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)

Content Writer? Goodness No—I’m a Storyteller

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and ...

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and …

Grasshopper, it’s an interesting time to be a writer. Journalists have fled (or been dismissed from) newsrooms in droves, and many of them have morphed into “content writers,” a phrase that doesn’t have the panache of “investigative reporter,” or “columnist” or even “scribe.”

Fifteen years ago, or maybe even ten, if you told most people you were a content writer, they’d have probably given you the same squinch-eyed expression supplied if you’d told them you were a tangerine. But now in many quarters the term gets a sage nod. Content writer, yes. Enterprising fellow.

When I was an undergrad (some time before the spoon was invented), I was on the staff of the college newspaper, for all four years. I envisioned the reporter’s life to be one of glitz and grit, and I wanted to be a glitzy-gritty one. Then, lacking today’s “choose yourself” perspective, two successive years of rejected applications at Berkeley’s journalism grad school managed to chasten my quest. But I did end up becoming a corporate editor, then a copywriter, then an editor, then a copywriter and then some conglomerations of the two. But I always kept a hand in journalism, writing freelance pieces (profiles, features, reviews) for newspapers and magazines.

Don’t Call Me No Damn Marketer
Circles, being the roundish things they are, curve things back yet again: now it’s hip for marketers to dub themselves “storytellers.” Telling stories, once the province of liars and impoverished fiction writers (bet you can’t cleave those two without a claw hammer) now has business-writing currency. Use your journalism skills to tell good stories with your content marketing, and you’ll get engaged. Whoops, I meant, get engagement. From your customers—who are now your peeps. Or something like that.

Now that I’ve trod back and forth over these words without a discernible direction, I’ll circle back: it’s an interesting time to be a writer, because sometimes you can get hired by companies to write materials whose content seems quite a stretch from their direct business interests. Companies want copy (that stuff, “content”) on their sites that pulls in readers, who after the reading might just check out the company’s goods. Take this example: I recently wrote a piece for an IT integration company on how bitters can complement the booze in a good cocktail.

Here’s another one of mine, again planted in the tech domain, written for a Forbes partner. The piece profiles a photographer who’s been doing good work for 40 years. The company wanted articles that demonstrated deep expertise in a subject, complementing—perhaps—the deep expertise they have in IT issues.

What, You Didn’t Know About Blue’s Secret Power?
Right now I’m doing a series of articles for a global company that supplies eyeglass lenses. Here, the articles are all slanted to the vision field, but still, the subjects—like “The Secret Power of the Color Blue” and “Children Should Play Outside for Eye Health”—can seem tangential. But behold the power of content writing—the wizard of Oz, known as G. Oogle, might just direct 30,000 drooling aficionados of the color blue to the site, and maybe some need glasses, to more clearly ogle their blue walls.

It isn’t journalism, and to this fiction writer it doesn’t quite seem storytelling. Also, the words “content marketing” have as much charm as a two-thirds full spittoon. But it’s still working with words, trying to weave them into something that beckons the imagination. Being a hired gun firing commercial bullets seems a fair hike from my gossamer proto-reporter’s dreams of decades ago, but still, it ain’t bad.

Caution: This Fiction Contains Pulp

'Gun Smoke Red' photo © 2010, Charles Knowles - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

My last post was about how writing prompts can spread some salsa on your keyboard to get your writing moving. In checking out some of the writing prompt sites, I found this prompt contest, which supplies 10 pages of writing prompts on varying subjects.

I chose one in the Action category, because the prompts made me think about writing a story beginning in a pulp-fiction like style. First prize wins $500, but hurry—contest ends at 11:59 CST Dec. 22. (You only need to write the beginning of a story, at least 500 words.) Below is my effort, which leans heavily on alliterative wordplay. It begins in media res.

Love at First Shot

I’d coated my fright about being caught for the crime—one I didn’t commit—with four bourbons, neat, but the pleasant hum in my head wouldn’t last: there was a knock at the door, and a knock in my knees.

It was Lucy Ligature. Former vamp turned viper—editorially speaking, that is. My colleague, my critic, my counterpart chaser of riveted readers. The editor of the Hearsay Herald, a rival rag run by Lucy, the delicious dish with the tire-squealing curves. Though now she only revved her engines for on-paper scandal scooping. This rendezvous called for the saucy sangfroid only a true cad could corral.

“Uh, well, Ms. Ligature, Lucy my dear. An unexpected pleasure. And I thought our boy Cal only spilled his soul for the pages of Hush-Hush. And now he’s spilled so much more. Shot in the tabloids—or by them, you might say. And now the cops are sure to think the shooter is me. But what’s this I hear about me being next in line for some lead?”

She slowly shaped her ripe-cherry lips into a smile that played leapfrog with a sneer. “Danny boy. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.” Since she was punctuating these pleasantries by waving a stainless-steel Smith and Wesson, my idea fountain at the time was distinctly dry.

“I’m afraid that any article about this incident is going to have to center on the sealed secret of the smoking gun, trite as that might be,” she said, with a smirk that crossed a gargoyle with a goddess. “I do fear you’ll accuse me of lacking imagination, but, silly as it may sound, it was an accident. An accident that’s never going to have my name attached to it.”

She slid her limber legginess onto what was left of a leather loveseat and let out a sibilant sigh. It was then that I notice the weathered wisp of paper in her other hand’s gunless grasp. She glanced at the lifeless lug, whose innards were swiftly becoming outtards on his reddened rug. “Cool Cat seems to have misplaced his meow,” she said. She settled a steely stare on me and said, “The ninth life is always the nastiest one, I’ve heard.”

“Look Lucy,” I said, “Cal’s never been a choirboy, and there’s many a man who’d like nothing better than to see him skewered. But what’s he ever done to you, besides only offering the Herald his leftovers, rather than any major meat?” I was trying to play it cool, but I was shiftily sliding back, hoping to get my hind to the hinterlands in a doorward dash.

Lucy languidly lounged on the loveseat, and gave me a lissome look. “Hey, I’m going to tell it to you straight, Daniel, if you have ears to hear. The main means of getting secrets is being able to keep them, and I’ve kept more than a couple out of your readers’ sour saliva. One is that I’m engaged to be married in two days. The other is that I stand to inherit two million dollars, but only on the condition that I marry before I turn 50.”

She stirred on the loveseat and waggled that winking weapon. “The last secret, and the one that’s going to be covered up as cleanly as Calhoun’s coffin, is that I’ll be 50 the day after my wedding.” She brandished the birth certificate and laughed. “You see, you pathetic peddler of fishrot, my fickle fiancé thinks I’m barely thirty-five! Cal was blackmailing me, being the only one who knew my real age, and with a copy of my birth certificate to prove it!”

She slapped the gun on the loveseat and my heart did a triple-flip. “Cool Kitty had no pity,” she said. “He knew that my fiancé would skip out as fast as those facts got out. So I came here to cop the cop’s certificate, and he showed up while I was rifling through his house. It’s probably the only wrestling match with a woman he’s ever lost. I didn’t mean to shoot him.”

I was flat-out flabbergasted. For a woman of a certain age, she was sensational—she’d always zinged my heartstrings. I’ve never considered quicker or scampered swifter in my love-lacking life. “Lucy, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” I said. I called my office on my digital phone, telling them that charming Cal had never opened his door to me. We did a swift scrub of Lucy’s paw prints and mine, and then made a beeline for the beach, where a shiny firearm was flung into the maw of mother ocean.

I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to manage to write a story that plucked me from the heart of the crime without implicating the honey that was making my heart melt (or yours tangentially truly), but hey, I’m good at improvising. And Lucy knew how to tango, so a twosome we shall be. As the old saying goes, keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Action suggestions.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and no dangling participles to all!

The Mother of All Storytelling (Well, Mine, at Least)

Thinking about my writing influences, I make a beeline for Mark Twain—why not set your standards high? But then I mosey about some, bumping into Kurt Vonnegut, who seemed to pick flowers from the same field as Mr. Clemens. But whether a writer’s echo can be heard in your work isn’t necessarily a mark of their sway over you. There are people whose writing I fiercely admire, like Marilynne Robinson or Cormac McCarthy or Annie Dillard, and the DNA of their superb stylings can’t be traced to my pratfalls on the page. (For that matter, I may have been influenced as much by Dr. Seuss, or maybe Steve Martin.)

But the original influence? That’s easy. That’s the woman up above, who is cracking up the nearby priest with some tale. That woman has been telling stories for a lot longer than me, and with more accomplishment. That woman is my mother. Before Sarge Bentley got his hands on her, she was Eileen O’Brien, and though Iowa cornfields were the setting for her growing up, I’m sure the storytellers of the Old Sod made their ancestral mark on her. And she on me.

From my earliest memories, I saw her absorbed in reading. Hey, books! They must be good. I want to do that too. She never pushed reading on me, but the obvious pleasure it afforded her was generously transferred to me. And because she could shape a story, could find the odd and often humorous angle on some episode of human folly, I was drawn to storytelling too.

Stories: 100% Nutritive, Taste Great Too
The absorbing thing is, my mom’s stories, like her life, have never been pocked with pettiness, or buzzing with the trivial, or interested in shoving someone aside so she could shine. As a writer, I tire myself with my own jealousies over other writers’ successes, with my own trivialities and peeves. My mother has never swum in that shallow end of the pool—she laughs at the human comedy, but there’s never been spite in her smiles.

So here’s to my mom, my biggest writing influence. The photo is from her 90th birthday party a couple of weeks ago, where she was surrounded by friends, young and old, who uniformly wished her well. She’s wearing those test-pilot’s welding glasses because she can barely see a damn thing anymore and light bothers her, but she still reads wielding a fat magnifier. Words—can’t get away from them. By her side is a priest from my old parish being entertained by her point of view (though the margarita he’s drinking may have helped).

Thanks Mom.

Bonus Prizes!
A couple of good things just happened to me between my sojourns from the Airstream office to my house. MediaBistro and GalleyCat have been hosting an online literary festival with live webinars sporting the likes of Susan Orlean, Rebecca Skloot and Elissa Schappell talking about aspects of writing. A pal told me that you could win free admission to the occasion by tweeting what you considered to be the best sentence you’ve ever written. Well, I thought “I will not take them soft or scrambled, despite an argument well-rambled” was pretty good, so I—no, I actually tweeted one of mine, and I won. The festival has been fantastic.

I also entered a contest to win a year’s admission and a bunch of other goodies in the Freelance Writer’s Den, just by writing a blog post. So I did, and was chosen as one of the co-winners. Lots of good writerly stuff there that I’m just digging into. I entered both of these on a whim, and whimsically enough, won. That does tell you to enter contests if you think you’ve got a shot—who knows what might happen?

Thanks again, Mom.

Writing Without Words

kiteboarder

It wasn’t your typical spring day today: thrashing rain squalls, gusty, spiraling winds, and wet, wet, wet. I ran around town doing errands, hunched and squinting in my ancient Benz, windows fogged, because the heater blower has given up the ghost. But there was a short break in the rain, so I drove over to Steamer Lane, one of California’s premiere surf spots, to look at the crashing waves. Too blown out for surfers today, but there were a couple of kiteboarders whipping across the scudding waves, digging the wild winds.

It occurred to me that the boarders were writing on the waves, kind of free writing, where you don’t pause to reflect on the course of the narrative, but you just let the pen roll, the words barreling through willy-nilly, one word trampolining higher than the next, or slipping its nose under the surface of those to come. It’s a kind of writing I don’t often do, being the prim walker of my writing dog, usually leashed.

How Do You Tell Stories Without Words?
But the rollicking kiteboarders had me thinking further—it being a rainy day and all, perfect for damp musing—what would it be like to tell your stories without words? The kiteboarders were writing stories on the waves, stories of exuberance and thrill, of experiment and error (and recovery from error), of sheer, spontaneous spunk. There are so many different ways of telling stories, but writers think—and write—in words.

Language has always come easily to me, probably because I loved the play of words from childhood. Since my young punk days, I thought being a writer, a storyteller, was an exalted vocation. Because I couldn’t hit a curve ball (professional ballplayer being my first dream), I chose the curve of words. Now that I’m an old punk, I still think of writing as one of the best approaches to map out your world. But considering how few people work with words on an intimate basis, I wondered if many people, particularly today (where word-worthiness doesn’t seem a premium), perceive not owning the bricks to build up a story structure as an insufficiency or a frustration. But maybe their stories are wrought from different iron.

Lone Cowboy
There are many kinds of storytellers, of course. I was held in thrall by a crusty old mechanic years ago, who, chewing vigorously on an unlit cheap cigar and spitting into the engine recesses of our disabled ’55 Chevy, rattled out a sequence of profane tales. A born word-worker, spitting out stories in a dilapidated old gas station at a dusty crossroads out of Wasco, California. He certainly didn’t need any paper (and maybe didn’t even need an audience).

When you look closely, you can see storytelling everywhere, often wordless; the barista at your local coffee shop might make a perfect cappuccino with a swift succession of rhythmic motions, each musically timed, so that a once-empty cup is filled not with coffee but a warm poem.

Approximately a thousand years ago, I hitchhiked across Canada with my best friend. In one of the little towns we were stuck in, we went to a local park and watched a Little League baseball game in some rickety bleachers. While we were sitting there, we were accosted by a skinny, scruffy old man wearing a droopy cowboy hat and carrying a harmonica. When he asked “Could I play a song for you today?” there was no answer but yes. He got up close to the both of us, and played a series of short songs, none of which I recognized. His face, lined, tired, told a story that didn’t need any musical accompaniment. When he was finished, we thanked him, and he said, “I’m the Lone Cowboy, you know.” He started to leave and turned back, and with a big, rheumy-eyed grin said, “I kissed a pretty girl today. I’m the Lone Cowboy!”

The delighted, crafty and slightly self-astonished look in his eyes told as much of a story as his words. Here’s to the crusty mechanics, slick-serving baristas and Lone Cowboys, storytellers all.

Write As Though There’s No Tomorrow

I sent an email to Nelson Mandela a little while back, asking him for an interview. These are interesting times—if you poke around a bit, you can often find a listed email address for all kinds of folks. Of course, the address I found for Mr. Mandela is probably one handled by a phalanx of administrative types who send most requests down a tube into large cellar vats, to be boiled with the suet and other table scraps. (These are likely the same functionaries who dispatch my queries to the New Yorker into a similar large vat of innocuous fats.)

But DOA queries aren’t my point here; my point is that if you don’t take the initiative to further your writing career, who will? If you have been sitting on an essay about your cousin Doreen who drained the family bank accounts, joined a Mexican drug cartel and now owns a quarter of the blood diamond trade in Liberia because you were squeamish about the family reaction, when will you write it? Every writing thought that isn’t written is just evaporated water.

I am editing the memoirs of a woman who is in her mid-sixties, and it’s provocative stuff: the political tumult of the San Francisco Bay Area 1960s and 1970s, filtered through the view of a rebellious coming-of-age adolescent who experienced a dizzying amount of personal roller-coastering. Lots of torquing family entanglements, including affairs, alienation and death. Even though many of the principals are still alive, she knows that she’s got to put the truth on the page—this is her chance to tell the story, and she’s not sparing feelings, including her own.

Fate Is Indifferent to the Closing of Doors
Now that my once-dark locks are streaked with grey, it’s become more clear to me that I have to write as though there were no tomorrow. Because there isn’t—you just don’t know. I see among my own friends and family where fate has closed doors on people who presumed they’d be long open. My father, who at 93 is swathed deep in the fabric of his Alzheimer’s, was a decent storyteller. Though he can still shakily—and almost randomly—utter occasionally clear thoughts, he can no longer command language. I realize now how little I actually know of him—and didn’t have the sense or gumption to ask. I still see stories locked in my father’s eyes, but they are his stories, not mine—and now he can’t tell them.

I don’t want to be morbid, just realistic. One good car crash can make “what might have been” the saddest song, or you can just peter out your time, thinking there’s bushels of it to waste. I have been a big procrastinator in my writing life, loving literature, but rarely writing passionately. Some stories published here and there, a fair chunk of articles, but never driven to write. But I have more impetus now (and I’m finally working on that once-moribund second novel, by Jove!).

I found one of the strongest messages of Seth Godin’s rousing book, Linchpin, to be this: Don’t settle. Do your best work. If not now, when? Take some risks. If you fail, so be it. At least you acted, moved the pieces on the chessboard, ate the cake instead of agonizing over its calories, said “I’m for this!” instead of “someday, I might be for that.”

Oh yeah—if you happen to talk to Nelson Mandela, tell him I’m waiting for an answer.

Stories Cry Out for Capture (Milk Those Tears)

Over the weekend, I attended the wedding of a friend’s daughter. It was a lovely setting, in a bower warmed by the early fall sun of Northern California. Prior to the ceremony, all was going satisfactorily, with sighing grandmothers, scanty-skirted wardrobe malfunctions and many tuxedo tuggings. The groom, a hearty, open-faced lug I’d never met, joined the assembled bridesmaids and groomsmen at the head of the crowd. All turned to watch the bride’s stately approach, and she joined the groom at the altar, presided over by the minister, a Jerry Garcia-lookalike who grinningly bid them to join hands.

That’s when I noticed that the groom was weeping. He had holding his beloved’s hands, and was gazing into her eyes, and the tears were streaming down. The minister voiced some of the standard wedding pleasantries, but all the while, our boy on center stage was crying, shaking a bit in the depth of his emotion. He had to pause many times in the recital of his vows, and had to mop his face with a handkerchief all the while.

I watched the bridesmaids, and as you might expect, a number of them were crying too, but I could see that a few of the groomsmen, hearty fellows all, were showing some reddened eyes as well. Even one of the commercial photographers, a woman, was crying. The display of the raw male emotion became even more interesting when I found out that the groom was a cop.

The Gift of the Odd Angle (Snatch Those Stories When They Surface)
The reason I’m making note of this is that as storytellers, life gives us gifts. All you have to do is open your eyes (if they’re not too full of tears) and note them. Here you have a situation where something plays against type. A cop, a tough guy, openly weeping at his wedding. It turned out that most of the groomsmen were cops too, and they weren’t hiding their own rising feeling. I’m sure you know that there’s a lot of machismo in the fraternity of the boys-in-blue—group cries are probably not the norm.

For a writer, it’s one of those moments that you store away (or if you’re someone who gets right on it, damn you, you use it right away). You make a cop character who chokes up when he arrests a criminal, but is otherwise mister macho. Or maybe your cop character organizes a secret group of emotional policeman, the Crying Cops, for encounter group support. Or maybe the cop is only emotional around beautiful blondes, like our bride. (There are worse problems, I suppose.)

What I’m getting at is that you should keep your notebook at the ready, and write down those moments—and your life is full of them, if you look—where something is a bit unconventional, or off-kilter, or puzzling. Even if those things only provide a secondary character or a sub-plot, they give texture to your stories, and provide sparks for ideas and angles.

And who knows? The next time you get pulled over, you might get a crying cop, and he won’t be able to write out the ticket because his pad is so damp from the tears…

How to Tell a Story: Get Corny!

When I recently saw that the antique Disney film Swiss Family Robinson was on the old movie channel I favor, I had to take a peek—after all, at 6 years old, I’d thrilled to its elemental (and elementary) charms at its theatrical release nearly 50 years ago. Thinking I’d only watch for a few minutes, I wanted to see if any of its hoary elements might still provoke a gasp̵—or, more likely, an unintended laugh.

Indeed, though the film is filled with Disney cheese, I gobbled the whole damn thing up, watching entranced from one cornball scene to the next. It struck me that a good story is a good story, even adorned with some fairy-tale frippery. In a nutshell, Swiss Family Robinson is the tale of a family shipwrecked on a small island, having to make a life for themselves amidst deprivation, harsh elements and direct threats.

You just have to go with the fanciful unfolding that the family (still-vibrant parents and three boys of variable ages and temperaments) is able to build a multi-level home in the jungle that would put many avant-garde designers to shame, and are able to fend off a band of murderous pirates with bombs made of coconuts, gravity-tripped logs and pit-trapped tigers—oh my!

Take Characters. Put in Situations. Add Emotions. Stir.
But the tale has what it takes. There is:

Danger and Loss – their boat and their dreams to move to a new country are dashed in a violent shipwreck scene, which they survive, only to wash up on an island populated with all kind of menacing beasts.

Discovery and Development – They work as a team to build their house, learn to scavenge for food, and explore the wilderness.

Desire and Romance – A pirate captive is freed, and he turns out to be a she, longed-for by both the oldest and middle boys, who get into a jealous (and amusing) rivalry.

Threat and Triumph – they are attacked by the pirates, and improbably vanquish them. Rescuers come, and mom and dad and most of the family decide to stay, because the life they’ve created is too good to leave.

All of this is mightily sprinkled with sentiment of the cloyingly Disneyish kind: a frightening depth of blondness in all the characters (well, they are Swiss), syrupy innocence, and some absolute absurdities: the island has pretty much every beast known to man on it, from tigers to elephants to ostriches to monkeys.

Even Cynical Bentleys Filmgoers Still Crave a Good Story
But yet, a 50-year-old movie still worked in my snide head, because the storytelling was still vivid, and it employed those paragons of story architecture: colorful (albeit one-dimensional) characters, conflict and partial resolution, add in colorful subplotting, tension, conflict and partial resolution, tension, all building to a satisfying, if sappy, denouement.

Writers, take notes (and pass the popcorn).

If Jerry Garcia wrote short stories

Though I am a dinosaur, I do still need to flex the hard, bony plates of my skeletal system now and then, so I listen to the Grateful Dead, prime dinosaur music. The Dead’s repertoire runs through rock, blues, psychedelia, folk, space noodlings and even some jazz stylings. But the notion that Garcia might make a good short story writer comes from the sense that the Dead often do ballad-type songs, where there are characters—canny gamblers, seedy alcoholics, heady prophets, even the devil—who romp or stumble through the songs, coming to a good or bad end. Rumrunners and grifters are chewy elements for many a tale, written or sung.

Of course, Robert Hunter wrote many of the actual lyrics of those tunes, with Garcia as a foil, so it isn’t quite accurate to dub Garcia as the storyteller—more the sense of a writer lending the devil his deck of cards to deal a few hands. However, music is sonic storytelling, where a guitar riff or a piano trill can add storytelling elements of conflict, anger, and yearning that are beyond straight lyrics.

It’s interesting to think of artists stepping a bit out of their genre boundaries. Or perhaps step seven leagues from their profession, as Wallace Stevens from his insurance executive’s office and William Carlos Williams from his physician’s perch, both to the platforms of richly expressive poetry.

Garcia might have made a good candidate to produce a Vook: he could have included his paintings, music and lyrical scribblings. I read Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles a little while back, and was quite taken with the interesting phrasings and compositional structures of the work, done by an absolute artist, but not one encapsulated as a writer. Of course as a songwriter, few can touch him. Dylan’s book reminds me of the whimsy of the writing (and the artwork) of John Lennon, in his “John Lennon, In His Own Write” book. (I’ll probably draw the line at seeking out Lady Gaga coloring books.)

I do have a few Garcia ties; I wish they came with some embedded tunes and a USB port because the expressive shapes and colors undoubtedly tell a tuneful tale…