Tag Archives: Fiction

#MyWritingProcess #BlogTour

“My Writing Process” Blog Tour

My friend C.D. Mitchell tagged me as part of the Blog Tour. I always appreciate the opportunity to publicize my work and that of other writers, so for whatever it’s worth, this is my contribution.

What am I working on these days?

I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. Due to spending several years in graduate school without much time to submit my work, I’ve got a pretty good backlog of text that I’m shopping. My somewhat-experimental novel-in-stories The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light dropped about this time last year. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine online retailers. I’m spreading the word about it as much as I can.

I’m currently submitting two works to independent publishers. One is Mulvaney House, another somewhat-experimental novel. It traces the (d)evolution of a single house in southeast Arkansas from the late 19th through the early 21st centuries. It is first inhabited by ill-fated Irish immigrants; later, its ownership passes to a disillusioned World War I veteran. Because that situation does not end well either, the house becomes the local “haunted,” “cursed” place that all the smart kids avoid and that all the cool kids want to explore. In the 1960s, it becomes the setting for a star-crossed interracial romance, and in the early 21st century, three teenagers spend the night there just to prove that they can. Serious carnage ensues.

I’m also submitting my second story collection, tentatively titled Bedtime Stories for Insomniacs. Most of the stories therein have been published. In terms of subject matter, it’s a pretty eclectic book. There’s a serial killer story, a couple of tales that make use of mythological creatures, some gritty realism, and some humor.

I’ve gotten some kind words about the projects, but whether they will ever see the light of day is anyone’s guess.

Oh, you thought I was through? Not yet—I’m also shopping The Dead House, a literary ghost story. It’s a novel-length work set in central Texas, though many of the characters are from south Louisiana. The book is a supernatural thriller detective fish-out-of-water story. I’ve gotten a few nibbles from literary agents; I’m hoping to land one soon.

In terms of new work, I’m currently drafting a post-apocalyptic novel set in the South. I’m also three stories into a new cycle that will, I hope, become a book one day.

I recently submitted a screenplay that I adapted from one of my published stories. As I have no contacts in Hollywood, I don’t expect it to go anywhere, but hey, they have to option somebody’s script, right?

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

I’ve always thought that this kind of question is best answered by critics and scholars, not writers. I just tell stories. Some editors have compared various stories I’ve written to writers as diverse as Jack Kerouac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elmore Leonard, and Ernest Hemingway. (I’m not egotistical enough to say that I agree, but I really appreciated their saying it.) I think a couple of my stories read like they were written by the love child of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. What all this means, I think, is that you can get a pretty good read on my basic format and style, but the content and how I employ that style may vary widely from piece to piece. I try not to write the same thing twice, and if I do delve into an area that I’ve visited before, I try to change perspectives, or voices, or tones, or something that will make the work seem a little fresher.

I don’t know what my genre is, other than “literary,” so no matter what similarities and differences a given reader sees between my work and that of any other serious writer, they’re probably on the right track, even if what they say contradicts somebody else.

Why do I write what I do?

Why does anybody write what they do? I never know what to make of this question. I can only tell you this: I believe that real writers do what they do because they are compelled. You don’t do it for fame. Writing literary fiction for money is a mug’s game. You don’t do it for all the groupies because most of us don’t have any (well, maybe Chuck Palahniuk). You do it because you can’t imagine a life where you don’t do it.

When I don’t get my two daily writing sessions in, I feel incomplete and guilty. When I don’t get at least one session, I feel out of sorts, angry with myself, despairing about the time that has passed. When I don’t write at all, I want to punch somebody, often myself. I have stories and people and dramatic situations in my head. Some of them are funny or sad and sick or cool. Others will probably never really go anywhere. But I have to find out what might work, or I go a little nuts.

As for where I get my ideas, my standard answer is, “A warehouse in Poughkeepsie. Don’t tell anybody.”

Seriously, though, they come to me as I live—sometimes from a bit of conversation I overhear, sometimes from an image I see in life or a movie or a magazine, sometimes from that place deep within my imagination where everything begins with “What if…?”

I write down every idea that I can. I’ve got files of them, ideas for stories and novels and essays and screenplays and comic book series and TV shows. I add to the piles fairly regularly. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to all of them. Some of them probably suck. My job is to write as many of them as I can, and to write them to the best of my ability, and hope that some agent, editor, or publisher will believe in me, in my story. After that, you pray that the piece will find its audience, but you can’t really control that, or the publishing side. You can only write and submit and not give up.

How does my Writing Process work?

I look over my list of ideas and see which one speaks to me at that given moment. Sometimes I’ll outline how I imagine the story will go, but even when I do, I allow for organic and spontaneous growth, when the people in the story do something that I didn’t expect. Most of the time, I just write until I complete the narrative arc. I do a full draft without worrying too much about how well it all holds together.

With my book, I revised extensively, several times. With the novel I’m currently shopping, I revised ten times before I ever submitted it. I’ll tinker with any given story for a couple of drafts until it seems to chug along pretty well.

Then I submit.

In this business, you have to expect rejection unless you’re already a household name. To succeed at any level at all, you have to strike the right combination of talent, learned skill, perseverance, and luck—getting the right piece to the right gatekeeper at the right time. Unless you have personal contacts at an agency or publisher, that’s about all you can do.

I’ll generally send out a piece to a half-dozen places. If nobody takes it, I revise again and find other places to submit. I keep doing that until I find the right home for it or I decide that maybe it isn’t as good as I thought it was. I have yet to self-publish anything, but I’m not above it if the industry never accepts what I truly believe is a story worth telling.

Once someone accepts a piece, I am perfectly willing and able to tinker with it if an editor sees areas that need work. Sometimes I insist on leaving something as is if I feel changing it will fundamentally undercut my integrity as a writer and the story I want to tell, but I pick my battles carefully. I have yet to meet an editor with whom I could not work amicably and productively.

As for my day-to-day process, once I’ve chosen a project of any length or type, I try to write at least twice a day for an hour each time. It isn’t always possible, but I do my best. I tend to work on a couple of projects at once—a potential novel chapter and a story, a story and a screenplay, etc. In grad school, I was forced to multi-task, and I have yet to break the habit completely. Right now, for instance, I’m revising a text and working on a new story. I’ll revise for a session and write for a session. I’ve found that setting time limits, rather than specific word counts, works better for me because of my other time constraints.

I’d like to thank C.D. Mitchell for tagging me.In turn, I am tagging two of my writer friends who occasionally blog, Robin Becker and Sean Hoade.

Robin Becker is a graduate school buddy of mine. She has recently accepted a teaching position at Ole Miss. Her zombie novel, Brains, is available in bookstores and online.

Sean Hoade is a fellow Las Vegan. He has been a prolific self-publisher; his latest work, Deadtown Abbey, is hilarious and weird, and I mean that in the best possible sense. He has recently contracted to write a series of undead-themed books for a traditional publisher, so look for them in the near future., coming to bookstores near you.

#MyWritingProcessBlogTour–C.D. Mitchell

Much like “The Next Big Thing Self-Interview” series that went around on the Internet a while back, the “My Writing Process Blog Tour” asks a writer to answer a series of questions on his/her blog and then tag three other writers. C.D. Mitchell tagged me, so I am re-posting his blog response here. Next week, I’ll post my own. C.D. will publicize my post, and I will tag three other writers who blog. With any luck, they will all respond and publicize my blog entry in kind. I will, in turn, publicize their posts. All backs get scratched.

Without further ado, I give you C.D. Mitchell, author of the short story collections God’s Naked Will and Alligator Stew.

I became a part of this process when Tamara Linse tagged me to follow up on this blog tour. I generally do not participate in such things, but this seemed intriguing, so I tossed my hat in the ring and tagged two fellow writers I admire, Shonell Bacon and Brett Riley to follow me. So here goes!

What am I working on these days?

I am working on a yet untitled novel that will involve smuggling of guns, drugs, and illegals up the Mississippi River and its navigable waterways by riverboat barge. A chapter of the novel, one that deals primarily with President’s Island in Memphis, is scheduled to appear in Memphis Noir sometime this fall. The novel deals with river barge traffic, a largely unregulated means of travel during the early 1990’s. I envision a mix of Mark Twain, Robert Earl Keen and Cormack McCarthy in the final text. My main character has purchased an electric shock therapy machine at a flea market in Mississippi and will eventually use it to collect money on fronted drugs.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

A recent review of my story collection “Alligator Stew” called the writing “Dirty Realism.” Many of the reviews of my work posted on Goodreads andAmazon.com have observed that I write about situations others shun or ignore. I create real characters faced with desperate situations. I don’t spend six pages describing in flowery language how a dog crosses the road to take a shit in the ditch. That is not to say that sentence construction, word choice and rhythms are not important to me. They are, and they must be important to all writers. But my emphasis is story. Shit happens in the stories I write!

Why do I write what I do?

Because too many others lack the courage to face the reality of life. I write to expose the incredible hopelessness faced by the schizophrenic, by the impoverished, by those cursed with bad luck and misfortune. I write to expose the hypocrisy of the Bible-thumping zealots who would steal our freedoms away and impose by law their own brand of morality upon US citizens. I write because I have to. It has always been a hunger I must feed. I write because the best day of writing is always the best day of my life!

How does my Writing Process work?

I have always heard of binge eaters and binge drinkers; I am a binge writer. I develop an idea for a story or book. I note it in my journals and I write about the idea. I research and develop the characters. I read newspaper articles and interview people. At some point, the influx of information builds like water pressure behind a dam until I am forced to open the floodgates and release the weight of all that has accumulated. I have binges where I write every day, and during those times I commit to 500 words a day. Promising myself 500 words allows me to sit down when I have little time, and to get up when I simply must leave. But more often than not, 500 words become 1500 or even 2000. I endlessly revise, going back and rereading as often as I can. For instance, my current novel has had me researching Electric Shock Therapy Machines on the internet and trying to buy one on Amazon.com. I have interviewed a close friend of mine who ran river boats up and down the Mississippi and intra-coastal for thirty years. I am booking an evening ride on the Memphis Queen so I can approach President’s Island from the river, and I will also make a trip to the Island and hopefully spend some time exploring the Wildlife management Area that exists there within the city limits of Memphis. I have just begun the writing of the book, and the research will continue. 

C.D.’s original post can be found at http://cdmitchell1964.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/my-writing-process-blog-tour/.

His whole blog can be found at http://cdmitchell1964.wordpress.com/.

Please visit his website at https://www.cdmitchell.net/.

 

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 5

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

5.         Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

Back in graduate school, we thought about making “I Survived Gravity’s Rainbow” t-shirts, but we never did. Perhaps it’s because we knew that, in spite of the book’s labyrinthine plot and dozens of characters, the book is something to be savored, not survived.

World War II is on, and Tyrone Slothrop finds himself meandering through the European theater, seeking Rocket 00000, a particularly deadly weapon. To say much more about the plot would be futile and just plain mean, since half the fun (and frustration) of reading the book for the first time is trying to keep things straight—who’s who, what they’re doing, where they’re doing it, and why. Dead people don’t necessarily stay that way. Kinky sex is had. Double agents appear; limericks and bawdy songs supplement the traditional narrative; and eventually, our protagonist—what? Explodes? Disappears? Evaporates? Becomes irrelevant?

Gravity’s Rainbow is truly a tour de force. You may have to read it two or three times before you start to get a real handle on it, but it rewards repeated readings. Though it takes place in wartime Europe, it is one of the quintessential texts of Postmodernism, and a book that is somehow very much American.

Other texts that would work well: Mason and Dixon; The Crying of Lot 49; Inherent Vice.

4.         Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

A candidate on the list of books that might actually qualify as the mythical “great American novel,” Melville’s Moby-Dick is another book that rewards repeated readings. From what I have gathered from talking to different people, the usual experience goes something like this. First reading—you get lost in all the footnoted material (or, worse, you read an edition with no footnotes and stay lost half the time) and the minutia of cetology, and so you’re afraid you missed half the plot. Second reading—you retain more of the information; you notice material that you may have missed the first time; and you realize that, in terms of plot, not a lot actually happens. Third reading—you start to appreciate the genius.

About that plot: our narrator, Ishmael, arrives in Nantucket, determined to go to sea, basically because he is sick of people in general (a feeling with which I can relate). He meets Queequeg the harpooner in a hotel. Together, they sign on to the Pequod, a whaler.  The ship sails, and they meet the monomaniacal Ahab, who reveals his true agenda—to find and kill the creature that took his leg, a white whale named Moby-Dick. The Pequod sails about the world’s oceans, asking other ships if they’ve seen Moby-Dick, killing a couple of different kinds of whales, and philosophizing about the nature of whales, humanity, obsession, revenge, religion, history, and a dozen other subjects. Eventually they find Moby-Dick; things go badly.

That’s about it.

In between all that, we get some of the most eloquent first-person narration in world letters and from the American Romantic era in particular. The action sequences are detailed and thrilling. The philosophy is thought-provoking. The symbolism is deep.

As Ishmael says, “Surely these things are not without meaning.”

The result of all this is a book that is absolutely essential. I never get tired of it. If you have the wherewithal to stick by it, it will grow on you.

Other texts that would work well: Typee; Billy Budd; Redburn; White Jacket; The Confidence-Man; the collected short works, which would include one of my favorite stories in existence, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

3.         The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

War literature is often hard to take—for the former soldier, who might find him/herself forced to relive painful memories; for the civilian, who often has to wade through buckets of blood and gore, gallows humor, and the foulest of foul language; for the writer, who must give part of him/herself and live down in the trenches with the characters. Yet this kind of writing is crucial to the evolution of the world and the world spirit of which we are all a part. Art does not have to be pretty; in fact, it often needs to be ugly, horrendous, painful, so that it can drag kicking and screaming into the light things that we might otherwise gloss in order to avoid discomfort.

I’ve said this before. I say it again because Tim O’Brien’s—what? Linked story collection? Novel-in-stories?—The Things They Carried manages to be ugly and painful and unutterably beautiful, often all at the same time.

It’s an abstract examination of concepts like war and bravery at the same that it’s a concrete representation of how those concepts can manifest. It is a minute examination of how war affects the individual psyche even as it follows a group of men and the ways that they connect and disconnect, laugh and cry, live and perish, zapped while zipping.

From the opening story that scrutinizes all the different ideas that the words “things” and “carry” might mean, to the unravelling of the very concept of narrative in “How to Tell a True War Story”; from the coming-of-age-in-a-pressure-cooker tension of “On the Rainy River” to the gender-complicated heartbreak of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”; from the personal recriminations of “In the Field” to the desperate search for closure in “Field Trip”; from the loss and disconnection of “Speaking of Courage” to the redemptive power of stories in “The Lives of the Dead,” every single line and word in this book is indispensable.

Along the way, O’Brien examines such American concepts as patriotism and courage, individualism and group membership, language and action, war and that elusive concept we call peace.

The Things They Carried is a staggering artistic achievement and a deeply personal experience. Buy it yesterday. Read it now. Remember it forever.

Other texts that would work well: Going After Cacciato; If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home; July, July.

2.         Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

I knew that McCarthy would make the list, and that, if it were truly an ordered list, he would be near the top. I was not sure which text I would go with. How do you choose between Blood Meridian and the shattering experience that is The Road? Or the Border Trilogy? Even the short and highly disturbing Child of God or the mediocre-according-to-critics No Country for Old Men? Suttree, Outer Dark, The Orchard Keeper…any of them are worthy of this list.

While I almost went with The Road, and might well do so if you asked me to remake this list tomorrow, I must, at least for today, choose Blood Meridian: or, the Evening Redness in the West as the McCarthy book I cannot do without.

The scene: the American southwest in the late 19th century. Dramatis Personae: The Kid, our protagonist, a teenaged survivor with a vicious streak a mile wide; The Judge, the towering, hairless, possibly supernatural philosopher who just might literally be a devil; Glanton, the leader of a gang of bloodthirsty thugs who scalps Native Americans for fun and profit; and Glanton’s gang, any one of whom might make the subject of a long case study in socio- and/or psychopathy.

Based on historical events, Blood Meridian chronicles the travels and acts of this gang as the drown the southwest in gore, not all of it from “Indians.” We are witness to literal massacres. Death is never further away than one careless word or unguarded facial expression. Through it all, McCarthy’s unforgettable characters ponder the nature of humanity, of war, of freedom, of God. The Judge’s speeches alone are endlessly quotable and chilling.

Some find the book hopelessly bleak, and it’s tough to argue against that characterization, except…

Well, near the end, the Kid shows us a couple of glimmers of a human soul. What happens to him as a result is wrenching and ambiguous.

Several years ago, I gave the book to a relative who wanted a good read. The next time I saw her, she said, “What the heck did you get me into?”

Pick up the book and find out for yourself.

Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named texts. Start with The Road, which won more awards than a Spielberg film, and go from there.

1.         Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner.

Among the world’s people of letters, Faulkner has perhaps been the biggest influence on my own work, though he might have to duke it out with anybody else on this list (and a few dozen others) for that honor on any given day. He’s also another writer whose works are almost impossible to choose from. Even his minor works (if you believe in the viability of such a term) are good, thought-provoking reads.

During the 1920s and 30s, Faulkner went on a roll that is among the most creatively satisfying in history. The works normally described as his masterpieces were written during that time—not just GD,M but also his most complex work, Absalom, Absalom! (which was originally in this spot); his master class in point of view and voice, The Sound and the Fury; his insightful examination of race and class, Light in August; his surprisingly pot-boiling novel, Sanctuary; his story collection/novel-in-stories The Unvanquished, which takes us through the Civil War and beyond; and his OTHER master study in point of view and voice, the darkly comic and deeply sad As I Lay Dying.

One of my graduate school professors, a national authority on Faulkner and southern literature, once called Go Down, Moses Faulkner’s greatest work about race. That is, of course, debatable. But there can be no debate that this book—another collection/novel-in-stories—is a masterpiece of creative energy and daring.

Focusing on the families of old Carothers McCaslin, an antebellum plantation patriarch, the book begins in pre-Civil War times with the hilarious, deadpan, at times slapstick yet still dramatic tale “Was.” We first learn that there are two sides to old Carothers’s family—the white side and the black side, the latter of which resulting from his forced miscegenation—i.e., rape—of his female slaves, thus the references to Tomey’s Turl as “that damn half-white McCaslin.” The characters we meet in “Was” are the ancestors of those we’ll meet in the other stories, notably McCaslin Edmonds, Ike McCaslin (who would inherit and, out of shame, repudiate the land of his fathers), Carothers Edmonds, and Lucas Beauchamp, the African-American descendent of Old Carothers by the male line.

What follows in these stories is often funny; see, for instance, the way that Lucas outsmarts all the educated white men in the area. It is often shocking and emotionally draining; see “Pantaloon in Black” for one example. It is often confusing; try reading the second half of “The Bear” just once and see if you can keep it all straight. But the book is always fascinating and powerful.

Here are only a few topics you will encounter: family connections; how race impacts family connections in the south; economic class, and how race impacts it in the south; gender roles and assumptions, and how race impacts them in the south; the disappearance of nature in the face of encroaching urbanization and development (look for the heartbreaking images in “The Bear,” a story that is mythic in its scope and aims); the responsibility of an individual for his sons—or his fathers; how we relate to our elders; and the illusory nature of what we often call progress.

Look for characters like those named above and Sam Fathers, who brings to the book his own convoluted history;  Boon Hoggenback, the backwoods anti-marksman who loves his dog more than his own life; and the Beauchamps, whose familial drama is as powerful in its own way as anything in literature.

You can’t go wrong with Faulkner. If you start with this book, look up a family tree so you can keep track of who’s who and how they are related. Then sit back and watch the master work.

Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named works; The Uncollected Stories; The Town; The Hamlet; Soldier’s Pay; The Wild Palms; Intruder in the Dust.

There you go—the top 25 books on my ideal bookshelf, at least for now. If you haven’t read them, get started. You’re never too young—or too old—to appreciate greatness.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

 

 

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 3

[NOTE: this is being posted only hours after the announcement that Elmore Leonard had died. It’s a dark day for writers everywhere. God bless him, his family, and his legions of fans.]

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

#15.     Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I have a confession to make: this is the only book on my list that I haven’t actually read. I’ve read the rest of them several times, but I have never even opened this one. So why is it here?

Put simply, I love David Foster Wallace’s work. When he killed himself a few years back, one of American literature’s lights went out. He had a real command of the language, a knack for making dull-on-the-surface subjects interesting, a vivid imagination. He was a writer’s writer.

Some people call Infinite Jest his masterpiece. Others call it a doorstop, inaccessible, too postmodern for its (or your) own good. Based on the rest of his work, I know I’ve got to read it someday, but things keep getting in the way—work, obligations, life in general, other works whose very page counts aren’t as daunting. Keeping it on my bookshelf, always and forever, is the only way I’ll have a chance.

If you have tackled Infinite Jest, please feel free to comment here.

Other texts that would work well: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; The Pale King; Consider the Lobster.

#14.     The Stand by Stephen King.

King is often dismissed as a hack who churns out genre dreck with the regularity of good bowel movements. I won’t argue that every book or story in his oeuvre meets the standards of great literature; a few are poor (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a fun story undone by a deus ex machina ending), some are too self-derivative (From a Buick 8, too close to the stronger Christine), and some are done well up to a certain point before going off the rails (Black House comes to mind).

But most of his works are, at worst, excellent page-turners, and many transcend the pop-culture, genre-fiction ghetto (not that I believe in those things anyway). There’s a reason some critics have crowned him the 20th century’s Edgar Allen Poe. The Stand, another doorstop tome, is his masterwork. It’s also one of the best apocalypse texts you’ll ever experience.

For those who don’t know the basics: thanks to a government experiment gone awry and lax security at a military base, the United States—and, soon enough, the world—is caught in the grip of a modern-day plague, a superflu colloquially known as Captain Trips. The disease is airborne and easily spread through contact with another infected person. Soon, almost everyone in the world is dead, and the global population’s suffering is shown in horrific detail through the eyes of characters who will survive. Once the dying stops, those who remain must determine how to live in a new, mostly empty world where, as one realizes, all the old toys (cars, camping gear, nuclear missiles) are lying around, just waiting to be picked up.

The survivors converge on two locations. Through visions of an old woman, the good, noble people seem drawn to Denver by way of Kansas. Those with a greater sense of self-interest and the plain old assholes gather in Las Vegas, where a supernatural being of increasing power plots the destruction of the Denver society.

Who goes where? How will the two factions re-create society? What happens when the two groups become aware of each other? And how will each individual choose to meet his or her fate?

A novel as grounded in human free will and individual strife as in cosmic questions of fate and good vs. evil, The Stand is King at his best. Above, I’ve linked to the “uncut” version, which should include all the sections that King originally had to cut due to his publisher’s financial concerns (when art finds itself at the mercy of the bean-counters, we’re all in trouble). Feel free to read the abridged version if you wish, but the longer one is richer, denser, more gripping.

Even if you’re a literary snob, make your own stand and buy this book.

Other texts that would work well: pretty much anything from the mid-1990s or earlier. The Shining comes to mind, as does Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, It, or the various short story collections, though if you like horror fiction, start with pretty much anything he’s done. For good latter-day works, Desperation comes to mind, but you should also read the Dark Tower series at some point. Under the Dome is worth your time, too.

#13.     The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

Of all the American Modernist poets, Stevens is the one I keep coming back to. His cool clinician’s voice often belies the passionate intensity of his imagery. The dense, fecund ideas in his work never cease to engage my intellect and my imagination.

Start with his oft-anthologized works—“Anecdote of the Jar”; “The Snow Man”; “Peter Quince at the Clavier”; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and more. You’ll find rich ground for exploring and understanding how poetry works, what literary Modernism means, and how the two intersect with very human, often mundane concerns. In fact, his work often takes the mundane and makes it seem strange, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock.”

Move on to his Modernist smackdowns of institutions like religion in “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” and “Sunday Morning.” He delivers a pretty good manifesto in “Of Modern Poetry.” And he produces what I have often described as my favorite poem in the language, “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

I’ve touched only on some of his most famous works, but his collected poems will take you wider and deeper than this. If you’re looking for light verse or easily found meanings, stay the hell away from Stevens. If you’re in the mood to be challenged and intrigued, pick up his collected works today.

Other texts that would work well: rather than send you to Stevens’ individual books, I’d suggest you broaden your reading of the Modernist era. Pick up a collection or three from T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound if you’re in an elitist mood. Read William Carlos Williams or Robert Frost if you want seemingly simple but deceptively deep text. Try Marianne Moore if you are in a mood somewhere in between. You could also try H.D. if you’re of a mind.

#12.     The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie.

One of the best contemporary writers, Sherman Alexie is a treat for readers of all ages. His YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a hoot for adults, too. His novels and short story collections are consistently high-quality. He deals with very serious postcolonial issues, but don’t think his works are all doom and gloom. While some of his work is deadly serious, he often uses humor as a way of dealing with trauma—his people’s, his own, his characters’.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven follows that pattern. Some stories are bleak, even apocalyptic. Others are side-splittingly funny. Some of the best ones are a mixture of both, as in the hilarious and heart-breaking “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The stories in this book are interlinked. You’ll meet characters who struggle with reservation life—their love of community, their hatred of the poverty and alcoholism, their struggle to reconcile their conflicting emotions. You’ll be thrust facedown into that poverty, into those shattered lives, into the Res itself, a kind of refuge from the white world that is also a very effective, soul-deadening prison. You’ll see yourself reflected in the characters, both Native and white Americans, and you’ll feel both empathy and shame.

If you are only open to very traditional forms of storytelling, writers like
Alexie might freak you out (as any postmodernist might, for that matter). But if you are interested in the strivings, the triumphs, and the failures of humanity and our nation, you need to seek this man out. Come with an open mind. Leave with a better soul.

Other texts that would work well: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Reservation Blues; The Business of Fancy-Dancing; Ten Little Indians; and pretty much anything else he’s written, including the film Smoke Signals, the adaptation of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

#11.     Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.

Another collection of linked stories (or a novel-in-stories) by another Native American author, Love Medicine is only one of several excellent works by Louise Erdrich. Less humorous than Alexie’s but just as insightful and devastating, this work follows the intersecting lives of two Native American families over the course of several decades. As the families fight, intermingle, intermarry, and fight some more, the reader is treated to the burgeoning of a great American voice.

Here, as in Alexie’s work, you will meet Native American characters at war with mainstream society, with their families, with themselves. You will find alcoholism, domestic abuse, jailbreaks, and one honest-to-God tribal battle in a factory that makes cheap plastic replicas of Native American artifacts like spears, bows and arrows, and headdresses. You will also find the sheer strength and beauty of the human spirit as it refuses to be shattered in the crucible of modernity.

What happens when you attempt an ancient love ritual but substitute mass-produced ingredients for the real thing? What happens to a love triangle when all three people are old? What happens when the love is so hot it burns down a house?

Husbands and wives struggle to understand their children, and vice versa. Old loves are rekindled in the unlikeliest of places. The white world constantly threatens to intrude, even though we seldom see it on the page. And always, always, always the families plod onward, eking out an existence on land they do not always even own. The shimmering power of their endurance is a joy to behold. Read this book today.

Other texts that would work well: A Plague of Doves; Tracks; The Round House; The Painted Dove; The Bingo Palace.

More soon….

 Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

 

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 2

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

#20.     Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin.

One of the best works by a great 20th-century author, Going to Meet the Man is a collection of short stories that examine, among other issues, the ways that racism scars both the oppressed and the oppressors. Baldwin deals with issues that mainstream America has worked hard to sweep under the rug—not just racism, but also sexism, classism, and homophobia—and, like the best art, he drags those issues back into the light. Art can be pretty, but it doesn’t have to be, and it often needs to be something else. Baldwin is not afraid to take his work to those places.

From the opening familial drama “The Rockpile” to the religion-meets-secularism-meets-race-meets-sex story “The Outing,” from the oft-anthologized “Sonny’s Blues” to the absolutely devastating and horrifying title story (one that always freaks out my students), this collection is essential, not just to your bookshelf but to America.

Other texts that would work well: Go Tell It on the Mountain.

#19.     Birds of America by Lorrie Moore.

Lorrie Moore may be the best writer that most people don’t seem to have heard of, and Birds of America is one of the best short story collections most people don’t seem to own. Combining wit with a sharp eye for detail, Moore creates works of great beauty, hilarity, deep sadness. Plus, she’s got some of the most interesting titles out there.

In “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” she examines the everyday tragedy of the badly sick child with keen insight. “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens” looks at how important pets can be in our lives and the different ways that people grieve—even people who, ostensibly, should feel both happy and lucky. “Real Estate” takes the reader into a life that has gone horribly wrong in many ways. The stories are full of death, language so sharp it may cut you, pathos, emotional distance. If you have never experienced this collection, do yourself a favor and buy it today.

Other texts that would work well: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

18.       Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Whenever I want to feel transcendental, I read either Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson. In my experience, Emerson is a bit too esoteric for modern readers outside academia; sometimes he’s too esoteric for me, and I read/write/teach literature for a living. Thoreau is more accessible and just as eloquent.

For those who don’t know the “plot” of this nonfiction work—back in the mid-19th century, Thoreau decided to put aside most material things and squat near Walden Pond, a body of water close by Lynn, Massachusetts. For a little over two years, Thoreau lived there in solitude, welcoming the occasional visitor and walking about the pond and township whenever the desire arose. He lived as simply as possible, relied mostly on himself, and pondered the nature of society even as he removed himself from it. In Thoreau’s own words:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

What Thoreau discovered—about society, about humanity, about nature, about himself—is worth your time. Is progress really progress? Thoreau thinks not, and he articulates this idea in ways that would later find echoes in literary/popular cultural figures such as Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. “We do not ride upon the railroad,” he says. “It rides upon us.”

Structured through specific chapters that deal with the work’s major ideas, Walden is part early environmentalism, part spiritual journey, part philosophical treatise, part memoir, and fully worthy of its place on my ideal bookshelf.

Other texts that would work well: I’d seek out his various essays and poems—perhaps start with Collected Essays and Poems, which contains “Resistance to Civil Government” (sometimes called “Civil Disobedience”) and other important works like “Slavery in Massachusetts”—or, lacking that, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

17.       Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

I love poetry, but I’m only putting a few works on this list because I’m mainly a fiction guy. No ideal bookshelf of mine could ever be complete, though, without Walt Whitman’s masterpiece. Often credited, rightly or wrongly, with inventing what many call “free verse” (T.S. Eliot’s claim that it doesn’t exist notwithstanding), Whitman revised Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime. He saw his work as being just as organic as the sprouts after which it was named, and he often let the poems grow, often trimmed them, let some of them die and planted seeds of others.

From the simple missions statement found in “One’s Self I Sing” to the complex, multifaceted “Song of Myself”; from the passionate, some say shocking, sensuality of “I Sing the Body Electric” to the melancholy of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”; from the national spirit of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to the deeply personal yet universal “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Whitman’s work spans the universe, the body, the soul. It erases borders between traditional dichotomies. It feeds the soul in ways that resemble the effects of holy texts. Indeed, one of my old professors used to say that when she wanted to be uplifted, she read one of two texts: the Bible or Leaves of Grass.

If you have never read Whitman, it takes some getting used to—the long lines that often seem to (but don’t really) meander, the catalogues, the odd spellings, the repetition. But Whitman is worth the effort. Pick up the book today; he stops somewhere waiting for you.

Other texts that would work well: try one of the collected prose volumes. Concentrate on Specimen Days. If you’re not in the mood for prose, support the works of another great 19th-century poet—Emily Dickinson or the in-my-opinion-underrated-as-a-poet Stephen Crane.

16.       The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Huck Finn is often wrongly dismissed as a children’s book. If you dismiss it as such, you’re making a mistake (and probably thinking of Tom Sawyer). Twain’s masterpiece is about a child, but the themes and ideas are very much adult-oriented.

Huck Finn is also often dismissed as a racist text. Critics who call it racist are right to a certain extent, though not because of the use of the “n-word.” That onerous word does appear far too much for comfort, but that’s part of Twain’s point. Twain was a Realist who, by definition, believed that literature ought to record life as it is, not as it should be. Southern white people used that word constantly. So do Twain’s characters. The novel’s (unintentional) racism lies in Twain’s failure to create realistic black characters rather than caricatures.

Still, when your young white protagonist chooses to go to hell rather than turn in his enslaved friend; when he makes the conscious decision to help Jim escape in spite of everything society has tried to make him believe; when he recognizes that those on top of the social ladder rest at the bottom of the moral hierarchy, we might recognize the book as a flawed but genuine attempt to critique racism, not perpetuate it.

“It’s enough to make a body ashamed of the human race,” Huck says in reference to how two white conmen trick rural rubes out of their cash. “He had a dream, and it shot him,” Huck says about Tom Sawyer’s misguided Romanticism. And when Huck decides to “light out for the Territories” rather than stay in a corrupt society, Twain reveals his own beliefs about what he once called the “damned human race.”

Huck Finn is often hilarious. It is often thought-provoking. It is often touching. But to the discerning reader, it is never anything but one of the finest pieces of literary art ever produced. If your school system bans the book, move, because you’re surrounded by idiots. Read this imperfect critique of American racism, this adventure story, this comedy, this living novel and join the conversation about a truly American text. Ernest Hemingway allegedly said that all 20th century literature comes from Huck Finn. I don’t know if that’s true, but it does cast one of the long shadows in which we writers labor and create.

Other texts that would work well: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Life on the Mississippi.

Join us, won’t you?

More soon…

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com

 

January 5th, 2004 #writing #fiction #flashfiction

January 5th, 2004

            The night after LSU won the National Championship, he was still partying in the Quarter on Royal Street. He had come from a bar on Bourbon—sometimes it seemed that all the bars were on Bourbon, though of course that wasn’t true—and was trying to find his way back to Dauphine, where Melanie was supposed to be taking photos for her article. He was drunk and had to piss, the nine Miller Lights in his belly trying hard to dribble down his leg. He needed a bathroom, an alley, anything. But there on Royal, he saw nothing but shops, all of them now closed. He spat

            Fuck

            and turned around, and that was when the fist came out of nowhere and caught him between the eyes. A bolt of pain shot through his head, white light exploding behind his eyelids, and he sprawled on his back, legs in the air. He turned his head and vomited, his eyes still closed against the pain. Someone above him said

            Ah, shit

            and then a hand jabbed into his front pants pocket, ripping out his keys. He heard them jingle as they landed in the gutter. Someone grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him upward and over, then pushed him down on his face. His nose cracked on the concrete, the pain like an electrical fire in his face, and he passed out. When he awoke, only seconds later, someone was cursing and shouting

            Yeah I got the wallet, but the motherfucker pissed on me

            and he realized that they were talking about him, the warmth spreading outward from his crotch. Someone kicked him in the ribs and he moaned, turning over just enough to see shoes, scuffed white Nikes with worn soles, the swoosh on the left one flapping back and forth like a flap of torn skin. He wondered if Royal Street was empty save for him and his attackers, or if someone might be watching, snapping pictures perhaps, possibly shooting the footage on cell phone. Perhaps tomorrow he would see his own mugging on the Internet. Somewhere a few blocks over Melanie was snapping photos of dimly-lit architecture, unaware that piss was pooling underneath his thigh and that his own blood was running down his throat like sips of fetid water.

January 4th, 2004–flash fiction #writing #fiction

January 4th, 2004

            She opened her mailbox and found the latest letter from Sweepstakes forAmerica, promising that she really, really, really, really had made it to the final rounds for the Grand Prize of fifteen million dollars. The raised, bold print on the envelope impressed her with a promise that she could feel under the pads of her fingers as she carried the mail upstairs to her three-room apartment. The calligraphy marked this letter as different from the light bill, the Victoria’s Secret bill, the advertisement for the nearby body shop’s oil change and lube for only $59.95, extra for some import models. She opened her door and went inside, shivering, the apartment nearly as cold as the weather outside. She dropped the mail on her couch and ran to the thermostat. The temperature was set at seventy degrees, yet she could see her exhalations. She stood on her tiptoes and stretched her hand up to the vent, hoping to feel warm air. She felt nothing.

            She turned back to the couch, eyeing the pile of mail. She could see perhaps two inches of the light bill, peeking from under the Sweepstakes letter. She stared at it for perhaps a full minute before walking over to the couch and sitting down beside the mail, her weight causing the pile to shift. The envelopes slid toward her. She felt the Sweepstakes letter poke her thigh. The light bill was now fully visible, the envelope plain white, the postmark nondescript, the print on the envelope plain and unimportant.

Nude Sucking Ink–fiction #writing #fiction

Here’s a short story I wrote some years back. It’s unpublished, previously unseen anywhere, so call it a blog exclusive. A bit humorous, a bit satirical, lots of fun to write…comments welcome, except from trolls.

Nude Sucking Ink

             He was painting a nude woman performing fellatio on a blue Pilot Bettergrip pen when his agent Curly called. Curly, a mousy man with an anemic pencil mustache, said

            Hi, Hamlet. Good news. The gallery agreed. You have a show.

            Hamlet dropped his brush and sat in the nearest chair. The model relaxed, throwing on a button-down white shirt and twirling the pen between her fingers. He looked at the painting, admiring his own work, his bold new style. On this canvas, what might be interpreted as a thin penis was capped, possibly, by a pair of full lips. This image lay at the center of the painting. Dozens of tightly woven lines—spirals, straights, diagonals—emanated from the central figure to the canvas borders. Hamlet said

            Don’t jerk me around today, Curly. I’m trying to finish Nude Sucking Ink, and I’m almost there

            and Curly said

            I’m not kidding. The Kane House in downtownLittle Rock. They’ve agreed to give you the whole second floor

            and Hamlet frowned, saying

           Little Rock. I live in Parkview and drive a Volkswagen Beetle. How am I supposed to get all my paintings toLittle Rock?

            Curly snorted and said

            I’ll send a van. Jesus, man, is that all you have to say? I tell you you’ve got a show in the Kane House, best gallery in the state, and all you do is bitch because I didn’t bring the buyers and critics to your place

            and Hamlet, only half listening, looked at the model and said

            Take off that shirt.

            She stuck the pen in her mouth and slipped out of the shirt. Hamlet felt his erection rising, just as he liked it when he was painting. He said to Curly

            Look, it’s fantastic news. I’ve just had a cruddy day and I want to finish this. When’s the show?

            and Curly said

            Next week. Call me when you finish that one and then don’t start on any more till after the big day. You need to save all your energy for schmoozing.

            Hamlet hung up. He picked up his brush and turned to the model. Her breasts hung down, pendulous, heavy. He took a deep breath and went back to work.

* * *

            One week later, Hamlet stood in the Kane House, surrounded by his paintings and several people he had already come to loathe. Each of the paintings exhibited his new style—a fuzzy image surrounded by tight lines. He called the technique Abstract Soft Focus. The work seemed to interest the browsers, though each of them seemed to have been bred especially to bug Hamlet and assault his sensibilities.

            Curly stood next to Hamlet in front of Nude Sucking Ink. Bob Kane, the gallery owner, stood next to them holding a half-empty glass of red wine. Kane clapped Hamlet on the back and said

            We’ve sold five already, Ham

            to which Hamlet replied

            I hate being called Ham.

            Curly grunted and shuffled in between them, saying

            Sorry, Bob, like most artists he has the social skills of a tree sloth. We’ve sold five so far, Hamlet. Lots of money here tonight

            and Hamlet said

            It isn’t the money

            and Curly said

            Of course it isn’t. By the way. If you only wanted to paint lips, why did you request a nude model?

            and Hamlet said

            Because I like looking at naked women.

            Kane laughed, cleared his throat, and moved on, mixing with his guests and grabbing another glass of wine from a passing waiter. Curly shook his head, frowning. A young man with blonde hair and a horrible bright pink ascot strolled up. He sipped a martini and considered Nude Sucking Ink, stroking his goatee every few seconds. Finally he said

            What lovely energy. A wonderful commentary on the proliferation of sex in the media

            and Hamlet said

            Actually, the sexual image is meant to represent all primal urges that both feed and are in turn fed by language, hence the pen

            and the young man laughed and said

            An interesting interpretation

            to which Hamlet replied

            The true interpretation. I’m the artist.

            But the young man only laughed again, as if such an idea had never occurred to him and in fact now seemed absurd since someone had mentioned it. He said

            It matters little. Your interpretation is still only one of many. You aren’t God, and even His creations have more than one possible meaning. But since we’re talking about your work and what you think it means, let me ask you this: why the speed lines?

            and Hamlet said

            They aren’t speed lines. Their elusiveness represents my denial of all form. It shows my individual vision

            but the young man said

            Ah, but denial of form is also a form. While you use this method, many others have also denied form, meaning that no form is still form, a school in fact. The only true way to deny form is not to paint, and millions of people do that. It’s so cliché

            to which Hamlet replied

            You’re an asshole

            and the young man walked away. Curly cringed and said

            Very nice, Hamlet. You’re alienating the buyers

            but Hamlet said

            I don’t give a damn if they buy. I’m here to make a statement

            and Curly said

            Me too. A bank statement. A financial statement. But I don’t get any percentage if you don’t sell. So, as a personal favor to me, try to keep your righteous indignation under control long enough to make some fucking money

            and he walked away, mumbling. Hamlet shrugged. He decided to stand in a corner, away from the idiots on the floor. Some sort of crappy music was playing over the PA, possibly Michael Bolton. He hated Michael Bolton.

            Curly was running back and forth between guests, alternately fawning over them and the paintings. He would run to someone, throw an arm around him or her, gesture at one painting or another, run to another guest. At a distance it looked like a mating ritual. Hamlet wondered what a zoologist would make of Curly’s particular species. He was saying

            Now over here is a really interesting piece

            sounding, to Hamlet, like used car salesman. Come on down to Crazy Ham’s. Everything must go. A tall man with a comically large cowboy hat strolled over to Hamlet and leaned against the wall. Hamlet said

            Say, aren’t you Toby Keith?

            The man laughed and said

            No, he’s got more hair and better looks. Me, I own some hotels downtown

            and Hamlet thought

            Oh Christ

            and said

            I hope you’re an art lover, mister

            but the man said

            No, but I get a lot of the artsy crowd. They bitch about the paintins in the rooms, so I cruise these shows looking for somethin good but cheap.

            Hamlet puffed out his chest and sneered, saying

            I assure you that this artist would never, in any number of lifetimes, allow any of his pieces to hang in a hotel room
            saying the words as if they were a curse that hurt his mouth, and the man said

            Yeah I heard he was one of those really snooty types. But it ain’t like I’m ask his permission, you know?

            and Hamlet said

            True enough.

            He called Curly over, took him by the elbow, and pointed to the cowboy, saying too loudly

            Have security throw that shitkicker in the Stetson out on his redneck ass

            and Curly walked away, muttering.

            Hamlet pulled up a metal folding chair. He sat down in front of Nude Sucking Ink and rubbed his temples. A monstrous headache was forming behind his left eye. The show was not going well at all. The pieces were selling, but no one was getting him. No one appreciated his artistry.

            A fat woman with enormous breasts oozed over and asked him how much time it took to paint a picture. He said

            Depends

            so she said

            On what?

            and he spat

            Models, funds, inspiration, the availability of liquor, take your pick.

            She considered this a moment before asking

            Do you sleep with your models?

            to which Hamlet replied

            You are one tasteless woman.

            She laughed and said

            That’s a terrible thing to say to someone interested in your art. Tell me, hotshot, why is your style so—what’s the word I’m looking for—goofy?

            Grinding his teeth, Hamlet turned to her and said

            Lady, my style is bold, rebellious, but never, ever goofy.

            The woman let Hamlet stew for a few seconds, just long enough for him to think she was going to leave him alone, and then she said

            I don’t understand rebellion. How do you consider yourself rebellious?

            and Hamlet groaned and said

            Look, both my parents are English professors who named me Hamlet, for Christ’s sake. The very existence of visual art from my hand is rebellion.

            The woman thought about this for a moment before saying

            Still looks goofy to me

            and walking away. Hamlet stared at her, open-mouthed, and then yelled

            I hope your fucking thighs get a rash!

            as Curly made shushing gestures from across the room.

            Goofy, rebellious, traditional, energetic, chaotic—Hamlet had heard them all, had said a few of them himself, expected to hear more. And as bad as the evening had been, he was grateful that he had, at least, not heard the one adjective that he would not abide—derivative. He could not bear that word, not even when applied to someone else. It was the ultimate curse for artists. It tasted dirty, sounded obscene. He dwelled so much on the term that he had almost forgotten the fat woman when he heard the young man in the ascot say

            So I said to him, Steven, you made a zillion dollars with the first movie. And you don’t have any of your original cast for the sequel. So won’t a sequel utilizing the same concept seem, well, derivative?

            Hamlet stood, slowly. A shudder ran through his body. He took the chair by its legs, its metal cold in his hands, raised it above his head, and then brought it down seat first on the young man’s skull. The young man fell into the fat woman, grabbing at her as he collapsed, ripping a strap from her dress and exposing one massive breast. She staggered backward and bumped into the cowboy, who spilled his drink all over a painting. The show collapsed all around him, but Hamlet did not notice. He was looking serenely at the lines of Nude Sucking Ink, thinking of wind-made ripples on the still surface of a pond.

          

January 3, 2004–flash fiction #writing

January 3, 2004

            This morning I got up early and ate a bowl of Total, not realizing how lucky I was to have made such a decision without the benefit of foresight or research. Not ten minutes after finishing the last bite and drinking down the milk—a habit I’ve kept from childhood—I saw this commercial on TV about how many bowls of other cereal would equal the nutritional benefits of one bowl of Total. I’d have to consume three bowls of Grape-Nuts and more All Bran than you’d ever want to eat in your life.

             Realizing how much time, effort, stomach cramps, and bowel movements the makers of Total had saved me, I decided to phone the home office and thank them. I called their 1-800 number and followed the instructions on the automated menus; I listened to some sort of what I suppose you’d call music, though it sounded more like Mozart by way of the Armpit, Mississippi Glee Club. I finally connected with Judy, a customer service operator.

            I told her that I was calling to thank the General Mills Corporation for the valuable services they had performed in my honor. I told her that I couldn’t imagine eating three or four bowls (I had forgotten which) of Grape-Nuts, which taste like artificially produced hay, and that I was very happy with their method of providing so much daily nutrition. I finished my speech by assuring her that I would buy Total as long as they continued to produce it at high levels of quality and consumer commitment.

            Judy hung up on me. I stood in my kitchen, still tasting milk and small particles of Total underneath my tongue. The empty bowl gleamed dully under the phosphorescent light.

January 2, 2004 #writing #flashfiction

As I’m posting some of my existing short-short work (still avoiding writing new short-short work for the moment), I’ve been going out of order, so I’m afraid I may be repeating myself. If I’ve done this one before and have overlooked it, sorry about that. It’s based on our late cat Judas, though it’s really a fictionalization.

January 2, 2004

            I decided to vacuum because of the cat litter scattered all over the bedroom. Our cat has never learned to operate her litter box. She climbs in and out indelicately, tromping through her own piss, dragging litter out between her fuzzy cat toes. I hate it. It would be like dipping my hand in the toilet and flinging water all over the house. It’s not only unsanitary; it’s just plain rude.

            But then our cat has never had any manners. She likes to sit on your chest in the middle of the night, just when you’ve drifted into the deepest of sleeps, the kind that brings dreams of the pasts you’ve lived through and the futures you hope to see. The sweet images of a former lover disintegrate, fade, and you open your eyes to see a ten pound cat staring in your face, her claws prickling your chest.

            Last night, for the fifth night in a row, she ruined a great dream. She leapt onto the bed and landed squarely on my crotch. I cried out and sat up, instinctively throwing her off the bed. She landed on all fours near the closet, gave me her best go to hell look, and padded away to conduct some other cat business. I discovered this morning that she had ripped the duvet when I shoved her away, three neat holes gaping up at me where her paws had been. I can’t explain why she failed to rip four holes. Perhaps she thought it would be in poor taste.

            So today I vacuum her litter, her shit nuggets, probably her fur as well. I do so with aching balls. I do so with my torn duvet smiling at me like a jack-o-lantern. The litter crashes against the insides of my vacuum like gravel against the undercarriage of a car. From the hall the cat watches me, suspicious, and washes her ears.