Thursday, April 20, 2006

Making Your Story Less Sucky 101

The story posted down below (What I Did On My Summer Vacation) is yet another one of my famous "stories in progress" which basically means that it's been around for a while, probably been untouched for a while, and yet I am not quite satisfied with it to the extent that I can call it finished.

Despite its unfinished state, it was published by a small Nordic literary journal in May/June 2005. The editors assured me it was fit to be published, and against my better judgment, I signed the release forms. I have since suspected that they were simply pressed for material.

Currently, I am working on decreasing the suckage of the story with the jaunty and talented V. I don't plan on ever re-submitting it for further publication; I guess this particular editing process is more for my own peace of mind.

V and I are new at working together. I have always been leery of sharing my work, so it was only after assuring myself that this mysterious person was the very finest make and model of Muse that I sent this story with more than a little trepidation.

Between the two of us, V and I are armed with a psych degree and a philosophy degree, neither of which is currently in use other than for our witty repartee. We enjoy huge egos, Tenacious D, and a disdain for the filet o'fish. You can already tell that we are a writing partnership made in heaven.

Anyway, the consensus was that there was no "choking of the vomit" after reading the story, which I take as a positive sign. If you're interested in the other comments, read the story, and check the section further below.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

The teacher wrote this on the blackboard and looked at us expectantly. Her name was Miss March and she seemed nice enough, with her warm smile and fluttering hands. We rustled our papers nervously as our legs swung beneath our desks. It was the first day of the 3rd grade, and we had been assigned our first ever essay. We were to write 100 whole words about our summer vacations and turn them in first thing tomorrow morning. The task seemed monumental to me at the time, I wasn’t even sure if I knew 100 words, and on top of which, it meant homework on the first day!

I walked home after the 3 o’clock bell had rung, skulking, watching my patent leather Mary Janes travel over the gravel. I had scuffed them already. Mother would be mad. My knee socks that actually came just short of my skinny, scraped knees were grass stained, and she would be mad about that too. The ribbons in my hair, the ones that matched the plaid jumper I was wearing, had come loose during recess and I knew when I got home my mother would say (if she said anything to me at all) “Sarah, can’t you go one day without making a mess of yourself?” I was what mother called “a hopeless case.” I never got anything right.

I took the long way home, buying myself time, but also digging the hole deeper because if my older sister Jody arrived home before me, I would be berated for “dawdling” as well. I marched past the park, past the church, past the neighbours’ homes, my plastic lunch pail grazing my hip with each step. And then it happened. My lunch pail landed on my hip with a dull thud, hit just a tiny bit harder than the others had, but the clasp broke open, spilling the contents onto the side of the road. Before I could stoop to scoop them up, the bruised apple and the plastic thermos rolled down the ditch and splashed into the dirty water below. They sank out of sight.

I walked up the steps to our home with as much trepidation as a little girl could muster. I pulled up my slouching socks and smoothed my tousled hair as I walked through the front door, but mother was nowhere to be seen. I let out the breath I had been holding for some time. I felt a moment’s worth of relief before the look on Jody’s face wiped it away. Mother was in her room again with the door shut tight, emitting only the slightest of muffled noises. She was having another one of her ‘headaches,’ which meant Jody and I would be left to fend for ourselves, maybe for the night, maybe for longer. I hoped not too much longer.

Jody and I made some grilled cheese sandwiches, and took them to our separate rooms. I sat at my big wooden desk, formal and imposing in its size, dwarfing the other furniture in my room. I took out some paper and sharpened a pencil, watching the curling wood shavings drop off the blade and onto the pristine white paper, already making the first of many smudges. I wrote the title – What I Did On My Summer Vacation – followed by my name, in my massive, halting cursive. I was especially proud of my capital S. I had practiced it all summer long, and I hoped Miss March would notice it. She could hold my paper up in front of all the class and say “Look how Sarah has written the perfect cursive S,” and my classmates would pat me on the back and look at me with envy.

After the S, I was uninspired. The rest of the page remained blank as I stared dejectedly out the window. Some neighbourhood kids were out playing in the last of the sunny summer weather, chasing each other into the sunset and waiting for their mothers to call them in to dinner. I looked for my father’s car, nervous that he might be on his way home, and nervous that he might not. Lately, he had taken to disappearing for weeks at a time, and neither he nor Mother ever told us where he went. At any rate, I hoped that if he did come home, it would not be until I was fast asleep in my bed.

I couldn’t think of a single thing to write about. I knew my friend Janet would probably write about riding horses and going to visit her grandmother in Cape Breton. And even though I had never talked to him in my life, I also knew that Bradley across the street was likely to write about his trip to Disney World and meeting Mickey Mouse. His mother had asked my mother to ‘keep an eye on the house’ while they were away, and my mother had dutifully sent me across the street each morning to collect their mail and newspapers.

I couldn’t very well write about collecting newspapers. I couldn’t write that my mother had spent a lot of the summer locked in her room. I couldn’t write that Daddy spent most of the summer sleeping at someone else’s house. I couldn’t write how Mother drank too much wine with supper and then fell asleep on the sofa, with the glow of the television casting sickly colours on her skin, or else phoned her friend Bernice and sobbed about how she could have married a dentist and had perfect blonde babies. I knew that above all, I could not write about the camping trip.

Jody and I knew enough to dread the yearly camping trip, and we did. Here it was only early September, and I was already dreading the next year’s. Jody and I knew that we were not like other families, and that spending ‘quality time’ together, as Mother called it, was not a good thing. But mother insisted, cried over it, and gave Daddy the silent treatment every year until he agreed to it, for as far back as Jody or I could remember. This year had been different. Daddy piled the camping gear into the back of the station wagon, tucked Jody and I in amongst all the trappings and luggage, and off we went, toward nature, toward the mountains, and toward a long week that all four of us would unfailingly come to hate.

The first hour of driving started out cheerily enough, like it had many times before. It was a false sense of security, but we enjoyed it while it lasted. Mother turned on the radio, Jody read her Judy Blume, and I coloured and played with my dolls. It was almost nice. But then Jody read aloud to me some outrageous line from her book that set both of us to giggling, and Daddy shot us a stern look in the rearview mirror. That was the first warning. We sat silently for a good while, watching the trees speed by through the window, feeling the hot wind on our faces, but then I forgot myself and shouted that I had seen a deer, and a license plate from Alberta, and Daddy’s knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. That was the second warning. Jody and I could not and would not relax again until the car ride was safely over and done with. We sat stiff and uncomfortable in our seats for the duration. I was hungry, and hot, and tired, and probably Jody was too, but we kept it to ourselves. It was Mother who broke the code of silence, mumbling something about needing a rest stop or grabbing a bite to eat. I felt beads of sweat on my brow, and it wasn’t just from the heat. Daddy predictably got off the highway at the next chance he got, and Jody and I rolled up our windows and braced ourselves for what was to come. He stopped the car in a parking lot, unbuckled, and turned in his seat. He yelled at us until he turned red in the face and little gobs of spit came flying out of his mouth. We knew better than to talk back. We didn’t cry or look away, that would only make things worse. We sat there, all three of us, and waited until he tired of yelling. Then he left to get himself a cold drink before finishing the drive to the campground. We were all dead silent for the rest of the trip.

The rest of the week was much the same. We were slapped for getting too dirty, yelled at for just sitting around and ‘wasting’ the trip, hit for straying too far away, belittled for not playing quietly enough, punished for making a sloppy bedroll. At the campsite, there was no reprieve from Daddy. I tried to hide in the tent to play with my cut-out dolls, but there was no safe place. He found me eventually, dragged me out of my quiet corner, and screamed.

“Look what you’ve done, you’ve tracked dirt into the tent again, you little brat. You’re worse than your good-for nothing mother.”

He grabbed me by the shoulders and rattled me until I felt ready to fall apart. Jody looked at me with her sad eyes and wisely stayed out of the way, and Mother, in the only way she ever chose to acknowledge these scenes, said simply “Tom.”

Just “Tom.” Just his name.

More often than not, this would earn her a slap from him, but all the same, I wished she would say more. I wished she would say “Tom, stop.”

Or “Tom, she’s just a little girl.”

Or “Tom, you’re hurting her.”

Or “Tom, leave her alone.”

I hated her for not saying more, for not sticking up for me, as much as I hated him for hurting me in the first place. I likewise hated the vacations we took, hated the unforgiving stretches of summers, hated my life. And I hated how the other campers stayed away, asked to switch sites, and how the children played elsewhere and the grownups gave us pitying looks.

No, I couldn’t write about the camping trip, that’s not the kind of thing teachers want from their students. I sat at the big desk and wrote about a lovely trip to Ottawa instead. It wasn’t true, it was a pack of lies, and I felt bad about making it up, but I hoped Miss March would like it all the same. I hoped Miss March would like my first essay. I hoped Miss March would like my fancy cursive S. I hoped Miss March would like me.

V's Feedback

So first off, the title and first paragraph implied (to me) a lighthearted romp; after all, it's the title of the Tiny Toons' magnum opus, and so many third-graders' assignments -- and I guess that's the point being made here. But I was taken by surprise when the story started detailing the main characters difficult childhood. I rather enjoy being surprised like that -- not knowing where the story is going or going to -- so found your story compelling.

I found the little girl's situation to be pretty sad. A few lines moments really stuck out for me:

He grabbed me by the shoulders and rattled me until I felt ready to fall apart. Jody looked at me with her sad eyes and wisely stayed out of the way, and Mother, in the only way she ever chose to acknowledge these scenes, said simply "Tom."

I like the simplicity of her mom's comment to the father; maybe it shows the way abuse both paralyzes and numbs us.

After the S, I was uninspired. The rest of the page remained blank as I stared dejectedly out the window.

For some reason -- and maybe this is something that anyone who has had to write anything for a deadline can relate to -- I could really picture the little girl at her huge desk, proudly writing her perfect "S" and then stopping, dejectedly, with nothing else to say.

Also, I was thinking (and over thinking) about the title. Was this piece once a response to the question "what did you do on your summer vacation"? The title really makes it seem like something for submission. I almost thought this would be the little girl's submission until she opts for handing in "a pack of lies". Then again, for you the author, this story could just as much be a pack of lies as well. There is something ironic going on here, but oh man, my head hurts.


It's eerie how a pair of fresh eyes can encourage you to read your own story in a new way. Words do not change; interpretations do.

I think it's safe to say I will continue to prostrate myself before this story, searching for the words that will make it right. I'm not sure that I will ever feel that anything I write is as perfect as it should/could be. I think part of my problem is not knowing the right time to let a story go and not trusting myself to the best of my abilities. I hate shoving this into the world, worrying that it's not ready yet, anticipating the reader's every criticism...but never quite arriving at the point where I can enjoy a small success.

Well, there's always next time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

For Betty

I wrote this last summer, for Jason's grandmother.
Words are sadly inadquate.

Lying in bed mid-morning on a Tuesday, I listen to the rain assault the roof in sheets, then trickle sexily down the window. I make a mental note - treadmill today. Jason stands beside the bed. His hair is slick, his shirt is dotted and translucent from fat rain drops accumulated on his dash from the car to the house. Something's up. Jason should be at work for 11 more hours. I resent the imposition. He prods me and I pretend to still be sleeping.

I am angry at him for some infraction from the night before. Angrier still that he went to bed without apologizing. Angry that he values sleep above my feelings. I am not going to make this easy on him.

"Jamie, will you come to Ottawa with me?" he asks his angry, pretending-to-be-asleep wife, and my mind snaps to attention. There is a catch in his voice.

"What's wrong?" I ask. Something's wrong. That's rain in his hair, on his shirt, but those are tears in his eyes. Jason does not cry.

"My dad called me at work." His dad never calls him at work. His dad never calls him. "Grandma is in the hospital. They don't think she's going to make it. He said I should get up there quick."

"Do I have time for a shower?" I ask, already going through a mental checklist: gas, directions, flowers, card. He tells me yes, but declines my offer to join me.

"I'll just slow you down," he says, and this is true. I only thought he might not want to be alone.

In the shower, I wash and rinse quickly. I don't want to arrive at the hospital 10 minutes too late, so I cut corners. Goodbye is more important than my apricot facial scrub.

As I am toweling off, Jason says "Visiting hours are 3pm-8pm, do you think they'll let me in?"

I think:Of course they'll let you in. They make exceptions in the ICU. You'll get to say goodbye before she dies.
I say: "I'm not sure. Maybe you should call." We are not using the word death yet.

On the drive up, Jason is nervous. I have no hope for him, no rosy affirmations. I offer him the only comfort I have: information. I tell him about the other-worldly experience of the ICU. I prepare him for the worst. I coach him on having a meaningful visit with an unconscious, unresponsive person. I suggest ways of dealing with the even more daunting task of consoling his grandfather. Jason takes this all in, and the 2 tears that spill on to this cheek tell me it is registering.

Briefly, something flares up inside me, and I realize that it is jealousy. I wish he had tears to spare for me. I wish that he showed traces of regret, or recognition for my hurt, and then I take this feeling that I am having on the 417, and I shove it back into the dusty recesses of my mind. I shelve it with other shameful secrets, and I am so overwhelmed with my failings as a compassionate human being that my own eyes overflow with sadness. Jason misinterprets my tears.

"We'll get there in time," he tells me, and all I can do is nod.

We meet with construction at the hospital. The parking garage is a concrete maze, and Jason eases the car through a complex series of obstacles before being rewarded with a narrow parking space in the last possible crevice, deep in the bowels of this monstrosity. I get out of the car and gulp down air greedily. I am feeling claustrophobic before I even step foot in the hospital, and for this harrowing pleasure, I pay $12.50.

A nurse must identify his grandmother for Jason; she is unrecognizable. She has so much equipment plugged into her it is hard to tell where machine ends and human begins - except they do not; they are inseparable. Her chart reads like a medical multiple choice: aneurysm (chest), open-chest surgery, artery replacement, aneurysm (brain), CAT scans, stroke, cardiac arrest, jaundice, dialysis, ventilator, paralysis. Jason is reeling with grief.

I try to focus him - I tell him to touch her, talk to her, and when he does, his face floods with relief.

His grandfather enters the room, and I am struck by how much these two men separated by 50 years can look alike. They both stick out a hand in greeting, but the handshake quickly dissolves into an embrace.

Neither grandson nor grandfather can bear to be by the bed for long, so they circle it, trapped in an anguished dance

His grandfather's voice is hoarse when he confesses "What bothers me most is that she can't see me. Her eyes will be open but empty. She doesn't even know that I'm here." I want to tell him that she does know, somewhere, but this is his wife, his grief, and my words are too small.

When it's time for Jason to go, he touches her hair, her cheek, and tries not to say "goodbye."

The thing about the dying is that they're living. Dead is dead, but the dying are still alive. Betty has 5 children and 9 grandchildren. She likes her cigarettes, her JD, and her convertible. She will celebrate her 54th wedding anniversary in a month and a half if she lives that long. The odds are against her. Her children are bracing themselves for The Call. They are making their peace. Her husband still clings to fractions of percentages of hope.

On the way home, the road looks gray and bleak. My mind wanders to the inevitable: I need to pick up pantyhose; I'll have to get Jason's black suit dry-cleaned; I can start freezing squares and casseroles now.

Jason catches me looking pensive and asks me what I'm thinking.

"Oh, just about how lucky we'd be to have such a long and happy marriage," I tell him, as I give his hand a squeeze. After all, these circumstances are what little white lies are made for.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Power of Please

Despite the fact that I wrote this story nearly a year ago, it is still a work in progress.

I am lying in the soft dirt; it gets under my finger nails and in my hair. It cakes the backs of my knees and the tiny hollows of my ears. The ground is somewhat wet from recent rain. The smell is not unpleasant; it's familiar, and I cling to it. I try to concentrate on the dirt, the way its heady scent fills my nostrils, the way it crumbles as I dig my fingers into it. This helps me not think of the pain as a man lies grunting on top of me.

I can picture my mother in the kitchen, watching the minutes tick by on the oven's clock. She is wearing an apron and a frown. The table is set and the kitchen is warm because the oven's been on all afternoon. It's Tuesday, so a pot roast awaits, drying out and shrivelling with every passing moment. She is probably annoyed that dinner will be over-cooked. She's probably thinking up lectures and fitting punishments to dole out when I come bursting through the door, late again. I imagine her pacing back and forth on the kitchen's linoleum floor, watching for my outline in the growing dusk outside the window. Impatience and annoyance reign for now; it will take many minutes more before concern begins to seep in. No one's even looking for me yet.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a scrap of pink. Pink, the pink of my dress, torn from my shoulders, discarded with my favourite blue sweater with the buttons that look like small pearly white elephants. I blink back tears at the thought of my sweater getting dirty and damp. I must not cry. He has told me not to cry, not to make a sound. The only sound comes from him, a mixture of wheezing and guttural noises that reminds me of a class trip to the zoo. I will not cry.

He touches my cheek, my hair. He smiles at me, but there is no happiness in his smile. Obscenely, I think that he is as repulsed by his actions as I am, but he keeps on, thrusting and sweating and grunting. He forces himself inside me, and it feels like he's trying to rip his way out. The pain between my legs is unbearable. Well, not unbearable because I am bearing it. I believe it is the worst pain I could possibly live through but not die from. I wish I would die, and not have this pain. I whimper, and his eyes flash cruelly. He sinks his teeth into my shoulder, biting as though hungry, and when he raises his head I see that his mouth is smeared with my blood.

When he is done, he stands up and straightens his clothes. I shiver on the ground, and sit up though my head is spinning. I wonder how I will find my way home from this place. There is blood on my thighs, and I watch it trickle down to the earth below me. It looks black as it pools on the ground, and I tell myself that it's not real, that my pain is not real, that this is not really happening.

I try to brush the leaves and twigs from my hair. The ponytail that my mother so carefully crafted that morning is now crushed beyond redemption. I wince as I shift my weight to stand.

Where do you think you're going? he asks, and I see he is holding a knife larger than any I've ever seen before. Has he always had that knife? It glints in the last fleeting rays of sunshine that poke in among the trees.

Please, I say. Please. And even to my 8 year old ears, it sounds ridiculous. 'Please' is a magic word, my mother has told me. 'Please' is polite. 'Please' is a way of showing respect to your elders, and I know that I do not respect this man, and that even my mother would not object to its absence.

I could say No!, or Don't, or Stop, but I don't say any of these. I say Please, and it infuriates me when the word leaves my lips. And when I say it out loud, softly, pleading, I know that I am not alone. I hear voices, thousands of voices all pleading at the same time. I hear little girls, and grown women. I hear all these voices saying the same strange word, Please, and none of us really mean please when we say it. We're all hurting, we're all begging, and I don't understand anything other than this is not going to be all right.

Please, I say, as he slices into me. I watch the knife disappear inside of me as he himself did, not long before, and I feel detached. I feel as though I am floating away. Please, please, I say, long after I know it is useless. Please, I say, as I am leaving my body. Please, as I drift away, not even sure anymore that I am speaking. Please, I say, along with all the other voices. We form a choir, and with all of our pleading, despite all of our pleading, we all still suffer. Please, please, we say. And I am gone.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A wastebasket is a writer's best friend.

Welcome to my wastebasket.