The Miler

This second-person short is dedicated to my old running coach, Jeremy Mattern, a man who believed one school’s program could be great and has been making it such for almost fifteen years. You’re an animal, J-town. 

pre
“Pre” circa sometime 1970’s (disclaimer: this story has nothing to do with Steve Prefontaine)

 

It starts in the chest. It swirls around the abdomen, out toward the fingertips and into your feet and toes. It is brought on by the senses. You take a deep breath and look around. It is you and eleven others. They are going through their rhythms. They’ve applied the icy-hot and have sipped from water bottles. They are readjusting their headbands, re-tying their shoes, stretching and massaging their quads.

Continue reading “The Miler”

Prompt: “Up In My Tree” – 11 min

Up, way up, way, way up is where my brother sits. He bends back branches and leaps from tree to tree at will. He has always been more adventurous than me. Below him are my friends, Raymond and Louis, themselves in different trees but often hanging into mine upon their own sturdy branches. They drop down, into my tree to say “hello.” I always look surprised, and I want to ask what brings them by, but before we can begin to climb together they have leapt back to their trees, often without waving goodbye.

I sit somewhere in the middle of the tree, not too high so as to avoid the better chance of slipping from weaker branches, but not too low that I may never have the chance to change a branch’s direction. Right in the middle I have built my bedroom. I have a bed made of leaves, and a dresser to hold what I wear made from high-up branches. I’ve nailed my life together here. I can’t lie, though, I yearn for the sky about as much as I yearn for the firm foundation of this tree from the earth. To be somewhere in between feels boring, noncommittal. But it’s also where I choose to be, my hands have never been tied.

Prompt: “In My Pocket” – 7 min

In my pocket there is lint. There is lint because of what I put inside my pockets, and because of how frequently I do so. For example, I put my wallet in my left pocket. It is made of leather, and with time, the articles within my leather wallet stretch, harden and reshape it. During this, no doubt, particles of leather drop as dust into the crevices of my pockets.

In my pocket and also making lint are my keys. I use my keys to unlock many things. Front doors, car doors, bike locks, pad locks. My keys take my lint and (no doubt) leave it inside whatever it is I must unlock that day. in exchange, they remove other particles, germs or dust with their rigid angles and find their way back into my pocket. I realize now that my lint is not just mine, but possibly many other people’s as well.

A Visitation is a Journey that Comes to You

Please enjoy this brief bit on the visitation shape often found in fiction writing, as well as my 25-minute practice with it afterward. Let me know what you think!

“The Visitation can show the character conquering or being conquered, transforming another or becoming transformed… The arc of the story is shaped by the visitor…The visitor must be intriguing, but as in all stories, readers must care what happens to your character.” — Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction, 38-39.

Making Shapely Fiction

Change your actions and you’ll make milage of your life. Change your heart and you’ll make miles for your soul. Charlie read it over to himself again. He tried to grasp the words but felt them float in through his mouth and right back out through his unsatisfied exhale.

This stuff will never work anyway, he thought. Self Help? I’m gonna need a lot more than that to–
“Hey, saw you reading earlier. Thought I’d come by and poke my nose around.”
Charlie looked up. The man stood twice his height. A lollipop hung from his mouth, hands upon his hips, his brow wrinkled like a sheet.
“It’s a book my wife suggested. She’s real into self help.”
“But you’re not.”
“Well–”
“Let me see,” the man swiped the book up like a grapefruit and held it to his face. He peeled back the pages. “Will yourself toward your goals and success will be your only option.”
Charlie was quiet.
“You believe it?”
“I don’t really know.”
The man dropped the book on the table in front of Charlie and looked at the sky. His hands on his hips again. “Stuff never works.”
“Why? What never works?”
“Oprah psychology crap. Makes for decent community, but not change.”
Charlie thought about that. He pushed his hair away from his face and noticed the man’s clothing. “Do you work here?” Charlie said, parsing the man’s shoes and jeans before looking back at him.
“What’s it look like, partner? Think a place like this would hire a guy like me?”
“Well, I don’t know, maybe–”
“How long you work here for?”
“About a month.”
“Haven’t met many people yet have you.”
“No. Wait, how do you know that?”
The man sat. His legs wide like branches bursting from a tree. He put his hands flat across the table. “Because here you are at lunch reading a book you don’t want to be reading.”
Charlie was annoyed.
“What do you want to do?”
“What, on my lunch break?”
“In life. What’s your dream?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really think like that.”
“Oh, bullshit. Everyone’s got dreams. Where are you in two years? Who are you with? Why are you stillon the earth?”
Charlie could feel his face getting hot. He considered leaving but didn’t. “Guess I’d love to take my wife and live in the country. Raise a family there. Write a novel.”
“Now we’re talking, partner.”
“Hey who are you anyway? You don’t work here I gather, but you just show up at accounting firms at lunch time to scrutinize what people read all the time or something?”
“Easy now,” the man said. He leaned in. Charlie wanted to pull back because the man’s breath smelled like Doritos. “Just think of me as that guy that told you to get the hell out of the place you hate and to make your ideas for the great life a reality. Ain’t going to find it in a book like that, and you ain’t going to write a novel if you’re stuck crunching numbers all day.”
Charlie was quiet again. He scrunched his nose and looked away. But he knew the man was right.
“Mr. Johnson,” came a voice from behind. It was a woman. Charlie looked back and saw a thick, green day-planner in her hands and headset on her ear. She was writing while walking. “Mr. Johnson your one o’clock is waiting.”
“Burn it, man,” the man whispered with his head low. “You’ll thank me one day.” He stood, addressed the woman and walked into Charlie’s building. He turned up the stairwell and jogged to the top. Two fingers to his forehead he saluted Charlie from the railing at the second floor. Then, he turned and went through the only set of Mahogany doors at the firm. The only set, Charlie figured, fit for the boss.

You May Forget You’re Reading Now

Here’s another Write Practice exercise played out. It comes from Thursday’s prompt about reasons why writers might seek validation. Frankly, I didn’t identify too much with points two and three, but I did enjoy the prompt:

For the next fifteen minutes, describe the scene when a new reader starts the book you wrote and is instantly sucked in, eyes glued, unable to stop reading.

I thought for a minute about the book that I’m writing, about one of the scenes I hope will suck my readers in and make them forget that they’re reading. Because if I’m honest, one of my goals as a writer is and forever will be to make reader’s forget that they’re reading.

So without further adieu, here’s my 15 minute exercise from Thursday. Cheers.

The air is dense, their legs are fresh, minds and hearts free to take the mid-west like a loaded storm. They have just come from a rejuvenating bus ride. Most noticeably, here in southern Illinois, is the climate. There is greenery like Kansas couldn’t dream of. The trees have sprouted legs and tower like titans. Man-made roads wind and lose their way along their ankle-like roots.

Michael and Louis have been speechless for the last hour. The sound of cranking: over, and over, and over. The wind whisping through their helmets and over their ears is loud and wet. Illinois is alive, Michael thinks. And we are here to experience it.

“I don’t know if I said this to you back at the greyhound station, but…” Louis is pensive. He goes on. “Thanks for keeping watch. I needed that.”

“I think we both did,” Michael says.

“No really, man. I was pretty sick. I needed that rest, on that bench, under the blue fluorescent parking lot lights for those four hours.”

“You bet, man. Happy to be able to do it for you and us. I mean, I fell asleep too.”

“Yeah, but you kept watch. I knew you did. That’s why I fell asleep.”

Michael watches the road roll below him for a while. He feels the wind land on his sweaty skin like mist. It coats him and keeps him cool. A year ago, he would have helped a friend at a moment’s notice. It wouldn’t have taken an ounce of energy. Or thought. Helping someone get to where they needed to go was what he felt he did best.

But today he is different. Sour, hesitant, bitter. Reluctant. His mind begins to turn over like the engine to his aching heart was trying to sneak a jumpstart. Something has stepped ahead of him, or so it seemed. He slows his mind and looks back at Louis, who is peering south toward a grove. Michael can see his pupils. His friend is at ease. What more could he ask for? This is life, he thinks to himself. Just this right now.

Writing Within Two Systems

About a week ago, Joe Bunting (thewritepractice.com) put up a prompt on Writing Fast and Slow.

I’ve certainly heard of the two sides of the creative mind, but when it comes to writing, I thought Joe put it really well. He refers to them as “systems” (which he gets from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow). Here’s some of what he had to say:

Creativity is about bringing several different ideas into a single thought, and this is where System 1 thrives. While System 2 is a focused, precise engineer, solving any problem set before her, System 1 is a fun, spontaneous artist splashing paint on the walls and making messes.

[…]

… let each system do what it does best. Keep System 2 out of the writing room, which can be reserved for making messes. Then bring System 2 back in for cleanup.

Because it turns out that System 2 is a much better editor than System 1. It will spot your typos and errors in logic. It will clean up your copy and make sure your writing is readable. System 2 may not be very creative, but it will certainly keep you from looking like a fool.

One of the biggest temptations for writers is to start in System 1 and then get caught up in editing and perfecting before they finish. I know this happens to me almost every time I write. This tends to result in unfinished work.

Joe went on to offer 5 suggestions to help keep writers from dipping into system 2 too soon (for a full explanation of each step be sure to jump over to his post):

1. Smile
2. Write What You Know
3. Keep Your Pen Moving
4. Don’t Overthink
5. Find Your Writing Workspace

Every post Joe publishes comes with a 15-minute writing prompt. With the two systems in mind, he encouraged the following prompt:

Free write for fifteen minutes using the words orange, sweat, coin, and elm.

As you write, try to stay in System 1 using the tips above. When your time is up, edit your writing using System 2.

I decided to try my patience and knee-jerk addiction to editing before completion. Click the link below titled “Orange, Sweat, Coin, Elm.” On the left is me free-writing within System 1 for 17 minutes. To the right of it is me editing and re-writing within System 2. It was fun to watch how the story evolved between the systems when I kept myself dedicated. The story is simple stream of consciousness. I encourage you to give System 1 and System 2 a try, and I’d love to hear what you went through and how you saw your story change. Cheers!

Orange, Sweat, Coin, Elm

“Hamartia”

“We’re finally vacationing,” Mother said while drying off another dish. “It’ll be nice. A fresh break. We need those. Everybody does but especially us.”

Father was standing there, his right arm propping his body up against the counter. He looked calm, like it might not have been his plan after all, and that the surprise of vacationing really might have been something providential.

Scotty and Max had the hose running outside. It was summer, and after supper they still had plenty of light to burn. They were playing, but when Father stops hearing their laughter but still hears the water running through the pipes below the house, he knows they’ve returned to Mrs. Jensen’s hornets nest on the side yard.

“Alan, the boys are at it again,” said Mother with a sigh. She was placing dishes in their cupboards. “Well? Aren’t you going to do anything?”

Father spreads the kitchen drapes with two fingers and peers out. The lawn is glistening, the planters flooded. Mrs. Jensen’s clothesline is bare but he is pretty sure that has nothing to do with the boys. He finds the faucet down below and the bright green hose that is connected to it looks like a green rubber band pulled taught around the side of the house.
“No,” Father said. He lets the drapes fall back. “They’re boys. Boys do these kinds of things.”

“I understand that,” said Mother. “But those boys have the hose pointed straight at that poor old woman’s house. Who knows what could happen. She has that collection of pottery she likes to keep on the front porch. One blast of water and…”

“I know,” said Father quietly. He looked at the ground and took a deep breath. He lessened his grip on the countertop. “Just let them realize what their actions mean. They have to learn at some point, and better here than anywhere else.”

“Well I just don’t like them poking around other people’s things is all,” Mother said. “Just ain’t right.”

A voice from outside carried through the window. It wasn’t Scotty, or Max. It was deeper, older. A man’s voice.

“Who was that?” Mother said. “Sounds like it was saying your name.”

Father walked through the kitchen, into the dinning room, past the old leather chair, and pushed open the front screen door.

“Alan,” came the voice again. It was Mr. Davis from across the street. He was yelling and swatting the air.

Father could see a trail of water that went from Mrs. Jensen’s side yard out into the street, across the far sidewalk, and up onto Mr. Davis’ front lawn. There were three paper grocery bags laying sideways on the driveway. A head of lettuce rolled out onto the lawn.

“Alan stop them!” said Mr. Davis.

“Stop who? Hey what’s going on Jim?”

“Stop the boys, Alan. The boys!”

Father looked again at the trail of water and noticed that the hose was not taught as before but was detached and sliding quickly across the street. He ran through the front yard and into the street just as Mrs. Jensen, with the six o’clock sun in her eyes, was about to swing into her driveway.

Father gasped and felt the weight of the car lift him into the air. His right shoulder sunk into the windshield and he felt his body cartwheel over the rest of the car and fall like a burlap of bricks into the street in front of his house.

Mrs. Jensen, surprised by the sudden impact of something heavy on her windshield swung her steering wheel the wrong direction and scurried up Mr. Davis’ driveway, running over a bag of groceries and slamming into the back of his pickup.

By then, Mr. Davis was halfway down the street and still swatting away Mrs. Jensen’s hornets.

Father groaned. He looked at Mrs. Jensen’s car and tried to see if she moved. There was an airbag out. He tried to stand but felt a knife-like pain shoot through his right arm. He let it dangle, lifeless. Probably broken. He tried using his other arm and with the curb managed to stand, but when he tried to walk he felt more pain run from his right knee up the side of his body. He collapsed from the intensity. “Mary!” he yelled, and in seconds mother came running from the house.

At the sight of Father, Mrs. Jensen’s car, the hose water, and Mr. Davis, she stopped suddenly and glared at Father.

He looked at her eyes and then down at the grass below her feet. “I know,” he sighed. “I know.”

“Snapshot”

In my first year of college I took a creative writing course. Blindly reaching, I had an inkling that I might enjoy it but had never fully flexed my creative muscles in that way before. Long story short, I enjoyed the course but entirely lacked the patience required of even the most fundamental kinds of writing. One great sign of that to me was the fact that I barely cracked open my writing textbooks. All the greats concur that in order to be a great writer you must be a great reader (and I would add: in order to be a writer you must be a reader, period).

That all being said, I finally got around to reading one of my creative writing texts. It is a paperback entitled, “Making Shapely Fiction” by Jerome Stern.

What a fool I was. What an utter fool. Stern is a genius, and I thought it better to do what instead of reading my textbooks? Strum a guitar? Talk to my girlfriend?

One of Stern’s central ideas (and clearly implied in his title) is that fiction writing has, or at least can be understood to have, shapes. Just as a visual artist will begin at her canvas with general shapes that she molds and brushes into portraits, landscapes, etc., so too does the fiction writer have the opportunity to employ “shapes,” as it were, into his writing.

For example, one of Stern’s shapes is the “Snapshot.” In this the writer will focus upon single moments (e.g. crises, revealing incidents, or epiphanies) and string them out throughout time. Stern says to think of the story as a series of public and private snapshots, of pictures taken at crucial moments. Real photographs, he says, are silent testimonials (think of writing photographs). The writer is to let the snapshots do the telling instead of forcing circumstance, dialogue, or otherwise.

Here is my “Snapshot”:

Rachel stared down the barrel of her father’s gun. A fine cloth was strewn to its side, doing little to protect and cover the weapon. It sat on its side on her mother’s nightstand and she was crouched down on her knees studying it with her hands behind her back. She turned her head to the side and attempted to line up the point at the top of the barrel with the lever she saw near the handle of the gun. She moved closer, ever so slowly, knowing only the distant sound it made from over the hill in the prairie. Her mother could be heard calling her name from the kitchen. Rachel remained fixated.

School let out and Rachel sprinted home. She huffed quick and chaotically, her arms swung wildly at her sides. Through the front door and into her bedroom, she flung her book bag upon her bed. Her algebra textbook spilled out with two dulled pencils and a calculator. Her face went planted straight into her pillow and she sobbed silently. Her mother could not know. She was so hurt she could die, her makeup smearing the white linen. The day’s events ran through her mind, and she parsed every single second of it. As she did this she began to trade sorrow for anger and fury. Little moans of anguish and ecstatic pain spurted through her nostrils and tightly pursed lips. Tears had all but completely covered her face. Her father was not an angry man, but even he had times when he removed the cherry-handled revolver from its hiding place beneath his bed to relieve stress.

Seven deeply carved grooves hid along the bottom of her wall behind her bed. She had become good at silently inching her bed from the concrete wall without waking anybody up. She doubted many slept so she knew her movement had to be utterly noiseless. Every Sunday, following mass, breakfast, library hour, exercise, and dinner, she made it a tradition to cut and bore a new notch. Knowing how many weeks had passed gave her a sense of sanity. She started as far to the left as she could manage knowing she would eventually need the entire wall. She hid the nail she pried out of a wooden bench in the yard in a hole she made in her mattress facing the wall.

Her graying hair had not flowed so freely in decades. The prairie and her old Kentucky home looked just as she remembered. Each morning she walked alone along the perimeter her father came to own before he died. Her mother’s garden had long-since died away too. All that remained were weeds and dull patches of hardened soil.