy- since both have a belief that our world, our universe is finite then our stories can be too.
  • A situation- two men walk into a coffee shop together one is holding a child. The man with the child recognizes the woman behind the counter for some reason there is an uncomfortable tension.
  • adaption of another story- this of course applies best to a play or screenplay, anything other than a story since the story has already been written I’ve always wanted to do a film adaptation of Under a Cruel Star and also I want to write a story about the love affair between Nikolai and Alexandra before he became the Czar of Russia.
  • adaptation of other media- honestly I’v never put too much thought into this one. I guess you could get an idea from a commercial or a song even and turn that into a story- why not?
  • Dialogue- I once overheard a two women on a greyhound bus talking about how it shouldn’t be against the law to pick up road kill, after all it’s just a waste of good meat. Now imagine the story line. Huh? huh?

Writing Exercises When Your Brain is Fried

I’ve started cleaning up my blogs. I’ve had a bunch of them for about six or seven years, and in truth, I’ve had no idea what I’ve wanted to do with them. I have a blog about my life that has been slowly morphing into a travel blog. I have a blog with my poetry and about poetry. I have one devoted to photos (which probably should just be an Instagram) and then I have this blog devoted to short stories and writing exercises. It’s a mess. It’s clunky, and I’m working through the kinks. My long term goal is to eventually combine all these into a webpage and have it all nice and neat, but I’m not there yet.

The following posts are all carried over from my Dreenlife blog which I had created before this or my poetry blog. The Dreenlife was more about me wanting to be a writer, but now I think this is the more appropriate place for those early posts. They are all useful tips and ideas on getting your mind working in a creative way. Some are notes from my days as a student, and others are taken from writing workshops. Regardless how long ago I originally wrote the posts the exercises are still workable. Give them a try. I know they’ve done wonders for me as a writer.

Originally posted: July 6th, 2008

I have been mentally preparing myself to get into full writerly mode by being writerly all the time. I haven’t actually been able to focus on my book at this point, although, I did do one character study, and I feel pretty secure with her, but there are so many characters involved. When I think about how much has to be developed in order to create a world for my characters, I feel overwhelmed. I immediately beginning criticizing my work as I write. I need to stop that. So to help me rework my brain and derail that monster critic, I have created a writing exercise. It serves two purposes for me.

1) It helps get my head in a new place because most of these writings will never be seen and they allow me to be as free in my fiction and imagination as my journal writing.

2) It forces me to keep writing and I have no excuse not too. The brain is like a muscle in our body and it needs exercise in order to work at it’s optimum potential, and this exercise is one way to go about it.

I can’t take 100% credit for this exercise since the bases for prompts has been shared in many of my writing classes. I had learned the beauty of prompts and timed writing while I was a facilitator with Write Around Portland.

The Exercise:

This is meant to be a ten minute write but it often ends up being longer, and this is A-okay since the minutes are just a trick to force myself to do it. Inevitably, I’ll have that never ending argument with myself about writing:

“I don’t feel like writing.”

“You should write.”

“But I don’t want too.”

“Come on it only takes 10 minutes. You can spare 10 lousy minutes.”

“True. okay I can do ten minutes.”

See how that works? If you’d like to try the exercise it can be done with just one of the prompts, two or all, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you write for at least 10 minutes. I really believe that it takes a good solid three minutes to be able to let your mind just go, and 10 minutes can send you into a beautiful world that you- yes YOU created.

  1. Take the last sentence from a book and poem whatever type of writing of something that you have read.
  2. Take four random vocabulary words- I have tons of vocabulary words on note cards and I just pull from those. The purpose for this is that I am always trying to increase my vocabulary. Some words are archaic but they are still fun to try and use properly.
  3. Pick an object in room
  4. Choose one or more of the other five senses- I notice I’ve been leaning toward scent and I hardly use touch which makes me think I should use some touch.

Then give yourself ten minutes and try to write a story/poem using all the above elements.

This was my first one:

Sentence: He told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death. The Lover- Marguerite Duras

Vocabulary:

Baroque– Marked by extravagance, complexity or flamboyance.

Labile– Lacking stability, readily open to change

Machination– And act of planning, especially to do harm.

Obeisance– A bow made to show respect or submission, Deference, homage

Sound: clapping

Scent: poo

Object in the room: lighter

Here are a couple of sentences from what I created out of the exercises- It turned out to be about a 30 minute write- which was great-I’m not super comfortable with the use of the vocabulary in the second paragraph, but they are new words, and I do not use them often. They may be words more appropriate for a different type of writing, but the point is the effort to try and use them as correctly as possible. Once written you can follow up later.

-Enjoy

There was a stench that filled the room and she could not describe it as anything other than shit. Marguerite stepped over the piles of clothes and papers, the stacks of books, strewn newspaper articles, shredded bits of card board, the yogurt cartons, the bottles and cans of beer, the accumulated mess of months of a recluse; a terrible, terrible recluse.

She was not going to obeisance to him or his space or even the memory of him. She was labile at this point and had no room to honor him in anyway. She could drop from the window as easily as he did and with that she let the cigarette, lit and hot, fall from between her fingers.

The Burden

Before the sun rises we will walk out to the river and say good-bye to my daughter. It is the way. I know this. I know— we know— that HE will take all of us one day, at anytime, and it is a blessing, and that is why we are thankful .

It is offensive to show any sadness because to be sad is to show anger to Him, to not trust Him, and that is a sin. There is much to be grateful for and I show it through my silence and my peace. She was a girl, and with the death of a girl there is celebration because now there will be space for a boy. Food for a boy, a future for a boy. And, I am pregnant now so it will be a boy. The girl is gone and in His kindness he has put a boy in my belly. We know this. Yet, I feel empty. Somewhere inside of myself where my daughter once slept curled like an egg warming my blood and filling me with something I can only call love, I feel a hole. A deep hole like a well that reaches no water.

As the sun rises from the dark brown line of the earth and pushes the thin rainless clouds away our toes touch the edges of the water. It is all the women of the village who are with me, but they are not for me they are for Him, because they too must give thanks. In the river I wash the white linens that I will use to swaddle her body. She was little so I do not have to use much, but I wish it to be as white as the lily. The other women partake in the ceremony- they murmur, hum and wail in painful tones of remorse and prayer. They give praise and thank Him for taking her, my daughter, and releasing us from the burden of yet another girl child.

The water flushes over my fingers and in-between the fibers. It is warm and smells slightly of urine. I do not always think it is good, but HE has provided it and therefore it is good. I walk deep into the folding river wringing the white cloth, focusing on cleaning and cleansing them. I think about the preparations for the evening. The dying walk with the white candles, how we must prepare the candles for the ceremony, but she keeps poking her baby fingers into my head. I feel her arms around my  neck. Her fingers tangling in my hair, and she is bound to my body as she had always been when I had washed the clothing in the river. I gasp and pull the linen to me and hold them like I had held her. They smell like her and I feel like I will shake until my knees break and I will then collapse into the dirty river. I want to fall and join her my most beautiful child. My first child. But, I cannot. She has been taken for a reason so the boy can live. I must tell myself this until I believe it.

I walk to the shore still holding my bundle of linen tightly to me like it is my daughter, but suddenly I am aware of where I am and what I am doing, and I hope that none of the other women have noticed me; noticed my weakness. It is a sin to be mournful when a girl dies when there is so much thanks to be had before us. Save the tears for the loss of our boys. I know this, and I can be beaten for such a display of sorrow even on the day of burial.

I drape the linen, heavy with the river’s water, over thick branches and slap out the wrinkles and lines of fabric with my open hand. The sound like a wet drum beat in my ears. Soon the other women are doing the same, pounding out the their linens of many different colors, the rhythm rising toward a song. Coolness and warmth pass over me. It is the breeze warm from the sun and wet from the great river, but there is a thin veil of cool that licks the sweat from my neck and shoulders. She is beside me and I know this because I can feel her. I want to say her name, but it is forbidden.

***

The sun will be setting soon. I have been washing all day, and I continue with the final washing as the dark folds over the sky and I wrap the wet cloth over my body, and my head covering every part of me. The heavy wet fabric gathers about my head and ankles and the weight is like that of a human.  A human child. We return to the village wearing the wet fabric around our bodies, and carrying the dry linen in baskets on our heads. We sing songs of praise as our bare feet pass over the dusty road that will take us to our village. Once we arrive, and hang the last of the wet cloth, I will wrap the white linen around the body of my dead child, and once again we will take the slow walk to the river. The river that gives us life the river that gives us death.

All things have been prepared. The older women have painted her and oiled her. Her face has been dusted the red of the earth and black coal circles her eyes that are closed. White dots divide her face in half. Her arms glisten against the flicking lights of the candles and I inhale the scent of oil. Although she is not a boy she is anointed and praised because HE brought her to us and HE has been kind enough to take her away. Perhaps she will return as a boy and her life could be better in the next life. I wish for that, but at the same time I feel sad that she will not ever be a woman.

The night is blue black and the stars blink and weep as we began our walk to the river. The men carry my daughter on a plank of wood on their shoulders. I want to call out her name, but it is forbidden. The villagers have been singing and as we move closer to the river they sing louder. The night is dark now and only the candles show us the way. The scent of wax and smoke fill my nostrils and I can no longer smell her. My eyes begin to burn and I can feel the wet of my tears streaming down my cheeks. This is a feeling of great sadness and I must not feel this but I am overcome. It is only the smoke. I will say it is only the smoke.

We reach the river and my husband and all the men are the first to place their candles into the water. It is like they heave a great sigh of relief. A daughter is such a burden. We are all relieved—but something… something is empty and there is no relief in my heart. They place her body into the water and push her off to float and get carried away into the mouth to be forever swallowed up by Him and all that HE has given to us. We thank him for releasing us and we pray that the boy in my belly is strong. I place my candle in the water to give thanks to Him who took her. I must say a prayer of gratitude, but all I can say is her name; Kalaya.

In the Tenderloin

The Tenderloin. 11:30 a.m. November. 

Hey, you how ya doing? You look lovely today.”

He was youngish, somewhere between 19 and 30, with dark brown skin the color of wood smoked oak. His head shaved with new hair growing a shadowy crown of ebony. His face was fine; Swazi nose, Zulu chin, Xhosa face, a child of ancestral Southern Africa whittled away over a century of abuse, and replaced with poverty, drugs and anger. An American boy.

He was such a good boy when he was little.” Grandma used to say. “Such a nice boy.”

(Grandmothers cry a lot these days. )

His dark brown slacks sagged slightly over a practiced limp in his walk. Swagger. His jacket oversized and bulky, black, and worn, but kept as clean as the streets allow.

“Thank you.” I said. My heels clicking against the sidewalk. The sound loud and obtuse. I had bought them recently, put them on layaway and made small payments. I had wanted nice shoes. Heels that were good for my feet but also flattering. This was an expensive requirement that took two months to pay off. They seemed too loud now.

He matched my step never looking at me always looking around or forward. If he glanced my way it was only to look at my body never my face. I forced myself to look at him to not allow fear keep my head down. A “nice” woman keeps her head down. This tactic has never worked in history, and yet we repeat, repeat, repeat.

He pulls out a phone from his coat, and I wince at the movement. Don’t be silly, don’t be silly, I think, keep walking, don’t slow down, don’t speed up, maintain the pace- maintain the pace. Nothing is wrong and I am not scared.

“Can I have your number?”

I keep walking. I don’t change my speed. I keep the same pace. I wonder how long he is going to walk with me. He holds his hand behind his back, and I wonder what he has hidden there. It is mid-day, but the light, and the people do not give me feelings of safety. I have stumbled unsuspectingly into the Tenderloin.

He leans heavily onto his right leg and swings his left forward in a well rehearsed strut. It’s so rehearsed that now it is his natural walk.

“When he was a baby he would stick out his belly and it would lead him around.”

Another man, gaunt face, chestnut skin pulled taught over his high jutting cheekbones, passes us. As he does he holds up two fingers. My unwanted companion nods. The chestnut man brushes against my shoulder, like a dying twig on a fall branch snags a sweater, and I am like a ghost to him; invisible in his world.

Another man pulls his car up to the curb. He rolls down his window and sticks his out his shaved head. His dark eyes and high cheekbones eclipse all other features nearly erased by his bone skin. He reminds me of pictures of boys in Southern Eastern European. I can see his blue track suit and automatically I think he is Russian. I secretly smile at my assumption- how do I know he’s Russian? Television? Magazines? Track Suits? He probably is Russian. He nods to my unwanted companion and lifts two fingers in the same manner as the chestnut man. My new-friend nods in response, but never stops walking alongside me.

As we share this walk, on a San Francisco street block that in my mind suddenly became the size of four city blocks, more men pass with nods and raised double digits. We were waking through a wave of nods and fingers.

His hands have been behind his back the entire time hidden under his heavy dark jacket. I wonder what he has under that jacket and if he will use it on me. I balance on the edge of fear and reason.

“So what do you do for work?” He asks me.

“I’m a teacher.” I say.

“A teacher?”

“Yes.”

He takes this information in like a fine cognac, inhaling first before placing the words to his lips and slowly sipping, then swallows with a nod to no man on the street but himself. He shifts his hands and arms but doesn’t reveal  them.

‘You know,” he begins, “I’m tryin’ to get back on my feet.”

“Such a good boy. And so smart too. Just whip smart.”

I don’t say anything. I just keep walking. I know at this point that he isn’t going to ask me for any money, not that it mattered, but if he didn’t want money, what did he want? Why the long walk?

“So, can I have your number?”

“I dont live here.” I say.

“I don’t either.” He says, “What does it matter? I want to be your friend. I’ll go where you are.”

“You gonna go to China?” I say, half smiling at his friend request. I still want to see his hands.

“I’m tryin’ to clean up. I’m thinkin’ about gettin’ my G.E.D.”

“You should.”

“I don’t know what I want to be yet.”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Grandma asks. “I wanna be a police man so I can save people!” Baby says.

“Doesn’t matter.” I say, “Start with your G.E.D. You can be anything. Imagine what you can be.”

Grandma must have said that more than once. “Momma? Poppa? Can I be anything? Anything I want? Momma? Poppa?”

I look at his face. His young dark face already too old. Twenties? Thirties? Maybe, just maybe a teenager in the body of a hardened man.

“I wanna be your friend.” He says, “Can I be your friend?”

He never looks at me. Never looks at my face not the way I look at his face. I make him human he doesn’t do that for me.

He brings his hand out and holds a phone ready to take my number.

“We can’t be friends.” I say. “We can be acquaintances.”

“What’s that?” He says finally looking at me.

“Doing what we are doing right now. Walking together to the end of a block. We talk. We’re friendly. We say good-bye. We leave each other.”

“Oh. Well. I don’t want to waste anymore of my time.” He spins on his heavy leg and turns back up the street.

And leaves me with no good-bye, and like that I was dumped. In the Tenderloin.

My are you lookin’ lovely today!” A  giant black man with shiny skin is standing akimbo and yelling at me as I walk toward him. His white bleached shirt white as his teeth and tucked into pressed blue jeans stretched over colossus muscles. Huddle at his legs like a frightened children are a frail lady tweaker and a pile of rags with a toothless grin. They all smile at me. The woman’s skin which was once white is yellow and dry with a red sore on her chin and one on her cheek. Too much picking. Her clothes are dirty, but no where near the level of muck that is the Raggedy Cousin It hunched beside her.

“You sure are lovely.” The man yells again, and his voice is booming a deep rich baritone. The tone is to warm to be bothered, and only exasperated amusement rises into my being.

“Thank you.” I boom right back.

They were all children once too.

They all smile, and laugh cheerfully as I step off the curb onto the next block.

This new block is empty except for a schizophrenic man who is yelling to his invisibles.

“I know! I know! I’m upset! Yes! Yes! I am because that’s not what it’s about! I’ll gut it! I swear, I’ll gut it out! They’ll get it! They’ll get it!”

I walk pass him without incident. I am not a part of his visions.

I smile in the Tenderloin.

The banter is not cheap on the sidewalk, and it’s full of visions and monsters. Men and women who were once children shrink into reptiles because the light is too harsh and too cold. This is a place where the light is evil and the dark is good. A person can’t help where they were born. Not everyone was given equal opportunity, no matter how American one is.

“Fluorescents! It’s the fluorescents!” The man yells, and his voice falls behind me.

I agree with him it is the fluorescents. The grey pale light steals all the color. Whitewashes even the white.

Hunger suddenly diverts my thinking. I too am reptilian. I think of food. I could snap in a single jump to catch my prey, and everything else like fear of the street, fades in this one impulse of hunger. I must eat.

The Olympic cafe.

An old diner with faded pink linoleum tables, and a black and white checkered floor. Black  stools line the bar. I take a seat at a small single style booth. This is a place that once had smoking and non-smoking separated by this side of the room and that side of the room. I order bacon and eggs and black coffee.

Sometimes, I want to be an old man, anonymous, and alone with my shot of whisky, my cup of hot coffee, and my cigarette: “You youngsters you look at me and think I am sad, lonely, and pathetic, but I’m just sitting here being fine lost in my thoughts. My stimulants are small as you binge in your excess of partying such reckless youth. Now, I, I ease into my drink like a sage wrapped in a single sheet of bourbon: not a lake, there is no need to drown just to float. I am not waiting to die like Dylan Thomas. I am not gently waiting for the night to take me; I’ve a fine life. Leave your projections at the counter”.

I dream about being an old man. I will be an old woman. I want them both.

My thoughts are interrupted by an old black man his skin ash with age and the street. His hands in prayer shaking with pious pity and true religion. The owner of this timeless diner stares through the glass with dark Greek eyes. Pain through pane glass. The owner slowly shakes his head closing his eyes, he is hard-nosed, but not angry. “No.” He says.

They have a history these two.

Two old men. Old Americans: one stolen, sold, and bought; one who sold himself to come to the new country. Choices and no choices. America in the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin in America.

All babies grow old. Come little children, let’s play kick the can ’cause all babies grow old. Hey, little baby’ll be an old woman soon. An old grandma looking at old men staring at each other through windows of pain. I want to be them both at once. I want to be the old America, the grizzled broken dream; the death of a salesman and the raisin in the sun.

I eat my eggs, and drink my coffee in the Tenderloin.

Version 2

 

A Lost Novel

I had that moment when you lose everything that you’ve written, and I survived it.

Those of you that followed my postings of my novel Zizkov, have probably noticed I stopped posting the chapters. Part of it was my instability and then moving to a new country, and then, well, I lost it. Not my mind but the document.

I needed to make room on my computer in order to update my software… I put it on my external hard drive… erased it from my computer…updated the software…and then the external hard drive crashed. I do have a copy of an older draft on google docs, but it’s an older draft and I had changed the ending.  I have some hard copy somewhere also with the older ending and none of the editing, but the final draft is lost, at least at this point before getting to a computer place to see if any data can be restored. Basically, the final draft is lost.

I spent a really long time working on that novel. Years. The funny thing about losing it is that I remember talking with a writing instructor about my book and the possibility of it never being published— actually he was talking about the possibility of it never getting published, and he used his own first novel as an example. He had said, it was okay, and that first novels are not meant to be published they’re for practice. I insisted that that was not the case for my first novel. Oh, no. A person does not spend years on a book and then just willy nilly say, eh, that was practice.

That was about four years ago. I think the novel was for practice. I also think the novel was a block. A block from writing other things. I’m okay with losing it. I think there was some really good parts, and that the story was interesting, but I rewrote it so many times, and it was never right. Maybe, one day I’ll write it again. I don’t know.

When I realized that the disk was corroded I was surprised by my reaction. It was, “Welllll shiiit.” And, that was about it. I think it’s okay that it’s gone. I can never again use the excuse of perfecting my novel as a way of not writing new work.

Speaking of new work. I’ve been pretty quiet for awhile. I was thinking maybe I just didn’t have the energy to write anymore, and then I got a little spark here and there, and have been sketching some new short story ideas and crafting another, and fooling around with a script. I’ll go back to posting random excerpts and stories and ideas here as I “play around”.

I recently finished reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and I am currently reading The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. It’s fun to go from a classic to a modern style of reading and really see the difference in the use of language and structure to tell a story. In the non-fiction world I’m reading a book on the brain called The Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel which is slow going for me, but really fascinating, and also I’m racing through Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story.

In the poetry realm I’ve finished Patti Smith’s the Woolgathers. It doesn’t necessarily fall under the genre of poetry as it is written in prose, but it is so poetic in tone and rich in language to me it is poetry. It was a peaceful and calming read and I could read it again and again.

I hope everyone had a good November novel month. I did not, but that’s okay.

IMG_4075