Shards

Concrete walls with long shards of glass embedded along the top, brutal points glinting in the hazy yellow light of the Sahel, surrounded the American embassy compound. Similar defenses protected private homes in the few neighborhoods that boasted living trees and roads with some tarmac still intact. Those with any means walled themselves behind concrete and cut glass, the only entrance a metal gate guarded by men with semi-automatic rifles and chained dogs kept on the cruel side of hunger.

 

Once, two Marines in a LandCruiser drove us to the home of an American defense attaché to spend the night. It was meant to be a treat. Air conditioning. Eating with utensils instead of scooping with our right hands. A bath. A bed not tented by mosquito netting sprinkled with termites. No snakes, frogs, cockroaches. No feral dogs seeking shelter, watching us from across our one-room mud hut with eyes glinting in the moonlight. A toilet.

 

As a Chadian man cleared the dinner table with white-gloved hands, the attaché’s wife said–she actually said–“It’s so hard to find good help here.”

 

I have tried to write about Chad for years, since an aborted attempt as Peace Corps volunteers in 1993 left us emotionally and physically compromised, and full of shame at not having endured the full length of our assignment. Leaving was an ethical decision: Chadian teachers were caught in a cycle of not being paid, striking until a bit of money and empty promises of reform were tossed at them like crumbs. Peace Corps volunteers stepped in to fill the gap in local schools and suddenly, who needs the Chadians any longer? Where’s the impetus to effect real change when outsiders will save the day? We were sick, morally, at the arrogance and illogicality of our presence.

 

We left. Alone. Months later the program collapsed behind us.

 

After Chad, we lived with friends in western Colorado, a place of intense and majestic beauty. We shared their tipi on a patch of high mesa. No concrete walls, no shards of glass embedded to keep out those intent on harm, or perhaps just justice. Only thick canvas walls. We came to rest and heal. To rebuild. Yet we were wounded all the same by invisible, razor-sharp shards of expectations and assumptions. A proposition made and rejected. A rejection that resulted in retaliation and betrayal. I have tried to write this story of Colorado for years, as well.

 

Because these stories, this particular time, are as locked together in my mind as Chad is by desert and Colorado by mountains and plain, I feel them as inextricably linked. A husband and wife lost, bereft, betrayed by expectations, by those they assumed would give them shelter: the U.S. Government; two close friends. Even now, twenty-three years later, I know I have not forgiven.

 

At last, the story is written, Chad and Colorado woven together, a needle pulling thread.

 

It’s rare to receive feedback from literary journals. They reject your work with a form e-mail that offers no insights, just “Hey, this isn’t for us. Good luck!” But this particular story garnered editorial feedback from two literary journals in which I’d be thrilled to be included. I am proud of these Nos, for they came accompanied with high praise. But the story was ultimately rejected by both for the same reason: the events just seemed unbelievable. What the young married couple had experienced strained credulity to the point of exasperation. Of course, everything that happens was ripped from the headlines of my life, as true as my memory and my journals of twenty-four/three years ago recall.

 

So I brought my story to a multi-day writing workshop recently, requesting insights on how to pull myself, the author, out of my own narrative and write in service to the story. How could I craft a better story, regardless of what really happened? If I intended to write a piece of non-fiction to honor my personal truth, I could go the essay route. But what I really want is tell a good story.

 

Critique is also meant to be in service to the story. How can we, as writer-readers, offer feedback that will help the writer take the best parts of her narrative and improve upon those?

 

At the start of the workshop, our instructor outlined the conditions whereby feedback was to be given: Our critique should determine how the work has affected us emotionally and intellectually, without criticism, without judgment, without using phrases such as I don’t like or this doesn’t work, which blame instead of exploring a story’s nature and its possibilities. We were promised safety.

 

Yet, the very first writer to offer up her story crumbled as parameter after parameter was crossed, the understanding between writers crumpled and tossed out the window. She finished the day and never returned, impaled on shards of poorly executed critique. Expectations shattered by reality; trust, betrayed. She and I shared a 3:00 p.m. bottle of wine later in the week, lamenting the irony that only the instructor could be heard using the verboten phrase, this doesn’t work . . .

 

“It’s so hard to find good help here.”

 

And what of my own work? A dozen copies of this story, with a dozen sets of interpretations and suggestions, sit in a folder. I am left with the shards of my narrative, my truth, shining and cruelly sharp at my feet, ready to be melted down and reshaped into something new.

If you don’t have time to read …

… you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. So sayeth Stephen King in his most excellent memoir and writing guide, On Writing (Pocket Books 1999)

 

I began the summer with such grand writing goals and by the middle of August, I was nearly there: I’d written one of two short stories; completed two flash fiction pieces; created a database of literary agents to query and finished my query letter (or at least revised it 684 times); drafted one-, two-, and four-page novel synopses; I blogged and book reviewed. In between were two revisions of my first novel, Refuge of Doves—undertaken after receiving story and copy edits from my editor. I was determined to dance through my writing project list and take a bow on August 31.

 

Draft 2: Novel 2, begins September 1.

 

The second short story wasn’t going to happen. Writing the first story, and then trimming it from a bloated 8,500 words to a civilized 6,000-something, took weeks. That one story and the two flash were about all I had in me. I accepted I couldn’t start fresh on another story in the final two weeks of August—a period that included a lovely visit with out-of-state guests, when I stepped away from writing for more than one day in well over a year—and have something worth sending out for submission by the end of summer.

 

Saturday afternoon, after our guests had gone, and I’d emptied the dishwasher and brought up the last load of laundry, I poured myself a glass of Saumur rouge and opened Francesca Marciano’s short story collection, The Other Language (click for my review).

 

The next morning I sat down to write. By Tuesday evening, I’d completed the first draft of a 5,100 word short story. Several revisions later, it lives and breathes at 4,800 words. I’ll give it, and myself, a bit of a rest before a final edit and proofread, but it’s solid. Complete.

~

 

A few weeks ago, I landed in the middle of a discussion with a few writers about routines and patterns, the things we must or cannot do at certain stages of our writing process. I was baffled by the number of writers who stated they read nothing, other than what they might be using for research, while writing new material. Several fiction writers commented they could read no fiction because they feared losing their own writing voice, imitating another writer, or being otherwise influenced by his style. Another commented how she feared comparing her work to other, published authors and losing heart. Still others cited lack of time, energy, interest.

 

I thought my head might explode.

 

If I stop reading, it means I’ve stopped breathing. Reading brought me to writing; from the first eager devouring of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy at the age of six, I ached to wrap my hands around a pen, smooth open a spiral-bound notebook, and scribble. Something. Anything. The words. All the astonishing words.

 

It had never occurred to me that a writer could be anything other than a helplessly voracious reader. I can’t fathom silencing other writers, or emptying my ears and eyes and brain of beautiful language, of precise structure, of rhythmic flow.

 

But hey. We each have our own processes and systems and conditions by which we work the best. Some need near-silence to hear their own voice. I have never—tap wood—lost my voice in the presence of great writing. Instead, I overflow with inspiration and feel a sense of release and possibility.

 

My ear for music and language turns me on to a writer’s cadence and I find myself playing along in my own sentences, discovering new ways to structure my thoughts. It’s an invisible collaboration with another writer, a jazz riff played in admiration and homage in a quiet room, or in my case, in the front seat of the car, where I get most of my writing done. No wi-fi, you see. There are other voices I need to silence, to hear my own. But as for reading, it’s what sustains me as a writer. As a human being.

 

Grazie cara, Francesca Marciano. Your gorgeous stories, your strong and confident voice, restored me. You made me crave to write. The words gushed out. I had one more story in me this summer, after all.

 

Shedding Light
Impressions of dawn

Shake out silver changes

The writer’s life is not punctuated by the natural markers of the seasons. September is as January is as June. But this writer spent too many years moving to the groove of an academic calendar, from pre-school through Masters degree to university administrator: September will forever mean the sharp tang of new pencils, the stiff rasp of new clothes, the gurgle of dread and excitement as the first day of the new school year approaches; June will always be release, sandal tan stripes on my feet, a deserted office on Friday, the bittersweet linger of dreams on a golden sunshine, fresh-cut grass afternoon. Summer seems like the time, whether time’s abundance is real or perceived, to catch up on all those plans shunted during cooler months for more pressing concerns.

So, it was with great relief, giddiness (and dread, yes, dread) that I hit Send on my manuscript last night, shooting it to the Inbox of my editor. I’ve graduated to the next level of my writing journey and, for a few weeks, I am free.

My summer plans have been in the works since I plugged yesterday’s deadline into my calendar. I couldn’t wait to stretch, yawn, and sink into the time when my hands would be empty and my mind, weary of two novels’ worth of Cathars and copper mines, of the southwest of France and the southwest of Ireland, would be open to new places, new ideas, new words. The layer of marine fog will keep me at my desk in the mornings, but the bright afternoons will find me pedaling into the forest or tramping along a sea bluff. Have Notebook, Will Travel. No clicking at keys in the comfort of a café, but never leaving the house without a Moleskine, a Pilot Fine Point, sunscreen, and water.

I can finally give more than a cursory glance at the short story ideas accumulating on those Moleskine pages. Shorts mean I can bury my feet in the toasty sand and write 1000 words of flash fiction, or do a series of timed writing prompts to get the new material juices flowing, or sort through ideas in long hand, see where my brain takes me as that mind-body connection works its magic in a way that a keyboard never will. Shorts mean I don’t need to reengineer a scene on page 33 to fix a plot hole found on page 123. They require little research, which means no info dumps or teasing out backstory.

It will also be the summer of getting down to business with the dreaded author platform, crafting the myriad of pieces that go into my mmm….mmm…media kit. There, I said it.

It will be the summer of Dickens and Homer, as my 5th Annual Monster Classic Read gets underway.

Come to think of it, my ambitions are greater than the day is long, even in the Pacific Northwest where the summer light lingers well after I’ve gone to bed. I have a feeling that soon after Independence Day, an email will appear, my heart will leap into my throat, and I will spend the denim-blue days of July combing the red that bleeds through the black and white of my novel.

So I’m keeping this short. I have stories to write.

Back Yard/ ©Carl Sandburg

Shine on, O moon,
Shake out more and more silver changes.

 

Summer Office ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Summer Office ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Book Review: We Live In Water: Stories by Jess Walter

We Live in Water: StoriesWe Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The thing about failure is that it’s never really over. Even after shuffling off this mortal coil, your failures reverberate like ripples in a pond, carry into lives left behind. Jess Walter, in his exquisite collection We Live In Water presents twelve men, Disciples of Failure, whose stories we read after they have made the worst choices, their lives already in a state of deliquescence.

Walter takes the snapshots we make every day in our mind’s eye and crafts the stories behind the moment. The men sitting with cardboard signs at freeway on-ramps: Anything Helps; the convicts picking up trash on the side of the highway: The Wolf and the Wild; the young people harassing you for a moment to talk about Greenpeace or Save the Children on your way into the grocery store: Helpless Little Things; the women behind those stripper cards handed out in seedy Las Vegas: The New Frontier. We wonder “Who are these people? How did they fall so low?” What we turn away from, what we are afraid to imagine, Walter follows through, coloring in the space of our imagination.

Children, young boys – are often the focus of Walter’s many touches of grace. These boys represent the potential of goodness, perhaps what these men were like before the world ground their faces in a mud puddle or before greed, anger or addiction became their motivating forces. In The Wolf and the Wild a little boy aches to curl in the lap of a convict, to read the same picture book over and over. There is no point in taking a chance on something new – the familiar is the best comfort a lost little boy can hope for. The son in Anything Helps rejects his father’s gift, but with such compassion you know you are seeing the act of a youth who is becoming a man before his time. In the collection’s title story, a single moment – the blue glow of an aquarium – releases a man’s childhood memory of his father’s disappearance.

Walter also takes us where no man has gone before: the future. In one of the most imaginative stories, Don’t Eat Cat, set in Seattle’s Fremont district just a few years hence, an epidemic of zombies is taking over the city. But within the futuristic oddity runs a current of reality. These zombies have a disease, a horrific effect of the addiction to an anti-depressant. Owen, who loses his cool in a Starbucks after a zombie messes up his order, points out “But is this the Apocalypse? Fuck you. It’s always the Apocalypse. The world hasn’t gone to shit. The world is shit. All I’d asked was that is be better managed.” Yep. Get that.

Walter wields a deft hand with black comedy. Virgo is devious, written in first-person by a stalker who plots revenge on his ex-girlfriend by sabotaging her daily horoscope. The New Frontier, has the making of a bromance buddy caper: two guys travel to Las Vegas to save the sister of one her life as a hooker in Las Vegas. The brother is a goob. His buddy, who recounts their mission, is, well…

Jess Walter closes with a thirteenth piece. Less a story than an ode, an explanation, a litany, Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington is a bullet-point list of the failures of a tired-but-trying city and the reasons why Walter chooses to remain.

I don’t mean to make the short stories seem like complete downers. There are no happy endings here; in many cases there are no endings – these are moments, suspended in the time it takes to read the few pages you get. But Walter has this way of imbuing his stories with a gentle caress of humanity and not a little humor that saves his characters’ voices from becoming maudlin. At the same time, we are spared the soft focus of sentimentality because the edges are raw with grief or pointed with violence. I applaud him for giving the Pacific Northwest a dimension of character that overrides the clichéd image of rugged landscapes and frontier spirits.

After reading this collection, it’s a done deal: in my book, Jess Walter is one of the greatest of contemporary American fiction writers.

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