Keep on Walkin’

I’ve never really thought I could write personal essays (or non-fiction, for that matter). They never held much appeal to me, as either a reader or as a writer.

A lot of this has to do with my checkered educational history; for someone who aspired to be a writer, it now amazes me how many college professors desperately tried to stomp that aspiration out of me–yet at the same time, it enormously pleases me that I proved them all WRONG. When I first started college, the week before my seventeenth birthday, my basic English Comp class required us to spend the first day writing an essay, predicated around the question you are going to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, what three people and three things would you take with you, and why? I don’t remember what I wrote; I know one of the people was Stephen King so he could keep writing books to entertain me. But the end result of that essay was me being moved from Basic Comp to Honors English. This was not only a surprise but exciting; whomever that professor was, he recognized my ability! 

Honors English, however, turned out to be a horrific nightmare…as did all of my experiences with the English department of that particular college. My new professor–whom I shall never forget, like I shall never forget my first creative writing professor at that benighted plague of a university–was, quite frankly, a moron. There were only twelve of us in the class; she advised us on the very first day that she never gave A’s because that left no room for improvement. I was not an Honors student, so this didn’t phase me, but it caused a lot of discomfort in my extremely-driven-by-GPA classmates. And she stuck to that; none of us ever got an A on any of our essays or papers, and she certainly didn’t teach us anything. My essays were shredded by her on a regular basis; she also liked to proclaim that we would never get so honest an opinion on our writing as we got from her, and even as a naive teenager, I sensed that she took malicious pleasure in being as nasty as she could with our work. We never got anything productive or useful from her; no editorial guidance whatsoever; just nasty condescending commentary in red ink on our papers. That, coupled with a kinder yet equally unhelpful professor in the second semester of Honors English Comp, convinced me that I would never be able to write non-fiction; that writing essays and personal essays were a skill set I neither possessed, nor could learn.

Thanks for that, bitches.

And when you factor in the creative writing professor the next semester who told me I’d never publish…well, you can see why I became absolutely disinterested in college and it just became something else I had to endure and get through.

So, as I grew older and evolved and continued reading and pursuing from time to time my desire to write, I avoided nonfiction and essays. I was never going to write them, I wasn’t any good at them, so why bother? This negative perception continued throughout my life until a friend told me, several years ago, that you write a personal essay on your blog every day. I’d even written and published some, yet I still had that wall up in my mind: I’m not smart enough. I’m not clever enough. Anything I have to say has already been said better by someone else. Anything point I’d try to make would get the response “well, duh, LOSER.”

I started reading Joan Didion last year, beginning with her book Miami, and suddenly, began to see essays in an entirely new light.

This is a book about books. To try that again, it is a book about my fatal flaw: that I insist on learning everything from books. I find myself wanting to apologize for my book’s title, which, in addition to embarrassingly taking part in a ubiquitous publishing trend by including the word girls, seems to evince a lurid and cutesy complicity in the very brutality it critiques. If I can say one lame thing in my defense, it is that I wanted to call this book Dead Girls from the moment I realized I was writing it, in the spring of 2014 I wrote an essay on the finale of the first season of True Detective, trying to parse a category of TV I identified as the Dead Girl Show, with Twin Peaks as this genre’s first and still most notable example. People seemed to like that essay, so I understood that Dead Girls was something I could hitch my wagon to.

So begins Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. To be honest, while I greatly enjoyed reading this book, I didn’t find that most of the essays were, in fact, about ‘surviving an American obsession’; I thought this was going to be a lengthy look at how the trope of dead girls runs through, and is repeatedly used, over and over, in all aspects of crime fiction; be it a television show, novels, or films. Bolin instead extrapolates her theme to encompass society as a whole, and I’m not entirely sure she succeeds.

Didion, on the other hand, opens this way:

This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me the more imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder. That was why the piece was so important to me. And after it was printed I saw that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of “filth” in the Haight-Ashbury, and acquaintances congratulated me on finishing the piece “just in time,” because “the whole fad’s dead now, fini, kaput.” I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.

It seems unfair to critique Bolin negatively simply because the book went in a different direction than I thought it would; but I ultimately was disappointed in her collection primarily because I was looking for, I don’t know, a feminist point of view about the misogyny in crime fiction, both written and filmed. That was, actually, my primary carp about her book. I enjoyed it otherwise; Bolin has a dry wit and she wrote about a lot of things from a perspective I hadn’t considered–that of the young millennial female trying to make it in an increasingly hostile world with very little opportunity for young writers to make a living. She also critiques Didion harshly; harsher then perhaps I might have, although I do periodically take some issue with the lens through which Didion sees the world and writes about it–that of a very privileged white woman, whose inability to recognize her own privilege sometimes colors her observations.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the third non-fiction book of Didion’s I’ve read over the last two years; the others being Miami and After Henry. I also read her novel A Book of Common Prayer, which, while bizarre, was also terribly interesting and exceptionally written. Regardless of what one might think of Didion’s privilege and how it might color her lens, the woman is an exceptionally skilled writer. Her sentences are flawlessly constructed, and the rhythm manages to convey an almost world-weariness, a sense of being jaded by what people do. The two books are actually good to read together, because they seem to focus on the same thing, even though written decades apart. Bolin uses the trope of the dead girl to launch into her consideration of a world where young people are disillusioned by the lack of opportunity, where intelligence and talent perhaps do not provide a means of making a living anymore, and how the misogyny of society, as depicted through the dead girl trope, helps stack the deck against young women. Didion’s book looks at the beginning of that erosion, the decay of the mythology of the American dream. Her observations of Haight-Ashbury during the days of the hippies and the flower children, and conversations with the young people who flocked there, is an interesting contrast to the world Bolin is writing about: those young people were disaffected by the box of the American dream, felt trapped by the opportunity their parents were pushing them towards; they didn’t want the white picket fence and the 2.3 children and the dog and the split-level house in the suburbs and the long commute into the city for a 9 to 5 existence. They rejected the American Dream; Bolin’s generation wishes it were even an option to reject.

Were I teaching Freshmen English Comp, these two books would be my required texts for my students. Both books made me think; both books inspired me to write myself and gave me ideas; both writers have depth and perception and skill. I got more than I was expecting from Bolin’s book; I got precisely what I thought I would from Didion’s.

I highly recommend both.

Your Love

Happy Independence Day!

And, in a sense, today is Independence Day for me; I finished the first draft of the new Scotty book, Royal Street Reveillon, last night. The book is very sloppy, and needs a lot of clean-up work, but I am so happy to be finished. I haven’t completed a draft of any novel since late 2016; so I feel like I have finally once again proven to myself that I can actually write a book, you know?

Huzzah!

And I am now on my vacation. I don’t have to return to the office until Tuesday; I have sis glorious days to revel in here at home. I will have to go out of the house to go to the gym and I have a luncheon date on Friday, and I will also have to go to the grocery store at some point as well. But in the meantime I can blissfully relax and clean and organize and slowly work on things I want to work on. I’m excited about new project; I can also make some headway on it, and I may even write the first chapter of Bury Me in Satin. I do have a couple of short stories I need to work on as well, but over all, I am extremely happy and relaxed and feeling oddly, strangely, HAPPILY carefree this morning.

Which is so lovely you have no idea.

I can also focus on reading Lou Berney’s November Road, which I started reading the other night and is already, despite being only two pages in, remarkably well-written and compelling. If you’ve not read Lou’s work, I strongly encourage you to read The Long and Faraway Gone, which won every crime writing award under the sun for which it was eligible, and is one of my favorite crime novels of all time.

We also continue to watch Big Mouth on Netflix, which just gets funnier and funnier with every episode. Seriously, it’s so refreshingly funny and honest about a difficult subject–puberty–that sometimes I just shake my head as I laugh at it. We also watched Hannah Gadsby’s powerful stand-up special Nanette last night, which is so amazing. Watch both her special and Big Mouth….you won’t be disappointed.

I’ve been spending some time lately, in the evenings, while Paul works on a grant and I’m too mentally fatigued to read, rewatching movies from the 1980’s that I remember either fondly or as a cultural marker of the decade. So far, I watched Masquerade (still holds up), Children of the Corn (frankly, wasn’t sure I had watched it originally and am still not sure; a lot of it seemed very new–but wasn’t young Peter Horton beautiful?), and Less Than Zero, which I thought was bad then and was even worse on a rewatch. I feel an entry about Less Than Zero might be coming soon, once I arrange my thoughts a bit more, and perhaps even one on Children of the Corn, which would entail rereading the short story and perhaps watching the film once again. I’d really like to watch Body Heat, Against All Odds, and Tequila Sunrise again; I recently rewatched Streets of Fire and should probably watch it again–I was making notes in my journal and not really paying attention to it. There’s a piece about neo-noir from the 1980’s brewing in my head that I’d really love to explore, especially since the 1980’s was such a strange, transitional period for the culture and our society as a whole.

Things to ponder, certainly.

The next story up in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories is “Man in a Speedo”:

I love you, man in a speedo.

I know your real name is actually Jason.

But I always think of you as man in a speedo.

That was what you were wearing the first time I saw you.

And what a sight it was.

It was a Sunday afternoon at the Country Club on Louisa Street, do you remember? It was July, and so fucking hot and humid. I was sitting on one of the lounge chairs on the deck, sipping a vodka tonic out of a perspiring clear plastic cup. I had just sat up to rub some more tanning oil on my chest when you came walking out of the building to the pool area. You were wearing sunglasses, your thick black hair slicked back, a pair of leather sandals and a baggy pair of basketball shorts. Your skin was darkly tanned, Italian looking with that tint of olive to it, and your body. Oh my god your body. Your pecs are the size od my head, I swear, and those purplish nipples so big and inviting. Your stomach, flat, not defined, like you don’t mind eating a bacon cheeseburger every now and again, not like those other arrogant boys who won’t eat carbs after seven p.m. or watch every gram of fat that crosses their lips, your muscular legs looking like tree trunks, shaved smooth. I sat there, my mouth open, and you walked to a chair on the other side of the pool, set your bag down, sat down, slipped the sandals off, and then stood up again. You stretched, yawning, your arms and pecs flexing, the lats springing out, the curly black hair in your armpits glistening and wet. You reached down and slid the shorts down, revealing a bright yellow bikini that made your tan look even darker. The suit hung off your hips, revealing an amazing pouch in the front. You turned, and stretched again, and I saw your ass, hard and round and muscular, flex inside its yellow lycra container which was barely covering it. I could just stare, my dick hardening inside my own speedo. I knew then that I had to have you, at some point in my life, I had to have you. I wanted to stick my head inside that beautiful ass, run my tongue down its crack and then underneath to the balls, suck on your cock while pinching those amazing nipples, feeling the rounded pecs, staring up as you flexed your massive arms. You took the sunglasses off for a moment, looked across the pool, and our eyes locked. You gave me a small smile, nodded your head, acknowledging me, and then sat back down.

You noticed me.

I know you did.

You acknowledged my interest.

I spent the rest of that afternoon watching you, trying to steel my nerve to go over and talk to you. You had nodded at me, after all, I knew you were interested, but it was such a bright day, and everyone around the pool would notice me walking over there, even if it was just in their peripheral vision, and see me sit down, and what if, by some weird chance that was barely comprehensible to me, you weren’t actually interested? There was that, and my own fear that if I even got close to you, my dick would get so hard everyone could see it, and in my white speedo it would be pretty obvious, and there was the very strong chance that I would crawl up between your legs and suck your dick right there. Somehow I didn’t think you were the exhibitionist type–yeah, sure, you liked to show off your body in that little piece of yellow lycra, but somehow I didn’t think you were the type who liked to have their cock sucked in a public place.

Finally around four you got put your shorts on and left. You turned at the door and looked back at me. My dick was so hard it hurt. My balls ached. I should have gone after you, but I didn’t. That was stupid. I’ve regretted it ever since.

When I got home I had to beat off. I lay down on my bed and covered my aching dick with lube. I closed my eyes and started stroking, remembering every move you made, every inch of your body, the way your muscles moved, the way your pecs moved when you laughed the way your ass moved when you walked, everything. I shot a big load for you, man in a speedo, a big load that even hit me in the face….I had never shot a load that hard before jacking off. I’ve shot them before when I was with a guy that really turned me on, but never ever when I was jacking off. It was you. I knew then you were my fate, my destiny.

We were meant to be together.

This is, if anything, neo-noir gay erotica. It’s really a dark story, about sexual obsession, and I wrote it for an anthology. The editors came back to me and were like, um, yeah, really love the story but it’s way too dark can you write something else? And I did, and put this story away. It’s roots were indeed in a dark place; back when I was living a horrific double life of deception and omission, of misery and despair, I also worked as a bank teller. Fridays were our busiest days, since it was pay day; the teller line was so unbelievably long, almost from the moment when we unlocked the doors at ten until we locked them at six; and often there were so many people still inside and in line that we weren’t finished and out of there until after seven. The one bright spot on my Fridays was a Pepsi delivery guy who came in to deposit his paycheck every Friday around three or four. His blue and white striped shirt with the Pepsi patch sewn on above his chest on the right, was very tight. He had a small waist and a flat stomach and his blue uniform pants were tight over thickly muscled legs; his ass was exceptional as well. His arms were gigantic, and he had blue-black hair and blue eyes and darkly tanned olive skin. He was gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous, and it was a GOOD Friday when he wound up at my window. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he was in his late twenties–and back then, nineteen times out of twenty, if a guy was single in his late twenties (he didn’t have a joint account, and no wedding ring) and took care of himself, and worked out, he was most likely gay (although I never saw him in any of the few gay bars in town, on the rare occasions I was able to get to them; which of course meant nothing). I fantasized about him and his body all the time–and then during that summer I was invited by a friend to hang out and drink beer by her apartment pool…and he showed up there, just as he did in the story, stripping down to a skimpy bright yellow bikini exactly as described, put his headphones on after slathering oil on his amazing body, and just tanned, talking to no one. I kept sneaking glances over at him, hoping he’d jump into the water and emerge dripping wet; he never did.

And when I got back to my apartment, I wrote down the opening of “Man in a Speedo.” It’s a dark story, of obsession, and even the erotic parts of the story are fucking creepy. Every time I tried to get it published it always got rejected; because, I always believed, of it’s darkness.

Or maybe it wasn’t good, who knows? I included it in this collection because I wanted it to be read, and I’m proud of it. It could probably be expanded into a noir novel, a short one; and I’ve always thought it should be.

Someday.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Holiday

Tuesday night I tweeted my first creative writing professor in college told me I’d never get published. Over thirty novels later I’m still waiting for his first…

I tell this story a lot when I teach, or when I’m on panels. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve forgotten my professor’s name; when required I’ve called him Dr. Dixon, but I know that wasn’t his name. I did send him a copy of my first book, signed When you were my professor you told me I’d never get published. Looking forward to your first. Snarky and petty, yes, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of that. I don’t know if he remembered me (probably not) or if he even read the book (probably not), but it’s very important to remember that I was seventeen years old when Dr. Enema Nozzle said this to me. His exact words were, If you’re dream is to become an author, I’m afraid you’re going to have to find another dream because you’re never going to be published. What kind of DICK says that to a student? I mean, seriously. I had always done well with writing, all through school; classmates read my stories and loved them, as a sixteen year old taking Freshman Comp in college, on the first day we had to write one of those stupid essays about the three things you’d take with you if you were going to be stranded on a desert island, and why. That essay got me moved up from Basic Comp to Honors English, and here was a creative writing professor telling me that not only could I not write, but I would never be a writer. My writing was so bad there was nothing he could teach me to improve my craft; any time spent with me working on my writing was clearly a waste of his time. 

He also told me not to bother turning in another story that semester;

What a fucking asshole.

I didn’t stop writing; I was working on a novel at the time, but it did derail me for a long time. You see, like a fool I believed him. Why wouldn’t I? He was my teacher, an authority figure who, with his Ph.D, was supposed to know what he was talking about. I still wanted to be a writer, I still wanted to write–but from that moment on, I no longer believed that I could do it; that I could get published, or that my writing would ever be anything more than a hobby. I eventually dropped out of college, and took several years off. When I returned to school, I took another creative writing class, and this time the teacher was not only encouraging, he insisted that I send some of the stories I wrote for his class (I took it for two consecutive semesters) out to magazines for publication. I did try, but the stories were rejected. But I was starting to believe again. I tried again in the late 1980’s–always rejected, but I got good feedback from the editors. Those editors also encouraged me to keep writing and submitting, but I foolishly and naively believed they were just being nice…and I gave up trying again shortly thereafter.

Obviously, I eventually became a published author, but sometimes I wonder about the long-lasting effects on my psyche that professor caused. I often doubt my work and my abilities; whenever I get rejected it triggers a downward spiral of depression, and it’s part of the reason why I have always been so hesitant to try to get an agent. I am not secure enough, or emotionally healthy enough, or confident enough, to handle that  kind of rejection. I even wonder, now, as I think about revising that manuscript yet again, if I really need to revise it  again or if it’s just another way to delay, put off, sending it out to agents again.

Sigh.

I read another story in Sarah Weinman’s brilliant anthology Tortured Daughters, Twisted Wives, “A Nice Place to Stay” by Nedra Tyre.

All my life I’ve wanted a nice play to stay. I don’t mean anything grand. just a small room with the walls freshly painted and a few neat pieces of furniture and a window to catch the sun so that two or three pot plants could grow. That’s what I’ve always dreamed of. I didn’t yearn for love or money or nice clothes, though I was a pretty enough girl and pretty clothes would have made me prettier–not that I mean to brag.

Things fell on my shoulders when I was fifteen. That was when Mama took sick, and keeping house and looking after Papa and my two older brothers–and of course nursing Mama–became my responsibility. Not long after that Papa lost the farm and we moved to town. I don’t like to think of the house we lived in near the C & R railroad tracks, though I guess we were lucky to have a roof over our heads–it was the worst days of the Depression and a lot of people didn’t even have a roof, even one that leaked, plink, plonk; in a heavy rain there weren’t enough pots and pans and vegetable bowls to set around to catch all the water.

Sarah Weinman recommended Nedra Tyre to me several years ago; I found a copy of her Death of an Intruder on ebay and really enjoyed it. This short story is also exceptional; the main character is very plainspoken, and has a very matter-of-fact voice that makes the true horror of her actual story even more awful. While it is a crime story, it’s also about how awful life for women could be if they had no education or family and came from a poor background; this poor woman becomes basically homeless after her parents die, since her sisters-in-law won’t allow her to come live with them and the house is gone; she gradually takes jobs as caretakers for seriously ill people, because it will give her a place to live. Her matter-of-fact stories about what it’s like to be poor, homeless and hungry; how this drives her to dumpster dive for food or steal from grocery stores–always cherries or tomatoes that are overriped and no one would buy; wilted leaves off heads of lettuce and cabbage–is incredibly powerful. When a woman she is hired to care for dies after giving her a valuable heirloom, she is accused of theft and then is involved in the accidental death of a cop. She is convicted and send to jail…and even more awful, the jail is a nice play to stay. But then her conviction is overturned, and what is she going to do now?

What a great, chilling story–and what an incredible achievement in character! I think it’s terrible that Nedra Tyre is out of print, and her books are so rare and hard to find. She also published a lot of short stories;it would be great if someone would collect them all into an anthology.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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