Do You Want to Know What Comes Before?

Yesterday you may have learned that I’m struggling with a story. It’s about the same family you may have met in Savior and The Brothers Path but 200+ after the events in The Brothers Path and 500+ years after the events in Savior. 

It would help me a lot to know if, reading this, you’d like to know more about these people. Also, who seems to be the main character (to you). Here’s how it ends:

To Weber’s good fortune, Brandstetter fastened the loaded cart to the wagon. Kasparli and Vrenli would ride in the wagon with Brandstetter’s children. Hans Kaspar and Weber would follow behind.

“Conrad, you get up on Little Red. Let’s see how you drive a team of Conestoga horses.” Brandstetter motioned to the immense red animal to his left, closest to the wagon.

Conrad leapt up onto the horse, and in reflex and instinct, patted its neck.

“Let’s move,” said Brandstetter, when everyone was settled, hitched up and organized. “First stop, Germantown church. Next stop, Lancaster. Then four hundred miles on the Old Indian Warpath. Get them going, son,” Brandstetter handed Conrad a whip. He flicked it lightly over the horses’ heads. The team shook its harness bells, and the small procession began its trek into the vast wild of America.

Things I’ve Learned About Writing

There’s a lot out there about how to be a writer, but, at the very heart of being one is William S. Burroughs’ description of Kerouac. “Well, Kerouac was a writer. That is he wrote.”

I read a blog post yesterday that left me thinking about where I was when I started — I actually started writing as a small child, so I don’t mean then — but when I started writing novels intentionally (1998?) vs. where I am now. I’ve learned some stuff.

I’ll start by “where I am now” in the most literal sense. I have this WordPress blog because a book I read three? Four? years ago said, “A good way to promote your work is by having a WordPress blog.” Whether a person’s work is conventionally or self published, it needs to be promoted, a task falling more and more on the shoulders of the author. At the time I read that book, I had two novels to promote and had begun a third.

Once on WordPress, I found the “Daily Prompt.” I already wrote everyday without someone telling me to write every day, but, following the instructions in the book, I decided to “attempt” (there is nothing difficult about it, IMO) the daily prompt. Back then it wasn’t just a word; it was a topic. OK. I thought it was stupid and in no way a challenge, but I did it.

The reward? I’m not going to talk about the relationships I have built with others, though I’d say that’s a yuge reward. I’ll stick to the more writerly rewards.

Because of the Daily Prompt, I wrote some short stories I would never have written or even thought of. Not a lot of them, but one of them won an award last year. Here it is as it appeared first, here on WordPress. The prompt was: “The Setting’s the Thing: Today, we challenge you to create a compelling setting for your story.  ‘A man and his wife meet for lunch in a diner on August 5th, 1970, in New York City. She’s pregnant and plans to spill the beans over lunch’.”

I ended up loving the story and I would never have written it without the “Daily Prompt” mandate I’d given myself. I was wrapped up in writing The Brothers Path, not thinking of any other stories. I like writing short fiction and, in this consequence-less world of the Daily Prompt, it’s easy just to write something.

That brings up the question of inspiration vs. discipline. My art teacher in high school said not to wait for inspiration, meaning, don’t just paint when you’re inspired. Paint all the time. He was right, actually. The short stories I wrote first here on WordPress, and later refined on my computer, were not the result of inspiration but of discipline, choosing to do the prompt and sticking with it.

What do you get if you “paint every day?” You get better at painting. You get ideas you didn’t know you had. You paint things you never thought of painting. The same has been true for me writing the daily prompt. Write every day? Get better at writing.

Discipline is also humility. This is important to me as a writer. No inspired person is humble. The word “inspiration” means the gods are breathing life into you. In the moments of inspiration you are as close to a divinity as possible, carried away on the wings of angels — NOTHING can go wrong; EVERYTHING is perfect; your work is AMAZING because the experience in which you are enveloped is transcendent, miraculous. Discipline is the key to knowing that, when the glorious moment is over, you’ll have to sit down and revise…

There’s a lot written on the question of revision. I think there are several kinds, or perhaps levels. There’s revision as you write (you pay attention to what comes out of your fingers). There’s revision after you’ve written something — a paragraph, a page, a chapter. There’s revision at the level of looking (objectively) at a completed project to see if you’ve done all you can to make it as good as it can possibly be. That’s revision for all the “pretty” things of writing, where a writer can make choices about HOW a story is told. In writing Martin of Gfenn I learned the hard way that, in a very real way, there are two novels; one is the story; the other is the WAY the story is written. It was that discovery that transformed me from a hack taking dictation from “the gods” into an artist.

And, then there are readers. I believe that every writer who is serious at all wants people to read their work. I have accepted that my novels are not on the public pulse, and I understand that doesn’t make me a bad writer or my novels not worth reading. It’s a big world out there and market forces drive sales, I don’t. Burroughs also said that every writers’ work reveals the writer. I have certainly learned a lot about myself by seeing what I have dedicated myself to writing.

At this point — after 3+ years writing this blog — I have just over 1,000 followers.

I am writing a novel now. I don’t know how it’s going to come together — it’s “finished” in the sense that I have written the beginning, the middle and the end, but it’s still a very unfinished work. I don’t even know who the protagonist is. If you write historical fiction, you are bounded by historical events, so it’s possible to “know” a story without having a story, in a sense.

As I go to it at least once a day for however long I can stand it, I think about writer’s block, something I’ve always mocked saying, “So don’t write! Ha ha! Or write something else!”

Yeah, well, once more, live and learn.

Book Marketing Update

I know you are all on pins and needles, so here’s what’s going on.

I sent 3 copies of The Brothers Path to Mastof Books. I’m excited that I’ll be included in their catalog in October!

Summoned up the courage to call the local independent bookstore. I’m going there on Monday with my three novels to see if they want to stock them.

My first blog tour keeps attracting tour hosts which is great for me. Got another one today and that makes 12!!

Got an interview for Savior that will be on IndieBRAG at some point soon.

I finally realized I had to do bookkeeping for this “business” and spent six hours today setting that up. There’s so much going on that it should probably be kept on several different spreadsheets, but I have it on one (in various colors). The most depressing part (besides it being difficult) so far I’m into this $1000 for comp-copies of books, advertising (including virtual book tours), and giveaways.

I know that’s not much when it comes to advertising — but YIKES!!! For that money I’ve gotten copies of my books to sell (like to Mastof Books and, hopefully, Narrow Gauge Newstand) and give aways (as on Goodreads) and for reviewers (the virtual book tours) and advertising on Goodreads — ads linked to the give aways. So far that has motivated people to add my books to their “to read” lists and I’ve gotten a review from that.

I was very happy when things added up on my very out-there spreadsheet; that the number of books I’ve bought equates to the number I have + the number I’ve given away + the number I’ve “sold.”

After that, with a splitting headache, I road the Bike to Nowhere for 10 “miles.” Exercise, even that, is a great relaxer and attitude adjuster. And, you know, I got to listen to Eminem, who reminded me once more not to give up.

And tomorrow I can to to the Potato Festival with a clear conscience and free mind.

***

 

Biggest Chance?

Daily Prompt Take a Chance on Me What’s the biggest chance you ever took? Did it work out? Do tell!

I wrote about it last year — it was, of course, being born and so on and so forth and here I am and I guess I like it fine, so far…

Most things require both risk and luck. A very large chance I took recently is expounded upon on the blog Colorado or Bust!

No one knows yet how that’s going to pan out because other things happen along with that big move, it seems overall to have been a good decision. I’ve recently had the feeling that I’m no longer moving here but that I now live here, though it still seems a lot like a movie or play. I know that will change.

I’m a writer so I take chances with that all the time. The chances come when I try to sell my work to someone. Having done that for so long, I no longer feel despair when a story’s rejected. It’s more like “same old, same old,” and it no longer makes me doubt my writing. I know more about the world now and the people in it and I don’t expect that a novel written about a young knight who fights depression by killing Moslems in the Holy Land is going to be on everyone’s “must have” list.

The story I’m working on now involves a different chance; I’m pondering seriously the notion of making “luv” central to the plot. I don’t like love stories (sour grapes, possibly) but I think it makes a good challenge for me. I’ve tried to make the protagonist a female character, but I’m afraid that just isn’t in me. I do know that the protagonist and his love interest are not very good people or very bad people. I don’t like them much (this is different) and I’m disappointed that their motives are quite banal even though their story isn’t. Since they’re loosely based on the people from whom I’m descended of course I’d like to make them wonderful people, but they aren’t. They’re just an ordinary rather arrogant tradesman and a woman who loves him, and not a great woman or a woman noble of soul or a revisionist feminist silenced by history and the time in which she lives. What is interesting about them is that they will — he will — finally realize his dream of going to America when he is in his 40s and she, who never wanted to go, will die on the voyage.

Those things did happen. They are my Lodestar.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/take-a-chance-on-me/

Art’s Nowhere Near as Dangerous as It Should Be

Daily Prompt That Stings! Franz Kafka said, “we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.” What’s the last thing you read that bit and stung you?

Everyone has an idea about what literature — art in general — should be. Kafka, obviously, would want people to be “stung and bitten” by what they read. Certainly somewhere in his cock-roach riddled labyrinthine brain was a guy who wanted to sell “The Hunger Artist.” Edward Albee said the words that I’ve used as a title for this post. I agree with him. Why not with Kafka?

…I don’t want to be stung or bitten. I don’t mind being in danger. Masochism vs. risk-taking.

Once I was big on literature. I was a literature major so, like, DUH, whatEVER. Now? Youth is the time when people go out and look for the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Once you’ve been hit and jabbed a few times, have a few arrowheads stuck in your body forever, you don’t do that. You might wear armor (don’t we all?) you might have weapons of your own, you might just get good at fending off stones and sticks, and, probably you stop looking for them.

Kafka may have been a young man when he said that. Albee would not have had to have been young when he made his remark. Dangerous art means that the artist takes risks and that is, I think, the point of art. Beyond that, an artist who tells his/her artist who THEY are supposed to be has overstepped his/her bounds. Artist, be responsible for yourself. That’s as far as you can go, anyway.

I write historical fiction, so the stuff I read mostly has to do with what I’m writing. Right now I’m doing research into what it was like to be an emigrant coming from Switzerland to America. No one really taught that in school, and I think that the story I’m approaching now demands that I put it in front of my reader as it was. Yesterday I learned that emigrants were not looked at or identified as “people” or “passengers.” They were called “cargo” and “freight.” The companies that arranged their transport had figured out that the emigrants could fill the hold that would otherwise go empty to the New World where the ship would pick up its real cargo — tobacco, wood, and other raw materials. As the colonies became more and more self sufficient, ships were heading to America close to empty and filled with ballast. Human cargo changed that.

One third of the “cargo” died — sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the length of the voyage. Many were penniless by the time they reached America and had arranged to work for someone who paid their passage. If someone who had been indentured died on the voyage, that person’s family had to assume his or her indenture. Many of these indentured servants were branded and sold like slaves; most of them died in service. It wasn’t the convenient system I learned about in high school; it was slavery.

My question in this stinging and biting world of history is how to end my story? Happy ending? Moving ending?

I learned a while back that writing to the ending is a good strategy because then I know where I’m going. Ending a story is, for me, the second most difficult part and knowing where I’m going. At this point, my story ends here. I’m not sure I want these poor people to leave the ship and go into the Pennsylvania wilderness slaves, but we’ll see…

It’s a bit much. I hope this bites a bit, and stings. 😉

Sea Burial

The dead were sewn into their hammocks, the last stitch through their nose, “Just in case,” explained the ship’s master. Sewn in with them were “holy stones,” the rocks used to clean the deck. Grim as this was, it would be grimmer still were their bodies to float to the surface and follow in the wake of the ship. They were lined up on deck, the name of the deceased and the signature of a family member or friend scrawled on the shroud. Funerals were the first order of the day. Those well enough to bid a final farewell to those they loved stood in a line on deck waiting their turn.

Heinrich, Conrad and Jakob stood beside their father. Their tears made salty rivers of pink on their grimy cheeks. Hans Kaspar’s arms stretched to enfold his boys’ boney shoulders.

“Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me,” he whispered so the boys could hear him. “Thy rod and thy staff will comfort me.”

Two sailors tipped a board over the rail and a body fell into the sea. Hans Kasper and his boys stepped forward.

“Yours?” asked the sailor, pointing to the next body.

Hans Kasper nodded. The sailors lifted Liese and Elisabethli onto the board and balanced it on the rail. The ship’s master, Mr. North, a good Anglican, held out the Book of Common Prayer, said something in English and made the sign of the cross over Liese  and small Elizabethli.

“Father?” said Heinrich.

“Shh, son, it doesn’t matter. Come,” he pulled his boys more closely to him. The sailor tilted the board and mother and daughter slid over the side of the ship into the dark water of the North Atlantic. Hans Kasper held his boys even more closely and whispered, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/that-stings/

Heaven, Hell, Faith, History

Daily Prompt ______ is the new ______ Click over to your favorite blog, and pick out the 4th and 14th words (that aren’t “the” or “an”). Drop them into this phrase: “_____ is the new _____.” There’s your post title. Now write!

“Security is the new establish” (Blognovic) — yeah, that works (huh?)! But…doing a nounification on the verb “establish?” “Security is the new establishment” is somewhat better and fits (more or less) what I want to write about this morning — my next novel and my philosophical/spiritual problems with approaching my characters, people who emigrated from Switzerland for their SECURITY and to ESTABLISH themselves safely where they could practice their religion unmolested.

I woke up this morning with anxiety for the first time since I moved into my house… It could be that my Samter’s Triad had blocked my breathing passages or I could be scared about adopting a giant dog…

But it gave me time to think about the book that’s kind of hanging around in my future. It’s going to be about immigrants to American in the 18th century, Anabaptist, Mennonite, immigrants.

I got a couple of books from Masthof Press, a small press in Pennsylvania that publishes books related to Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Most people are interested in this subject because of their interest in their family’s genealogy. Me too, in a sense, but not who my forbears were. I’m interested in their beliefs. The Brothers Path was difficult to research because I could not sympathize easily with most of the characters and I despised their world. Those are difficult things to get around. One huge problem for anyone writing historical fiction is finding the imaginative energy to abandon oneself, ones biases, ones beliefs long enough to get into the protagonists’ world. I don’t think people writing fantasy or science fiction have to accomplish that to the same degree. They can create a dystopia or a utopia; it just has to logically follow from the world we know, one of infinite futures that branch off from the present.

The most difficult thing for me to get is the question of salvation. You see, I don’t believe in it. The idea seems completely crazy to me. I can understand intellectually THAT it matters to many people today and even MORE in past centuries. I can understand that it is the ONE important question for many people, “How can I know I will not go to Hell?”

Thinking about this, I realized that is all I’ve written about, a question I don’t understand and yet one that has motivated all kinds of horror for centuries. It hit me that perhaps that’s a wish fulfilling prophecy kind of thing; the fear of hell has impelled people to create hells on earth. The paradox is that the people in my book will be trying to move as far away from that as they can — but motivated by the same question, “How can I know I will not go to hell?”

The different religions inspired by the different sects of Anabaptism evolved to be, for the most part, pacifists. They include the Quakers, the Amish and the Mennonites. Other more mainstream religions have roots in Anabaptism (Baptists, in particular) without having followed two main principles — the refusal to take oaths and the refusal to take up arms against an enemy. I got a book that contains letters and sermons by Menno Simons, the “founder” of the Mennonites. I had some real hopes for what I might find in his words, but so far, I’m disappointed.

It’s the same cant I’ve heard since childhood. Us vs. Them.  I’d rather read St. Augustine.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/______-is-the-new-______/

Star Crossed Love — A Beautiful Sadness

Daily Prompt BYOB(ookworm) Write the blurb for the book jacket of the book you’d write, if only you had the time and inclination.

When it comes to star-crossed love, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has nothing on Martha Kennedy’s new novel, A Beautiful Sadness. A Beautiful Sadness tells the twin stories of the love between Adrienne and Mark, and Adrienne’s coming of age as a writer.

Set in Denver during the late 1970s, after the Stonewall Riots but still during time a when homosexuality was regarded as mental illness, Mark and Adrienne, graduate students in their late twenties, struggle with the reality of Mark’s sexual identity and their love for each other. Set against the whirling disco-ball of the era, Adrienne’s first person narrative is interspersed with works of short fiction she writes as a way to make sense of their very real but hopeless love.

As Laurence Durrell wrote in Justine, “Wrestling with the impossible grows a writer up,” in contending with her relationship with Mark, Adrienne discovers who she is.

—————

Finally a prompt I can use. 🙂

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/byobookworm/

Love Story, continued

Daily Prompt Slash and Burn Write 500 words on any topic you like. Now remove 250 of them without changing the essence of your post.

My problem as a writer is the opposite; I learned to edit from the best, Truman Capote. In my fiction I’m challenged to write MORE words, not fewer.

So…here’s a bit more from the Love Story. It seems people enjoyed reading the little excerpts I’ve put up. Below is a chapter toward the middle of the story. This is the protagonist writing in her voice about herself. What is all this? Well, once upon a time, a long time ago, I wrote a love story. At the end of the real life version of the love story, I began to wonder what else there was to life, what other challenges, what larger loves, that might end in something worth taking away. Still, I wrote the love story — as a novel about becoming a writer. If you like it, let me know and every time there’s a crappy daily prompt I’ll post more. The protagonista has several names and various plot lines. It’s an exploration of how a story can be an exploration of alternative futures. If you want to read the other two bits I’ve posted, I think you can use the search feature for Love Story.

Lost in Devoid

Snarling at the lousy weather, the hanging gray cold, and all the people, I pushed through the crowd on Seventeenth Street. After two blocks, I caught up to a crippled blind guy banging his cane against the two-by-four supports of the narrow entrance to a construction sidewalk.

“What is it? What is it?” he screamed frantically, “Would somebody please help me? Help me!”

“Damn it,” I thought.

“It’s a new building,” I said to him, catching up. “The sidewalk is like a tunnel. Here, take my hand and we can go through it together.”

He told me he was catching the Colfax bus which was a block behind us, loading passengers. He was about five feet tall, if that. He was a little shorter than I. Every aspect of him was wrong. His watery pale sightless eyes, his pinkish hair flattened from sleep, his crooked, red, too-large nose, his feet twisting toward each other just enough to make his stride unsteady. Some of his teeth were gone and his fingers were gnarled, but he seemed to be only in his mid twenties. His helplessness compelled his trust. “Can you run?” I asked. “Your bus is at the stop before this one. I’ll hold your hand. I think we can make it. There’s no ice on the sidewalk here.” We had a half a block and the bus was at a the traffic light behind us and it had just turned green.

“OK,” he said, and we ran to the bus. “This is fun!” he laughed a snorting little laugh. The bus driver must have known the blind guy because he waited at the corner. The man struggled up the steps and showed his pass to the driver. “Merry Christmas!” he said, “See you again!”

I raised my hand to wave goodbye, but at the last minute, I put it in my pocket. “Merry Christmas!” I said.

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I reached the Presbyterian church on top of the hill just as the carillon began “It Came upon a Midnight Clear, that glorious song of old, of angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, the Heavenly host proclaimed. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.” Suddenly my grandmother was alive, singing in her kitchen and I was only four years old, stretching awake on the bed made for me of two easy chairs pushed together. A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the tiny living room. My mind’s eye saw her in the dark Montana morning still wearing her egg-gathering jacket and hat, putting wood in the stove. “Merry Christmas, Adrienne. You’re up early.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks. I looked into the chasm of life between that Montana Christmas and this moment. What did I have to show for it? More than a year had passed since the October morning in Albuquerque when I’d watched the mass ascension of balloons. I had written and submitted lots of stories and all had been rejected. My brother insisted that I had “missed the public pulse.”

In the middle of the night, I woke up feverish and knew I’d caught the flu. It was not an ordinary flu, either. Before it was over, it would possess me completely. Not know about the end at the beginning, I got up at my usual time the next morning and went to work. After a day made surreal by fever, I ate supper with my friend Anne and went with her to a bookstore. Anne looked for presents while I stood in one place fascinated by the way the titles changed into small, printed surrealistic rainbows.

“Anne, let’s go. I’m sick. I feel awful.”

“Was it the spaghetti?”

“No. It’s the flu.”

“Your face is really flushed,” she said. “Well I don’t want it.”

I dropped her off and went home. I got into bed and watched a brightly colored halo form around my ceiling light.

“Shit,” I thought. “This can’t be good.”

Sunday night my mom cooked me the supper I appreciated most when I was sick as a kid. I hoped I would wake up feeling well enough for work the next morning, but it was not to be. I felt worse. I went to work anyway because that night a man I’d been seeing was taking me to see “The Elephant Man.” Steve – his name — was older by something like eleven years which bothered him, but I liked him very much. He was intelligent, funny, cynical, heterosexual and good-looking in a New York kind of way. Sitting in a booth at Zack’s, waiting for dinner, we looked around at the paintings hanging on the walls.

“What do you think of these?” asked Steve.

“They’re OK if you like Matisse-Lautrec,” I said.

“That’s what I like about you. You say things like that. I don’t know anyone else who says things like that. We have something in common. Weltschmerze.”

“What?”

“It’s German. It means ‘world weariness’.”

I didn’t see myself as “world weary.” I liked the world. I couldn’t think of a better pace to be, but that didn’t mean I liked that paintings or thought they were original, deep or meaningful. “I don’t feel world weary,” I said. “I just have the flu.”

“Weltschmerze isn’t bad. It just means that the common lot of things which satisfy people doesn’t satisfy you.”

All I could think of was my brother’s public pulse remark. I wanted to be on the public pulse. I rated quality of effort with success in the public market. I had no interest in “art for art’s sake” hoo-ha or any other artsy-fartsy twaddle. Matisse-Lautrec was hot in the market place and I had not been able to write stories in the Matisse-Lautrec style. This “weltschmerze” thing was too much for my flu inhabited brain. “Can we go home? I really feel like shit.”

“We have to talk,” said Steve once we were in the car. He started the engine. It was two blocks to my apartment. Apparently we were going to discuss our “relationship.” I didn’t feel like “talk.” My flu had left no energy for one of Steve’s Woody Allenesque discussions.

“Is it serious?” I asked.

“Yes. It’s serious.”

“Well, if it’s serious,” I said as we walked the living room. I” guess you’d better take the chair.” I had only one comfortable piece of furniture in my apartment. Until my aunt gave me that, a big red over-stuffed wing chair, I had done most of my reading in the bathtub. I gestured toward it and perched on my desk.

Steve looked guilty. “No,” he said, “you have the chair. You’re sick.”

“I’m fine. Sit down. Talk.”

“Listen,” he said, pacing rather than sitting. “The fact is, there’s this person I’ve been seeing for two years. We had a good relationship. Until I met you, I’ve been with her exclusively. Do you understand?”

“Yeah. You have another girlfriend and you don’t want to mess it up, so you want to bag it, right?”

“Well, I don’t know if I want to ‘bag it.”

“It’s OK. We can bag it.”

“You mean, that’s it? That’s all you have to say?”

“Sure.” My one thought was that if he left I could go to bed. “So, why don’t you leave now? Goodnight.” I began herding him to the door.

“You mean that’s all?”

“It’s OK. Don’t worry about it,” I said as I pushed him past my bicycle which took up half the hallway. When he left, I took my temperature. 101.

I woke up the next morning two hours late for work. I was on fire. I stayed home for the rest of the week. Christmas Eve I spent stretched out on my mother’s living room floor, waiting to go home. Christmas Day was very cold; I knew going out only made the flu worse, but there was no escape from Christmas dinner. When I arrived at my aunt’s house, I laid down in front of the fire and tried to be good company, but my mom was on my case for “always being sick on Christmas.” I think it was my dad she was thinking of but I didn’t fight back. I wondered if I would ever be healthy again. As soon as I could, I went back home and back to bed where I stayed for the next few days.Luckily, the law firm was closed for Christmas week, so I wasn’t missing any pay or pissing anyone off.

Four days after Christmas I’d started to feel better, but still exhausted, not right. The phone rang, waking me from a nap. It was Mark’s father, inviting me to meet them in Aspen. I didn’t want to see Mark. “I wish you’d come,” Frank said. “It’ll be so much more fun if you are here. Mark will get here tonight; he was hoping you’d meet his plane!”

“Why didn’t he call me?” I asked Frank.

“You know how he is. He thought I would be more persuasive.”

“I can’t come up. I’ve had the flu for almost two weeks and I’m just starting to get better. If I skied even one day, I’d be sick all over again.”

“Sweetheart, you don’t have to ski. You can just come up and keep Elizabeth company and cheer us up at the end of the day.”

“Oh, Frank, it would be horrible to be up there and not ski. Besides. I’m terrible company. All I want to do is sleep.”

“We got a little apartment. You can rest as much as you want!”

“It sounds wonderful, but I have to stay here. I’m afraid to drive that far. I’m really sorry.” I was, too. I loved them and free trips to Aspen didn’t happen every day. I wondered if I were having a mid-nap fever dream.

“You really don’t sound like yourself,” said Frank. “I can hear some congestion in your voice. Are you still running a fever?” Frank was a psychiatrist, actively interested in the medical side of his job. But, the fact was, I’d started to cry.

“Maybe a little.”

“You poor thing! I know Mark will be disappointed, but you’d better take care of yourself. Happy New Year! We love you, honey. There’s next year, right? Bye-bye.”

I loved Mark’s dad. I began to cry in earnest. I was no writer. I was a failure at loving people. I went back to bed and resumed my nap. When I awakened again, two hours later, something happened which had not happened in all my adult life. I started painting. I painted a small picture of a woman looking into the ground. It was brightly colored, painted with linoleum ink, watercolors and lace paper. After I finished that, I painted another, a picture of a round man, pushed against the side of the paper, as if he were trapped in the rectangle that held him. The paintings were vivid, spontaneous, free.

Late New Years Eve, Steve called. “Adrienne?”

“Hi, what’s up?”

“I just wanted to talk.”

“OK.” I didn’t feel hostile; I felt radiant. I was in love with my paintings.

“Are you mad at me?”

“No. Why?”

“You were so abrupt the other night. I thought we’d at least talk about it.”

“I was sick. Don’t worry about it.”

“We can still be friends, right?”

“I don’t see why not.” I had a little practice with this. I was “friends” with an ex-husband.

“So we’re still friends?”

This was noxious. “As far as I can tell, Steve. Don’t worry about it. Goodnight!” I hung up.

The next day I got up and started painting. I painted from a photo I’d taken of my reflection in my bathroom mirror. Just before noon, Wes showed up. He stood at the door, carefully nonchalant, in worn jeans, a black sweater, white shirt and tie. His cigarette hung provocatively from his lips. Wes was young enough to play dress-ups. His pale straight hair was parted on the side, a long lock hung across his forehead. His beard had finally grown in, thick and ash-blond. “Don’t you think I look like Hemingway?”

“Well, yes,” I had to admit, “but you look like Hemingway in 1960 when he was an old, depressed man thinking of suicide. You’d have to shave the beard and dye your hair to look like Hemingway at your age.” The young Hemingway looked something like Charlie, but the mention of Charlie’s name was enough to put Wes in a snit for a week.

young_hemingway

Young Hemingway

“How was Christmas?” he asked, putting his arms around me and giving me a sweet mouth kiss with a little — but not much — tongue.

“Well,” I said, “I had the fucking flu the whole time.”

“Sounds like fun,” he said, winking.

“Ha ha.”

“You mean you’ve been sick since I left for Looooosiana?”

“Yeah. I missed a lot of work. I don’t know if I even have a job now, but I’m going tomorrow. Joe will be pissed.”

“Who cares? Joe’s an asshole anyway.”

“That’s true, but I’m up for a raise.”

“I’m quitting. Maybe I’ll go back to school.”

“Well,” I said, diving into the revelation of my strange new reality. “Get a load of this. I’ve been painting.”

Wes was an artist, a good one, not Matisse-Lautrec. In spite of his spacey personality and romanticized appearance, he was productive. He was the “real gen” as Hemingway would have said. Before he went home for Christmas, he had been looking for a place to show his work. He looked down at me indulgently. He had to be nice because I often loaned him money and cooked him supper. “Cool,” he said, “let me see them”

I went into the bedroom and got my three paintings.

“I didn’t know you did this,” he said, startled, leaning them against the living room wall.

“I was an art major, but I haven’t painted since college, I mean, not really painting. I just started yesterday.”

“They’re good.” He got very silent. Like my brother, also an artist, Wes was not happy with “sibling” rivalry.

“Let’s go get breakfast,” he said, changing the subject. It was a cold, sunny day and we went to a cafe on Broadway, newly opened, where you could get good coffee and read the Sunday paper. After breakfast I dropped him off at his place and went to buy art supplies. I bought several heavy sheets of cold pressed paper, five tubes of gouache, and a couple of large, flat, camel hair brushes.
When I got home, the sun was streaming in the beautiful big south windows of my apartment. I felt so good, terrifically good, invulnerable, rapturous. I cleaned the living room, putting my useless typewriter under the bed, and stuffing sheets of clean typing paper into desk drawers. I found something I could always use as a palette, an old, white enameled oven tray, in one of the drawers of my old stove. I wash bedding and towels, clothes, underwear dancing up and down the steps to the cantaloupe colored laundry room in the basement. By dark, everything was clean and ready for work the next day. I sat down on the floor in front of Cosmos with a sandwich of turkey leftover and a glass of milk, my first real taste of what had been Christmas dinner.

I watched Cosmos because Charlie watched it. But Carl Sagan was a paradox to me. At times he insisted we were accidental flotsam and jetsam, relics of the cosmological accident; other times we were miraculous “star stuff,” the ultimate lucky break of the universe.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/slash-and-burn/

Love Story: Opening

Daily Prompt Four Stars Write a review of your life — or the life of someone close to you — as if it were a movie or a book.

Sorry, WP, mine is a five-star life and I’m not writing a review. It seems people enjoyed reading the little excerpt I put up yesterday. Below is the opening of the story. What is it? Well, once upon a time, a long time ago, I wrote a love story. At the end of the real life version of the love story, I began to wonder what else there was to life, what other challenges, what larger loves, that might end in something worth taking away. Still, I wrote the love story — as a novel about becoming a writer. If you like it, let me know and every time there’s a crappy daily prompt I’ll post more. The protagonista has several names and various plot lines. It’s an exploration of how a story can be an exploration of alternative futures.

“El tiempo se bifurca perpetuamente hacia innumerables futuros.” Jorge Luis Borges

I sit at the desk which was my father’s. Elisabetta, my wife, has just handed me a steaming mug of Caffe Latte. Snow falls in big dry flakes outside my window. Never was there a man more comfortable than I am, more secure, happier. Phillip’s letter sits open on my desk. “Cold and miserable here in Chicago. If nothing else, at least snow is better where you are. Have you been skiing?”

Everything speaks to me of my obligation to write Phillip’s story. I crank a long sheet of yellow legal paper through the carriage of my typewriter, the archaic tool I’ve chosen for this story. With more than a little reluctance, I begin my new career, the distillation of the inexplicable.

Hemingway — about whom I wrote my dissertation — is famous for having called a blank white sheet of paper the “white bull.” I don’t see my paper in that light. I prefer to regard it as the void, as the empty space from which the future is fulfilled. Every minute, every second of life, resembles that empty sheet. It’s a convincing metaphor for reality. It may be the only place where I can do justice to my two friends. It’s true that Kate’s death made Phillips choices easier. Still, I believe Phillip would return to the difficulty if he could. I sip some coffee and begin.

***

Sorting through the clutter of events that made up their relationship, it’s difficult to know what makes the “story.” Maybe logic will have to be imposed — but that could be why people write. Imposed logic isn’t any less real.

Maybe there isn’t anything to do with Phillip and Kate but to turn them into fiction, create a form for their accidental love. A plant growing in a house can suffocate if it isn’t dusted. There are no breezes to keep the leaves clean. Fiction is not a forest; it is a house plant.

For all of us it was a time of unknowns. We stood on the brink of our futures, all of us. Whatever syndicated sophist said, “The only certainty is uncertainty” had lived through a time like that. The certain of Kate’s marriage dissolved only because she wanted it to. The fact that something as solid as a marriage could be destroyed because of her will surprised her. From the been a terrible marriage. Divorce was just a matter of extrication. Phillip unwittingly gave her an ultimatum. One night, listening to Phillip’s analysis of an obscure poem by Yeats, Kate realized that if she were really free of the man she was married to, a silent, moody, brutal boy who took after his own father in his way of treating women, she could spend her evenings with men like Phillip. The next day she drove to Laramie and gave her husband the papers she had had prepared months earlier.

Charisma. There is no charm like that of a person who is, at best, ambivalent. Sitting in crowded rooms, even class, I felt a power emanate from them, from the connection that separated them from the rest of us. If I were Scott Fitzgerald (who had the guts I don’t, to stay drunk all the time) I would tenderly, with antiseptic passion, analyze their relationship, from even to event, the events rather minor, actually; the dialogues meaningful and intense. “I wrote a poem about this frenzy, Phillip. Don’t ever think I like it. I feel eaten up by it, by my own intensity,” she said one winter afternoon, sitting on the couch in his small apartment.

“I have read that poem in you,” Phillip answered, smiling. “You put your arms straight out behind you and look as if any moment you could fly away.”

“But I can’t fly!” she said, almost in tears.

“You try, though. There’s something very gallant in the way you sometimes try.”

A true gambler plays his hunches and doesn’t worry too much about losing. “Well, at least I didn’t sell out. I gave it my all.” If he loses, he can still walk away proud of his Quixoticism. That was Kate’s attitude toward Phillip; it was much more important to play than it was to win.

To Phillip, most people were nothing more than mannequins in store windows; only Kate was real.

There is music I cannot hear without seeing them. At the symphony, El Amor Brujo, Kate sat far forward in her seat, rapt, tense. “Beautiful, beautiful,” said Phillip leaving at the end of the concert. “The mixture of the occidental and the oriental,” not realizing he was speaking ot an old woman in a mink coat, and Kate was still in her seat, watching the musicians leave the stage.

Kate described his hands with their long, slender fingers. The hands and fingers didn’t fit with the rest of him. There was something vulnerable, fragile, sensitive about them; something shy. He sat there, wearing a tight, blue T-shirt which outlined his muscles. (“I go to the spa for me,” he told her once, defensively, as if she cared, which she didn’t. “It’s the only thing I do for ME.”) She said his hands posed a contradiction, made him a liar.

I am no Fitzgerald. I have been left with this love story and I have no language for transmitting it. They were islands that imitated the “should be” rather than the “is” in each other. Hot afternoons, Kate AWOL from work, stretched out, oiled, in the sun, smelling like a pina colada. They talked about life and literature, both believing that one enhanced the other; what was there to interpret but life, after all? And yet, the blue-nosed types in our field lived so far away from the life Kate and Phillip lived that they didn’t know that this was true. At department parties, Kate and Phillip drank the best, and held it like gentlemen (occasionally, a little more drunk than she appeared, Kate would pay with Phillip under the tables). They brought names into the conversation, authors from the fringes of “literature,” books the professors stored in their basements, if they kept them at all. “There will never be another XXX,” the professors insisted, harping on their personal hobby-horse, unaware that a real story, a great plot, a piece of living literature, was unfolding in front of them, arguing with them.

“Life is flux,” Kate responded. “One thing springs from another. To embrace a new age doesn’t mean you have to discard the past. It means you are making love to its children.” It was heresy, but appealing to me. Naturally, there was talk about kicking Kate out of the department long before that actually happened. Kate and Phillip saw things through different eyes; they went to classes, speeches, presentations with the rest of us, but at office meetings they hesitated. Talented they were, yes, but fearful they wouldn’t come through, knowing at heart they were not dependable in the usual sense. They worried about what we thought, yet knew that it really didn’t matter. Life had the power of final evaluation and it is my duty now to rescue them from obscurity.

They left every party before it was over. Behind them remained a cavity, a place where a light had gone out. Usually they went dancing, sometimes taking me with them. They attempted, with their bodies, the physical transformation of the world. Under the blast of cold air, the spinning mirrored disco ball — yes, disco — next to a blonde boy in a white suit with a magenta tie, they danced, dervishes restrained too long from prayer. Secrets told and forgiven, not forgotten. More than anything else, their secrets had the power to destroy them.

Kate danced with her shirt off, stuffed into the back of her jeans. “Put it on,” said a voice in her ear, the voice of a large man hired to prevent or end disturbances in the disco. He didn’t see that her shirt had been taken by someone in the crowd. When she reached behind to comply, she found her shirt gone. Phillip draped his own sweaty flannel shirt over her shoulders. As they walked out, a stranger’s hand reached behind Kate and straightened her collar. “You are so beautiful,” he said. “I have never seen anyone like you. Who ARE you?”

Phillip hit the boy in the face. “She’s mine,” he said, simply, as if anything else were preposterous.

Seven years ago, Phillip wrote, “It’s hard to be a writer in America in 1979. One thing cancels the next. Lines wander. Knowledge, once won, cannot be evaded. It’s impossible to ignore — or pretend — that things which ought to exclude each other don’t.”

Kate seldom spoke to anyone at school. She didn’t care about making friends. Her life was a mess and she knew it. She spent her time with an undergraduate who had been her student, a beautiful rich girl from the East Coast whom Phillip hated. The day she met Phillip was the second meeting of our class. He walked in with his friend, Carla. Kate told me that from the first moment, she thought he would be trouble. She avoided him for most of the quarter, but in the midst of a Yeats seminar, they finally connected. “I have had passionate affairs with both men and women,” Phillip proclaimed as he walked her to her car.

“So? she answered.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/four-stars/

Love Story

Daily Prompt Karma Chameleon This just in: let’s pretend that science has proven that karma is a thing. Your words and actions will influence what happens to you in the future. How (if at all) will you change your ways?

1

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I wrote a love story. At the end of the real life version of the love story, I began to wonder what else there was to life, what other challenges, what larger loves, that might end in something worth taking away. Still, I wrote the love story — as a novel about becoming a writer. If you like it, let me know and every time there’s a crappy daily prompt I’ll post more.

“Do you want to go to this party?”

“Was I invited?”

“Sure. Theresa asked me at school today if we wanted to come. A friend of Stan’s is going to read his poetry. He’s a prof in the writing program in Iowa.”

“They didn’t ask me.” He began to sulk. I looked into his gloomy blue eyes. I wondered why he didn’t understand that his shyness was seen — could not help but be seen — as arrogance. People assumed he felt he was above them — not without reason, as it happens, but still. He didn’t. He never felt more lonely or isolated than with a group of his peers. “Why don’t they invite me?” he went on. “I’m tired of tagging along with you.”

“So don’t come with me. Go by yourself.” I picked up my jacket from the back of the kitchen chair. “You can forget going with me now, anyway.”

“I don’t know how you make me feel this way. I only feel this way with you. Around you. I feel like a failure. I feel guilty.”

“I know you do, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s not my problem. I can’t keep trying to avoid your invisible bruises.” I zipped my jacket. He was becoming more and more a stranger on an elevator.

“You can’t annihilate me,” he replied, “only the relationship.”

***

The strawberries were opaque, red weights. Sugar slowly dissolved onto the wet surfaces and clung to the hollows around the yellow seeds. The bowl was heavy, hand-thrown. Several of the faculty wives belonged to a pottery club. They wore Guatemalan skirts and hand-embroidered Mexican blouses and held stemmed glasses filled with white wine.

David sat on the sofa with a Campari-soda. When his persistent agony was well-muffled in alcohol, he could portray a jovial guest. I knew David would sit there, unmoving, hour after hour, while women brought him whatever he asked for, then, when the casseroles were on the table, they would bring him supper.

Later, I sat next to him to eat my plate of salad. “My God! How could you be so cruel? You know I can’t stand parties. I feel like a caged animal. If you’re not here, it’s impossible. How long have you been here?”

“You said you were tired of ‘tagging along’ with me.”

“I had a headache. I hadn’t slept. I’m sorry.”

“Do you want to leave?” I asked. The Manhattan transplant from Iowa had not yet read. We had to stay. David put my hand over his testicles and leaned back against the cushions of the couch. I put my plate over his lap.

“We should stay until the guy reads, anyway.” David closed his eyes. If he could not belong, he could be transported away.

***

City lights inscribe a map in the night. I look out of the airplane window. I see the diagonals of the city’s center, the curving courts of the suburbs, the orange heliarch lamps which light the busiest streets. I visualize details, the used car lots and the drive-ins with lights too small to see from this altitude. I know they’re there. With the blue and red lights of the runway and the touching of wheels to earth, magnitudes change. My blue silk shirt and beige silk slacks are wrinkled. I try to smooth them as I walk up the ramp straight into faces watching TV on the concourse. I wonder how noble we are for lighting the darkness in these little places, the particles of earth we inhabit. We are a silly glitter in the expanse of black unknowns.

The concourse is white with neon. I think of the ocean, the transient particles of sunlight that ride in with the particles of sand, seashells and water on the waves. So different from this steady airport glare. David’s phantom emerges from the crowd. “I thought you would fall in love with the ocean!” The words he would have said.

“I did. It reminds me of you,” I say to the ghost who’s met my plane.

***

“I canNOT sleep!” he screamed.

“You’ve never been able to sleep.” I yawned. he couldn’t sleep, and he could not stay awake alone.

‘It’s worse now. Even awake, I have nightmares. I lie there and imagine a world without me. I see myself dead. Meg, do you think our being here, being alive, ever really makes a difference?”

“It seems to me it would,” I answered fully awake. I sat on his buttocks and rubbed his shoulders, so different from mine. “I read a story once, by Ray Bradbury, about a group of men in a time machine. One of them accidentally steps on a butterfly in the past that wasn’t supposed to die. The world changed. When he got back to his own time, it wasn’t as he had left it. He wasn’t married to the same woman. Even the language was different. It seems to me our being alive changes the world in just that way, without our knowing it.”

He turned over and looked at me. “I’ve thought of that,” he said, clasping his hands behind his head. Sometimes when morning came, David would fall asleep. I got up and headed toward the kitchen to make coffee. “But Meg, listen. If the change isn’t conscious, does it really matter?”

I remembered being surprised by a field of columbine on my way to a high mountain lake and how I knew, right then, that the lake was not my real destination. Although I went on to the lake, I had already seen what I was looking for. I glanced at David from the sink where I was filling the coffee pot. He’d gotten up and stood in the doorway, in silhouette against a sunny window. “Maybe,” he said, “death is the significant act.”

***

Now I can sleep all night if I want to. Or not, if I want to. I can watch the sun rise, if I want to. Scientists have found that a person who is sleepless long enough will go mad. I felt my mind slide away under the insomniac’s regimen.

There are people for whom the compromise society makes with destiny is impossible. Something tells them that the proscribed circumferences of reality are illusions. Pop songs from the 50s turned disco blared from David’s car radio. When they ended and something else came on, something I liked, I, drunk, turned up the radio. “Careful. You’ll blow the speaker!” David grinned at me. The top was down. the 3 am sky was pure and black. I leaned back and looked up. The night sky seemed benevolent, my special friend. David had begun pretending he didn’t want to sleep, that restless terror with its dreams. The car stalled at a red light. When David tried the ignition, it would not even “turn over.”

“It’s the wiring,” said David in the resigned despair he reserved for his car. The car — Ruby — had retreated into her world of circuits and gears. We sat. Some boys drove by in a low-rider.

“Need help, mister?” they called across the street.

“No thanks,” David sat his arms folded across his chest. “All I need to do is wait. It’ll start again in a minute.” When he tried the key again, the car started. “I don’t know why it does that. It’s the strangest thing. Cars are totally beyond me. What do you want to do now?”

“David, I want to sleep.” I felt like a traitor. “Take me home, OK? I’m sorry. I’m just so tired.”

He turned back toward home, abandoning our trip to the reservoir in the dark of night. I went to sleep in the car. David carried me upstairs and put me to bed without waking me. When I awoke at noon, David was not there. There was no sign of him having been home. I drifted back to sleep and didn’t wake again until dusk began to settle over the objects that symbolized our life together. I got up and undressed. I’d slept in the clothes I’d worn the night before. I filled the huge old-fashioned tub and stuck my head under the faucet. The water cleaned sleep’s residue from my brain. Everything became suddenly clear. “I’ve got to get out of here. This is crazy.”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/karma-chameleon-2/