A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Getting Started: Part 1

This was supposed to be a literary blog.

A couple years ago my sister roped me into a gchat while I was viscously hungover. She told me that she wanted to start writing again and needed advice on how to Begin. In high school she was a prose writer and poet, but then life got in the way and when you drop a habit like that it’s difficult to pick it back up. Writing is wily.

Anyway, I gave her an answer that seemed to satisfy her. My intention was to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible and I succeeded. What do I really Know about Writing?

Well, I thought about the question a lot and realized that I do have many Opinions on Writing. The purpose of this blog was to discuss those opinions, but I got side tracked and, ultimately, lazy.

And so, like Counting Crows, I’m getting back to Basics: Getting Started.

It seems appropriate for this last day of the Year 2011, before the Beginning of the Year of the Apocalypse, 2012. Everyone I know despises New Year’s and loathes Resolutions, but every year I get suckered in to the ritual by bizarre faith in opposition to empirical evidence. I will write more often in Scribbler’s Doorless Room about Writing. I will write more often, to combat laziness and boredom. I feel compelled to make great promises and keep them since, you know, the End is nigh.

Notice that this is “Getting Started: Part 1.” I will revisit this topic at a later date.

Without further ado, an Opinion:

Shortly before I moved to New Orleans, I read Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you have probably read excerpts or the whole book. If you haven’t, you should. You’ll be happier. Even if you’re not a writer, this book will exponentially improve your Quality of Life. Reading Bird by Bird feels like a meaningful hug.

In her chapter about Getting Stared, Ann Lamott advises one do Small Things or Small Exercises – I forgot her exact words, but that’s the gist of it. In other words, do not set out to write a Book, or, God forbid, a Novel or a Tome. Instead, write something manageable, like a very short blog post about getting started writing.

Since my sister asked, several friends have asked me: How do you start? How do you actually begin writing? I really wish that I had a snappy response, one that would enlighten and advise you for years to come, but I’m not Ann Lamott. And my personal strategy is not universally applicable.

I write compulsively. The other day, I went to Iowa City for two days, forgetting my notebooks in Des Moines and was in a state of restless frustration every time I realized that I didn’t have something to write on. I carry pocket-sized notebooks with me Everywhere and make regular use of them. Whenever I don’t take notes, I write in my journal. I have a separate notebook at home for writing plays and stories. With few exceptions, I’ve written every day for the past five years.

Occasionally, my writing gets me in trouble. A few people, knowing my Bad Habit, have ordered me to never write about them or to omit certain details from my Record. I have always adhered to these wishes.  But, invariably, most things end up in my Scribblings. Most of it isn’t stories, or plays, or essays, or even blog entries, but all of it is Useful and fair game for future projects.

If I did not write, I would not know what to do with myself. Probably I would have a lot more free time. Probably I would have a better social life and I would play more video games and I would be less anxious and maybe I would be a happier person. But at least there’s a paper trail.

My secret – and the reason why my method is not universally applicable - is that I’ve driven myself crazy. I have managed to make myself obsessed with and compelled to write. Sure, sometimes sanity wins out and I take breaks, but mostly I can’t help but scribble things down and make stories out of things that happen to me.

So, manhandle that into something resembling instruction and it looks like this: carry a medium around with you everywhere and make use of it.

Luckily, most of us – particularly those of my generation – are pretty good about this already. We all have Twitter and Facebook accounts and most of us have some sort of online journal. We are all obsessed. Well done. You write every day. Now do it consciously.

But, even if you have the ability and the tools, how do you Start? My advice is just Write.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, take advantage. If you don’t, you will hunt for incantations and rituals and create superstitions ad nauseum trying to find that Special Rite that makes the magic Work. Write and, sooner or later, you will discover what works for you.

Many of my friends cannot write unless they listen to music. Some need to write long hand, others on a computer. Some people can write in the morning and others couldn’t write a word to save their lives unless it’s after midnight. Some require coffee, others liquor. For a long time, I was convinced that I couldn’t write unless I had ingested some legal drug - Java House’s St. Louis Blues or Gilby’s Gin - and was writing on a Moleskine notebook – plane, 9x14cm, item number 9788883701030 – with a Zebra F-301, fine-tipped pen in the dead of night. Now I know that these are all crutches. I can write well whenever I need to under whatever circumstance. The other things just make life easier.

But, how do you Start?

Okay, let’s do that right now. It’s the last day of 2011, but it’s still a day in your life and something interesting has happened to you already, I guarantee it. Think back on the last conversation you had. Someone told a story. Maybe you did. We all tell stories. Or maybe when you woke up you thought about all of those Resolutions you haven’t made yet or all those that you didn’t keep. It can be banal or fantastic. What did you eat? When did you start eating that breakfast every day? Did your parents make it for you and you never stopped? Was that loud sound you just heard now a car crash?

Here’s something a friend told me that I just realized was a story:

No one knew who invited him. Wearing a leather, bomber jacket over neat, business casual and a dark, unreadable look, almost blank. She could smell him from across the room. Axe, like he never grew out of Middle School, which seemed at odds with his deliberate calm, spacy courtesy. Lilly hated strangers at her apartment, especially big strangers. At four eleven, the world was filled with giants to her, but this guy was at the far end of six feet tall and so was something of a monstrosity to her.

“Who is that guy?” Lilly asked Pat when she cornered him in the kitchen.

Pat shrugged, pouring water into glasses from a filter in the fridge. It was a weekday and, though Lilly had stocked up on beer just in case, no one was in the mood. After pizza, water. After film, go home. After that, work again. Where had that routine come from?

“Andrea’s cousin. He’s in town for the week. Think he’s in marketing, but he just got into that. Andrea says he sort of changes and moves on a whim. Think his name is Jason,” Pat said. She managed to carry the six glasses out to the living room by herself. A former bartender. Lilly had seen her carry five steins in each hand on multiple occasions - the requisite strength and coordination appalled her.

Andrea was talking to his cousin on the couch. Andrea was talking. The cousin looked like he was listening. Lilly wasn’t even sure if Andrea was listening to herself since she appeared to be playing a game on her smart phone. Lilly and Pat sat down and the conversation quickly turned toward what movie they should watch.

Serenity?” Lilly asked.

“She don’t like Firefly,” Andrea joked, gesturing at Andrea.

The Sound of Music,” said Jason in a surprisingly soft voice, almost a whisper. Everyone looked at him. “It’s my favorite film.”

“Jason’s fucking around.” Andrea rolled his eyes. “How about The Dark Knight?”

“We always watch Dark Knight,” Lilly moaned.

“It’s been months at least,” Andrea countered.

“We’ve watched everything on your shelf once,” Pat said.

“Right. Why don’t we go out. Why don’t we try doing something different?” Lilly said. “Let’s go bowling. Or skiing.”

“There’s no snow,” said Andrea. “And we all have to work tomorrow.”

“I’ve never seen The Dark Knight,” Jason said. Lilly followed his gaze. He was looking out the window at the apartment building across the street. A man and woman were silhouetted against the shade. She only caught a glimpse of one figure raising the arm to reach for the others face, or maybe throat, before the light extinguished.

“Settled,” Andrea said, triumphantly.

They watched the movie in silence, sipping water. The smell of pizza went stale and mixed with that peculiar brick and dust smell that had probably hung around the apartment for the past century. Lilly stopped paying attention after the opening credits. She thought about sitting at her desk tomorrow, writing more letters and more letters to customers and partners and when had that become her job? Tomorrow was probably going to be like yesterday and this seemed to be the trajectory of life. A disjointed, disingenuous dialogue interrupted by sleep and eating and movies that she’s watched too many times.

The movie finished and Andrea and Pat helped Lilly clean up. It was not until they began shuffling, one conversation at a time about the next holiday or where they hell they could go skiing if there were snow, that Andrea asked, “Where’s Jason?”

It took ten seconds to double check the living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and bathroom to ascertain that Jason was not in the apartment. The front door’s deadbolt was fastened. No keys were missing. A glance at the open window and a mental leap took Lilly to the conclusion that he was on the fire escape.

“Is your cousin…” Lilly searched for an inoffensive word. “Well?”

“Well…” Andrea said, looking out the window.

“I’ll be back,” Lilly said. It was her guest and her fire escape. She’d find the wayward cousin and bring him back from the exit or the brink or whatever or wherever he may be.

He was on the roof, five stories up. She almost never went to the roof except on the 4th of July and whenever she really needed to get away from that brick and dust smell, which was more often, lately. He was standing on the ledge, something that Lilly had never been brave enough to do. She wondered what he was looking at. The wind was cold and smelled of trash and grease from all the fast food restaurants so nearby. People were shouting below.

“Jason…?” Lilly began. She stood a few feet behind him. He was silhouetted against the sodium orange light on the building next so that, she supposed, it might not have been Jason. It could be some other behemoth standing on her ledge and Jason was somewhere below, having made a clandestine escape while she and the girls were talking. Yet he responded.

“There’s a lot crime in this town…” Jason whispered. Lilly stepped closer, despite his observation.

“Yes… there is. Why don’t you come inside? And then leave?”

“No. There’s a lot of crime in this town,” Jason insisted.

“Yes…” Lilly agreed.

“Someone’s gotta do something about it,” Jason said. He turned around and walked briskly past her to the fire escape and took them three at a time on his way down. Lilly ran over to watch his descent. She watched as he threw on his helmet, jumped on his motorcycle, and drove off into the urban night that now seemed to be filled with more crying and screaming than usual.

As she made her way back down to her second floor apartment, Lilly entertained the idea that tomorrow she would wake up and Jason would be waiting for her at her breakfast table. You can never share my identity, he would tell her. You could be in danger, he would tell her, but I’ll protect you. But then what? She would just go to work again with more confusing elements to her life that she could never tell anyone. Protected. Safe.

Andrea and Pat waited by her front door. Pat was saying, “… weirdest things. You know. You should try it. But only if you’re in a good place. Floating on salt water, your brain gets so bored that it starts making whole worlds.”

“I’m not really into – Lilly? Where’s Jason?” Andrea asked. They both turned to her, something between malaise and interest. It was a look that she saw every day, the look that greeted her in the mirror every morning.

She considered telling them. It would have taken too long, she decided. Lilly walked past them, grabbing her keys and jacket.

“I’ve got to go,” she said, closing the door, leaving Andrea and Pat at the threshold to return to their conversation and decide what to do in her absence.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


One of my coworkers told me the other day, "Sam, you're very good at nonverbal communication." This is very important to her since she is a former teacher. Once she told me about one of the most important lessons she learned in Teach for America: The Look. It's the expression you give to the class when you want them to shut up and pay attention.

A few weeks ago, IB told me, "I never really realized how quiet you were. And you give this look, like you're looking at some sort of inferior human being. Like whoever you're looking at should be ashamed of themselves."

I have put this expression to good use. One of my former coworkers at the bookstore found my Silent Look incredibly disconcerting. Since it's impossible to argue with him, it was a great pleasure to reduce him to sputtering inconsistencies and obscenities with a cool, ten-second stare.

Anyway, Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

We're in this together, right?

After dinner, four drinks, and comparing jobs, kids, babysitters, marriages, mortgages, political affiliations, and the last two week vacations, Kimberly finally felt comfortable asking the real question: "Travis," she said, "Be honest. Do you still keep zombie contingency plans?"

Travis and his wife, Mol, both laughed. Gray, Kimberly's husband, chuckled and gave her, "Are you serious, look?" and then a pointed glance at her whiskey sour.

"How did I know you were going to ask that? How did I know?" Travis said.

"Because, you always used to go on and on about it," Kimberly said. "So, come on. Do you have one?"

"For right here?"

"If a zombie horde appeared outside that window, do you have a way to get us out?" Kimberly asked.

Mol looked around the gigantic restaurant with its rustic-gaudy woodwork and tables covered in behemoth platters of food. "I don't know," she said. "It's pretty crowded in here. If there is a zombie invasion, I think we're all screwed."

"What about a terrorist attack?" Grey asked.  Kimberly watched out of the corner of her eye as Travis ran his finger along the rim of his wine glass. "Or a tornado?"

"Well?" Kimberly asked Travis, leaning forward.

Travis shrugged. "Haven't thought about it here. But we're only, what, ten miles from my cousin's farm. That was the old go-to. The guy is a redneck and so is prepared for the day when he'll be able to exercise his second amendment rights fully and overthrow the government militia-style."

"He's still alive?" Grey asked, in his I'm-humoring-you-voice that Kiberly hated. She looked at the foggy window next to her and drew and X. Buried treasure.

"Barely," Travis admitted. He turned to Mol. "At least we have Mol. She still practices archery. We'll be good for hunting."

"I can kill zombies with a bow and arrow," Mol protested. "I'm a goddamn good archer."

And Kimberly was a master in Kendo, but no one bragged about that. She could take a zombie or a dozen. If she had her swords, which she'd purchased in Japan, but they were back at the apartment with the kids.

"That still doesn't solve the immediate problem of getting out the restaurant," Grey said.

"Grey can only think in the immediate," Kimberly said and elbowed him. "He can't think about serious problems like the apocalypse of the undead."

Grey waved to the waiter.

"The kitchen," Travis said, pausing dramatically while he pointed to the door a few feet away. "Is right there. Everyone else will run for the exits. We pick up some knives on the way for protection and make for the car which is, conveniently, parked across the street, behind the building."

"Did you think of that?" Grey asked. He didn't wait for the answer and spoke quietly with the waiter. Kimberly knew this meant he was going to take the check and abruptly end the evening as soon as the tip was settled.

"I might have."

"Well, I'll probably survive, at least. I still am coherent, unlike the three of you," Mol said.

Mol was a teetotaler and used this when others were at their most vulnerable to win arguments. Kimberly never let her win, though. When they were drunk in college, Kimberly would always challenge her to races, scrimmages, Rochambeau, or board games and invariably win because she was more resourceful when drunk. She cheated more easily. After they both had kids, Kimberly had to settle for petty battles of wit for lack of time and resources.

"I can still manage obstacles," Mol said, and gave Kimberly what she thought might be a challenging look.

After the waiter walked away, Grey said, "We're in a crowded restaurant.  We're all meat."

"So, what, you'd just surrender?" Kimberly said, watching Grey stiffen almost imperceptibly. He'd been laughing earlier that evening, but his humor failed with the meandering conversation. "Try to negotiate with the zombies?"

"I've talked to worse," Grey said. "My coworkers are pretty much dead already."

"You used to have a plan."

"It's not worth the effort."

"It's fun."

"I had a friend," Mol said, "who said that his plan for the zombie apocalypse was to put on body armor, attach razor blades to his hands, and file his teeth and then go out and get bitten so that he could be a super-zombie."

"Charming," Grey said.

"Let's not go, yet," Kimberly said, grabbing Grey's arm as he reached for his coat. He shook her off. "Come on. We're having fun."

Grey turned around and threw his hands up in the air. "Can we please stop fucking each other? Can we please? I mean, Christ, or at least could we talk about it and lay out ground rules? Like that I'd like to sleep with my wife more often than you two?"

No one spoke. Kimberly placed her finger on the rim of her empty glass and pushed gradually until it fell over. Lucky it was empty. He had to ruin things again.

"We were having fun," Mol said. "You ruined the evening, Grey."

"You're such an asshole," Travis said. "And selfish. I mean-"

"Pogs? Who still has their Pogs?" Kimberly asked.

Someone screamed in the kitchen. All four stood up and stared at the white, swinging doors. Blood splashed on the circular window and a limp hand fell through between the crack. An awful, rotting stench hit them. Someone else screamed and then another and another.

"Come on," Kimberly, Travis, Grey, and Mol said together.

They picked up the table in unison and threw it through the window.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Oh, Let Me Tell You a Story

Today Betsy Lerner made me feel inadequate. In her post, "You shouldn't let other people get their kicks for you," she candidly answered the question what she was doing when she was college age and shortly after. What's worse than her own adventures, and almost as funny, is the one-upmanship that ensued in the 49 (and counting) responses. It does hurt a little that many now-editors led far more interesting lives than I am currently. But I guess that when you're job is to correct other people's mistakes and be a personal fact checker for all the asshole writers who want to be edgy with drugs, sex, and alcohol, you've got to have a substantial cache of spectacular fuck-ups that you can later brag about to make other people wonder what the hell they're doing with their time.

Just submitted a story to Clarkesworld. The first time I sent them a story, the editor sent me a rejection the same evening. The last time I sent them a piece, it took over a week for them to throw me a form letter. Every hour that passes before the inevitable is a triumph. Yes, Clarkesworld is teaching me to live in the moment. I'm going to go get a fifth of whiskey and spend some time sledding with the penguins at the zoo.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

On the New Orleans Fringe Part 3: Review of Marilyn: A Play About Our Bodies

“It’s called Marilyn,” IB told me.

Marilyn Monroe?” I asked.


I agreed, mostly because I didn’t have the energy to come up with alternatives. The weeks and months leading up to the New Orleans Fringe Festival were so emotionally, physically, and mentally draining I could not fathom making plans of my own.

Such was my exhaustion that I was strangely aware of my own skeleton, and my abdomen felt like an unruly and loud parasite. That morning was rough. I spent two hours trying to wake up and only as the sun went down did I feel truly alert, which was to say, at the low tide of disorientation and malaise.

Marilyn. Fine.

Finding the theatre was an adventure. The play was a site-piece and so was hosted at the private residence of the Furmari family, local theatre patrons. The house sits on the corner of Royal and Mandeville across from the levee. As we biked up, I saw, above the barrier wall, a titanic cruise ship that looked like a passing apartment building decked out for Christmas.

As we locked up our bikes I realized I’d forgotten my ticket. We negotiated with the doorwoman (whom I later discovered was Ms. Bonnie Gabel, the director) to save me a spot while I rushed back to IB’s, got my ticket and sped back. By the time I arrived, the rest of the audience had already been ushered in.

“Here’s my ticket,” I wheezed.

“Do you have your button,” Gabel asked.

“Um, it’s at home,” I said. Specifically, it was in yesterday's shirt pocket. I shuffled. “I just returned from a quest...”

“That’s true,” she admitted. “It was an ordeal. Go ahead. Just make sure to get a button on your way out.”

Out of breath and disoriented, I was led through the gate by a woman in a blonde wig. She offered me her hand and my social powers failed me. I mistook the gesture and did not kiss her hand, as would have been proper, so she pointed me down a claustrophobic path leading down the side of house decorated with candles and collage work of the Icon. Another woman in a blonde wig waited for me at the far end. She curtsied. When I was close enough to take her offered hand I saw that her lips were sewn shut.

And she led me right up to a bar set-up in a tiny patio aglow with candles and a Very Chatty audience of about twelve.

“How much for the drinks?” I asked the skinny bartender.

“Free. But we have a suggested donation of three dollars.”

“I don’t have any cash…”

“I won’t judge you.”

“But now I feel guilty…”

So I walked away without a drink and better off, really. I’d fought for that sobriety. Having all of my mental and physical faculties at neutral was unusual and satisfying.

IB and I waited quietly for the play to start while the other guests socialized. Suddenly Marilyn Monroe, played by Alison Haracznak, stumbled onto the patio, downed a glass of wine and assured us that we’d have  agood evening. She darted from one woman to the next, garbbing hands and dismissing them gently until she came to IB.

“You,” she said. “Follow me.”

They disappeared.

A moment later we were ushered in and served tea by the Marilyn with her lips sewn shut. The walls were decorated with napkins stating, “What I love about my body is…” The one that caught my attention read, “My scars.”

The Marilyn with her lips sewn shut, played by Sara Schwartz, led us in a toast. She placed the tea cup to her mouth and the water poured down her dress and he fell to her knees crying.

The audience laughed.

“It’s all right, honey,” one woman chuckled as the Marilyn-with-sewn-lips moaned.

Night Light Collective, the performance team, deserved a better audiences. I have so very rarely been so disgusted with my fellow spectators. Throughout the rest of the play, which was sort of like walking naked through a hail storm, the audience just didn’t seem to “get it” or approach the subject matter with the appropriate gravity.

When I wanted to scream at that audience woman for having the sensitivity of a Monopoly board, I knew that the rest of the play was going to be phenomenal.

Marilyn: A Play About Our Bodies was one of my favorite theatrical experiences ever. The magnitude of the craftsmanship, from the set design, to the choreography, to the poetry, was staggering. I felt like I was trapped in a tiny, schizophrenic, alcoholic, emotionally torn universe for an hour. By the end, I felt brutalized and dazed, which is exactly what good theatre should do.

I won’t go into great detail about the play since this is a review, not a story. But I’m a bad reviewer and so I have to apologize for the spoilers. Rest assured, there are plenty more surprises.

So, a few brush strokes.

Marilyn is, obviously, about Marilyn Monroe, the iconic fifties actress. The play’s name states one of the play’s central themes: obsession with body image and the sado-masochism of sexuality in American pop culture. But it was more than that. The pay was preoccupied with passion that kills and a vicious cycle of flesh becoming symbol becoming flesh again.

If there was a plot, I think I missed it. I was too fixated on the visceral assault of sound and acting. This is one drawback to this style of intimate theatre. I’m so overwhelmed by sensory input that I can’t appreciate the language. I feel cheated that I left with a complicated, deep uneasiness but no memory of the poetry except the in the most general terms.

A few years ago, a playwright told me that he divides plays into two simple categories: the ones that work and the ones that don’t. Marilyn worked.

I think that most people, male and female, are at war with their own bodies. Marilyn succeeds in speaking to that feeling. The central actress and writer spends most of the play convulsing about her abdomen, sometimes in pain, sometimes in nausea, sometimes in pleasure. It was a reminder that the great Marilyn Monroe, the Icon, was made of skin and blood, too.

But for this one it was a reminder that we’re all meat, that the body is sacred, and that we all ought to show ourselves mercy.

If you’re in New Orleans, or elsewhere and see NightLight Collective doing a performance, go see the show. And be on your best behavior. They deserve a good audience.