Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Writing in Books

Every piece of advice I've ever received or read or heard about writing has included finding a time every day to write and letting that be your creative outlet time. I'm a night owl so I usually get ideas to write epic sonnets around 1 am, but I force myself to just watch The Nanny reruns until I fall asleep to the lulling sound of Fran Drescher...? I know it would be productive to wake up early and write for a bit before going to school or work, but the last time I tried to "get up early" I woke up 4 hours late, so I am afraid to try. That leaves evening (sorry, prime TV watching time) or lunch breaks (sorry, prime surfing-the-internet-for-no-reason time). So that REALLY leaves writing at work. (Hi boss, I hope you read this.)

(This has a better point, I swear.)

I took a "Writing Literary Criticism" class this semester because it was required, but it actually turned out to be the most awesome writing class ever. Not in a creative way, but I really learned how to write good academic papers and I loved my teacher so it wasn't a horrible experience. Plus, there was one cute, unmarried guy in the class, who was also in my league, whom I talked to twice. (Hi John, I hope you read this.)

On the day of the final, we turned in the big, final, research paper and took an exit survey (WITH A PENCIL!) One question asked me if I read my textbooks via an e-book, and I said no. The next question asked me how I annotated my books, with answer options like "sticky notes" "margin questions" "reading journal" "highlighter" etc. Cue insecurity.

This might be an odd thing to be insecure about, but as a bibliophile who doesn't write ANYTHING in books, I get a lot of grief about it, which is why I usually just don't say anything. I wish I was hip enough to keep a pencil tucked behind my ear, and while I'm eating an egg salad sandwich in my Buddy Holly glasses, my peasant tunic, and my skinny jeans, I could whip that pencil out and write an exclamation or question in the margin of my favorite book. There are a handful of literary people that I really admire (like, people I actually know) that are always talking about comments they've left in novels and textbooks and then look expectantly at me while I laugh and choke on my own saliva. I desperately wish I could write in books.

But I can't. I physically cannot bring myself to do it. And I'm writing this for all the non-marginers (?) out there who need a voice in these troubled times. People tell me they write in books because they love them so much. I buy that. But conversely, they must believe me when I say I don't write in book because I love them so much. One of the top five feelings in the world: opening the crisp pages of a new book. And oy, the smell, the smell. Top book smell: what gloss/ink/whatever they use for National Geographic. But even still, any new book smell is akin to cocaine to me. I just got Bossypants in the mail (loved it, if you don't mind the swears then I recommend you read it for sheer hilarity) and cracking that sucker open was like getting one almighty satisfying crack at the pinata at your 3rd grade frenemy's birthday party. You know, the one hit that actually busts the thing open and kids crowd you like the Aztec god you are, for delivering their only necessary sustenance - candy.

I work so hard at keeping books in pristine condition. I could teach "Paperbacks and Packing Your Backpack" as a class. I check every used book at the bookstore when buying new textbooks to make sure I get the nicest book for the used price. It's hard to keep re-reading books and every time come to it with a fresh pair of eyes, but fresh pages certainly help. This isn't a knock to any margin writers reading this. I wish I had your love of life, but unfortunately I do not.

I went to the University of Utah a month ago to hear Michael Ondaatje speak and someone asked him how he finds new ideas from books he's reading. He just kind of shrugged and said something like (gotta paraphrase, didn't write it down): "I read to read, to get lost in the book for pure pleasure." Again, I always get defensive when even for texts for class, my peers talk about the layering they found within the book after their first read-through and I'm stuck saying something similar to "It just sounded so beautiful . . ." and then choking on my own saliva. But Michael, he backed me up. I read to read and enjoy and not write in the margins or bend pages or fold back covers. I read to get lost and forget what a pencil is. I read because it makes me sleepy and the feeling of closing a book, dropping it next to your bed and slowly closing your eyes while you sink into your pillow is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.


Well, since it doesn't seem like my last post took that well, let's try this one, only 450 words! This was the final for my fiction class. The parameters were:
  • The story must be exactly 450 words.
  • The title must be "Roustabout."
  • Somewhere in the story must be the words: weather vane, tether, pelican, and marionette.
  • A character must die by an act of God (insurance company definition).
  • The first four words and the last four words must be "It was so cold."
I thought it was really fun to write, I think this didn't come out ... terribly, although expanding it would definitely make it better. We had to read them in front of the class during our potluck final and even though I never shut up in that class and I usually am making everyone laugh, I was shaking while reading this.

Disclaimer for all future and past short stories: just because it's in first person doesn't mean it's about me. It might come as a shock to some of you, but I am not a deckhand, my father did not beat me as a child, and did not die by a flood.

It was so cold that it seemed like the waves that were pounding the deck should be frozen. I’d never been in a storm this bad, or this cold. I tried not to think in comparisons though; I just kept hammering ice off the deck of the boat because hey, at least I had a job. I didn’t know how to do much, except work hard and do what I was told. As a kid, I knew I could adhere to those principles or feel my dad’s backhand across my face, so I listened and learned.

A well-meaning shrink tried to talk to me once about my dad and his parenting methods but I thought, why dig up the past? Yeah, he kicked the crap out of me, but I ran away to the shipyards at 14, and the man’s dead. Like the rest of us, my dad was just another marionette in the narrative run by cheap whiskey and a pitiful paycheck. That shrink should’ve asked what my mom did to him by leaving and what his job did to him by being a dead end. And honestly, there was some poetic justice in him being drowned by an undiscerning current in a flood. Maybe it was sick to be satisfied by that, but I think justice was served.

At dawn, I was relieved for a little bit to catch some sleep. The ship was rocking so badly, I tethered myself to the bunk so I could sleep without fear of rolling out of bed. Worse than the rocking, I could feel the ship veering every which way, like a giant weathervane, victim to the storm’s fickle wind. This was the worst storm I could ever remember being in. I wondered if this might be the last storm, the last job, the last memory of my life.

One time I was sitting on deck, a few years back, and this pelican, just out of nowhere, up and landed on the bow of the boat. It road with us all the way from south to north and never moved once. There was a heavy rain that trip too. We thought the bird was brain dead or something, tried to go out and help it, bring it under the cover just so it wouldn’t freeze to the railing but it started pecking at us if we got too close. I stayed up all night, watching over it. I don’t know what the hell I thought I could do, the bird didn’t care about me at all. I guess I felt like this bird was probably running somewhere too, and it was as tired as I was, because it was so cold.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Don't let the title alarm you, although that is the title of my short story. Don't worry, it's not graphic, but someone does die. Don't worry it's super long, and . . . I have nothing else to say about that, I'm just sorry. But read it, it's not horrendous! This is the revision of my final workshop piece for my fiction class.

Kyle was so bored, he thought he was going to die. Sitting on the steps of the faded red, wooden porch in front of his house, he watched the elderly neighbor across the street swear at the plants in his garden box for not blooming faster. The sky was clear and cerulean, there was a light breeze. And yet, Kyle was dissatisfied.

He had tried every argument he could find on Google about why he needed a dog. He was an only child, he was a teenager with few friends, he didn't get much exercise, he needed more responsibility to mature him into a responsible adult, this was suburban America and everyone had a dog, and the list went on. Neither of his parents seemed convinced that he would really be the one taking care of the dog, instead of them. During the first month or so, he had been relentless but now that time had passed, he didn't hold out hope for his parents to change their minds. However, on days like today, when he wished he had any sort of companion to walk a mile or so to the neighborhood lake with (four or two legged), his dream of owning a dog was alive and well.

That’s not to say Kyle didn’t have any friends. There were a few neighbor boys that periodically tried to include him in their activities. He guessed it was at their mothers’ behest but didn’t complain on the occasions they did invite him to play video games with them or ride bikes. They all had varying degrees of elite social status at school and then there was Kyle. Bryan practiced basketball with the high school team because he was so tall. Trevor was the only kid who climbed onto the cafeteria roof without getting caught or getting scared. Josh could distract teachers long enough in class to make them forget to collect homework from the night before, and everyone loved him for it. Chris had already made out with a few girls at school. Kyle was pretty smart and kind of funny, but didn’t stand out much from the other orchestra kids and track athletes.

The one thing about Kyle was that he didn't have the skin of most teenage boys – that is to say, thick. When the guys teased him for being slower than the rest of them while bike riding on his second hand, blue and purple single-speed Huffy, or getting repeatedly killed in Halo, he took it personally. He could laugh it off for a little while, but after too much mocking, he would make an excuse for why he needed to go home, or to the bathroom, so he could shed a tear or two in private and berate himself for being so sensitive. He assumed if he had a dog, the other guys would be more interested in being his friend instead of using him as an easy target. And even if that pipe dream didn't turn out, at least he’d have one friend on his side no matter what.

Because the neighborhood gang didn’t come around too often, his parents were worried about him. Moving to another state is never easy for a kid, especially when the kid just turned 13. They thought the dog might actually be a good idea, but their worries weren’t just lines to stall their son, they were real concerns. A puppy needed lots of attention, and that would all be on this 13 year old. He’d always done well in school and been a good kid, but it was just a big step.

On that perfect spring day, amid the curses of the irate gardener wafting across the asphalt road, Kyle imagined what he would be doing with his dog, if he had one. Walking him, playing Frisbee, swimming together, reading…well, Kyle would be reading, using the dog as a pillow, and the dog would be dozing, enjoying the company of his master. As he got lost again in his doggy day dream, his father’s forest green SUV pulled into the driveway. Without really looking at him, Kyle offered a lazy hello as he stared at the sort-of-green-but-mostly-yellow crab crass littering the front yard, wondering if a dog would be bothered such a shoddy yard or if he would just be happy to be with Kyle.

“Son, I need some help unloading some stuff from the car.”

Kyle walked to the car and opened the back door. Staring him in the face, was a black, Great Dane puppy.


Kyle was so worried, he thought he was going to die. Once again, Scotch had dug a hole in the back yard and once again, Kyle knew his parents would be furious.

After everyone’s initial excitement about Scotch’s arrival, that worry-free day a few short months ago, certain family member’s enthusiasm had dramatically waned. For example, Kyle’s mother had replaced many couch cushions and rugs after a combination of chewing and bathroom accidents. Kyle’s dad had bought a lot of sod and had replaced a lot of lawn tools and lawn furniture. Thankfully, the landlord hadn't been over in a while. Despite it all, Kyle was still on cloud nine.

In moments like this, when he saw dirt flung across the yard and what looked to be the chewed off handle of yet another garden rake in the new hole, he didn't stop loving his dog, but he did worry about him. Threats had already started about where Scotch would end up if Kyle couldn't keep better tabs on him. He had tried every training method every book described in the local library, but nothing seemed to calm the dog down. Lots of exercise and PetSmart obedience classes didn’t help either. Kyle’s parents were incredulous that the dog was untamable and that Kyle still tried so hard. He had been bit, drug, dirtied, and knocked down and through it all, he always had a smile on his face. His books had been eaten, he shoes had been chewed through, his bed had been used as a toilet, and still he didn't give up on his dog. It was getting to the point that his parents were trying to intervene on Kyle’s behalf and take Scotch to a shelter. He wouldn't stand for it. The end result had been if Scotch messes up Kyle’s belongings, that was Kyle’s problems but if Scotch continued to ruin furniture, landscape, and parental belongings, he was going to the pound.

Almost worse than Scotch’s reign of destruction, was his complete disdain for his master. Kyle still gave him treats and top-of-the-line chew toys, but he refused to indulge Kyle. He wouldn't let Kyle give him belly rubs, he dragged Kyle along when he got put on a leash, and Kyle’s ultimate dream of resting his head on his dog, while they both lounged in the sun, dog dozing and boy reading, was never possible with Scotch. Sometimes, when he was feeling particularly down, he wondered whether or not Scotch even wanted to be his dog. His parents and the four pack (as the neighborhood boys called themselves) were always on his case about getting so attached to such a demon animal. No one could see why Kyle loved Scotch so much, and he could never really explain it to them because he wasn't sure himself. The dog didn't really seem to enjoy living where he was and he certainly ruined everything he touched, but . . . he was Kyle’s dog. Kyle wondered if that really counted for anything versus the growing number of strikes against Scotch’s character.

Kyle shook himself from the recollection of Scotch’s misdeeds and corralled the animal in one corner of the fenced backyard (Scotch was always trying to escape, so the fence had been a new investment). After getting the leash on him after only being knocked down twice, Kyle tied the other end of the leash to the back porch and went to work filling the hole back up with dirt from the flower beds. When he was finished, the August sun had turned the back of his neck pink, and sweat was dripping into his eyes. Scotch was chewing the wood of an already ruined step on the porch, so Kyle ran up the steps past him to take a quick shower, hoping to hide all evidence of Scotch’s crime by the time his parents arrived home.

By the time he got out of the shower, his dad was rifling through the mail in the kitchen, his back turned towards the back yard.

“Hey son, what are you up to?”

“Nothing…just took a shower after I went bike riding.”

“Sounds good. Did your mom say what she was going to make for dinner tonight?”

The conversation progressed as if Kyle’s father had no knowledge of the backyard fiasco. Kyle tried to keep the guilt out of his voice and tried to keep his eyes from darting into the backyard. Shortly, his mom arrived and they even started eating dinner, without discussing Scotch’s latest dig. After dinner, Kyle’s dad suggested s’mores in the backyard, and unable to tell the truth, Kyle gulped and nodded, waiting for the hammer to fall.


Kyle was so heartbroken, he thought he was going to die. Hanging on the other side of the fence, from his leash stuck on the top of the fence, was Scotch. He had eaten away enough wood on the back porch to yank the leash free from the railing, and made one ill-judged leap from the porch to what he thought would be safety in the neighbor’s yard. His leash caught on the top of the fence, and he had hung himself.

That’s what Kyle’s dad assumed had happened anyway. That’s certainly what it looked like to everyone who heard about the scene over the next few days. Kyle’s parents had been worried about him at first, his best friend (albeit, unreciprocated best friend) had died and Kyle saw it firsthand. He moped and didn't eat much and looked like he had been crying in his room, although he never allowed himself to cry in front of them about it. Once, his mom felt so bad, she offered to replace Scotch. Kyle’s head snapped up and he looked shocked and hurt at such a blasphemous suggestion. After a few weeks though, Kyle seemed to be getting back in the swing of his regular activities. Maybe not with as much spring in his step, but he definitely looked like he was getting over Scotch. And really, his parents thought, how hard could it be to get over such a horrendous pet? It was a sad accident, yes, but they weren't exactly mourning a calmer household without Scotch around.


On a Saturday towards the end of September, the doorbell rang. Kyle’s parents were grocery shopping and he was reading on the Scotch-colored, overstuffed, leather La-Z-Boy armchair. When he opened the door, he saw the neighbor boys that hung out with him occasionally (but not at all, since Scotch’s accident).

“Hey. Wanna ride down to the lake with us?” Trevor asked.

“It’s too cold to go swimming, what are you guys going to do?”

“Dunno. Just hang out.”

Kyle didn't really feel like doing nothing outside, partly because he was enjoying his book and partly because he didn't have to stretch his imagination far to envision the boys pushing him into the water.

“Yeah, okay, let me grab my jacket.”

Once they arrived at the lake, the boys started talking amongst themselves, standing on the shore. Kyle stood on the outside of their circle. Bryan, another one of the neighbor boys, said something about his own dog. The group fell silent and glanced at Kyle. Kyle forced a smile and laughed it off. Tension visibly lifted from the boys as they all laughed, and Chris lightly punched Kyle on the arm.

“Hey man, that was crazy about your dog,” Chris said.

“Yeah, I guess it was.”

“No, I mean seriously, was the dog retarded or something?”

“No, he just … I dunno, he was just trying to get out of the yard.”

“Or he was trying to commit suicide,” Josh said.

Bryan sniggered. Kyle’s smile faltered.

“I don’t think that’s what happened.”

“Come on, that mutt was crazy, he was always trying to get away from you. $10 bucks says his last doggy thought was ‘Thank God, I’ll die and be free!’”

All the boys started laughing at this, except Kyle. He couldn't laugh, because the thought had crossed his own mind.

“Shut up,” Kyle whispered.

“Hey man, I’m sorry, I was just kidding around…”

Josh shifted nervously from foot to foot, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jacket, looking around the group for support.

“I mean, come on man, that dog was always giving you trouble, and now he’s gone. You can’t feel that bad about it, can you?” Trevor asked.

Kyle could hear the blood pounding in his ears, his face was growing warm and he was sure the sheen of tears welling in his eyes was obvious.

“Yeah, definitely. Hey, I have to go home and do some stuff before my parents get home, I’ll see you guys around.”

Kyle quickly jumped on his bike and sped down the road, back to his house, grinding his teeth against the tears threatening to roll down his face.