Scene of the write: Colectivo Coffee

I envy how little kids can fall and get back up without blinking an eye.

An almost sickeningly cute child in glasses just took a nosedive off the bench outside the window, tucked, rolled, and resumed eating his perfectly in-tact, cartoonish pink-frosted donut like nothing had happened. Meanwhile, little sister in white tights and black vinyl Mary Janes looked on, absentmindedly patting the head of her minature beagle mut mix of whatever.

Last time I took a spill like that, I bled through the knee of my jeans during an entire Colts-Dolphins game at Lucas Oil Stadium. A blend of blood and leaking ego turned the denim black.

There are two women down the row from us. One just announced she couldn’t decide whether to buy something in a size two or four. Then she continued picking at her avocado toast.

What I thought might be a coffee first-date next to me turned out to be a few friends meeting up. That’s why I like coffee shops on Sunday afternoons: A lot of times you get first dates between people who met at the bar on Friday and knew they’d be too hungover the next day to be first-date worthy. But no, these are just a couple mix-matched grad students from DePaul trading stories of where they studied abroad: Peru, Sweden, Texas.

Of course, I don’t even know how many people have eavesdropped on my conversations in these places before. I’m sure it made someone’s nght when The Man With Time on His Arm and I discussed Taco Bell Cantina’s presumable house wine as a fermented version of their taco sauce. Or just now, with Frannie and I talking about starting a Tindr-like app for people who want to spend just an hour with a dog on their lap while watching Judge Judy.

Oh, the conversation snipets we leave behind, like skin cells and donut sprinkles smeared across the pavement outside this window. 

 

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#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 10: Meet Foster Updike

Foster Updike was a tall man, had been a tall teenager and a short kid. The summer between freshman and sophomore year in high school, he had shot up six inches. The pain in his legs had been agony, but the way the girls and some of the boys looked at him that September was worth the sleepless nights, throbbing shins and, perhaps most excruciating of all, endless department store shopping to with his mom to buy new pants and shoes.

Perhaps it was his height that made him impervious to the 27-year scotch Pru had put in the monogrammed silver flask she had given him last Christmas. Not liking the taste of it — it made his mouth dry and smokey, like he had French-kissed a peat brick — he had left it in the bottom drawer of his desk. Tonight, however, had called for a celebration, and he gladly offered it up to his triumphant boss.

“You know what I like about you, Foster Up-Updike?” Pru hiccuped as she examined the flask now back in her hand.

He took it back from her but didn’t drink.

“Your name starts with an F and a U,” she said, drawing out the last vowel sound. “It’s like your parents knew you’d be too polite to tell people to fuck off, so they wanted your initials to do it for you.”

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 7: Better ideas persist

As I work on Nobody’s Hero this National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been pulling from material I have already written. (Don’t worry, I’m not counting any of it in my 50,000 goal.) It’s funny how some darlings you love become obsolete when a better idea comes along. Take this piece I discovered — and essentially rewrote — on Monday:

“The Mornays knew how to show up in style, with Darin in bespoke Tom Ford and Lilah in a crimson evening gown that strategically hugged in some places and flowed in others — Dior had won her business for this year’s gala. Around her neck glistened a spectacular diamond necklace that was so heavy it had once almost caused a cracked collarbone. But Lilah contended the twice-weekly pilates and calcium supplements she was taking had solved that problem.

“Meanwhile, Pru fidgeted in an emerald satin dress with an attached translucent cape. It was overly dramatic and not at all her style, but it was the only gown Dior had in their Centropolis storefront that would hide the bruises from her last night out fighting crime. Her mother had raised an eyebrow, made a politically insensitive allusion to the Muslim community’s dress code, and eventually thrown her hands up with an admission that ‘It’s your money and your body, so dress how you want.'”

Since deciding that Pru’s gala ensemble would be a high-tech hostess coat developed by Foster, the Q to Pru’s James Bond, the final paragraph not only describes the wrong clothing but also robs me of being able to paint a maddening but funny scene of when Pru’s Dior-draped mother sees her daughter role up in pants to an old-school charity gala. And let’s face it — it’s always better to show, not tell. 

Better ideas persist!

Vignette: City love

Her love for her city had always lied dormant and deep, buried in her core like the marrow in her bones. But then she found him in the city’s chaos, and that marrow had bloated and broken its bony shell to become a blush illuminating her cheeks like the rosy sunrise over the lake.

Chicago northside skyline at dusk

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.

Excerpt: “Lacers” (from an untitled, undecided project)

As if driving a rig wasn’t cool enough, I’ve got my best bitches in the cab with me, packing three guns a piece and making sure anyone who tries to take our cargo ends up being a fresh coat of paint on the trailer.

There’s Cinn, face painted with the cinnabar that earned her the moniker, sitting shotgun as she cradles one in her lap. Dag, flying her arm out the window so the dagger tattooed on her bicep catches a breeze. And Stitch, threading a piece of fishing line through the latest ear she’s claimed as a trophy. This one has a ratty fringe earring dangling from it, clumpy with blood.

“Hey, Gears,” Cinn shouts. “On the left.”

I flip the rear view mirror and see one of the Flora’s distinct bikes coming up close. The thing about their little buzzbombs is that they’re fast and small, but easy to push off the road if you’ve got a big enough rig.

Which I do.

“Nice!” Cinn affirms as we watch the Flora take a sharp detour down an alley to avoid being smeared along the brick walls of Lower Wacker. “Wacker? I hardly know her!” my dad would joke. I still don’t get it.

“They’ll be back,” Dag says, pulling her arm in and checking her rifle one more time. “We should get up top.”

I pull up a street that used to be called Garland, going the wrong way according to the faded signs, and emerge onto a street roofed by elevated train tracks.

“Well that’s new,” I say, nodding to the hole blasted into the building in front of us. “Floras?”

“Nah, probably Sparklers,” Dag says. “That’s got glitter bomb written all over it.”

“Fucking Sparklers,” Stitch spats as she ties the ear around her neck and adjusts it so it hangs in the middle of her chest tattoo spelling out “Lacer.”

That’s what we are in this post-apocalyptic world: Fucking Sparklers. Lacers. Floras. Fuck Mel Gibson in his desert wasteland. After Armageddon hits, the buildings are still here. Kids between the ages of 14 and 19 are still here. And with the patriarchy-pushers now just ashes in the wind, we girls have risen to the top while the boys are too busy doing dick-measuring contests in their underground Boys Only clubs because society tucked them in each night with a kiss and promise that they would inherit the Earth without having to do much to earn it.

Well move over, because we might run like girls, but we also run this world. We’re driving the gas rigs. We’re trading protein packs and solar lamps. And we’re not sacrificing our feminine sensibilities to fit some patriarchal bullshit that fits the narrative Hollywood decided would be most profitable to share in sequels upon sequels of special effects movies.

That doesn’t mean we don’t feel the need to bitch slap each other once in a while. There’s no love between us Lacers and the Sparklers, Floras or Prom Queens, but we also have our allies. The GCs — Gold Crowns — provide surveillance in exchange for a share of the loot we bring back from our runs, and there’s tight history between our leader, Golightly, and the chief navigator for the Chanels.

The boys wish they could be us.

“Flora is back,” Dag announces. “On the right, about forty feet behind.”

“We don’t even have the cargo yet,” Stitch says.

“Yeah, but she doesn’t know that, and she’s not going to wait to ask,” I say, cutting the wheel to cut her off as I hit the breaks. I wait for the telltale thump of her body hitting the back of the trailer, but instead I hear metal dragging on pavement.

The bike slides out from under the front of the truck, slamming into the light post ahead. There’s no sign of its rider as I put us back into gear and pull back out onto the road.

“If she’s back there, she’ll be long gone by the time we get to the pickup point.”

“Unless she’s Indiana Jonesing this thing,” Dag says.

Cinn twists around to look at her.

“Come on, Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Dag says. “Indiana grabs on to the bottom of the Nazi’s truck with his whip so he can keep up with it. No one?”

“I lost interest when my brother forced us to watch Church of Doom or whatever,” Cinn says, looking forward again.

Temple of Doom,” Dag and I say in unison. Cinn looks at me incredulously.

“Harrison Ford was hot in those,” I say. “Much hotter than he was in Star Wars. Definitely fuck material.”

“Nah, I’d much rather do Han than Indy,” Dag says. “Imagine how Indiana Jones smelled.”

“Yeah, but the stubble. And that open shirt, hat and whip combo.” It’s been forever since I saw them, but I remember realizing I liked boys thanks to Harrison Ford easing his shirt off with Karen Allen’s help.

“OK, you might have a point.”

Cinn gags melodramatically and keeps looking into the side mirror for a sign of our potential tail.

 

This is the beginning of an undetermined project (book? graphic novel? film starring Amandla Stenberg and Millie Bobby Brown?) that crosses Mad Max: Fury Road with Mean Girls.

Nonfiction: Reset, then resolve

Why do we resolve without resetting first?

It’s like painting a wall that’s been beat up over the last year with a fresh color, but neglecting to first fill in the angry gouge we made the night we realized we let someone else do the same to our self-confidence. The pin pricks that accrued quietly and subtly as a relationship deteriorated until they became a full cavity. The scattered knuckle-sized dents from when we beat ourselves up over not landing that job, not saying “no” to that cheesecake, not writing all week. It’s easier to ignore the past and try to cover it up.

To make the paint stick and the resolutions work, you need to examine every flaw and determine just how much spackle is needed to fill it in, to heal it. Sometimes you overcompensate: You see a nail hole from a poorly placed priority and glop it on, creating that a swath of stucco that has to be sanded down to get back to the true wall — the true self. Other times you have no idea just how many layers of putty are needed to heal a seemingly shallow dent from a misguided comment, so it takes a few tries. But you do it all thoroughly, and you learn as you go, and promise that next year there won’t be so much to fix.

There will be, by the way. Possibly more. But that’s next year.

Then, only then, can you start to paint with the new color: Resolve to work out more, eat better, drink less alcohol, drink more water, work harder, work smarter, work only 9 to 5, start a side business, invent something, pitch that novel, finish that screenplay, find the one, ditch the loser, spend more time with family, travel independently, read more books, surf the web less, call that friend from college, delete your Facebook. Every resolution completed is another layer of paint, but every failure is another scratch you’re already prepared to fix this time next year.