From Limbo to Focus in Nine Easy Paragraphs

In case you can’t tell, I’m having a problem with project commitment in regard to this website. I’ve made two Creativity Journal entries in the last four months, where I had been making daily entries for months before that. This drought roughly corresponds to the last time I wrote anything creative.

My last creative writing act was finishing the first draft of “Chesterfield Gray” on the airplane to Florida in October. I pulled that story from the dusty electrons of my Treo’s memory yesterday and was pleased to note that the story was just as bad as I remembered it being. It’s trite. It’s full of dull language and stereotypes like this:

She closed her eyes and bent her head back, holding the cigarette high between two fingertips, her crimson nails matching the lipstick stain on the unfiltered butt.

It sounds like something that should have Fabio on the cover. A certain amount of that is okay; after all, the setting is San Diego in 1945, and I wouldn’t mind if it has kind of a Bogey and Bacall feel to it. But the story’s problems don’t end with the hackneyed language. The story has three main characters: a sailor, a bartender, and, for lack of a better word, a tramp. The tramp and the bartender are cookie cutter characters; they don’t seem to have much life. They are definitely stereotypical.

The sailor, however, flies in the face of time. He’s not typical of a wartime enlisted man at all, and as such, he’s not believable. His sensibilities are much more 21st century than mid-20th, and that makes me wonder if I’m ruining the story by working my own agenda into it. I don’t want to do that, but I’m also interested in exploring the notion that real people in the 40s were not all clones of each other. Each person had his or her own feelings about the War, the Japanese, the Nazis. I’m sure all of those opinions were influenced by the times, but I doubt if Japanese sympathizers in the military were as scarce as history would lead us to believe.

One means of determining the truth of my suspicion is to interview primary sources. I may send out an e-mail questionnaire to friends and relatives that I know were alive during the time, asking for pieces of their memories. I could also go into a 50s+ chat room and ask general questions of the people there.

I’ve discussed this problem a bit with my friend Jeff at Old Possum’s Book Store. Jeff has a very good sense of plot structure and pacing; he has a couple of suggestions on how I could make the character more believable, and I will probably use those suggestions. Implementing them would require changing the structure of the story dramatically. That’s okay; I’m not really attached to the story’s structure. I was playing with structure a bit in regard to viewpoint shifts between the three main characters, but perhaps it would make more sense to focus on the most dynamic character and delegate the others to the background.

In that case, this first draft has some use as a character study. Though the characters are flat, I can use what I’ve written to define their actions in a limited viewpoint story.

I hate to say it, but I think I just convinced myself to go back to the drawing board on this story. I’m not too upset about that, though. By having some distance from the piece and working through it in this journal entry, I have rekindled some interest in finishing the story. Hopefully I can keep that flame burning for a while.

On Haitus

As you can tell, I haven’t made many entries in the last month. A few things have come up, and I don’t need to go into detail about them here, but I’ll give a quick update about some of the highlights.

Kim and I went to Key West last week for a manager’s meeting. I really enjoyed the trip, and I must admit that Key West during Fantasy Fest (possibly NSFW) was an eye-opening experience for a small-town Colorado boy. The most tasteful expression of Fantasy Fest clothing that I saw was a woman wearing only a custom-made brass ring mail halter top and a sarong. (There was nothing under the halter top except flesh, of course.) Believe it or not, it was a very classy and beautiful outfit.

The least tasteful personal expression of Fantasy Fest that I saw was a burly, bearded guy handing out 2-for-1 drink coupons outside a clothing-optional bar — with his manhood hanging out for all to see.

The sunsets were beautiful, the weather was perfect, and we had good times shooting pool and having dinner with some friends from my work.

On the plane ride to Florida, I managed to finish the rough draft of “Chesterfield Gray.” I’m not happy with it, but at least I now have something that I can look at and revise.

That is, assuming I do much writing in the near future. I’m not sure I’m going to have the time or energy for a while, so “Chesterfield Gray” may have to sit and percolate. Consider this an official statement that my creativity journal entries will be sporadic at best in the near future. Please keep checking back, but don’t expect an entry every day.

Poetry, Batting Cages, and Moss

I read poetry tonight at Coffee on the Lowell. The event had a modest turnout, though from what I understand, it was better than the last meeting. I didn’t think it was too bad for only their third outing. I did find out, however, that I listed the cross streets incorrectly on the West Side Books website. Coffee on the Lowell is at the corner of 50th and Lowell (or Regis and Lowell, depending on how you look at it) but I had listed it as 58th and Lowell on the website. It’s fixed now.

Ira Slotkin hosted the open mic, and Seth from the Mercury Cafe Jam Before the Slam was there as well. Zach, a counterpart of Seth’s, accompanied many of the poems on keyboard. (Sorry I didn’t get all the names, guys. I’ll get them next time.) Ira read several of his Spam haiku, the humor highlight of the evening. One woman read for the first time — and read well — choosing Wordsworth as her initiation. Another woman, a friend, read a poem that she said “scared her.” I can see why, after hearing it. It was disturbingly effective, and I think it took guts for her to air it. I read a few of my own poems, and closed with Hopkins’ “(Carrion Comfort).”

Afterward, I was finally able to deliver a critique of a story for my friend, the “scared poem” woman. I’ve had the critique for months, and have been wanting to get it to her, but our schedules haven’t allowed it until tonight. She appreciated the critique, despite all the green pen marks on it.

As for my own writing, I jotted down few more paragraphs of “Chesterfield Gray” at lunch. I hope to finish the story’s first draft Sunday and revise it the same day. I noticed that the new Writers of the Future Vol. XVIII is out, and Kim bought it for me as another early birthday present. (Thanks, Babe.) I’m officially getting behind. I still haven’t read last year’s volume, and I still have to read the second Harry Potter book and re-read The Two Towers before those movies come out.

I want to rant a bit about a couple of news stories that came to my attention. The first is fairly minor; it has to do with the lawsuit settlement between John Cage’s estate and a British composer name Mike Batt. The upshot is that Batt included a piece called A One Minute Silence on a CD by his band, The Planets. Cage is famous for his avant-garde piece 4′ 33″, a four minute, thirty-three second piece of silence which Cage used to perform live by sitting and looking at his piano as the audience fidgeted. Cage’s estate sued Batt for plagiarism, which seems ludicrous until you learn that Batt credited the piece to “Batt/Cage” on the CD. Oops. I’m guessing that if he hadn’t credited Cage as a collaborator, he would not have been hit with a lawsuit. Then again, he knew the piece was inspired by Cage, and acknowledged that. For that, he has to pay a six-figure sum to the John Cage Trust? Isn’t this a bit out of hand?

Speaking of “out of hand,” let’s talk about Randy Moss and the NFL. Specifically, let’s talk about Randy Moss getting his wrist slapped. This is a man who, intentionally and methodically, pushed a traffic officer half a block with the nose of his Lexus. He was charged with two misdemeanors, for which he will only be fined a maximum of $2000 by law. He is not likely to spend any more jail time because of the nature of his occupation and because of his celebrity status. The NFL has not suspended Moss for his actions, though he will be up for evaluation after his arraignment on October 2nd.

Compare this to the NFL’s denial of Peyton Manning’s request to wear black hightop shoes in tribute to Johnny Unitas. Manning is quarterback of the same team that Unitas helmed (or at least the team with the same name) and most of the news that I’ve read states that people in general think this was a classy move by Manning. However, the NFL denied the request, saying that if Manning wore the hightops, he could face up to a $25,000 fine.

One man commits a near-felony (some say it should have been a full-blown felony) and will probably get away with a slap on the wrist. Another asks if he can break uniform dress code — not breaking any laws, mind you, just a dress code rule — to pay tribute to one of his heroes, and is told that he will get a large fine if he does so. He decides not to, in order to keep from creating a distraction for his team. This says volumes, not only about the NFL’s priorities, but about the differences between how Peyton Manning and Randy Moss look at their positions on their respective teams.

The “Garden Variety” Writer Exposed

Okay, the cat’s out of the bag. I can finally say that I knew Brian Plante’s Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers was fiction for most of its run. I began e-mailing Brian shortly after the series started, taking issue with the way he was playing unfairly with the writers in his group. He responded, in a rather civil and friendly way, but said that he planned on continuing the blog despite my objections and those of the other people who had e-mailed him to complain.

Encouraged that there might be a person with a real soul behind the e-mail, I continued the thread, and discovered that Brian really did care very much about how he was coming across, and he assured me that he had gone to “much greater lengths” than I could imagine to protect the people in his blog. I even did a little investigative web browsing, trying to point out to him how poorly the people were protected. I pinpointed the library where the group was meeting, the city they were in, and even attempted to check through back issues of the magazine in which he claimed to have found the ad for the group. I wasn’t able to find an exact ad, but I was convinced that an enterprising photographer (read out-of-work paparazzi) could hide out at the Hemby Bridge Library and snap blackmail photos of the group entering and exiting.

There was only one problem. I found reference to the county’s library system, and that it serviced the Hemby Bridge area. I could not find references to the shopping mall that Plante described. Enough of the details fit, however, that I was convinced Brian was endangering the trust of the people he was writing about. I could only think of one alternative, and that was that it was all fictional. At the end of one of our e-mails, I said to Brian that I hoped this was all made up so that he wasn’t playing with the lives of real people. He wrote back to confirm my guess the next day.

Brian asked me to keep quiet about it so the experiment could run its course, so I made mention of it in this journal a few times to see if I could assist in the experiment without directly exposing it. I did tell a few of my friends in Colorado about the blog’s fictional nature, because it hard sparked quite a controversy among us.

How do I feel about it now? I think it was a good experiment, and now that Brian has come clean about the nature of the blog, I think it succeeded. It’s a good way to illustrate some of the positive and negative workings of a writer’s group without betraying the trust of any real people. However, I also think it was a very risky thing for Brian to do to his career, and I know of a couple of people who lost respect for him because of the way he presented the fiction. Hopefully most editors and readers will look upon him with favor for daring to take the risk, rather than being upset with him for duping them.

Speaking of writer’s groups, the Melanie Tem group met tonight. I read what I had of “Chesterfield Gray” and got good feedback from the group as to where they thought the story should go. At the end of the meeting, I played “Ode to Billy Joe” on the guitar while Melanie sang the lyrics, aided by a few of the class participants. The assignment is to write something about what we think the narrator and Billy Joe threw off the Tallahatchee Bridge. I hope to come up with something completely off the radar and wedge it into a vignette before the next meeting.

Jammed

I’m jammed right now.

I’m sitting in front of my computer, trying to work on “Chesterfield Gray,” and Pig Won’t (as Bruce Holland Rogers calls the inertia we have to overcome in order to write) is doing everything he can to get me to stop. He’s distracting me with e-mails, sounds, thirst, games, and a sore butt. Some of these are easy to combat; the e-mails don’t come if Outlook isn’t open, the thirst trick works only once, and the sore butt is less sore after getting up to get the drink.

It pisses me off that I have lots of energy to spend on writing and thinking about writing except when I’m in front of the screen. Just opening Front Page to work on this journal entry was a battle of laziness vs. stubbornness. In this case, Pig Will won out, and I’m at least writing something. Maybe if I write enough of this, it will kick start the desire to move ahead on the story, the first draft of which I want to have done by the end of Wednesday night.

I don’t want to talk about the story itself too much in this blog. The parasitic nature of the ‘Net keeps me from wanting to say too much about the stories I’m writing. That probably comes across as a tease to those of you reading, and I apologize. However, this open journal is still, first and foremost, for my learning purposes. Its entertainment value for you, unfortunately, is a side benefit.

I suppose I can say that I’m at a point in the construction of the story where I need to figure out what the characters are going to do next. I need to figure out how the female character is going to crack the shell of the main male character. Then I need to justify his brusque behavior by getting a bit into his history. A central event will involve all the characters toward the end, and I will need to show their reactions to it, but I will only be able to get inside the head of one of the characters.

It’s interesting how this is coming out, because the overall viewpoint is limited omniscient; we get in the head of only one character — a sideline character, in fact — but we know what the other characters are doing. So far, that seems to be working, but I may need to revise it as the story progresses.

Okay, it feels like the juices are flowing a bit, so I’m going to switch gears and leave the journal entry for now. One quick note; I found out today that I won’t be able to attend Mile Hi Con like I was hoping to this year. I will be in Key West that weekend on business.

Later — I was able to get some work done on the story. I cleared up a few fuzzy areas and wrote three more pages. I’m glad I was able to beat back Pig Won’t this time. I’ll have to remember that directly addressing the issue by writing about it seems to take some of Pig Won’t’s power away. (Believe it or not, that’s a correct construction of a possessive proper noun, in this case!)