on Apr 8, 2011
Let's talk about workshopping.

A writing workshop can be a nerve-wracking experience. Luckily I have been posting my writing online and being critiqued for a long time, so it no longer bugs me. However, now in the senior year of my Creative Writing major, it seems that all we do is workshop; we pull our chairs into circles, everyone passes out copies, we read and then we offer feedback.

And there you sit as the writer, gritting your teeth as you try to get something useful out of the experience. Maybe you jot down notes. Every workshop has at least one "I didn't get it! I hate it! This sucks!" from the group. And after an agonizing 15, 20, 45 minutes of having your story dissected like a cadaver, you run home crying because you spent a month on the piece and nobody seemed to "get it." Nobody seemed to care about your feelings or your intentions with the story. Nobody noticed your hard work with motifs or imagery, the spunky characters or the funny dialogue. How can readers be so cold? Where is the humanity??? 

News Flash: YOUR STORY IS NOT YOU.

It is extremely important that you do not become overly attached to one piece of work. Writing is a craft, so treat it like one. For some reason people make critiquing and workshopping a very personal experience, almost like a therapy session. So here's another News Flash: A WORKSHOP IS NOT A THERAPY SESSION.

Don't get caught up in taking everyone's comments personally. Don't sit there and allow people's responses to your story to effect your confidence as a writer. Here's the conclusion I've drawn after many, many workshop experiences: Most people are full of sh*t and are more interested in hearing themselves talk than actually encouraging your writing. Everyone wants a pat on the back for sounding smart. But don't let this fool you -- unless a person is successful, published, or credentialed, their opinion stands as just that: an opinion. Take it with a grain of salt. They didn't get the "funny" dialogue in the beginning -- so what? They thought your descriptions were trite and overused. Who cares? We are all craftsmen trying to perfect our craft, and after a certain point, all "good writing" comes down to a matter of taste. What you need to learn to do is listen to the advice that resonates with you, and recognize bad advice when you hear it, because not everyone in a workshopping group knows how to write (and especially important, not everyone in a workshopping group has good taste.)

So go grab your story or poem, put on a pair of dark sunglasses, sit back and turn on your ipod. You are about to be hit with a flurry of opinions -- and when the storm has passed, all that really matters is your own opinion of your story and what the few advanced writers/mentors of the group have to say. Everyone else can go home sobbing and ripping their stories to pieces. You, however, don't need to worry about that. Your story is fine how it stands. Tuck the few nuggets of wisdom you've learned into your writing pocket to whip out on the next round. Congratulations, you are now free of a stubborn emotional attachment to your work -- now just watch how fast your writing will bloom!
on Apr 2, 2011
I loved her because she was ugly. I loved her because her voice sounded like an old train and her breath smelled like smoke, and it reminded me of stinging dust and the dead air after the explosion of a grenade. I loved her because she had one blue eye and one green eye, and I only had one eye, and somehow they matched up every time she looked at me. But she didn't know my name. No, she didn't know.

“Shut up,” she said, and the others laughed, they laughed like they hadn't laughed in a year, which was true.

“Me?” I asked.

“Yes, you,” she croaked, her voice like corn husks, and she flicked her cigarette down on the ground, ignoring the ash tray at her elbow. The bartender looked like he had swallowed an olive. “Stop being so damn loud. I can hardly hear myself talk.”

I didn't smile; it was a rough way of introducing herself, and I'm a rough man, and I liked it. She didn't slow down; she sped up, her words tripping over each other, because I know how to make big men nervous and she wasn't very big.

“I mean, what's your story?” she asked, leaning forward. The bar was a hole in the wall, music from the other room, dim lights and ghosts. “I think I've heard a dozen stories tonight and not one of them's yours.”

I looked around briefly. I'd known the men at my table longer than I had known myself. I'd heard their stories as I'd been living them, a year in the desert, a year trapped by sun and open fire from fox holes and abandoned villages. Sometimes the sand still clogged my throat and I couldn't speak.

“Not much to tell,” I grunted. But I wanted her to ask.

“Oh, now you really got me,” she said, and winked her green eye. It meant good luck. “You really got me, soldier. What's your name, anyhow? Can I call you Joe? Or how 'bout Jack? You a pirate, Jack?” and she laughed. I would have laughed too, but the scar tissue pulled tight and I thought I was smiling, but maybe I was just scaring her.

We danced after that. Or she danced, and I watched, but our eyes kept meeting and I could feel her thin legs next to mine. I bought them all a round, and I bought her a drink, and I sat on a bar stool while she spun in circles and flashed her crooked white teeth. She gave every man a spin. And then she sat down next to me.

“No name, soldier?” she asked again, hours later. “Still no name?”

“There's a name on my credit card,” I told her. “There's a name on my tags.” And then she quit asking.

* * *

We were five miles out when the gunfire rattled our truck. We tried to swerve but there aren't any roads in Hell, and the jeep tumbled. Gas line broke. Smashed my head against a window but my helmet saved me, and then someone pulled me out a door before the flames leapt up and three other men were left to burn.

I was eighteen when I joined. Eighteen, didn't know how to fucking change a tire. Eighteen and my mother cried at the bus stop when they picked me up, because Dad was dead and I was her only son. I grew up in a field somewhere. A big field with a school a few miles away and that's where I had friends, where I ran laps, where I drank and had sex and did all those young things with young people.

Five years passed and I was back and forth overseas. Had fun in Germany, got sick in Cambodia from bad fish, then was six months in South America somewhere handing out food to school children. Came home when they let me and saw my mother again, folding laundry and watching all that crap on television, and then went to the local schools to tell kids how to be a hero. After that, they sent me to Hell.

We took shelter in an abandoned building half a mile away. They followed us, a renegade band of desert soldiers, faces swathed and invisible against the blinding sun. We collapsed behind a wall, the remaining three, as a fourth was shot down because he moved too slow. They had us pinned, dammit, shut up in a hole with no way out. I kissed the tags at my neck for good luck and prayed to the wall.

An explosion. They were more heavily equipped than we had thought, and debris showered us. I was thrown from my feet; something burned my blood and I felt a wasp nest hit my face and suddenly I was screaming and my throat was stuffed with sand and I couldn't stop firing my gun. I couldn't see. It was panic and ringing air and I couldn't see.

We were rescued a half-hour later. When I could see again, though more narrowly this time, they told me I had killed seven men. Killed seven men and saved one, and I was a hero.

* * *

“You want this,” she said. She was trying to back me into a corner. I had gone to the dark hallway where the bathrooms were to get away from the drunk noise and gunshots, and I don't know if I had looked at her or not, but she had followed me. She was sneaking up on my blind side, putting her tiny hand on my arm. “You know you do. I want it too.”

She thought she was right. She was so sure of it that she swayed her hips and stroked my arm, and stared at my face like it was a museum piece. Her lips were moist and parted, and she ran a tongue across them, thick as sandpaper. She had a mole on her cheek and I could count the hairs on it; everything became fine-tuned, the deep ridges around her smile and her mismatched eyes, two marbles in one skull. I had seen foggy glass marbles before.

She was so sure of it. “You know, soldier, I'm good at passion,” she spoke low, like an old radio. “All you gotta do is relax. Relax and don't think of anything.”

Well timed words, but she was wrong. Wrong, and I turned to look at her, and my good eye could see through her dress and under her skin and at the heart of her problem. “You think I want sex in a dark hallway?” I said. Words hurt my throat. “You think I want you?”

And I looked at her with a narrow eye, and I saw the twitch in her slow grin, I saw the way her shoulders turned inward, how she shifted. She glanced away.

I didn't walk but kept staring, so she tried again, sidling up to me. “I think you do, right here, right now,” she murmured, but her voice was different, like a desert. “How long has it been, soldier?”

I had loved her for her bold laugh and our three symmetrical eyes, but I could tell now that it wasn't real love, no, real love wouldn't look away. Real love didn't ask for a name. “I don't want you,” I said. It was a test.

She looked struck. “What?”

“I don't need you. I don't need anything but a little quiet.” And I watched her crumble. Watched the weak, little shoulders bend inward and downward, her cheeks flair in drunken embarrassment, her eyes briefly light with defiance. She would cry later. She would go home to her little dark apartment, all alone, and cry.

And what could I do, dammit, but watch her turn around and walk back to all the noise and light, because she was looking for something beautiful, she was looking for something glorious and going about it in all the wrong ways. She didn't know true ugliness. She was ugly but she could still look in the mirror and that was beautiful enough for me. But she thought my scars were hiding something, and she was wrong. I was ugly and blind and as twisted and gnarled as the dunes that distorted my face.
on Apr 1, 2011

Rosy Moddy was the kind of red-cheeked, wild-haired woman that could easily hold my attention. She had the look about her of someone who didn't quite know where she was coming from, or where she might be going to. Sometimes she would come into the A&D Grocery and I would watch her talk to the owner, Kent Maloni. She always bought something: a magazine, a carton of milk, a tall tale about Kent's private investigating business, which I thought was a big fat lie. She had small, plump hands, like a child's, and I would study her fingers sometimes, her small knuckles, a chipped nail. I had never seen such clean cuticles.

“You must wash your hands a lot,” I remarked once.

“Do you work here?” she replied.

I mumbled something and shoved my hands in my pockets. Then I sidled away like a garden snake.

There was a grassy plateau about a mile outside of town that looked just like Rosy Moddy's left breast. It was sleek and perfectly curved, and I would lie there some days, watching cloud-shaped nipples and wondering if her skin tasted like butter or a clean plate. My thoughts would wander, imagining her perfect, flawless, sloping chest. I would eat off of those plates if she would let me. I had never asked, despite having watched her since her first visit to the A&D Grocery, tiny feet in thick sandals and a pronounced chin. I don't think she liked anyone mentioning her small pink feet, like her small pink hands. I wanted to nibble them.

We finally crossed paths one day just as she was leaving the store; I was leaning against the door outside, blocking her exit, and she had to tap the glass. “Could you move? Move please? Hey, can you move out of the way? Move over!” I pretended not to hear her because I liked the fact that she was an inch away, even if there was a door between us; you would too if you could imagine the sweetly muffled tone of her voice. It reminded me of visiting my mother in the hospital where she had lived for most of my childhood. (She still lived there, actually, but I hadn't visited since my twenty-seventh birthday.)

“Could you please get out of the way?” Rosy Moddy's voice was in my ear. I tried to turn, to touch her tapping fingers, but of course I needed to open the door first. But if I opened the door, she would walk right past me, probably ignore me, rush out to the parking lot. I couldn't let this go on. I had to talk to her. I still didn't know what I would say. I would say anything.

I kept the door shut and stared through the glass.

“Rosy Moddy?” I said, and looked straight into her wide, bluish eyes, which made me think of shiny car paint. “My name is Emerson,” actually, it was Dean, but I didn't like giving out my first name to strangers, and besides, Emerson was more sophisticated. When I was fifteen, my father had stormed out of the house, saying he had always wanted to call me Rocky and that it was too late to change anything. I thought Rocky was a name reserved for Italians and mountain climbers, but Emerson, there was a proud name, like a big forest or a thick, winding river, or a broad hill covered in slippery grass that overlooked oceans and oceans of naked clouds. I wanted to explain it to her, show her the real me, not the lurker on aisle three.

“Can you please get out of the way?” she asked, her voice strained.

“In a moment – let me explain – wait,” and I waited for just a second, glancing at the clouds overhead. I bet she tasted like cloud. I could hear her irritated breathing through the glass, or maybe my own breath, and it felt fresh and amazing. The air smelled of asphalt. “Tomorrow I'm going to a rodeo a ways North, past the county line. Do you like horses? You should come with me.”

“I need to go home now,” she said, raising a red brow.

“I can give you a ride,” I said.

“I have a car.”

“Then I'll drive it. Maybe we could get to know each other over dinner?”

She resisted, but seemed thoughtful. “Well... it's been a while since I had company....”

“If you'll cook, I'll wash the dishes,” I added.

She gave me a puzzled look, but then she smiled, and her cheeks were two perfect apples. She didn't answer, but handed me the keys to her car, and I didn't wonder about where she lived, or where she came from, or where we were going to.
When he was still and silent, that's when it all came crashing down around him like waves of the sea, pinning him until he could feel the sand swirling at his back and salt in his lungs, and then he would exhale in a mad rush and it would come out of his throat like fire. Somewhere in the process he would become like smoke and drift for a moment while it molted within him. It was heavy and he was light, and he would try to distract himself as molecules do, by bouncing and jittering through space and time until he was in two places at once, and then nowhere, not existing, an observer to his own seething heart.

He knew that it was insubstantial as vapor, and yet it forced him into corners, captured his eyes and when there was no sound, he could not distract from it, and could see the whole emptiness in all of its glory. When there was sound, he could make himself feel different, make anything into a story or a puzzle that could riddle his being and make his moments glorious and self-defined, but it was in silence that he knew everything was real, because the silence never changed and always waited, and when he wasn't pretending sound, when he couldn't force his voice any longer or stand the songs on the radio, he would sit still and feel the ocean and cry.

He had tried thinking about it but thoughts did not explain it and led him in circles where the in was out, and no answer could change it because it wasn't really a question, it was an event that could not be resolved. He had acted briefly upon it, but his actions had simply resulted in a new job and new clothes, but nothing stopped what was really a trial of time. All things have a process, he would say, this is a process and some day I will not drown anymore but each day was a different river and a different crossing, and he had walked back and forth a thousand times but still, somehow, he was in the same place. And so he had taken to making noise, making life, making bright, beautiful things that charmed him and spoke softly to him about meaning and direction, so that when drifting to sleep at night he had only a spare few minutes before he was unconscious and doing what dreamers do best.

He had tried to explain it in various ways but certain oceans do not have words and he could not describe the sensation of suffocating. He didn't want to breathe but he had to, he had to process through it but there were no rules and no boundaries in the depths of the waters that would rise and toss him back and forth, until he turned up the TV or got in the car and then there would be the peace of moving somewhere, but he couldn't move forever, and in stillness he had nothing but himself. He knew each day was a blessing. He didn't take life for granted and he didn't want to die but he couldn't help the tug and pull of his heart and the rushing blood and the way it whispered when he couldn't bear it any longer, let it end, let something end, oh god, or let it begin but don't leave me here and he would pray but he knew that not even prayers could part an ocean this deep. He could only continue sailing, he could only move with the breeze and the sound of his own breath and tell himself tomorrow, tomorrow, another day, tomorrow, I am alive.