It was Molly’s 14th rejection that did it. I just lost my damn mind. I would have understood if places like McSweeney’s and The Atlantic Monthly were taking other dudes to the prom. But I was getting rejected by the equivalent of the freshman in the backbrace.
So I took some time off. Four months to be exact. No reading, no writing, and barely any thinking. And I got kind of miserable. Without a project to occupy my imagination, I got into really stupid things like online poker, and we all saw how that turned out.
The way I figure it, the cosmos has decided that it is my lot to struggle as one of those sickly artist-weenie types. And at this point, I’m just resigned to write for the rest of my goddamned life. However, there is a silver lining: me and literary fiction are totes Splitsville. I’ve realized that except for your Chabons and your Perrottas, I’ve never really cared for those long, lonely trips into some dreary protagonist’s internal monologue. I get enough of that working in an eerily quiet, crowded office every day.
So I think my next few projects are going to be more of the balls-out variety. I’ve got this kooky idea to convert Standing Count into a teen horror novel and sling it on Amazon. I might not be high-brow enough for journals like these classy guys, but just maybe I can have the wild mass appeal of a band like Incubus or Nickelback. Besides, I think producing a book in the ilk of Stephen King or Michael Crichton could be fun as all get out. And having fun while writing has been in pretty short supply since the old MFA program.
Making the decision to sell-out in advance of critical success is probably worse than publishing a small run, then throwing away your artistic integrity later. But I say screw it. I doubt I had much artistic integrity in the first place. I’ve really been enjoying the process of drafting the new material, and at its core, that’s what writing always should have been for me: a happy diversion instead of something that started to make me feel crummy about myself.
So it’s been a while, but with the new year comes a new commitment to writing, and I really plan to stick with it for the next twelve months.
Also, I have a fancy new MacBook and iPod Touch, and I’ve synced everything up around my writing projects. I figure why not use this new enthusiasm for my gadgets as a way to blog more, write more, and submit more work to journals?
Still working on that Philly story, and I’m on my thirteenth draft. Without question, this story has become the bane of my existence. But I’m getting closer to the mark each time out, and after the last private reading with my wife, she suggested a first person narrator, and the light bulb finally snapped on. The action mostly took place in my protag’s head, and getting all of that internal conflict through the close third felt distant and filtered. We’re rolling straight up with Elliott now, and it’s going much more smoothly. Hoping to knock a new draft down by the new year.
Also, I read publicly at the Fallout Urban Arts Center in November, and it was one of the best experiences I’d had with writing in a very long time. I left the reading that night, giddy and charged and hopeful for my writing career–one that I’d pretty much toe-tagged after Standing Count fizzled.
And sure, 2010 was one of my least productive years when it comes to word count–one finished story in total–but I feel like I’ve finally, finally found my voice after leaving crime fiction for more literary work, and I’m very excited to keep moving forward on multiple, shorter projects. Certainly more to come in 2011.
My bastard cat woke me up at 6:20 this morning because it had been five hours since he last stuffed kibble into his fat little piehole. My friends and wife think of him as an exceptionally stupid, thoughtless animal, but he’s smart enough to have figured out that if he walks on my pillow, he can step on my hair, pulling it, thus waking me more reliably, so that I can fill his god damned food dish.
Awake at 6:30, with no hope of returning to sleep (five years of corporate america did this to me, I’m certain), I stepped into my running shoes and jogged to the gym. The morning air was cool and remarkably refreshing, I didn’t pant or sweat too much. It was probably one of the most enjoyable runs of my life. Once at Snap, I did my six machines, and ran back to the house to shower, shave, and eat a bowl of cereal while watching CBS Sunday Morning. I used to love this show, but had fallen out of watching the past few years. And that was kind of great.
I didn’t get up from the couch except to refill my coffee. I didn’t straighten the house during commercial breaks, and I didn’t check the internet. I just watched from start to finish, relaxing and scratching the pets’ ears when one of them came to visit.
And here it is, three hours after Simeon irritated the hell out of me, and I feel more recharged, refreshed, and ready to face the day than I have during my whole vacation.
I’m going to remember this feeling, and try to maintain this ritual for the remainder of my Sundays.
I went to the state fair and watched a cow have a baby cow today. There was a little bit of blood and about 40 gallons of amniotic fluid. It didn’t drip, instead, it came out in a steady stream that lasted almost an hour. The calf’s nose came out with its front hooves, and the whole picture was wet and organic, and miraculously, not gross. I can be kind of a Susan about these things, and I never once felt the need to look away or shudder. It just was.
If anything, I felt tense, waiting for something to go wrong. Waiting for some horrible tragedy to befall the mother and the cow. I even wondered if the cow would birth some harbinger of the apocalypse. Some demon bull with red eyes. I pictured people running away, trampling each other to get out, to get away. This is what movies have done to me. I don’t know nature if it’s not being manipulated into some cheap thrill.
After the calf was born with a little tug from the vets, they lugged the little guy over to its mother’s head. She licked it clean and I learned that this gets the blood flowing in the calf. It wasn’t beautiful, I don’t feel the need to heap superlatives on it. It was just sweet. And it was right. The thing that stood out the most was how familiar the calf and the cow were. It was like they’d met a long time ago, and didn’t know how to be strangers to each other.
For a while there? I was paying all of my bills.
My brief spout of responsibility began on my 29th birthday, when I spent the night not out with friends or on a date, but rather with my laptop working a set of balance transfers for my overdue statements.
I’d already begun to dread the monthly chore in the deepest folds of my guts, and it was that night—nearly a decade past my freshman year, still defining myself through the names of designers, still shooting off to places like Amsterdam for profoundly stupid reasons—that I realized my lifestyle had become the very definition of unsustainable. So I cracked open Microsoft Excel, and I drew up a budget.
The budget ruled me, but it was a fair regime; and I learned that if I declined most of my happy hour invites, and spent a few nights a week with a library book instead of one of the girls from account servicing, I could actually gain ground on the Visa statement and the Audi loan—bills that I began to think of as a pair of hardened old gunslingers, determined to track me down and bring me to justice.
Now, I’m not under any illusions. My Audi was way too fast for me to claim austerity here. But I was finally living within my means; and strangely, I began to enjoy paying the bills. And at month-end, when I saw that I ran a surplus, I could kick my feet up in my uptown condo and feel truly proud of myself. I was doing it right for the first time in my whole life, and for a few months I felt like a real man, like a 1954 breadwinner.
And then on one gorgeous September Monday, when the account servicing department squeezed into its shortest work-appropriate skirt for the year’s last hot summer afternoon, I checked my blackberry from the bar at Ike’s and saw that the economy had crapped its pants.
I worked at States Bank’s headquarters in the downtown, and I guess it really doesn’t matter what I did there, because a week after Lehman Brothers, I sure wasn’t doing it anymore.
I could go into the declined transactions, the internet and cable that were shut off, and the downright sadistic phone calls from collection agents, but the biggest tragedy of my layoff was that tights came back into style that autumn. And I was too intimidated by the prospect of chance encounters with my former colleagues to drive to the downtown and enjoy the strong, shapely legs of all the beautiful working women of Minneapolis.
Instead I spent a lot of time at the lakes, reading books and striking up conversations with strangers just so that I could play with their dogs for a few minutes. I kept up with my workout regimen, and as a reward to myself, I watched the Vikings at my favorite sports bars on Sundays, putting the tabs on my last credit card that hadn’t been maxed out. When I finally received the foreclosure notice on my condo, I packed up my tiny Audi with my very best clothes and personal electronics, and I drove far away from Minneapolis, back toward my childhood home in western Indiana.
After taking five years to write a novel, and then returning to short fiction with “Molly” this past summer, I was hoping to have finally graduated beyond those first drafts that just make me want to die.
Not so. Today, I’m staring at six-thousand words of a short story that totally missed their target.
It went wrong as it often does for me, when I’m caught up in the moment, far too close to the character’s reactions and nerves to remember that there’s a whole intended audience out there who are waiting to be amused or provoked by the material I’m slapping down onto the page. When you’re in that place, you can find yourself starting a story with, “The airplane’s lavatory smelled like cheap cologne and turds.”
So reading that very line at the coffee shop today, this writer was none too pleased. I’m starting this blog to write to myself all the things I think about a given project while I’m working on it. I hope it will work as a writer’s journal to slow me down, and force me to provide some direction to a project when I get too caught up in delivering yuks, losing the theme, and character, and the chance to render a believable–and hopefully publishable–story.
This current project, working title “Philadelphia Story,” was originally about a sixteen-year-old kid from Terre Haute who steals his stepfather’s credit card and flies to Philadelphia on it. The idea is that he’s going to meet a girl with whom he’s webcammed. Once in Philly however, the kid finds himself crippled by his fear of this monstrous city while simultaneously failing to realize that this girl’s online flirtations were little more than a trifle to her. She never expects him to arrive, and when he does, it’s, naturally, a complete failure. There’s a tacked on subplot involving him getting comfortable with the city, meeting a new girl and running all over town with her and her friends in a drunken blur. And while the writing is probably its strongest in that section, I worry that it’s not particularly sincere. He’s rescued by the author through this new girl, and he never actually is forced to confront the cost of his idealism. I feel like this story should be better than some low-brow, boozy romp.
A suggestion I’ve received from my wife (and ever-reliable editor and first reader) is to advance the protagonist’s age a bit. Keep him in high school and keep him innocent, but make it more a story of his interaction with the larger world, confronting his childish notions of real love and adulthood. This perks my ears up a bit, and I think that this is where I’ll begin redrafting today: Less jokes about throwing up on a plane, and more sly humor about a kid who’s in way, way, way over his head.