Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Best Present of All

Cranky shoppers—including John and me—crowded the mega store. At the point we could not fit one more packet of gravy mix in the cart and were debating what Christmas carol the muzak was playing (I still say it was “Up on the Housetop”) we finally admitted we needed a break and sat down with sodas at a table in the deli. After a few minutes I started telling John about a story I was writing for an anthology. I was pretty happy with it but was worried he’d think the whole idea was silly (a sculptor becomes obsessed with releasing a beautiful woman from a ton of stone) and still wasn’t sure about the ending.

I needn’t have worried. He thought the premise was solid and even contributed an alternate ending that the editor eventually chose. (John’s a terrific writer himself and has that much-pursued and rarely discovered ability to bring out the story a writer really aches to tell.)

In the middle of the store, in the unforgiving heart of the Christmas crunch (only twelve shopping days left!), we sat next to our cart full of groceries and talked story. The ice cream was melting, the turkey thawing, the mac ‘n cheese from the deli cooling down. Supplies for baking twelve dozen cookies and a half-dozen loaves of bread awaited checkout, too. So did a number of gifts that needed immediate wrapping and mailing. But there we sat, happily oblivious to all the noise, twinkling lights, and sweaty, smelly, hustling and bustling workers and shoppers, talking story. We sat there for a half hour. It was wonderful.

Over the next couple of weeks, despite the baking, shopping, wrapping, mailing, delivering, cleaning, cooking and socializing demands of the holidays, John helped me carve out writing time and I finished the story by the deadline of December 31st. Traps came out the next year. I can’t remember what other presents I got for Christmas that year, but that thirty minutes John gave me in the deli is the one I remember.

That was three years ago. This year we found ourselves in the same mega store two weeks before Christmas, this time with two full carts (we’ve taken on shopping for John’s elderly mother), feeling a little overloaded from several hours of shopping. We went to the same deli and plopped down. Again, I started telling John about a creative idea that I wasn’t sure about. I’ve been futzing around with several mysteries, all with solid plots and good characters but missing that essential element that grabs the reader and propels him onward.

I thought perhaps I’d chosen the wrong narrator and proposed the idea of using myself as a model for one. Would an interested bystander based on myself who observes and reports on the action around her be viable? He warmed to the idea and suggested I try it. “See what happens,” he advised. I’m excited about it, especially in view of the good luck that came my way three years ago after talking story in the same spot. (I knock on wood, won’t pass salt directly to the person who asks for it, and avoid walking under ladders, too.) But I think the magic will hold because it comes from the love and support of a very honest and true partner—the story he encouraged me to start today will be done soon.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Talk is Cheap

I collect aphorisms. From time to time I’ll post my favorites here.

Talk is cheap because supply exceeds demand.

The nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it’s their fault.—Henry Kissinger

Two kinds of people fail—those who listen to nobody, and those who listen to everybody.

Take your choice: Talk about others and you’re a gossip. Talk about yourself and you’re a bore.

When you hear a simple idea expressed in a complicated manner, you should know that you‘re talking to an expert.

A mistake at least proves somebody stopped talking long enough to do something.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who prefer to say what they think, and those who prefer to keep their friends.

Never argue with a fool; he may be doing the same.

Blessed are they who really have nothing to say and cannot be convinced to say it.

The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.—W. Somerset Maugham

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It’s All About the Madeleines

The great editor Maxwell Perkins once wrote, “Anybody can find out if he is a writer. If he were a writer, when he tried to write of some particular day, he would find in the effort that he could recall exactly how the light fell and how the temperature felt, and all the quality of it. Most people cannot do it. If they can do it, they may never be successful in a pecuniary sense, but that ability is at the bottom of writing, I am sure.”

When I recently came across this quote, what immediately leapt to mind was Proust’s wonderful “episode of the madeleines.” In A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the narrator is offered some tea by his mother. He accepts, which is not his custom. She sends out for some cakes, or madeleines, and he soaks one in a spoonful of tea. “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses… with no suggestion of its origin.”

Marcel revels in the feeling the tea has provoked and marvels at its clarity and intensity but “cannot interpret” it. He wonders if he can pinpoint the cause of this “all-powerful joy”—his ruminations on the very process of self-examination will fascinate anyone inclined to introspection—and attempts to track it down. He takes another sip hoping “the magnetism of an identical moment” will bring to mind the source he is certain is locked in his unconscious, but tasting it again causes the experience to lose some of its magic. He puts himself in the exact moment of drinking that first sip but is unable “to follow and recapture once again the fleeting sensation.” After clearing his head he conjures that first taste again. He feels something stir but no definite associations arise. Only after ten tries does he recall the event associated with the taste—morning tea with his aunt as a child—and leaves for another time why this memory made him so happy.

We’re all born with the ability to perceive our reality on multiple, even infinite, levels. As children we whole-heartedly embrace every experience; as adults we often feel foolish doing so. But every experience is compound and multi-layered; there is a complex of thoughts and feelings associated with unbuttoning your shirt and locking your car door and stepping on an ant and holding your neighbor’s baby, let alone an event of any significance. All those sensory perceptions, emotional responses, and thought processes are felt and recorded. But we have to place value on them so we can experience them fully at the time, so we can study them to better understand our own processes, and so we can call them to memory. Proust writes, “the smell and taste of things remain poised… and bear unfaltering… the vast structure of recollection.”

I have a “tea” memory myself, although not as profound as Proust’s. It is late fall; it is not yet six o’clock but the lamppost across the street is already casting a pale pool of light onto the pavement. My sister two years older than me and I have been studying all afternoon in our rooms. Our mother calls us to take a break from our homework. She’ll spend a few minutes away from her chores, too. She’s fixed orange pekoe tea and laid out cinnamon crisps. The three of us sit at the kitchen table and munch on the crisps and sip our tea and chat about our day and what the neighbors are up to. The pressure cooker on the stove whistles merrily; when the potatoes are done Mom will add milk and butter and whip it all up into creamy potato-y goodness and my sister and I will clear the crumbs off the table and set out the silverware for dinner. But for now we just sit and sip and talk idly about nothing. Those “nothing happened” times make the best memories…

To this day, the smell of orange pekoe tea—even the phrase “orange pekoe tea”—triggers the taste of the tea and cinnamon crisps and the memory of those long ago days, and once again I feel the warmth of those autumn afternoons with my sister and mother.

We writers notice everything. We are writing, in our heads, an experience even as we live it. Like Snoopy describing eating his own dinner (“the famous WWI flying ace attacks his bowl of dog food”), we mentally chronicle the events of our lives for general life-logging purposes, for inspiration, and for later use in conversation or story. We regard the whole of our lives as fodder for our Art, and easily recall “exactly how the light fell and how the temperature felt, and all the quality of it.” It’s what creative people do, what we must do. It’s all about the madeleines.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Story as Magic

One of the neatest aspects of a story is that it exists in the present. When you tell a friend about a story you very much enjoyed, one that pulled you in and kept you there, you say, “It is really good.” You use the present tense. The story is not over. It’s never over. As I write this, Sherlock Holmes and Watson are racing down the Thames, Margot Macomber is ending the short happy life of her husband, the good aldermen of Jefferson are staring at the single strand of iron gray hair on the bed in Miss Emily’s house, and Mme. Loisel is discovering she and her husband suffered years in poverty paying for a fake necklace.

The action is still happening—it occurred as you were reading it, it is happening as someone on the other side of the planet is reading it at this moment, it will take place for someone one hundred years from now. It’s like time travel, or the telepathy Stephen King writes about. He very purposefully described a rabbit in a cage with the numeral “8” on its back in Maine in 1997 and I visualize it today, August 21, 2010, in Indianapolis. And you saw it, too, just now, on whatever day it is for you, wherever you happen to be. How cool is that?

That brings us to the dual action of a story—there is what happens in the story to the characters and there is what happens inside us as we read it. I refer not to the internal emotions we feel—and that are often the author’s primary purpose in writing it—as the story moves along. I mean the action that takes place in our imaginations. Our neurons are firing like crazy as we create each scene in our minds. We are recreating what the author already built in his own head, yes, but we are creating every scene, too, with fresh energy and purpose every time we read a favorite story. And when we clue in a friend that “this is a good read,” she can pick up the story and enjoy the same experience we did—Holmes racing, Margot Macomber shooting, aldermen gaping, Mme. Loisel paying a huge price for her pride. It’s telepathy, it’s time travel. It is magic.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Book of Tentacles Review

The Book of Tentacles (Sam’s Dot Publishing, 2010) is a delightful genre-crossing mix of bizarre and wonderful tales and poems. You’ll find Kraken and Cthulu, soul-sucking air monsters, creeping vines, vengeful octopi, sexy cephalopods, spineless lovers, fertile aliens, and hungry denizens of land, sea, air—and underground. They are horrific and wondrous, beautiful and dangerous, monstrous and eerie.

In his introduction editor Scott Virtes writes, “We haven’t gone out of our way to make it weird or different or artsy. “Weird” just comes naturally to us.” And coeditor Edward Cox explains in his Outro, “Not only were we able to accept the choicest of cuts, but also search for diversity and ensure this anthology had the broadest range of possibilities imaginable.” The editors make good on all claims, and each entry is noteworthy.

Cthulu shows up—in court. Matthew Bey’s “Call of the Bailiff” is full of marvelous turns of phrase as the Old One battles CPS for custody of his offspring—never pretty, especially with a formless blob for a character witness. Also, Keyan Bowes delivers a lovely telling of the Kraken myth in “Blood Amber.”

Tentacled creatures inhabit the world beneath us, too. In “The Signal” by Aurelio Rico Lopez III, codebreakers discover Armageddon releases real monsters. In editor Virtes’s “P6 Is Burning” a young lady faces a car-eating monster in a parking garage on her way to a job interview—but it may end up being the hardest job she’ll ever love. A Scotsman protecting his land from trespassers in “A Ferrylouper at Stenness” accidentally summons a creature from the depths of the earth that “pushed his waking mind to the very chasm between reason and madness.” Author Christopher M. Cevasco’s skillful wrap-around makes one doubt his tale is fiction.

Heroes abound in this collection. A stepfather finds the courage to face a tentacled monster in the basement—and human ones in the kitchen—in Terry Hickman’s “Jar of Peaches.” A sarcastic scribe and his charge battle a castle-climbing Kraken in Steve Gobel’s entertaining “The Temple of Squoad.” Wounded warriors hunt an oasis-draining giant crab in “One Big Drinker” by Billy Wong. In “Cascade,” a poem by Cathy Buburuz, an astronaut rescues and beds an alien damsel—with horrible consequences. And in Laura J. Underwood’s “A Quiet Neighborhood,” a new resident finds an unlikely benefactor beneath her feet.

Camille Alexa traces the origins of the term in her poem “A Lady’s Quick Reference Note on the Tentacle,” a charming accounting of all things tentacled. Other poems explore the themes of hunger and love, sometimes combing the two. The caged monster in Marge Simon’s “Lab Assistant” appears starved but is only very clever. In Terrie Leigh Relf’s “What did she know of love?” a blind girl is betrothed to a tentacled creature, and in Joshua Gage’s “Drosera” a fatal beauty lures a survivor of an apocalypse to a secret garden.

Invertebrates can be lousy lovers, as revealed in Clinton Lawrence’s flash “Low Life” and Brian Rosenberger’s poem “Mister Octopus Hands.” Mark Lee Pearson’s story “Hideki and the Giant Squid” concerns a squid in a gourmand’s digestive tract demanding to be reunited with its mate. Creepy. In Tyree Campbell’s “Slightly Pudgy Writer Seeks Foreign Entanglement,” a flirty cephalopod takes up residence with a writer, but when he tires of the relationship, she claims, “You don’t love me because I’m an alien!” Enchanting fun from this veteran author.

“The incompletion that brought one back from the dead” motivates a murder victim decomposing on the ocean floor in James S. Dorr’s “In the Octopus’s Garden.” Dorr uses his narrator’s inexact memory to weave a beautiful tale. Another sea-dwelling monster seeks revenge on a very human one in Carl Hose’s intense “Dead Wait.” In Rob Brooks’s “Taking Root” a snide mechanic meets a creepy fate from a vengeful tattoo artist. A unique format adds powerful meaning to “The Little Sea Maid,” a poem of retribution from Kendall Evans and Stephen M. Wilson.

In “Sucker Punch” by Mark Onspaugh, a mollusk-fearing physicist attempts to eliminate the species at a critical point in earth’s evolution. Horrible energy-sucking air monsters surround us, reveal Robert J. Santa’s “Professor Hilliard’s Electric Lantern” and Jim Ehmann’s “To See.” All three stories are notably poignant.

“Azure Doom” by William Blake Vogel III describes the eerie domain of an “awakening monstrosity.” David C. Kopaska-Merkel’s scary “The Anemone Garden” follows a nosy marine biologist, and in Kali Black’s haunting “Ink and Shadows,” a Watervoice pursues Ashcan Mary through the streets of an old city.

The poems “Long & black in the middle of the night” by Sharon Bray and “The Mantle of Power” by Matt Betts are delightful, as are the “Weird Sketches” by editor Virtes.

I highly recommend this “down-home tentacle revival.”

Flo Stanton is a writer in landlocked Indianapolis whose work has appeared in The Indianapolis Star, lit mags Literally and Castle Rock, the crime periodical True Police, the anthology Traps from DarkHart, and a miscellany of other print and online publications. Find out more about Flo and her writer-photographer husband John at www.3amblue.com. She received a free electronic version of this book for review.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Wild Books I Have Known

Years ago I ran a mainframe for a mail-order pharmacy. Users felt free to call me or come to my office (sometimes run to it) for help with any type of hardware or software problem, but not many came by just to chat. So I was pleased when Annie, a newlywed accounts receivable clerk, started visiting. She was a quick study—I asked her to demonstrate new software to the other users—smart, and personable. Annie was extremely fast on data-entry and we missed her when she went on maternity leave. She would make a good assistant, I thought.

When Annie returned from giving birth to an adorable little girl, our talks resumed. We talked about babies, store gossip, computers, movies. I mentioned I was reading Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers one day. Annie said, “I wouldn’t have a book in my house.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. “You have no books in your house?” I said.

“Nope. I hate to read. We have a television, though.”

I stammered my way through the rest of the conversation and sat stunned after she left. I was well aware that many people cannot read, do not read, or cannot stand to read. But it was incredible to me that someone of such obvious intelligence chose not to read.

All thoughts of making her my assistant disappeared. Managing the information technology of the store demanded a lot of reading—and writing. Would she refuse to read the manuals lining the walls of my office? How would she learn to program if studying flowcharts and software libraries made her cringe? Could she write a quick how-to?

Soon after, the store manager chose an assistant for me, and although I didn’t chat as often with Annie, my thoughts sometimes turned to the little girl growing up in a household without books. Would Annie or her husband break down and purchase Where the Wild Things Are? Would her daughter be lulled to sleep by Annie’s soft voice reading Goodnight Moon or by a laugh track on an insipid sit-com?

I thought of all the books I treasured as a child. Before I could read. I was fortunate to have parents who valued books and reading and read to me every night. I could not imagine going to sleep without a story. Mother Goose. Little Golden Books. Beatrix Potter. Babar. I memorized them and spoke the words along with my mother as she read. I corrected my father if he skipped any pages. The books I loved someone to read to me became the first books I learned to read. Knowing them by heart helped me turn the ink on the pages into the words I loved to hear.

Receiving a book for a birthday or Christmas was wonderful and I remember them all. On the Banks of Plum Creek started a Laura Ingalls Wilder collection. The Mysterious Island led to a love of Jules Verne. I treasured a volume of Aesop’s Fables with its breath-taking plates. Books by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Grimm and Andersen. Even Johanna Spyri.

My parents kept books they received when they were children, lovingly inscribed from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Thus I read early editions of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Lad: A Dog. A Wonder-Book and Tanglewood Tales and Wild Animals I Have Known. After five children they had accumulated a respectable library of children’s books and references. I read and reread the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Bobbsey Twins. Lands and Peoples, The Lincoln Library, and The Book of Knowledge were on our shelves, too.

Although the volumes are long gone to jumble sales, I can describe to this day their covers, the print on the page, how the books felt in my hands and how the pages felt as I turned them. Even how they smelled.

I lost touch with Annie after the store closed. I will presume her daughter grew to responsible adulthood, but if she never discovered the pleasure of reading, I can’t help thinking of the worlds she did not wander in the marvelous realm of her imagination, and the wonders of the real world she missed.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Walk In The Fog

Saturday night, two A.M.—a dense fog envelops our street. John steps out the front door and snaps time exposures of the swirling mist curling along the sidewalk and empty road. I think our trash bin at the curb is spoiling the shots and scurry out in my pajamas and slippers to move it. He continues taking pictures, including some of me pulling the trash bin up to the side of the house. Would I mind walking up the front lawn to the door and back down to the curb? How about strolling back and forth along the sidewalk a few times? A little bit faster. A little bit slower. A hundred shots later, he has what he wants—a ghostly figure, some thing, perhaps an alien being, out-of-synch with time and space, moving under a halo of light and mist from the corner streetlight set against the firm reality of tree, sidewalk, and roadway. Phenomenal.

The fog affects sounds, too. When John goes indoors to make his digital magic, I am the only ear-witness to an argument two streets over. A car door slamming down the block seems to come from our own driveway. Unsettling. The ambient noise of a party on the corner five houses away reaches me—soft music, laughter and cussing, the clinking and breaking of glass, the low murmur of conversation. The partiers are no louder than usual and would not be disturbing the calm of our quiet little street at all if not for the sound-bending properties of the fog. I cannot make out what the joke is that the girl with the velvet voice finds so funny, or why the man with the gravel in his throat abruptly shouts “Hey!” but because of the fog I share the warmth of her laughter, the surprise at his sudden outburst.

I notice more sounds because of the fog, too. The engineer of an early-morning train blasts through an intersection miles away and lays on the horn; usually we can’t hear this train here in suburbia, only when we’re at Eagle Creek stargazing. The displaced sound of a train through fog is different from the same sound skipped across the surface of the reservoir: the horn tonight is warmer, less melancholy. Planes from Stout Field start their nightly maneuvers, and their roar echoes closer to the ground this eerie morning.

I run into the house and grab coat, hat, gloves, and digital recorder and stand at the foot of our driveway hoping to catch all the sounds that normally stop much closer to their sources—the party down the street, the train miles away, the planes high overhead. John is also a “noisician,” manipulating audio layers as well as he does visual ones. His complex sound sculptures make fascinating listening, and I trust our professional-grade hand-held to capture some of the strange twists, turns, and curves of sound in fog. I am in luck—the sounds repeat for me, and I am an audience of one, a lone sentinel witnessing these ephemeral events.

The heightened audio awareness caused by the fog stimulates me as a writer. The noise-level of the party on the corner rises and falls in a natural rhythm and my imagination fills in words, plots, and relationships from the intonations I can’t completely decipher. Later the angry slam of the car door, the haunting loneliness of the late-train, even the perception-altering experience of listening in the fog itself will find their way into my stories.

At no time do I feel I’m in any danger, a woman in her pajamas standing by herself outdoors at two o’clock in the morning. The fog protects me from harm as well as discovery. I record for some forty-five minutes, and when the cold creeps into my toes I reluctantly leave my post for the warmth of indoors. With the fog swirling around me, morphing sight and sound into strange shapes and resonances, I am that blurry figure so eerily captured by the artist’s camera.