Follow by Email

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Story Structure

When we are born into the world we are helpless and weak... we need others to look after us, to provide nurturing which allows us to flourish and grow into adults. At first, these needs are very basic and yet profound... food, comfort, warmth, love. Later as we mature into independent beings capable of going out into the world on our own we form desires, we encounter obstacles and opponents, we make plans and fight battles, and we learn about the world through revelations, eventually coming to a new kind of equilibrium, a better life.

A story comes into being in much the same fashion. It begins with a weakness and a need... and this need is both moral and psychological. Something is missing from the main character's experience... something basic and yet profound... something they must have in order to lead a better life. This is the beginning of the desire that drives the character arc. The need that is missing from the character's life and the desire they feel to obtain it are two very different functions of a story. The need is always below the surface... it is the key to the story, while the desire is what the story is about.

The opponent (or opponents) the main character, or hero, encounters along the story line desire the same goal... this is the deepest most important level of conflict within the story... it is only by competing for the same goal that the hero and opponent come into contact again and again throughout the story. The opponent in this regard isn't an evil person... a true opponent wants to prevent the hero from achieving their goal while at the same time striving for that goal.

When an opponent appears, a plan is necessary to achieve action in the story. The plan is linked to both the desire of the hero as well as the desire of the opponent. The plan may be vague or complex. Along the way, in the middle of the story, the hero and the opponent confront one another as each vies for the goal. The battle is the final conflict which determines who achieves the goal... it may be a conflict of violence or a battle of words.

Engaging in battle is painful, leading to the hero's revelation... the more intense the battle, the deeper the revelation, and like need, revelation comes in both a moral form and a psychological form. A moral revelation is plain to everyone while the psychological revelation is clear only to the hero. The psychological revelation allows the hero to see themselves as they really are... it obliterates the mask behind which they have hidden and reveals important truths heretofore obscured by the lies in which they had come to believe.

At the end of the story, things have returned to normal and yet a fundamental change has occurred in the hero's experience. If this is a positive change the hero evolves into a better person. Conversely, if it is a negative change, or if the hero is incapable of learning from it, the hero devolves or perhaps is even destroyed by the revelation.

The seven structural steps are:

1. Need
2. Desire
3. Opponent
4. Plan
5. Battle
6. Revelation
7. Equilibrium

Notice too that not only can these steps be used in the story as a whole, but they can also be incorporated into each chapter... a story each within the story leading to the final revelation.

Does this help in your writing? Can you see these steps in other stories?


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Braids All Undone

She couldn't get the incessant noise out of her ears… the sound of metal crumpling and glass shattering… and she still felt dizzy as if the car had yet to stop flipping over. A policeman sat outside her door not allowing anyone to enter the room save her mother and her father… and her attorney. Why did she need an attorney? The question bothered her more than it should have.
"Why don't you go and pick her up?" Leslie asked her mother. "I don't want to go out tonight."
"If I hadn't drunk so much, I would," mom replied. "If I get another DUI they'll lock me up for thirty days this time… please… just go and pick up your sister for me… the house is only five miles away. If you don't pick her up, I'm afraid she'll end up riding with someone who shouldn't be driving."
"I've been drinking too… what if I get stopped?"
"Oh… you've only had a couple glasses of wine… and besides, if you're careful you won't get stopped. Now go… before your sister decides to ride home with some drunk."
The silence of secret snow greeted Leslie as she made her way to the car. Just fucking great… the roads would be treacherous now in the middle of the night… the plows never started until six in the morning. She despised mom for drinking so much… she hated herself for having to move back home with her after the divorce. If only Benny Parker had been a real man instead of a spoiled child they might have made something of their marriage. Instead, when he turned twenty one he decided to pick up a flask and he never set it down again.
Amy never should have been allowed to attend the party in the first place. Mom knew there would be a keg there and hard liquor as well… every party Amy attended featured booze and she had only just turned seventeen.
"She's too young to be drinking," Leslie argued after Amy left for the evening. "You know, you could be arrested for allowing her and her friends to drink here."
"I'd rather have your sister drink here than run around hiding it from me," mom replied as she hoisted another martini to her lips sipping it loudly, knowing full well how that sound irritated Leslie to no end. "Besides, I started drinking at her age and it never hurt me any."
You're a fucking drunk mother… a no-account boozer who hasn't held a job in ten years. But of course Leslie never spoke those kinds of words. When she had been a little girl Leslie remembered mom putting her hair in braids… her fingers nimbly quick at gathering and separating the strands before weaving then together in beautiful braids. With her hair done up in plaits Leslie felt safe, as if nothing in the world could harm her. Now, mom's hands trembled so she couldn't do up the buttons on her own blouse, at least not until she had a few drinks.
The car fish-tailed each time Leslie turned a corner. The tires were shot. She meant to get them replaced before winter set in but the kids needed new clothes for school and boots and coats when the cold came early and Benny had been jailed for non-payment of child support… as if that helped matters… and her paycheck evaporated each Friday before she had time to consider things like tires.
When she reached the party house Amy came running out to the car followed by a group of other kids she didn't know and who all began piling into the doors before she could object.
"Thanks for coming to get me, sis," Amy said, slurring her speech. "These people need rides too… I didn't think you'd mind. They all live near us."
And if I did mind, would you tell them all to get the fuck out of the car? Leslie yearned to have enough hair on her cunt to tell her sister to grow up… to quit running around with kids who were nothing but losers. Instead she silently seethed as she backed out the driveway to head for home.
"You're going the wrong way," a boy spoke up… the one riding bitch. "I live back that way." He grabbed the steering wheel causing the car to veer into a curb laughing hysterically.
"Amy! Tell this guy to either behave or I'm stopping right now and making him get out," Leslie called to her sister who rode in the back seat. When Amy didn't answer Leslie took a quick glance back to see she had passed out. "Great… just great. Okay… tell me where you live and I'll drop you off first."
"I live on Brockway… on the dead end. You have to hurry… I'm supposed to be home by now. My dad is going to be pissed."
"The roads are too bad," Leslie told him. "I'm going as fast as I can…"
She wondered why boys had to be so impatient… so impotent… like the men they would inevitably become… like her father, who had left them for a barfly he met in a tavern where he banged the drums as part of a rock band that got lost somewhere on the road to fame and ended up marooned in Pittsburgh, of all places.
"Why can't we go back home?" she had wondered to her mother the day dad left. "I want to go home."
"We are home," mom told her. "Get used to it, sweetie. This is as good as it gets."
And mom turned out to be right. When Leslie met Benny and spread her legs for him on their first date after he told her how much he loved her and how he would be the man of her dreams she thought of Pittsburgh as being not so bad after all… not if boys like Benny lived here. And when their first daughter was born and Benny picked the baby up in his arms gently cradling her Leslie believed in love for the first time in her life.
When he started in with the drinking, though, all that changed. Benny turned into a mean drunk before her eyes, cursing Leslie for any perceived slight no matter how insignificant. Twice he had backhanded her knocking her to the floor before swearing how sorry he felt and promising never to drink again. Once the promise lasted nearly a week but then he lost his job and having him around all day long drunk and abusive proved too much for her. She packed up the girls one afternoon while he dozed in a drunken stupor and moved back in with mom.
"We need to take your picture, miss," a woman in a police uniform and holding a camera in her hands told her. "Please sit up… we can take it with you lying in bed… no need to stand."
"Why do you need my picture?"
"Mug shot… any time someone is arrested we take mug shots. Okay… look at the camera please… good. Now, turn to the side… that's it. Okay… now I need to take your fingerprints." The woman put her camera into a bag she carried and pulled out what looked like a cigar box.
"I'm under arrest? Is that why the policeman is sitting outside my door?"
"Yes, ma'am… now, let me have your right hand please… just let it go limp… I'll do everything." The woman put Leslie's index finger onto an ink blotter and then rolled it onto a piece of white cardboard, repeating the process until she had ten prints.
"What am I under arrest for?"
"I'm sure your attorney can fill you in on that… I really don't know. I'm just here to take your mug shot and finger prints. Thank you for being so cooperative."
"You're welcome," Leslie murmured without thinking. Her mind tried to reconstruct what had happened for her to end up here, in a hospital bed and under arrest. She wondered if they would take her to jail once she regained her strength.
There had been an accident… that's the last thing she could remember. That kid… Amy's friend… that obnoxious little asshole… he'd grabbed the wheel and the tree came closer and closer no matter how she tried to steer away from it… when they went into the ditch running alongside the road the car flipped before hitting the tree broadside… in the back door where Amy lay passed out… Amy.
"Nurse, has my mother been in to see me?" The woman had entered the room carrying a tray of food… breakfast? Or lunch? Leslie didn't know. "I mean… I thought she might be here."
"I believe your mother stopped in earlier… you know your sister is in intensive care on the sixth floor… she may be there with her."
"Intensive care? Why is Amy there?"
"I'm sorry… I probably shouldn't have told you that… I thought you knew. Please, let me have a doctor come in and talk with you."
Blood. There had been blood everywhere. And bodies.
"This one is the driver," someone said, a man in a blue uniform standing over her shining a flashlight in her face. "She looks a bit banged up but she's conscious… and she's been drinking… let's get the breathalyzer before the paramedics get back."
"This one's not breathing either… that makes four dead." The voice came from somewhere outside the car… from somewhere in the dark and the cold… she had hung onto the steering wheel hard enough that it snapped but it kept her from being ejected. "Let's get her out… the ambulance is here."
She remembered feeling hands hoisting her from the car with an excruciating pain shooting down her leg. She must have passed out.
"You're being charged with aggravated drunk driving and vehicular homicide, Ms. Parker," the woman said when she walked into the room after knocking and peeking through the door. She looked to be just out of law school and she wore what looked like a man's suit and she carried a brief case from which she pulled a sheath of paperwork, handing it to Leslie. "I've been assigned by the court to represent you."
"But I didn't do anything…"
"You were driving a car with a blood alcohol level of .09. In this state, anything over .08 is legally drunk. Your car crashed into a tree at a high rate of speed killing four people… all under the age of eighteen… and critically injuring two others, including your own sister."
"But I didn't do anything…"
"So you're saying you weren't driving the car?"
"No… I… my mother… made me go. I didn't want to."
Leslie remembered how the time had gone by so slowly when she'd been pregnant with the kids but the time for her trial to start seemed to rush upon her like a fast moving storm. Guilty, the jury agreed, with the judge nodding at the bailiff who put handcuffs around her wrists and led her away.
"But I didn't do anything," she kept trying to explain to anyone who would listen. It had to be some kind of mistake. Fifteen years? Is that what the judge had said?
"But I didn't do anything…"

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Justine

Justine took a job in town as a receptionist at a car dealership. The owner offered to pay her college tuition if she’d sign up for an accounting course so twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays Justine went to the local college for two hours after working all day. Jimmy said he didn’t want to be tied to a job… instead he stayed home finishing the cabin’s interior and tending the vegetable garden they’d planted and smoking marijuana.
They had the cabin up by the middle of July. It consisted of a plywood covered frame with a roof covered in tar paper to keep the rain out and windows to let in light and a door to keep out the varmints… and best of all they had a bathroom with running water in the sink and a toilet that flushed, scavenged from the front yard of a house in one of the better neighborhoods. The shower only ran cold unless the sun shined and warmed the water tank painted black and nestled on the roof.
Several people they’d met at the cabin-raising in Mendocino had come over to help them with their cabin, including a young girl who seemed quite smitten with Jimmy, a plain-looking thing with yellow teeth and small breasts and a large butt and a nose that looked broken twice and badly set each time. She called herself Lila. Jimmy told Justine that she shouldn’t be jealous… that all the young people these days practiced free love. Justine thought to herself that she should do as Jimmy said and not to be jealous but she couldn’t help it… she didn’t want to share her man with anyone… especially this girl. Justine had formed an instant dislike for her the moment she set eyes on her.
“You’re not going to sleep with Lila, are you?” she asked Jimmy one night while they lay in bed. “I wouldn’t sleep with anyone else besides you.”
“If you wanted to, I wouldn’t mind,” Jimmy told her. “I feel our relationship is solid enough that we can see other people, don’t you?”
“Well, I guess,” Justine said, not sure what else she should say. “So if I wanted to sleep with Patrick you wouldn’t mind?”
“Do you?”
“No… but that’s beside the point, Jimmy.”
“No, I wouldn’t mind,” Jimmy said after a few seconds. “I think sleeping with other people is all part of what we are doing here… we’re building something special, Justine… a whole new way of life. Why should we shackle ourselves to one person forever… until death do us part? It doesn’t make sense. That is part of the old ways… they have communes not far from here where everyone sleeps together… dozens of people.”
“Is that what you want?” Justine wondered. She couldn’t see herself in that type of situation. She knew what Jimmy tried to visualize but deep down she wanted a life with just one man. Maybe, she thought, it had been the way she was raised. But she didn’t want any part of group sex. It sickened her to even think about it.
“I don’t know what I want,” Jimmy said. “I guess I want to experiment.”
“You want to sleep with Lila.”
“Yes, I do,” Jimmy said. “I don’t know why it upsets you. It’s our way of life, Justine. You know that.”
“You should do what you feel is best, Jimmy. If you’re going to sleep with other people though, I’m leaving. I never signed on for that crap.”
Jimmy rolled over to face the wall, the way he did when he grew angry and no longer wanted to talk. In a few seconds he started to snore. Justine slipped out of bed going to the door. A full moon showered silver light into the surrounding fields and trees turning them grey. In the distance a campfire burned. She walked out into the yard naked looking back at the cabin remembering all the love that went into its building. A tear rolled down her cheek landing on her breast. She fought off the sudden urge to walk over to where the campfire burned offering her body up to whomever the strangers were sitting around it. Maybe that’s what Jimmy wanted… maybe it would excite him to hear about such an encounter. She couldn’t do it. She went back inside slipping into bed with her back to Jimmy’s.
Justine wondered why Jimmy had to be such a traditional lover if he wanted to experiment with other partners… he insisted exclusively on the missionary position abhorring oral sex. When she had tried to give him a blow job right after they met he acted shocked.
“How could you even think about doing that?” he said with a look of distain that all but accused her of being a whore… pulling his penis away from her mouth. As soon as she took it in between her lips it had gone limp anyway. "That's disgusting, Justine. I don't want to be kissing you after my thing has been in your mouth."
Her first lover, Randy, loved trying different positions and going down on her for hours and laying naked with her in the sunshine. But Jimmy made a conscious effort never to let Justine see him without his clothes on… he made sure to turn out the light before coming to bed and their lovemaking had to be at night… he wouldn’t hear of doing it in the morning or the afternoon. It had to be dark. Jimmy wouldn’t even take off his shirt when he worked out of doors.
“What the fuck is she doing here?” Justine demanded. Lila sat on the front porch rocking in a chair Jimmy had constructed by weaving branches and sticks together. She seemed quite at ease sitting there when Justine arrived home from her college course after working all day. “I’m not working my ass off all day to come home to this.”
“Nothing is going on, Justine,” Jimmy explained, as if he were weaving a lie the same way he weaved the chair. “She stopped by to see how the cabin is coming along, that’s all. If you want her to leave, I’ll tell her to leave.”
“Of course I want her to leave,” Justine said. “You know how I feel about you being around her.”
“So now you don’t trust me… is that it?”
“I trust you’ll fuck her first chance you get, if you haven’t already.”
“This isn’t going to work out, is it Justine.”
“What do you mean by this?” Justine asked. “Are you saying you want me to leave?”
“I’m saying what we have together isn’t strong enough to survive us seeing other people,” Jimmy said in a low voice. “Maybe you should go.”
“I’ll go, then,” Justine said. She took her suitcase packing her belongings. It astonished her that she didn’t feel more angst at their breaking up. She tried to decide how she felt… she thought she had loved Jimmy but now she wasn’t so sure. She felt free… free of his manic rage at The Man… free of his lust for Lila or any other woman who happened along… free to pursue her own destiny instead of following Jimmy down the hippie trail into some sort of weird multi-partner sexual oblivion. He had never once told her if he thought she was pretty. She wondered if he had even noticed her at all. She had no idea what lay in wait for her and that excited her all the more.
After packing she looked around the place seeing very little in the cabin that belonged to her… that surprised her too. Jimmy spent money on books and furniture that he had to have while she tried to put aside what she could out of her paycheck. The money from his mother, Rita, gradually dwindled away to nothing. But at least Justine had a small nest egg to start out life on her own.
“Drive me into town,” she said when her suitcase had been packed.
“Why don’t you wait until morning?” Jimmy suggested. “Lila’s going to go soon. It’s late now and you won’t be able to get a bus until morning anyway. Stay one more night.”
“If you don’t want to drive me, I’ll walk.”
“Come on then… I’ll take you,” Jimmy relented.
When they got in the car to leave Justine noticed Lila still sat on the porch. Justine imagined she’d be there waiting for Jimmy when he got home, an ugly little thing who’d probably enjoy making love with the lights off as much as Jimmy. She put down the sun visor looking into the mirror mounted on the back. She always considered herself a pretty girl… some people even called her gorgeous but her modesty wouldn’t allow that. Still, looking at her reflection she couldn’t help wondering how Jimmy could prefer a girl like Lila. When they arrived at the bus station, Justine got out, retrieved her luggage from the back seat, and walked away without saying goodbye. Though she had been tempted for just an instant, she didn’t look back.

Justine

Several people they’d met at the cabin-raising in Mendocino had come over to help them with their cabin, including a young girl who seemed quite smitten with Jimmy, a plain-looking thing with yellow teeth and small breasts and a large butt and a nose that looked broken twice and badly set each time. She called herself Lila. Jimmy told Justine that she shouldn’t be jealous… that all the young people these days practiced free love. Justine thought to herself that she should do as Jimmy said and not to be jealous but she couldn’t help it… she didn’t want to share her man with anyone… especially this girl. Justine had formed an instant dislike for her the moment she set eyes on her.
“You’re not going to sleep with Lila, are you?” she asked Jimmy one night while they lay in bed. “I wouldn’t sleep with anyone else besides you.”
“If you wanted to, I wouldn’t mind,” Jimmy told her. “I feel our relationship is solid enough that we can see other people, don’t you?”
“Well, I guess,” Justine said, not sure what else she should say. “So if I wanted to sleep with Patrick you wouldn’t mind?”
“Do you?”
“No… but that’s beside the point, Jimmy.”
“No, I wouldn’t mind,” Jimmy said after a few seconds. “I think sleeping with other people is all part of what we are doing here… we’re building something special, Justine… a whole new way of life. Why should we shackle ourselves to one person forever… until death do us part? It doesn’t make sense. That is part of the old ways… they have communes not far from here where everyone sleeps together… dozens of people.”
“Is that what you want?” Justine wondered. She couldn’t see herself in that type of situation. She knew what Jimmy tried to visualize but deep down she wanted a life with just one man. Maybe, she thought, it had been the way she was raised. But she didn’t want any part of group sex. It sickened her to even think about it.
“I don’t know what I want,” Jimmy said. “I guess I want to experiment.”
“You want to sleep with Lila.”
“Yes, I do,” Jimmy said. “I don’t know why it upsets you. It’s our way of life, Justine. You know that.”
“You should do what you feel is best, Jimmy. If you’re going to sleep with other people though, I’m leaving. I never signed on for that crap.”
Jimmy rolled over to face the wall, the way he did when he grew angry and no longer wanted to talk. In a few seconds he started to snore. Justine slipped out of bed going to the door. A full moon showered silver light into the surrounding fields and trees turning them grey. In the distance a campfire burned. She walked out into the yard naked looking back at the cabin remembering all the love that went into its building. A tear rolled down her cheek landing on her breast. She fought off the sudden urge to walk over to where the campfire burned offering her body up to whomever the strangers were sitting around it. Maybe that’s what Jimmy wanted… maybe it would excite him to hear about such an encounter. She couldn’t do it. She went back inside slipping into bed with her back to Jimmy’s.
Justine wondered why Jimmy was such a traditional lover if he wanted to experiment with other partners… he insisted exclusively on the missionary position abhorring oral sex. When she had tried to give him a blow job right after they met he acted shocked.
“How could you do that?” he said with a look of distain that all but accused her of being a whore… pulling his penis away from her mouth. As soon as she took it in between her lips it had gone limp anyway. Her first lover, Randy, loved trying different positions and going down on her for hours and laying naked with her in the sunshine. But Jimmy never let Justine see him without his clothes on… he made sure to turn out the light before their lovemaking and wouldn’t hear of doing it in the morning or the afternoon. It had to be dark. Jimmy wouldn’t even take off his shirt when he worked out of doors.
“What the fuck is she doing here?” Justine demanded. Lila sat on the front porch rocking in a chair Jimmy had constructed by weaving branches and sticks together. She seemed quite at home to Justine when she arrived home from her college course after working all day. “I’m not working my ass off all day to come home to this.”
“Nothing is going on, Justine,” Jimmy explained. “She stopped by to see how the cabin is coming along, that’s all. If you want her to leave, I’ll tell her to leave.”
“Of course I want her to leave,” Justine said. “You know how I feel about you being around her.”
“So now you don’t trust me… is that it?”
“I trust you’ll fuck her first chance you get, if you haven’t already.”
“This isn’t going to work out, is it Justine.”
“What do you mean by this?” Justine asked. “Are you saying you want me to leave?”
“I’m saying what we have together isn’t strong enough to survive us seeing other people,” Jimmy said in a low voice. “Maybe you should go.”
“I’ll go, then,” Justine said. She took her suitcase packing her belongings. It astonished her that she didn’t feel more angst at their breaking up. She tried to decide how she felt… she thought she had loved Jimmy but now she wasn’t so sure. She felt free… free of his manic rage at The Man… free of his lust for Lila or any other woman who happened along… free to pursue her own destiny instead of following Jimmy down the hippie trail into some sort of weird multi-partner sexual oblivion. He had never once told her if he thought she was pretty. She wondered if he had even noticed her at all. She had no idea what lay in wait for her and that excited her all the more.
After packing she looked around the place seeing very little in the cabin that belonged to her… that surprised her too. Jimmy spent money on books and furniture that he had to have while she tried to put aside what she could out of her paycheck. The money from his mother, Rita, gradually dwindled away to nothing. But at least Justine had a small nest egg to start out life on her own.
“Drive me into town,” she said when her suitcase was packed.
“Why don’t you wait until morning?” Jimmy suggested. “Lila’s going to go soon. It’s late now and you won’t be able to get a bus until morning anyway. Stay one more night.”
“If you don’t want to drive me, I’ll walk.”
“Come on then… I’ll take you,” Jimmy relented.
When they got in the car to leave Justine noticed Lila still sat on the porch. Justine imagined she’d be there waiting for Jimmy when he got home, an ugly little thing who’d probably enjoy making love with the lights off as much as Jimmy. She put down the sun visor looking into the mirror mounted on the back. She always considered herself a pretty girl… some people even called her gorgeous but her modesty wouldn’t allow that. Still, looking at her reflection she couldn’t help wondering how Jimmy could prefer a girl like Lila. When they arrived at the bus station, Justine got out, retrieved her luggage from the back seat, and walked away without saying goodbye. Though she had been tempted for just an instant, she didn’t look back.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I'm a Writer, dammit!

I haven't always been a writer.
I married young and the demands of a growing family meant a man like me had to become a provider. So, I worked… first in the employ of others and later as a business owner. I recall quite well the day I stood on the loading dock of the factory where I used to work. I saw my boss pull up in his Cadillac, open up the trunk, and take out his golf bag. I realized that while I'd been slaving away in a hot factory all day long, he'd been hitting the links and playing games. I told myself then and there that I was finished making someone else rich.
Not long after that day I started my own business and quit my job of making the boss rich. Actually, the man fired me before I got the chance to quit but that's another story and neither here nor there so far as becoming my own boss. The writing was on the wall long before and him firing me merely allowed me to draw unemployment compensation for a year while I got my business off the ground, something me quitting wouldn't have allowed.
I thought I worked long hours at my job… little did I realize the hours were even longer when a person is self-employed. Not only was I responsible for the day to day business activities, but I had to effectively market the business, schedule appointments, go out and sell my services against stiff competition, and when the business grew, I had to learn to hire quality people to help me run my business.
By the time I turned 45, my oldest son had been married for a half dozen years and the other children were no longer children. Part of the reason I started my business was the hope that the kids would want to be a part of it too, but it never seemed to appeal to them as much as it did to me. Oh sure, they all worked for me for a while but then went off and did their own things… got good jobs… married good people… started their own families.
Putting all my time into the business had another down side I do not like talking about… my wife left me about the time the business really took off. I suddenly found myself alone with a thriving business and no one to share it all with. About this same time I started dabbling on the Internet where I found my way to a discussion group centered around the work of Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and a second novel called Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.
During the course of these talks, I met a man who lived in Norway who had personally corresponded with Mr. Pirsig and who asked me to attempt putting the first year's worth of discussions into book form… well, he really asked me to write the Lila Squad story but since I didn't know how to do that, I took the archived posts and put them into a readable format, after securing permission from the contributors, of course.
A month after I uploaded my manuscript of compilations to a website that I taught myself how to construct, the fellow from Norway sent me an email telling me that he had received a snail mail letter from Robert Pirsig saying he had discovered my website and how much he liked it and how he had started making notes on the book I had named Lila's Child.
After the amazement of such a thing happening had worn off, I wrote my friend in Norway an email asking if he thought Mr. Pirsig might be willing to share his notes with me. I thought what a great addition they would be to Lila's Child. My Norway friend wrote me back to tell me that he had severe reservations on asking Robert Pirsig to share his notes so I took it that to mean it would never happen. Still, I began to rework the manuscript that I had uploaded, noticing a number of mistakes that had heretofore escaped my attention.
In a month or so, my Norway friend wrote me to say Robert Pirsig had agreed to take a look at the manuscript once I had finished working out the bugs. Apparently he had reconsidered his recalcitrance in asking Mr. Pirsig to supply notes and had written him a letter without telling me, perhaps hoping to save me the heartache of a refusal.
Over the next few months I sent the completed manuscript back and forth to Robert Pirsig many times, asking questions and basically having the intellectual time of my life. I quit watching television. I neglected my business. I spent whole weeks in front of the computer working and reworking the manuscript to include the notes and introduction Robert Pirsig had been so gracious to provide. Time disappeared. I lost myself completely in my work the way I had never before experienced.
And then it was finished.
I felt empty. When I rose in the morning I had nothing with which to occupy my mind. My old routines had become dull and no longer seemed worthwhile indulging in. I went back to working my business but with my heart no longer in it not long afterward I decided to sell it. Times were good and it didn't take long before I found a buyer.
One day, a woman who I had started seeing asked me if I could do anything in the whole world, what would it be? Right away, I told her I would write. I didn't even have to think about it. At the time I had the time and the money to do anything but my experience with Lila's Child still resonated within my psyche and I knew that somehow, some way, I wanted to recapture that feeling of losing myself in my work.
So… I began writing. I wrote short stories at first… they seemed easier and not the challenge that a novel presented. I bought all kinds of books on writing and spent hours every day reading on how one became a better writer. Some of the books were very good and I learned something from all of them. I began reading the classics again, this time dissecting them so far as plot and theme and storyline.
I found myself imitating the authors I loved especially well. The more I wrote the closer I came to finding my own voice within the din of all those brilliant writers who'd come before me. My first novel grew out of a single original paragraph I wrote without giving it much consideration. Three more novels followed.
I took a part-time job to help pay the bills and began writing every day for at least four hours. I considered writing to be my real occupation even though I didn't sell enough books to do it full time. I began to establish more of a web presence to help market my books. But when I shared my preoccupation with writing with my son, he told me that he thought how everyone needed a hobby and how happy he was that I had found something I enjoyed doing.
A hobby? Really?
Now, I must say in all fairness that my son has a remarkable sense of humor that he no doubt inherited from his mother's side. And I am quite sure he meant well. I suppose I might think the same thing if someone told me they were writing in their spare time.
But I am a writer, dammit!
This isn't a hobby. A hobby is something practiced for enjoyment without thought of financial reward. And yes, when I am lost in a story that I am writing, I'm not thinking of making a boatload of money off it. At the same time, however, I feel the skill sets that I have evolved over the last few years have resulted in me becoming a writer… not a hobbyist.
I sell books all over the world! People actually pay to read the words I write! While I may not (yet) be a professional in the sense that I earn a living with my writing, I feel I have achieved a distinction many others will never achieve. I have penned a novel!
I am a writer!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Caballero

When he was younger Carlos rode the bull and in this he still found much pride, especially when talking to pretty girls who looked at him as he bragged of his exploits with something akin to awe sparking a widening of their pupils as they smiled and caressed the skin on his arm while holding his hand in theirs very lightly and long.
Now, he washed dishes. Sometimes, when drudgery set in and the day seemed to draw out like a hundred years the white stacks of plates and endless gray trays of dirty silverware appeared to Carlos as wild stallions frolicking in the morning mist of his homeland far to the south.
"I must leave this place and go el norte," Carlos announced to his mother on a brilliant winter day in the middle of July when the sun shined so brightly on the newly-fallen snow it hurt his eyes to go out of doors without his sunglasses. Of course he said this in Spanish and of course his mother cried to see him leave. Yet neither did she attempt to sway him. "I will send money home to you so that father may get well again."
He grew up on the Salado River deep in the Andes Mountains of Argentina where his father raised prized bulls on a thousand acre ranch situated in a high green valley that spun itself into one giant flower each spring. A calamity befell his family when the old man became embroiled in a feud with a neighbor over a few acres of land and arrived home shot through the stomach carried on a make-shift stretcher by a ranch hand who found him bleeding profusely next to the neighbor who lay dead with a bullet hole through the head.
His father didn't know Carlos rode the bull or he might have done his best to forbid it. But the old man had been shot and lay lingering close to death for many months after and his mother wrung her hands over bills coming due with no money to satisfy them, so Carlos took to the rodeo to help make money for the family though he'd just turned fifteen.
"Montar toros!" the crowd called out the day Carlos mounted the bull, an angry mass of meaty muscle that bucked so badly when he climbed on its back in the holding pen that his right knee dislocated and popped back in just as quickly… he didn't notice the pain until much later. When he fell in the dusty corral and the red-eyed beast bore down on him with bloody horns and a singular purpose colorfully dressed clowns leaped to his aid, one hurrying him to the sideline while the others distracted the raging bull to give Carlos that instant of escape.
Afterwards the owner of the rodeo praised Carlos while filling his hand with crisp pesos assuring him there would be plenty more if he returned the following week but when he showed up the policemen turned him away saying the man had been operating without a permit and had been arrested and if he knew anything it would certainly be better to speak up or risk the same. Carlos ran away. The policemen called out for him to stop following him a short distance with pistols drawn but gave up the chase when he entered the Plaza de Mayo seeking refuge in a rug hut until the owner angrily tossed him out.
Knowing the police were bound to show up at the ranch seeking him, Carlos left the next morning with some home-cooked empanadas folded in a handkerchief and a fistful of coins pressed into his hand by his mother who held him a long while and then turned away as he left his home never again to return.
The Indians in Central America fed him eriba giving him a place to sleep as he passed through their towns one by one on his march north. Sometimes a pretty girl might take him in her arms and lull him with her beauty and soft breasts into thinking of staying but he knew his mother awaited his assistance back home and so he would leave them to their tears and continue on.
Traveling through Mexico banditos waylaid him taking the few coins he had left in his pockets and forcing him to hand over his fine hand-made Argentine boots leaving Carlos to walk a hundred miles barefoot over the Sonoran desert stumbling over creosote bush that left his skin sticky and prickly pear that drove their needles deep into the soles of his feet causing him to limp so badly that many times he thought of sitting down and dying.
Crossing the Rio Grande into Arizona proved easier than he ever thought… the water but a tepid trickle and the fence breached in many places and the night starless black. Coming into the United States for the first time he happened upon an encampment of immigrants such as himself huddled together under a jumping cholla that did little to hide them from view but Carlos sensed it made them feel better all the same. The Mexican men laughed when they saw his ragged condition and told him that's why they paid a coyote to take them across the desert but the women were kind to him plucking the thorns from his feet and dressing his wounds in rags they tore from their own clothing and feeding him tortillas and a thin gruel of beans that tasted wonderful.
Now after working many years washing stacks of wild stallions and each week sending home most of his meager paycheck to his mother who always wrote needing more, at night Carlos dreamed of the bull… a sullen heaving menace moving under him lurching with an urgency only attributable to a great hate and malice… dreaming of how the crowd cheered "Montar toros!" as he held one hand high in the air to keep his balance while holding onto the stiff rope wrapped about the bull's torso with the other hand feeling it bite into the flesh of his palm until he no longer knew which bled the more, him or the rope.
"Come to my cousin's horse farm with me this weekend," Marissa urged him, her dark eyes aflame in the candlelight that illuminated the bedroom where they lay her long black hair cascading down to her waist covering her breasts that rose and fell with each breath she took. "You work too much. You need a day off."
Marissa waitressed at the café where Carlos worked and it pained him to see Antonio squeezing her buttocks and nuzzling her neck when they divvied up the tips at night but she explained that since he ran the café there was nothing she could do but to acquiesce to his unwanted advances and hope they'd go no farther. Carlos thought how he might lay in wait for Antonio and challenge him but the man stood much larger than he with tree trunks for arms so he did nothing, hating himself for his meekness.
"They have horses?" Carlos said, feeling silly as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Of course a horse farm would have horses. He spoke quickly to cover his faux pas. "I rode a bull but never a horse."
"You did not."
"Oh but I did," Carlos said with pride swelling his voice.
"Well then… riding a horse will be no problem for you, caballero… you must show me your wonderful skills," she teased him, poking him in the ribs and causing him to loudly pass the gas he'd been attempting to hold in so as not to embarrass himself.
The horse ranch proved very fine with an enormous white house that stood in the center of many corrals with a half dozen red barns dotting the estate. Marissa took Carlos by the hand leading him down to an enclosure where five cowboys sat on a fence observing one of their comrades attempting to ride a bucking wild horse. They stood a moment watching as the horse bucked the man off into the dust and how he scampered away so as not to be trampled when the animal tried running him down.
As they walked to where the men sat the cowboys all began whistling at Marissa and hooting her name and Carlos felt his blood begin to boil as she let go of his hand going to where they sat greeting each by name and kissing them while enduring their embraces the way she endured Antonio's at the café.
"I could ride that horse," he heard a voice say before he realized it had been he who spoke the words. "I rode a bull. A horse is no problem for a man who has ridden a bull."
"Marissa, darling!" said the cowpoke who had just been thrown from the horse and who now walked over close to the fence taking the girl in his arms and kissing her deeply and tenderly for all to see before looking at Carlos. "Is this silly fellow with you?"
"Carlos, this is John," Marissa said, still ensconced in the cowboy's arms that looked to be made of sprung steel and corduroy. "We go way back… he's my cousin, well… sort of. This is his place."
"I could ride that horse," Carlos repeated, not knowing what else to say to save his pride from crumbling altogether in front of these men who eyeballed him up and down and shook their heads to one another with grins that betrayed their intent toward the girl that he loved.
"Give it a go," John offered, opening the gate a crack and winking at the other cowboys. "She's all yours, Carlos."
"Don't," Marissa said, coming to Carlos now and holding him the way she'd just been holding John and the rest of the cowboys. She nearly convinced him, like the Indian girls in Central American had almost induced him to stay with them before he broke away. "Let's go riding on the tame horses, me and you, together… don't go out there… that horse is too wild, too mean. You cannot ride her. No one can ride her."
"You will see," Carlos said, shaking himself loose of her grasp. "I have ridden the meanest bull in all of Argentina… this horse is nothing compared to him. Watch me… I will show all of you."
"Caballero," John called out, throwing him a length of rope. "You'll need this. If you can get close enough to tie it around her neck, you might get a chance at riding her. But she's an ornery one… she'll stomp you if she gets a chance and she'll bite you in the ass to boot."
Carlos talked softly to himself as he walked toward the horse. The cowboys on the fence had disappeared now and Marissa and John too. Only the horse existed. She stood with nostrils flared watching him with wild black eyes alive with the knowledge of his weakness and her strength.
"Whosa, whosa, whosa," he said, nonsense words to calm his jangled nerves… to calm hers as well. Her eyes watched his lips as they moved and her ears perked at the sound of his voice. "Whosa, whosa, whosa."
The looped rope slipped easily over her head and when she started away he spoke to her again, softly, letting her get used to hearing his voice… allowing her to become used to feeling the tug of the rope on her massive neck. She seemed a fine beast, as fine as the bull he had once ridden and Carlos thought how he might have a new dream to dream at night and how Marissa would leave all the others and cling only to him once she had seen how he could ride.
He leaped onto the horse's back the way he had seen cowboys do in the movies… an instant later the ground rushed up at him with amazing and disconcerting speed. Carlos heard a sound not unlike a tree branch snapping under the weight of a heavy foot. When he tried to raise himself from the dust where he lay his body did not respond. He heard rather than felt the horse stomping his mid-section a few seconds before hands dragged him toward the safety of the other side of the fence.
"His neck's broke," John said, standing over him while Marissa knelt by his side with tears rolling down her cheeks and her hair mussed from a breeze that blew out of the south. It smelled of Argentina. Carlos wondered momentarily why he no longer needed to breathe, thinking he had discovered some great truth heretofore unknown not only to him but to humanity in general. Gradually as he watched Marissa's face hovering over him, a darkness gathering on the periphery of his vision overtook him and he dreamed of riding that bull once again with shouts of the crowd filling his ears.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Yelena

“Justine and Jack didn’t make it home yesterday from visiting her mother in San Francisco,” Roger said Friday morning when she picked up the phone. “I'm worried… they were supposed to be here late in the afternoon but they never showed up. I'm sure she would have called if they had car problems. I spent the night with Mouse… he has that over-sized truck… we searched all the main roads but we didn't have any luck… all the roads are flooded with this damned storm we're having… if it wasn't for the stacks on Mouse's truck we never would have made it through the water… Christ, it came up over the hood a few times. Anyway… you don’t have to come into work today, Yelena… Twenty Nine Katz will be closed while I’m going out looking for them again… we're leaving in just a little while.”
Yelena felt a deep sense of foreboding build in her stomach working its way up into that spot beside her heart. She tried to speak but she could not form the words. She felt dizzy… when she tried to reach a chair in which to sit down she instead fell on the floor, the room spinning violently out of control all around her. She lay there several minutes clutching at the legs of the table that towered above her to keep from sliding away on the suddenly tilting tiled floor, fighting off the urge to vomit.
She broke out in a cold sweat as the vertigo subsided, shivering even in the warmth of the kitchen. She sat up testing her balance and finding the dizziness gone she got to her feet. Her ears felt funny… like the time when she was a little girl and dived too deeply into the waters of the Volga trying to reach something shiny she saw at the bottom of the river. She swallowed several times trying to equalize the balance of pressure; when she did so she heard a crackling sound inside her head.
Yelena set the tea kettle to boil putting a healthy pinch of sassafras tea into a cup and pouring hot water over it once the kettle sang to a boil. After cutting a slice of lemon, squeezing it into the cup, and rubbing the rind in between the palms of her hands to coat her skin with lemon juice, she sat at the table sipping the hot tea. With each swallow the pressure in her ears seemed to ease a bit… finally she felt capable of driving.
She went to Twenty Nine Katz; the parking lot seemed empty, forsaken, and forlorn. Using the key Roger had given her she let herself in the side door, turning off the chirping alarm. She felt as if she was entering a forbidden place tiptoeing across the room to the bar where she poured herself a double shot of Stolichnaya Elit vodka, downed it in a single gulp, and then poured another.
The faces in the pictures secured to the walls seemed to glower at her out of the dimness of the lightless room. She went over to the light switches and flipped them all on… she felt spooked though she couldn't quite fathom why. A chill ran up her spine. The light helped chase away whatever ghosts were lurking in the corners but not those huddling in the blackest depths of her mind. She felt sleepy… sleepier than she could ever remember feeling. She laid her head on the bar for just a minute.
"What are you doing here?"
"Oh… I am so sorry," Yelena said, coming fully awake, realizing she had fallen asleep sitting at the bar. She felt embarrassed that Roger had caught her sleeping, as if she shirked her duty. She saw Mouse and Tom Three Deer standing behind him. They both seemed to be trying to appear as if they weren't looking at her but she knew they were. "I come to talk with you… did you find Justine and Jack?"
"No… we've been to San Francisco and back," Roger said. "We saw no sign of them or their car. No one called here, did they?"
"No… not while I sat here," Yelena said. She got up to stretch her legs. They'd fallen asleep she'd been sitting there so long. It had grown dark outside… she looked at the clock and realized she'd been sleeping for five hours. "Did you call police?"
"Those bastards said there is nothing they can do," Roger said, worry lines mixing with a frown that troubled his face. "They said the storm is so bad that all their manpower is tied up… they said that we have to wait a day or two before they can even begin to mount a search."
"We're going out again," Mouse said. "We just stopped in to see if there were any messages on the machine… we thought there might be a chance Justine tried to call."
"She said that you told her not to go on a trip," Roger said, as he walked behind the bar and filled four glasses with beer from the spigot. "She said you warned her to be careful of dark places she couldn't see. She didn't want to go alone… but I couldn't stand the thought of being with her mother for a whole weekend… God help me… maybe if I had gone she would be home now…"
"She ask me to tell her fortune," Yelena said, looking down at the floor, feeling as guilty as Roger seemed to feel. "So I read her palm… I no remember what I say… is the way with me… I never remember… but yes… I remember something about a trip… something no good. She say I tell her to stay home… not to go. Was not for you to go, Roger… only Justine and Jack."
"Can you help us find her?" Roger asked. "Can you help me find my wife and son?"
"Of course," Yelena said without thinking. She remembered the day she first walked into Twenty Nine Katz and the kindness Justine and Roger showed her. "We should sit at booth… better for me in case I fall."
"Fall? Why would you fall?" Roger wondered, picking up his glass of beer and following Yelena to one of the booths that hugged the outer walls.
"Sometimes I pass out," Yelena said. A sudden inspiration blossomed in her heart to try something she had never tried before… something she had never even seen her grandmother try. "Do you have map?"
"Yes… we have a map," Mouse said, walking over to the table while pulling a folded piece of paper from his jacket pocket. "It has all the roads on it from here to San Francisco… even the gravel roads no one ever uses."
"Please… find me pencil," Yelena said, unfolding the map and laying it on the table in front of her.
"Look behind the bar," Roger said looking at Tom. "There's a box under the cash register with pencils in it… please bring Yelena one."
Tom walked to where Roger directed, bringing her a yellow pencil. Yelena took it in her right hand while directing Roger to lay his left hand on the table palm upward.
"You must ask me where Justine is at," Yelena instructed him. "You must do this as I begin reading palm… I might seem to fall asleep but is not sleep… is trance. Ask question carefully."
"Where is Justine, my wife?" Roger asked.
Yelena hovered her left hand over his, palm to palm. She felt a blackness rushing in onto her as everything when dark and she knew no more.
"Are you okay?" Roger said as he stood over her.
"Yes… yes… I think so," Yelena murmured, coming fully awake. "What did I say?"
"Nothing… you said nothing… you shuddered, your eyes rolled back in your head, and then you stabbed the pencil into the map so hard that you drove the tip right into the wooden table under it. And then you just fell over like you passed out."
"Let me see map," Yelena urged.
"Here… it's right here," Roger said. "I moved it after you collapsed, afraid something would get spilled on it."
"Do you know this place?" Yelena wondered, pointing to the spot on the map that she had marked. "Does this place mean anything to you?"
"No… not at all," Roger said. "I'm sure Justine would never go that way… it's way out in the middle of the mountains… she wouldn't know her way around that area at all… she would stay on the main roads. Christ, Yelena… that road looks like it goes nowhere… why on earth would she go that way?"
"You must go there," Yelena said.
"There's no sense in that," Roger complained. Yelena sensed resignation in his voice bordering on anger. "I'm not going to that place… we'd just be wasting our time. I know she wouldn't go that way."
"Then you two must go," Yelena insisted, looking at Mouse and Tom and pointing to the map. "Must look along side this road… look for car in deep place."
"I'm sorry, Yelena," Roger said. Tears filled his eyes as he spoke. "I'm all fucked up with worry over Justine and Jack… I can't sleep… I can't eat… if I could I'd be out looking for them every hour of the day and night. Of course we'll go to that spot on the map. I asked you for help and now here I am… I'm acting like a jack-ass. Forgive me, please."
"Nothing to forgive," Yelena said. She wished she could go to Roger and hug him and tell him everything would be okay but she knew better. "I understand… must be very hard… the not knowing is much worse than knowing."
"If you two are up for it we'll drive down there right now," Roger said, looking at Mouse and Tom. They stood so still that Yelena thought they might be carved. "I know it's late and we've already been to San Francisco and back. If you don't want to go, I understand… I'll drive there myself. If I leave right now I'll get there before it gets too dark."
"Oh no… you're not going alone, old friend," Mouse said, seeming to speak for Tom too. "We're in this together, Roger. Come on… we're wasting daylight."