Six Sentences Prompt

I was given the prompt to write a story in six sentences or less. Here is my attempt.

The girl grew up on the “west” side of town. The average middle-class white kid either thought he was the reincarnation of Jack Kerouac or a bullet-addled thug; his parents thought themselves the only people who had ever had to deal with a stupid child. The farmboys really were farmboys, chewing and spitting into the Mountain Dew bottle with one hand while swigging a Bud with the other. No one was really quite sure how they drove their Ford F-150s with bottles in both their hands. The hipsters and the thugs looked past the farmboys and liked to pretend they lived in the inner city—with coffee houses on corners and gunfights in alleys and all that shit that people think happens in the middle of a city. The girl worked at the library and watched the crazy homeless man shuffle past every day, wondering if this weren’t the inner city after all.

Story of the Week #1 — “6.5” by Ian Murphy

I want this blog/website/whatchyacallit to be a place of discourse, of conversations about good writing. The best way I know to start a conversation about good writing is to read good writing, and so I have decided to scour the Internet once a week for well-written, visceral, free (!) short stories that we can all learn from. Here is the first week’s offering.

The literary magazine A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is a relatively young journal “dedicated to featuring new, emerging, and established writers,” which is a pretty generic mission statement. However generic the description, the work on this website did not disappoint. I discovered this journal a couple weeks ago. Highlighted right now on their “Fiction” page is a story called “6.5” by Ian Murphy. Here is the link:

http://www.lightedplace.com/65.html

What I love about this story is the concise manner in which we are brought into the story, carried through it, and dumped out of it–a reader can feel a whole lifetime of memories and emotions happening in the span of barely a page, even though the events of the story take place over a couple days (maybe). Murphy didn’t use long sweeping passages of prose to reach his point. The umph at the end of the story is poetic, emotional, sympathetic. The sentence “I had never heard of that part of the brain before” still gives me chills.

What do you think about Murphy’s story?

Badlands, by Cynthia Reeves (Warning: Spoilers and a Rant)

I just finished a book that, quite literally, turned me into a sobbing mess for about five long minutes after I had finished it. The tears are still drying on my face and my skin still feels stretched and puffy. I am unsure whether my thoughts can be arranged into anything coherent right now, but here goes the attempt.

The book is called Badlands, and it is authored by Cynthia Reeves. If you don’t like spoilers, go read the book. Right now. I will wait.

Ms. Reeves is this year’s author for what my graduate program calls “Sprint Week,” a week in which a guest professor comes in to instruct the fiction students and conduct daily workshops. In other words, The Week of All Things Writing During Which You Will Probably Cry. This week will take place April 1-5, which is a week away now, so for this Tuesday’s class, we will be discussing her novel in preparation for her visit.

So today, I read it. All of it.

From the beginning I knew it was going to mess with my emotions. It chronicles the final hours of a woman battling cancer and her loving husband’s attempts to make her comfortable and reconcile her death with himself before it’s even happened yet. That’s pretty much what’s on the back cover. So of course I knew it was coming. Story about cancer, last hours . . . okay, she’s going to die at the end. Duh. That knowledge didn’t help me at all.

And it was because of Reeves’ writing that I turned into a baby at the end. She told the story so well, encapsulating so much emotion and so much detail into 200 pages, that even though I couldn’t forget what I knew was going to happen, I couldn’t have possibly been ready for it. She utilizes a time-ignorant style, such that in the middle of the story present the woman, Caro, could be catapulted into a memory or into a dream (it helped that Caro was on quite a bit of morphine at this point). This also happens to Caro’s husband Daniel as he struggles to sleep and then to not sleep in turn, waiting for the inevitable but not wanting to admit that he’s waiting. Using this technique, Reeves takes us through the relationship of Caro and her husband Daniel from the beginning to the end. As such, we learn about the characters and the events that have shaped their lives and personalities.

Through it all runs a current of the past—more specifically, of a Sioux family massacred at the Battle of Wounded Knee. Caro had found the bones of a mother, son, and daughter as an archeology student in the 70’s, and these bones come to life in her fever-dreams as Caro and her own children, now grown. There is a theme of family, of the past, of civilization even. The image of the baby who had continued to nurse on its dead mother recurs frequently. The pages of this book were saturated in sorrow. The tone was so heavy that I texted DR only 16 pages in about how I didn’t know if I could handle 200 pages of it.

Even at page 196, I was telling myself that I could do it. I could get to the end and not cry and just go to bed. And then on 207 of 208, I completely lost it. I still haven’t read the last page. I kind of just threw it from me and held my blanket and sobbed.

But that’s a good thing. Books are supposed to make you feel things. If they didn’t, why would anyone read them?

Well done, Cynthia Reeves. This is the best book I’ve read in a long, long time.

Things I have learned in Tuscaloosa, Alabama

I am abroad—well, in the sense that I am in a place I don’t usually call “home.” My friend from school—my Word Count Friend; I’ll call her DR for short—asked me a couple months ago if I wanted to go home with her during Spring Break. I’m always looking for new places to go and new things to do, so I said yes. So far I’m loving the experience, not because it’s so different from home (it’s not), but because of the people here and the excitement that is the city of Tuscaloosa. I am learning quite a bit, and I thought I’d share some of my new, shiny knowledge.

1. Bama football is everything. Roll Tide.
2. The name “Tuscaloosa” means “Black Warrior.”
3. Sweet tea isn’t a drink; it’s a way of life that involves a little bit of tea and a lot of sugar.
4. If I lived here I would be 800 pounds.
5. It’s amazing that DR’s not 800 pounds.
6. The phrase “Roll Tide” works in every situation.
7. Sometimes, three-year-olds put butter on cats.
8. Sometimes, those three-year-olds grow up to be seven-year-olds who mistake the family cat for a burglar and tell the elderly neighbors to “get their guns.”
9. There are not hoedowns on every corner, as some people assume.
10. DR was not exaggerating when she stressed how much football is the mayor, the president, and the subcommittee of this town.
11.Brittany Spaniels are very energetic and will cover you in saliva every chance they get.
12. Cats can have personality disorders.
13. Driving in Tuscaloosa is like participating in a NASCAR race.
14. Paul “Bear” Bryant could have been the king of Tuscaloosa and he wouldn’t have been more well-loved.
15. The local meteorologist is an Emmy-winning celebrity and has his own Wikipedia page. It’s amazing how much these people talk about James Spann.
16. A spoonful of sugar will cure the hiccups.
17. Clifford exists!
18. The University of Alabama has more than fifteen stoplights and there is a whole building just for English studies (and DR loves the fact that I’m fascinated by this).
19. You could fit a herd of elephants in DR’s high school (haha—get it?), and that one “was small.”
20. Shot glasses are called “toothpick holders” by the people in university merchandise stores, because Alabama is “no longer a party school.”
21. I may or may not have a life twin from Tuscaloosa.
22. “Fantasy is The Doctor of literature: the alien that turns out to be the most human of all.” – DR
23. Family drama is everywhere.
24. Family photos are the same everywhere you go: fond memories and cute babies doing silly, cute things; nostalgia, sometimes painful; love for the past and hope for the future.
25. The people here talk to you like they’ve known you all their lives. DR’s parents welcomed me into the fold just as though I was one of their own children. I found myself wanting to tell them my whole life story.
26. These people would give you the shirts off their backs if you asked, and probably even if you didn’t. DR’s mom gave me a pair of fuzzy socks to wear at night in case I got cold.
27. Time stamps come in terms of “before The Tornado” and “after The Tornado.”
28. After The Tornado, tornadoes come up in every conversation, even ones about dogs and gardening.
29. Even giant florescent cacti instigate talk about tornadoes. “We’re coming back!”
30. The Tornado is a theoretical lens that cannot be removed from the gazes of the people of Tuscaloosa, but they have bounced back and are some of the most resilient people I have ever met.

31. Roll Tide

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Words are hard, mmmkay? — Thoughts about productivity

Lately I’ve been feeling quite productive as far as writing goes. I hit 34k in my current manuscript, I have been submitting short fiction (which means I’ve been writing short fiction), and I squeezed out a poem or two in the last few weeks. What’s my secret, you ask? No secret, really. A graduate program intent on filling my whole life with school things, and the need to make money–they both fuel my obnoxious need to procrastinate. Procrastination often turns into writing, but that’s not necessarily the best route.

This semester, however, many things have been transpiring on the writing front that I can’t completely attribute to the procrastination disease. When the leader of my fiction workshop asked the class to set our writing goals for this semester, on my list was Write more. I’ve always said it and never done it. But so far it’s holding, and there are a couple of things I have to thank for that.

For one, I have been trying to submit more. The simple act of submitting is somewhat of a reward for me–it feels great to finally be able to call myself a “writer,” and getting my work out there is part of that. Beyond that, one of my classmates mentioned that she has herself on more of a concrete reward system: she writes for 15 hours in a week, she buys herself a more expensive bottle of wine. So I tried that too. When I reached 30k in my manuscript, I bought myself some flavored coffee and my if it isn’t fine. Not sure if this system is working yet, but that coffee is good and I have no regrets.

Maybe the thing that has made me the most productive of all is the pact that I made with my good friend. She and I have promised to give each other daily word counts that we must reach–or else shame and other terrible things ensue. And you know what? It’s working. I have cranked out 4k on said manuscript in just the last week–and lemme tell you, that’s saying a lot. I’m a notoriously slow writer. I like to think (and procrastinate) about what I’m putting to the page. Two days ago, I actually sat down and plotted out the rest of the book, which is something I’ve needed to do for over a year now. I’m thinking this buddy-system technique may be working a little better than my coffee trick.

I’m definitely pumped about getting more words on the page. The more I write now, the more I can revise later, and the better chance I have of getting my work into print.

How do you remain productive? Are there specific techniques that you use when you write?

What does my writing sound like?

Someone asked me once what kind of music I listen to while I write. I was rather at a loss for words. It’s not that I don’t know what kind of music I find in my earbuds on a consistent basis. It’s that I didn’t know how this person would react when I said that Panic! at the Disco has been my go-to for some time.

I’ve just returned from a poetry and fiction reading organized by the folks from my graduate program, and on the way home, I (of course) plugged my iPhone into the car. As I drove, I listened, and it got me thinking about music—about the way we listen to it, about the way it affects us.

My initial reluctance to tell this person what, exactly, I listen to while I write may stem from a number of things. There’s the stigma that great writing should be done to orchestral masterpieces. And there’s the fact that Panic! may not be the first thing people thing of when they think of literary genius (I, however, beg to differ, but that is another post for another day).

Looking back on it now, I say all of the worrying that I did in developing my answer is bullshit. Because here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what kind of music you listen to. It could be showtunes or techno remixes. It just has to make you feel something while the notes are in your ears and reverberating in your chest.

I know people who listen to orchestral soundtracks. I know people who listen to soothing ballads. I for a fact know a very talented poet that (I’m pretty sure) listens to dirty rap music while he writes.

I listen to Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco when I write, because some of their songs make me want to crawl inside the song and just live and breathe it until the end of days. Namely, “Time to Dance,”(Panic!) “Sugar, We’re Going Down” (FOB), and “From Now On We’re Enemies” (FOB). There was a short period where the only song I listened to when I had a pencil in hand was Breaking Benjamin’s “Diary of Jane.”

So if you asked me what my writing sounds like, I would probably just laugh. Because some of these songs—the words, the beats, the singer’s voice—make my chest ache. That ache is integral to me, to my words, to my own voice that comes out as I put pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard.

And if you asked me what I would recommend that you listen to while you write, I would say find a song, an artist, a genre that you can feel in the pit of your stomach. When you find it and you don’t want to turn it off, that’s when you know.

What do you listen to while you write? Let me know in the comments! Maybe we can share artists and make new writing playlists. :)

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Step out into the world of time and risk and loss again. Move forward, into the empty plane. Find the book you wrote, and read it until the end, but don’t turn the last page yet, keep stalling, see how long you can keep expanding the infinitely expandable moment. Enjoy the elastic present, which can accommodate as little or as much as you want to put in there. Stretch it out, live inside of it.

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Love and Honor

At the school where I take graduate classes, Miami University, there is a seal at the exact center of campus. The rumor is that if you step on it, you’ll fail all your exams. Well, I find this a lot of nonsense, so my brain immediately went to ways that I could poke fun at it, and this story happened. Enjoy!

“Love and Honor”

At the very center of campus, where all paths meet and diverge, is a great circular seal in the cement. It must have once been shiny and bronze, but now it is weathered and green from oxidation the years have deposited. No one was ever really quite sure what is was supposed to “seal,” but it has been there as long as the university has been open, nearly two hundred years. Now, no one remembers that there was ever any question about what it “seals”—only the certainty remains that one should not step on the green iron surface, for no reason, not ever.

~~~

“Don’t step on that! You’ll fail all your exams!”

Aaron stopped, foot poised to fall on the seal. He hurriedly retracted his leg, his toe brushing the surface in his haste. He looked around for the person who had yelled. The center of campus, where all sidewalks met and crossed over the seal, was full of people scurrying to their next class or meeting. Despite the high volume of traffic, the circular symbol remained untouched by human feet. Whoever had shouted at him had apparently been absorbed by the throng.

He shrugged to himself and skirted the seal, hoisting his bag further up his shoulder. He wasn’t superstitious, but it couldn’t hurt. He could use all the help he could get to pass his first semester of classes. This school was old and weird, what with the spooky trees in the middle of campus and the ancient, technology-deficient buildings.

Just as he turned his back on the area where the paths met, he felt a rumble in the ground beneath him. It climbed through his heels and up the backs of his legs. He stopped and twisted to look behind him. Nothing, just people. He started to turn back around, but he felt it again, and this time it was accompanied by a noise—like a great iron gate creaking heavily open. The sound seemed to come from the seal.
No one else seemed to have heard the noise or felt the tremors. They all just kept on their ways, most looking down at their feet as they walked. Aaron approached, looking for the source of the sound. Miami University, 1807 Love and Honor was engraved on the jade green surface. He recognized the school’s motto. There were other letters below the engraving, but Aaron didn’t even recognize the alphabet, let alone the language.

The noise again. Louder this time. Still no one stopped or even looked at him.

I’m going to be late for class.

He turned, but out of the corner of his eye the seal suddenly slid under the earth, like the sliding doors at Kroger retracting into the walls. He opened his mouth to gasp and yell, but before he could get any words out, something struck him in the back of the head, and painful darkness latched onto him. Just before he fell unconscious, he thought he glimpsed huge brown tentacles reaching from the entrance to the underworld.

~~~

One hundred years later, a man arrived on campus. The trees were gone now, scattered as driftwood by storms in the intervening years. It was still a school, but not many students could be found inside its walls. The buildings, even older and more decrepit, squatted in solemn vigil around the seal, where the man immediately headed. He carried a folder labeled Miami Incidents under his arm.

The man was a historical linguist. He studied all the languages of the old world, real and fantastical. He took one look at the seal and the woods beneath the engraving, and he couldn’t help but laugh.

“Feed me freshmen,” he muttered. It was a rough translation, but appropriate, concerning the contents of the folder. “It’s a good thing I graduated college thirty years ago.”

Wherein I welcome you to my blog . . .

Hello everyone! This is my first go at WordPress, and I am enjoying myself so far. There’s just so much I can do with it! I tried Tumblr for a while but it was not functioning the way I need a blog to function, and so here I am.

My main focus with this blog will be to amuse and entertain readers, but I also want to focus on putting myself out there as a writer. There will be novel excerpts, short story excerpts, and, on occasion, poetry. There may also be advice entries, or rants on how I’m feeling that day. Basically I just want to bother you with my words as much as possible, and this handy site allows me to do so.

I will probably migrate some of the posts from Tumblr, so if you have seen it before, I promise there will be new things on the horizon!

Enjoy!

-EJ