Garage Sales & Source Enlightenment

Today I picked up a bunch of great books at a garage sale, including another copy of Ellison’s Angry Candy, Datlow’s Alien Sex anthology, several issues of Glimmer Train, a Leslie Marmon Silko book, the screenplay and director’s journal for Darren Aronofsky’s p(Pi), and Philip Toshio Sudo’s Zen Sex, the companion volume to Zen Guitar, which I reviewed on this website. My friend Dave also went to that garage sale, and purchased The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume I. I saw him walking down the sidewalk, and asked if they had anything good at the sale.

“They did. But it’s yours, now. Happy early birthday present.” He handed me the book.

Thanks, Dave. 🙂

In the afternoon, I watched the Broncos-Rams game, glad to see that Brian Griese pulled through for the team. I get sick of the media hounding him, and it was nice to see him prove — again — that he’s a world class quarterback. During the game, I told my wife that I was going to either write or critique stories tonight, and that’s exactly what I did, after losing a close game of Literati to her. I beat her sister, though. (It’s strange to play a game over the Internet with someone who’s in the next room, but by doing so, we were also able to play with her sister in Phoenix. Pretty cool!)

I worked on “Chesterfield Gray,” getting into the swing of it by revising the three pages I had written before. I then continued for another page and a half, fact-checking WWII on the Internet as I went. I still didn’t know where the story was going, or why a WWII story was coming out, but I made a passing reference to Kamikaze attacks, and started exploring the main male character to see what made him tick. I decided that he had seen real death, and it had affected him deeply, and got to wondering which battles would be the most likely for him to have been in. I wanted it to be a battle where ships were known to have been directly hit by Kamikaze pilots, and the only ship that I knew off the top of my head had been hit was the U.S.S. Saratoga. She was badly damaged near Iwo Jima in 1945, with seven direct hits by Japanese aircraft. Three of those direct hits were Kamikaze strikes.

I know this because I dug out the obituary for my Uncle Wayne Johnson, who passed away in July. He was on the Saratoga on February 21, 1945, and was one deck below a direct Kamikaze hit. He spent the next ten days in a Hawaiian hospital, getting a glass eye and reconstructive surgery.

As I was reading the obituary, it hit me why I am writing this story. It’s my way of grieving for and paying tribute to my Uncle Wayne. Of course, the events in the story will only be tangential to his life, but I understand now why the story is coming out of me. I have a direction, now, and I can work on shaping the story into something worthy of his memory.

Wayne (sitting) and Lyle Johnson, brothers.  Cutter, New Mexico, March 2002
Photo © Stace Johnson, all rights reserved.

Stories Everywhere

Story ideas are everywhere. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you his idea service.

Today, as I was leaving the grocery store, I pulled up next to a nice black car at the stoplight. The driver was a young blonde woman, her hair pulled back in a professional-style ponytail. It was about 6:00 PM, and she looked as if she had just gotten off work. She was very pretty, and her face was scrunched in worry. That, in itself, is enough to spark a story. What would make a young, successful businesswoman worry so? What is happening in her life?

As she waited for the light, she got a small box out of one of the grocery bags and opened it. She pulled a sheet of paper out of the box and unfolded it. The sheet had a pink border; it was instructions for a home pregnancy test. She was still waiting at the stoplight when I drove into the intersection.

You can’t tell me there’s not a story there. I guarantee it’s a very important story for the young lady. I couldn’t see if she had a ring on her left hand; depending on whether she did or didn’t, the story could go in vastly different directions.

On another occasion, I was walking with my wife in downtown Denver one frigid night. We were on our way to an Eric Johnson concert at the Ogden Theatre. As we walked, a couple about a block in front of us stopped short, dropped their bags, and faced each other, yelling. We slowed, not sure what was going to happen or if we would have room to get by. They sparred verbally, and then the man suddenly picked up his shopping bag, turned, and walked briskly up the street, away from us. The woman stood still. She called after him a couple of times, but he didn’t turn around or stop. She started crying. Gathering her things, she began to shuffle up the street in the direction he had gone, still sobbing in the cold air.

I have no idea what they were arguing about, or whether it was right for him to strand her on Colfax Avenue on a winter night. Perhaps he had some justification, or perhaps he was just a jerk. But the scene could translate almost directly into a story or even a movie script. I’ve often thought it would be a good exercise to write that scene from different perspectives: one that paints the man’s actions in a positive light, one that paints his actions in a negative light, and one that explains what’s happened in a way that neither person looks like the villain.

Observation is really all it takes to come up with the spark for a story. The writer doesn’t have to record the events perfectly for an idea to start burning; in fact, it might keep the idea from growing if the writer sticks too closely to the details. Stories that are based in reality may sometimes benefit from tension-inducing details that were not in the inspirational scene.

Tonight, I played Morrowind for the first time in weeks. I didn’t get very far; in fact, I stopped playing it in favor of reading Word Work. I should be able to finish the book at lunch tomorrow.

Old Anniversaries and New Fiction

Today is the 14th anniversary of my first wedding. It’s one of those dates that I just can’t forget, try as I might. Amy, if you’re reading this, happy former anniversary. I’m sorry things worked out as they did, but I’m glad we get along pretty well now, for Keith’s sake.

Tomorrow is the Tem writing group, in which I am supposed to accompany Melanie on guitar while we sing “Ode to Billie Joe.” I’m ready, I think. It’s a pretty easy song to play, but I have to wonder if the surviving recordings are at a different pitch then they were actually mastered. The TAB and chord files that I have found on the ‘Net indicate that the song should be played in F, but it sure sounds like D to me. I actually like playing it best in E, because I can get a funky little half-step slide in there to imply the song’s bass line.

I’ve mentioned that the homework for that session is to write something out of our comfort zone, but also (if we wish) follow the guidelines of including a tavern or bar. I sat down at the keyboard, knowing only that I was going to attempt either a romance or a horror story, and something calling itself “Chesterfield Gray” came out. By the end of the first 200 words, I had three characters interacting obliquely in a 1940’s era waterfront bar. It was a great start, but then stopped cold after about 550 words. I found I had questions to answer before continuing.

When the female character started directly addressing one of the male characters, he surprised me, because he is pretty much a jerk. Why is he like that? How is she going to react? Could anything develop between them after him being such an ass? Will she take his put-off manner as a challenge, or forget about him? How will the third character fit into all of this?

I don’t often outline exactly where I want a story to go when I start writing it. I usually have some vague idea of how I want it to end and a few events that I want to happen along the way. But sometimes the characters don’t want to go there. This story is a case where the characters themselves are directing the story, much as a well-run role-playing campaign should unfold. The intriguing thing to me is that I am learning about the characters as they are coming out, and I’m wondering what’s going to happen to them, as if I weren’t in control of their destinies. I suspect that this will make the piece strongly character driven, but it may be short on plot. I may have to shoehorn some of my own events in there to make it palatable.

I bought a ticket to go see Johnny A at the Gothic next Tuesday. I’m really looking forward to seeing him perform, and hopefully I will be able to get a fairly close seat.

Morning Morrowind

I felt better today, and attended work as usual. I’m upset with myself for missing work over a silly sinus problem, because I also missed a meeting that I was actually looking forward to attending. This morning, I got up at 5:30 AM and rode the exercise bike for a while, then discovered that I had plenty of time to do something else before I went to work.

So I played Morrowind. I know, I know, I’m supposed to write, not play games during this morning time. That was the agreement I made with myself. Hey, at least I exercised. That’s a start, and hopefully I will be able to get into that full bore when I’m not so worn out from playing “This Ole House” every night.

I should at least be able to get the hall ceiling painted tonight, and my wife can get some particularly needful parts of the bedroom primed.

Independence Day

I had today off from work, my son had spent the night at a friend’s house, and my wife had to work the morning shift. I had the perfect opportunity for uninterrupted writing. So I played Morrowind most of the morning, then played guitar in the afternoon. Well, it’s not writing, but I do need to work on the songs for Better Than Nothing in case they invite me to join the group. Even the Morrowind stuff was pretty creative; I’m really getting into the meat of the main quest now, and some of the tasks on that quest are getting tougher, so accomplishing them requires some creativity.

In the evening, we went to CU’s Folsom Field for their annual concert and fireworks display. Because of the Colorado wildfire situation and the drought conditions, the City of Boulder made the responsible decision to cancel the fireworks display this year, and the promoters chose to present a laser light show instead. Usually the event features a high-profile local band, Chris Daniels and the Kings, but this year they had the Colorado Music Festival orchestra. The orchestra played well, but making the sound from a small orchestra fill a college football stadium is a challenge, and the amplified sound of the orchestra was unavoidably tinny. The laser show was good, though short. Considering the fact that they only had a couple of weeks to put the whole thing together after the fireworks ban, I’d say they did a very good job.

If they ever do this again, though, I won’t sit in the same spot. We were directly below the stadium scoreboard in the upper bleachers. This is the ideal place to view a fireworks display, because you don’t have to crane your neck as much. However, with lasers shooting over the crowd from the other end of the stadium, and with us directly across from the emanation point, we got quite a bit of laser amplification when the lines crossed. The lasers weren’t dangerous to our eyes, but the constant flashing made more than a few guests in our area leave shortly after the beginning of the show.

When we got home, I finished reading Zen Guitar. I hope to post a review of that on this site tomorrow and also send a review of last week’s Dan Fogelberg concert to the Living Legacy website.