All hat, no story

I have this dream of writing a western.

Not really – you know, a whole novel (because hell if I can finsih anything anymore). BUt at least a short story.

In concept, it makes complete sense. My fiction is all tough-guy, man of action, violence, loneliness, and heartbreak. Bikers, cowboiys, private eyes; noir of the old west.

I have it in me, because – well, I can fucking write.

The trouble I’m having though – aside from the never having a fucking minute to myself problem – is that I just can’t find the form. I can’t quite internalize what a western really is, what it should be. I’ve attempted Loius L’amour, larry McMurtry, Zane Gray, Jack Schaefer, Cormac McCarthy. It’s not that I don’t like them – some, anyway. But it’s that I can’t find that onw voice that resonates enough to do it myself.

With Noir and hard-boiled crime fiction, i have it; I’ve read enough Dashiell Hammett, enough Raymon Chandler, enough Ross Macdonald and Dennis Lehane and John MAcDonald, enough James M. Cain and Elmore Leonard. I get it; I speak it. I can write it.

But the western isn’t resonating with me yet; I’m not hearing it in my head.

I’m currently reading Hondo by Loius L’amour. I have a real weakness for Loius L’amour, because my grandfather used to read him, and I’d find the paperbacks around our house, and pick ’em up and read. I like L’amour’s masculine, strong prose. But I struggle with the cliches, the tendancy to tell us over and over, that Our Hero is A Hero; repeated referneces to strength, hardness, squinty eyes.

It’s not my prose, as a reader, or as a writer.

Maybe it’s the mode problem; I am always most comfortable working in first person, and I’ve yet to read a western that’s not third-person. Maybe I can’t find the voice to narrate in the voice of an 1870’s westerner. Sure, I can get around it; I could narrate as the side-kick, or push myself to write third person; but perhaps I just can’t hear the narrative because I have yet to read any in that mode.

I tought myself to write by reading; I have an ear for narrative and dialog, and know when something sounds right; when it’s clean and sharp, when it’s awkward. I know it by feel, not because I learned the rules and follow them. Rules and I have an uneasy relationship. So I need a model, a sound, a structure. Not to follow, but to measure against – Does This Sound Wrong.

So my search continues. Maybe the form is more appealing in concept than in fact; maybe, really, I just do not love the western. But in my head there’s a rough, damaged man in faded denim and worn-down boots; a man who’s fraught and lost, who’s running from his past, or himself. A man who’s got a last battle to fight, before he goes down and dies in the dust, or finds himself in the wild lands and the struggle for some greater good.

I have a character, I can see him. I just have to find a story and a voice.

 

 

That’s how it starts.

It’s been a long time wince I’ve really WRITTEN something.

 

Not some cute pics of my kids, or pix of how sexy I am with muscles and scary facial hair, or arty photos of some rock or rusty tractor.

 

I mean actually write.

 

I used to write about politics – about how much I fucking hate our system, and the people in it; about how I wind up having to vote for a guy I think is a wimp, becauise my other option is a member of the freakiest cult in the world, untel scientology showed up, and a man utterly without moral compass or any sense of personal honor. I just to make that sort of a screed entertaining. And sometimes good. Now, I don’t even make it.

I also used to write stories –  some true, some false, most someplace in between; ambiguity leads to better fioction. I used to fucking teach people how to write, because dammit, I was good.

Now? It’s not that I’m not good ; it’s that I’m just not. This shit here isn’t writing, it’s ambien-fueled thrashing, posing in the vague forms, assuming the shapes, but not actually producing anything.

As I type this, small, hairy spiders bigin to creep over my keyboard. I like ambien.

What I mean to say isn’t just to bitch about my failures; they’re not real failures. They’re failures to start, rather, not failures to do what I do.

“I know I have a novel in me,” my friend Myles said the other day. And yeah, he does; I can smell it on him like scotch and success. And god dammit, I sure as fuck have a novel – not a; several. But let’s sart one before we visualize the second. I have ideas for a half dozen books, easily; my problem isn’t ideas, or narrative; it’s simple attention span. It’s also simple being awake long enough.

I have to write, to get this going. And the brilliant thing is, no one reads anymore, so I might as well start here.

 

It was a dark and stormy Night…

 

Wait that isn’t right. Maybe something in a wilder vein.

 

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . .”And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

 

Um, wait. That might have been done.

 

I guess I need to do this in my own words.And to be honest, this work is old, but I have not pulled it out and worked on it in years.

Here goes.

 

====

Tires on the highway. The wind in the old tin box of a van I drive. Blood in my veins. Whiskey in my skull. 

Motörhead – Lemmy doing something you might call singing, the crank-drain making his voice just right to tell me about life on the road and jailbait and dirty love and the ace of spades. A story I pretend the tattoos on my arms would also tell you, but it’s the ones on my back that really have a story. 

Roaring. All of it. And I was roaring back.

I was leaving some trouble behind me I guess. Or so I like to think. Really the trouble was over, a thing with a girl, and some tattoos, and some booze and some drugs. And then the girl was gone and I wasn’t, which was the wrong way for it to have ended.

I roared back at Lemmy.

——

Wait there’s more. Lets skip a bit, til after the cops stop him.

——

“Son, I’m startin’ to think you got some problems,” the sherif said. 

I turned my head and looked at him. Wished I still had some sunglasses. “Well. Yeah. You could say that.”

“So I tell you what. You quit dicking me around and tell me something true,  and I won’t haul you off to my jail unless you’re doing something to deserve it.”

I sighed. Told him my name. Told him I was just passing through. He wanted to know where I was headed.

“Fuck if I know. Maybe I’m just – easy rider, y’know?”

He chuckled. “You know how that movie ends, right? Damn though, I liked those choppers.”

I decided right there I wasn’t going to have to kill the sheriff. So that was good.

“So you’re running away then, yeah? So just tell me something. Because I will check on it. Tell me if that thing you’re running away has a cop’s name connected to it, or a warrant.”

It didn’t. The only name I was running away from was tattooed on my back. So that’s what I told him.

“Girl?” he asked.

“Dead girl.” I answered.

 

 

========

 

 

That’s how it starts. And I know how it finishes. And I know there’s a girl – another girl, because this guy, like me, will always, always have another girl. But unlike me, death tends to hover near him, not so you can see, but so, if your nose is sharp, you can maybe smell it a little, after he leaves the bar.

The middle is there the issue is; and not so much because I don’t know what it is, but because I can’t seem to make it exist. Yet.

I will start again. Now. I will write something. Doggeral or drivel, but I’ll write some words, about something that matters. And when I have ten, or twenty, or a thousand words, somehow, I may be writing again.

 

Because my soul dies when I hear others discuss writing like it’s something than can do, just because they go to school. Writing – my writing  – rips itslf of of the fucking soul, because it has to. You don’t teach that, unless you’re some sadistic bastard; you don’t learn it on purpose. You don’t have it at all; you simply ARE that; the question is only, does it go to paper, or is it taken out on flesh.

 

 

 

 

better sir?

I’m trying to recall the last time i wrote anything.

Wow, I can’t.

I sort of want to blame facebook. Just because I hate facebook so much that it seems like a good thing to blame.

My updates are all there, I want to say. And on twitter.

Only it’s not true. I don’t update on facebook, and a barely tweet.

Is it any wonder then, that my friends keep asking me if i’m ok?

My answer: I don’t know.

My yardstick for ‘ok’ is so askew these days, I can only answer in relation to how I was.

Than last week? Yes, much better (I had a cold).

Than last weekend? Yes, a bit, the cortisone shot helped the pain in my shoulder.

Than last month? I can’t fucking remember.

Than six months ago? Yeah, i think so. I think, just maybe, yes.

Than a year ago? Than two, or three?

I can’t remember when I was just ok, with no caveats. Or to be more specific, I remember the times – the short, sweet, perfect moments are crystal clear in my memory, with flavors and scents and sound.

I just can’t remember how long ago that was; it’s too much of a fucking blur.

So I have to reel it in, measure on a closer scale. And that gets really, really hard. Because the context, the perspective, the range and distance are all missing. Dead-reckoning by instinct in the dark, the way you walk through your bedroom in pitch black and know where the door and the bed are, unless you stop and think.

But today? Yeah, ok.

I keep trying to get a breath, though. To get that little bit of distance ahead to start thinking, what do I need to actually be good again? And I can’t see it. Too close in; I’m in the thick of battle, fighting so many small and large fights all the time that I can’t see a battle, let alone know how to win it.

I’m wearing down; I can feel it. I can feel my body aging, and my mind with it. Some tide of battle surges up against me every time I think I’ve almost a some skirmish.

This would be easier if my battle-field metaphor were more true; brute force solves some problems so elegantly.

This is the battle on inches though; of minutes. And I’m losing it in tiny, almost immeasurably small increments. Like when something moves so slow you can’t only see it if you sit utterly still.

I can’t sit still; I can’t see the tiny progress forward or back.

So I need to do something to change the scale. I just don’t know what.

I remember when I used to be a blogger

I remember when I used to be a blogger, rather than a guy who occasionally updates web pages.

It was a long time ago, wasn’t it?

I can’t even find a good way to graph my blogging frequency anymore. I know it used to be daily, and then several weekly, and then once in a while. Lately, it’s more like almost never.

Sometime in 08, I think it was, than the slide started; from there, it just seems like little by little I’ve given up.

I don’t mean on blogging – whatever. I mean on writing.

The last think I wrote that wasn’t just about an experience was two, maybe three years ago, aside from a couple of abortive tries and collaboration on erotica. The last thing I finished was a year or more before that.

I’m so rusty, my fingers don’t even remember how to type anymore (it took me three tries to get the work ‘type’ correct). My hands ache when I try, more from disuse than from anything else. The muscles have forgotten what its’ like to type more than the hundred or so lines I need to update a wiki page or type out a report.

I don’t even remember how I used to do this; I try to remember writing Wanton, and while I remember the feeling, I can’t figure out how I actually did it.

I started this blog – back in the dim, distant past in blog-years – with the express intent of using it to improve my writing. That never worked; or to be more specific, it got me writing something i hadn’t before (introspective essays), but didn’t help me with fiction – because it was a distraction.

Now, though? now, I’m lucky if I manage enough attention span to tweet one thing or to update my facebook status.

I was going to say I don’t know what it is, but that’s not true. I know what it is, I just don’t know what to do about it.

I’ve been in a sate of have to do something for so long now, I can’t quite my brain long enough to put words together with anything like flow.

This was bad enough, just with the ordinary stuff. Work – making the Greatest Smart Phone Ever (and the best tablet you’ve ever seen and didn’t even know you needed) isn’t just a full time job; it’s a lifestyle. We’re a seven day a week shop, and my area is to be the glue that keeps the 24 hrs per day stuff (the compute farm) going. So I’m working even when I’m not working, always aware that nothing holds this together but me. I dream compute farms and CAD tool licenses at night. And then, there’s the part about being the father of two teenager girls, which isn’t ever an easy job, even for very low needs children. Then there’s the rental house, my own house, and all the rest. Life has caught up with me in ways I didn’t quite anticipate; being The Dad to not just two, but four women (including my mother in law) takes it’s toll.

But now – well, that’s a whole ‘nother entry about Mental Health Issues. But that’s another entry, if I ever get to it.

But the bottom line is, finding even half an hour to gather myself and write, these days, is more than I can manage.

I need it. I need to put words to my feelings, to tell stories. And I fucking can’t.

I don’t see an end to this, I truly don’t. I know it has one – I just can’t imagine how or where or when.

And my best tool has deserted me again.

The muse of distraction

My head’s been in a strange place of late.

While my shoulder heals well ahead of schedule, my sleep still falls victim to it’s ache. My normal sleep habits – a mess at the best of times – are now completely fractured.

It’s no secret that I’ve been had hell’s own time writing recently, to the point where I had lost all care or interest in it. But over the last couple of weeks, I’ve begun to feel the return of some faint muse.

Characters are starting to regain their voices. Only, they are doing so in the middle of the night.

Every night this week, when I’m just down far enough into the well of sleep that I can’t drag back out without struggle (or caffeine), I start thinking of things I need to write. Characters, stories, themes, settings.

I actually got up one night over the weekend, with this piece of dialog in my head:


“Where’d this come from,” she asked me, running a finger over the faintly puckered skin above my right ear.

The scar itself was numb, but the skin around it was oddly sensitive. It tingled when she traced it’s jagged outline.

“Walked into a door,” I said.

She stroked my scalp, the day and a half of stubble making a faint scraping sound.

“I like it,” she said.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough. I could visualize the woman – her short, stylishly cut hair in some perfect honey shade, her mellow voice, her skin tan and just beginning to show her fourty years. I knew the narrator; a sort of stock character out of my head – big, road-worn, a bit taciturn, and with dark secrets in his past. I knew how they wound up together, and where they were (her bed, with late afternoon sun through expensive curtains, fading light on sex-tossed covers the color of caramel. I had her entire house in my head, her colors, her expensive, understated taste. I even knew what car was parked (somewhat crookedly, like she’d been in a hurry) in the carport beside her house.

I knew the conversation, up until he opens his mouth, pauses, and then begins to tell her his story. And then it ran out. I didn’t know what the story was. Or to be more specific, while I knew what story he’d tell her, I didn’t know what THIS story was, that I was telling.

I wrote it down, and saved it. A small victory; the first bit of fiction that’s gotten all the way out of my head and onto (virtual) paper in more months than I can remember.

But it’s been that way every night. Last night, a pair of characters wandered into my head and tried to talk to me. A female young traveler, and the mate of some craft, making a lonely traverse. I don’t know if this was a ship crossing bodies of water, or some spaceship crossing unimaginable gulfs, or an airship in some steampunk past-future. But I could hear her voice, and hear him tell her how everyone else on the ship slept, his low rank leaving him on the bridge.

They never got to the point where it became a story; just a setting, faces, emotions (pride, loneliness) and an physical environment of cold and isolation.

Today, I tried to write a bit of that down, but I had nothing. I couldn’t summon the scene, merely it’s description. Like all the veins of creativity I’ve encountered between sleep and wake, it was small, and not found again once lost.

Inspiration, for me, is profoundly elusive. I have never found a way to turn it on, and so often find it slipping. The muse of distraction speaks more loudly, always, than that of creation. But at least I begin to hear those whispers. I’ve missed the voice of creative inspiration.

those who can’t, teach

One of the things that tells you how well you know a thing, is to teach that thing.

I didn’t really ever learn how to write, not in a classroom sense. Oh, I’ve taken english classes, but writing was something that sort of happened to me, not something I actually planned to do.

I learned it by doing it; by reading relentlessly, and by writing and re-writing until I liked what I read.

There are things I don’t get; don’t ask me about grammar, or to diagram a sentence. I still get hung up playing Mad Libs when asked for an adverb. I’m like a musician who learned by ear, and can play any chord he hears, but has no idea what a Dmaj7 or a Bm7 other than knowing how it sounds.

I write by ear, in effect; I know how it should sound, and how it shouldn’t.

I’ve developed skills in various areas – fiction, primarily, and what’s called the ‘causal essay’ (ie, blogging). BUt what I know, and what I don’t know, has always really been a non-issue for me. I don’t think about it, I just do it.

It never occurred to me that I actually know enough about this to teach it.

Cleared to resume

I kind of want to write something erotic and edgy, full of nameless back-alley couplings, violent, passionate encounters, or stolen moments in dark smokey bars.

Unfortunately, I keep getting disrupted by things like severe lack of sleep the last four weeks.

Supposedly, I’m still healing incredibly well; my doctor cleared me today to start working out (slowly), and to resume normal activity. Not that I have any idea what normal means, but I’ll assume that means I can ride a motorcycle or put full weight on my knuckles now (both things I’ve been generally avoiding for a while).

However, I have no patience with weakness or discomfort. The fact that it still aches at night may be ‘normal’, but it’s drivin’ me up the wall, and completely interfering with my sleep. I want to attack things, and the lack of sleep is leaving my generally ineffective and groggy (and pretty severely grumpy as well).

Next week I start physical therapy, which should hurt, but in more of a good way. I’m hoping the aches of activity will be far preferable to the aches of inactivity (ie, I’d rather have it hurt for a good reason, if it’s gonna hurt).

I keep trying to actually get writing done (with ‘done’ being relative, since I haven’t been able FINISH anything in forever), so possibly, possibly, I’ll get traction here soon.

I still smell like you (in progress)

A short story in progress. This is as far as I am, and now I’m at that point where I have to choose between endings before I go on; the complicated one that’ll turn this into a novella, or the easy one that’ll leave it a reasonable length.

*shrug*

I’ve done a first pass edit to fix typos and made minor re-writes, but it’s still raw.


Read more “I still smell like you (in progress)”

I don’t belive in writer’s block, Neil Gaiman said

“I don’t belive in writer’s block”, Neil Gaiman said. “I belive that what writers get, is ‘stuck’.”

“Writers, you see, are very good at convincing people of things. What that means is that when they get stuck, they prefer something grand and dramatic; ‘I have writers block‘ sounds very much better that ‘I’m stuck’.”

The quote above – mis-quote actually, because I’m quoting from memory and can’t possibly have gotten it right – was something Neil said at a reading last year in Palo Alto. And it got a huge laugh, I think more from the writers in the crowd than anyone else. Because writers know how true the statement is, that we’re very good at convincing people of things.

However, I don’t agree with him about the block.

It’s very glib, for example, for musicians to assert that it’s easy to play an instrument. It’s easy for those annoying people with perfect pitch to tune a guitar. That’s because they happen to have been born with a gift, which they then developed So, sure, it’s effortless for them.

The thing, though, is that not everyone has that pitch. Some have to work very long and very hard to develop it. I can, barely, and with a great deal of work, get a guitar vaguely close to ‘in tune’. That’s taken years, and a lot of practice at detecting differences in pitch. I had to teach my brain to sort of what my ear couldn’t.

Some people are born storytellers. They drop out of the womb screaming, and from that moment, the language needs to get out. Gaiman is one such; he bleeds stories. He has more ideas that any three normal writers, and can’t stop having ideas. He had to become a writer, because what else, in these days, can someone like that do? It was either than or be the guy at the end of the bar who, for the cost of a pint, will tell you his and anyone else’s life stories.

Some of us learned this craft the hard way. And it never, ever comes easy. Tobias Wolf, in a talk he gave in Menlo Park, remarked how he envied those writers for who ‘the story just writes itself’. Because, he said, not a single word he ever wrote came easy. He sweated and worked over every syllable.

For me, this is something that comes only when my brain goes into a sort of linguistic overdrive, and when I can then direct that into typed characters on a screen. Usually, I can’t. When the inspiration comes, as often as not, I have no way to stop and put it down, or lack the focus to retain an idea for more than moments. Sitting down to write is almost never productive; ideas rarely flow.

Part of this, certainly, is simple discipline; I can’t seem to find a way to sit down every day and type. If I did, the routine would help, lubricating the creative mind by making the simple act of typing coherent paragraphs routine. By decoupling the physical act of writing from the creation itself, I’d find less inertia in beginning.

So is this writer’s block? Or is this just a bad habit; is this just a time management issue?

I’d argue with Neil; if he sits down and stares at a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter and feels defeated, feels his mind drain as empty as that white sheet, that’s The Block. Neil’s talking about that moment in a story – and any writer has been there – when you say, crap, what happens now? how do I get from point A to point C? What’s my B? And I’ve been there; when I was writing the last section of Wanton, I hit a hard wall in the last scene. I couldn’t get the characters from ‘hello’ to ‘goodbye’. That story was a runaway freight train for me before that point; I knew at every step what was happening next. But I found myself up a tree with no way down. I (metaphorically) tore my hair, called myself a hack, wanted to throw my computer through a window (which isn’t easy with a sparcstation). I walked away. And then I came back, threw away my re-writes, got out my first draft, and found the hinge point where the wall came in. I backed up a paragraph or two, and started over. And it came together as well as anything I’ve ever written.

Stuck isn’t the same, though, as block. Because stuck can be solved by simply back-tracking or re-thinking (and I say ‘simple’ as if it were easy; it’s not easy). Block is different. Stuck means you don’t have quite the right tool, or can’t choose between several. Blocked, though, means you have no tools. None at all.

That’s how it feels to be profoundly blocked; you open your writer’s toolkit and find nothing but dust, spider nests and the detritus of scorched and broken adjectives. You find no theme, no allegory, not even well-worn plot device. And no matter how many times you open that box, you continue to find nothing.

It’s a profoundly frustrating feeling. As if you’d misplaced something, and can’t for all your brain wracking and pacing and retracing of steps, recall where it is.

That is the feeling I’ve had for many, many months; paths well worn back to that empty toolbox, and almost always, finding nothing.

There’s no single solution to the problem. Today, I solved it by sitting in my car by an empty suburban park, someplace where I found no internet connection. I solved it by playing music down low, turning off my phone, and beginning by using someone else’s words to build momentum.

And yet I’ve said nothing; still, it’s better than saying nothing silently.