See, I’m a grown up and that means I’m tired and I read cartoons. Maybe this means I can decide I’m also a writer (which is a bit like deciding to live in a room filled with playpen balls).
That is NOT cocaine. He’s my friend. He wouldn’t do that. No, no, no. This is what I thought as I tightened my grip on the steering wheel and checked that I wasn’t going over the speed limit.
It was 4 in the morning and we were driving back from Champagne/Urbana, where the clubs had better dance music than the ones in Terre Haute. P.M. poured white powder onto the mirror that had come unglued from the visor. He rolled up a dollar bill.
There must be an explanation, I thought. Right? I looked in my rearview mirror and see K.C. and J. asleep. Now, P.M. and K.C. were not really my friends. They were fun people I knew and who I could hang out with when I ran into them at a party. The night had been fun and I, completely sober mind you, had ended up dancing on a speaker.
P.M. snorted the powder. The second time I looked in my rearview mirror, I saw J. open eye, take a look, and close her eye again.I will be arrested. I will have to call my dad. My dad will die. With luck P.M. would take all of the white powder so that there wouldn’t be any in my car.
That is not what I think it is. A friend told me about a boyfriend who snorted Fruit Loops. Fruit Loops are not white. I stared straight ahead and watched the double-yellow line in the headlights. We had an hour drive left to go.
At the beginning of the evening, before anyone got in my car, I’d told them, “No smoking in my car.” Well, he isn’t smoking. I will be arrested and lose my RA job. What if I leave him on the side of the road? This was the midwest. The highway cut through fields. There were no lights. I pretended he wasn’t there.
In my real life, I am clueless. A fellow teacher will say to me, “You know that student comes to class high.” “Does she?” I ask.
“Can’t you tell?”
“No.” I can never tell. But in fiction, I’ve got to know what my characters are up to. I have my characters do things I find shocking. Wow. Did I write that? I’m scandalized. But then in this world of SAW III–what am I worried about? Why do I think I’ve written something that will upset my in-laws when thousands upon thousands of crazier stories are out there.
I can think I’ve really taken a risk, and then watch HBO… Someone is surely going to give me a shove and say, “Go play with the kiddies.”
“We don’t have any water and we can’t run any tests, but we can give you an injection,” the nurse said.
I didn’t want to insult my host country, but I wasn’t going to let her stick a needle in me no matter how sick I was. And I didn’t know yet how sick I was going to get. “It’s against Peace Corps rules for me to have injections,” I said, making rules up as I went. “I’d be fired.”
It was Wednesday afternoon and by Friday I’d be right as rain for when my new boyfriend came to stay the weekend. But by the time he got off the train, I still felt strange–too tired and my stomach aching. By 10 pm he was on the phone to the Peace Corps office. “Come and get her,” he insisted even as I mumbled I’d be fine.
Every joint burned. Even in my fingers. My head spun. I’d sweat and then freeze. I couldn’t sit up. At 3 in the morning a Peace Corps administrator arrived, and my boyfriend and the driver got me to the SUV. Weeks later I’d learn that this even was in the local paper a couple days later–American carried off in the night. Near Death.–or some such crazy headline. Oh, my 15 minutes of fame!
Halfway to Sophia I felt mad. Mad in the way my dad always used the word–people get angry, dogs get mad. I’d have jumped out while the SUV was moving if I had to. I wanted to tear at the roof. I wanted to tear at anything within reach. My boyfriend got the driver to stop.
And so at 4 am the SUV pulled to the side of the road. Being Bulgaria in 1993, there were no working lights along the highway. There were no other cars. There were no pinpoints of house lights in the distance. There were our headlights.
I spilled onto the ground and crawled into the overgrown grass. The air was cold. It was late October. The darkness stretched out around us was a relief and I wanted to stay there curled up into a ball all night.
My boyfriend held onto me while I threw up, lifted me to my feet, and piled me back into the car. By sunrise we were in Sophia at the administrator’s apartment, where she gave me her spare room. I stayed over a week. My boyfriend stayed as long as they allowed him to. We been dating a month.
The Peace Corps medical officer brewed up homemade pedialight–so many part sugar and salt. She ordered me to drink a liter of it. I wept and gagged as I drank the stuff.
For a month I couldn’t cross a room without needing to rest. I lost close to 15 pounds and couldn’t finish any meal I started. No one ever told me what the illness was.
Another time I’ll describe adventures in the Bulgarian hospitals, but this is enough for tonight. I try to remember how life felt back then, because it keeps this writing life in perspective. I didn’t have to take the mystery injection. I could call Peace Corps. I could’ve been medivaced if necessary.
Now I can sit in my pleasant apartment and write about it. What a luxury that is. I need to remember to put the angst away and appreciate the work. Even if my writing is rejected a thousand times, I’m lucky to be able to whine about it.
What do you do if your negative feelings about your work threaten to overwhelm you? What convinces you that a writing life is not so bad?
When you play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, you wear a blindfold and get spun around and pushed forward. Kids scream and laugh as you jab the tail in air and try to stick a pin in a donkey’s behind. Sounds great.
Some kids wildly run at the donkey. Other kids are methodical. Other kids don’t care. But eventually they each decide–this is where I will put this blankety-blank tail.
I feel like my writing life is like this. I’m dizzy and in the dark and eventually I’ve got to say–this is it. The story is done. Did I win?
Winning is much more clear cut with donkey. Less so with novels. At least I knew I was invited to the birthday party. No matter how many times I do it, any time I tell someone I write, I feel like I’ve gotten caught party crashing. Or I’ve come in costume and, you know, everyone else looks normal. Or I’ve tried the game and torn the donkey off the wall and into pieces. And that no one else there has a sense of humor about it.
How do you feel when you tell someone you write. Not even the strong–I’m a writer. Just it’s timid friend–I write.
More importantly–how do you know when a story is done?
That’s odd,I thought. Didn’t I leave the blinds open? I glanced around my room and everything looked okay. I couldn’t point to anything that was out of place. Or missing. But still, something struck me as different.
I was home a couple days early from my stay in Sophia. I went into my kitchen. Two dirty coffee cups sat on the table, but they weren’t mine. I didn’t drink coffee at home. Dirty spoons had dried rings of coffee in them and around them. I didn’t even have any coffee in the apartment.
Leaving the kitchen I looked at more closely at everything. But who breaks into an apartment to have a cup of coffee? I called a colleague, a Bulgarian English teacher whose apartment overlooked mine. “Radina,” I said and told her about the coffee. “Did you see anyone around my apartment.” Bulgarians do not use their balconies for staring off into the distance. The odds were small she’d have answer.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “You know, don’t you, that the headmaster and his girlfriend go to your apartment?”
I look out my window and I can see Radina’s balcony. “He does what?” The apartment belonged to him. Of course, he had a key. Two buildings from this one he had a wife and daughter. I’d met the mistress at a school party. She’d worn a tight leather dress. “Thanks for telling me,” I said.
I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”
Hanging up the phone I stared at my narrow bed. They wouldn’t. I grabbed the pink coat I’d left hanging in my entryway. I’d go for a walk. See Radina. I thrust my hands in my pockets. There was something in there. An open packet of coffee. She’d worn my coat.
That evening the locksmith Radina called for me changed my locks. In the morning and wearing my pink coat, I showed up at my headmaster’s office. “You are back here early,” he said, eyes wide.
I smiled. “Yes! I am.” I put my old key on his desk. “Oh, and I changed the lock on my apartment door and only I have the new key,” I said. “Have a wonderful day.”
He told many lies about me after that. But it was worth it.
Revenge is tempting. Most of the time I don’t bother (and the times I have are stories for other days), but, like a few of you commented on yesterday’s post, a character is annoying if they do nothing. The danger is taking revenge in fiction. That is, using a story to get back at someone in real life. (Not so foolish as to say who.)
There’s using true experiences in your fiction, and then there’s venting frustration and hurt. Not necessarily bad things unless they get in the way of the story. Or get you sued. I’m not above taking people I’ve known and tossing them into a story in some wicked fashion, but I try not to let my anger hijack the work.
Ever written a story to get back at someone? Did it work?
My best friend’s older brother sat next to me on the sofa. Right up next to me as close as he could. I didn’t want him that close. I was in the 4th grade. He was in the 7th.
“What if I gave you a present?” he said. He had white blonde hair feathered back like Leif Garrett. I got up and moved to the end of the sofa. He got up too and sat down too close to me again.
I shook my head and wished my friend would come back in the room. She was in the kitchen making us a snack. “Why do you want to give me a present?” I asked.
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a necklace–a blue and gold lady bug dangling from a gold-plated chain. “Do you like it?” he asked.
“It’s all right,” I said. “But don’t you want to give that to someone else?” I didn’t want to take it. My mom had already given me several talks about the dangers of boys, not to mention what I heard at school and from my step-sister. But I didn’t want to hurt his feelings either. I was a polite girl and a guest in his home.
He lifted the necklace and put it around my neck, asking me to move my hair. I did, and when he was done he kept one arm around my shoulder. I sat up straighter. He started talking about different things, but I didn’t listen because I was trying to think of a way to get rid of the necklace without annoying him. How was I going to explain the necklace to my dad when I got home? Or my step-sister.
My friend walked into the room with a tray of food and sodas. She looked at us and I burned red. The necklace itched. “I gave her a present,” her brother said.
“No.” I had to fuss a moment with the clasp but I took it off. “I’ll get in trouble. I can’t take it.” I handed it back to him. He refused to take it. “Keep it,” my friend said, letting the tray smack the coffee table. “If that’s what you want.” Unsure what to do, I put it in the pocket of my jeans.
He called me almost every day for two weeks. If I agreed to talk to him, I ignored his invitations to go on a picnic or go swimming. My step-sister told me I should go with him. “He’s cute,” she said.
“I’m in the 4th grade! I don’t go swimming with boys.”
“You’re so stupid,” she said. “He’s not always going to like you if you keep saying no.”
I figured she was right and that I was being rude to him. What could it hurt? He was my best friend’s brother. I resolved to say yes the next time he called. But I still said no.
Finally, one morning when he got on the school bus, he stopped by my seat and punched me in the arm.
My arm still aching when we got to school, I made sure to get behind him as we exited the bus. He looked over his shoulder at me and I shoved him as hard as I could. He left me alone, and his sister and I were no longer friends.
In fiction, bad things happen to characters, but if they are seen as mere victims, they aren’t that sympathetic. Your character has got to do some shoving back even if you keep throwing things at her. Right? I know I have trouble with this in my stories. As the evil author, I do wicked things to my characters, but I have trouble figuring out how far to push them before they get in their punches and jabs. I want readers to cheer a character on, not shout at them to get some backbone.
What stories have you read where the main character was too much of a victim, a big whiner that made you want to throw the book across the room? What makes a character too victimy for you?
“We are going to get in there,” T. said. “Follow me.”
“We can’t break in,” I said. “We’ll be arrested.” T. shook his head. “We’re not breaking in. We’re walking in.”
I follow. Again. We meant to see the AIDS quilt. We were grad students at Kent State and the quilt was making a stop in Cleveland, but only for s few days. I had to trade hours with a girl at JC Penney, and hope the car would make the drive, but away we went, T. and I, to see the names of the dead.
We pulled up to the arena (or whatever you call those places where they have basketball games) and the parking lot was empty, the lights off, and the doors locked. We had the wrong day. But for T. it was never the wrong day.
Around the building we walked until he found the employee entrances, and how could it breaking and entering? The door was unlocked. Few lights were on, and we walked, just the two of us, down those wide concrete halls, unsure of where to go and whispering. We came to the freight elevator, and I joked about looking for a Coke machine. T. joked I went blind too much.
We came to…I don’t know what the words are for these spaces…concourse? Well, we walked, found the archway into the basketball court and walked through. The only lights now were those thin, white strips of lights in the concrete stairs to all the seats. Our steps echoed and we stopped talking. The quilt was there, sections spread out in the dark, other sections hanging from above.
T. went on way around and I went the other. We could stand right up to the panels, read the dimly lit names, see the images, and be just us.
T. and I met on the other side of the court, we thought of nothing to say. Then we heard footsteps and whistling. There was nowhere to go and we couldn’t make ourselves move anyway. We waited to get caught.
A man in a gray uniform appeared on the first level above the floor. “Hey,” he said.
T. did the talking. “We came to see the quilt,” he said. “We found an open door. but we’ll leave if want us to.”
The man looked down at us, thought a moment, and said, “You go ahead and look around. But they’ll seal the doors in 30 minutes–and then you won’t be able to get out until the morning.” He continued on his way.
If you break the rules in your story, there’s no telling what you might find. That doesn’t mean you don’t need someone to say you might be going too far. Then again, get locked in and that’s another adventure entirely. Who helps you feel like you can break a rule? Who encourages you to go further in your fiction? What writing rule have you broken and discovered something amazing?
“Wait for me by the stage door,” T. says. “I’m going in this way.”
He doesn’t give me time to tell him he is crazy. He already knows that. But he wants us to meet the star of the show, the reason we are in Columbus, the woman who wooed us both from the stage–kd lang.
I go around to the back and stand at the far edge of the crowd, wondering what it will be like when security throws T. out. The stage door opens and everyone looks. T. struts out, holds a Coke can over his head as if he is toasting the world, and shouts, “kd says hi!” Smiling and nodding he makes his way over to me. “Oh my god,” I say. He says, “Come on. Follow me.”
I protest. We’ll be caught. Arrested. He is crazy. We get to the side door. “Okay,” he says. “The stairs go up this way and down this way. Go down. If anybody asks, you’re just there to get a Coke from the machine.” He helpfully waves his Coke can at me. “Easy.”
Certain we are going to be arrested, I go in after him. Three steps in and a man meets us on the landing. “Who are you?” he asks. T. grins. “Hey, we’re with the press.”
I know my smile is a grimace, but the man ignores me anyway. “Yeah?” he says.
“It’s hot down there and my friend here needed some air,” T. says.
My smile hurts and my vision starts to go. I think the man gestures up the stairs. “Just stay off the stage,” he says. I follow T. though I can’t see more than a dot of light on the back of his shirt. This is what I do when I’m nervous. I go blind.
We reach the room with the Coke machine and three people are already there. I ignore them. I see only the red dot of the Coke machine. Someone says, “What are you doing here?” I walk forward. Someone says, “You’re not supposed to be here.” I keep walking. T. is talking fast. Air. Hot. Coke. Drink. Friend. “You have to leave.” I put my quarters in the slot. My fingers ache. I think I’ve dug moons into my palm with my fingernails. T. is still talking. Faster. Sure. Sure. “I said the two of you have to leave.” I push the big square button and the Coke thuds down the machine. I do not see the man talking. I know there is a woman sitting about four feet away from me but I can’t see her. There is only the red of the machine. I kneel down and get my Coke and I wonder why the angry man has not snatched it out of my hand.
Now I can see only the pull tab on the Coke can. I turn around. T. is still talking. I have forgotten all about kd lang. I’m thinking one thing–I really need this Coke. With the same measured steps I entered in, I walk to the door. Someone threatens to call security. The Coke can is cool and wet and I’m glad I have it. It will be the best Coke ever. I am not being arrested.
T. and I exit into the alley and though it is dark, I blink like T. has flipped on a light. “Did you see her?” T. asks.
“Who?” I say, wiping the condensation from the can onto my neck.
T. stares at me. I am the dumbest person he’s ever known. “kd. She was right there. Sitting next to the Coke machine.”
“What?” I look behind me as if this will change things. But this is me–breaking the rules and still not getting what I came for.
The comments from last night’s post have been floating in my head all day. In the middle of writing, I don’t know whether rules are broken or not. There is just that tiny bit of light to head towards. I look back over the words and don’t know how the story came out that way. I may have been there, but I missed it.
So, how do you feel when you’ve been writing and stop for a breath?
“No way. I’m not doing it,” C. said looking down over the balcony rail. We were three floors up. My future traveling companion stepped away from the railing too. “Yeah. It’s not a good idea.”
The two of them were scared, and all three of us were drunk. I looked up at the stars and then down to the ground. I’d show them. I’d go on my own. “I’m doing it,” I said and swung a leg over the side.
A short while before we’d been talking about the curfew and the locked doors. The Peace Corps training director had decided that all volunteers should be back in the dorm by 11. She ordered the dorm staff to lock the front doors to prove she was serious and in control. It was the lock that ticked many of us off.
Here we were, ranging in age from 22 to 67, leaving our homes, our language, and our known comforts, and that woman was locking us in at 11. Even the volunteers who were 20 years older than she was, she talked to as if they were 12. Well, C., Mr. Future Traveling Companion, and I decided to prove our maturity by breaking out of the building. With male bluster and bravado the two of them headed to my room because it faced the back of the building. The balconies were on the back.
I followed because of course I had a crush on the Companion and because in the way that groups thrown together will divide themselves into cliques, I’d already thrown my lot in with them. In two months I would discover what mistakes both these reasons were, but in that moment, standing in the night air with the cool guys, I could do anything.
Now in this building, the third floor is what we would call the fourth. In the dark with plenty of wine and ego in my system, that didn’t seem far at all. I wanted to be braver than the boys. This has often been my undoing.
I sat on the rail, twisted around and let my legs dangle in the air. There were vines and drains on the side of this building that had seen no meaningful maintenance since before the ousting of the communists party–but they held. I got to the balcony below, and heard the guys curse. They were not going to be outdone by a girl. Pleased, I kept going down and the only time I nearly lost my grip was when I happen to discover that the director’s assistant’s curtains were open and she was making out with a volunteer.
Later when we wanted back in the building, we could but stare up its sides. Stumbling through the bushes, we found someone to let us in–the Peace Corps driver who seemed unconcerned that we were breaking curfew and that he was in his underwear. At least we were in.
I’m not big on rule breaking. I’ve read lots of books on writing and I try to remember all the rules–show; don’t tell–write what you know–don’t do this–don’t so-on-and-so-forth. Yes. Absolutely. Duly noted. If I were a great writer–say, Margaret Atwood–I could ignore the rules as I wished. But I’m me, and I’ve got to worry about breaking my neck. If I’m going to violate a few good rules, I’ve got to have a better motivation than impressing the cool boys. Tried that, and ended up splattered on the pavement in a different way.
What writers do you know break writing rules and land in one piece?
“My friends here have a bet going about you,” he said.
I was with my own friends in a piano bar and I was on my way to the restroom when this table of five guys stopped me. Common sense said to keep walking. “Oh?” I said.
He nodded. “We have a bet about who is taller–you or him.” He gestured to one of his friends. “You mind if he stands next to you?”
I couldn’t decide if it was insulting to stand there and be measured by a table of guys I didn’t know or if it was uptight to get ticked off about it. “All right,” I said. One of the guys looked surprised I hadn’t told them off, but the others looked like they were used to this.
The tall one stood up. “You don’t mind?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Beats being asked how the weather is up here.” He laughed, but he lost his bet. I was an inch taller.
Sometimes when out with friends a guy would ask me to dance. I got tired of the look on the guy’s face when I stood up. “You’re tall,” they usually said. I’d smile. “Yes, I am.” Even if they were taller than me, they’d usually leave me on the dance floor after one dance. If they didn’t, they’d stay for one reason. As one drunk fellow said looking up at me, “It’s always been my fantasy to dance with a tall girl.” Some guys were more succinct. “I like ‘em tall!” Sigh.
A manager transfered me out of his department to where I “could get more hours.” I didn’t get any more hours, but I did have several coworkers tell me that he transfered because I was taller than him. “Just look,” they said. “All the women in his department are petite.”
Then there was that photographer who asked my husband to stand on a box for our engagement photo. We went along with it because I thought it was funny. Twelve years later I still like showing that picture to friends. They frown. “Wait. I thought S. was shorter than you.” Ha.
In fiction characters are often given distinguishing traits. I’ve yet to write about a character who is tall. Too close. And some features are off limits because they belong to people I shouldn’t be caught writing about. It is a trick though, finding a quirk that humanizes the character and makes that individual stand out without coming across as forced and unbelievable.
I think that trait should reveal something or surprise the reader in some way. The trait may shape the character. Perhaps be contradictory in some way–like being over 6’1″ and not playing basketball. Or as one man said to me, “All that height going to waste.”
Indeed. In fiction, a character’s distinguishing feature should not go to waste, but should not be the only thing noteworthy either. Any favorite quirks you’ve ever given your characters? Any favorite characters in other books with some mark that stands out? The hairy feet of a hobbit? The scar of an orphan wizard or the bushy hair of the wizard’s friend? The green skin of a witch? The limp of a convict? The prosthetic limb of a country girl? The mismatched eyes of a detective? What else?