Writers: Warren Zevon Died for Your Sins

BurningGuitar

Good American that I am, I was waxing my car in the garage last weekend, when a Warren Zevon song came on the radio. The wax job immediately brightened, because Zevon’s stuff is often jolly wordplay, painted with irony and wit, and this song, “Werewolves of London” is Zevon at his absurdist perfection. The whole song is weirdly, rollickingly splendid, but it has a line that kills me every time: “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vics,” a pause, and then the insouciantly delivered, “His hair was perfect.”

The writing credits for that number have a couple of other names, but if you know Zevon, you know he had a heavy hand in arranging that werewolf’s hair. So many of his tunes were spiced with the oddly angled, delightfully perverse bite of his mind: “Excitable Boy,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” He could also be perfectly world-weary, like in “Carmelita” (and truly world-weary, near his death, with “Keep Me in Your Heart”).

Legacy and Fame: Two Different Things

But I don’t come to praise Zevon, but to dig him up. What I mean by that, for writers, is that Zevon had a pretty good career, cut short by a form of lung cancer that undoubtedly was part of his hard lifestyle. He was highly respected in songwriting circles, but he never blasted to the top-tier of stardom. I don’t have a clue if he even wanted that, but I want to look at his work in light of what he put into his writing: himself.

His work is sardonic, witty, and sometimes outright weird. He wasn’t afraid to go into areas—death, sex, crime—where some other writers might shy from. And his work is highly original—if you listen to many of his songs, you see he didn’t take the easy way out. Probably because he couldn’t—he couldn’t help putting himself fully in his writing. His version of the perfect rock ’n roll love song wouldn’t top the charts because the charts were almost always topped by writing that never ventured into grottos of the imagination, didn’t step in muck and then laugh about it.

What Your Writing Needs Most Is You

The point of my elegy here is that writers should put their flesh in their writing: the stuff that tears at you, the stuff behind a forbidding door, the soft gong of alarm in the night that no one else hears. Zevon left early, and maybe he’s forgotten by many (or never ever heard by many more), but he managed to be true to himself in his work, even if he danced with some demons too. He left early, but he left a lot behind.

Bonus Zevon Sighting

Zevon was a hard drinker, and it didn’t always serve him well. I was at a Grateful Dead concert in Santa Barbara in the late 70s, and Zevon was one of the opening acts. This was an afternoon concert, in a stadium, and the Dead crowd was restless to get twirling, and were calling for the Dead during Zevon’s set. He was about six sheets to the wind, and started screaming back at the crowd, calling them 60s burn-outs (was that an insult?). He wobbled off the stage at the end of his set, after he unleashed a frenzy of punitive guitar feedback.

Devon lost some good years to the bottle, but his songwriting output was still prodigious, and wholly individual. I don’t recommend that you pour Jack Daniels over your corn flakes before your morning pages (it’s better on oatmeal), but I do recommend that you remember to put your real self in your writing, whether it’s in fiction or non—put in the wrinkles, put in the bloodshot eyes, put in Mona Lisa’s sly smile.

Leave the best (and sometimes the worst) of you on the page, and as one of Zevon’s inimitably titled songs suggests, you can sleep when you’re dead. If the words ring, there’s a fair chance someone will remember.

A Writer’s Gratitude Tastes Like Pumpkin Pie

Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc

There’s a lot of good to say about gratitude. Even though gratitude can seem like an industry these days (books! blogs! speeches!), and that making a gratitude list at Thanksgiving time can seem as creative as Cool Whip, expressing gratitude is still one of those things that can lift your spirits.

Gratitude can let you realize that your lot in life is a lot, not a less. Gratitude can connect you to people and to yourself. It can even make you healthier. It’s great to be grateful.

This gratitude post has two voices: one is my writer’s voice, and one is my wise guy voice. They are both grateful, though their approaches are different. Not all of the items on my writer’s list are writerly, and not all of the items on my wise guy’s list are wise.

Writer:
I am deeply grateful that my mom has moved into assisted living and retained her warm spirit, and even increased her vitality since she had to leave my boyhood home. And grateful as well for the good health and spirit of my siblings and of my sweetheart, who are all doing pretty well.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that my mom never found out about all of the illegal, dangerous and downright stupid things I did as a kid. (Though she thinks she does know them all; mom, you would call the cops even now.)

Writer:
I’m grateful for my own health, which though it’s tilted at a few windmills this year, it’s righted itself without collapsing altogether.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that the antibiotics that recently saved me from the gut-clenching bacteria I brought back from Myanmar tasted like jellybeans. [Note: you can choose to believe wise guy remarks or not.]

Writer:
I’m grateful to have good old friends—some from more than 30 years back and even some more than 40 years back—whom I still see and talk to, though not often enough.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that most of my old friends make more money than me, because I can make a tidy list of the borrowing I’m going to do in my later years. And I’m grateful that my newer friends don’t know about all those things I did as a kid. [See above]

Writer:
I’m grateful that I finished two books this year, one a novel yet to be published and one a self-published nonfiction work.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that the writer guy above finished that novel too; it only took eight years.

Writer:
I’m grateful for books in general, and just for being able to read. Books have been the spur to my imagination for as long as I can remember.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that with today’s memory, I’ve forgotten pretty much all the bad books I’ve ever read. And that I’ve forgotten that I’ve forgotten some of the good ones as well.

Writer:
I’m grateful for life itself, which I too often forget is an impossible gift.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful I can find shoes for my large feet. In fact, I’m grateful to have feet.

Writer:
Thank god for mashed potatoes. And bourbon.

Wise guy:
I’m glad we can agree on something.

Gratitude does change my attitude.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you out there!

Denying Your Characters. Really, It’s for Their Own Good

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc


Denying your fictional characters something—even if they are the sweetest of souls—is an effective way to see what they are made of. Holding back something they crave can show their real faces—or at least their faces under stress, and thus show character, or lack of it. We’ll shoot past the given that your characters have to want something in your stories, even at unconscious levels, and sidestep the subtle ways you can introduce those wants. Let’s go to not giving it to them.

I have a character with the sonorous name of Pinky DeVroom, the protagonist of a novel on which I’m collaborating with a pal, Rick. Pinky is a newspaper man in Boston who has high literary ambitions. He’s written a novel that gets him tingling attention from a Boston agent, who secures a publishing contract. The novel being written and the publishing contract were deep desires of old Pinky. The matter of him being sharply smitten with his agent flamed new desires.

Those had to be thwarted.

The Thwartings
Sadly for poor Pinky, he offered his novel to the agent right when the Crash of ’29 happened. The warm handshake of the contract melted into delay and dithering. But at least a friendship with his agent, Elfred, is deepening, yes? No. Pinky can’t have Elfred, because Pinky himself gets in the way: his better instincts are always trodden by his baser ones, so that every moment of their apparent coming together is met by Pinky’s blunders with booze, his miscalculations on what wooing is all about, his flummoxed misinterpretations of Elfred’s attentions.

In other words, he’s a mess. And he’s a mess because Rick and I keep denying him things. His messiness and denied goals keep propelling the story forward, in both funny and frightening ways. Deny your characters and they have higher hills to climb, more veils in front that obscure any clear-sightedness behind, potholes that leave their heart’s tires airless and flat.

Of course, you can’t just create a bumbling caricature of a character, one who never has a fine moment or measured victory—readers will tire of sheer slapstick, of paddling in the shallows of the fictional pool, of defeat’s cold ash. Even a fine myth like Sisyphus loses its weight if we have to push that rock up the hill into infinity along with the poor boy. So it’s helpful to work out—organically, and not as a formula—a two-steps backwards, one-step forward motion, where Pinky gets to taste some sweetness midst the bile, where the sun sometimes warms the cold rooms in which we’ve put him.

He hungers for that relief, and I think readers do too.

Unwrapping the Prize and Seeing Tarnish
That notion of denial and its graces occurred to me because I’ve been denying myself of late. I came back from a recent media trip to Myanmar with a wicked belly bug, necessitating a round of antibiotics. Now I’m a fellow who likes a glass of wine, sometimes two, with dinner. Even more so a nice classic cocktail on the weekends. Antibiotics aren’t the best mixers for booze, so denied I was.

But it was interesting to me to observe my interest in making my sweetheart a cocktail (a Negroni, if you must know) last weekend. I loved to mix, shake and pour the ingredients into the frosted glass, and took a deep sniff. Ahh, very good. Not as good as drinking one though.

And I also went to a party, where I poured some wine for a couple of people, admiring its hue in the glass, catching a whiff of bouquet. So it was with great anticipation that when my antibiotic shackles were thrown, on my birthday no less, I went to one of my favorite restaurants and ordered a glass of wine, ahhh.

No—yuck!

Who Put the Goat Hoof in My Wine?
What was that bitter stuff? And what was the bitter substitute glass that I replaced it with? And the squinched-lip sips I took from two samples of other wines the waitress kindly brought? Either the antibiotics were still biting, or my entire constitution had changed. But that made me think further of fictional situations: what if the thing desired, finally wrought, was wrong?

Have to keep that in mind for Pinky, because that complicated weave has so many more threads than boy-meets-girl, boy loses novel and girl, and boy gets various plummy things. Boy might have no clue what he really wants after he has a taste of it, eh?

I have to say though, that I’m somewhat anxious about what might happen this evening. It’s the first Friday I’ve had being antibiotic free since my bellyaches. What if the Manhattan I’m thinking of mixing up tastes like goat hoof? Oh well, there’s always beer …

Living (or Shirking) Your Legend

Photo Credit: Joe Mud via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Joe Mud via Compfight cc


A little bit back, I read a couple of posts from writers I admire, Jonathan Fields and Leo Babauta. They wrote about the sudden death of their friend, Scott Dinsmore, lost while fulfilling a lifetime dream of his hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’d never heard of Mr. Dinsmore, but in reading their grieving, deeply emotional tributes, I recognized that he was a person who impacted many, many lives in powerful ways.

Jonathan and Leo’s accounts of Scott Dinsmore’s life reminded me—because, with the daily routine, it’s so easy to forget—that our lives can have a larger impact than we realize, and that we can even direct our lives to have a larger impact. There’s a bit of the spirit of It’s a Wonderful Life in that thought, where Jimmy Stewart is amazed to find that what he considered his worthless life was filled with meaning and depth. All it took was an angel to point it out to him.

With angels in short supply, it’s easy to find disappointment in our lives, aspirations thwarted or goals deterred. I often have qualms about releasing pieces of writing that even when sweated over feel undercooked, that suggest that I’ve been working on my writing for so long, and yet, is this the best I can do? I fear my own judgements and that of others, even though for the most part, I’m doing work that I love. Still, there’s often a background voice whispering, “You’re a poser; give it up.” That’s a voice where a curt “shut up” is the best response.

Stopping the Woolgathering
It’s pointless (and an odd form of egotism) to mull over and over how you aren’t living up to your potential or your ideals, rather than stopping the woolgathering and continuing the work of exploring those potentials. From reading of Mr. Dinsmore, it seems he didn’t waste most of his time stewing over his potential, but was out living it. And by doing that, left a legacy. Sad to read of the loss of someone so vibrant, but it’s good to be reminded of the fragility of life, and to be nudged into renewing the quest for meaning, and sharing meaning.

Here is Scott’s site: Live Your Legend, and here is his TED talk on the same topic.

And one more example of getting out there and doing it (even when you’re 90).

As Seth Godin says, go out and make a ruckus.

A Writer’s Muddled Meditation on Gratitude

Oh, let those thanks go out to whoever’s listening (and whoever’s left over)

The other day I was walking with my girlfriend in the semi-rural area around my house. There’s a paved road, though it’s narrow, winding through some brushy, forested hills among which some houses are scattered. There’s a section of our walk that rolls up and down and into a small flat stretch that we call “the hollow.”

There aren’t any houses that look directly into the hollow, which is surrounded by trees and scrubby underbrush. That’s why it makes a great drop-off site for all the miserable trash—mattresses, chairs, even car transmissions—that miserable people toss there, probably when they find out that the landfill that’s a couple miles away charges money for their discards. We’re always trying to get the license number of the nimrods that do this littering so we can report them, but we’ve never caught anyone in the act.

Have at Thee, Varlets!
That’s why when we started down the hill into the hollow and spotted the two standing people, half-hidden by their truck, that I moved toward them. I wanted to catch them in the act of dumping their trash. Alice and I had both already started to memorize the truck’s license number, but we couldn’t quite see what the people were doing, because the vehicle was pulled into the dirt on the roadside, and they were behind the highest part of the truck’s cab.

It wasn’t until we moved almost behind the truck that I figured it out: no trash, no dumping, just an old guy holding a bucket, which he was going to use to rinse the heavily soaped head of his companion—his wife, his girlfriend, his sister?—who was obscured by the suds and a big draping towel. I had been moments from saying, “Hey, are you dumping crap in here?” to them, but realized that this was a spot they’d chosen to wash her hair. Because they had no shower. I glanced away, and glanced at the back of the truck, filled with some boxes, suitcases, a couple of big coolers.

Not just a truck, a home.

My puffed-up righteousness deflated.

Complaining as Reflex
I complain a lot about a lot of things. Some things I can’t do a damn thing about, but I complain anyway. Some things I could do something about, but I’d rather complain. Sometimes I even complain about what I do, which is write on a broad variety of subjects, and often people pay me for that. I even get to write stories, and sometimes I even get paid for those, which seems a bit of a miracle.

But that guy, washing his sweetheart’s head, looked like he had some real things to complain about. Maybe he does. But that’s not my business. My business is to pull some perspective from that moment, and have a little gratitude for how good I actually have it. Being able to work out of my house, writing for a living, having people around who care for me. A few weeks ago, I got to house-sit for five weeks in Hawaii, only because I can freelance from anywhere. That’s pretty good. Damn good.

When we circled back for the second part of our walk, I was thinking I’d like to offer those guys some money, but I didn’t want to insult them with any presumption. But they were gone, and the truck with them. All that was left behind was some watery dirt and a tire track. No garbage, nothing, just a temporary whisper that they had been there.

Cat Vomit? No Problem
But I want to hold on to that reminder, of how good things really are, for a little bit. I want to consciously pull it up when I fling an oath because a client hasn’t understood my work, when the cat has vomited on the bed, when my dinner seems slightly too spicy. It is challenging to be grateful about cat vomit, but occasionally, I want to rise to the challenge.

Hope you’re able to find some flowers in your garden (and can step lightly over the stones).

Cranky in Hawaii? Tree Yourself/Free Yourself

Yeah, this tree's big, but you shoulda seen the one that got away

Yeah, this tree’s big, but you shoulda seen the one that got away

Who’s got the skills to be cranky, virtually anywhere? Paris, Bali—maybe even in Hawaii, in those isles of warm, fragrant breezes and aloha? Yeah, baby. I can become pettily petulant, no matter what cushion of clouds. Not that trivial confessions might be of use to you, but that their lessons can have an impact on your writing.

The stage: I’ll be house-sitting at the very tippy-top of the Big Island with my girlfriend for the next month. It is not ugly here. If you’ve spent much time in Hawaii, you know it’s like having a mild massage (those tropical trade winds exchange strain for ease) at all times. Add in some rum, and it’s hard to even muster a credible curse about the government.

But because we just arrived, and had to get some clue as to where we were, what was there, and how to get to other promising theres, the fact that we got stuck with a clunker of an under-the-table car rental (one that threatened to leave us in-between theres without ever starting again) was a blood-pressure pumper.

So we had to jaunt over from the northern nape of the island to Hilo, across the magic mountains to the east. And then fuss at length over the oft-confusing details of where to meet to exchange the car, which car to get in exchange and when—details that changed multiple times over the course of a couple of hours. So instead of being happy in Hilo, with its beautiful bay and good people-watching, we were sweaty, frustrated and most un-Hawaiian.

Enter Banyan, Stage Center
However, small-minded humans are no match for nature. Waiting for our dithering car-rental person to finally show up at one of the multiple times/places we were supposed to meet her, we saw across the way from us a big public park, with astonishing trees. One of them is the “geeez, how big will I be when I really grow up” banyan tree pictured above. Under it we sat. Applied those tropical warm breezes in its sweet shade. Breathed.

Oooh, good medicine. That fixed it—really. The wait for our rental didn’t seem like a big deal anymore; neither did the fact that we had to roll back over those mountains—fantastic views!—on the dazzling Saddle Road without having much chance to stop, because we had to return home to free our house-sit dog from its crate, before it could phone its owner about our abuse.

Get to the Writing Already
This is a lesson I already know, but because my mind is a damp, leaky thing, I forget: when your brain is boiling with internal argument and naysaying, take it outside. When I am frustrated with my writing work, clutching the keyboard all the tighter has never worked. You can squeeze a sentence’s throat so hard that no emergency syntax attendants can ever revive it.

Take the writing for a walk. Find a banyan tree. Heck, if you’re not in Hawaii, a nice oak will do. Plunk your bottom down and rock in the arms of some sweet breeze. Cranky in Hawaii (or in Poughkeepsie) no more. Finding a way out of your writing is the best way I know to find your way back in. (That is, until I forget again.)

Gravity Can’t Defeat Us (But My Handwriting Might)

In celebration of twaddle and inflamed sentences

In celebration of twaddle and inflamed sentences

If you’re an old crustacean like me, you might remember the heady days of Tang, the drink of the astronauts. Who cares if it was sugared vitamin water—John Glenn drank it! So did I, and I was often given to flights of fancy. That’s why when I first heard of the Fisher Space Pen in the 70s (a few orbits after their first manufacture), I wanted one. The astronauts used them!

And how could one not crave something that used gravity-defeating “thixotropic ink-semisolid …pressurized with nitrogen”? But I didn’t own a Fisher until sometime in the 90s, and slippery little capsule that it was, it disappeared on me. Probably floated off with some pixie dust from a passing comet.

But I finally have another, seen in the image above. They’ve fancied it up a bit since the original days, putting on an anti-gravity clip, but its ink still flows freely, space-bound or not. I’m combining it with another historical item, my first Moleskine notebook, on which I inscribed its first page a couple of writerly quotations. (Picasso and Hemingway scribbled in them; I can too.)

Flight from the Mainland
What’s prompted these new treasures? Flight from the mainland! My gal pal Alice and I are heading to the Big Island of Hawaii in two days, where we’ll be house-sitting in a little home at the very northern tip of the island. I haven’t done a lot of travel writing lately about new places, so I’m thrilled to get a chance to get to know an island that’s actively spewing hot gases and chunks, like many writers I admire.

One of those paradoxes: I very much like the physical act of writing, the texture of paper, the angling of the pen (or pencil), the variances of pressure from the hand and fingers, the roll of ink across the page. I love writing instruments, paper, bound volumes, calligraphy. But I have forever loathed the crimped, jagged splotchings of my own handwriting—no matter how slowly or carefully I try to form letters and words, they come out as an intestinal product, something that looks as though it should be covered up.

However, I’m delighted to think that I’ll have new promptings of sea, sky and soul to scrawl on about, so I’m looking forward to taking notes of island ventures. And I won’t have to wear any bulky helmet or pressurized suit.

About Those Quotes
Again, I did as best I could with penning those bits from esteemed writers to inaugurate my Moleskine, but you might not be able to read them. They are thus:

“Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”
— Katherine Mansfield

“With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and a definite hardening of the paragraphs.”
— James Thurber

OK, off to the island. If I’m lucky, no coconut will drop on my noggin while I’m trying to think of the perfect metaphor for the big, blue Pacific.

Cat Hurling and Other Faulty Story Mechanisms

Malibu on Table 2

My cat Malibu, pretending it never happened

Warning, unpalatable opening paragraphs:
My cat vomited on the living room floor last night. Before she did it, she performed a comic/frightening backwards dance, reminiscent of something the dwarf in Twin Peaks would have been envious of. She scooted backwards eight feet across the floor on her belly, haunches rolling, and appeared to be reversing the peristaltic effect of a snake swallowing a goat: her skin seemed to ripple the length of her body in churning waves, back-humped in high ascent.

Never having seen this behavior, I was fascinated and appalled. It was only when she produced the cud of half-chewed grass and belly splooge onto the floor that I realized that she was vomiting; I thought she needed an exorcism. After she’d finished her performance, she calmly reviewed the results and then daintily walked away.

Because I regularly turn daily events into writing considerations, while I cauterized the floor with an acetylene torch, I pondered how dramatic scenes/plotlines work in stories. (I also pondered getting a goldfish to replace the cat.) I’ve been mulling over writing a new novel that would be a series of connected stories. The lead character is a frustrated writer with an alcohol problem that’s preventing him from success in his work and his relationships. (No, this is not an autobiography.)

The Deus ex Machina: Story Salvation or Story Sap?
I’d been considering some of the major life events that can bring a person—or not—to their senses. Or perhaps make them leap off the abyss. Things like deaths in the family, loss of love, loss of respect, both self and otherwise. But I was also considering “artificial” things, on a deus ex machina level: the protagonist loses an arm in an industrial accident, the family is heir to a previously unknown fortune, a main character discovers that she’s adopted, with blindingly harsh effects. Or a cat you’ve owned for a while exhibits a behavior thought possible only by aliens.

Stories by O. Henry often have a twist in them that for me sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The times they don’t work are when you feel the author is trying too hard, where the plot device feels author-imposed or a kind of window dressing. But some stories work up to their explosions in a way that seems organic: the suicides of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary come to mind. When I looked at the entry for deus ex machina on Wikipedia, it cited Lord of the Flies, where the rescue of Ralph by a passing Navy officer seemed to rescue the author as well.

An unpublished novel of mine uses the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 as a catalyst for the coming together—for better or worse—of San Francisco characters who otherwise wouldn’t have had the occasion to converge. The earthquake is a frame for the story, but its extreme drama isn’t used as a prop. Seeing the cat spill her story onto the rug made me consider that authors can populate their stories with all kinds of exotic and peculiar entanglements, but if the entanglements aren’t threaded into a congruent, evolving tale—with characters that are much more than manipulated marionettes—then all you have is, well, vomit.

And don’t expect your readers to stick around to clean it up.

Pencil Me In: Writing Prompt for a Rainy Day

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities


Remarkably enough, it’s raining today, which I thought was now illegal in California. So, instead of traipsing outside for any Saturday aerobic exercise, what about hunkering down inside with a writing exercise? Writing prompts are a good way to loosen up the creativity muscles, and they’re more fun than a spin class. (Argue with me all you want—the rain is drowning out your protests.)

I think simple is best for a writing prompt: let’s consider describing an everyday object from several angles, whether metaphorical or metaphysical. Enter the pencil.

Pencils in the Real World
It’s notable how plungingly deep you can go when you start to describe an object, particularly one you’d never bothered to focus attention on. With a prompt, you just let your mind and fingers fly, and don’t get out any red pencil to edit.

Thus, a physical pencil is:

  • A slender wooden wand capped with a metal ferrule topped with a rubber eraser
  • A short cylindrical spear with a soft end and a pointy tip
  • A soft, breakable wooden shaft
  • A balanced, effective, reliable writing instrument
  • A cat toy
  • A vehicle for advertising

 
Pencil as Metaphor

  • An insecure pencil won’t write polysyllabic words for fear of misspelling them
  • A heroic pencil has broad, defined shoulders just below the eraser
  • A husband pencil never takes out the shavings

 
Pencil Sensuality

  • The light but friendly heft of a pencil in your hand
  • The agreeable noise a pencil makes when scribbling words on paper
  • The sweet cedar smells when sharpening a pencil

 
Pencils in Irregular Use

  • Staving off boredom by flinging them up to stick in those soft-tile corporate ceilings when the boss isn’t around
  • Pencil as ear cleaner
  • Pencil as stand-in for conductor’s baton

 
Pencil as Pun
That’ll put lead in your pencil (ahh, my adolescence, it will never truly end)

Pencil as Iconic Object
Often seen behind the ears of old-school reporters, circa The Front Page era

Pencil as Ironic Object
Gigantic pencils occasionally seen in sculpture gardens

Pencil as Shakespearean Character
Think of a pencil separated from its twin, cross-dressing (alternating wearing manly tights with bosom-exposing dresses), caught in heart-pounding court intrigue, strumming a lyre whenever possible, and finally getting married amidst much fanfare, resonant huzzahs and beer.

Well, I won’t burden you with leaden prose any longer. But I think writers have an ability to look at the most common of things, and see a story there. So next time you look at your salt shaker, remember that from a different vantage you might think of it as your pet, your boyfriend, your accountant. Even your muse.

Besides, the rain is letting up—I’m going to take my pencil for a walk.

Emerging from the Storyless Swamp

Swamp

 No matter how soggy, you can emerge from the storyless swamp

Story ideas often seem to fall from the sky. Or in the case of my latest story, to come up from the basement. I’ve been in a fetid fictionless swamp for the past couple of months, incapable of putting anything to the page. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been feeling pointless resentment over not being able to get agents interested in what is now becoming an old novel, or editors interested in what are now becoming some old (but newer) stories.

The sing-song hearing of “not for us, thanks” can be a blow to writing confidence, but at some point you’ve got to come out of the swamp, at least to get some fresh socks. What made me change out of my swampy sad sack’s clothes was a helpful spur for any writer: a deadline.

I saw a link for an “Unearth Your Underworld” short story contest in one of the writing newsletters I get. I’ve won (or gotten seconds or thirds) in a number of writing contests, and in reading that the theme for this one was, “Anything Underworld—dig in to the sewers, bomb shelters, basements and your deepest hells!” I had an instant idea for a creepy story. In a blink, I saw my peculiar landlords and the strange business they had in their basement from so many years ago. A story, with visuals and plot line, in a second.

Stories Lie Waiting
When I say “instant idea,” I mean that the story idea jumped up from that basement of my imagination, where it’s sat in cold storage for all these years. I’ve written before how writing ideas are everywhere, and indeed they are. The theme of the book I’m writing right now is how to see through a writer’s eyes—how to see and record the stories that surround us.

It’s harder to see them when you are in the dim swamp of your sadness; you’ve got to at least open some curtains. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a deadline that pulls in some light. The basement story’s deadline is November 20th, and it’s well on its way. I don’t have to win anything in that contest to know I’ve already won, because I’m writing fiction again.

Sometimes I forget that you can get used to carrying a backpack of sadness around with you, so that it seems almost natural to shoulder that stuff. But it’s good to know that you can leave that backpack on the counter now and then. Everything feels lighter.

So, where do your story ideas come from? Do they stealthily finger up through the grass, crawling up your leg so that it takes some time to feel the itch, or is there a crashing from the sky and a lightning bolt, so that a story is revealed in instant incandescence?

Epitaph: Goodbye to One of the Good Ones
Sometimes our lives are touched by someone we’ve never met, who has a public forum that lets viewers (and listeners) get a sense of that person over time, so that he or she feels like family of sorts. I’ve listened to (and roared at) the madcap philosophizing of Click and Clack, NPR’s Tappet Brothers, for many years, delighting in their boisterous intelligence and warm camaraderie, both between themselves and their guests. Their shtick was never about the cars—it was about life’s tumblings, madnesses and small graces. And laughter. Ringing, infectious laughter.

The oldest brother, Tom Magliozzi, died this past week at 77. His brother Ray is going to continue to let the recorded shows play on NPR in his brother’s honor. Goodbye and good tidings, Tom. Wherever you are, don’t drive like your brother.