Wednesday, October 31, 2012


So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The ninth prompt is about reading, reading a lot, to see how other writers solve problems. She suggests we transcribe writing we like whenever we’re feeling stuck. At the very least, it will get the hands moving.  Then "use the passage you've chosen to transcribe as inspiration…"
I’m transcribing part of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" from the collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From.

“What about the old couple?” Laura said. “You didn’t finish that story you started.”
                Laura was having a hard time lighting her cigarette. Her matches kept going out.
                The sunshine inside the room was different now, changing, getting thinner. But the leaves outside the window were still shimmering, and I stared at the pattern they made on the panes and on the Formica counter. They weren’t the same patterns, of course.
                “What about the old couple?” I said.
                “Older but wiser,” Terri said.
                Mel stared at her.
                Terri said, “Go on with your story, hon. I was only kidding. Then what happened?”
                “Terri, sometimes,” Mel said.
                “Please, Mel,” Terri said. “Don’t always be so serious, sweetie. Can’t you take a joke?”
                “Where’s the joke?” Mel said.
                He held his glass and gazed steadily at his wife.
                “What happened?” Laura said.
                Mel fastened his eyes on Laura. He said, “Laura, if I didn’t have Terri and if I didn’t love her so much, and if Nick wasn’t my best friend, I’d fall in love with you. I’d carry you off, honey,” he said.
                “Tell your story,” Terri said. “Then we’ll go to that new place, okay?”
                “Okay,” Mel said. “Where was I?” he said. He stared at the table and then he began again.
                “I dropped in to see each of them every day, sometimes twice a day if I was up doing other calls anyway. Casts and bandages, head to foot, the both of them. You know, you’ve seen it in the movies. That’s just the way they looked, just like in the movies. Little eye-holes and nose-holes and mouth-holes. And she had to have her legs slung up on top of it. Well, the husband was very depressed for the longest while. Even after he found out that his wife was going to pull through, he was still very depressed. Not about the accident, though. I mean, the accident was one thing, but it wasn’t everything. I’d get up to his mouth-hole, you know, and he’d say no, it wasn’t the accident exactly but it was because he couldn’t see her through his eye-holes. He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? I’m telling you, the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.”
                Mel looked around the table and shook his head at what he was going to say.
                “I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn’t look at the fucking woman.”
                We all looked at Mel.
                “Do you see what I’m saying?” he said.

Maybe we were a little drunk by then. I know it was hard keeping things in focus. The light was draining out of the room, going back through the window where it had come from. Yet nobody made a move to get up from the table to turn on the overhead light.
                “Listen,” Mel said. “Let’s finish this fucking gin. There’s about enough left here for one shooter all around. Then let’s go eat. Let’s go to the new place.”
”What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

I love that Carver doesn’t worry about his dialog attributions. Everybody “said”. Period. He’s so bold about it, he even repeats it in places where it’s not necessary, as in “He said, ‘Laura, if I didn’t have Terri and if I didn’t love her so much, and if Nick wasn’t my best friend, I’d fall in love with you. I’d carry you off, honey,’ he said.” I love his tiny, unimportant details that add so much to characterization, the little objects that people fidget with, how Laura’s having trouble with her matches. His characters, their dialog, the movements of their eyes and what they notice, are so real without much embellishment at all. He’s brilliant. So here’s my attempt at a Carverish scene:

                “I’m not saying he was right,” Joel said. He winced and shifted in his chair. “But with a woman like that…”
                “Woman like that, hell,” Doreen said.
                Joel said, “I’m just saying. With a woman like that, you have to wonder.”
                Doreen said, “You think she doesn’t have the same rights as anybody else?” She was sitting straight as a board. “You wouldn’t have done anything any different than him.” Her ash was getting long. The huge, plastic ashtray sat right in the middle of the table. It was the same color orange as her hair. She stared at him.
                “I’m not saying I know what I’d do in a situation like that,” Joel said. “I’m just saying I sure as hell wouldn’t have done that.” The ash from her cigarette finally fell into the laces of his shoe. Neither one of them looked at it.
                I looked out the window. I didn’t say anything. One of those charter buses went by, one of those  huge double-deckers. It could be going anywhere. It could be from anywhere. I couldn’t see inside.
                Doreen said, “Without the love of a good woman, you don’t know what you’d  do.” Too late, she tapped her cigarette. “You’d probably be in jail by now,” she said.
                Joel winced and shifted again, his leg straight out like a rifle barrel. He didn’t say anything. Doreen took another drag and blew it out noisily. She crushed out the butt.
                “Mexico,” I said. “I bet it was going to Mexico.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The eighth prompt is again about the primitive fight-or-flight part of the brain, how its function is to protect us from risk, and how it can be a useful tool because it points us to exactly the kinds of risks we need to take. "Write about another time you've tapped into your courage." And yes, I’m trying to do two a day to catch up from slacking last week.

Empty in his head and his heart, he could think of nothing to do. He felt scraped clean, like a pumpkin. She was gone.

He walked to the store 2 miles away because he had nowhere else to go. His feet moved. He had no idea how long he’d been walking. Every white car was her coming home. He bought milk. He didn’t need milk. He trudged home again.

It was his fault. It was her fault. He couldn’t think of how it might have been different. He sat in the dark in an empty house, staring.

He dozed. The night warped and elongated into impossible shapes. The sun came up, and the light came on: he could choose. This was his choice. All he lacked was knowledge of what he wanted. Did he want for this to be the end, or did he not? He picked up the phone.

Nothing was fixed right away, but they agreed to one thing: just be nice. Be nice to each other. Everything else followed.

The Evolution of a Dream

So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The seventh prompt was about the ways that fear manifests itself when one sits down to write. "What childhood nightmare do you remember?"

In 1977, or possibly 1978, when I was 5 or 6 years old, I saw King Kong. Looking back on it now, it was a silly movie with unconvincing special effects, but then, I watched in wide-eyed wonder and dread. The foreboding of the empty native village; the anticipation of the trembling trees as the yet-unseen monster approached; the shuddering revulsion as the snake’s jaws are torn apart; the horror of being crushed by that massive foot; the terror of falling from great heights; each of these things affected me deeply. I had to keep watching, but I didn’t want to see.

From then on, I had a recurring nightmare that I, my brother, and my childhood neighbor Tommy were chased relentlessly through a city landscape by that giant ape. Everywhere we hid, he found us. Wherever we fled, he pursued. In the end, there was nowhere left for us to go but into the sea, swimming farther and farther from shore, hoping only to get to deep enough waters that he would no longer be able to stand. I swam on hopelessly, knowing that I would drown.

The last time I remember dreaming of King Kong was in my early 20’s. That means for something like 16 or 17 years, that movie haunted me, with ever-decreasing frequency. At first, I’d dream it regularly, and I’d wake each time sweating, heart pounding. Later, it would come to me only once or twice a year, and I’d wake bemused, thinking, "Oh, there’s that silly dream again. Strange. "

As a teen, I finally saw the movie again, and its magic mutated into something else entirely. The ape was clearly a guy in a suit. Charles Grodin was cartoonish. The snake was completely ridiculous. The relationship between the ape and Jessica Lange was laughable, and even disturbing. Instead of terror and wonder, I watched in a kind of hormonal haze, hoping at each moment that the wet, white dress would slip just a little farther down, until finally it all but disintegrates as she runs into the arms of Jeff Bridges and we’re treated to a side view of her bare breast pressed into his chest. Now, we both leered, Kong and I. And thus the terrors of childhood transformed into the fantasies of adolescence.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Take a Shot

So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The sixth prompt was about the primitive parts of the brain where fear resides and how creating a habit can help bypass those "run for your life! " or "quit before you fail! " responses. "Talk about your relationship with fear. When have you overcome it; when have you let it win?"

Daniel was large. He was tall and heavy, catching the eye of the football coach, the basketball coach. He was quiet, too, and smiled very little. As he navigated the rough waters of middle school, he became dimly aware that some people found him intimidating.

Inside, though, he was not intimidating at all. He felt small, and afraid. His older brother was strong, and fast, and bold, and athletic. Jon held state records for speed; leaped onto moving freight trains just to see where he’d end up. He picked fights. Sometimes he won; sometimes he didn’t. Either one was fine with him. He once stitched up a gash in his own arm with his mother’s sewing needle and black thread, and laughed that he could see the muscle moving inside. He was a swashbuckler in a tale worth reading.

Daniel felt his brother’s disappointment in him. Jon challenged him to games of his own invention with hazy rules and hazier goals:

"You go over there, and I’ll go over here, and we’ll throw darts at each other. "


"You take this broomstick and hit me with it as hard as you can, then I’ll hit you with it, and we’ll keep taking turns until someone quits. "

Daniel wouldn’t play, so Jon found other games to play with him. He pinned him down and spit in his face. He yanked his pants down in front of a girl that it took Daniel weeks to work up the nerve to talk to. At each humiliation, Daniel knew that he was falling farther and farther into a hole, but still he thought that humiliated was better than beaten.

He spent his entire 8th grade year ducking a scrawny little blond kid, who inexplicably wanted to fight him behind the bleachers after school.

For this story to have resolution for us, we want Daniel to find his redemption. He must, of course, get into a fight. To let rage overcome him, rage at his brother, rage at his own cowardice, to let it boil over and launch himself heedlessly into a brawl. He needn’t win; he need only fight. Preferably, he knocks his brother into the dirt and they both walk away, arms about shoulders, laughing. But he never did. 25 years later, he has still has never thrown a punch or taken a shot to the face. He should, don’t you think? Just once, pick a fight in a bar and get it over with?
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