All art copyright Ernesto Barbieri 2014
Start with two shapes. They’re odd shapes; they aren’t really ovals or semicircles. They look almost like gravestones, don’t they?
Move the shapes further apart, and set the shape on the left at an angle. Notice how the shape on the left — despite being the exact same dimensions (1 in. x 1 in.) as the shape on the right — looks slightly smaller when tilted to this angle. Isn’t that weird?
Take the straight line from the shape on the right (Shape 2) and shift it upward just slightly. And since the shape on the left (Shape 1) appears unfairly smaller than Shape 2, let’s compensate for that by taking the same-length line and bending it around the side of Shape 2, to give it some heft.
Draw a line through the bottoms of Shapes 1 and 2. This gives our picture perspective, depth and connectivity.
Add some circles and dots.
A picture is coming into focus. Shape 1 is a wedge of cheese, and Shape 2 looks kind of like a mousehole.
Don’t those circles and dots look a bit too neat and clean? Rough them up a little. And take a bite out of the chunk of cheese. You’ve earned it.
What do we know from this picture? What can we deduce?
Well, we know there is a mouse, who lives in a hole in the wall, and that he likes cheese. We can also see that he isn’t super crafty, as he’s left a trail of cheese crumbs leading directly through the front door of his home. Or maybe there’s a predator in the vicinity — a cat? an owl? — whose mere existence causes the mouse to frantically take what he can get, and then to scamper back to his hole as quickly as possible. Perhaps the mouse lives in constant fear of this predator, and doesn’t have time to cover his tracks when stealing a morsel of cheese.
And who put the cheese there in the first place? That’s quite a conspicuous place to put a piece of cheese, if you ask me, right there next to a mousehole. Maybe someone — the owner of the home, most likely — deliberately left the cheese out on the floor to lure the mouse out of his hole so that he could be murdered with a broom. This would mean there are two predators in the mouse’s environment, both of them trying to trick the mouse into doing something incredibly stupid yet vitally necessary for his survival. What a terrifying and action-packed life this mouse must lead!
Now draw a third shape (Shape 3) above and to the left of Shape 2 (the cheese). It’s the same as the original two shapes, but oriented horizontally. What on earth could this third shape be doing there?
Draw some straight lines around Shape 3, boxing it in to the corner.
Can you guess what Shape 3 is? If you guessed the lower half of a wall outlet, you guessed correct!
Look away from the picture for a few seconds, maybe take a minute. Maybe take an hour. Eat a salad, watch some football. Check Facebook. Then come back to it with fresh eyes.
Something is “off” about the picture. It’s not properly scaled. The wedge of cheese should be bigger. There’s no real foreground, no sense of motion or depth.
The picture is flat.
Put down pen.
Now go back and look at each image from Steps 1 through 9. Forget, for a moment, that they are “steps” in a narrative sequence, and try to evaluate each picture on its own merit.
Then tell me: Which is the most compelling image?
* * *
I’d argue that the most compelling image is the one from Step 6. That’s the one that got me thinking about the mouse, and the soulful life he must lead, and the insults to his existence that he must face every day. I also like the white space above the two dominant images, how it hints at a larger world that the mouse is not a part of, a world that is both dangerous and empty. But then, I am a strange man who drinks alone, and there is no right answer to this question. Most people probably determined that the final image was the most compelling, and that’s cool. Some people might even like the first image best, seeing in it something ominous and beautiful and blank, the twin tombstones of a married couple, two deaths not yet etched out in granite. It’s not something we have to argue about, because finding the exact most compelling image was never the point of this exercise.
* * *
The point of all of this is to write good fiction. I’m not talking about the kind of fiction taught in MFA programs and published in The New Yorker, treacly and strained, like ketchup passing through a coffee filter. I’m talking about the kind of fiction that people might actually freely consume, and share with their loved ones and friends. You know, like Stephen King writes. And Alice Munro*. And before them: Dostoevsky.
(*Important Note: Alice Munro has been published many times in The New Yorker.)
I think what you do is you begin with two characters, or two places, or two ideas, or two random animals, a mouse and a piece of cheese, whatever. Make them relatable but set them apart from one another, create some distance between them. Give them depth so that they aren’t one-dimensional; or rather, allow the depth and true nature of each character to spontaneously reveal itself. Connect these characters in a meaningful and focused and honest way, a kind of straight line bisecting their otherwise errant trajectories. More details about these characters will emerge, further clarifying the dissonance between them, the horrible choices they must face, the consequences of making or not making those choices, until it becomes clear that they are not just random objects passively inhabiting the same line; they are at war with each other; and through this second layer of detail the real story may be discovered.
Which is just a crafty way of saying that there ought to be some sense of menace to your work. It doesn’t have to be as cinematic or intrusive to the plot as a sadistic ex-husband or Voldemort or an alien robot dinosaur (although that would be cool); in fact the “menace” may never be seen or even alluded to; its existence may be merely implied.
What is absolutely vital is that something more is at stake than the psyche of your main character. There must be some mystery, some horror, some wonder to the endeavor, an opportunity for the reader to use his or her imagination, to fill in the blanks, as it were.
Because really, in the end, who cares if a mouse gets a piece of cheese?
* * *
When all of this is done, you may add to your story color and shading and all the finishing touches your heart desires, knowing that you’ve built your story on solid ground, and are well on your way to creating polished, professional-grade fiction (you’re welcome). Now it is time to share your work with the world. Send your story to your legions of rabid fans, of whom you have precisely one, and she is your mother. Email it to your ex. Try to fishhook an agent with a sharp and colorful query. Put it in an envelope and send it to a magazine. And wait for the money to fall out of the sky.
The first thing I noticed, whole minutes later, was the glass on the floor of the kitchen.
At first I assumed it was ice, that I’d spilled a drink the night before, perhaps the final drink of the night — perhaps, as I routinely and comically continue to think, the final drink I might ever take.
But then, wouldn’t the ice have melted by now? I peeled back the curtain and saw a baseball-sized hole in the window of my kitchen door. Right above the deadbolt. Which was presently unlocked.
* * *
The next few hours are kind of a blur. I remember screaming various and increasingly creative expletives into a pillow. I remember a burglary detective fruitlessly dusting for prints while nimbly deducing that I had, in all likelihood, been robbed by “some tweaker.”
I remember sleeping with a baseball bat under my bed for several weeks. I remember obsessing over the idea that someone would break into my apartment while I slept and set me on fire. I remember dusting off my old Smith Corona typewriter and realizing it was out of ribbon and the “S” button stuck and thinking, “Fuck it, I’ll just be a painter.”
* * *
I started this blog in October of 2012 — a year ago and some change. It was a naked and cynical attempt to build an online following in advance of what was sure to be a massive book deal. I had just signed on with my agent.
In the interim between starting this blog and cashiering this theoretical, massively lucrative book contract, I did things. Accomplished some things. People things. I read books, went swimming. I checked out that coffee shop in Polish Hill I’d been promising to check out. I got screwed. I found a job where I think I am liked, or at least tolerated, by my coworkers; I made a few friends and managed not to fuck up my life with a DUI or an unwanted pregnancy; I ate organic food and shopped for seeds at the farmers market and tended my weeds and pretended to not let things bother me; and I guess you could call that happiness.
And yet, I knew something was off-kilter in my life; some cultural madness was going on that I should not be a part of; and this spiritual malaise seemed to stem from the fact that my laptop had become my primary window to the world, and this may not have been an altogether healthful thing.
* * *
Louis C.K. did this thing on Conan recently, in which he talks about the “toxic” effect smartphones have on children. He suggests that the emotional anonymity of the text message and tweet — and the ensuing inability to interface with the world in any meaningful way — has robbed our children of “empathy.”
He goes on to describe how he broke down in tears in his car after hearing Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” on the radio. He talks about resisting the urge to “check” his phone, and simply allowing the “sadness” to “visit” upon him.
He refers to this feeling of acute, profound sadness as “a trip” and “poetry.”
* * *
Two days ago and some change, a friend of mine — one of only two true geniuses I have ever met — was hit by a train. He had just been released from a halfway house, and there’s some debate as to whether the train hit him or rather more accurately he threw himself in its crosshairs.
His father was at the airport, on his way to Myrtle Beach, when he got the phone call. There’d been an accident, his son might not make it through the night. I learned about it on the news. Two “homeless men” had wandered onto the train tracks. The men were “heavily intoxicated.” As if that needed explaining.
To say my friend is fucked up is a bit like saying the Challenger mission went just a little bit bad. He has massive left-sided trauma, bilateral lung contusions, pulverized legs, a brain bleed. This morning he underwent a craniotomy and tracheostomy. He still does not respond to painful stimuli, but doctors are “hopeful” he will recover neurologically. In any case, he will be having his ass wiped for him for at least the next 3 months. That is if he’s lucky.
I am no stranger to death. Not only have I seen people die; I have assisted in the process. I recognize and accept his grim prognosis. Still, I’m hopeful that he will pull through, that he starts squeezing hands and wiggling toes. I look at his broken, baggy body, and I know that he is in there. I can sense it, like the presence of a just-vacated criminal in an apartment that is no longer safe. But can you ever really know?
Some people just have It — that implacable ability to make a person feel special, to inspire you to take bold action, to fill your head with the idea that if you take a chance, and hitch your star to their wagon, anything is possible.
Cream city review is clearly in possession of this kind of magic, because, despite this dehumanizing and somewhat insane rejection letter, I find myself craving a future correspondence with them. A distinctive literary style that cannot be conveyed through description? WHERE DO I SIGN UP.
Oh, that’s right … just below. Because cream city review has decided to use my postage to advertise their subscription rates. Now, that’s ace!
It’s hard to know what was going through my mind when I submitted here, it was years ago, times were different, we were in two wars, certain bubbles had not yet burst, I’m a bit hazy on the details but I’m willing to bet it had something to do with me being a fucking moron.
What I think happened is, the older brother had talked to the younger brother about building a bomb, and the younger brother was like, yeah sure, Islam, and maybe he was smoking weed at the time. Then one day the older brother came over with an extra backpack and said, here, you have to do this, and the younger brother didn’t really want to do it, he valued human life and stuff, but he’d talked so much shit to his friends and on the twitter that he was able to think, in that moment, hey, it’s really just a simple matter of moving an object a few feet, give or take, from point A to point B, and just leaving it there, not even really doing anything, not even looking inside the backpack, it had seemed so small, and weighed so little, and his older brother, who was always kind of a fuckup and a kook, had probably just filled the backpack with a few dozen nails and a computer chip that wasn’t connected to anything and spare parts from an old car and a few tennis balls stuffed with matchsticks that would just kick up some smoke.
Of course what really happened is, the older brother and the younger brother had gone to the big race in Beantown, maybe they had taken the subway, or the T, or whatever they have there in Boston, and they’d dressed in silly costumes and left the backpacks inconspicuously aside a crowd of people, which happened to include an 8-year-old boy, this point being clarified on the news for maximum sadness, and the bomb had gone off, and instead of smoke there was fire, there was chaos, there were people running towards and away from the chaos and fire, there was a cop shot, a car jacked, all of it culminating in the younger brother’s blabbing on the twitter that very night about his being a “stress free kind of guy,” which, good for him, that quality will serve him well on Death Row, where there is sure to be a lot of stress, on his soul, on his stomach, on his digestive tract, all the way down to, or perhaps beginning with, his anus, although it is admittedly difficult to reconcile such a purportedly stress-free ‘tude with such a bloody senseless loss of life and limb.
What I think the younger brother should do is, he should take what really happened and flush it down and away like a dirty bath. Because it doesn’t belong to him anymore, if it ever did, it belongs to us now, and so does he. What he should do, moving forward, because things must always move forward, even in death, which is the ultimate forward move, is he should allow us to write this story for him. And when we do, as we have already begun to, he should smile a bit savagely and give us his best Charlie Manson grin and nod his head and say yes, yes, that is how it happened, I was the mastermind, my older brother the pawn, I hate America and don’t understand Americans and really despise your burgers and fries and your sporting events and your turbo-charged cars and brightly colored running sneakers and those star-spangled banners you just loooove to drag through the air after things like this happen, because if he does this, if he lets us have this, then surely the more religious of us will say, we should allow this madman to live, some things are so pure they must be preserved, and the kooks and the fuckups among us, the nutbag and nitwit contingent, will even lobby for him to go free after a certain measure of time has passed, although, for the vast majority of us, which is to say those of us who were not burned in or around the fire, it will be enough to read about his execution some years from now, and to smile savagely for maximum impact, to take our marching orders from Big Brother, in this way showing him the nature of our mercy.
Yesterday was Easter. I drove with my parents to New Jersey, where most of my family lives. We were driving past a heavily wooded and vaguely menacing area called the Pine Barrens, when they started talking about the Jersey devil, a small, dragonlike creature that apparently inhabits the woods. I thought they were fucking with me, until I looked it up. “Nasty little bugger,” said my dad.
Easter is, of course, a children’s holiday. A time of bunnies and candy and colored eggs. For the adults, we had the season 3 premiere of Game of Thrones.
Over at Huffington Post, Arts Editor Michael Hogan has a blog post up recapping the episode. I found the piece to be affable, if punchless; it passed the time as I gave my grandmother her pills and sat down to eat my breakfast. But, since you can’t do shit on the Internet without the trolls crawling out of the woodwork, the comments section is a veritable free-for-all of geeksnark. A sampling:
It’s unreal that you get to write a recap blog post with out [sic] even a basic comprehension of what is happening on the show and in the episode itself.
The “Knightsguard?” Face palm. This is your job. Can you at least find someone to watch with you who has read the books?
Why someone who has never read the books and can barely follow a storyline gets to write a recap of this awesome show I will never understand. “Knightsguard,” honestly.
Joffrey & Margaery aren’t married yet. They are only betrothed to each other. Please pay attention if you are going to write about the series.
That last point is pretty legitimate. A significant source of tension in the King’s Landing story arc derives from the possibility that Sansa may still marry Joffrey (as illustrated in the Blackwater episode, when Cersei frostily tells Sansa that she’d better learn how to use her pussy as a weapon “if you ever hope to be Queen”). If Joffrey was already married, Cersei would have no use for Sansa, and would likely have her shipped off to Harrenhal.
But these commenters aren’t merely criticizing the errors Hogan made in his haste to publish the piece in the few hours since the episode aired. They’re questioning his right to review the series in the first place.
Because–great God in heaven!–he has not even read the books! How could Hogan, who never even picked up A Storm of Swords, possibly examine the subtlety of that scene in which Jon Snow tricks Mance Rayder into accepting him into the wildling army? Why does he “get to” write these recaps?
Said the trolls. The fun continued on Twitter:
Look, it’s not unreasonable to expect an executive editor at a major news outlet to avoid these sorts of mistakes. An editor shouldn’t need an editor. (And I think Hogan is nerd-baiting a little bit here by admitting that he hasn’t read the books and is using A Wiki of Ice and Fire as a reference.) But to argue that he–or anyone–is incapable of producing a serviceable recap because he or she hasn’t read the voluminous source material on which the show is based, is ludicrous hyperbole. He’s qualified because he’s an upper-level editor at HuffPost and he wanted the assignment. Believe me, those are all the credentials he needs.
(Note: I’ve been wanting to use that awesome rejection slip from AGNI–with the badass monkeydragon on its letterhead–since forever, and what better excuse than the GoT premiere? I’m trapped in Philadelphia until tomorrow, I am full of ham, and I think I may be acutely withdrawing from various substances. So, there you have it.)
I have received “notes” on a rejected story precisely once, from Leading Edge magazine.
Leading Edge is, of course, the student-run science fiction journal based out of Brigham Young University. Per their submission guidelines:
Stories with sex, profanity, excessive violence, or that belittle traditional family values or religion will not be considered … We will not edit works that include sex, homosexual content, graphic violence, heavy drug use, excessive profanity…
I wonder if there is some weird Orson Scott Card connection at play here. Card, you will no doubt recall, in addition to being a raving lunatic and out-and-out bigot, is a noted alumnus of Brigham Young U.
For whatever reason, I decided to send my 10,000-word story “Wombie” to Leading Edge. Some weeks later, I received six pages of notes in the mail. A sampling:
These notes, clearly written by college students, provide a window into the minds (and perhaps souls) of my prospective young Mormon reader base. Some highlights:
Consider cutting out some of the expletives.
I will do no such fucking thing.
They aren’t necessary and detract from the story.
Indeed they are, and they do not. Also: fuckfart.
page 20 — since Chrissy’s name hasn’t been mentioned since the beginning of the story, I had forgotten who she was at first. Maybe say “her daughter, Chrissy” here or mention her name more often throughout the story.
(vigorously simulating tugjob)
on page 23, the description of the animal uses such advanced words that I have a hard time picturing the animal. Could you use more common body part terms?
The biggest word on that page is “intestines.”
I like how you show Dr. Sarvas’ character, it is quite easy to pick up on his dry humor, pissimistic (sic) outlook on life, and slightly egocentric personality.
“Pissimistic” is my new favorite word. Kolledge kids say the darndest things!
The beginning is rather slow, not much to put the reader in with
The story begins with an 80-pound rodent being wheeled into a veterinarian’s office leaking slime from its anus.
The climax is well paced with the bug popping out, attacking the cow, then trying to escape while the Doctor tries to kill it.
Very interesting idea to have the invading alien race implanting themselves in native species.
Is there any special significance to the alien “Eie” call stuff? Is it just what they say, their vocalizing sound?
When reading these notes, I imagine a room full of buttoned-up 19-year-old virgins, all crewcuts and good Midwestern manners, beginning each workshop with a little prayer, and then delving into an earnest and loving discussion of a story in which a giant boll weevil dissolves a cow with its corrosive saliva, and it warms my rotten heart.
By Sharon Stephenson
So here’s how it goes down for the wannabe in nonfiction. Actually, most of the process is exactly the same as for the poet and the fiction writer. We just have fewer places to send our work, and therefore, less variation in our rejection letters. With knots in our bellies, we still send out our essays and manuscripts either by snail mail or through some online submission portal. I prefer putting my weird literary creature and its stuffy little cover letter into a manila envelope. I walk to the post office and buy enough postage to ferry my beloved envelope off to a literary magazine like The Sun, a North Carolina-based class act that does not accept online submissions, period. But if I just submitted to those stately gentlemen of the literary world who only accept manila envelopes sealed with my DNA-rich saliva, I would be cutting of my published nose to spite my publishable face.
Every writer has Submittable bookmarked, since Submittable is the online giant for getting your nonfiction up onto someone else’s screen. However, the only writers who don’t hate Submittable are those currently not getting medication for their obsessive-compulsive disorder, because if you just take a quick glance below–hell, the font is so teeny you can’t even read it–all you see is that red word. That word, dear friend, is “Declined.” The “Accepted” is a pleasant old-growth forest green, but who cares? The thin-skinned writer only sees red, the color of rejection.
A few places accept either online or snail mail submissions. Some of those few also ask that you submit your work only to them because they will get back to you in due course, and you owe them some respect. My conclusion, based on one data point, is that one of these publications is run by Lucifer and his Legion.
Painted Bride Quarterly had a call for submissions to a themed issue on costume. I sent my manila envelope, stuffed with hopes, dreams, a cover letter, and a 3,000 word essay in keeping with their word limit. Six months later, no thumbs up or down, and another literary journal had an open call for a themed issue, also on costume.
Now, I have friends who not only write but get published and make money to boot. Most surprisingly of all, I have friends sit across the desk and select what gets published. (Note: I cannot submit work to these same friends because that’s just weird.) These friends with knowledge, with credentials, said it was entirely cool to email Painted Bride Quarterly and ask them for a status report.
I submitted an essay in hard copy format for the Costume issue in July. I may have inadvertently excluded my SASE. I’m not sure of your reading timeline for Issue #87, but I can resubmit electronically or just rely on the generous spirit of your staff to let me know the status eventually, even if no SASE made its way to your desk.
Pretty sneaky to use the old “I forgot my Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope” excuse, I admit, but I didn’t want to anger Lucifer and his Legion any more than necessary.
Lucifer and his Legion did not respond. My friends in the business shrugged their shoulders. Who can force someone to have manners? A full month later, I emailed again:
Dear Kathleen Volk Miller, Marion Wrenn, and the rest of the Painted Bride Quarterly staff,
Good afternoon. I submitted an essay in hard copy format for the Costume issue (#87) back in July. I may have inadvertently excluded my SASE. I’m not sure of your reading timeline for Issue #87, but in case I did not submit a SASE, do you notify writers who have made such an oversight?
Just a quick reply would be appreciated.
Those who know me would be able to tell that I was mad as hell at this point–the “Just a quick reply would be appreciated” speaks volumes.
A month later, still no reply. I decided to look up a phone number to ring Lucifer and his Legion. I was always checking the Painted Bride Quarterly website, and so I it was easy to pop over to find a phone number. But in the few days since I had last checked, the Painted Bride Quarterly special issue on costume had gone live online, with the print version soon to follow. Of course, my 3,000 word essay was not in the mix. By this time, the deadline for submitting to the other literary journal had passed.
I made no phone call. Instead, I wrote this blog and sent it to Martin. Then, I resubmitted my damn essay.
Sharon Stephenson is currently Chair and Professor of Physics at Gettysburg College. Her literary nonfiction has appeared in The Dead Mule and Real Time. She blogs at www.strangeandcharming.com.
I came home to this letter after a long, hard day at the hospital. It was pressed into the space between my storm door and front door. It reads:
I am sorry I was unable to speak with you personally. I stopped by to share some encouragement from the Bible with you.
You don’t have to be sorry, neighbor. I’m actually quite glad I missed the opportunity to discuss my faith with you–and you should be too.
You don’t get much useful information on this here blog, but I’m feeling generous today, and so I am going to tell you how to get rid of these hostile intruders–swiftly, non-criminally, and with as little effort as humanly possible.
You are going to say a single sentence, and repeat it as many times as necessary until all the Bible beaters in the world slink off into the mists of history. Now clear your throat, look that creepy Mormon dead in the eye, and repeat after me:
“I don’t discuss my faith with strangers.”
The above letter is basically an advertisement for a book called “What Does the Bible Really Teach?” a copy of which currently sits on the back of my toilet, in the event that I find myself entertaining drunk knuckleheads at 3 in the morning, as happens far more often that it should for a man of my age. I was not aware that the contents of the Bible were any more a mystery to the world than the molecular structure of water, but then again, I was raised literate, and my eyes are connected to my brain.
Now, I don’t mean to join the growing chorus of militant atheists who, galvanized by the popularity of intellectual “heavyweights” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are every bit as steadfastly crazy and cruel as your average homophobic, woman-hating evangelist. I don’t mind religious people. I went to a Catholic college. I work at a Catholic hospital. I was an altar boy for ten years. I admire Christians–that is, the nine or ten true Christians who still exist on this planet. And yet, at no point in my Catholic upbringing did I feel the urge to pamphleteer my neighborhood with brochures bearing bitter chestnuts such as this:
WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES: At death, humans cease to exist. “The dead…are conscious of nothing at all,” states Ecclesiastes 9:5. Since the dead cannot know, feel, or experience anything, they cannot harm–or help–the living. –Psalm 146:3, 4.
My God, you people are terrifying. Who said anything about the dead harming the living? That is an even bleaker view of death than the one I currently harbor, and I’ve been suicidally depressed for a record 864 days in a row.
And another thing: Who the fuck goes around ringing people’s doorbells anymore? That is absolutely insane. Were none of you people raised in cities? Doesn’t everyone assume, as I do, that everyone is a murderous cannibalistic necrophiliac until proven otherwise?
Stay away from these nightmare peddlers. I’d tell you to not answer your door at all, but that’s unfair: there may be Girl Scout cookies on the other side. And I would never want you to miss out on some cookies. Alternately, you can do what my friend Stephen used to do in college: invite these weirdos into your kitchen, and encourage them to preach the Good Word while you lovingly stir a pot of hot chocolate laced with LSD.