Day 29: W. F. Ward, Confectioner, 1958

 

Out on the porch it’s August,
But it’s cool inside and dim, one bulb suspending from a cord.
A slim brunette holding a bottle of Royal Crown Cola
Smiles down from above the mirror.
In the back, where it’s dark and you’ve never been,
Sit two small, dusty tables and four delicate chairs.
Once, flappers and their beaus
Sipped sodas there and flirted,
But now they’re ghosts.
Behind the marble counter stands Dick Ward,
Eighty years old to your seven, and deaf, and wiry as the chairs,
Blue eyes dancing.
“Chocolate, please,” you say.
He leans down, tilts his head.
“What?”
You stand on tiptoe, breathe deep, shout.
“Chocolate!”
Of course, it’s just a game, because
He knew before he asked.
He dives down, disappears into the marble, rises with a cone,
Huge, double-dipped,
And proffers it.
You hand him your nickel.
“Thank you.”
As you turn to leave, Mr. Perry shuffles in.
“Bugler!” he rasps,
And as Dick reaches for the tobacco
You know that’s wrong,
Because your grandfather smokes Bull Durham,
And anyway,
How could anyone pass up chocolate?

~~~~~~~~~~

“W. F. Ward, Confectioner, 1958” first appeared in the 2008 issue of True Words Anthology, a publication of Story Circle Network.

 

Day 17: Perpetual writing

I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, “Damnit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “he’s writing something.” ~ (James Thurber, in an interview with George Plimpton and Max Steele. Paris Review, Fall 1955)

Surrounded by crucifers, I calculated the odds that today’s cauliflower would make it to the dinner table rather than mummify in that mausoleum otherwise known as the vegetable crisper.

Candy to left of me, Cosmo to right, I pondered twenty-seven ways to lose fifty pounds by Thanksgiving and ninety-two prescriptions for gaining it back.

Crossing the parking lot, I put in a grocery store between the hair salon and the antique shop.

Then I hired a manager.

Joelle currently does cuts and perms–she was Margaret, the assistant postmaster, before youthening and changing her name and her career–but she could operate the grocery, which carries better stock than the Abomination out on the highway. And her husband, Scott, could take over when he retires.

I don’t know when Scott will retire. I’m not even sure his name is Scott. He used to be Herb, the postmaster. He took that job just before Margaret turned into Joelle. But he’s awfully straight-laced, and Scott suggests a certain amount of elasticity…

Grocery shopping isn’t the only endeavor that detours into writing. Sometimes I’m in the shower. Sometimes I’m driving to an appointment.

In the middle of a romantic birthday dinner at the Clay Pit, I erupted: “Ooh! I just thought of somebody else I can kill!”

That’s not the way to win friends and influence people, especially if you’re seated in the little room downstairs, where voices ricochet off stone  and land in the neighbors’ chicken korma.

No matter. People look at me funny, and they think I’m scatterbrained, and rude, and some no doubt think I’m criminal.

But there is one advantage to this perpetual writing, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Ever since fifth grade, when I heard a high school prose reading contestant perform “The Night the Bed Fell,” I’ve aspired to write like James Thurber.

And now, if I think about it in just the right way, I can say that I do.

NaNoWriMo, MRI, TBF, and WLT

I’ve spent the past week writing and rewriting a post about attending the Texas Book Festival. No matter how many times I revised it, it sounded dull and complaining. Actually, it sounded worse than complaining, but if I use the word I have in mind, I would be crossing a line drawn in the sand years ago by both my grandmother and Emily Post, a Rubicon of sorts, and then who knows what might happen to my personal lexicon. It’s a slippery slope.

Suffice it to say the day was HOT and we got the last space in the parking garage, on the eighth level, and then found the elevator out of order. On the plus side, I visited with Sisters in Crime members Russ Hall and Sylvia Dickey Smith and got an autographed copy of Sylvia’s latest novel, A War of Her Own. On the minus side, Russ and Sylvia thought it was just as HOT as I did. They’d been inside that tent for two days as opposed to my two minutes. After taking a couple of pictures, I suggested that David get the car and pick me up. He did. He reported he climbed fourteen flights of eight steps each. I thanked him and turned the AC up to gale force. We ended at the Magnolia, where David got his omelet.

It still sounds like complaining.

Never mind.

I’ve signed up to participate in NaNoWriMo–National Novel Writing Month–which begins November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel by midnight on November 30. Write-ins are planned all over the Austin area at coffee shops, bookstores, and libraries. The Writers’ League of Texas will hold a lock-down (or maybe a lock-in) one night from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. I’ll go to write-ins but not the lock-down. I get claustrophobic thinking about being locked down, even metaphorically. It sounds too much like getting an MRI. It also sounds a lot like graduate school. Been there, done that.

Modified Rapture! I just checked the WLT Facebook page to find the date of the lock-down and instead found the sentence I wrote last Sunday at the TBF. On my way out, I picked up a prompt at the Writers’ League table, sat on the curb and wrote the rest of the sentence, then tossed it into the fishbowl. And voila! There it appears, among the Top 10. It’s #8. The honor is not on a par with publication of a book, of course, but it’ll do quite nicely for the time being.

To prepare for November 1, I’m reading  No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel, by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. He offers many valuable suggestions for surviving the month. One, however, should be excised before the book goes into another printing, namely the section headed “Eating Your Way to 50,000 Words,” which includes the sentence, “Allowing yourself loads of restaurant meals, sugary treats, and exotic beverages is the best way to keep your spirits high during the exhausting mental acrobatic routines you’ll be pulling off next month as you write.”

Restaurant meals and exotic beverages might work, but if I want to keep my spirits high, I’ll stay away from sugar. Last week is proof. Again. After a period of abstinence from white stuff, I ate a slice of bread, and in five days I was tripping down the primrose path arm-in-arm with a jar of red plum jam. It was not coincidence that the day after my rendezvous with said jam jar, I decided I should make a bonfire of all my pages, destroy my files, and give up writing altogether.

Lacking the energy to do all that, I took the pledge one more time, ate meat and green stuff, and the next day was back at the laptop.

My advice to anyone trying to do anything in thirty days: stay off the sugar and most of its relatives.

I have decades of experience in this area. With every paper I wrote in grad school, I put on five pounds and then spent several weeks taking it off. Sometimes losing it took longer. I carried Lord Tennyson around for months.

To Mr. Baty’s credit, the photo on the back cover of his book suggests that he’s never had a problem with sugar. If he were told of its poisonous properties, he might add a footnote saying readers should consult their medical professionals before eating their way to 50,000 words.

It’s after 2:00 a.m., and I swore Saturday morning that I would be in bed before midnight. I need to end this post but can’t figure out how to do that. Possibly because the post has no point. Probably because it’s after 2:00 a.m.

So I shall simply declare this is the end.

THE END

 

Move over, Cyd Charisse

I received a phone call last week from Lucia Zimmitti, an editor who spoke at the Texas Trail Writers Roundup this spring. In mid-July, I’d sent her the first five pages of my manuscript. She reported that she’d read them and that they’re ready for query. She said she believes agents who read them will ask to see more.

Music to my ears. I was reluctant to tell her how long I’ve worked and how many revisions it’s taken to get those five pages agent-ready. Lucia said not to worry about time, that some novels are ten years in the making. Actually, it’s the ten years part that worries me, but I know it’s going to take as long as it takes.

After discussing specifics, Lucia asked how much more I have.

A pile of pages. A stack of scenes. Words, words, words, but not in order.

I described where I am in the process and told her how I work. She said not to worry.

When I hung up the phone, I was tempted to dance around the apartment.  But I didn’t. My feeling of ecstasy wasn’t pure. It was an alloy, producing calm rather than chaos.

It’s good when people like what I’ve written. But having a professional say those pages show promise is more than good. It’s validating. It means the time, the effort, the embarrassing, sick-making drafts aren’t wasted.

It means that when people ask what I do, I can drop the self-mocking half-smile, the apologetic, “I’m working on a novel. But of course, EVerybody in Austin is working on a NOvel.” I can look them in the eye and say, “I write.” I can remove the quotation marks from “novel.”

I’m tempted here to insert the usual disclaimer: It’s only five pages. I haven’t completed the manuscript. The five present-perfect are future-imperfect–because, with all the twists and turns of drafting, they will have to be tweaked.

But I won’t apologize. Hearing Lucia’s assessment of the intro to Chapter One changed how I perceive both my writing and myself. I’m no longer a dilettante. I’m a writer. I have goals to meet, a manuscript to finish, and no room for excuses.

Figurative language isn’t my forte, but to clarify, I’ll give it a shot.

It’s like when I was ten years old and my Uncle Donald took me out to a pasture in his beat-up 1950 Chevy pickup and taught me to drive. I started out popping the clutch (“Let it out sloooow.“), grinding the gears (“Put in the CLUTCH!”), killing the engine (“Give it some GAS!”), turning the key, popping the clutch, jolting the passenger, bouncing across old furrows. But after a few lessons I got the hang of it and was driving along the turn row, changing gears without incident.

A couple of months later, my father put me behind the wheel of a ’56 Bel Air, which had fewer gears and no clutch at all, and let me drive home from the farm (“Don’t rush up to the stop sign, eeease up to it.”) In due time, I got my license and soon was cruising down the freeway, feeling like a driver.

After I’d invested time, energy, and angst wrestling with the clutch and grinding the gears, finally holding that license brought not only satisfaction but also a feeling of maturity.

The future won’t be a joyride. There will be (here comes the disclaimer) traffic jams and detours and wrong turns down one-way streets. And worse. Like the time I was on my way to the university and my car slid on a patch of once-in-a-decade Texas ice and landed in the ditch facing the wrong direction, right across from my father’s workplace. (“I told you to go slow.” “I DID. I was just doing 50.”)

When Lucia and I finished speaking, it was as if she’d handed me a license to write. I felt settled. Serene. Competent. Equipped for the task at hand.

Cyd Charisse, move over. I feel a dance coming on.

**********

Lucia Zimmitti is president and founder of Manuscript Rx.

P.S.  I did not try to perfect the first five pages before moving on. I obsess and compulse, but not to that extent.

 

A nice turn of events

I learned yesterday evening that my story “Personal Experience” won the second place prize in the Fiction: Short Story category of the 2010 Brazos Writers Writing Contest.

My critique partner’s story, “Taffy Lomita,” won first place and will be published online.

CP and I are officially Pleased With Ourselves. I’ve given myself permission to remain that way for at least a week.

Letting the miracle happen

I ended an earlier post with the sentence, “There’s a hole I have to write myself out of.”

Parse that and you’ll find it equal parts wish, bravado, pretense, and humbug.

I had no idea how to write myself out of that hole. I thought I’d have to scrap “A Day in the Life of a Rancher’s Wife” and replace it with “A Day in the Life of a One-Room Schoolteacher.” Or anything else I could both start and finish.

But I gave it a shot, opened the document, and began revising. For the Rancher’s Wife, that meant squeezing 700 words into under 500, just in case I came up with a conclusion.

And in the middle of all that deleting, adding, shuffling, it happened. I knew how to end the story.

By the time the epiphany occurred, it was after midnight. I tacked on a couple of sentences to hold the thought and the  next day continued reworking the piece. The result is a story I’m satisfied with. Almost. There’s still time for tweaking.

When I was teaching English in the late ’70s, the latest fashion was to teach the writing process: brainstorming, prewriting, writing, revising, editing, polishing, proofreading. Sometimes prewriting was put before brainstorming. Sometimes editing and polishing were rolled into one. It was neat and tidy and linear.

But there was no step to describe that epiphany.

If there’s frustration here–and there is–it’s that I can’t explain that missing step. I had given up. I wasn’t trying think of a solution. I was playing with words. And then I knew.

Maybe that’s the heart of the process: relax, play, stay in the now, allow ideas to come. Maybe the process isn’t a process at all.

I’ve read that creativity has something to do with the frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the temporal lobe, the limbic brain, alpha brain rhythms, gamma brain rhythms, warm showers, long walks, and happiness. When scientists have it all observed and assimilated and indexed, I’ll try to understand.

For the present, however, I like to think that extra step is Gertrude Stein’s miracle.

Not knowing. Knowing.

And the process is letting the miracle happen.