Routine

I’ve now been self-employed (again) for a year. It has been productive. I’ve had client work that I’ve enjoyed, I am back in the classroom teaching a graduate seminar in book publishing, and I am claiming back some of the time I gave up to a job and commute that often took me 12 hours a day. I am working hard still, but in the kinds of bursts and lulls that come with consulting. I have weeks when I simply don’t stop and weeks when I can mingle my work with things that need to be done at home and close to home. Today I will work into the afternoon and then rake some leaves.

One thing I have been striving to regain is certain routines. For two years (November 2014 to November 2016) I wrote nearly every day–an hour or more each weekday morning and two hours or more each weekend morning. I finished a novel that had been idling for three years and I wrote 20 short stories, five of which have been published.

Then election day happened and I have hardly written since.

So this is a good time to get back to it, don’t you think?

I Will Never Be Annie Dillard and That’s OK

newbedfordunionstreet1970(An excerpt from something that might be in progress or might not be.)

I started reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek on a warm spring afternoon in a seedy bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I was a senior in college, spending more time as a stringer for the local Standard-Times than I was spending in class or studying. I had arranged it this way. I had taken enough classes as a sophomore and junior to give myself an easy glide-path out of college.

I had filed a story that day about a car wreck. A full-time reporter had written the main story and they had given me a sidebar to write. The driver, shitfaced at 10:00 in the morning, had swerved to miss some imaginary thing in the road and had crashed into a convenience store.

The store owner, his back to the window as he stood at the cash register, never saw it coming. The car roared through the front window and crushed a candy display and knocked the lottery machine off its table and into the legs of the owner. The machine snapped one of his femurs cleanly in two.

I had been a block away when I heard it and got close enough to watch the EMTs stabilize the leg while the mean screamed and then passed out. He was screaming in Portuguese and I hardly knew a word, but I did fashion a quote out of the screaming with some help from his son. “Mamãe! Meu Deus, Mamãe!” I decided I would have been screaming the same thing.

I filed the story and walked to the bar. I had to settle my nerves. It was my second car wreck in two weeks. I had covered the first one for a local radio station where I also freelanced. They didn’t have a real night-time reporter so I went out there alone, steno pad in hand. The cop wouldn’t let me near enough to see anything, but there were two bodies on the street. Someone had produced drop cloths to cover the bodies. They were soaked through with blood. I walked a block away and puked.

I ordered a boilermaker, Old Thompson Whiskey and a 16-ounce Narragansett beer, and I pulled Dillard from my jacket pocket.

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest….

(Well, heck, I used to have a cat, too! The summer Midnight went into heat—and the only summer she lived through—she would jump from roof to roof up the two-deckers lining one side of my street. She would then climb, squirrel-like, down one of the 4-by-4s that framed our back porch. She would scratch on my brother’s screen until he let her in.

That fall, Midnight wandered a bit too far onto the next block. Something got to her—a dog maybe but more likely a pack of kids—and a friend found her, scraped her into a box, and brought her to us. She was still alive, but when we got to the vet he didn’t have to look at her for very long. He tried to soften the blow for me. “It looks like you are going to have to get another kitty.”)

The boilermaker felt good enough to order a second and then a third. I soldiered on through Dillard.

The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer’s negative of a landscape.

“Goddamn that is good writing.” I must have said it aloud because the bartender turned to me. I wasn’t quick enough to explain myself so the bartender brought me a fourth boilermaker. I downed the shot and chased it with half of the beer before I took a breath.

At some point the bar filled with reporters, including Dave, who had filed the full story on the crash. He dropped a copy of the paper in front of me. The Standard-Times was an afternoon paper and the story I had finished writing two hours before was now miraculously in front of me, printed and folded, my byline in bold 10-point Futura.

“Six inches, my little man.” The city editor had cut my story, which I always knew would happen, but she had also cut my lede, including the first line, which I had been celebrating in my head the whole afternoon. “An otherwise perfectly normal day for Alberto Gomes took a bad turn this morning when a Buick LeSabre crashed through the front window of his Union Street convenience store.”

Dave was downing his first beer. “Don’t use adverbs. Carol fucking hate adverbs. And ‘bad turn.’ Jesus, kid, have an idea.”

Carol was the city editor. She had moved up from covering crime for nearly twenty years. She chain smoked and sounded like Robert Loggia. I had filed 20 stories with her after doing only sports for the first two years. She had lopped off every one of my ledes. Dave had tried to coach me a little. “If you like it too much, little man, it probably sucks.”

Is This the Start of a Story?

Man with umbrella walking in the rainI was returning from a trip to New York City and the short piece below came out.I shared it on Facebook and some writer friends have written two beautiful responses to it, picking up the story from other points of view. As I was reading and editing it, I was thinking of my recent post about what makes for good story telling when the truth seems to bleed into fiction.

I was also reflecting on a weekend dinner with my brother and two of my oldest friends. We were recalling stories and relying on each other to fill in the details. For some of the stories I had departed from the real at some point. Perhaps other details sounded better, perhaps I honestly forgot, perhaps some combination of both.

Anyway, the story–all of which, or nearly all of which, is true.


 

You could put me in Greenwich Village on a stormy evening. You could make the wind sweep rain up from my feet, soak through my pants in a minute. You could have me duck into the first restaurant.

Make it Russian. Drape it in deep velvet where people sit in wicker thrones at preposterously small tables. Shake my head at the chairs. Put me instead at the bar.

Make the bartender look like Ivanka Trump but put her in jeans and a Yankees t-shirt. Make her warm and attentive. Have her introduce herself as Cosma.

Have one of the waiters join me at the bar. Between deep groaning spasms of Tourette’s have him tell me, in perfectly accented English, to try the dumplings.

Have him start to tell me that they are perfect for “this shitty weather.” But then have Cosma shut him down. “You think this is shitty weather? Come to Serbia. I will show you shitty weather.”

Have some young guys show up and flirt with Cosma despite her engagement ring. Have them ask her name and have her tell them Natasha and point to me. “And him? That’s Boris.”

Have me hold up my drink, nod to them across the bar. Allow me a smile and give me a look that says I am in for a good night if I can hold my vodka.

You could tell that story and know that it’s almost true. You really could.

Prompts

edgeworthAs I’ve organized my office to my liking over the last year, I’ve surrounded myself with books, manuscripts, vinyl record albums, and the paraphernalia and ephemera of my life. I have things from long ago (my graduation tassel from high school) and from the recent past (rocks from my favorite beach in Maine). I have stand-ins for objects that would be far more evocative if they were the real thing–an Edgeworth tobacco tin (the brand my grandfather smoked)–and objects that become more real every time I pick them up a time-worn photograph of my mother when she was young, beautiful, and the world, as they say, was her oyster.

My desk is crowded, and I could clear it up, but I like the prompts that surround me. In no particular order they include:

  • A statuette of Socrates that has been on my desk since college
  • Three of those beach rocks, each just a bit too large to fit in the palm of my hand
  • A toy-sized Louisville Slugger
  • A replica of a .50 caliber bullet, the same one my father would have fired from a B-24 during WW2
  • A replica of my father’s 13th Air Force patch
  • Two harmonicas, neither of them played well since high school
  • A matchbox-sized mobile home
  • A matchbox-sized Pontiac Fiero
  • A hockey puck
  • A stack of photographs
  • A stack of baseball cards, all featuring Red Sox players
  • A stack of baseball ticket stubs
  • A Christmas snow globe that no longer works
  • Two small plastic army men
  • A postcard from the Hemingway House, Hemingway petting a cat
  • A stack of letters from friends, written when friends wrote letters
  • A picture of my son’s 6th birthday
  • An airline ticket stub that took me from New Orleans back to Boston
  • The dust jacket from Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire, disembodied from the book
  • A stack of five running logs from the five years I was an active runner in my 30s and 40s
  • A button I wore to watch my high school’s hockey team win the state championship in 1976
  • A piece of hardwood that someone whittled, maybe even me
  • A wedding picture, my wife looking beautiful and me looking goofily happy

I have many more within arm’s reach, but these are a good start. I’ve had a productive year of daily writing, and I haven’t used any of these yet.

The One Job You’ve Known

FullSizeRenderI spent the day at Suffolk Downs yesterday with a couple of old friends. I’ve spent a handful of days there in the past, but it officially closed two years ago, had a handful of live racing days this year, and will have a handful next year. After that, it is more than likely gone. There are some thoughts that if they get slots there they might be able to have a few days of live racing each year, but I don’t think many people are betting on that, so to speak.

Suffolk Downs is a 2.5 mile drive from where I grew up, but less than a mile as the crow flies (or more likely sea gulls). The only thing separating my street from the edge of the racing oval was a narrow inlet and a whole lot of marsh. The men in my neighborhood drove or took the subway over, placed a few bets and drank a few beers. On a hot August night in 1966, we stood at the bottom of my street and listened to the Beatles playing there. My memory tells me we heard the screaming more easily than we did the music.

I am neither a horse lover nor a gambler. I do like how handsome a horse looks, but from afar. My wife loves them, can tell me 1000 thousands about them I would never learn on my own. As for gambling, I like my own money too much to have it leave my hands without much telling me it’s going to return.

Still, I do like watching horse racing and I liked being with my friends. I went there prepared to lose the money in my wallet and nothing more. I came home a few bucks up.

Mainly I enjoyed being with my friends. I can remember standing with the same two guys–Grizz and Butch–at least 30 years ago. They were as smart about it all then as I am still ignorant of pretty much every detail. I did used to know how to read the racing form, and I was a little disappointed it was cryptic to me yesterday. I won more when I was guessing than when I was making what I imagined was an intelligent choice. That probably says something about me, or gambling, or both.

I was struck more than a few times about the place was winding down. Some of the regulars are old, some using walkers or just moving slow. Most of the employees–save the jockeys and other people working with the horses–are my age and older. I don’t think too many people besides me were all that philosophical though. It was a beautiful day, and I think they were doing their jobs the way the always had, and that included the gamblers.

I do think there are many stories to be told there, though. I didn’t take many pictures, but if I had, it would have been of the people working. When the track officially closed two years ago, I read that 325 employees would be losing their jobs, and “thousands” of contractors would lose work. That’s a major economic dislocation any time, but Suffolk Downs is the only horse track left in New England. (The next closest one is Saratoga Race Track.) It’s one thing to be a bartender or a computer programmer and lose your job; there’s likely one in the same town or a few towns away. It’s another thing entirely for you to work in a field where the only employer in your region goes away.

What does it mean when the only job you’ve ever loved–or maybe even ever known–goes away and isn’t coming back?

There’s a story in that. Maybe I should write it.

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.