Saturday, March 2, 2013

Floating on a cloud of self-actualization (and also wine)

So there I sat at the bar inside a restaurant whose menu subtitle touts the place's proficiency with "modern Jewish cookery," imbibing a cocktail made with cucumber soda and champagne, staring across the bartender's workspace into the mirror on the wall at myself, face flushed by my second drink and shadowy hint of cleavage above the edge of my low-cut neckline, sitting next to some dude in a business suit who asked the pretty hipster-glasses-wearing bartender about her recommendations for "entrĂ©es." He was alone, I was alone, and it felt weird. It felt like some movie where a couple of single, urbane people meet at a bar. I felt as if I were supposed to utter something witty, something memorable, something quirky or wise. Maybe tell him to fasten his seatbelt because it's going to be a bumpy night. 

But I didn't say anything to him. I sat there with the printed-out-at-Kinko's pages of two batches of my "micro fictions" on the bar before me, the unstapled white pages shyly turned facedown, and finished my drink. The theme from "Shaft" started playing, and I smiled to myself but didn't lean over and comment on it to him. I took out my debit card and sat there passively but with the sucker conspicuously displayed, the universal gesture for "I would like to pay my bill now, please, but I acknowledge that you have other patrons and I do not wish to be an asshole." I paid my bill, hopped down off the stool, put on my bulky winter coat, picked up my tote bag (contents: purse, a book for the Metro -- "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" by David Foster Wallace, a bottle of red wine from Spain that I'd purchased at a wine and liquor store at Union Station and was bringing for the writing group, some red plastic cups I'd bought at CVS... for the wine), and trundled off to the restroom without so much as an "Enjoy the rest of your night!" from either one of us. Because real life is like that sometimes -- plot-less, dialogue-less, story-arc-less. All these details, just sort of there.

Story arcs are something that my new writing group's organizer, C., is pretty adamant about. All of our writings (short fiction as well as non-fiction) must have an arc -- otherwise it's not a story; it's just words. "Thou shalt have a story arc," like it came down through Moses. The protagonist must have grown or changed in some way, or have learned something, which is a sort of internal growth or change, so it counts. 

I'm not sure that I agree. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I don't. I think there could conceivably be an arc, i.e. a story, even if only the reader learns something -- not so much a fact ("the fungus species Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani can take over the bodies and minds of ants in the Brazilian rainforest, exerting mind control over the ants and urging them to climb to the top of grass blades, where they lie in wait for birds of prey"), but something pertaining to the character, the story, the world that exists only on those printed pages or on the computer screen. (Which -- if the writer is good and insightful and has imbued their fictional universe with acute observations from real life -- translates into a kind of wisdom for the reader.) In my view, the character could stay exactly the same (as so many of us seem to do in real life), but the reader could have some knowing, "aha" kind of moment, and this would count as a story arc. If a story arc is even what you want, if it's even something that every story "must" have. 

You can probably tell by my placement of quotation marks around the word "must" there (and if you imagined me saying that while making "quotey fingers," you were correct) that I'm a skeptic by nature, the black-sheep atheist in a zealously Christian family, the token liberal among staunch conservatives. I am not someone who, when an English teacher or textbook or writing-group organizer says, "A story must have A, B, and C," takes this to her heart as gospel. So I was secretly glad when, during the previous writing-group meeting, my fellow misfit and group member W. asked at the end: "So... in a story, the character has to change." He said it as if he didn't quite buy it but was too polite to say so. C. laughed and said, "Did you even read the group info on the Internet?" She was referring to the "About" part of the group's Meetup page, in which she stipulates that yes, all stories brought to the group must have arcs in them; no static so-called "stories" (I'm guessing this includes character sketches, one-off vignettes, and what she might consider to be experimental, avant-garde pieces with bratty disdain for the Establishment just for the sake of having bratty disdain for something). W. kept asking her, "Why?", in that ever-deeper-down-the-rabbit-hole, little-kid way ("Why?" "Because it makes the story interesting." "Why?"). C. never really did give him a reason why.

I'm realizing, as I'm sitting here writing this, eating a bowl of Cracklin' Oat Bran at four in the afternoon and trying to decide whether I like the Sonic Youth song "Teen Age Riot" (I'm listening to it for free on Spotify; I got linked to it from another band's page; these are details that mean nothing), that the part above about W. illustrates a big reason why I'm pretty sure I'll keep going back to this particular writing group. I think my previous post about going back to this weekly "workshop" again for the first time in a few years made it sound as if I had some kind of odd idol-worship going on with the whip-thin and oracular-seeming C.. But it really is the whole group -- anyone who feels drawn to this type of focused-on-short-literary-fiction workshop -- that I go for. Which is a good thing, because this last time -- gasp! -- C. wasn't even there, and I had maybe the best, most gratifying and ego-inflating writing-related experience of my entire life. 

After getting feedback from those who showed up last week, I did a major revision of my story "Just hug them and wave," a piece written in what I think of as the "batshit dumbass" style about an inadequate-feeling guy who works at Disneyland and has to be the substitute Mickey one day. I wrote a new intro (in longhand first, during an idle moment at work, on a yellow sheet of paper from a supply-closet notepad), and made pretty much all of the jotted-down edits that the group members suggested last time. I mean, I didn't reject any of them -- I was pretty much crafting a story whose sole goal was now to please the members of this particular group. And what do you know -- I didn't like it. So I set it aside for now -- I still consider the original, pre-writing-group-criticism version to be the "real" one. And instead of bringing a revised story to this past week's meeting, I brought two small batches of "micro fictions." 

The strange thing is that the story I'd brought last time meant nothing to me, and is not even one of my better pieces. It's snappy and original, and so I had thought it would "play well" among a group of writers who were probably tired of melancholy autobiography. I wonder if maybe I also hadn't wanted to, well... blow my wad that first time. I mean, what if I had brought the very best things that I think I've ever written -- and the group had hated them? I think I might have been holding back, bringing a "safe" story to share for that first test meeting, during which (I told myself) I was almost auditioning the group to see if I wanted to come back. This time, though, I felt like showing off, busting out the pyrotechnics. I have some pieces that I like better that are longer, but they're probably too long to be read during my portion of this particular group's Thursday-night meetings. So I brought these tiny little highly polished stones.

I was first introduced to this radical form -- not poetry, but not quite a conventional story either -- in an issue of Harper's that I sat reading at an outdoor table at some bookstore in San Jose. This was back in 2008, when I was the fancy-sounding Corporate Communications Manager for a global software company, so I flew around to a bunch of places on the company dime. My boss and some co-workers (including one with whom I was semi-secretly involved for about a year) and I had gone to some little Silicon Valley trade show, and they'd all flown home -- but my flight got delayed for two whole days. So there I was, with time to kill and not a familiar soul in town. I visited the batty, sprawling Winchester House. I talked on my cell phone to a writer friend in Canada, walking laps in a parking lot that had daisies growing beside it, periodically peeping into some crazy person's car full of trash and, inexplicably, packages of unopened men's briefs. (Do these details mean anything?)

And I read these short pieces by Paul Theroux. There were maybe twenty of them, not linked in theme or setting or characters, but in form. Each piece was a self-contained whole. They were evocative, haunting -- and, for me, radical. Part of the thrill of reading micro fiction, I think, is that the part of our brains schooled on textbook fiction anthologies thinks, "Hey! That's not what a short story looks like." Almost right away you think about the form itself as much as the substance -- Is this a story? Does it "count"? And (as W. would surely say), why? Why does it count? I couldn't wait to try my hand at it, and once I did, it became a writerly addiction. 

I explained this to the group, who loved the stories more than I ever could have hoped for them to. W. was there again, and J. (she'd been the most vociferously critical of everyone's stories last time, but this time, after reading my micro fictions aloud in her strong, assured, probably-a-lawyer voice, she said: "I have nothing critical to say"). D., wine-soaked and urbane and obscurely lascivious, wasn't there this last time, but two new-to-me guys were -- a younger guy named F. who works at the "preparatory school" where our group meets (C. used to be a teacher there as well) and therefore had keys to let us all in out of the cold (he also brought a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which didn't really go with the wine I brought but no one seemed to mind); and a regular attendee named K., a little bit older than I am, who seems to lead a very active cultural life -- he talked about seeing independent films as well as paying to attend various story and screenwriting workshops. 

Let me quickly get the bragging part of this post out the way, so I can at least pretend to talk about something selfless and noble. J. read my story, and the group members laughed where they were supposed to and even in places that I hadn't realized were all that funny (I'd thought of those parts as more dryly amusing -- not "LOL"-inducing humorous). I could sort of tell from how she was reading it that she liked it, the way she'd pause after a line that seemed (or uh, was intended to be) profound. (I have to say, her self-assured, lawyerly voice rocked my story -- it sounded even better coming from her than it sounded in my own head!) She said the thing about having nothing critical to say or suggest. She flipped the pages airily, glancing back at the little blurbs she'd just read, as if handling some fine-crafted thing. She was quiet, and seemed almost humbled, or at least surprised. 

W. was mostly quiet -- he's usually quiet, except when he's slyly challenging C.'s stance on the nature of stories; he was like that last time -- but K. and F. were effusive with their praise. I mean, I realize that the words "effusive" and "praise" get slammed together all the time, but that's how they were, all effusive and praiseful. Here -- I've now silenced the Sonic Youth on Spotify; I'll reach down and pick up the Xeroxed copies of my stories that I made for the other group members to jot their feedback on. J. said I have the ability to make each one of these (micro fictions) "sound like an old fable." K. said the stories were "charming," "delightful," and thanked me sincerely for sharing them. He and F. urged me to publish them -- K. said, "These need to be out in the larger world." They said that even though the stories are short (two of them are only one sentence long), each story has an arc -- and the character in each one "wants something." (Apparently, along with story arcs, that's something else that C. is a stickler for -- every character has to "want something.") J. said that each of the tiny stories felt "complete" and "satisfying." 

I felt like some wise little short-fiction Yoda sitting there. I kept my head down in a sort of perfunctory modesty, kept saying things like, "Aww, thank you," but quietly. I scribbled stuff down furiously and with my brow furrowed, trying to somehow seem as if I might be writing down notes for improving the stories, when really no one had anything bad to say about them. It just seemed like the polite way to be. I'm looking down now at where I wrote, in gleeful amazement and in all-caps, while of course pretending to write down something self-critical, "I BROKE THE WRITING GROUP." Because the group's ostensible critical function seemed to have momentarily jammed -- I'd been there last time and knew how heated and analytical the discussion can get, that C. would never let this be some kumbayah, Care Bears, feel-good kind of hippie writing group. 

Not only that, but -- most deeply gratifying to me as a writer -- the other members started asking me, basically, how I do it. F. asked about my "process" (I really don't have one, although I told him about a few tricks I've used to jump-start my imagination), and K. wanted to know about my writerly education or training (zip, except for three really good English teachers in high school, plus reading all the short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Atlantic's sporadic Fiction issues). F. asked how long I'd been writing (since high school, since forever). K. asked about the writers who've influenced me (for short fiction: Amy Hempel; for micro fiction: Paul Theroux, of course, although I've since also read brilliant micro stories in Harper's by John Edgar Wideman, as well as a kooky but well-executed biography of Marie Curie told in micro stories by Lydia Davis). 

They were pretty much asking the questions I've imagined discussing someday on Oprah or on NPR. You know, someday in the future, when you'll see my short fiction in The New Yorker and find my story collections on the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. I remember thinking that my responses sounded too rehearsed, as if I were a bad actress playing myself, because of course I had imagined my answers to these questions already. I'd spoken them aloud while driving alone in my car when nothing good was on the radio; I'd whispered them aloud on long walks at night. It's kind of like how people sound in job interviews when someone asks, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" Duh, you have already come up with an answer. 

I had printed out both batches of micro stories, thinking I'd ultimately pick just one batch for us to focus on and not hog everyone's time. (I'd written all of the little stories months if not years before, and only semi-arbitrarily lumped them into loosely thematically linked "collections" during a hasty "computer workstation rental" session at a Kinko's inside a Hyatt right before Metroing over to the writing group.) After we read and discussed the first batch, several members were already going on to (silently) read and ask about and even discuss some from the second batch -- so F. said, "Should we just go ahead and read the other ones?" (the question directed at J., who seemed to have assumed authority in C.'s absence; I think they might be "offline" friends outside the writing group as well), and we all said OK, and he proceeded to read aloud the second batch of stories. Later, when the group disbanded for the night, K. asked to keep his copies of my stories, and asked for the URL of my writing site. I see that he has now become a subscriber to my fiction site, and left a nice comment after one of the stories I'd included in one of the micro-fiction batches.

...Well, so much for "quickly" getting the bragging out of the way. It's good I had that sobering (and sober) first experience with the group the week before, or I'd probably be insufferable right now. I mean, even more insufferable than I'm surely coming across in this blog post.

Also, soon I'll be writing more about how I've been doing with the drinking these days -- I don't mean to just gloss over the fact that I pre-gamed before a writing-group meeting -- but that topic really merits its own blog post. No, really -- last night before going to a big 1980s party at a nearby club, I bought and later polished off an entire small bottle of sweet-tea-flavored vodka from the local ABC store all by myself. I'd smuggled it in my purse into this nightclub whose bar is routinely crowded. I don't mean at all to convey the impression that everything is going just swell over here. I'm still drinking to excess; I've gained a bunch of weight. But back to the topic at hand.

So in trying to modestly deflect their praise and turn the conversation back around to the other members (not least of all W., whose story was up next; his was the only other story on the agenda for that night), I nerdishly gushed that everyone else should take a whack at writing these tiny pieces -- but I warned that "they're addictive," and that "they'll break your brain" for writing longer stuff. After going micro, it's hard (to me, at least) to turn the dial back -- to welcome any superfluous word, anything that's not fighting with all its might to stay on the page. (Obviously this does not hold true for blog posts.)

I floated out of the meeting and onto the streets sprigging off Dupont Circle in a dreamy daze (surely the two cucumber-soda-and-champagne cocktails at the "modern Jewish" place and the red plastic cup of red Spanish wine at the writing group had something to do with this), on a glowy cloud of self-actualization. I smiled for pretty much my entire 45-minute, Metro-and-car commute home. I probably looked like some kind of simpleton. I listened to my "epiphany" music on my iPod ("Family Portrait" by a viola, cello, and piano trio called Rachel's; "Ratts of the Capital" by Mogwai; "Gathering Storm" by Godspeed You! Black Emperor). I looked out the dark windows, at city and suburban scenes, at the mysteries of the people around me, and the world felt almost unbearably beautiful (but again... I was drunk). 

I'm going to use my wonderful group members' encouragement as a much-needed nudge to submit some things to publications as well as contests -- the other day at Barnes & Noble I picked up the latest issue of Poets & Writers, just for their great back section that lists magazines seeking contributions, plus writing prizes that tend to run between $1,000 and $2,000. 

I'll paste for you below the batches of short fiction that I shared with the group. They unanimously loved the first collection, "Life goes on," and were just as admiring of the second batch, "Bad people," although F. felt "Scarecrow" droned on a bit (like, you know, it was longer than a couple of sentences) and could have been pared down or removed to make the collection tighter. (I agree.) 

Life goes on


I looked out at the grass, which was perpendicular to my car. Other cars passed. The breeze they left behind them ruffled the blades. I thought how strange, they just kept going.

I could only move my eyes. I could see my dashboard, and the little bobble-head dog on it. The dog hadn't come unstuck. Its head wagged up and down, nodding yes yes yes, life goes on, yes it does.

Come on, Irene

The old man had started something that he couldn't finish. It was going to be the grandest garden-gnome village the world had ever known. But after just four trips to Wal-Mart's garden section, he realized he couldn't afford as many of those little chumps as his vision demanded. He stopped at about 20 gnomes.  

It was an underwhelming sight. The gnomes almost blended in with the grass and bushes. None of the neighbors said anything. Even the neighborhood kids, whom he'd imagined lining up to tour his grand village, didn't comment on it. It just looked like he had left a bunch of crap in his yard and forgotten to pick it up.

So when the hurricane came, he looked out his window at their ridiculous imp faces. They seemed to mock him. He left them out there as the trees began to rustle and the birds all flew for cover.

"Come on, Irene," he sang softly, his breath fogging up the glass, invoking the name of this particular storm, although the song was really "Come on, Eileen." He had never been good with song lyrics, either.

He wanted the wind to take them away. He wanted the wind to erase everything his life had never been.


The geeky freelance pop-culture blogger with Asperger's often wondered why he wasn't a hit with the ladies.

His folks had a lot of dough, so they bought him a condo.

They gave him a little allowance, too. He saved up so he could go to the Bunny Ranch, that famous brothel in Nevada where it's legal. He was determined to lose his virginity before he turned 30.

He saw his life as a romantic comedy that was only sometimes tragic.

He pulled his rental car up to the house where the bunnies lived. He tried to calm his breathing. He sat in his car in the hot dry sun. He never got out. He drove back to his hotel. He never went back. He wrote a funny blog post about it.

Alone in my mountain tower with my worst enemy

They found the Japanese literary master dead in a mountain tower. He been holed up there for months, and then he had killed himself. When his fans heard this, they grew morbidly excited. Had he been completing a final masterpiece? Had he woven together his accumulated insights into a tapestry that shimmered with ultimate truth? Did the police find a manuscript, or at least some notes? A computer disk containing a precious file? But no, all the police found was issues of People magazine from the U.S. and empty Hostess chocolate cupcake boxes. There wasn't even a suicide note.

His fans couldn’t reconcile this with their idolization of the late master. They expected the police to at least find something heroic, poetic: a samurai sword, a goblet of wine. But I know how he felt. A suicide note, a symbol – a final poignant act – would have brought him back to life, through eternal analysis and worship. And he wanted to be dead.  

The man with the stutter

The man with the stutter sat in the front row of the theater. He looked at a galaxy of stage lights thrown onto the walls and ceiling. Gods and goddesses appeared and spoke in tones of crystal clarity, their words shimmering like epiphanies.

A wood nymph bestowed flowers on a few in the audience. She stood before him in a halo and reached into her basket. The flower was yellow and real.

After the play, he stood in a circle with friends in the parking lot. He had thrust the flower into his coat pocket at the end of the show, not wanting to be seen, not wanting people to think he was being sentimental. His friends talked and smoked, and stomped and laughed and breathed cold frost. He listened; he had known most of them since childhood and they protected and included him like a family member. He put his fist into his pocket and felt the petals, velvet and silky. The petals felt like all the words he couldn't say.

Country song

She had been reduced to a faint twang drowned in radio static on the road through the country where nobody lived and nobody listened. It was her worst fear.


There was this dog I heard about that had OCD, and he kept jumping into this pool and then getting out and then jumping in and then getting out, and he didn't know why, but something impelled him to do it forever, so he whimpered and obeyed his body's lunatic commands long after he was tired.


I stopped at the ghost town on my drive home from your place.

It was called Calico. I saw a sign and thought I should stop there. Shouldn't I not be the kind of person who just passes an Old West ghost town by?

I thought it would just be ruins and ghosts and me. But there was a parking lot full of tour buses. There was a lady in a booth asking you to pay admission. There was pizza, and there was face painting.

So I left Calico. I left it, just like the original townsfolk did.

There is such a thing as wearing out your welcome.

When even the ghosts have left a place, you should, too.


Bad People

Peace pie

There’s a boy in our neighborhood whose dad is a pacifist. If you beat up his son, the dad brings your family a pie. It’s supposed to teach us something – that violence can be ended with kindness; that if you respond to a hit with another hit, violence is neverending.

But we beat up his son a lot. We think it’s funny. We joke about who’s having peace pie for dessert tonight. His dad is a really good cook.

Cut Off Your Nose

Saint Ebba heard they were coming.

She’d both feared and looked forward to it. Everyone had been looking at maps – this place was right on the path, right in the way. She’d lain awake at night, flat on her back, looking up in the cold. Vikings were monsters in stories parents told at bedtime. They didn’t come into the lives of just anybody. She had almost felt honored. Her life might mean something after all.

What would they do when they got here? They would take the girls. She wasn't supposed to let that happen. She was in charge of everyone. Mother Superior.

There were no men to protect them, so she had to be clever. She had to twist her mind. It came to her in blackness one night. It almost excited her. It was terrible; she shivered then went to sleep.

In the morning she passed around knives. They would do it if she told them to, especially if she went first. Their pretty faces would be as ravaged and ugly as she was deep in her heart that had wished for this all along. 

Hang in there, toots

The letter was written to "Ask Auntie E.," the MILF-like advice columnist for Elle magazine ("the thinking woman's Cosmo"). Auntie E. is whippet-thin and strawberry blonde, wears leopard print and calls her readers "doll." She tells it to you straight.

The letter was from an Indian woman whose parents had arranged her marriage. The woman was pretty sure her husband was gay, and he was also terribly immature. In bed, he would demand that his wife go down on him -- and not only did he never reciprocate, but they never had intercourse either. And he told her to keep her underwear on during it -- one time she removed her bra, and he asked why her breasts looked so weird.

Auntie E. said in her reply that her gut instinct was to tell the Indian woman to "kick him to the curb!" But, being a diligent journalist, Auntie E. had consulted with a scholar, an authority on Indian culture. The expert said life could be hard for the Indian woman if she left him; she might be ostracized by her loved ones. She might be happier to just stay there. Hey, maybe he'd grow up; people can change! Hang in there, toots.

A Sunday

It's an Edgar Allan Poe, early winter, snowless day. Brittle barren branches and crows.

I'm wearing my coat but my bones are cold. I have arthritis. Cold in the fibers of the wool.

I'm walking on a country road. I'm your widow.

Today is Sunday. Normally I would refresh your flowers. It's been about a year.

But this morning I remembered why sometimes I used to hate you, and I find myself walking in the opposite direction. 


He's resourceful. I'll give him that.

He makes things, builds things, rigs things up, carves flowers out of wood, beckons vegetables out of stubborn earth. These are qualities I fell in love with.

He finds a way to get what he needs.

I don't think he meant to mock me with this last thing. He was simply building a scarecrow and needed a head. Somewhere he found the head of a beautiful lady mannequin. He placed it atop a tall, vaguely human form and dressed her incongruously in lumberjack flannel and a trucker cap.

I see her from my kitchen window. Sometimes I stop and notice how glamorous she looks, with her pageboy haircut and heavy-lidded bedroom eyes, a face sort of like one of the older Barbie dolls, before they got saucer-eyed and vacuous, and virginal. Those older Barbies with their half-lowered lids looked like they were up to no good.

The thing is, it wasn't just one other woman. It's a serial thing. It's chronic.

Why does he keep me around? I know why I stay here, for our son, even though he's grown; your child is always your child. But why does he keep me here? I feel like a spare tire, the little donut kind you use only in an emergency, just to get you through until you buy a nice new one.

I have my own resources. If I didn't, I couldn't stay here.

I look out my kitchen window and wonder why I have to see his women everywhere.

So help me God

"I have to live my life right. So help me God. Starting today I live my life right."

He looked up. The blue autumn sky above the prison yard was bright and vast, as if it had no end.

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