Every Time I Draft A Piece I Ask Why

Here is something I’ve been thinking, in essay form. Well, in a first draft form I’ll let sit for a while. I always think I’ll let a draft sit, get ready for that magic day when I have the best way to finish the piece. But then I think, For what. Why am I writing this. I get apathetic enough that I don’t bother with question marks. Instead, it’s flat, unanswerable. Why am I writing this. For the piece below, I have an answer: I couldn’t not. There’s a memory that’s hard to look at and spiritual truth I barely touch and as is usual of my personal essay drafts, the writing itself was unpleasant because I think there is something more to say and a better way to say it, but I can’t yet. I hope there is a reason I commit any of this to a page. More, I hope I find a magic day to rework this draft to honor two of my repetends.

With that. I know I am not the only one.


I keep thinking about this boy who died. I was junior in college and he was freshman. We lived in the same residence hall at the edge of campus and fell into step one afternoon. I was a community advisor who put up bulletin boards and hosted ice cream parties and floor meetings but I rarely saw him around the hall. He lived on the third floor, went home on the weekends and ducked his head when walking by the front desk. I remember the day being cold. Maybe an in between day in Wisconsin when autumn is over but air doesn’t yet bite. He had his hands in his front pockets. He was lean like some boys are when they just graduate high school and he walked like he felt too tall, making his shoulders narrow. Maybe because we were walking side by side he could talk a little, tell me he was from a small town on Lake Michigan and that’s where he went every weekend to fish. He had a boat or his father had a boat.

I think we talked about siblings. I think he had a sister still in high school. I think he was studying in the College Of Natural Resources.

I keep thinking about this boy. His name was Nathan. That first afternoon, walking side by side back to our residence hall on an almost winter day, he smiled. I remember feeling like I won because here was this quiet boy who ducked when he walked by people and he’d just smiled at something we said.

He went home on the weekends to take his boat or his father’s boat out on Lake Michigan so I didn’t see him much and had no reason to knock on his door and ask about his day. One night I couldn’t sleep. I laid in bed thinking of his sloping body he hadn’t yet grown into, thinking of that smile I caught when I glanced up.

I thought about boys like that. Boys I’d just met or boys I knew and saw in a different way, suddenly. I constructed so many lives from chance smiles or gestures, from a name called on a roster the first day of a history class, from a long bike ride with childhood friend. At twenty, the years spin out in any direction. I could see myself in Ireland, Alaska or Kenya as easily as I could see myself married to a bank teller, artist or fisherman. When I had class with a boy from Portland I imagined us walking under a shared umbrella. So when I met Nathan, I imagined his whole family I’d never meet. His mother cooked a full breakfast and put an arm around her son’s waist when he came in from an early morning on the lake. Her cheeks flushed like his did. His father was as silent as he was. The house had windows in the right places to send squares of sun on scuffed hardwood. At breakfast his sister and mother talked, pulled Nathan and his father into conversation, and after, each carried his or her own plate and glass to the kitchen counter.

That winter I came in from a night class, carried my bike to the basement room where the residence hall staff had weekly meetings. I opened the door and there was a group of guys having a Bible study. I was surprised. They were surprised. Nathan ducked his head. I rolled my bike to its place against a wall, apologized and left. I thought, He is a brother.

Nathan drowned that spring. He and a friend or cousin were out on the lake when a storm came up and capsized the boat. I remember hearing the boy he was with lived. I remember hearing Nathan saved the boy he was with by pushing him toward floating debris. I remember seeing this story in my mind, the thrash of Nathan’s legs, the heaviness of his wet clothing and boots, the whiteness of his face and hands in the frigid water, the last energy in his limbs propelling another to safety. I remember feeling a little sick. I remember being conflicted that I’d imagined meeting his mother.

I google combinations to find the story again: Nathan uwsp lake michigan drowning, 2001 lake michigan drown uwsp student, uwsp student Nathan drown, uwsp student Nate drown 2001. I can’t find anything. Instead I dredge articles about annual numbers of drownings, reasons why the Great Lakes are dangerous, drunk college students walking into water. There’s an article about another underclassman who killed himself over Thanksgiving weekend that year, after dropping out of college to go live with friends in Madison. I try to remember Nathan’s hometown. I try to remember was it 2000 or 2001. I think about emailing the alumni office but I’m not sure what they could tell me about a freshman (was he a sophomore) who drowned in Lake Michigan before graduating from the College Of Natural Resources, before deciding to move north to Superior or west to Denver, before falling in love and staying awake thinking how to marry this woman, before losing his heart or holding his firstborn, before waking tired each day, before eating slivers of ripe peach on a long summer morning.

I used to think about dying all the time. I’ve wanted death at different times. In middle school I was on a youth group camping trip and a few of us went to a playground, spun around in tire swings and talked about the best way to die. One girl said she wanted to drown because it sounded romantic to drown. She leaned back to watch the sky circle above.

My family camped on Lake Michigan for a few summers, going for a week after the season was over when the water was the warmest it’d be for the year. The campground was nearly empty, the beach ours. Mom talked to us before going into the water. She told us about the undertow and what to do if we got pulled under, how to swim parallel to the shore, not to panic. We were strong swimmers. I went into deep water,  where the waves rolled before taking a cap and crashing. In water up to my chest, I could feel the suck of the water, pulling back into the lake, but my feet didn’t go from under me, the sand didn’t slip. I didn’t drown or almost drown or save anyone from drowning. I put goggles on, sank my belly to the bottom of the lake to pretend I was in the bigger ocean, touching the undulating sand and, for short moments, holding everything in my body still to feel the weight and weightlessness of water and death.

When Nathan died, we must have talked as residence hall staff. One of my friends lived on Nathan’s floor and told me the guys made a bulletin board in remembrance, writing notes about Nathan on small construction paper fish. I heard his parents were coming to clean out his side of a room he shared with another freshman boy. I had this idea that Nathan, now dead, could see the story I’d made up for us. Still when I think of this I am embarrassed, a little defensive, a little angry at all the alternate lives I’ve made and loosed while I wound my way to now – a small apartment in a suburb south of Seoul, a late thirties version of myself I couldn’t have thought up when I was twenty because this present version has stretch marks, Legos underfoot, a pretween daughter. But I keep thinking of this boy who died because he isn’t here to be any version of who he made up when he was out on his boat or his father’s boat each weekend.

We can be rich, easy with fantasy when we are nineteen or twenty. We can’t know any different then. Our years are long.

My brother was teaching in India when one of his students died in a car accident over a break. My brother wrote that as teachers we think we are adding to early parts of a person’s life with the introduction and encouragement of passions or pursuits, the space we make to hear a student’s theory or doubt, the sense we have about a student, that he or she will -. But sometimes we are adding to the last lines of a student’s life.

I think about how to close a piece of writing. I think about the revision and edits I make when I write. What makes a last line. One of my college composition classes I took my junior year, the year I met Nathan and the year he died, my professor told us to write a page from our autobiography. Page two twenty-something. I can’t remember what I wrote but I remember wondering how long the book was. Now I am thirty-six and thinking about Nathan and I can’t answer why that smile stays in my mind, why now I want to understand why he was finished then and I am not now. My page two twenty-something might be years away. I might have written it yesterday. I have this wrong view of how death might work.

A couple of years ago we were visiting my brother and his family in Nairobi, my niece’s friend Anna died. Anna was playing on a jungle gym in the yard of her family’s compound when she fell. She was in a coma for a couple of days. She was brain-dead. My sister-in-law came down the stairs one morning and I saw her tiredness, knew she had been awake praying for this family, praying for her own daughter who was going to lose a good friend. We were in Nairobi for the week after Anna died. At different points, we talked about the accident and death. Anna was eight or nine. She loved Jesus. At Anna’s memorial, her family described her kindness toward others, a sense of compassion already whole in short years, love in her conversation with and care for the needy around her. I look at my own daughter differently. I have this animal need to wrap my body around my daughter, around my son, when I think of either of them leaving this earth. I am not afraid but I am aware.

My sister-in-law, in her grief for this girl, wondered if God is merciful like this, allowing death to spare a greater suffering. Life is hard, she said. She spoke carefully. She spoke like she’d been thinking how to say why Anna died when we believe a God of miracles. And she said what some of us (how many of us) think when a person dies at the cusp of more because we want to think it matters, when a person dies. A death at eight or nineteen is different from a death at eighty-one. There must be reason.

When Nathan died I was sad in an abstract way. I was secure and insecure in my youth. I glanced at Nathan’s death. I was sad for his family but I didn’t know them and felt weird I’d even imagined knowing them at all. The made up visit to his home, the made up rock of his boat or his father’s boat, the made up smiles I’d win. Now I am sad in this way: he was spared but this suffering is sweet. This hard life is sweet. I have wished its end. I have made up escape.

Sometimes I think what I still need to get right. I forget the gospel. I am whole in Christ. The Spirit works in and through me to finish the good work begun. My wrong view of death comes from this idea that it’s the good work in my life that needs to finish – the good work in my small, forgettable life. But the good work spans time and place to tell God’s glory, to show his great power and love and I am a stroke of the pen. I might be a smudge in the margin. I might show up on two pages. I might be a footnote. I believe Nathan and Anna had more good life. They had suffering ahead, and sweetness. They had days of wonder and sorrow and rest ahead.

Nathan and Anna are repetends to me. I think of each irregularly. I did not know Nathan and I did not meet Anna but I think of them. I think of how their lines in the story show up in all sorts of books. How many of us in how many places know their lines in the story and how many of us in how many places are now shaped by their lines in the story, thinking about what it means to love a merciful and frightening God who can work the drowning of a boy, the sudden death of girl into a plot that holds. I don’t know how the plot holds. I haven’t gotten to that part yet.

Give An Honest Minute

Thinking in drafting, again. There is more to this. What comes after giving an honest minute?

We were sitting on a restaurant patio having lunch when a couple walked past with their son. The boy had shoulder length hair. He used a walker. Each step looked like a thought. After they headed in for lunch I said to Justin, That looked difficult. I was talking about raising a child with physical disability. But also the effort of having a disability and learning to walk when it isn’t easy, when it might hurt.

We ate lunch and I took Grant in to use the bathroom. I saw the family from the parking lot sitting at a booth. We stopped to say hello on the way back to the patio. I didn’t say what I wanted to say because what I wanted to say was just taking shape then.

There was something about how the three of them carry an obvious challenge, as partners, parents, child and family. The boy is named Max and his disability means a different kind of life as he grows. His disability means a different kind of parenting, a different kind of normal in a world that loves easy similarity. We didn’t talk about that. We talked about Max’s two front teeth grown in after losing a mouthful when he was six, like Claire now. We talked about why we were in Point, their family and ours not from here but visiting. And then it was time to go. I apologized to Kim, if I was awkward, but she said it was nice to have people acknowledge Max – as he is.

As he is. Skinny limbs, toothy smile, wide eyes. A lime green walker. Two parents with good haircuts. And I wish I’d said to Max that I know he has it tough (and his parents too) and that all the joy doesn’t negate the everyday limp. I thought about how we all carry

physical
mental
emotional
spiritual

challenges but most are rarely as apparent on first glance as Max managing his walker and carefully forming his words.

The other thing I wish I’d said is that while I don’t pity them, I do see them. That didn’t come out in our short conversation and I heard myself say I wasn’t sure why I’d stopped to talk – but Max’s parents have grace that must come from years of being stared at and ignored, and they let me find a goodbye.

I wanted to find this: That I wonder if we would be

so
wildly
kind
open
okay

if we could see each other’s hurt, fear, injury, illness, doubt, regret. What if I wore my insecurity as splotches on my skin? What if vanity twisted my face so you knew too? What if we could see a marriage tearing at the seams or a family divided by grief? What if we could see loneliness hiding in a crowd? And then, what if we said something? Had an honest minute.

Last summer in Prague I stopped to talk with a couple of teenage girls sitting on a bench. One girl was wearing a tank top, the outside of her arm laddered with scars. I asked about them. I asked if she’d gotten help. She had, she was much better now. Her friends on either side had smooth arms but we all talked about living as we are. At that point, I was a year out from a brief round of self-harm that didn’t scar. I stopped to talk with those young women because I saw an arm that looked how I felt: scarred, healed, not the same as before. And I wanted her to know I saw those scars.

For years yet I’ll think of that young woman and hope she is still wearing short sleeves and making people see this is what life looks like sometimes. And sometimes life looks like a boy walking a crooked step. Sometimes life looks like a lot of us, okay-fine-good on first glance. Give an honest minute. Pull up a sleeve. Admit a limp.

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

This exercise is by Jon Simmerman, included in The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use one example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…”
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Open the poem with the first project and close it with the last. Otherwise use the projects in whatever order you like, giving each project at least one line. Try to use all twenty projects. Feel free to repeat those you like. Fool around. Enjoy.


And below is my latest try, but with explanation first. This week there was a rumor that a teacher at another school was deported for driving without a license. That is within the law and expats are deported for that offense, but this was the first time I’d heard of a Western expat deported for that reason. Turns out, this expat wasn’t deported, only held overnight. I started thinking what I would do if I were picked up and taken to the deportation center, made to board a plane without a phone call to Justin. I started thinking why this teacher was allowed to stay in-country. Because he was Western? (Was he Western? I don’t actually know. I assume.) Because his employer lobbied on his behalf? I don’t know.

Also, ethnicity and socioeconomic status put a tag on people. I think this happens everywhere. Sometimes seeing people as equal is conscious work. (Change my heart!) I am uncomfortable with how noticeably differently I am treated as a white Western woman. My skin and nationality play more in my favor here than not, but I don’t like that. Or more so, I don’t like that I sometimes like what leniency white Western gets me. (Forgive me.)

So with all of that rolling around my head, and the challenge of (mostly!) completing twenty little poetry projects, the following draft:

By Way Of Deportation

My legs are roots
this chair a cliff ledge

I sit so still my thighs hurt,
my bladder burns

Around me: gray hum, sparks of yellow orange
when an Indian woman shouts like a song

If I move I will wet my pants

If I am released
there is a God
or wasta, Inshallah

I am called across the room
to an office where I sit across
from a man smoking a bored cigarette

The full knowledge of power
is sitting still and not wetting my pants
Easy-peasy, as my son says
Easy-pee-sy Sarah can hold it
in this windowless holding room
under fluorescent day/night

You’re the one who got caught?
No license? He smokes,
considers my tight pressed knees

I haven’t got a lie

I have one lie

Deportation as escape:
no last anything:
no last drive down Gulf Road
no last shwarma
no last sign-in at work

I don’t lie
I sit. He shifts
He lectures, I hear

Every year hundreds of brown-skinned
workers are relieved to be deported so
quickly and efficiently that suitcases and
passports are unnecessary, and you –

Equality by way of deportation

I will make it all the way to Chicago,
all the way to Kathryn, without crying

And you –

I sit long enough, white enough, that
he stubs his cigarette, lights another,
sighs, waves his hand, dismisses me

My bladder screams when I stand
I get a cot
no phone
no toilet paper
I get a morning taxi to my husband,
who is angry and relieved,
my children who cry

I might be over the Atlantic now
if I’d shouted or wet my pants
I might be drinking wine,
my ears full of gray noise

A Start Cools

I can’t think how to continue Tally. I drafted via notes and daydreams. I added a few hundred (unposted) words more. When I reread the piece, the start isn’t the right start and I’m afraid of how the story might end. Not that anything terrible will happen to Tally or Carl, but that maybe nothing much will happen. Carl goes to Montana, if you want to know, and returns. But Tally is an unsure girl. She could take Carl’s dreams for her own, as easily as she could turn twenty-two and still be on her mom’s couch Saturday afternoons. The drinking was a thing that never got too big. I think that’s what is keeping me from cutting Tally loose: she hasn’t let anything get too big yet. I’d like to know what might happen if she allows a part of her life to get too big.

Right now Tally reminds me of two other stories I wrote a few years ago. Totally different characters and situations, but a similar process, a feeling that I wanted to tell too much, turn over too many rocks, open too many closet doors and check dusty shelves. I finished those two pieces with gritted-teeth determination because my previous M.O. for unwieldy starts (any start, really) was to abandon the file and preserve the idea it would have been great. But those two stories, one about a woman named Laine, and the other about a young man named David, went on and on, the latter topping out at forty single-spaced pages. Cutting to nineteen pages did nothing but give me practice.

I don’t want Tally to turn into another weedy piece. I want to make her character. I have an affection for her, a regular girl who might not go anywhere. The world is full of regular people who don’t go anywhere. I like them. But for me to write Tally well, I need to give the story a chunk of uninterrupted time. Maybe a couple of hours would get her off the ground. I can find those hours. But I’m also okay leaving the start to cool.

Notes Pass As Drafting

My husband and father-in-law just returned from a week in Thailand, visiting one of our former coworkers in Chiang Mai. This is the third spring break we’ve taken separate breaks, me home with the kids, and he getting stamps in his passport. I like it this way because the alternative is more un-restful (it took them twenty-two hours to come home yesterday!) than loading the washer for the fourth time in a day or looking at the clock to see we have five hours until bedtime, if everyone is amiable to an early bedtime.

The first spring break we were apart I wanted to be supermom. Activities and outings. Good cheer. No swearing. Approaching holy. Claire was four and Grant was two then. Our first full day together started with me pulling the car over and yelling that they’d better stop scrapping at each other in the backseat or – I don’t remember what the threat was. No ice cream, maybe. This was before both of them could watch an entire movie. That makes a big difference. Last year’s spring break was fine. It was easier with kids who both wore underwear. And this spring break was awesome. I bought watercolors and good brushes for us and we took over the dining table. It’s been so long since I’ve drawn or painted and the pleasure of playing with colors and lines instead of words reminded me not to become so rutted in one particular art.

That was a huge difference this break: I gave myself over to each day. Not entirely. Don’t think me too saintly. I got a good run in each morning and didn’t freak out when Claire beat me to the kitchen and made herself a breakfast bowl of cheese popcorn. If we didn’t have plans to meet anyone, I didn’t care what we did. One morning we returned to an old favorite walk in Fahaheel, along the sea. When Claire was two and Grant a baby, it was the distance we could manage, with coffee for me and cocoa for Claire at the end. We rarely go there anymore, now favoring smooth cement for roller blades and bikes. But returning was sweet, for me.

I didn’t write much. Both writing chunks I’d planned were cut short. And at home, I enjoyed painting or playing or baking more than sitting with my notebook. When I did open my notebook, I wanted to continue writing Tally and Carl, but did something I’ve only just started practicing with fiction: I wrote the story in note form.

This works well for me. It smashes daydreaming with a pen, giving me  a rough outline of the next part of my story. And it makes me think through a story more completely. By the time I type a scene, I’ll have visualized it a couple of times. Even so, I often pause while typing to see what’s going on before I write it. I still draft plenty of snags. But what finally gets typed has already been through a mini-revision in my head.

There’s another reason why I’ve started drafting in note form first. That is: kids. My time is frequently interrupted. I parent, I teach. But when I get a chunk of time to myself, I’m more likely to burn through a dozen Candy Crush lives while listening to Slate’s Political Gabfest or This American Life. (I’ll save that for a confessional post later…)

I guess what I’ve come to is what many interrupted writers before me figured out: take what you can get. And what the better writers must know: use wisely what you can get. Daydream, take notes, write whole paragraphs and pages. Finish something in increments. Keep on.

Drafting Real Time

This is the opposite of what I’ve been doing for years. I have notebooks full of starts (some finishes) and files of the same. When I started this blog a year ago, I wanted to dig into the writing process. For a most of the last year I wavered about posting any finished work, for a few reasons:

a. I’d rather an editor validate my work for print
b. I don’t want my work stolen (though it will be eventually, won’t it?)
c. It’s show-offy (and a little sad?) to showcase work that isn’t anywhere but on my blog, red by tens*

There’s some overlap there. When I started this blog, I was writing intensely introspective stuff about marriage and parenting. While early posts allude to those pieces, I probably won’t post them here. But I can post new fiction drafts and revision. Something changes when I’m writing to share. I’m still drafting, but with a new pleasure that this next chunk isn’t landing in a file, but going out for you to read.

Part 3 of Tally Draft (though the whole, revised piece will be read without divisions)

We don’t catch anything that Saturday but the next we catch a couple of small ones we pan fry at my house. I feed Shane slivers of white flesh, lick the oil and salt from my fingers. One Saturday we catch seven fish and invite Charlene to join us for lunch. She brings potato salad and sits across from Carl.

You’re Jenny Ross’s boy, aren’t you? she asks him. He nods and Charlene says, Such a sweet girl. I’m so sorry.

He shakes his head, pays close attention to the end of his fork. Mom mouths something at Charlene who stands, goes to the sink to refill the water pitcher. I don’t realize I’m holding myself tense until Carl looks up from his plate and says, It’s okay. This is a good lunch.

When he leaves, he tells me he might have to go somewhere next Saturday but he’ll let me know. My chest squeezes. I say I might have something else to do too, but the way I say it tells the truth.

Most Saturdays Mom puts Shane down for a nap and the two of us watch a dvd from the library. We microwave popcorn and sit close on the couch, cry at all the good parts. When Jessica still lived a few blocks over, she’d join us. Once Dad came home at the end of Sense and Sensibility and saw the three of us bawling. He went pale, thought some terrible news was on the tv. He clutched his heart. When he saw Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson on the tv, he said he thought it was another 9/11, the way we were crying.

While Mom settled Shane in his crib (Such a big boy! You need a big boy bed!), I made popcorn and put ice in our glasses. I cued the dvd. But when Mom sat on the couch she told me to wait. She angled herself toward me. Look at me, she said. She smiled at me. Carl is nice, she said. I nodded.

Are you kissing?

I shake my head. I’m embarrassed she thought we might be kissing, embarrassed because we aren’t. And after a month of standing out on the dam with nothing to do but fish and talk, is it okay that we haven’t kissed? But Mom seems relieved. She pats my leg. She says, Someday you’ll kiss and it’ll be the right time. I’m not sure if she means me or me and Carl. She tells me to be careful and I know she means about sex, but that’s all she says, just be careful, and then she turns to face the tv and I press the tiny forward arrow on the remote and we watch Sandra Bullock be sassy.

When I see Carl at school, he’s with the baseball players, blocking the hall. They’re high-fiving and joking so he doesn’t see me until one of the guys bumps me and I stumble into the lockers. Carl yells, Watch out for the lady, and the player apologizes. I’m sweating, dying. I can’t look at Carl. I just need to get to Mr. Halverson’s room. He calls me later that week to say he’s going to Richland, to visit his dad. It feels funny to talk on the phone with him. He pauses and asks if I’d like to fish on Sunday morning. My stomach flutters. I wish Mom hadn’t asked about kissing.

That Friday night I wait for Mom to fall asleep and reach under my bed for the water bottle. I’ve listened to Wolf and Midget talk about drinking. I know I don’t do it anything like that. I’m afraid to ask Carl for another water bottle, so I’m putting less in the jelly glass. It hardly does anything except make me sleepy. I prop myself on my elbow and listen to Shane breathe. Sometimes I reach between the crib rails and rub his back. He’s a sweet boy and I think of Carl going to Richland to see his dad. I don’t know if Shane will ever see his dad. We haven’t heard from him in a year. If I think about that for too long, I become the most unloved person in the world.

I almost think about it too long and pull myself upright. I think instead about Carl driving to Richland tomorrow, or maybe already there tonight. Charlene told me about Jenny Ross, one afternoon while we watched Shane drive trucks up and down the front walk. Carl was six when his mom and younger brother died in a car accident. The jelly glass on the floor is empty but I’m wide awake. When I was six, I had a box of watercolors I took everywhere, I ate toasted peanut butter sandwiches and begged for a baby sister.


*tens refers to TBTL, whose hosts celebrate their “tens of listeners.”

Flash Fiction Serial: Less Flash, More Serial

One of my students read a quote from Stephen King’s On Writing. Paraphrasing, King says that he has to keep writing a story so it doesn’t grow cold. This week I’ll continue writing Tally and Carl and post as I draft.

Part 2

Carl picked me up at six the next Saturday morning, leaving his truck to idle while he came to the door and knocked. Mom offered him a cup of coffee which he drank black. He whispered, knowing Shane was in the other room. When he stood to leave, I stood too. Mom tilted her cheek up for me to kiss.

There was a package of mini powdered donuts on the seat and a bag of sodas on the floor. We drove north toward the dam. Dad had taken me fishing there a long time ago. I didn’t like the smell of the still water. I spent the day tossing Fruit Loops near the bank, watching them slowly bloat. On the drive out, I wondered if I should pretend with Carl, like I really liked fishing.

You like fishing? he asked, tires crunching in the gravel lot.

Kinda, I said.

It’s nice, he said, Gives you a chance to clear your head. I’m out here most weekends.

I hop down from the cab, taking the sodas and donuts. Carl gets the poles and tackle from the bed. He leads us down the earthen dam and tells me which side we’ll fish off, unless I want a competition. It’s the same grassy bank, wet with dew. There’s no breeze but I’m glad I wore a hoodie. Carl opens the bag of donuts and takes two, passes the bag to me. The donuts remind me of when we went to church with Charlene and had juice and donuts in the Fellowship Hall after the service. Carl opened a Pepsi and handed one to me.

Breakfast of champions, he said. He took a long drink and set the can in the grass. He bent over the tackle, opening a sour cream container filled with dirt and worms. He handed me a pole and pointed where I should aim. I came close and started reeling the slack. Carl told me how to fish even though there isn’t much to know when it’s the shallows and all you have is a light pole.

I might go out to Montana this summer and learn to fly fish, he said.

You could do that up north, I said.

Montana sounds cooler.

I make the bobber dance a little, reel it in and send it back out with the same worm. This time I feel a nibble all the way up the line, down the pole to my hands. I watch the bobber dip under and give a slight jerk on the line. There’s too much slack and I only startle the fish away, a little ripple. Enough of the worm is still on the hook, I send it out again. We do that side by side for a while, casting lines, eating donuts, drinking sodas. There are a hundred things I’d like to ask Carl about. He lives with his grandparents but I don’t know why. He quit baseball this season but I only heard rumors why. I want to know what he’d like to do after he graduates next year. I sneak looks at him. He’s seventeen, two years older than me. I like that. He’s got hair that glints gold in the sun. His clothes are as worn as mine. He’s lean like a farm worker. His nose could be on a profile stamped on coins.

I’m suddenly very conscious of his body near mine, of the way he clears his throat and cracks his neck to one side, of how his hands look working another worm on my hook. I remember to breathe.

Can I ask you something? I say and before he answers, I ask, How do you get it?

What?

The liquor.

Oh, he says and laughs a little. You looking for a side business? I can’t tell you just so you can undercut me. We both know I’m not asking for that. He squats down and fiddles with a new bobber on his line. When he straightens and casts again, he says, I really can’t tell you. I’m sorry. He sounds sorry. After a few minutes he says, Ask me another. I’ll answer this time.

I think about what I want to know. I’d like to know if this is a date, if my first date is here on the dam with my hair pulled in a ponytail and the smell of mud between us. I look at the water, as still as when Dad took me here years ago, and I wish I were here with him, not Carl. My throat goes thick so I can’t speak. Carl jokes he doesn’t know anything about the Kennedy assassination but the thought of Dad being here with me that many years ago, putting worms on my hook and not getting mad when I laid down to watch the clouds, it makes me want to cry and I can’t, not in front of Carl.

He puts a hand on my arm. He can tell something. He speaks like he’s coaxing me out from hiding. Tally, hey, you’re alright. What’s wrong? I pick up my Pepsi and take a drink, swallow the lump.

I came here with my dad a long time ago, I say. We both cast our lines again. Neither of us are getting bites, even though we can see the shadows swimming. Carl says, Me too.

One Syllable Flash Fiction

This is fun and challenging, taken from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:

Write a short story using words of only one syllable.

Sometimes I need a kick in my WP pants. Yesterday’s pantoum was a kick. This single syllable exercise is a good kick. I decided to write a story idea I thought of last week: an art student pays someone to complete his portfolio. When I get an idea like that I try not to make the whole story in my mind. I need to keep a lot unanswered or the writing is forced, boring. I turned this idea over for a few days. This morning I decided to write it with the above constraint: single syllable words.

There is a lot you cannot say when you’re only allowed a monosyllabic vocabulary. My story changed. I couldn’t elaborate some things. I wanted to say she can’t draw people. Two syllables. Nix.

I’m going to keep working on this. It’s tough. It feels a bit like working your way up to fifty push-ups just to say you can. (I can’t. I wish).

Here you go:

I go to the same beach each day. I take my pad and pens in a tote bag and sit on the same bench and draw the same stretch of sand. I didn’t plan this when I came in June. It was too hot but I walked to the beach each day when I woke, to draw and think. I sweat a lot. My hand slips on the page. My days smudge. But it gets me out of the flat.

I try to make the shape of the sand new. The sea and sky too. I try to see what is new from last time I sat on the bench.

I don’t draw men, their wives or kids. I don’t draw packs of boys on bikes. I don’t draw the man there to fish, up to his thigh in the gulf, a whip arc of line lost on the flat sky. I leave white space where they should be, ghosts on my page.

One day a kid comes up to me and asks can he see that. I tilt my pad so he can see. He looks from the sketch to what’s in front of us. You’re good, he says. I am, but don’t say.

I am very good at this sand, most of the time. I could show him work that didn’t turn out but don’t.

You sell this?

I squint up at him, shake my head. No.

Well, would you? I’d take this. He lifts the top page. Or this.

I don’t know, I say.

I’ll give you ten.

For this?

Yeah.

I think. It’s mine. Each page a day here. I have two more pads at home, full. I can’t, I say.

He gets mad. More then, he says. I don’t care. How much?

I write down a five, a zero. I can’t breathe. A rich friend said price high, you got to think that way. The kid shrugs, counts out the bills. I tear the page and give it to him. He folds it in half, then in half once more. I want it back.

Can you draw fruit? If I come here next week, can you have fruit done? Same price.

I nod. He leaves with my day. I draw it all, two hours off now. The ghosts find new spots. I add red and orange, burn the sand.

We Want Tone

This is me making use of an overheard conversation. I made up names (I didn’t know the names of the women anyway) and kept my notebook open as I wrote the following scene. I pulled a few direct quotes, but allowed the characters their own syntax too. This is the challenging part of fictionalizing overheard dialogue. You’re tempted to stick to the original, but straying allows better practice at writing dialogue. Combine characters, switch genders, cut chunks, add new lines, give verbal tics.

This exercise (scene? vignette? flash fiction?) prompted an idea. I want to see what happens when I remove the “___ says” and leave it largely to the reader to sort who says what. Can I write a piece that is only unattributed dialogue? I just want to see what it looks like. That said, the following is riddled with “___ says.”


 

Kelly leaves the gym she works at still dressed in the dark spandex tights and moisture-wicking shirt she put on that morning. She’s late to meet two prospective clients. They’re already at the coffee shop, sitting in the back. Jill nudges an iced latte across the table. “Skim, because I didn’t know what you preferred,” Jill says. Kelly shrugs, takes a drink. “Thank you.” She pulls her tablet from her tote bag and swipes the screen, opens a new note.

Jill and Abi

“I really need this,” says Jill, “I feel like a box after two kids. No waist. Look at this.” She half stands and runs her palms rib cage to hips. She sits and laughs. “Forty-eight kilos, but I want a waist again. I do crunches and I can see a little cut, but…”

“We want tone,” Abi says.

Kelly types Tone under their names. “Aside from your waist, any particular part of the body you want to tone?”

“I want a butt,” Jill says, “I used to dance. Watch me, when we start doing squats and lunges, my thighs will be like, so big. But I want a butt too. Like yours.”

Kelly has glutes. “Squats will give you a butt.”

“I have a butt,” Abi says, “And a belly.” She takes handfuls of her stomach rolls and laughs. “I’m mostly in this for health. Change, you know. She suggested it.”

“I really need a routine. I need to workout,” Jill says.

Health
Routine

Kelly types. She looks up and smiles at each woman in turn. “I think I can help. We can meet two or three times a week. We will work with bodyweight movements and exercise first and progress to small weights.”

“How long is a session?” Abi asks.

“One hour.”

“I’m gonna die after ten minutes. Watch me, I’ll be like, begging to stop,” says Jill.

“You’ll be fine,” Kelly says.

“Do you do any nutritional consultation?” Abi asks.

“We can talk about food. Protein is important when you are exercising.”

“We saw your grilled chicken on Instagram,” Jill says.

“Yeah, we were looking you up. You eat really healthy,” says Abi.

Kelly isn’t surprised they looked her up. “I can give you a few recipes.”

“I love veg. Love love love veg,” Jill says, “Just so expensive here. I buy a lot of frozen. Steam it so the nutrients don’t leech.”

“I prefer raw,” Kelly says, “But, yeah, expensive. Especially organic.”

“Oh my God,” Jill says, “I bought a little tray of organic blueberries at Sultan and paid like twenty-three dollars. Not really, but at least eight or nine. Kids ate them like candy.”

“I can’t afford everything organic. Some things. I buy organic granola,” says Abi.

“I heard co-ops are good for produce,” Kelly says.

“Yes, totally. Go to co-ops,” Jill says.

“I started making green smoothies,” says Abi, “With kale.”

“Mmm,” says Kelly, “Good start to the day.”

“Great start. I eat a couple eggs too.”

“That’s good.”

“I thought egg was bad,” Jill says.

“No. Good,” says Kelly.

Jill laughs. “They’ll be bad again. I read that leeks can cause cancer. Everything is bad.”

“Except booze,” Abi says and the two friends laugh. “You should see her drink,” Abi says. Jill holds up her hands and says, “Guilty. Which is why we need you. I so need this.”

“Right,” says Kelly, “So let’s figure out what works for us. You need mats. I’ll set up a routine you can do with or without shoes.”

“Stinky feet!” Jill pokes Abi.

“It helps if we have room big enough to stretch your arms out side to side and not touch. I work with some clients who move their furniture for sessions. Is that okay?”

“Sure. Yeah. We need this. Look, I have no waist!” Jill half stands again. “I mean, I weigh forty-eight kilos and that means nothing if I’m not healthy.”

“Having a waist doesn’t mean you’re healthy,” Kelly says.

“So I get healthy and get a waist.”

“Sure, that can happen.”

“And a butt.”

“And a butt.”

“I just want to get in shape,” Abi says. She pulls her phone from her bag and opens the calendar. “I can do Saturdays.”

“Saturdays work,” Jill says, “And Mondays, I think.”

“What time?”

“Evening. Sevenish?”

Kelly types Nutrition. She checks her calendar. “Seven or seven-thirty works. You’ll go to bed tired.”

“I need more sleep. Maybe this will help,” Abi says.

“Probably will. Do you want a third session or just two?”

Jill and Abi look at one another. “I really need this,” Jill says. Abi shrugs. Jill looks at Kelly. “Can you squeeze a third in?”

“Wednesdays are open.”

“Okay. I’m so excited. You’ll see, my body just – muscle memory. I’m gonna die but I’ll look good.” Jill finishes her iced latte.

Kelly types Gonna Die. She closes her tablet, stands. Her shirt says Strong Is The New Sexy and Jill loves this. “I hadn’t even noticed,” Jill says, “I was looking at your arms and thinking how big your biceps are. Didn’t even read the shirt.”

“Hope for me,” Abi says.

Kelly smiles, holds up her empty coffee. “Thanks for this. I’ll see you ladies Saturday at seven.”

“Awesome. I’ll text directions,” Jill says.

“Awesome,” says Kelly.

Mr. O’Grady’s End Of The Year Speech

I like Postsecret. Sometimes the secrets posted prompt a story start. For the sake of a go-to prompt, I may make Sunday Secrets one of my WP exercises. Here is the postcard and my story start:

8.ogrady

I like Mr. O’Grady. He doesn’t try too hard. He probably doesn’t try hard enough. I’ve had him two years in a row for history class because I flunked sophomore year almost entirely. The only class I passed last year was Small Engines because I built one for a final project, to show I’d learned something. I didn’t really learn anything except that all the adults in your life go batshit crazy when you quit trying. Mom put me in counseling and I kept a journal and when junior year started, every teacher pulled me aside within the first month to say they believed in me, except Mr. O’Grady. He asked me how my summer was and when I didn’t say anything, he said, “Yeah, me too.”

By mid year I had a C average and Mom was trying to negotiate credit recovery so I could graduate on time. Everyone was really sensitive about how I’d feel if I had to stay in high school for a fifth year, even though I said forty million times I didn’t care if I had to stay for a fifth year.

“You say that now,” Mom said.

“I mean it,” I said.

“Okay, well at least meet with Mrs. Kubicek.”

Mrs. Kubicek is the junior-senior counselor, though I’m technically a sophomore until next week when the report cards come out. I did meet with her and said I’d rather stay an extra year than spend every weekend and all of summer doing online classes. She sighed and asked if there was a teacher I would enjoy working with, someone who might oversee my credit recovery. I said Mr. O’Grady and she pecked that onto her tablet. Later that week Mr. O’Grady asked me to stay after class.

“You want to work on some credit recovery?”

“Not really.”

He rocked back on his heels. Two years ago he’d gotten divorced and grown his hair out, but it didn’t look good. He was always putting his hair in a ponytail and then taking it out, smoothing it down again. “Then tell Mrs. Kubicek no. No sense doing this for them if you’re not into it.”

That’s what I thought. So I said no and Mom, who’d been meeting with her own counselor and must have been advised to let me choose my path, didn’t argue. She drank two glasses of wine and went to bed, but she didn’t say I had to graduate on time. I know it bothers her. My cousins are overachievers. We get emails with pictures of Troy at the state track meet or Tina playing first violin. One time I told Mom to take a picture of me sleeping on the couch and we laughed.

Today is my last final exam, in Mr. O’Grady’s class. I studied until midnight and then ate breakfast before coming to school. Eating breakfast is supposed to help you concentrate. I feel good. I have three sharpened pencils and a bottle of water. I’m surprised by how much I know. The multiple choice is easy. The short answer is easy. The essay is a bitch. But I finish five minutes before bell and turn the test in, face down. I sit in my desk and wait for bell.

Mr. O’Grady walks to the front of the room and clears his throat. “I wanted to say something to you,” he says. There are three minutes left between us and summer break. “You guys have been great this year. I think you should know that. Seventh period has made my day.” He takes his ponytail out and runs a hand through his hair. “Sometimes I hate coming in to school. A few of you know what I mean.” A couple of us laugh. “But I’d get to seventh period and think I’d made it and you’d come in and humor me for fifty minutes and we’d all get to go home after. I guess I want you to know that if I can get to seventh period every day, you can too.” The bell rings then and a few girls get up. Mr. O’Grady holds up his hand and says, “Wait. I also want you to know something I wish I’d figured out when I was your age.” The girls sit down again. “You matter more than you think.” We wait for minute but he doesn’t say anything else. The class starts to leave. A few kids say thanks to Mr. O’Grady. I’m on my way out when he says, “Kevin,” and I turn. “You do,” he says.