Suggested Post: The James Patterson Writing MasterClass

21 Jul

Patterson_cropped
^^^This “suggested post” has been popping up on my Facebook newsfeed for the past few weeks. As you can see, it’s an advertisement for a writing “MasterClass” taught by one James Patterson, author of some 147 novels, none of which you have read.

Who is James Patterson? Well, I am glad you asked. Surely you’ve seen his slender glossy novels lining the shelves of your favorite big-box superstore and thought: “That right there looks terrible.” And also: “Boy, that guy must be rich as nuts.”

Indeed, according to Wikipedia, “his novels have sold more copies than those of Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined.” That’s a lot of duckets!

Whatever bots Mark Zuckerberg has at his disposal have apparently scoured my internet searching habits and, in an attempt to advertise at me, reduced them to my three primary interests: books, vodka, and celebrity culture. Surprisingly accurate! What a world we live in.

Thus, the James Patterson Writing MasterClass. The comments section to the Facebook ad is a veritable who’s-who of internet yahoos. It consists almost entirely of five distinct groups. In descending order of representation, they are:

  • People who fucking LOVE James Patterson (overwhelming majority)
  • People who can’t scrape together the $90 fee to take the class … but really want to
  • People who seem to think they are talking directly to James Patterson (subset of first group)
  • Trolls who would like to remind you that James Patterson employs a ghost writer for most, if not all, of his books
  • Garden-variety crazies

A sampling of comments:

Should the objective be writing a best seller? How about an imaginative, well constructed, well written, stimulating, well researched, engaging book?

Hey, can we not?

Is it okay if I skip the class and just write purely for the sake of art and not the pursuit of millions in the bank?

That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.

He is one of the worst writers.

No fucking way I will take your class.

Step one: don’t actually write it yourself

This is my favorite author of all time!

super cool to see this offer. I’m inspired!

^^^This person is inspired to write — just from seeing the offer!

I wish I could express the thoughts/plots in my head on paper.

for some eason, I ws always told i should write i always thought about novels but never cookbooks ,just nrver could decide on what so i didn’t dumb

^^^This person graduated cum laude from the James Patterson Writing MasterClass.

Your awesome James Patterson!!!!!

Five exclamation points.

There isn’t anything I’d like to do any more than this!

Jesus.

Thought about signing up. But I don’t feel comfortable taking classes from someone who doesn’t write his books. I’ve done research and yup … He doesn’t write his books.

Hey there, Internet Inspector Poirot, I’ve got news for you: Not only does James Patterson not write his own books … he probably doesn’t even teach his own fucking class!

James Patterson is financially enlightened.

Can someone take his class in the fall? Does it have a time limit when you can enroll?

It’s a craven money grab, not an accredited college course, dipshit. YOU ARE NOT MATRICULATING.

I appreciate that, Sir, but I got to find my own voice. Thanks, though.

I wish I had the guts to try the course!

You must write the best outlines ever for all those people to help you write those books !

Awesome backhanded compliment. I actually “liked” this comment.

you know i only read your books but i can only read when I’m on a cruise. can you pay for me to go on another three week cruise to whereever so i can read the 4 books i have from you? lol I could read in the car but i always have to drive.

^^^This person is like a breath of Spring blowing up from the south on an otherwise cold winter’s day.

love his books i have almost all of them !

(Personal note: When sending a text message, I often do the same thing with my exclamation points. For some reason, they never quite look right in the iPhone speech bubble, sitting there right next to the last letter of the last word of my poorly socially timed, albeit emphatic declaration, all skinny and creepy and shit. End of side note.)

what’s it cost?

Ninety U.S. dollars.

May I have a scholarship?

Doubt it.

Sounds good to me.

Really?

Wow

WOW.

I need to take this class! I am living a nightmare of a true crime story that needs to be told. Stalking by twin brother predators, double homicides, wrongful arrest, brain injury, 9 years and still fighting for justice. Florida Politics. I believe the only way I will get help is to write it since media is also controlled! I did create a FB page about it, the murders and wrongful arrest was aired on MSNBC that part of it is on youtube. I understand it is tough to do the true story but wow are there many ‘names’ to this story which is why I am not getting any help despite children who should be protected and predators with a history of violence.

Holy shit, man. Someone get this person a Kickstarter. “Twin brother predators.” “Florida Politics.” BRAIN INJURY. I actually went to this person’s YouTube page. She is not joking. Just … holy shit.

If these are the people one meets upon taking the James Patterson Writing MasterClass, then sign me right the fuck up. These are the people I must reach with my writing. These are My People.

And James Patterson is my high holy messiah. James Patterson has hacked the writing code with black magic and “old man monkey strength.” James Patterson’s pen is a machete he uses to slice through the Amazonian bookselling trade like so much nasty ragweed. Long live James Patterson and his ubiquitous, execrable books. I wish I could give him all of my money.

(Cross-posted at my Kinja blog)

Screaming Demons

11 Mar
"a murder" 11x14  acrylic on canvas

“a murder” 11×14 acrylic on canvas

*  *  *

“Since it seems my mission for the day is to waste your time while you feed the men, I might as well tell you about the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me.

“Twelve years ago I was living in Pittsburgh, working odd jobs, just Kerouac-ing around. I was what you might call a ‘jack of all trades.’ But most people — including myself — would probably just call me a junkie.

“I knew all the street people within a twelve-block radius of my crash pad in South Side — most of them were gutter punks, kids from the suburbs — ‘spangers,’ we used to call them — but I also knew all the real street people, people like the Red Hat Lady and Tank Boy and Vinnie the Vet, people with nowhere to go, nothing to do but stand on bridges and scream their demons out into the shapeless grey sky.

“We used to have a soup kitchen on Forbes, just below the 10th Street Bridge, but the churchies complained about the urine on the sidewalk and had the place killed. Shut down the abortion clinic on Penn Ave. too. Gotta love these ‘new Christians.’ Can’t feed a man in the street, but they sure can tell you what to do with your baby cave.

“So one day I’m coming back to my flat with a cup of coffee and I see this woman sitting on my stoop, an old skunk of a woman with black hair down to her feet and a thick stripe of white down the middle. I’d never seen her before. She had a bad stutter. ‘D-d-d-d-do you h-h-have any p-p-p-pennies?’ she said. Now, I knew I didn’t have any change on me. But I had some paper in my pocket. I took out a five-dollar-bill and stuffed it in the old woman’s dress. ‘Here’s five dollars,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup. It’s going to get pretty cold out tonight.’

“It took her a few seconds to register what was happening. ‘Th-th-th-thank y-y-y-you, th-th-th …’ she started to say, and I made a little wave and turned to enter my apartment; and just as I put the key in the lock, I heard, clearly, these three words: ‘Thank you, Johnny.’

“I heard it clear as anything. The stutter was gone, but there was something else, too. It wasn’t the same voice. It had a deeper register, there was this creepy certainty to it. I turned around to face her. The cataracts had cleared from her eyes. She was looking right at me. And she said it again, in that same lucid voice: ‘Thank … you … Johnny.’

“It was my mother. It was my mother. My goddamn dead mother was speaking to me through this homeless woman who’d appeared on my doorstep out of the blue, and suddenly I was sure of it. The old woman shambled off down the street, but I didn’t go into my building — not then.

“Instead, I took what was left of my coffee and walked twelve blocks — that’s how long it took me to shake off this feeling of dread. And during that mile-long hike through the rougher parts of the city, I tried to reconcile what had just happened with my sense of reason, to make sense of it within the context of objective reality. And what I came up with, in the end, was that the woman had said, ‘Thank you, honey,’ and I’d simply misheard her. Sound travels in funny ways through the fog of human perception, and when you factor in all the interference from microwaves and radio towers and cell phone signals, when you think about all those poor, confused birds and their erratic flight patterns, all the aborted thoughts and miscarried prayers that are floating around up there, taking all of this into account, it’s a wonder we are able to communicate with each other at all.

“Maybe I did hear her right. Johnny’s a pretty common name; maybe she called everyone Johnny. But that doesn’t explain the cleared-up cataracts … or how she lost the stutter … or why her voice changed

“You know, this other time back in Pittsburgh, I’m at this party tripping on acid and I couldn’t handle it and I went into the basement to drink a beer and be alone. And as I’m sipping on my beer, the basement door opens, and two feet start coming down the stairs. Boots. Patent leather. Laces all the way up the side. And I think to myself: ‘Those are the devil’s shoes …’ And just as I completed the thought, literally as I thought the word shoes, the two feet turned and trotted right back up the stairs. As if the person who was wearing the shoes had heard me. Which of course was impossible, as I hadn’t actually said anything. And when I went back up to the party there were squatters and buskers and spangers and junkies and all manner of pipefitting riffraff, but no one with shoes matching the ones I’d seen clomping down those squealing wooden steps. Not even close, bub.

“I’ve heard it said that every horrible and charitable thing you’ve ever done in your life, you’ve done it to yourself. I don’t really think that is true, but sometimes, when I’m within shouting distance of sober, I can see it.

“But then it goes away. Nothing lasts forever, I guess.

“Thank you for the soup.”

rej_letters3

A Hallowe’en Poem

28 Oct

long road_charcoal

The Preacher of Pumpkin Patch Lane

by Martin Slag

 *  *  *

The Preacher of Pumpkin Patch Lane had terrible things on his brain.

In a town just a few miles south of obscure
Between Sandalwood Beach and Blueberry Shore
And also in the middle
of Nothing

There was a clearing in the forest
Surrounded by foxglove and stone
And a pumpkin patch
The land made fertile by a nearby bog
Scorched in the shape of an oval
From a U.F.O. landing some hundred years back

Where under a Hunter’s Moon
And floodlights with batteries as big as barns

Through clean black air and rustling vineyards
And over the ghost-whine of baby raccoons

The preacher spoke

His pasty face caked up with make-up
Fat body squeezed into his
Trademark powder-blue suit
And patent-leather shoes
That slithered and glistened like some alien metal

And the people listened

They listened with mirth as he sang, spit, spun
Told tales of the uncommon and the uncomfortable
He spoke of death and depression
As if these were old friends
Owing him large debts
Of droughts and famines and earthquakes and tsunamis
He warned of werewolves and warlocks and zombies
Of dark winds and other dread things

He gave them recipes
He taught them new math
He showed them how to set their clocks
So that it was never midnight
And how the wizards made their foul chowder
Using goatsmilk as a base (one must never allow
Their children to drink from the tits of a goat)
For this—it was well-known—was another ingredient
In the Conjurer’s vile broth

He told them which part of the rhubarb to eat
And which parts were deadly poison
And which parts were merely awful
And where to put this and where not to put that
And what kind of nip to feed to your cat
And also how to tell if your tomatoes were ripe
And when to tuck your children in at night
And what you could put in your pipe—and how to smoke it

“Do not let your wives indulge in tattoos,”
Said this creature in the blue suit
And shiny black shoes,
“Or else they will run off with warrior-dwarfs
And their children will fall from the womb
With heads like turnips”

“Protect your lot,” he said
“With red paint to stave off rot
Slay your livestock once each season
You don’t want to give wolves a reason
To kidnap your pigs”

He went on like that for a while
Never cracking a smile
Standing on the stump of an old fat Oak that he may have cut down himself

Until, as bats emerged from their caves
There arrived a woman named Hester
Wearing only one shoe, and a nightgown
And though she was obviously mentally ill
The crowd did not move to molest her
As she split the congregation like a drill cutting into a board

And there—
Where the preacher gave his sermon
Hands raised in praise
By witness of the sanguine moon and the
Baseball-stadium lights—

The woman stepped onto the stage

“Assault!” cried a man in the audience
As the crazy woman reared back her arm
To strike the poor preacher

“I said what I’d do if you came here alone,”
Said the woman in the lily-white robe
“I’d flog you in front of the village—I said it!
These people aren’t your playthings
Although I give you credit
For putting on this hypnotic display
Your sermons are more fun than monkeys at play
But lacking in some utterly crucifiable way
For if they only knew
What ridiculous things you do
In your hours away from the stump”

“Left alone in the world you would barely survive
For an hour—and yet
You’ll tell all the world how to care for their pets
And what color paint to use on their barns
But you can’t even pick up your own room
You haven’t yet learned how to operate a broom
Nor mastered the toilet, the shower, the stove
Or the kettle—how could you?

“You’re only five”

The villagers came forth to challenge the woman
“He saved us from eating wizard’s pudding,” they said
“And from boiling the leaf of the rhubarb—
Without him we’d all be dead

“He taught his elders history
And our children manners
He helped us salvage our crops
And restored our appreciation of cats
And got us to string up that weird schoolmarm
Who was involved in all manner of wicked’ry”

“Superstition!” cried the woman,
“The stuff of a child’s bad dreams
Of wet beds and thrashing, moon-lit screams
You ought to be shamed for encouraging him
You all know my son is a simpleton

“It isn’t so hard to take care of your plants
One hardly needs prayer circles, potions, chants
You need only science, and patience
And care
You preen them, you feed them, you sprinkle their roots
With chemicals to make the fruit grow fat
And when the rain comes you allow them to drink—
Did you think it was any more mystic than that?

With that the woman stepped into the switchgrass
And led her son home by kicking his ass

In the Winter there came a freeze
Like none the village, or the world, had seen
And yet no one starved—his mother was right

They were only pumpkins

But without any witches or wizards to fear
The people stopped slaughtering their steer
And slicing up their pigs
And milking their goats
And pulling their crop
And feeding their cats
And smoking their pipes
And tending their plants
Until there was nothing left in the village
But rhubarb

Months, seasons slipped by
Then years
The Moon made its cycles
Some starved; others thrived

The preacher returned to the village
One Hunter’s moon
His face full but not fat
Blond hair turned jet-black and grown out
To fall beneath his shoulders

He’d come here on a lark
On leave from University—wanting to see
What had become of his pulpit

The baseball lights were covered in moss
Inhabited by thirsty birds
Making them look like huge metal scarecrows

The foxglove was gone, and so were the stones
Having been picked clean by robbers
And would-be assassins

The steamy bog with its bullfrogs remained and
So did the raccoons, and the caves full of bats

The stump was rotted out and caked in bird scat
Though he stepped onto it anyway

His tiny powder-blue suit was stashed away
In a box in an attic in an old house in the middle of Nothing
The patent-leather shoes that were once his prize
Having been lost in a flood and sent down Main Street
On a massive trash-strewn wave

He opened his mouth to speak
For the first time in fifteen years
In a voice that only the bullfrogs could hear

And he himself heard nothing

In a town just a few miles south of obscure
Somewhere west of Blueberry Shore
In a clear in a wood over which banshees once flew
And dark winds once blew
Now, splashed across the forest floor
Was a sea of roots and calcified chutes
Vines of pumpkin which grew
And still grew
But blossomed no more

Art & Words copyright Ernesto Barbieri 2014

Creature Comforts

13 Oct
Faust_painting

“Faust” by William Henry Margetson (1885)

(I was asked by Grey Matter Press — who published my story “Wombie” in their fantastic Equilibrium Overturned anthology — to blog about the nature of evil, and how it relates to my writing process. Be sure to check out the work of my fellow contributors over at the Grey Matter blog.)

*  *  *

It is said that if you want the reader to dislike a character in a story, make him harm an animal.

Classic example: Man comes home from work, kicks the family dog. Pretty bad — but is that really the best (or worst) we can drum up in our collective imaginations?

We harm animals every day, after all — we stomp spiders, swat flies, shoot at squirrels when they invade our strawberry gardens; we are complicit in the murder and torture of animals simply by breaking eggs into a pan and frying some bacon; we do all of this before breakfast.

We harm each other, too — by backbiting and gossiping and bullying. With words and with weapons — by carpetbombing huge tracts of desert for no good reason. All the little acts of unkindness we do to each other, all those times we were too busy to say hi to the bum on the street, or to pick up the phone and call a sick relative. All the horrors of all the wars being fought for the rich. A thing called scaphism which I dare you to look into. Racism. Duplicity. Genocide.

And yet the swiftest, most accessible route to eliciting a feeling of “evil” in the reader is the old punt-the-puppy trick.

* * *

“The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” — Jonathan Franzen

I have two rules for writing. The first rule is that a book is not a static, solid object; not an ornament on a shelf, not a collection of pages bound by leather and twine. It is a thing of motion, with a revving engine behind it. Sometimes with the whole force of nature behind it: a hurricane. A thing swapped easily between friends, and among cultures, passed down through generations as if by osmosis. For a book to succeed, it has to move.

The other rule involves a Creature.

* * *

The Creature is the road disappearing beyond the horizon. It is the thing the story is chasing. It is the wonder to the endeavor, the mystery, the magic. It is the horror hiding in the closet. The shark swimming underneath the surfboard. The Creature may just be a general sense of menace, encroaching upon the lives of bracingly bland people, such as you will find in Franzen’s The Corrections or Alice Munro’s better stories. In David Cronenberg’s film The Fly — still one of the greatest influences on my writing — the Creature is an actual creature named “Brundlefly” … but the caves of literature are painted with the faces of rawer, and yet somehow more grotesque creatures, creatures with names like Fagin, Lear, Voldemort, Mephistopheles. Character and conflict are all good and fine, and sometimes even dandy, but the Creature is why we really turn the pages. Why we keep our foot on the gas. Why we plow through the bridge rail. Why we drown.

* * *

“My definition of evil is unfriendliness.” — Muhammad Ali

(Not lost on me: that the man who said the above quote was paid to punch other men in the face, in a rather unfriendly fashion.)

But evil is not a punch to the face, or a bullet to the brain, or a man sleeping with another man’s wife, or murdering his best friend, or selfishness or avarice or psychopathy or even unfriendliness.

Evil is indifference.

Indifference to the sad, paunchy man who comes to work every day and does his job and does it well and eats shit from his coworkers and boss, and then goes home and polishes his guns. Indifference to the girl with a bow in her hair that makes her feel pretty for five minutes before her father comes along and snatches the bow right off the top of her head, and crushes it under his boot. Indifference to all the things we crush under our boots, merely by walking along.

All of which is to say that if you want the reader to dislike you … be indifferent to her. Fail to seduce her. Ignore her, for even one sentence, one second, and she will go away, because the opposite of love, in the end, is not hate; and the opposite of good is not evil: it’s indifference.

* * *

The Creature in my story “Wombie” is a large, goofy-looking rodent with an unknown organism growing inside of it. Our protagonist is a man named Dr. Ethan Sarvas, whose task it is to identify the parasite, and to take radical action once he realizes its horrific intent. He does this not out of professional obligation or even a vague sense of duty to his own species, but out of sheer dumb curiosity. Which is to say: out of love.

I like doing this — giving my characters impossible problems that they have to solve for me, and handicapping them with cynicism and cowardice. I’m partial to broken characters who find themselves acting bravely at the absolute worst moments. I enjoy putting them into the lobster pot with snakes and spiders and scorned lovers and loaded weapons and apparitions from beyond, and cranking up the flame. I even harm some animals in the process. I do this because to spare the creature, to treat it gently, to euthanize it prematurely, would be to rob the reader of the gift of Caring — and what could be more sinister than that?

Buy the book:

Equil_Overturned

Pitter Patter

31 Aug

mothers day_1

 

Like a lot of folks who survived the Great Depression, my grandmother squirreled things away. When she died two months ago, we found it in her basement, the spoils of a life spent pinching pennies and canning homegrown vegetables: handmade baskets that were used to sell apples on dusty roads in the 1920’s; moldy newspapers announcing the murders of JFK and RFK, the assaults on Pearl Harbor and Manhattan; all the letters and cards that I’d written to her over the years.

The mindset of the hoarder is vastly at odds with the psychology of the Modern Person, which dictates that things should be hastily prepared and consumed, photographed and posted to social media, and then forgotten as a sneeze is forgotten. The Collector’s Disease spreads to those who manically stumble upon it, and in the end it takes someone ruthlessly sober (like my mother) to relegate the memories to the fire pit where they belong. Fortunately, my father and sister were around to salvage the best of the plunder, much of which now sits on the hood of a broken-down Mercedes-Benz in my parents’ garage.

Among the pages and pages of sepia-toned, sentimental swag is this Mothers’ Day card I made for my grandmother as child:

mothers day_2

Text reads:

Some beans have some
strings to tie them on things.
but what smells so quer?
Because corn is no less or
more then one enormous ear.
but why could it be that
if potatoes have some eyes
then why could it be?
that they are burid under
dirt where it’s to dark to see?

As you can see, the piece starts out with a delightful bit of nonsense involving beans with strings (“to tie them on things”) which is almost certainly a play on the word “stringbeans,” which was my favorite vegetable at the time. Then, I blow open the nose holes with: “but what smells so quer?” — note the vaguely Middle-English spelling of the word “queer,” channeling Chaucer — only to immediately move on to ears and eyes, reflecting on the irony that stalks of corn, while clearly unable to hear, are called “ears”; and potatoes, blind and buried, nonetheless sprout “eyes.” The poem suffers from an over-reliance on the word “some” for cadence; and the ruminative “why could it be?” — repeated twice, as if for double effect — is a bit hamfisted … Still, the message of the poem is clear: This is a meditation on vegetables, and the angled windows of perception through which we view and experience them.

I am told that I was probably six or seven years old when I created this masterpiece, and that sounds about right, although it seems to me that the sophistication of the poetry is totally incongruous with the crudity of the drawing.

Yes, and what about that drawing? There’s not much to comment on here, unfortunately, aside from the ever-present, ever-horrifying Sun With Teeth. For some reason, I drew my grandmother with a black eye. No explanation for the bunnies. I think the dog is my sister.

EVALUATION: 

ARTISTIC SKILL: C-
ORIGINALITY: B
PENMANSHIP: C
VOCABULARY: A-

FINAL GRADE: B-

*  *  *

BONUS POEM:

Rain_poem1
Rain_poem2_crop

 My mother wrote this in the sixth grade — March 22, 1962, to be precise. It reads:

“Rain”

Pitter-patter goes the rain,
Up against my window pane.
Oh! how I would like to stay at home,
And play with my dolls, their hair I would comb.
But today I know I must go to school,
The schoolyard will be like a big swimming pool.
Strong gusts of winds will be blowing about,
And I’m sure my umbrella will turn inside-out.

It would seem my mother’s gift for high-flown language and stock imagery was conferred onto me, perhaps even encoded in my DNA.

*  *  *

Some twenty-five years later I got it in my head that I should try my hand at poetry and submitted a long narrative poem called “The Preacher of Pumpkin Patch Lane” to New Orleans Review. The poem was about a boy who was once a small-town sensation as a fire-&-brimstone preacher, who returns to town as a college student only to find his “trademark powder blue suit” tucked into a box in his parents’ attic, and his former pulpit — once lit by “baseball stadium lights” — now dark and overgrown with weeds. They sent me this:

New Orleans

Pitter patter, goes the rain.

 

Pancakes and Waffles

26 Mar

waffle1

waffle2

waffle3

waffle1

waffle4

waffle5

All art copyright Ernesto Barbieri 2014

Consider the Mousehole

6 Nov

Step 1:

Start with two shapes. They’re odd shapes; they aren’t really ovals or semicircles. They look almost like gravestones, don’t they?

Step1

Step 2:

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?

Step2

Step 3:

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.

Step3

Step 4:

Draw a line through the bottoms of Shapes 1 and 2. This gives our picture perspective, depth and connectivity.

Step4

Step 5:

Add some circles and dots.

Step5

A picture is coming into focus. Shape 1 is a wedge of cheese, and Shape 2 looks kind of like a mousehole.

Step 6:

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.

Step6

Now pause.

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!

Step 7:

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?

Step7

Step 8:

Draw some straight lines around Shape 3, boxing it in to the corner.

Step8

Can you guess what Shape 3 is? If you guessed the lower half of a wall outlet, you guessed correct!

Step8bCongratulations, you win nothing.

Step 9:

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.

Fix it.

Step9

Step 10:

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.

Keep waiting.

Visiting Hours

28 Sep
"Rotten Bananas"

“Rotten Bananas”

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.

"Birthday Snail"

“Birthday Snail”

*  *  *

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.”

"Tolstoy the Clown"

“Tolstoy the Clown”

*  *  *

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.

"cow & crows"

“cow & crows”

*  *  *

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.”

"Ladybug"

“Ladybug”

*  *  *

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?

“_____________”

31 May

Cream City

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.

Protected: Baseball Season Is Over

17 May

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