Beyond The Pale

From Wyandotte, Writer’s Block

John has perpetual writer’s block.

Or at least that is what he calls it. It isn’t that he can’t write; he writes fine. In fact, he writes for a living. John is a journalist for one of the biggest papers in The City, he has his own column, and he writes guest editorials for The Wyandotte Ledger six or seven times a year, but if you were to ask him, he would tell you that all of those things aren’t writing at all. He would say “That’s just my job,” or “I get paid to tell people’s opinions back to them,” or something along those lines. John would never call himself a writer because he’s never successfully written the one thing that he believes makes a writer, fiction.

So John recently joined a science fiction and fantasy writer’s group that meets at The Book and the Bean every other Thursday evening around 7:30 to read and criticize each others’ work. John was invited by The Bean‘s owner, Jim Whitney, who was familiar with his peculiar writer’s block and thought that getting John as far away from the mundane as possible might help him write fiction. Science Fiction isn’t really John’s thing. His favorite writer, in fact, is Charles Frazier, of Cold Mountain, and its structural similarity to The Odyssey, is about as close as he’s gotten to reading any Sci-Fi or Fantasy since he read Tolkien in 9th grade.

John visited the group, just to observe, and he liked what he saw. The group spent about an hour and a half going over three pieces, and everyone—about a dozen people—pitched in with at least one feedback statement. Suggestions ranged from ideas for how the story might flow better to questions of perspective to discussions of what the deeper meaning of a character’s action might be to what kinds of change would make publishers more likely to at least read through the story before sending it back to physics issues within the universe of the story. Of the three stories that the group talked about, one of them was a buggy android named Jim who fell in love with a bee hive that he thought was buzzing love songs at him, one was a chapter from a Tolkien clone that had apparently been in development for quite some time because all the readers talked about the characters as if they knew them well, and one was about an entrepreneur who prevented intergalactic war by getting the alien aggressors stoned on coffee, and became extremely rich in the process. One of the stories was meant as high literature, one as comedy, and one as a kid’s story. One was well written, one was garbage, and one was just weird. They all showed signs of having been worked on extensively.

After the discussion period, Jim introduced John to the group’s leader, Dan Green, who happened to have been the writer for one of the night’s pieces, the one about the fruity robot. Dan said that John was more than welcome to join the group, seeing as they had just lost a member and wanted to keep the number at an even twelve. John could join immediately as long he was willing to commit to reading each completed piece before the biweekly sessions, contributing to the discussions constructively (“We have a zero tolerance policy for trolling,” he said several times, much to John’s bewilderment), and have something ready for the group to read when his turn came up, which would be every two months, give or take. John said that he’d like to try it.

Oh, there’s one more thing,” Dan said. “I hate to drop this on you, but the person who recently decided to step away from the group for a while, well, she did that, among other things because her next presentation is the upcoming meeting. Now, I can revamp the schedule, but that puts several of our veteran writers in a bind because they all tend to have fairly regular writing schedules, which will have to be changed. Or, if you think you could manage it, you could jump right in at the deep end and let us read something of yours at the next meeting.”

John didn’t like that idea at all. But then it occurred to him that he’s always been about to write fiction, but never actually written it.

I think I can put something together for you.” He said.

Dan slapped him on the back and laughed. “Excellent,” he said. “I was hoping you’d say that. Just imagine me as Brad Pitt.” He took a bite of the panini he was eating, licked his lips and, while chewing said, “If this is your first time at Write Club, you have to write.”

* * * * *

That night John went home and started his story, one that he had been thinking about writing for quite some time but never gotten around to, and by the following Tuesday he had a completed draft, but rather than sit it aside and wait the week and a half for the next meeting of the group, he worked on editing and developing, tightening and compressing so that by second Tuesday when he finally emailed the story to Dan for distribution to the group, he had taken what started out as a forty page rough draft and trimmed it down to a tightly constructed twenty pages of razor sharp prose—or so he hoped. He sent the email and waited.

* * * * *

It isn’t that when he starts to write a piece of fiction, he clams up or anything. John has all sorts of ideas, and whenever he sits at his desk to write them, it seems like the stories just flow right off of his finger tips and onto the page or computer screen. And the stories feel so real. Oh no, he can tell stories just as well as any of the other writing that he does every day, but he still can’t write fiction because he can’t seem to deviate from the facts by so much as a middle initial for a tertiary character.

It’s the facts that get him. He’s amazing at facts, and that’s part of why he’s such a good journalist. He’s been writing for The Ledger for ten years now, ever since he graduated from Huntington, and in that time, he’s never, not once, seen a retraction or correction in the paper for one of the articles that he’s written. Sometimes he gets things wrong in a first draft, but by the time he’s cleaned things up, the facts will have adjusted themselves as well, even if he thought he had them all right in the first place, and was only line editing. He’ll catch the mistakes every time.

* * * * *

Because he was the first timer, John got to go first. The first ten minutes were dedicated to allowing the readers to look back over Johns story and remind themselves what they wanted to say, find the parts they wanted to point out, etc. While they did this, John sat nervously and looked back over the story himself, trying not to glare at the readers as they looked through their notes. When ten minutes had passed, John looked over at Dan to see if he would call them to start the discussion, but he was absorbed in his copy of the story, and it didn’t look as if he was thumbing back through for reference. It looked as if he was reading the story straight through. John looked around the room, and it looked as if others were doing the same thing.

Another five minutes passed, and John started to wonder if he should say something. Weren’t they supposed to have read this before they came to the meeting? He coughed. No response, so not knowing what exactly to say, he just sat there. Twenty minutes after they had started reading, the faster readers finished and looked up or closed their eyes, leaned back in their chairs, or stood up for coffee refills. Finally, twenty-eight minutes after they started reading, the final reader looked up from the page and stared at John.

John curled his lips away from his teeth in what he hoped would look more like a smile than the rigor mortis he was feeling. Dan Green started off the discussion the same way that he had started off the discussion of each piece at the previous meeting. “Before we start talking about your piece, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you were hoping to accomplish with it John?”

Well,” John said, “I had some friends in college who were really into video games, and I had some other friends who spent most of their free time taking any drugs that they could get their hands on. The friends who were always stoned were always suggesting music to me, and I noticed that a lot of the music that they suggested was very similar to the music that was in the soundtracks to a lot of the games that my gamer friends liked to play. The friends who were into drugs told me about the stuff that they had seen in their various hallucinations, and I couldn’t help but notice that some of the visions they had were either very similar to those from some of the darker games that my friends played, or would have done well as parts of such games. That just got me thinking, I guess, and I started to wonder what it would be like if we were to develop the ability to digitally record dreams or hallucinations and convert them into digital realities that others who were not drug users would then be able to interact with in games or online. I hope that using illegal drugs as a plot device in my first story wasn’t offensive or anything. I used real products for the most part to add to the realism.”

Green shook his head. “I didn’t find that offensive at all.” He said. “Did anyone have any trouble with the drug references?”

People started shaking their heads, and one middle aged, conservative looking lady said, “I don’t know why we would be offended by drug references in a piece like this.” Still, John thought, people looked awkward, as if there was something they wanted to say but didn’t know how to start.

Who wants to start with some of the strengths of this piece?” Green asked the room.

A middle aged man with salt and pepper hair and a completely gray beard started off. “I thought the prose was compelling.” He said. “It is obvious that you put a lot of work into making sure that there wasn’t a lot of extraneous verbiage, and the descriptions are beautiful. I especially liked your description of The Citadel of Mercury Rain. It was exquisite. I know.” He paused uncomfortably. “I know I couldn’t have described it nearly so well myself.”

John didn’t have time to wonder what the man meant buy “I couldn’t have described it nearly so well myself” because now that people had started talking, the comments came pretty quickly. Overall, people seemed to have liked the story pretty well. One woman said that she especially liked the descriptions of what Carlyle was thinking when he took the overdose that produced the Forest on a Cloud at Night, which she said was her favorite of Carlyle’s dreamscapes.

I did have one question about that,” she said. “I know you’re a journalist. Is this based on an interview you did with him at some point, or is this what you imagine he must have been thinking at the time? My understanding was that before he became a complete recluse, he wasn’t well known enough that he would have been interviewed” She paused awkwardly, as John was staring at her with his mouth opened. “But I don’t really keep up with celebrity journalism,” she finished lamely.

I’m not sure I know what you mean when you say—” was all John could come up with before the only teenager in the group, an intense looking fifteen or sixteen year old who John thought he might have heard called Jessie at some point interrupted to say that her boyfriend was a huge fan of the whole Dreamscape Scene, and he had gotten her Carlyle’s biography1 for her birthday. She was sure sure that his mother hadn’t been the jerk that John’s story presented her as. In fact, she was positive that it was only because of Nancy Carlyle’s support and encouragement that Dominick Carlyle had ever had the nerve to take the overdose that both sealed his career as the greatest of the first generation dreamscape artists and destroyed his sanity.

John’s mouth snapped shut with an audible click.

Finally, Green spoke up. “There’s no denying it John. This is a great piece of narrative history. It’s strongly written, captivating, intense. If I read this kind of stuff, I’m sure I’d have loved it. Even so, I have to admit I love it, but here’s the deal. This writing group is a fiction group. What’s more, it’s a fantastic fiction writing group. There are other groups for practicing writing literary non-fiction or whatever they’re calling it these days, though I’m not sure why you would want to practice, seeing as you get paid to do it all the time. The Bean has different groups meeting here all the time, but if you are going to have us read your stuff, you need to write fiction.

* * * * *

This is why John has fiction writer’s block. It isn’t that he is obsessive compulsive about his facts. He never ever does research for writing a fiction piece, but it doesn’t matter. No matter how weird the story is, no matter how sure he is that nothing like what he is writing about has ever happened, when John sends his story out into the world, the people who read it are going to recognize what he is writing about and tell him that they thought he was writing fiction and were very surprised to find themselves reading narrative fact. The one exception that John has found to this is when he does exceptionally bad writing, which is the only way that he was able to pass his creative writing class in college. At fall break he was failing the course because the teacher refused to give him credit for true stories, no matter how well written they were. Finally, he got frustrated and just wrote a flat story with clichés and boring characters who did things that went against their character. He wrote the story in a burst and never went back to check continuity, spelling, or even formatting. He turned the story in and got a C+. After much begging, John convinced his professor to let him write new stories to replace the true ones he had turned in previously, and the partial scores he got with those, and a lot of extra credit, let him pass with the absolute minimum possible percentage to get a C- for the course.

* * * * *

After The Bean was closed and everyone else had gone home for the night, John and Whitney sat in the café and John drank a cup of coffee with a double of espresso in it (Priest: “You won’t sleep tonight.” John: “I try to miss a night every couple of weeks anyway.”), and Jim smoked. Jim tried to distract John from the fiasco with the story by telling him about some research that he had been doing, something about a project that a PhD student at Huntington did ten years ago or so, but John, normally an attentive listener, couldn’t take his mind off of the fiasco with the story.

I swear, I’d never heard anything about ‘dreamscapes’ or ‘Dominick Carlyle’ or ‘The Citadel of Mercury Rain’ before I wrote that story. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’d have laughed at someone if they told me anything even remotely associated with using illegal drugs to make art. I still can’t believe that they are saying that this has been going on for years.”

I don’t know what to tell you. Seven Suns at Midnight is a pretty popular book for new media art aficionados, and it has been for quite a while. You must have heard someone talking about it at some point and thought you made it up.” He puffed on his pipe sagely, or at least that is what John supposed it was supposed to look like. The pipe had gone out though, and Jim sneezed down the stem, blowing a cloud of ash out of the pipe.

When he finished laughing, John scratched his jaw, wiped the tears from his eyes, and ran his hands through his hair. “This type of thing has been happening for years. I almost failed creative writing in college because of the same thing.”

Jim packed a new bowl of tobacco, relit his pipe, and puffed on it some more, finally almost managing the sage look he had been going for earlier, football player soot lines below his eyes. After a moment his face lit up. “I know what you need to do. You need to write something completely impossible, something that you know can’t be bleeding over into your imagination from the real world.”

That’s what I did.” John almost yelled. “Am I the only person who thinks that letting people fry their brains just to make interesting computer landscapes is reckless and stupid?”

No, you’re right. We do stupid things all the time.” More puffing. “I know. You should make your premise something that you couldn’t have found out even if it were true, something that mainly takes place in a person’s mind or something like that. Then you’d be safe. You have any ideas like that?”

John pulled on his chin. “Yeah, I think I have an idea,” he said.

* * * * *

That night, John stayed up most of the night letting the caffeine burn out of his brain and writing a first draft of a story about a man who lived life after life after life, always dying and immediately finding himself back in his mother’s womb, preparing to live again. The man always tried to change things, to make the world a better place, but he always failed. Sometimes the changes he made were huge, like finding a way to prevent the terrorist attack on 9/11. Other times, the changes were much more modest, like being in the right place at the right time and saving a single life. Sometimes he used what he knew about the eighty years that he had lived over and over again to become the head of a great business empire, or president. Sometimes he was poor. Sometimes he couldn’t take it anymore and killed himself as a child. Sometimes he was a criminal. Sometimes he was a prophet. The man’s greatest pain was that no matter what he did, he couldn’t seem to change to the actual amount of human suffering in the world. Crimes happened, atrocities. Once, when he prevented 9/11, Osama Bin Laden used a nuclear device that killed thirty times as many. Another time, a child he saved grew up to be a rapist. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he could see the shadows of his other lives, walking along beside him, haunting him until he felt his sanity must break, for he lived in a world of ghosts more frightening than any imaginable, his own ghosts.

Finally, after hundreds of lives, he met someone like himself, and he found out how to die, but he also came to believe that every time he lived, he did not change the universe, that time was not stuck with him, but that he created a completely new universe based on his actions, that he was a hub from which time itself shot spoke after spoke after spoke into the eternal void, and he came to see himself as a small part of a greater plan that would preserve humankind despite all its mistakes, because there would always be another version, a different path. In that realization, he found peace.

John didn’t stop by writing the story though. He had two months before his next time to present, and he wanted to do all that he could to make sure that the idea was his and no one else’s, so he revised and cut, tightened and clarified, and he studied theories about religion and physics, the universe and the multiverse, and even though there were many theories suggesting that the universe split constantly, no theories suggested that only specific people made the choices that caused the mitosis of universes. His story was his own.

When the two months were up, and John had read stories by all of the other writers in the group2, some of which were great, probably held back from publication only by their author’s perfectionism, and others which were, well, not, John’s story finally came before the reading group for discussion.

This time the discussion went much better. People still got sucked into the story and read the whole thing instead of just reviewing their notes from pre-reading it, but John knew from experience with his essays for The Ledger that people genuinely liked reading his work, and he felt confident that the longer review time happened simply because they were enjoying reading back over the work. One person, however, didn’t read back over the story. The salt-and-pepper haired, grey-bearded man who had liked John’s description of The Citadel of Mercury Rain, Steve Collins, just sat across from him in the circle of chairs and glowered. John found it more than slightly uncomfortable and was getting ready to go ask Collins if everything was alright when people started to look up from reading the story. Before long, the conversation became lively. The general consensus was that the impossibility of the story made up for the historicity of his last one, though Dan Green, whose last story had been about a sentient lampshade that had fallen in love with a throw rug and eloped to Dubai, thought it was a bit too farfetched.

Afterward, when Jim Whitney was congratulating John on having written some actual fiction, Steve Collins walked up and gruffly said, “We need to talk.”

Ok,” John said, and gave Jim what he hoped was a “be ready to rescue me” look.

You never put it in the story.” He said. “You say he learned how to end the cycle, but you never say how it was done.”

John had no idea what he was talking about, but he thought Collins must be referring to the man being able to end his lives. “How should I know?” He said. “It’s just a story.”

Right,” Collins said, and winked sourly, with no mirth. “What I want to know is how you found out. I’ve never told anyone this time because of what they always do when I tell. I don’t know if it is worse when they believe or don’t. How did you find out? How do you know what I am?”

What you are?”

The hub, John. How did you know that I’m the hub?

John felt his mouth fall open again.

* * * * *

John didn’t know whether or not to believe Steve, and the next he heard, Steve had been transferred suddenly to Austin.

“Next time it is my turn to present,” he told Green one day as they were having lunch together (they had become good friends), “I’m going to go for something in the classic mold, something like what Heinlein, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and Dick were doing during the Golden Age, something that would never be publishable today because the genre has moved on, but something that might be good practice, an exercise in restraint. I think I’ll write about a moon colony that has a tragedy.”

“I thought you didn’t know anything about Science Fiction.” Green said. “Where’s all this ‘golden age, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and Dick’ coming from?”

“I’ve been doing some research.”

“Well,” Green said. “Even if the technology involved didn’t make the story science fiction, the price of such an undertaking certainly would in today’s economic climate. I’m thinking of writing a story about a Dachshund who finds the tree of life hidden at the bottom of a groundhog hole, guarded by fiery little sprites riding about on blind moles.”

John said that sounded right up Dan’s alley.

* * * * *

By sheer luck of the draw, John didn’t have two months to get his next story together. He was at the end of the cycle, and each cycle the whole group drew names from a hat to determine the date of their next reading. John fell at the beginning of the next cycle, so he ended up presenting with only one meeting between presentations, which meant he could theoretically not present again for another four months. Inefficient at best. He still had plenty of time to put his story together and do some research, and he intended to allow himself only a couple of technologies that didn’t already exist, finally deciding on the use of nano technology as both the anachronistic element and the problem in the story.

The night that the group read his story, John felt confident that they would enjoy it, even if they would know that the style was a little outdated. As usual, they took more time on his story than they normally would have on other people’s work, and John felt good that they were lingering over it even if the prose was more stylized than they were used to, but when people finished reading and looked up, they didn’t look like they enjoyed reading the story. In fact, most of them looked angry. Jenny (the real name of the girl whose boyfriend was a big fan of Dominick Carlyle’s dreamscapes) had tears running down her face, and one of the older ladies put her arm around her.

“Well,” said Green, “That was about as tasteful as writing stories about the sinking of the USS Arizona while the seamen inside are still pounding on its hull.”

John was about to ask what exactly Dan was referring to when Whitney walked over from the register, where he’d been watching the news, and said that they were finally pulling out the last of the survivors. People silently got up and walked out of the room. John went into the café last. Survivors of what? He wondered. He had read the news very thoroughly that morning, and no great tragedies had happened, no storms or earthquakes, no bombings or eruptions, nothing. John stopped and stared at the plasma screen.

“Impossible.” He shouted.

There, on the screen in bold CNN letters was written “5000 dead, tens of thousands more missing.” And below that, “Tragedy on Lunar Colony Alpha.”

* * * * *

They wanted to throw him out of the writing group for that, but Jim stood up for him. He said that John was writing out his pain, trying to understand for himself, in his own way, what was going on. Never mind that John hadn’t known anything about the accident. Never mind that he had told Dan three weeks ago what he was going to write about Green didn’t remember the conversation. Never mind that John protested strongly that his social skills might be a little rough around the edges, but they weren’t as horrible as all that. Never mind. Never mind. Never mind.

In the end they only let him stay because they had become his friends, and Jim provided their venue. John said that he wanted to provide a new story at the next meeting, even though it wasn’t his turn. He said that he wanted to use it as a way of explaining himself. They let him because Steve was in the lineup for the following meeting, but he was a trained counselor and he had volunteered his services for the bereaved of the Lunar Meltdown. John took his place.

John wrote about never being able to write fiction, about everything he ever wrote either already being true or coming true. He wrote about the frustration of trying again and again and never being able to write a good story, of wondering why he missed things that everyone else knew were going on, of writing down exactly what was happening while thinking that he was making it up himself. He changed the name, of course, and he changed all the circumstances, but the body of the story was the hard truth, all except for the ending. At the end of the story, John’s character stole another writer’s idea book, and he joined a writing group and wrote stories based on that writer’s ideas. And because it wasn’t his creation, because he had stolen the kernel of the story, it wasn’t infused with truth. It became fiction, nothing more, and they said it was his best work, better than any of his essays or reporting. The group loved his fiction and wanted him to try to get his stories published, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t steal that other writer’s work. So he wrote one last story, confessing what he had done.

John didn’t email this story early. He brought a dozen copies with him, and the whole group read it for the first time sitting there in one of the group meeting rooms at The Bean. John watched them read, as intent on their faces as they were on his story. It was long, much longer than the stories that he usually turned in, but no one quit reading. No one fidgeted or looked bored. No one got up to use the bathroom or get coffee. They just read, and when they were all finished reading, Steve Collins, who hadn’t written for tonight because he’d been recovering from a root canal all week said, “So you mean to say that your story from last week, the one about the moon colony that we all liked so much was at least partially plagiarized?”

John smiled sadly, nodded, said “I’m sorry,” and never tried to write fiction again.

1 Seven Suns at Midnight: The Life and Vision of Dominick Carlyle, by Theresa King, 2011, Harper and Row, NY.

2 He had also read the first 27 chapters of the Tolkien clone, not because it was good; it wasn’t, but because he figured he should know what was going on in order to talk intelligently about it.

Advertisements

May 15, 2011 Posted by | Fiction, From Wyandotte, Science Fiction, Writing | Leave a comment

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.

January 9, 2010 Posted by | Fiction, From Wyandotte, Graduate School, NOT SAFE FOR RLC/NWAG CROWD, Writing | 2 Comments