Thanks to the small online literary mag THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS for accepting my short story, “Everyone Here Comes from Somewhere Else.” This is one of those stories that is kind of a hard sell, and I’m very grateful someone appreciates it. And thanks, as always, to God, Kalene, my kids, my friends, and my readers.
For those who didn’t see it on my Facebook or Twitter feeds, my new story, “Orville’s Song,” has been published on Burlesque Press’s online journal, The Variety Show. Read it here for free. And please like, share, forward, etc.
“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.
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.
10. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
McMurtry himself once dismissed the Pulitzer he won for this book, saying it was a newspaperman’s award. Nevertheless, this book is an American classic—a western, a journey narrative, a coming-of-age saga, an adventure story, a doomed romance, and more.
The characters are indelibly stamped on the imaginations of everyone who has read the book—Gus McCrae, the jokester with the heart as big as Montana. Woodrow Call, the gruff ex-lawman who never met a task he couldn’t finish before dinner. Newt, the son of a dead whore whose absent father might not be so absent after all. Jake Spoon, cardsharp and outlaw whose careless words and actions haunt all the characters. Deets, the African-American scout and the real heart of the Hat Creek Outfit. Laurie, the whore who follows Jake Spoon into the wilderness, her heart set on San Francisco. And Clara, former lover of both Gus and Jake, whose resentment of Woodrow Call runs almost as deep as her love for horses—and Gus.
As Call, Gus, and company drive a herd of mostly stolen cattle from the U.S.-Mexico border to Montana, some characters live. Some die. Some turn outlaw; some find torture and pain where others find love. The journey thrills us, wounds us, and never lets us forget the personal price of ambition.
The made-for-TV film starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones is almost as good as the book. If you’ve seen it but haven’t delved into McMurtry’s doorstop of a novel, give it a go.
Other texts that would work well: Terms of Endearment; The Last Picture Show; Texasville.
9. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor.
Flannery O’Connor, an American novelist and master of the short story, once said, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Keep that in mind if you are an O’Connor newbie.
And while you’re at it, be on the lookout for one of the sharpest, most incisive senses of humor in the history of letters. Today, humor that makes you uncomfortable while you laugh, that makes you fear going to hell because you’re laughing, is all the rage; see Family Guy for exhibit A. O’Connor’s humor is much more focused, though, and it has an edge all its own.
Many of the tales have been widely anthologized—“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the tale of a family trip that takes a left turn into terror; “Good Country People,” a fractured romance that deconstructs the insipid and egotistical way we read other people; “Revelation,” one of the best stories about a seemingly mundane day you’ll ever read; and more.
I’ve chosen the collected tales here, rather than one of the individual collections, because it will allow you to immerse yourself in the deep waters of a great southern writer, a great American voice, a keen observer of humanity’s darkness and hilarity.
Other texts that would work well: any of the individual collections, or her strange artifact of a novel, Wise Blood.
A very different writer than O’Connor, Hemingway is no less a driving force of American fiction in the 20th century. A Nobel prize winner who wrote according to his own “iceberg theory”—that most of what happens in a story goes on beneath the surface of the text—Hemingway looms large for anyone who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Any number of book-length texts could have served here, but for me, Hemingway is never better than when he’s working in short fiction. In fact, many of these stories could serve as an example of how to work with minimalist form for maximum effect.
Read the stories in order if you want. If not, maybe start with the Nick Adams stories, the most famous of which is probably “Big Two-Hearted River.” Move on to the war tales, including “A Soldier’s Home.” Delve into the existential ambiguity of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
Two of my favorite Hemingway works are also among the longest stories. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” details the last moments in a couple’s marriage. As a hunting trip grows in intensity, so does the bitterness between Macomber and his wife. You’ll see the end coming, but it still feels like a surprise. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is also about an ending, but it also resonates deeply with my own anxiety about my writing, about time, and about the way life passes by much more quickly than you could imagine. Tragedies and missed opportunities compound until you feel as overwhelmed by them as our protagonist.
“A Very Short Story” condenses the deepest of emotions into just a couple of pages. Flash fiction writers could do much worse than study that story.
“The Light of the World”; “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio”; the devastating “Hills like White Elephants”—Hemingway’s short fiction is truly a treasure chest of beauty and pain. Open it up and see what you can find.
Other texts that would work well: The Sun Also Rises; To Have and Have Not; A Farewell to Arms; The Old Man and the Sea.
7. The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds.
Years ago, I discovered this book in Wal-Mart, of all places. Its jacket described a novel set in a religious separatist community. The church’s name? “The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind.” I could not resist. I bought it, took it home, and opened it. I’ve been in love with it ever since.
The novel traces the story of Ninah, a teenage girl growing up in a highly fundamentalist religion. Her Grandpa is the church’s preacher and its patriarch. He makes the rules—and the judgments.
Of course, part of her upbringing entails a blanket denial of sexuality for purposes other than procreation within a marriage. So when she and her prayer partner, James, realize that their bodies are responding in a heady, ecstatic way to each other’s presence, they mistake their burgeoning sexuality for religious fervor. And, they reason, how can something that makes them feel the presence of Jesus be wrong?
Soon enough, Ninah is pregnant, and the community is in an uproar. As Ninah and her grandmother butt heads with Grandpa, as James struggles with his deep sense of guilt, as Grandpa debates what to do with the baby, the emotional tension builds. Throughout it all, Ninah’s voice is always genuine, always compelling.
It also has perhaps the funniest version of the Rapture that I have ever read. No kidding.
A book that wrestles with serious questions about religion, sex, family, and stories themselves, The Rapture of Canaan will leave you, well, rapturous. I have read it many times. I wrote about it in my dissertation. I have taught it to eager students that have loved every page. Even if Sheri Reynolds had never written anything else, this book stands as a fine contribution to literature.
Other texts that would work well: Bitterroot Landing; The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb.
6. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
One of best novels about the intricacies of race relations in the 20th century, which is only one of its many subjects, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is also one of the best works from one of America’s best writers. A Nobel Prize winner, Morrison has produced plenty of work about race, gender, class, and family. Song of Solomon marries all these topical concerns with a truly heart-rending story about one man’s growth.
Milkman Dead (the story of his name is alone worth the price of admission) is born in the shadow of a white hospital that refuses to treat his mother. His birth coincides with the death of a man who leaps from the building, certain that he can fly.
Milkman is fascinated with flight for the rest of his life. His own flight—the figurative one he undertakes as he seeks his family’s origins and the literal one he might well be taking in the possibly magic-realist ending—helps to structure the novel.
Along the way, Milkman must navigate the troubled relationship between his parents. His father, the unyielding Macon Dead, looms large in Milkman’s life. His mother—well, let’s just say that Milkman’s name stems from a rather unusual relationship with her. He often finds himself in conflict with his sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalene.
Even more conflicted is his relationship with his Aunt Hagar, her daughter Reba, and Reba’s daughter Hagar. These three women live apart from the rest of their family, and in a very nontraditional way. Milkman is drawn to them. They fascinate him; they repulse him. Milkman’s romance with Hagar, and its devastating termination, make for some of the novel’s best passages.
Milkman is also very much a part of the racial tensions of his time. His best friend, Guitar, eventually becomes a member of the Seven Days, a shadow organization bent on evening the tally of racial violence, no matter who must pay their price. As Milkman and Guitar take very different paths, Morrison explores a topic no less important than how young black men might respond to the virulent racism of their country.
An important book that wrestles with national issues even as it personalizes them, Song of Solomon rewards repeated readings as much as it does the very first one. When my daughter Shauna was young, I gave her a copy and told her to put it on her shelf. “It might be a little intense for you right now,” I said, thinking of the sexual and violent passages. “But when you’re older, you’ll appreciate it.” I don’t know if she ever read it, but you should. And often.
Other texts that would work well: The Bluest Eye; Beloved; Sula; Tar Baby; Paradise; Jazz.
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A few months back, Entertainment Weekly published a small article in which famous writers listed the contents of their “ideal bookshelves.” The concept intrigued me. What tomes would I buy over and over? What would I pack if I were exiled to a desert island? What books would I never want to live without?
For anyone who might care, I thought I’d answer those questions with a series of short columns. If nothing else, I hope that what follows might inspire you to think about the books that matter most to you.
Fair warning: 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. You’ll see what I mean.
Without further preamble, below you will find the first five texts on my ideal bookshelf. Comments, alternatives, compliments, and protests are welcome.
[Note: the Bible is not on this list because I didn’t want to suggest it might be “just” a creative work. But I’d take it with me.]
#25. Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman (graphic novel).
For those not in the know, Sandman is simply the best comic-book series ever. If you only read comics for superheroes, don’t buy this series. But if you believe that the medium is supple enough to tell any kind of story—and it is—then give Neil Gaiman’s book about an uber-race of gods a try. Known as the Endless, these gods, unlike any other pantheon, do not depend on mortal worshippers to maintain their power. They transcend human will and belief. They rule the areas of life that all humans encounter, no matter the faith or dogma. Their names are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Delight, Desire, and Despair.
Sandman focuses on Dream, also known by many other names, including Morpheus and Oneiros. A tall, pale stranger with eyes like stars and a cloak made of night, Dream walks the realms of our sleep, building his empire, shaping our nightmares.
I would love to put the entire Sandman series on this list. In fact, I’ll go ahead and tell you to buy it all, either one trade paperback at a time or in the doorstop hardcover editions I’ve been collecting over the last few years. But if you’re going to read one, and only one, I’d go with Season of Mists.
The plot: thousands of years ago, a less-mature, colder version of Dream imprisoned a woman in hell for the crime of rejecting his love. In the present day, Dream incurs the wrath of Lucifer, the fallen angel called the Morningstar. I won’t tell you why. For that, you’ll need to consult Sandman vol. 1. In that storyline, you’ll also see the events that cause Dream to reconsider his earlier behavior.
As Season of Mists opens, Dream finally decides to journey back to Hell and free his old lover. In spite of his fear of Lucifer, the second-most-powerful being in the universe, Dream enters the gates of Hell. Soon enough, he encounters Lucifer—but no one else. Having foreseen Dream’s coming, Lucifer has made a rather startling decision that has a triple purpose—to fulfill Lucifer’s own desires and to torment Dream. This decision will have far-reaching implications for Earth, for the metaphysical plane, for every pantheon of gods, and for Dream himself.
Exploring world religions and universe-shaking powers while concurrently delving into the recesses of individual motivations and emotions, Sandman: Season of Mists is exciting, thought-provoking, and, of course, well-written. Beautifully penciled primarily by Kelly Jones, with Mike Dringenberg and Matt Wagner filling in, this book is a gorgeous and eerie edition to anyone’s bookshelf. If I could pick only one Gaiman work to take with me, I’d pick this one.
Other texts that could work well: Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes; Sandman: The Doll’s House; Sandman: A Game of You; Sandman: The Kindly Ones; American Gods; Neverwhere.
24. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (graphic novel).
Probably the greatest limited series in comic-book history, Watchmen attempts to answer the question, “What if superheroes were real?” The result is not pretty, but it is absolutely fascinating.
Actually, only one of the heroes qualifies as super, and he’s not much of a hero. He’s aloof at best, viewing the world’s mad dash toward destruction with curiosity, when he thinks about it at all. The rest are middle-aged and struggling—undersexed, overweight, psychopathic, egotistical.
When the fate of the world really does depend on these all-too-human outlaws and their godlike acquaintance, they perform much better than you might expect. They reveal they have skills. They work together well in spite of their bickering. They solve a mystery that no one even knew existed. And yet….
It’s hard to save the world when you’re fighting yourself.
A series of deep and nuanced character studies, a labyrinthine mystery, an action-adventure, a romance, a science-fiction romp spanning the solar system—Watchmen is all that and more. It takes its subject matter completely seriously even as it deconstructs the usual tropes of the genre. It makes your average superhero comic seem naïve and quaint. I read it once every couple of years just to remind myself of the medium’s possibilities. You should, too. Skip the so-so film adaptation and go right to the source.
Other texts that could work well: any trade paperback of Moore’s run on Swamp Thing; The Killing Joke; V for Vendetta.
23. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros.
Whenever I teach a multicultural literature class, I try to include something by Sandra Cisneros, and the titular story in this collection almost always makes it into my World Literature II and American Literature II syllabi.
The stories in this book focus on women who live on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Sometimes those women cross the border, but no matter where they go, they are confronted with a sense of cultural dislocation, of Otherness, as they encounter patriarchal attitudes and outright abuse. Readers are immersed in a rich evocation of Hispanic cultures and the triumphs, failures, and contradictions of what those cultures mean.
Yet for all the high-minded darkness of that description, the book is also full of joy as women connect to each other, overcome their circumstances, reject the deadening influences of authority in their lives, find the joy in acts of rebellion great and small. Read this book and, like one of the women in the titular story, you might find yourself shouting with the pure joy of freedom and possibility, even if you’ve got tears in your eyes.
Other texts that could work well: The House on Mango Street.
You can’t have a list like this without Shakespeare. This is one of those “cheats” I was talking about, where I’m taking an anthology instead of a single work. Given that this anthology actually exists (there are several versions), that it isn’t just a product of my wishful thinking, I’m including it.
If you’re older than, say, thirteen or fourteen, you don’t need me to tell you what’s so great about Shakespeare. From the great tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, etc.—to the comedies—Much Ado about Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, and so forth—to the histories like the King Henry plays, Shakespeare’s work is synonymous with theater and what we often call “literary” work.
One great thing about the Complete Works is that you also get the poetry, especially the sonnets. Shakespeare was good enough as a poet that it almost seems unfair; it would be like discovering that Alfred Hitchcock was also a piano prodigy.
I’m linking to the Bevington anthology because that was pretty much the standard back when I studied the works in graduate school. But feel free to pick your own. As for me, this is the one I’d take with me.
Other texts that could work well: if I couldn’t take Shakespeare, I’d take some other dramatist—Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, etc.
21. In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason.
In the mid-80s, seventeen-year-old Sam Hughes tries to come to terms with her father’s death in Vietnam and her uncle Emmett’s inability to get over the war. What could be a real downer of a novel (not that there’s anything wrong with that; some of my favorite texts are downers) evolves into much more through Mason’s deft handling of Sam’s teenage viewpoints and her dependence on popular culture to define her life (M.A.S.H. in particular).
Sam struggles to understand seemingly contradictory ideas that would confuse anyone who thinks about them for too long—a veteran’s erectile dysfunction with a friend’s pregnancy, the way the world changes around her so fast even as her father’s picture remains frozen in time, and more. Through her, we view the 80s as a confusing landscape that belies the homogenous nature of its politics and pop culture. Through the novel, we see Vietnam from an outsider’s point of view and reimagine it as the crux of understanding different lives, rather than just as a world event that kills.
Often dismissed as “only” a YA novel, In Country is that and much more. For whatever reason, it resonates with me. I think you’ll dig it, too.
Other texts that could work well: Shiloh and Other Stories.
So there you have the first five. More to come soon.
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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
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
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
so she said
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.
The issue of Folio with my story “The Cat in the Backyard” has gone to print. Look for it soon wherever you get your literary magazines. For more information about Folio, look here.