Beyond The Pale

Introduction to my Longer Work

As in most of my fiction writing, this piece is not safe for the NWAG/RLC crowd, so if you intend to get offended, don’t read it. Also, for those of you who have been following my blog for a while, this is a revision, significantly changed, of a story that I posted several months ago. Where before, it was just a story, it’s now an introduction to my longer work, so it might be worth reading, or if you don’t want to read something that you’ve seen most of before, you might want to skip it altogether.

I told James last night. I told him that my story had to be told, and he said that if mine was to be told, then so was his, but that I had to write it. I guess I owe him that.

I met James Whitney sometime in the winter that I was working on finishing up my MFA in Writing at Huntington University. Fearing that I didn’t have what it take to survive as a fiction writer, I had split my coursework between Technical/Professional Writing and Creative Writing, but when it came time to decide on a thesis or degree papers, I found that the Powers That Be (or Were, I guess) in the Huntington Humanities department wouldn’t issue me both degrees unless I had written my final projects in both fields.

In a single track degree, the decision is usually between a thesis of, say, 60 pages or two shorter degree papers that together might add up to anywhere between 60 and 80 pages. However, because of the overlap in my coursework, I was presented with the option of writing a thesis for each track, or only three degree papers, one from each of my fields of study and a third one from whichever of the two fields that I chose. I decided to go with what seemed like the easier of the two options and write degree papers.

The first two papers came easily enough. I did a study on how technical writers working in the field of robotics learn to modulate their voice and level of technicality to create end user manuals that are both user friendly enough to allow an operator to trouble shoot lower level problems and detailed enough to assist a trained technician both higher level diagnostics and repairs. It’s a fine line, and I felt that to really make my point, it would be good to bring a practical example into the arena, so for my second paper I wrote an example of what the finished product of such an exercise might look like using a piece of equipment that was being produced at the hot-tub company where my uncle worked. It wasn’t as technical as robotics, but the principles were essentially the same.

Not only was the committee for the Technical/Professional Writing program very happy with my work, but I was able to sell the second paper to the hot tub company for enough that with careful budgeting and the stipend from my teaching assistantship at Huntington, I could afford to take my last semester off from my job at Border’s and focus strictly on writing my creative degree paper.

It turned out to be really good that I was able to take that semester off from work because that third paper turned out to be really difficult for me. I had a hard time coming up with a topic to write about. This is a typical problem, but usually if I chose a bad theme, I could just muddle through and no one would know the difference. After all, an A paper on a crappy topic is still an A paper. This paper was a bit longer, and it wasn’t just going to be read by one professor, but by several. Also, depending on what I decided to do with my life, if I ever decided, it might be the project that a prospective employer read when deciding to hire me or not.

Over Christmas, I got it into my head that I would write a story about a soldier during the Persian Gulf War who dies in an accident, only to wake up several days later to find that he has been turned into a vampire.

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how I failed to see that this project was doomed from the beginning. The Vampire genre was fairly well worn out at the time, and though recent innovations have since breathed new life into it, I was neither creative nor brave enough to write something truly worth reading in the tired old framework of the undead yearning for his mortal love. What’s more, I knew nothing about war and even less about the Middle East. When I met with my advisor at the beginning of the semester to plan out how we were going to go about making the paper happen, I immediately found out that I had a third or fourth, depending on how you count, mark against me from the outset. I was dismayed to find that—though she never said it in so many words—she absolutely hated almost all fantasy and horror themes, and she found the words vampire and literature to be repulsive to each other to the point where only the name Bram Stoker could neutralize them into the same sentence, and that was an unfortunate accident in the history of literature. Actually, now that I think about it, she didn’t really even like fiction at all, so why I had chosen to work with her is a mystery, one that won’t get answered in this book

My first meeting with my advisor should have clued me in that I needed a new concept to write about, but I can be fairly thick headed when I want to be and even more stubborn, so I doggedly plugged away on my laptop at Barnes and Noble, where I had taken up a sort of quasi residence since I quit working at Borders, that is, until events forced a change in my habits.

How I met James Whitney: the first week of February, my 1987 Dodge Duster, which had been showing signs of intestinal distress for some time, shuddered its last shudder or as a friend put it “farted out its last burrito,” leaving me with the option of going back to work and using my saved-up money on a new clunker or using mass transit to get to and from class every day.

I had signed up for six independent study hours to work on my degree paper that semester, and those could be done at home, but I was also teaching a section of Comp 101 and an introductory Technical Writing course. I knew that if I went back to work, all of my free time would be spent grading papers, and I wouldn’t get the degree paper finished in time to graduate in the spring as I had planned. For some reason, graduating on time was really important to me. I chose the subway. I’d been spending about the same amount on gas that I would on a sub pass, so I was good there, but the subway went nowhere near Barnes and Noble or Borders.

I would have to find a new place to write.

Now, the logical place to write seemed to be my apartment. After all, I didn’t have a roommate to bother me, and I owned a coffee maker, which was the only resource at Barnes and Nobles that I regularly made use of, but for some reason I just couldn’t make it happen. A week of evenings spent at home trying to write accomplished nothing but a burgeoning realization that I had chosen a terrible project to write about. Oh, and I also got caught up on numerous episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The X-files that I had missed when I was off doing other things—like writing and teaching.

I found The Book & The Bean by accident. It happened like this: I was on my way to the library to do some research about whether or not Kuwait, Iraq, or any other Middle Eastern country had an indigenous vampire myth, and at the same time I was thinking about whether or not I really wanted to even bother finishing this stupid project. I felt fairly certain that if I just gave up, seeing as I had already written two degree papers for the Technical/Professional Writing program, that I would probably still receive that degree, and I could just write the Creative portion off my studies off as personal enrichment cum time wasted cum lessons learned when I turned left where I should have turned right, and by the time I got back in touch with what my body was doing, I was standing in front of a window display for The Vampire Book: the Encyclopedia of the Undead, by J. Gordon Melton, so I walked into the store.

That day I walked out of The Book & The Bean with The Vampire Book under my arm and something called a “Hangover” in my belly. Years later, I would find that Starbucks serves a similar drink called a “Blackeye,” consisting of two shots of espresso dumped into a cup of coffee, and coffee shops on the Army base offer something called the MOAC (Mother of All Coffees) with twice as much coffee and 4 shots of espresso, but I swear that the Hangover was even stronger than either of those, like maybe they left the coffee burning in the pot for a couple of days before adding the espresso, which had been made with paint thinner instead of water. I was hooked.

Before long, I was visiting The Book & The Bean as religiously as I had previously visited Barnes and Noble, and it was only a matter of time before I became acquainted and then friends with its owner, James Whitney. James had been a teacher at Huntington before some unspecified political troubles had forced him to step down. I got the impression that he didn’t like talking about it, so after I ascertained that the trouble hadn’t been related to buggering graduate students, I never pressed the issue. Besides, after I got to know him, it was hard to imagine James as having a job, or for that matter a home anywhere besides in his store. I’m pretty sure that if he was from the deep south, he would be one of those people who called his house or apartment “my stay.”

When we met, James was smack in the middle of what I would call “late middle age.” He was of average height and build, and he had a slight middle-aged pooch, though there was still evidence that he was probably an athletic man when he was younger. He had gray hair that was thinning on the top and a matching gray beard. It wasn’t until much later, as I was describing him in my journal for an exercise he had recommended that I remarked on the color of his eyes, but I noticed almost immediately that there was something paradoxical about the way that the laugh lines around his eyes seemed designed to obscure a certain sadness to his glance. He smiled freely, and his laugh could often be heard bouncing off of the brick walls of the bookstore and running up and down between the shelves, but when his face was at rest, when he was reading or thinking private thoughts or writing in his journal, the sadness in his eyes would sometimes sneak down to pull at the corners of his mouth, even as his hand would sneak up to twist at a stray bit of beard.

James was uncommonly fond of hats, and he kept a coat tree by the door year round for hanging his hats on. He didn’t keep his hats at home. He kept them at work with some spare fleece hats at home for unexpected cold snaps. That way, if he felt like a fedora in the morning, but in the evening, he wanted to go with a golf hat, he didn’t have to go home for the switch. Most days he would wear the beat up old fedora which was clearly his favorite, though the coat tree always had at least a bowler, flat cap, and gatsby hanging in reserve. The strangest hat by far that I ever saw him wearing was not long after we met. It was February, and we were in the middle of the worst cold snap of the year. James had left an assistant running the store while he went for lunch, and I arrived while he was out. When he came in, he was walking with what appeared to be a collapsible ski pole and wearing a Peruvian Chullo, looking much more suited to head down to Vale for a weekend of skiing or snowboarding than for the half-block walk that he had taken from the pizza parlor where he had passed the last three quarters of an hour.

One Thursday morning the week after I found The Book & The Bean, I was sitting at the corner table by the window, where I was becoming a fixture, when James brought over the drink that I had ordered a few minutes previously at the counter. I only taught on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, so I planned on spending most of the day working on my story before a meeting with my advisor that evening. I had even set aside 25 bucks to spend on Coffee and a soup at lunch by way of paying rent on my table, so I was a little disturbed when James sat the coffee on the table and then pulled up a chair and sat down across from me. I needed to get this written.

“Judging by the amount of writing you do,” he began, “and your complete lack of reference materials, I assume that you are either writing a piece of fiction or something along the lines of a memoir. Am I right?” Just like that. This was before we became friends, before he started giving me writing exercises to teach me everything I’d missed in my studies. At this point in our relationship, he was the dude that made my coffee, and I was the dude who took up one of his tables for a good four or five hours, three or four times a week, but I never bought the bottomless cup, and I always paid my rent on the table. Also, I tried to buy a book or so a week rather than ordering from Amazon, just to stay in his good graces. In other words, he had no reason to talk to me.

I told him that I was working on my capstone project for a MFA in Creative Writing at Huntington College, and I explained about how the Technical/Professional Writing portion of my degree was done. I also told him that I was nervous because my advisor hated my creative project. When I started to tell him that I also doubted the validity of the project, he cut me off.

“Don’t tell me that.” He said. “The last thing a person needs to hear about a work he hasn’t read is the writer’s opinion about it.”

Not knowing what to say, I didn’t say anything.

“Let me read it.”

“I just told you. It’s not done.”

“Let me read what you have.”

“Now?”

“Sure. Why not?”

I thought about this for a moment and couldn’t come up with any answer besides, “because it’s garbage and I don’t want anyone to read it ever,” which I didn’t say, so I said nothing and sipped at my hangover. It tasted like battery acid mixed with motor oil. Strong medicine.

He looked at me for a moment, and then he said “Let me tell you something. Besides my affinity for hats, I’m espoused [he really said espoused] of one great eccentricity and one great conceit. My great eccentricity is that any time the University sells an old Thesis or Dissertation, I buy it, no matter what it is about, no matter if it is good or bad, and I have a deal with one of the binders in town, the one that does most of the binding for Huntington’s students that he will run me off a copy of all the dissertations and theses that he binds.”

“Is that even legal?”

“No, of course it’s not legal. Shush and let me talk. I have a whole room of these, and I read them all. Maybe I’ll show it to you sometime. It’s probably the biggest private collection of blue-bound labor in existence. The great conceit of my life, well, that’s my journal. No, there’s nothing conceited about keeping a journal. The conceit is that I write it under the assumption that someone will one day read it, that it will be used by historians or scholars to get some things unmuddled. I have a clearer view of what’s going on here than almost anyone. Not only do I assume they will read it, I assume they will want to read it because I know what quality writing looks like, and I know there is value in my observations. You get what I’m saying?”

I didn’t get what he was saying at all, and it would be years before I’d think to ask myself what he meant by “what’s going on here,” but by that point I’d have a pretty clear idea myself. The watery expression on my face, caused by pain from the drink, not confusion, seemed to assure him that he’d been wrong, and I didn’t get it at all, so he continued:

“What I’m getting at is that I read a lot of stuff written for the same audience as you are writing for, and I know good writing when I see it. You know what my most discerning customers do when they come in here? They don’t browse the bookstore; they chat with me for a while and then ask for a recommendation. If the customer has really let me get to know them, then I can usually give them something that they will enjoy. I can help you if you let me read what you’ve got. I can push you in the right direction.”

Still, I hesitated.

“Oh good grief, your next cup of that tar you drink is on the house if you let me read your story.”

So I found myself spending the next hour staring at a display full of National Book Award winners, and I eventually shuffled back over to the table with a copy of Cold Mountain, which would make me wonder why I had ever thought of becoming a writer. I sat and pretended to read the first chapter while he finished up. He was not a fast reader.

He finally finished and looked up from my laptop. “Well?” I asked.

“You have talent.” This was not a comment about what he had just read.

“But?”

He eyed me for a second, probably deciding how much truth I could take.

“But this is garbage.”

I probably should have been offended or annoyed or something. Instead, I burst out laughing, shooting “tar” out of my nose, which hurt a lot and gave me a nose bleed later that night. At least, I assume that’s where the nosebleed came from. He waited with a crucified expression on his face while I guffawed, then laughed, then giggled, all the while trying to wipe down my computer and telling him that I’d known that the story was garbage for quite some time, and he had just wasted his free coffee if that was all he was going to say about it.

That was all he was going to say about it though, but it wasn’t all he was going to say about my writing.

We talked for hours, about writing, about what makes for good writing and what makes for garbage, about my childhood, and his life.

“See this?” He said, pointing at a passage that read: “Those who know me best know that I have lived for years under a pressing darkness, a darkness that often threatens to overwhelm me. There was a time when it had overrun my defenses, when I had no will to resist, when I believed that all the good of my life had already been experienced, and there was no life left to me, only existence. It is only through the grace of God that the darkness receded from me and gave me will to continue on. But I feel it’s presence constantly. It is like something just beyond consciousness, that phrase on the tip of the tongue, that little bit of knowledge that slips away when you point your mind at it. I feel it in the silence when I’m alone, when I’m tired. Freud called it the Todestrieb, the drive of all mortals toward death. Some might call it Thanatos, each person’s personal grim reaper, forever walking beside him, holding his hand, ready to one day step out of the shadows and lead him away. For me, it is the personalitization of a dark blackness, a dark blackness that I summoned unconsciously on the night that I died.”

“If you write like that, people will read it, but that’s not how you’ve been writing this God awful story. This is a slip up. I bet you were drunk or high when you wrote it. You let your defenses down and your real voice came down.”

Then and he told me about where that sadness that I saw in his expression came from. We talked about teaching, about The City, about the bookstore. And somehow, even though we never really got around to it in our conversation, I arrived at my advisor’s office the following evening with an idea for a completely different project, one grown from my own experience, from what the world looked like to me.

My advisor was a short, hefty woman who loved anything having to do with what she called “new media,” a title just about as accurate by that point as “new criticism” is in ways of reading literature. She was an associate professor, almost ready to receive her tenure, and I’m sure that she was more than ready for it because she had enough books stuffed into her ten by ten office to fill the much larger one that would come along with her tenure the following year. Her door was opened a little to allow for airflow, but I knocked anyway.

“Come in,” she said.

I pushed the door opened and climbed over the pile of books beside her desk to sit at the chair that she kept in the office for meetings with students. She asked me to wait a second while she finished grading the paper she was working on—she always graded digitally even though studies had shown that students got more out of the handwritten notes on a paper copy of an assignment than they did from the sidebar comments that she would add into their documents before emailing them back to the students—and because I didn’t want to be nosy, especially since her office space left me sitting with my knees about eighteen inches from the back of her desk, I turned to look at the books on her bookshelf, mostly titles I recognized, either from having read them or from having heard her sing their praises, and I was just about to pick up her copy of A History of Repression: Feminism and a New Rhetoric to thumb through when she finished the paper she was working on and turned to face me. I didn’t know exactly how to tell her what I was thinking, especially since I figured it was bound to cause a ruckus, especially since our meeting was supposed to be the night before, but I’d stood her up because James and I stayed at his store talking for so long. I just came right out and said it.

“I want to nerf the Vampire story.”

She couldn’t hide the look of relief on her face, but she went through the motions of saying what she was supposed to say in this situation.

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” she began. “You’ve already finished a draft, and now we are to the cleaning up part, just getting it ready to turn in to the committee.”

“I know,” I said, “but you and I also know that it’s mostly garbage. The committee will pass it, but I want to write something worth reading, not just something to get my degree. And I know what you’re going to say next, that there isn’t time for me to start over and still graduate this spring. I’m willing to wait, to use the rest of the semester to write something new, and to take my degree in the fall.

“I don’t want to write about some soldier turned vampire, two things that I don’t really know much about besides what I’ve read of Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer. I want to write something real.”

So I did. I wrote something real, and in the end, I wasn’t able to receive my degree in the spring. Instead I submitted my completed project in the summer. It was a series of ten vignettes loosely based on a boy that I had known growing up and the strange adventures that he always seemed to be having. I’d always been fascinated by the things that kid got away with, and the trouble that he always seemed to be getting me into. That project looks very immature from the perspective of a dozen or so years, but it’s writing that I’ve never been ashamed of either.

When I went to the committee, with my completed work, they wanted to know about it, where it had come from, and where I wanted to go. So I told them the truth, that I wanted to write and teach, that I wanted to stay in the city or leave, whichever it took to bring me back to Huntington as a real professor instead of a teaching assistant, and I also told them why I was a semester late turning it in. I told them that I’d been trying to be something I’m not, and that I still had copies of my original project if they wanted to see the difference.

But they’d already seen the previous work because my advisor had shown it to them, and told them of my development, so not only did they award my degree, but they offered me a contract to teach for a year helping undergraduates find their voice the same way that I’d found mine.

At the end of that year, I was offered a job teaching as a permanent adjunct, but I didn’t want it anymore. By that time, there was a person that I wanted more than any job or status, and the hundreds of hours that I spent in James’ bookstore writing weren’t just hours in which I learned not how to write, but what to write about. They were also hours when I learned what to want and how to go about getting it.

It’s a simple trick really: too bad saying that to people and teaching them how it’s done aren’t the same thing.

Whenever I meet with James to discuss something one of us has written, or a book that we like, and we end up in his smoking room, the one filled with hundreds of blue-bound volumes, I’m not ashamed to know that mine is there among the masses, for in its creation I learned a bit of how to respect both myself as an intelligent writer and my audience as intelligent readers.

As for the book that you’re about to read, you can call it what you want, an adventure, a picaresque, a romance, Spec Fic, horror, thriller, I don’t care. I hope you find it to be all of these and more, but what I’ll tell you is this, there’s a lot more to life outside of this city, there’s a lot more to want, a lot more to be done, and since I can’t seem to find a way to teach it, I’m just going to go ahead and show you. Follow me, and we’ll go places we didn’t even know were there. This place is much weirder than you think.

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January 9, 2010 - Posted by | Fiction, From Wyandotte, Graduate School, NOT SAFE FOR RLC/NWAG CROWD, Writing

2 Comments »

  1. This is an improvement over the first installment that you made. Of course, that tends to be what happens when you have done a lot of development in the world and discovered something about the characters that you didn’t know before. This is a good introduction to what is coming next, a good place to start.

    I’m not good at the type of critique that you would really like to get, so I will do it the way I do for my students who are just beginning as writers and reluctant ones at that: I’ll ask questions and point out the things I like.

    My first question really doesn’t matter, but it was something that wouldn’t make much sense in a real city – why doesn’t the subway go near either of the two most popular book stores chains? I guess it could happen, but it seems that those stores are usually placed in areas where people tend to congregate or be going anyway and those are the same areas where subway stops are located. Anyway, that’s a minor detail that doesn’t matter too much right now.

    The narrator talks about the Army base having a coffee drink similar to the one he likes to get wherever he goes. Is this a type of foreshadowing of something to come in the story? If so, it’s good. If not, I am left wondering what he is doing on an Army base when at this point in time he knows nothing about soldiers.

    I like your description of James and the sadness that creeps in, like it’s something that he’s trying to hide, but it comes to the surface when he lets his guard down. It also gets the curiosity flowing, though I already know why he is sad since I kind of helped you discover the reason…

    Question: Where does James live? This is another trivial question, but I was a bit confused. At one point the narrator says that he couldn’t imagine James living anywhere else. At first I thought that meant that he lives in an apartment above the store (something you had also talked about doing). But later he talks about James keeping his hats at the store instead of at home, which made me wonder about my previous line of thought. Was his initial impression more like that of young students who think their teachers live at school and are surprised to find out that they actually have a house and a life to go home to?

    Is the hat fetish something that comes into play in the story or is it a way for us to get to know James a little better? If the latter, it may need a little more in the way of transition.

    I like the narrator’s thought line for reasoning that James should leave him alone, like he was buying James’ silence. That seems very realistic to someone like the narrator (and to you).

    Now if you were one of my students, I would be reading this out loud to you (or having you read it aloud to me, but that is mainly because they make so many mistakes that they are only able to notice when it is read aloud) and asking my questions as we read so that you could give me your input, but as that is not feasible and you are bit more competent anyway, I hope the above helps and is more acceptable than my usual “I like it.”

    So what comes next?

    Comment by Andrea | January 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. I replied once elsewhere, and that was short and semi-sweet. I want to write more, but I’ll wait until you respond to the other things I said before I take up new directions. Leaving you a comment here is my way of coming over to your house and shoving you awake. I feel like I’m standing on the precipice of a word avalanche, impending locutionary explosion, atomically generative verbal eruption. On my end, on your end, on our end, outward inward thenward. Explosion! Glossoflailia?

    Comment by wordorgy | January 19, 2010 | Reply


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