Just a quick note: I’ve got a 2-part Halloween post on the Canary Review on a particular habit of mine. I didn’t mean for it to become an annual tradition, but it’s been happening every year since I was a kid, and there comes a time when you just need to accept it. Part 1 is up as of the last time I checked. I go by Pirate Canary there, so check it out! Leave a comment, too–there was a pretty interesting discussion in the last post I wrote there about approaching comic books as a writer vs. an artist, and I’d love to see more people sharing thoughts.
Here’s the flash from this week:
Anna arrived at the Laundromat with a basket of clothes already clean, pressed and folded. If anyone had been watching her, they might have noted that she was down to only one basket now, but she didn’t keep a regular schedule, so the same people were unlikely to be there twice.
They were men’s clothes, mostly shirts. A few socks remained, and one or two pairs of pants. There was no underwear. Anna loaded them into the washer and took off her jacket. She had a tank top on underneath, an old one, with a few stray beads dangling down her front. The Laundromat was kept quite cold, to combat the constant heat from the dryers cranking and the washers rolling gallons of hot water around and around. There was florescent light, and the orange glow from the neon outside falling on the orange chairs inside. Anna didn’t bring a book or magazine. She pulled up a chair in front of the washer with her elbows on her thighs, hands stretched out a little toward the plastic, as though she were looking into a fire.
When the washer stopped, she loaded it into the dryer and dragged the chair with one hand across the linoleum to wait.
When all the laundry was dry, Anna pulled it in great hot armfuls from the machine and piled it into her lap. The shirts crushed against her, still almost steaming. In order to fold them, she had to hold each shirt at arm’s length, shaking the wrinkles out and using just her fingers to pinch and flick the shirt into place. For the last fold, the folding of the top half down to rest on the bottom half, she had to bring it back to her lap. Then she stretched forward awkwardly and put the shirt in the empty basket. She did all the clothes this way, her movements growing less awkward as the pile on her lap grew smaller. Then she put the basket in the car.
After twenty minutes of driving, Anna pulled into the parking lot of the Goodwill and stopped the car. She looked at the carton boxes outside the door and for a moment her hands trembled.
“Hush,” she said then, aloud, and opened the door, and pulled out a carton box from the backseat, and left it on the trunk of the car while she got the laundry basket out of the passenger side. She stacked the folded clothes neatly into the box, shirts and pants first, and the socks last, tucked here and there into the crevices between piles. Anna carried the box to the closed doors, set it down with the others, and took a step back. Then she removed one of the shirts from the box. It was blue flannel, soft around the collar, with lint pills at the elbows and around the buttonholes. Anna shook it out and pulled it on. Though the drive had been long enough and the air outside was cool, she imagined she could still feel the last ghost of dryer heat in the cloth, warm like breath.
I got my first flame comment this week! The email address was long and spammy-looking, so I’m not going to put it through (I don’t want to end up with loads of spam about Dell or watches or what have you), but the commenter expressed disappointment that I was whining about a problem I could easily solve if I wasn’t here on my blog, “looking for attention.”
It’s a fair point. My post last week wasn’t a great read, and I was whining about something as silly and frustrating as being too tired to finish writing a story, when I clearly had enough time to blog something about it. I could make all kinds of excuses about how it’s easier to write blog posts sentence by sentence in work downtime than stories, which I typically reread and mull over while I write, but that’s beside the point.
The point is that when I created this space, I wanted a place where I could recharge myself, be inspired, and hold myself accountable when I needed to. It’s a way to make it “official” that I’m writing, and thinking like a writer as often as I can. It’s been working better than I’d even hoped. I’m discovering new and exciting people, writing regularly (even if never as much as I’d ideally want to do), and making real, measurable progress. Getting comments–positive or negative–is the kind of tangible feedback that reminds me that ultimately I can’t just write for myself, but I have to hold myself accountable to others as well.
I was too tired again this morning to haul myself out of bed to write, so as soon as I had a few free minutes at work, I started working on the flash fiction idea that occurred to me in class Tuesday night. The story’s sitting in my inbox now, fresh and warm and 559 words–meeting my daily word goal. I can pretty much promise I wouldn’t have written it without this blog and my goal to have a story posted every Friday.
Even when I’m tired, even when I use this space to whine instead of put out interesting stuff, I’m learning to do something. Be flexible, show up, take criticism, let strangers read what I write, experiment. I’m getting to bring what I learn in classes into my day-to-day, one step at a time.
Give or take a few hours, NaNoWriMo kicks off in a week! I’m definitely nervous–I don’t have copious amounts of time, and my ideas are sketchy at best–but there’s something about this writing community that makes me want to be a part of it regardless.
The plan this year is to crank out 50,000 worth of short stories. I’d say, “as many as possible,” but that logic train goes the direction of 500 100-word drabbles, when I’d rather have a mix of longer and shorter stories.
Beyond that, not too much to share. Class is kicking into high gear. I’ve got about 40 pages left to read in Light in August (Faulkner: pretty cool guy. Glad we’re reading him), one other book for next week, and then I get to swing into two translations of Madame Bovary in preparation for the final translation project. I’m slowing down on fiction to save lots of ideas for NaNo, and getting ready to throw a Halloween bash at the church on Sunday. I even had time to make an artichoke tortilla, which came out golden and beautiful. Life’s good, autumn is great, and as soon as I get a chance I’ll post properly about NaNo prep or the amazing stuff I’m reading or interior design or something, but for the moment I’m going to head outside and take a moment to breathe.
Feeling a bit better about the writing than I was before. I finished the draft of that story I was working on, drafted an article for Dumb Little Man and a post for the Canaries, and put together a flash for today. In honor of the impending holiday, it’s a ghost story (of sorts):
The Egyptian Mau is widely acknowledged to be the breed that’s closest to the cats the ancient Egyptians worshipped back in 5,000 B.C. They’re small-boned cats, gray, dark-spotted (the only breed to have spots). On their foreheads, you can see a pattern of stripes like a tabby’s. The ancient Egyptians thought it was the sign of the sacred scarab beetle—the dark smudge of the body, the angled stripes of the legs and antennae—making the cat doubly holy.
My Egyptian Mau is named Gregg, because the spirit of my ex has possessed it. Gregg licks the ash out of the ashtray and won’t touch tuna. He likes steak, seared rare on the stove. Doesn’t mean he gets it all the time. After his last life, having to eat a few bowls of kibble is what he deserves, and that’s being generous. He’s got the same walk he used to have, too, but he hulks less at 8.5 pounds than he did at 225.
Sometimes I get angry, when I come home from work and see Gregg outside. I should be the one pissing on fences and sunning myself all day. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I brought home a dog. Mostly, though, it’s okay, this relationship we’ve got now. At least I’m not the one waking up every day with a giant dung beetle drawn on my face.
I wrote on Sunday, which is good. I’m almost finished with the draft of story I’m working on, which is better. But for the last several work days, I haven’t been able to pull myself out of bed to write.
My schedule hasn’t changed. I’m working the same hours, have roughly the same amount of homework, run the same errands that I have been. It’s just that when the alarm has sounded at 7:05 or 7:15, I’ve burrowed back into the blankets instead of jumping (fine, crawling) out of bed, fresh words on my mind. And by the time I get home after working a full day and making sure I have food in the house or not too many library fines or talking myself into a quick workout, I really want to hang out for a while without doing anything that can be checked off a list.
I’m sorry, I know I’m whining. If it’s important to me to finish this story, I should take half an hour of my evening, sit down, and finish the darn thing. My body, for whatever reason, needs a little more sleep, and I should be reworking my schedule to accommodate both hitting the snooze button and getting a few hundred words written. I’m just irked to hit a bump in the schedule that was working so beautifully.
The day after I finished the last treatment to bleach away the port wine stain that had covered half my face, Max broke up with me.
“I thought I’d like you better without it, too,” he said, tracing the oval of my face with one finger. But the corners of his mouth sagged. He used to trace the edges of the puzzle piece imprinted into my skin. I’d always thought he did it out of disappointment, the way I couldn’t help but tug at stray threads in the seams of a new coat.
“I’m happier now,” I reminded him. I’d thrown out the last of my foundation, thick as pancake batter, and a folder stuffed with bitter poems about masks.
“You haven’t been going to your poetry circle, either.”
“It was catharsis,” I said. “I’m starting a Sylvia Plath-free chapter of my life.”
“That’s not the point.” Max pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes. “What happened to the bitter, ugly girl I fell in love with?”
From what I can tell, there are two primary schools of thought on writing: writing as vocation and writing as craft. The Vocation-ists see writing as an unteachable art, an unstoppable force that consumes the writer. Writers talking earnestly about their Muse, characters who talk to them and stories that “write themselves” are, more often than not, Vocation-ists. Inspiration rules.
The Crafters see writing as a teachable skill, a practice in which careful study of other works can teach a writer how to write his or her own. Writers talking about getting your butt in the writing seat no matter what, writing “exercises” to sharpen dialogue or strengthen plot formation, or selling “writing coaching” are probably Crafters. Diligence and perseverance are their keywords.
This would all be perfectly well and good if the two camps could just say, “Well, what works for you doesn’t work for me, but you go ahead and rock out doing your thing and I’ll rock out doing mine.” Unfortunately, this is the Internet, and what tends to happen more often is you get people suggesting that there is a fundamental difference between Writers and People Who Write.
There is no difference between Writers and People Who Write, unless by People Who Write you mean People Who Send Postcards Sometimes And Jot Down Phone Numbers And Grocery Lists. There are certainly thoughtful and thoughtless writers, even good and bad writers. But to draw a distinction between Writers (read, “real” writers) and People Who Write is to reinforce a kind of exclusivity and snobbishness about what it is to be a writer.
The snobbishness goes both ways, by the way. Vocation-ists sneer at the word monkeys churning out lifeless prose, expecting something as chimerical and unpredictable as a good story to trot out patiently because you’re knocking words together. In their mess of outlines, they wouldn’t trust a good, spontaneous inspiration if it bit them. Crafters roll their eyes right back at the Inspiration Fairies who won’t touch the keyboard unless the sky is pink and the writing desk is sprinkled in pixie dust. When they do get an idea, they start wailing about characters not doing what they want them to, as if the y, the authors, are not the ones writing the damn thing in the first place.
The problem is that, in either case, the snobs are looking only at the writers on the other side doing the bad writing. Vocation-ists are ignoring Margaret Atwood, Terry Pratchett, Ray Bradbury, and countless others who write phenomenal, imaginative work by getting their butts in their chairs every day. Crafters are ignoring Lewis Carroll or Frank L. Baum, whose literature began as a whim to amuse children, or James Joyce, who definitely didn’t learn by stacking up what came before, but rode his own crazy muse.
The other problem is that if you read too much into writing as craft or writing as vocation, you’ll start to believe that false dichotomy. Writers don’t have to be one or the other. I’m a believer in striving for a daily writing habit, regardless of inspiration. I believe exercises are helpful and shitty first drafts are inescapable, except for a select few who have been writing for so long and have it so much under their skin that even first drafts are (at least to the rest of us) pretty good. I’m also a believer that there’s more to writing than studying successful writers and copying what they do. Sometimes if I don’t write for a couple days I get antsy and irritable, and writing a story soothes a side of me that has nothing to do with diligence and box-checking. I don’t always review my blog posts before I hit “Submit,” but I put thought into what I write, and I always revise my stories and poetry before anyone else sees them. I don’t fit neatly into either extreme camp when it comes to writing, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to dismiss me as just a “person who writes” because I’m not inspired or disciplined or professional enough.
As far as I’m concerned, a writer is someone who writes, and who cares about what he or she is writing. It’s that simple.
Important Note: The following post contains very mature (but not graphic) content, and MAJOR spoilers for The Kid by Sapphire. If you’re sensitive to rape or interested in reading The Kid, don’t read this post.
We all here? Braced yourselves? Good.
I have a bone to pick with you. It’s about The Kid. I know you’re edgy, and poetic, and that you like unflinching looks at poverty and abuse, but enough is enough.
Listen, I loved Push (even if I keep calling it Precious in my head, due to seeing the movie before reading the book). We all loved Push. You took an obese, illiterate girl, pregnant by her father and forgotten by the world around her, and demanded that we recognize how precious she was. Her journey to learn to read and write at Each One Teach One was one of independence and empowerment. We watched her confront racist and homophobic attitudes she had held, realize gracefully that she had been wrong about others, and find strength in the realization that many others had underestimated her as well. Precious was kind and brave, reflective and irrepressible. By the end of the book, we knew she was destined to die young of AIDS, but we also got to see her rescue her children, establish her own community/family, and claim her worth as a woman, student, mother, and friend. She was an inspiration.
Then, in the opening pages of The Kid, we saw her funeral, not realizing this was also the funeral of everything she had stood for. Listen, I understand that the “gritty reality” suggests that one success story won’t change a corrupt system or society, but I have to protest how you handled the story of this family. I was saddened when Abdul had to be placed into foster care, heartsick when an emotionally troubled child beat him badly enough to cause permanent damage, and devastated when Abdul is sexually abused in both the foster home and Catholic orphanage where he was supposed to be safe. I was disgusted, however, when he began molesting other children.
Here is the thing, Sapphire. I know that in reality, the abused often grow up to be abusers. It’s ugly, but it happens. I can understand that if you want to portray something “real,” you need to address this. However, we’re still in the realms of the literary, and the poetic. As your protagonist, Abdul is more than a person. He is the manifestation of what the story stands for. If you draw a connection between the woman who rose above her own abuse and the son who was raped and went on to rape children, over and over, with no sense of remorse, then you negate the literary idea that you had established in Push. You are telling me that there is no point in working to overcome abuse, because as soon as you are gone the cycle picks back up where it left off, with relish.
Also, I want to express that at a certain point, even something as terrible as rape takes on an element of parody. Abdul was raped by a priest. Tough? Well, Precious was raped by her father and pregnant at 12. Abdul’s great-grandmother sees the challenge and raises it by being raped and pregnant at 10. Precious gave birth to her first baby in the kitchen with her mother kicking her? Fine. Great-grandma gave birth to her first baby in a field with several people kicking her. It starts to feel like a matter of, “oh, you think you’ve got it bad? Wait ’til you hear this…” In a scene where Great-Grandmother Toosie is telling Abdul more than he wants to hear, he stands up and starts frantically masturbating over the kitchen table, and it feels more like a pornographic version of Dueling Banjos than anything “real.” You seem to assume any character in your book was raped, and it’s only a matter of time and pages before we get a vivid account, but by the time we hear Abdul’s adult friends confessing their molestation stories, our response is verging on “So what?”
Maybe your point is to desensitize us to it, but if that’s the case then I’m wondering again what you hope to achieve by doing so.
Okay, so then we’re supposed to regain our sympathy for Abdul the Unremorseful Child Rapist because now he can dance. African dance, ballet, he’s working hard and getting good at it. Whatever. I don’t care. Here’s why I don’t care, Sapphire: when Precious worked hard at writing, it went along with a change in her character. She transformed, becoming more self-confident and more tolerant. She had her tragedies and she had her flaws and education helped her face both of them. Precious learned about acceptance and real, trusting relationships while she learned to read and write. When Abdul learns to dance he’s still living with an abuser, still insisting he’s “a good kid,” still stunned and angry when one of the kids he raped comes back to confront him. When he thinks about the child whose face he had to press down into a pillow to get his way, he’s still imagining the child liked it. I do not care how good a dancer you are if the body that dances houses that kind of a monster.
Then there’s the ending. I’m a fairly traditionally-minded reader in that I like endings to feel like the natural, inevitable continuation/conclusion of the story. Surprise is lovely, but except in rare circumstances, finding out it was all a dream doesn’t cut it. Fantasy time travel definitely doesn’t cut it. What you’ve opted to do, Sapphire, is give us Door Number 3: The Insanity Plea, and spend the last sixty-some pages in a fugue state where Abdul is in an asylum for (what else? Come on, say it with me!) raping a kid. In the confusing final pages, what I understand to have happened is that the psychoanalyst hears Abdul’s confession of rape, decides he has a fighting spirit, and distracts the orderly to let him make a break for it.
Sapphire, I don’t know what happened to change your work from poignant, devastating poetry about the reality of abuse and the power of humanity to a spewing, mouth-frothing rapefest, but please reverse it. Bring back transformation. Bring back meaning. Bring back the poetry of your characters, instead of wallowing in lavish detail over each instance of unforgivable, unrelenting abuse. Bring back the reason to read your work.
Until then, I remain,
As promised, I have a piece of flash fiction for you this Friday! I am a little hesitant to post it–I was checking out a bunch of strange photography last night and was in a weird place, writingwise–but Andrew assures me I will not completely freak out and alienate all my readers, so I’m going to post it after all.
I’ll Give You Something to Cry About
It is our most sacred promise to each other. He leaves for hours, sometimes days, without telling me where he is going or how long he will be gone. When he comes back he hides baby animals in my house, wounded and dying. He finds them hurt already. The teeth marks aren’t his. I am positive.
Baby rabbits lie curled in my shoes. I feed them milk out of an eyedropper. I chew sunflower seeds and raw pork fat and spit it into the mouths of the baby birds he leaves on china saucers on my table. They die anyway.
In return, when he is home, I put my earbuds in his ears. “This is the song that played in the car the last time you spoke with your father,” I tell him. “This is the song the girl you loved danced to the night she got married. This is the song that played incessantly on the radio the summer you got blistering acne on your back and chest and got banned from the neighborhood pool.”
When one of us starts to cry, we cheer each other on. “Remember your breathing,” we say. “Pull deep, from the diaphragm. Try not to cough.” He pounds my back just below the ribcage, demonstrating proper rhythm for sobs. Sometimes I have bruises. When he cries, I wrap my arms around him from behind and squeeze his lower belly. His stomach hair bristles under my nails. His snot drips on my wrists. We hand each other water bottles so we won’t get headaches.
In a perfect world, we would sit all day on the wood floors in our dark apartment and cry together for days at a time, pausing only for water or sleep or sex. As it is, we find what time we can and send letters for the rest. “A little blood came out of its beak just before it died,” I write in the notes I tuck in your glove compartment. “I drank coffee outside. The freesias will be blooming soon.” “Your thumb in my navel is a fishhook,” you write back. “My father says happy birthday.”