Writing Rejections Give You a Glimmer of Hope


Having been a freelancer writing both nonfiction and fiction for many years, you get used to writing rejections. They used to chafe more years ago, but my skin has thickened, so that I normally can simply say “Next!” and mean it without too much teeth-gritting. Not too much.

But once in a while, rejections are motivational. And not just in the sense of “That blasted editor doesn’t know a good story from a cucumber! I’ll show him/her/it!” (“It” because I’m sure AI will soon be used to make editorial decisions in some offices.) Vengeance can certainly be motivational, but here I speak more of a connective motivation, an empathetic one.

Case in point: Glimmer Train, the fine literary journal and press, has been publishing writers for nearly 30 years. They often champion unknown writers, and are willing to dig around the edges in fiction and nonfiction to bring interesting and exciting voices to the page. I haven’t subscribed to their journal (shame!), but I’ve picked it up in bookstores here and there over the years, and have always been delighted in the reading.

And the yearning.

Getting to the Counter Before the Shop Closes

The yearning is this: I’ve known for a while that Glimmer Train is one of the premiere literary journals, and that to be published there is a new feather in any writer’s quill pen. But I haven’t had confidence in many of my short stories, so I’ve sent only a few pieces over the years. Looking at my submissions spreadsheet (I started tracking electronically in 2003), I sent GT stories in 2007, 2013, and 2014.

Here’s where the motivational parts come in. Early this year, I heard that Glimmer Train was going to shut down in 2019. Not from lack of success, far from it. The reason is easy to understand: the two sisters (one of the appealing things about the magazine—it’s been run by two sisters, all this time) have been the conductors of the train for 30 years, and they are ready to close the station. They read every story that’s submitted: I read somewhere that they read thousands of stories a year. Crickey, I’d be tired too.

In early May, I didn’t send them a story, but a note:

Glimmer Sisters, my stomach dropped when I read that you guys were going to pull the shades on the train and picnic in green pastures. You have done such great work for writers for so long, it seemed like you were a perennial season—Spring comes to mind.

Thank you for your deep and generous work, Tom Bentley

And got this back the same day:

What a kind message, Tom. Thank you. Susan
P.S. Our stomachs dropped, too!

Sending the Story Before It Turns into a Pumpkin

At that point, I hadn’t been writing fiction for a while, spending all my time getting a novel published and marketed. But knowing that the train was pulling into the station, I was motivated. I’d had a story idea for a while and went for it; I sent it off to one of GT’s summer contests, hoping not to get a lump of coal. The “Sorry, no dice” form letter came through yesterday.

That didn’t cut too deep, despite my disappointment, so I sent them this message:

Susan and Linda, thanks for taking a look. Hope things are going well as you prepare your final salutes to a fine publication.

thanks, Tom

And again, a same-day response:

What a kind – and welcome! – message. Thank you, Tom. Susan

Motivation again: they are still accepting submissions through May of 2019. I have another idea for a short story. They are going to get it first.

You have to take your writing motivations where you can get them. If they come from the (rejection) kindness of strangers, all the better.

For Writers (and Readers), Sometimes Simple Is Best

I jump around a lot in my reading, from fiction to nonfiction, genre to genre, era to era. My current novel is O Pioneers!, written by Willa Cather in 1913. At that point, she was living in New York, having left the hardscrabble life of the Great Plains far behind. But that hard land, with its hard light, was in her blood, the source of her Prairie Trilogy of novels, of which Pioneers is the first.

Below is a passage from late in the book, where an omniscient narrator is describing Alexandra, the contained, self-sufficient protagonist of the work. I read this passage several times, noting that its cadence, simple word choice and weight are carriers of what I so often admire in fiction—and perhaps, because my own writing is so different, a literary vein whose mind feels closed to me.

There are a number of authors whose work is painted with spare and simple language that in the reading delivers a kind of haunting gravity. I’m thinking of Marilynne Robinson’s many novels, Kent Haruf’s work, some of Cormac McCarthy’s, a story like Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. There’s a flinty character to how words are strung together that entrances me.

If you haven’t read the work, you won’t have the context of who Alexandra is (nor of Emil, her younger brother), so the impact will be softer. But still, read and listen to the work of the words:

Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields. Nevertheless, the underground stream was there, and it was because she had so much personality to put into her enterprises and succeeded in putting it into them so completely, that her affairs prospered better than those of her neighbors.

 

There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil. There were days, too, which she and Emil had spent together, upon which she loved to look back. There had been such a day when they were down on the river in the dry year, looking over the land. They had made an early start one morning and had driven a long way before noon. When Emil said he was hungry, they drew back from the road, gave Brigham his oats among the bushes, and climbed up to the top of a grassy bluff to eat their lunch under the shade of some little elm trees. The river was clear there, and shallow, since there had been no rain, and it ran in ripples over the sparkling sand. Under the overhanging willows of the opposite bank there was an inlet where the water was deeper and flowed so slowly that it seemed to sleep in the sun. In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade.

 

They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck. Emil must have felt about it as she did, for afterward, when they were at home, he used sometimes to say, “Sister, you know our duck down there—” Alexandra remembered that day as one of the happiest in her life. Years afterward she thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change.

 

Most of Alexandra’s happy memories were as impersonal as this one; yet to her they were very personal. Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times.

 

Simple Is Seductive

And if you lived through one of those late 19th-century Nebraska winters as Cather did, you’d have known serious times too. But what gets me about this little stretch of writing is its clarity and modesty. Its basis is that simple—perhaps entirely forgettable—memory between the siblings, and speaks of their deep bond, which is explored throughout the book, as well as Alexandra’s controlled yet-never-stiff reserve. Beautiful stuff.

Oh, another writer comes to mind too: Paul Bowles. The Sheltering Sky is an almost hallucinatory novel that uses razored, acute (and often very plain) language to describe shattering happenings in both the minds and lives of its characters and in the descriptive passages about North Africa. Whew! I have to read that again.

This care with language and the ability to weave existential weight into spare descriptions fascinates me. Something to aspire to in my own writing, but always to enjoy, regardless.

Coughing Up a Writer’s Block


Lately, I am a thing coughed. Or a vehicle for spasms, which deny the pleas of my brain—the so-called higher powers—in favor of the visceral dominance of the thundering lungs. At least the coughing doesn’t interfere with my typing—except when it’s a sudden blast in the middle of keying in a word.

“The coughing,” in this new world of mine, is what happens nearly every time I try to navigate a spoken sentence. I had a cold five weeks ago that seemed your standard package of sneezy blear and leaden fatigue, playing itself out in a week or so. But the cough. The cough, Coltrane’s longest saxophone screech, a filibuster of a cough, endless, monopolizing.

That cough, the one that won’t stop.

Writing and Other Blasts of Air

You, as any sensible person who doesn’t want to read about self-gazing medical conditions might ask, “What’s that got to do with writing?” Well, a couple of things: one, it’s odd to be taken out of your day-to-day and made to realize how locked in you are to certain behaviors and “natural” expressions. For the last five weeks, I haven’t been able to speak more than a sentence or two without coughing or wheezing or sputtering. This obscure debility keeps creeping into my thoughts about writing, my motivations toward writing. I seem less a writer with a cough than a cough with a writer attached.

My condition has made for truly odd phone calls where I’ll drop away in mid-word, or in conversation with someone where I’ll try and hurry out a sentence before my convulsion. Trying to avoid this reflex abdominal trampling has changed the tone of my voice as well, where I’ve gone from a brimming baritone to the sound of, perhaps, a pecking piccolo.

Since I regularly assert my masculinity by knowing the right deodorant and shoe color to buy, these squeaky voicings trouble me.

Drug Him!

I’ve gone the inhaler route and prescription cough medication route and groovy-cough-medication-from-the-natural-foods-store route and all those routes have been dead ends so far. So I’ll see a lung doc next week; maybe we can smoke some cigarettes together and mull it. (Weirdly enough, when I last had this condition—and yes, I’ve had it before, once lasting more than six months—one of the things my doctor recommended was to smoke pot with a vaporizer. That was 10 years ago, before vaporizers were available like apples from the market. Vaporizing pot didn’t help the cough, but it rekindled a love affair with Doritos.)

All in all, I feel fine; it’s just the cough that’s the problem. This setback, temporary I’m sure, does make me wonder: how do people deal with the disruption to their lives (and deal with the anxiety and fear) when their condition is serious? You really don’t know how you’ll behave in the face of something grave. I only have the frustration of a minor condition—I don’t have to muster up any courage.

At least I can write without breaking into hacking barks. And my cough gave me something to write about today. I have heard that laughter is the best medicine, but since laughing makes me cough, I’ll stick to bourbon and honey.

Even Book Covers Need Facelifts


As I have been trumpeting (excuse the noise), I released a new novel, Aftershock, this week. The book’s cover is the result of a deliberate and sustained back and forth between me and Alicia Neal, the illustrator, on all aspects of image, design, color and typography. You can read all about that process in this post on the dandy writer’s site, WriterUnboxed. The final cover took a lot of work and time, but it was worth it.

Choosing Aftershock’s cover—and finally publishing the dang thing: it only took eight years—made me revisit the cover of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles. That too was a process of give and take with the illustrator, who did approach the vision I initially had for the book’s cover, but didn’t quite get there. I take responsibility for that.

I didn’t work with her in the same way I worked with Alicia, which was to initially give her a number of model covers that exemplified aspects of design and emotional impact that intrigued me and move from there. Nor did we go over the iterations of the cover with the same amount of fine deliberation that went on between Alicia and me.

Not Quite Capturing the Fall

What I wanted in the cover was some metaphorical sense of fall and possible redemption. The novel’s final chapters are set in an apple orchard, where the protagonist has besmirched himself morally. There’s a close-to-final scene where he offers up an apple to a woman in the orchard. I wanted some resonance with Adam and Eve’s moment in the Garden, where as you recall an apple played a meaningful part.

But the imagery of what I accepted as the final cover above didn’t quite hold that feeling. However, I was impatient to get book out there (never a good idea, my writer friends) and I settled for a cover that was adequate, but not inspiring. To repeat: my fault, not that of the illustrator, whom I sure could have moved the piece forward.

Will Using Stock Images Put You in the Stocks?

Feeling good about Aftershock’s cover made me want to work again with Circles. This time, I wanted a photographic image and not an illustration. Hitchhiking is a major theme in the book, and I thought I’d have a strong image of my own from somewhere on the road. Nope. So I spent a day or so on free and paid image sites, and finally settled on the one that’s the lead image for this post.

That’s an inexpensive iStock image that allows royalty-free commercial use. The photo worked perfectly for the feeling of a forlorn hitchhiker on a lonely road. It was also large enough to wrap around for both a spine and a back cover. My galpal Alice, who has good experience with graphic design, worked it up into the cover you see. I searched for it using Google’s reverse image search to see if it appeared on any book covers, but couldn’t find evidence for that or from other searches.

On the other hand, there’s ample evidence that using a stock photo on a cover might not be a good idea. Though the image I used is free of the licensing dangers expressed here, it might indeed be on a book cover somewhere that I couldn’t find, making my book a clone of sorts. (Here’s another piece on the appropriateness of stock images that’s softer on the perils.)

Anyway, I think I’m covered. (And don’t get any ideas about using that image for your hitchhiking novel, because I will turn off the electricity at your house and you won’t be able to get any of Justin Bieber’s tweets any longer.)

Books as Butterflies: Aftershock Takes Wing


A couple of summers ago, my galpal Alice planted many milkweed plants in our flower beds and yard. Milkweed, besides having some lovely flowers, is a nesting site of sorts for monarch butterflies. Those fluttering lovelies lay their eggs on the flowers, eggs that produce some seriously striped caterpillars, who then devour the leaves like pizza from the heavens.

Nature, that big show-off, then insists that those caterpillars pupate: they manage to form themselves into a chrysalis, a stylish little pouch like the one above, which was hanging from our water valve fixture. If you look closely, you can see the faint outlines of the butterfly-to-be’s wings. Nature, also host to many outrages, sacrificed that chrysalis to some other hungry creature, but we have another in a more protected spot, who is much further along, the wings darkly defined.

We’ve been checking in on it many times a day, because pupas are supposed to hatch into mighty monarchs in a couple of weeks—and this dude is due.

What Strained Metaphor Is He Going to Use to Talk About His Book?

Glad you asked. The way we’ve been anxiously awaiting the emergence of the butterfly is akin to what I’ve done with a book of mine I’ve been messing with for years. Its chrysalis period has been longer than our monarchial one, but hey, time compresses and dilates, as you know. The important part is that the book is about to take wing.

I set up my new novel, Aftershock, for pre-order on Amazon. You can see its handsome cover above. I’m giving the first 10 blog readers who request a PDF copy of the book a chance to read it for free. All I ask of you is to consider reviewing the book on Amazon on or not long after the day of its release, which is March 10. You won’t be able to post a review until official publication.

No obligation to write a favorable review (or any review at all), of course, but if you do write one, please note therein that you were given an advance copy, so that no Amazonian shoots me with an arrow for being deceptive about my promotion.

Write to me at bentguy@charter.net if you’re interested. I will nag you once the day before publication about the review, but you are welcome to ignore me. Alice does it all the time.

Oh, and if you were wondering what the monarch larva look like before they spin their chrysalis, check it out:

Handsome devil, eh? Books as butterflies—what a concept.

Stories Sleep in Your Mind’s Cellar—Wake Them!

I was on a press trip in Las Vegas this past weekend, where my moldering memories mingled with the city’s current offering of craziness. Memories because my parents used the excuse that it was a perfect 2- or 3-day rest stop on the way driving with us kids across the country to their parents every couple of summers. And my sister was a reporter there for years, and for a while in the 70s, I lived there myself. So I know its chimerical aspects pretty well, its indelicacies and its promise, its fevered optimism and its crushing defeats, its up-front impossible glitz and the behind-the-scenes muscular shoulders of its workers making that impossible possible.

I return every few years to see how the city has reinvented itself, because that’s what it does, tearing down an aging illusion and putting up another with fresher makeup. Press trips in and of themselves are a particularly concentrated form of madness, where we media types are wheeled from venue to venue, tasting full menus’ worth of fabulous food, offered the snappiest of snappy cocktails, given front-and-center seats to the most beguiling of entertainments.

One of those entertainments was VIP admission to the Bellagio performance of “O” by Cirque du Soleil. One of its perks was photos with some of the remarkable athletes who dazzle at every show. This post’s photo is that of some of the performers and yours truly; I am the tallest of the clowns.

Stories at Rest and in Motion

This is my windy way of getting to the point: your mind’s building has several floors of storage, and some lower-level memories are more cobwebbed than others. Many might never see surface light again, unless triggered by a fortuitous association. As I lay in my hotel room after a long day of press tripping, near insensate from the last meal, which had at least six desserts (and yes, I tried them all), a flash came to me of someone I hadn’t thought of in a gazillion years, back when I lived in Vegas. His name was Michael, and my best friend and I chanced upon him there while playing Frisbee—in 108-degree weather, mind you—in a public park.

The cuckoo part of the story is that my friend had known him from many years back, in the little town of Cranbrook, British Colombia, where I’d met him too. They’d long been out of touch; it was sheer coincidence that we all met again in Vegas. But here’s the story part: even though I’d barely known him in Canada, since I was just visiting my friend there who knew him much better, I recognized that Michael had an almost other-worldly charm. Women loved him, and unabashedly let him know it. He was a handsome guy, and genuinely friendly, but there was something much more than that.

And when we met up with him again in Vegas, that “much more than that” manifested again and again. I won’t go into a lot of details, but Michael was the only man I’ve known who would have women hoot at him from their cars when we crossed a street at a stoplight. That happened more than once. But it wasn’t just women: men immediately liked him, wanted to take him into their confidence, perhaps hoping that some of the gold dust on him would rub off.

Stop That Movie—There’s a Story There

So, as the sweetest surging of sugar pulsed through my blood in my hotel room, it came to me in that glorious way that, if you’re lucky, stories sometimes come: Michael, the golden boy in the golden town, the mystery behind his magic, its effect on people, the problems that ensued, and the story’s end. But whether that’s sad or glad, you won’t know until I write it. But the heart of the tale, the character, the conflict, the marrow of it, came to me in a moment, courtesy of being in Las Vegas once again. (And maybe courtesy of the last cocktail I’d had that night, perfectly named Comfortably Numb.)

I love this gift of how stories come to us, sometimes from this layer cake of our experience, and how they suddenly leap out from the cake’s center. I don’t know yet if Michael’s tale is a long short story or a novella, or something else, but it’s something, and I will map it out soon.

Do stories jump out at you from old closets too?

(And if you want to read a Vegas story I wrote many, many years ago as a callow college student, which was published years later in The Labletter literary journal, try this: Unmarked Highway)

The Strange, Wonderful, Is That Poop I Smell Year


Photo Credit: jadiwangi Flickr via Compfight cc

It’s been a strange year. One where the word “strange” can’t contain its multitudes, a year where the globe itself seemed to be ripping at the seams, or be one of those cartoon images where a character is literally steaming, smoke out the ears, fire-engine face, sure to blow. That kind of year.

Many, many people have written about our president, much more eloquently than me. I’ll keep it contained: our president is an extraordinary liar, a man of the shallowest conceits, a man with no concept of decency. I believe he has taken our country to dangerous places, to uncharted immoral waters, the consequences of which will affect us for long time to come.

But I am complicit. I’ve allowed this administration to get deep in my head, so that it’s affected my well-being, my sense of self and yes, certainly my writing. I’ve participated in the collective howl against the regressive tide, but other than signing many petitions, contributing to a few progressive causes, and making bitter statements in the grotto of my skull, I’ve done nothing. Well, I have done something—I’ve ceded a lot of my thinking and consciousness over to anxiety, and mostly pointless anxiety.

Anxiety Lacks Nutrients (But Could Fuel Some Writing)
I’m not going to be as generous with consenting to this fruitless anxiety over government malfeasance, though I will continue to resist the lies of our original fake news purveyor. But of more use to me as a writer, I’m going to turn some of that stomach churn to the keyboard, and see if there’s redemption there.

There’s a quote from poet Jane Hirshfield in the latest Poets and Writers that reads thusly:

“Remind yourself why it is you wanted to write in the first place. That might be done by revisiting work by others you find awakening and electrifying, or find disturbing in useful ways, the ways disturbed soil can become receptive ground for new seeds.”

I’ve been disturbed all right, and this year’s soil has smelled distressingly of poop, but there has to be some flower potential in there. With all the earthquakes and floods, and California burning, so much has seemed apocalyptic. But the year’s not a total wash: lots of good things written, lots of good things read, travel to the Caribbean and Europe, my mother, at 95, still alive and happy. Still moving, still drinking—er, I mean thinking—still seeing sparkling mornings.

There’s still plenty left to write about. Join me—let’s type together in the new year. (Oh, but I’ve got dibs on the “e” key.)

Is Good Enough Good Enough? “Settling” in Your Writing Career

Do you reach a point in your writing work where you think, “OK, I’ve had some stuff published, I’ve been read with appreciation by some people. Sure, maybe I haven’t set the writing world on fire, but my work is what it is, and I’m OK with it.”

Those were among my flitting thoughts after I got a rejection from the NY Times for a “Modern Love” column. I’d been trying to write—i.e., avoiding writing—a piece for Modern Love for a couple of years, because the Times is one of my aspirational publications, a mountain I’d looked at longingly, but always turned away, sighing, “Too high, too high.”

In one of my refreshingly non-paranoid moments, I realized that was bull, so I did write the piece, thought it was pretty good, and sent it off. But if you’ve read many of the Modern Love articles, you know that they are consistently better than pretty good. I was among the literal thousands of writers who write what they consider pretty good pieces and send them off to the Times, our timorous rabbits of hope thinking maybe, just maybe.

One and Done?

If you spend a fair amount of time writing for publication, whether fiction or non, rejection will be a side dish at your table. Whether you eat it cold or not is your choice. Many years ago, I took rejection of my work more seriously, as though it were a personal affront. But it’s always just business, unless you embezzled from the editor or something along those lines. Now, I basically shrug and move on; I’ve already sent the Modern Love essay out to another publication that prints those kinds of accounts. And I’ll send it to another if they don’t like it; as I said, it’s pretty good.

I just checked my freelance publications list for 2017: there are at least 50 articles there, a number of them in national publications, almost all of them pieces for which I was paid. A number are content marketing pieces for different clients. Most of them are pretty good.

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

I also recently put one of my unpublished novels, Aftershock, in the Kindle Scout program. The book did OK in the voting, but not well enough for Amazon—after their review of the work—to pick it up for publication. But I think it’s—you guessed it—pretty good. It’s a book I’ve worked on (well, on and off) for years, and I think it has depth and feeling enough to earn some readers. I have another unpublished novel, a collaboration between me and a writer friend, that has merit as well.

But that brings me back to the initial question: is good enough good enough? Is my apparent pattern of releasing solid-but-not-world-shaking works a plateau? Have I settled to being a writer who writes pretty good stuff, gets published, and looks forward to weekend cocktails?

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

I always think my best work is yet to come. I’ve outlined a memoir of my high school shoplifting years that could be hilarious. My collaborator and I are talking about a sequel to our novel. I’ve got a bunch of queries to send out to various publications—and yes, that damnable New York Times will be among them—and I’ll try to make any and every of those assignments shine.

I’m far along in my writing life, but there’s still daylight, so I’ll keep typing. How about you?

Using Your Travel Hallucinations for Story Ideas

And then I dreamed all the flesh was stripped off my bones, and …

I’ve been back a couple of weeks after a month-long housesit on a tiny island in the Caribbean. This was a vivid place, strikingly beautiful, and we had adventures, thrills and stresses in our time there—and equally so in getting there and coming back. But memory and travel are the oddest things: I was looking at photos yesterday and was struck by how much I’d already forgotten. Not the broad strokes and major events that happened, but the telling details: the shape of the harbor (which we saw almost daily), the color of a restaurant we’d been to (and the flavor of dishes we ate), the curve of a street.

The details are the things that should fix a place in memory, so I’m troubled by their fog. But I want to talk about an ancillary fog that happens after travel. That’s the stunned sense of being back in a familiar place, but having it seem strange or slightly tilted—“off,” but not off enough to pin the quality of oddness down.

Pieces of my mind and body, even given a full week to account for jet lag (and the space/time continuum) were still on the island, and the person who arrived here claiming to be me seemed to have a fake driver’s license.

A Bike Ride Pulls the Brain’s Curtains Back

But let’s get to the details, as noted above. I often ride my bike—with delight—on weekends here, so my first weekend back, I was eager to take one of my local rides, which for stretches take me along the Santa Cruz County coast. When I paused for a breather at an ocean overlook, I saw a breaching whale, fairly close to the shore. Not that of an unusual sight in Santa Cruz, but still, a whale, wow!

I felt energized by that, and hopped back on with spark, but just minutes later, and completely unprompted, I saw in my mind’s eye a jarring scene of my brother’s death. That played out enough so that I was crying a little. (By the way, my brother’s fine.) Just so you know that I’m one happy-go-lucky guy, as I was approaching my house at the end of my ride, I had a fantasy that my cat had been poisoned.

She’s fine too.

Maybe I was tired? Indeed, I was panting like a blacksmith’s bellows as I was riding, because it had been six weeks or so since I’d tackled these hills, but I think it was more that I was feeling dislocated in some way, and my mind was just clicking through a slide wheel of images. But who knows?

Putting Your Writer’s Mind to Work

However, one of the best things about being a writer is to be gifted with story ideas, and to play with them. I probably won’t do anything with these three isolated “incidents” that happened on my ride, but after I got home, I made each of them into a storyline in my mind, where these dustups happen.

The whale sighting I turned into a science-fiction prompt, where sentient whales start to take revenge on all the years of us killing them, and they develop great killing skills themselves, grouping up to take down big shipping vessels, causing damaging coastal waves, taking hostages.

My brother’s death I made into a literary fiction piece, kind of like the great Marilynne Robinson’s Home, which has an estranged brother return to a family. Except in my tale, a brother causes another brother’s death and runs away, and the family is forever changed. And then he returns, and things go from lousy to really lousy. Bestseller, eh?

As for the cat poisoning, a cat being poisoned would be the opening scene for a murder mystery, where before a person is murdered, a lot of animals connected to the deceased’s household, including lizards, guinea pigs and birds, are individually poisoned. Before the poisoner turns to murdering one of his fellow humans. Dastardly!

Anyway, the peculiar gyrations of the mind are kind of like aerobics classes for writers. So there are some benefits to the odd frazzling that happens after traveling—it seeds your mind with stories.

Oh, if you like the story ideas, go for them. Combine all of them in the same novel: murder mystery, sci-fi literary masterpiece. You have my blessing.

A Writer’s Workshop: Memories and Memorial Days

Malibu, wondering if I would taste better with a steak sauce

Out and about for the Memorial Day weekend, we seemed to have a wand wave of favorable signs: There was the kite string that led up a rocky hill in a beautiful canyon at Ft. Ord Dunes State Park that I picked up and tugged and lo! a beautiful turtle kite sprung high in the air, heretofore unseen high on the cliff.

And then strolling that pretty beach, the amazement of three hang gliders very slowly moving past us above, so low that we could easily see their expressions. And then later, our first time at the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge (whose title might be bigger than the park), seeing a determined red-wing blackbird harass a big turkey vulture completely out to the park, and then fly back, very close to us, into the wetlands area he was defending. I’d seen small birds annoy hawks, but never one so focused on ushering a vulture to the door.

That seemed like a pretty good day of small wonders, and we settled in with the great Boulevardiers we’d barreled for a month to mellow appeal in our 3-liter barrel and toasted the glory of small things. When our cat brought the small bunny to our door to display her hunting talents, that’s when the wonders went awry, for us at least.

The Goddess of Small Dead Things

Our cat Malibu, who was semi-feral when we adopted her, spends a good deal of her time outside. We are grateful if rueful for the rats and gophers she eviscerates on our outside doormats, and more grateful yet that she seemingly has no talent for doing the same for birds—we don’t see any remains or feathers on the rural property.

But a bunny.

A young bunny, soft gray, its staring eyes knocked into forever, their last sight my cat’s flashing teeth. She’s never brought back a bunny. There’s a moral inequality there, of course, where we sigh over the gophers and forget them an hour later, but feel strong ethical queasiness about a young rabbit. The artificial hierarchy of living things expressed in the quick, unreflective emotion: oh god, she’s killed a bunny!

Writers Try to Capture Quicksilver

So, an interesting day for a writer—that childlike feeling of glee when I saw that kite rise out of nowhere, and the plunging dismay upon seeing my cat’s bloodletting. I have a sharp sense that writers should keep a look out for those instances, the reminders that we are animals as well, subject to those flights and grottoes of emotion, often multiple times in the same day.

To be able to describe how that works with characters in stories is tricky, because it’s easy to resort to a kind of “she felt a stabbing in her heart” kind of writing (if you’re in a close third-person narrative) rather than something that gets closer to those hummingbird wings of something that flashes and then is gone, but perhaps creates a layer that lingers.

And on this Memorial Day, I salute my father, gone now near seven years, who served in the Army Air Forces in WWII and the Air Force in Korea, a waist gunner in a B-17 for many runs in the European Theatre and Korea. Considering the precarious exposure of waist gunners. and how many didn’t come back, he may have been surprised he made it. But my mother, my three siblings and I are happy he did. Thanks, Dad.