Where You Been?

IMG_1025 Funny you should ask.

Since starting my daily writing practice last November, I have only been interrupted my illness and insomnia. I could be slightly wrong, but my memory tells me that I was sick for a few days back in the winter. Then I have had a couple of nights where bouts of insomnia messed up my sleep enough to not allow me time to write in the morning before work.

Then the last two weeks happened.

First I taught the writing workshop at Ferry Beach. I knew the focus I would put into the writing group would take me away from my writing. It seemed like a good tradeoff though. I would spend an hour or more each day preparing for the workshop, then I would be in with a great group of writers, doing powerful work, for 2 ½ hours each day, for five days (and another hour on the first day of the workshop). To say it was time well spent would be a disservice to the time we spent together. It was an incredibly powerful week. It was an honor to work with everyone there.

Then I got home. On my first days home, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday of last week, I wrote. In fact I was doing some research, which feels different from putting my hands on the keyboard, but it’s important work. I am going through my father’s VA records. I am tracing his story from his first psychiatric episode as the war in the Pacific was winding down to his suicide 35 years alter. I have had the records for 25 years, and had read through them, but this is the first time I have gone through them systematically. It’s a profoundly sad story.

On Tuesday I got sick. I always heard summer colds were miserable, but I don’t remember having one and had always been skeptical. I am no longer a skeptic. Starting at about 2:00 on Tuesday—sitting through my third demo of the day of our mainframe-based warehouse management system—my throat caught fire, my nose opened up, and I felt feverish and achy. I left early, went home, and went to bed.

Sometime around 2:00 on the following Sunday, I got up from the couch and puttered. I did some paperwork. I cleaned the kitchen. I went out to the garden and weeded a little. I sat in the shade for a bit. I helped a bit with dinner and cleaned the kitchen again.

So here I am, Monday morning after my little bout with misery, back at the keyboard. It feels good.

I have a few projects in front of me, some small, some large.

I am going to go back into the novel one more time before I take the next step of sharing it with a couple of friends in work. They are both publishing pros who have been around trade publishing. They both have editorial eyes. They both know the business. They both like me but will be honest with me. I am terrified. So I will go in, read through it, do a bit more development, and then share it.

I am doing the research on my father and might take the bold step of going to a reunion of his bomber group from World War 2. They are meeting in Wichita in September. If there are a couple of guys who knew my dad, it’s going to be worth my while. If I am serious about developing something like a memoir, I shouldn’t pass this up.

I have a few stories in progress.

In going through my files, I found a short story I wrote more than 15 years ago. It’s actually not bad. I was able to scan it from the print, clean up the text, and reformat it. I then took a pretty good ax to it. I hacked it down from 4.993 words to 2,551 words. I felt like Hemingway. I also reworked some of the details and took out some stilted dialogue (I was always so bad at dialogue and think I am a little better now.) I kept the gist of the story.

As I have been rereading my new stories, I realize some of them run long, perhaps much too long, so I have been working with shorter forms.To that end, I wrote a 1,438-word story. It’s gothic, really, inspired by Joyce Carol Oates’ story, “Mastiff,” which was featured on a recent New Yorker podcast. Sometimes Oates is masterful, and the story is brilliant. I challenged myself to write something in the style. I kind of like what I have come up with. I have parked it for a couple of weeks and will work it again. I might try on a few different endings and see how they feel.

I have another story that is likely going to end up as just an exercise. It’s a tale of a man passing through life and encountering an old friend again and again. The old friend starts on a downward path at a young age, and the man progresses through a middle-class life. Each encounter is short but (I hope) revealing about both men. I like elements of it, but don’t think it will turn into anything good. It’s already very long and I think the story is only partway told. At one point in the writing I thought, damn, this is a novel. Maybe it is or maybe it is the germ of one.

The last story features the protagonist from my novel, Scott Burke, causing trouble in New York City again. It’s a small prequel to the novel. I want it to suggest why things went so wrong for Burke. I also want it to stand on its own as a story. Maybe it’s just an exercise. Maybe it’s material I can add to the novel. I’m not sure yet. I do like writing in the voice of the novel, though.

Finally, I have some follow-up from the workshop. We all agreed we want to keep the ball rolling in the 51 weeks that pass between workshops. We’ve tried various things in the past. A Yahoo group. A Facebook group. Email. Nothing has really caught on yet. So I am going to craft and propose something to this year’s attendees, and then take it from there. I am thinking something like a weekly note, with a prompt. We are also talking about doing a Google hangout once a month, and me providing a prompt for that. We shall see. I hope something works. It was a magical week. An incredibly productive week. Fifty-one weeks is a terribly long offseason.

2 thoughts on “Where You Been?

  1. Hi Bill. Just finished reading your “Where You Been” post. Your comments about reviewing your fathers VA medical records caught my attention. I don’t know if you are aware of the fact that I spent my entire 29 year career as a psychiatric social worker at the Bedford VA beginning in 1980. While my time at the VA likely occurred after your dad’s years of treatment in the system I’d like you to know that I’d be glad to share with you what I know about the VA system before and during my involvement there. If you think that that information might contribute something useful to your efforts to better understand his experience and the context in which he was treated let me know.

    Also, I just told Maureen that I am sending this response. She asked me to add that she is an advanced practice psych nurse. One of her strongest skills is in the area of record review. She wants you to know that she would be happy to help in any way with your efforts to understand what might be contained in your dad’s records or answer any questions that you might have about them.

    I enjoy reading your posts.


  2. Hi Don,

    Thanks so much for your note, and it is very nice to hear from you!

    I did know your history at the VA, and if I remember correctly you were also a Vietnam veteran> I would love to bounce some thoughts off you. The records are episodic, if you will. They start with a hospitalization while he was still in the Pacific, then he began presenting to the VA in the 1940s and 1950s to request benefits. He was given a 10% service-connected disability. I have no idea what that means or what that entitled him to.

    By the early 1970s, his contact with the VA accelerated. He had two stays in Bedford, and then extended outpatient care until his death. After his death, I believe they they determined his death was service-connected. I received benefits to finish college and then to do my graduate work.

    Can you write me? btrippe AT gmail.

    I would love to get Maureen’s perspective as well, and I would like to track down any other medical records I can. I have a recollection of him staying at a place near government center, but I can’t recall the name of it. May have been a state facility.

    Anyway, thank you again and SO nice to hear from you!


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