Writespiration: Birthing a story

Maybe I heard this somewhere else before and am just stealing it now. If that’s the case, please tell me. If not, read me out:

Writing a story is like giving birth.

I say this having never given birth myself, but knowing several people who have. No birth is the same. Some are somewhat easy — Mom says she practically sneezed my sister out — and others require scalpels and spinal injections. But in the end, writing anything leaves you feeling tired, accomplished and relieved, with a beautiful future of shepherding the work throughout the rest of its (and possibly your) life.

The same goes for writing. Some stories and poems exit fairly smoothly: Not too smoothly. That means they’re not done being told yet: And these premie stories require a lot of nurturing before they can stand on their own. That’s not to say they’re bad or nonviable. Most National Novel Writing Month stories are this way, sliding out tactlessly only to mature on the outside when an editor’s pen goes to them. They’re just deceptively slippery and too anxious to land on a page.

Then there are the 12-hour labors, the stories that leave you sweaty and exhausted but proud when they’re done. They can be reluctant to leave the warmth of the womb-like imagination, grappling at the walls with their little fingernails to stay inside just a little longer, using plot holes and unclear transitions like handholds. But eventually they, too, squeeze themselves onto a page.

And then there are the Cesarean sections of stories — the ones that a writer has to cut themselves open to extract because of a deadline or misguided promise or pressure from readers. I’ve read too many books by authors that took a knife to their brain, ripped it open and plopped the story onto a page without much more care, Sadly, the stitches used to close their brains back up often heal wrong, making it impossible for them to ever write another thing that doesn’t read forced.

If I’m being honest, Omaha was a C-Section of a book because I had a literary agent waiting to read it. But my newest project goes from easy to laborious and back again — completely enjoyable the entire time as I leisurely let it make its way from brain to page.

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Vignette: “Let’s play a game”

“Let’s play a game,” she said. She had worn the right dress for this — the blue cotton one with buttons down the front, a tie around the middle, and a hem too high to be office-appropriate.

He smiled, leaning back on the bed and licking his lips at the thought of what might be coming. She was something in this light, in this heat. In heat, in general.

“I ask a question, and you answer it. If I think you’re being honest, I’ll undo a button.”

All he could think about was what might be under the dress. All she could think about was how much she wanted to pull the thong out from between her asscheeks and itch under the lace of the bustier she was wearing.

“Sure,” he said, not even asking what kind of questions they might be.

“Favorite place you’ve ever been?”

“Turkey,” he said. “You asked me that on our first date.”

“I asked you about your favorite place that you traveled to,” she said, hiding how impressed she was that he remembered one of her mundane ice-breaker questions. “Favorite place in general.”

“Is it pandering if I say ‘right here, right now, with you?'”

“It won’t earn you a button.”

“Then I’d probably say in the garage, working on my dad’s car with him when I was a kid. We’d spend weekends restoring this old T-Bird he bought for $500 from some guy in Fresno.”

She smiled at the thought of him smudged with grease and handing tools to his father, half submerged under an old Thunderbird. Then she cleared the thought of him as a child out of her head while she undid the second-to-top button of her dress.

“What, not going in order?” he asked, hoping the gap would give him a peak at her skin.

“My game, my rules. What are you scared of the most?”

“Snakes,” he said. “You know, wild ones. Pets are fine.”

“OK, Indiana Jones,” she said, undoing another button, this one at the bottom of the dress.

They continued like this for nine more questions until only one button — the one just below her breasts that kept it all together — was left.

Here it was, the point that she both feared and couldn’t wait to get to. The reason she suggested the game in the first place. She let his eyes scan up and down her torso, taking in what he could see of the black lace bustier and matching underwear. When they finally landed at the light pink bow now visible between the edges of her dress, she asked the final question.

“Do you love me?”

The way his twisting, falling stomach somehow echoed in his face told her that he had lied in his answer to the second question.

 

 

 

Poem: My morning

I want so much
To tell you about my morning.

I woke up looking at you,
Feeling your breath rise and fall
Through the mattress.
And then I pried myself out of bed,
Laced up my running shoes,
And let my feet carry me as far away from you
As my heart didn’t want to go.

Meaning I got to the elevator.
No, the front door.
Then you let out this snore that meant
You’d still be there, asleep, when I got back,
So I let myself step out and onto the sidewalk.

Every other runner tries to dodge the waves
Lapping up on the path,
As if they’re trying to avoid a starving monster.
I like splashing through them.
They only want to come play, too.
So whatever clings to my sneakers and holds on,
I’m happy to take with me.

I went three miles before my lungs were on fire,
Then turned around.
Ran another and walked another.
And ended up at the beach.
Our beach.
The one with the small cafe that’s open for odd hours
And serves margaritas on the rocks without salt,
Just the way you like them.

From there I can see our house.
It’s not much, but it’s home.
Home, sweet home.
Mi casa es su casa.
Insert cliche here.

And I imagined you sleeping there,
Lungs expanding and contracting,
Not burning up like mine.
Skin cool and caressed by the linen,
Not gritty with salt and red with sweat like mine.
Brain preoccupied with dreams of her,
Not thoughts of you,
Like mine.

There was a butterfly buried in the sand,
A victim of the playful waves that just wanted to feel
What wings were like
And crushed them in their wake.
The same way I feared my love
Had crushed you.

Except it wasn’t sand that you buried yourself in.
It was a misery that you named after me
Then a woman you knew before me
And will know after me, too.

Because when I came back,
Gritty from salt,
Dusty from sand,
One hand cupped around a broken, buried butterfly
That I wanted to use to show you I finally understood,
And my other hand turning the doorknob,

You were gone.

Monarch butterfly partially buried in sand

Butterfly buried in sand, as found at Ohio Street Beach in Chicago on July 7.

 

Writespiration: “An Object of Beauty” and voice

I’m finally getting into the annals of unread books on my shelf. Last week was An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. It’s a fun read full of details on contemporary art and modern masters, but more interestingly a glimpse into the world of collecting, dealing and appraisal.

There’s one sentence that keeps sticking out to me. It’s on page 120:

“Lacey’s solo entrance into Boston was less important than Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, but not to Lacey.”

I can’t get the sentence structure out of my head. Why write it like that — stating the obvious, then capping it with the payoff — instead of how I would have put it: “To Lacey, her solo entrance into Boston was more important than Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.” Maybe that’s because my stories usually focus on the characters’ perspectives first, then the social norms they’re breaking. Or maybe it’s because I’m not as creative as Steve freakin’ Martin (which I’m totally OK with, by the way).

In the end, I realized it comes down to voice. Martin is famous as a comedian, and as a writer he’s able to translate that sense of humor into stories that aren’t necessarily side-splitting but still carry a sly smirk with every sentence. Although I’ll never list An Object of Beauty as one of my favorite books, I enjoyed getting a wider look at his talent, as well as being forced to examine my own voice as a writer.

We should all be so lucky to write seemingly mundane sentences that make such an impact on others.

Writespiration: Tell the whole truth, or nothing but a little of the truth?

Today is a hot one in Chicago — the kind of wet electric blanket heat that flash-steams your lungs and makes a hot yoga studio more comfortable than out on the street. Plus, at least you know every vinyasa is toning your triceps and there’s no self-consciousness because everyone around you is sweating, too.

Well, almost everyone.

While most of us were risking our lives doing crow pose and Warrior II in puddles of our own making, the woman next to me didn’t let a single drop of sweat fall from her skin. She was perspiring, but instead of leaving it all literally on the mat, she was coated in a glossy sheen that made her look like she had the same perfectly golden skin as a roasted chicken.*

*I hadn’t eaten anything in 16 hours when I went to class, in case you were wondering.

And then I remembered something my friend Aya said — or maybe it was something I said to her, or maybe it’s something I thought I should say to her:

“Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class.”

Right now I’m working on a book that’s going to have a couple twists and oh-shit moments, and even though I know where they are in the plot, I have no idea how I’m going to get there. When I thought of that line of dialogue this morning — whether spoken in my real life or not — I figured out an important piece of that journey. Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class: And it just so happens this one character never comes out of the studio looking damper than she did when she went in. It’s the clue the main character needs to crack the mystery wide open.

 

Funny, how adapting small quotes or details from life seems to be a lot easier for me than actually writing a full story of something going on in my life.

A week ago I started mentally writing the intro for a non-fiction book that I want to write one day. It describes meeting someone who’s now a large part of my life, and if all parties involved give me permission, maybe I’ll publish it on this blog. It’s the first time as an adult that I’ve written about a relationship in my life without disguising the names or weaving it into a story about characters that only exist in my head.

The writing part was easy because I’ve told the full story to enough people verbally that I’ve had time to perfect the language, pace the plot, time the jokes and edit out the parts my “audience” finds boring. It’s like I’ve been working on an invisible draft of the story for months before even putting pen to paper.

But the actual act of committing the story to a page with the intention of someone else reading it? That takes moxie — and a bit of monstrosity, according to Anthony Bourdain:

“If you’re a writer or a storyteller of any kind, there is something already kind of monstrously wrong with you. Let’s face it — it is an unreasonable attitude to look in the mirror the morning and think, ‘You know, there are people out there who would really like to hear my story.'”

And I think that’s what it is. I don’t like putting stories from my life down on paper because it feels like my ego is getting in the way of my judgment of what makes a good story. I’m comfortable thinking “That line about not trusting people who don’t sweat at yoga is great for a book,” but not comfortable thinking “That journey about how I hated all forms of physical activity until I found yoga at 19 would make a great nonfiction piece.” Everyone has a story like that, and I guarantee more than one person has written it down — and well, too.

But I think I’ve found a story worth telling now. And so we’ll see how going from “fiction with a smattering of truth” to “truth that reads like conventional rom-com fiction” goes. I think I might be ready to sweat it.

Excerpt: Meet Pru, from “Nobody’s Hero”

When the world needed saving, Pru needed a manicure.

It was her client’s job to fight evil. It was the nail technician’s job to fight overgrown cuticles. And it was Pru’s job to make sure that once the threat was vanquished, the world restored to harmony, that her nails looked good as she waved the press away from her sole responsibility as a public relations agent: Miss Opal Hayes, alias Nightfire, one of the most popular state-authorized masked vigilantes.

While the manicurist filed away what was left of last week’s Fleetwood Black Cherry from her left hand, Pru scrolled her phone with her right, scanning her newsfeed for any live streams of her client’s heroics. Unlike some of her peers who represented other vigilantes with checkered pasts, she never asked Nightfire to wear a body camera during combat.

Not that Opal would have acquiesced. While she was almost too open about her past for her own good, she demanded her privacy when not wearing the mask. No one had ever seen her face, and even the name Opal Hayes was a pseudonym, as if anyone would think someone named Mr. and Mrs. Hayes had looked at their perfect baby girl born more than a century after 1890 and think Opal was a fitting name. They may have given her a severe nut allergy, but not a name fitting for a 1920s ingenue.

Pru Mornay’s parents gave their daughter a perfect powerhouse name — a one-syllable punch followed by the soothing balm of a French-sounding surname with a phonetic spelling. It was a name made for a high-profile, high-demand woman, given to a girl raised to be a high-profile, high-demand woman. And that’s exactly who she became, against her best efforts.

Her scrolling came to a halt when a call came through. She stared at the three letters glowing on her phone and debated whether to answer. If she didn’t pick up now, the caller would just keep trying, and Pru couldn’t risk the distraction later. She hit the green button and lifted the phone to her ear.

“Hi Mom.”

“I wanted to remind you that this weekend is the Gladstone Gala,” Lilah Mornay said without a greeting. “You still haven’t told me if you’re coming with us this year.”

“Because I don’t know if I’ll be working.”

“That’s our game, sweetie,” Lilah said. “But you still have to have a life.”

It occurred to Pru for the thousandth time since her birth that her mom only gave advice that would steer people to help her achieve some personal goal. It was how Lilah came to have her own public relations firm. It was also how Pru ended up at the same college, in the same degree program, and now a senior private representative at D&L Mornay PR. In this case, Lilah wanted her whole happy family — philandering husband, cuckolding wife and I-need-to-focus-on-my-career daughter — to be present for a ridiculously opulent charity event that would have seemed the stuff of satire if not for its ability to get rich people to open their wallets.

“I have nothing to wear,” Pru lied, switching her phone to the other ear and allowing the manicurist to yank her arm halfway out of its socket so she could attack the other half of Fleetwood Black Cherry.

“We’ll go shopping. Make it a girls’ day.”

Girls’ Day with her mother usually involved a maxed-out credit card, more martinis than Pru could handle and off-the-record rants about office assistants with caky makeup, thick legs and names like Astrid or Ashley or Ammanda With Two M’s.

“I don’t have time, Mom. Have you been watching the news? Op- I mean, my client is a little busy today, and that means I’m on deck for the next 48 hours.”

Pru felt the excitement flush her face. She didn’t particularly like the hurry-up-and-wait that came with relying on havoc — and the subsequent vanquishing of it — to give her life purpose, but she did enjoy the adrenaline rush that came with knowing her next 48 hours would involve drafting remarks for Nightfire’s press conference, accepting and rejecting interview requests, and perhaps most exciting of all, participating the Federal Vigilante Unit’s debriefing, which only she, her client and a handful of FVU officers were allowed to attend.

“Well why didn’t you say so? Go get ‘em, baby girl,” her mom said, clicking the call to a close.

Pru went back to scanning the news feeds. A few posts from unverified sources using the hashtag #Nightfire had surfaced, but nothing from any official accounts. She read them to see what public opinion had to say on her client’s behalf.

@Bocknstein29: Holy shitt #Nightfire is on my block blasting some dude with a green ray gun. GO GET EM GURL.

@Glamazon_3: Uh, I think I just saw #Nightfire outside the Starbs and Green and State.

@B!ggusD!ckus: Hey #Nightfire when ur done kicking ass, I’ll gladly eat urz. Hit me up. #Nightfire #SexyLady

Pru had discouraged her client from having any personal accounts, recommending she use a special service that could keep her online reputation clean but still give people what they want. After another vigilante, Quantum, had gotten drunk at a convention the year before and posted a video of himself describing how much amputees creeped him out, it wasn’t just his reputation that had tanked. His PR rep, one of Pru’s former acquaintance from college, had closed shop and started experimenting with apps that used photo recognition to identify any breed of dog. There was no way Pru would let Nightfire take to the web, though she wasn’t sure Opal would be willing to do that, either.

“Color?” asked the manicurist, allowing exasperation to creep into her voice now that she had tried three times to get the woman’s attention. She knew this woman. There was nothing about her behavior that separated her rom the other clients: She was more interested in her phone than in the human being shaping her sorry-ass fingernails, all the while trying not to get caught watching the dancers bouncing and grinding in the muted music videos playing on the screens above each table. The salon manager insisted that this woman was famous — that he had seen her on TV before, and therefore she was an important client — but to Angelique, she was just another set of dull, picked-apart nails begging for love and attention. At least she tipped well.

“Sorry,” Pru said. “Number 67.”

Angelique retrieved You Look Radishing from the storeroom and returned to see the rap videos on the screens had been replaced with a live news report from just a mile away. Almost everyone in the salon was watching it.

“Is that Scarlet Sword?” Francesca asked from behind the reception desk. “I like her.”

“Nah, she’s not carrying a katana,” the salon manager said. “That’s gotta be Nightfire.”

Pru’s head snapped up.

“Shit,” she hissed, pushing her chair back with a loud scrape. Turning to the manicurist, she uttered her apologies and dug in her wallet for two twenties. “I’ve got to go. Raincheck on the color?”

She didn’t wait for answer, just blindly took a pump of almond oil hand lotion and strode out of the salon, taking a hard left and disappearing from view before the bell above the door stopped ringing.

Fifteen minutes later, Angelique would see the woman on the TV talking live to a field reporter a block away from the scene and explaining that Nightfire’s first and foremost priority was the safety of Centropolis’ citizens and the preservation of their liberty, dignity and integrity.

This is the first chapter of a novel-in-progress called Nobody’s Hero.

Writespiration: “Worst Poetry” by Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay is my favorite living modern poet, full stop. I could listen to her all day. “Mrs. Ribeiro” contains stunning imagery and emotion. I gave my mom a hardback copy of “Point B” for Christmas and watched tears well in her eyes as she read it right there under the tree.

But there has always been “Worst Poetry,” one of the first poems I heard her read. At the time it was cute but not my favorite. But as I’ve grown up a bit and experienced new people and relationships, I understand it better.

Her poem deals a lot with love and relationships, but it also points out that there’s a distinct difference between a muse and a supporter: The person she describes in the poem doesn’t make her work better, but they do make her life better. Now is there a strict mutual exclusivity between who inspires you and who encourages you? I’m still figuring that out. Maybe another blog post is coming on that.

But for now, let me say this: Muses can be dangerous. Support is forever beneficial.

Find someone who makes you want to work on your art. Who wants to be there while you work on it but knows art takes solitude sometimes. Who is is open to examining your art but doesn’t ask to see it. Who’s patient when you say you think it’s crap but knows better than to say “It isn’t!” even when they haven’t read it.

And get rid of the mofos who take pride in causing your writer’s block. I’ve known those people before. They suck, and we no longer talk.