Writing Craft: The Delicate Prey by Paul Bowles

Dark subjects driven by the dark psychology of the characters rooted in a common thread of loneliness. The short stories of The Delicate Prey are best described as “messed up” as someone noted in a short review I spotted on Good Reads. Artfully written bringing early twentieth century Latin America to life, contrasting the natural beauty of the land with the less-than-desirable living conditions of the locals.

An element of racism exists among those of Spanish descent toward the native people – known simply as Indians – adding to the tensions and demeanor of the characters, providing a sense of entitlement for some to act upon their ill intentions. In the first story, “At Paso Rojo,” an upper-class woman, Chalía, and her sister, visit their brother’s ranch after their mother has died. Chalía makes a game of emotionally manipulating and injuring a young Indian man who works for her brother. The specific root of behavior is not apparent beyond her open discrimination toward the Indians, though we learn of lying and deceptive behaviors through the story, and her desire to control others. The following passage paints a vivid portrait of Chalía’s diabolical nature.

Something dark lying in the road ahead of her made her stop walking. It did not move….as she drew near, she knew it was Roberto. She touched his arm with her foot. He did not respond. She leaned over and put her hand on his chest. He was breathing deeply, and the smell of liquor was almost overpowering. She straightened and kicked him lightly in the head. There was a tiny groan from far within. This also, she said to herself, would have to be done quickly. She felt wonderfully light and powerful as she slowly maneuvered his body with her feet to the right-hand side of the road. There was a small cliff there, about twenty feet high. When she got him to the edge, she waited a while, looking at his features in the moonlight. His mouth was open a little, and the white teeth peeked out from behind the lips. She smoothed his forehead a few times and with a gentle push rolled him over the edge. He fell very heavily, making a strange animal sound as he hit. (P. 18)

 “The Scorpion” was probably one of the strangest stories I read, and the most thought provoking. Two sons had left their elderly mother to live in a cave they dug out of clay for an undetermined length of time. She was left to survive with a bare minimum of supplies, her dreams, and her memories. Surrounded by scorpions in the walls and constant dripping water, she adapts to her solitude.

There were many things about this life that the old woman liked. She was no longer obliged to argue and fight with her sons to make them carry wood to the charcoal oven. She was free to move about at night and look for food. She could eat everything she found without having to share it. And she owed no one any debt of thanks for the things she had in her life. (P. 103)

Finally, one of her sons arrives to retrieve her, he seems surprised that either she is still there or alive; she refuses to leave at first. We don’t know why he is there for her, but it is clear their relationship is not good as she is not even sure of his identity.

One dark day he looked up to see one of her sons standing in the doorway. She could not remember which one it was, but she thought it was the one who had ridden the horse down the dry river bed and nearly been killed. She looked at his hand to see if it was out of shape. It was not that son. (P. 103)

We never learn the names of the old woman nor her son, not even the anonymous old man who sits outside the cave occasionally without any interaction. Her closest interaction with another person is built on isolation:

One old man used to come from the village on his way down to the valley, and sit on a rock just distant enough from the cave for her to recognize him. She knew he was aware of her presence in the cave there, and although she probably did not know this, she disliked him for not giving some sign that he knew she was there. (P. 103)

We can only surmise the reason the old woman was sent to live in a cave by her two resentful sons far outside of town was that it was intended to be her tomb. What we do learn is implied through actions and the bitter dialogue; the specifics about their estrangement are clear. It’s best summed up in this exchange at the close of the story as the son leads his mother out of the cave and the surprised old man sitting nearby says “good-bye”:

“Who is that?” said her son.
“I don’t know.”
Her son looked back at her darkly.
“You’re lying,” he said. (P. 106)

Interestingly, the story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz” paints a dark portrait of loneliness and despondency not unlike the other stories, but with a happy ending, as happy as one could expect in the circumstances. A young man named Ramón signed on to the crew of a ship, working in the scullery.

Except for the orders they gave him in the kitchen, the sailors behaved as if he did not exist. They covered his bunk with dirty clothes, and lay on it, smoking, at night when he wanted to sleep. They failed to include him in any conversation, and so far no one had even made an allusion, however deprecatory, to his existence. (P. 106-107)

During a stopover in a port town, Ramón searches for the crew after he has finished cleaning the kitchen, hours after the crew had left the ship. He finds a group of them in a café. The following scene captures the anguish and anger Ramón confronts as it continues to build to a climax:

Ramón turned around and sat down suddenly at a small table. The waiter came an served him, but he scarcely noticed what he was drinking. He was watching the table with the six men from his ship. Like one fascinated, he let his eyes follow each gesture: the filling of the little glasses, the tossing down the liquor, the back of the hand wiping the mouth. And he listened to their words punctuated by loud laughter. Resentment began to swell in him; he felt that if he sat still any longer he would explode. Pushing back his chair, he jumped up and strode dramatically out into the street. No one noticed his exit. (P. 108)

As Ramón continues to find ways draw the sailors’ attention to no avail, he sees an opportunity during their fourth day out at sea. A tired bird far from land is desperate to land on the ship’s deck, but the gawking crew scares it from doing so. As they place bets on the bird’s fate, Ramón brings out the ship’s mascot, a large cat, and trains the cat’s focus on the bird to attempt to catch it. The sailors are impressed.

In a situation that appeared to be leading to some type of violent act of Ramón’s doing was cleverly displayed by the cat attempting to catch the bird without success. Yet, Ramón is awarded with the acceptance from his crewmates he craved.

At noonday meal they talked about it. After some argument the bets were paid. One of the oilers went to his cabin and brought out a bottle of cognac and a set of little glasses which he put in front of him and filled, one after the other.
“Have some?” he said to Ramón.

Finding Closure

Sandy’s leftover clouds in Massachusetts
Find me on Instagram: dtgriffith

I finally found a way to close a story that has been alive and with me – in the developmental sense – for fifteen months. It’s the longest, most complex story I have ever written, still qualifying as a short story or novella, depending on who’s rules you follow. It really makes no difference to me. The challenge was whether I wanted the protagonist to redeem herself, to live to see another story, despite her horrific actions and questionable behavior. My final answer: a resounding yes.

It’s amazing how vested I became with the character. I’ve heard of authors who take on extraordinary experiences to get inside a character’s head and comprehend their wisdom. I wonder how often writers find themselves questioning the fate of their characters, do they decide to kill their darlings or give them a second chance?

Series obviously allow a main character to live on, otherwise they wouldn’t work, unless there is something out there I don’t know about. Whatever the case, an entire industry of fiction based franchises exists for this reason alone. I’m not necessarily out to accomplish this, however. But I wouldn’t complain if I found myself there one day. Perhaps I am nascent, having been out of the writing loop for several years to focus on my initial visual arts career and start a family. It doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme, as my rugged individualist nature leads me down the path of nonconformity.

So back to this idea of finding closure. It’s not true closure, per se, it’s a turning point. An opportunity to end one chapter to begin the next. I know, not a profound thought, but authentic nonetheless. Closure of a storyline is more important for the audience, no one likes to be strung along and left hanging as the story ends. I hate when this happens to me as a reader or movie watcher. Closure is an obligation to the reader, so the author’s career may live to see another day.

Here I am, running in circles with these recent blog posts, finding all roads lead to Rome, so to speak. Finding closure is in line with my self-exploration in fighting creative fear and writing for the reader. So, why I am writing this? Besides the catharsis it provides to get it all out there, I’m thinking maybe others will realize they are not along in their struggles as they endeavor to be masters of the craft. If nothing else, it’s a small contribution I am happy to offer.

How many clichés can you count in this post? It surprises me how easy they are to write when not thinking about it, but that’s for another blog entry another day.

Writing Craft: Love and Hydrogen by Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard’s collection of stories is a unique mix of heavily flawed characters, dysfunctional families, early twentieth century military and engineering feats, classic horror movies, and dark humor. His stories take unconventional approaches to a variety of taboo and uncomfortable subjects, of which I am focusing on the stories portraying the protagonists or cast of characters near death.

A self-deprecating husband tells the first story in the collection, “The Gun Lobby,” in the present tense as his gun-crazy wife holds him hostage during a standoff with law enforcement. The scene is a catalyst for the protagonist to reflect on his marriage and his personal failures with a strange sense of calm and humor, in which they can watch themselves on the local news shortly before meeting their probable demise:

“Here” is Waterbury, Connecticut, which is right now the main show in terms of the cutaway news, because of the standoff. You can see Stephanie or me, the Hostage, at the windows every so often on TV. We watch ourselves. (Kindle Loc. 89-91)

I’ve been a problem baby, a lousy son, a distant brother, an off-putting neighbor, a piss-poor student, a worrisome seatmate, an unreliable employee, a bewildering lover, a frustrating confidant, and a crappy husband. Among the things I do pretty well at this point I’d have to list darts, reclosing Stay-Fresh boxes, and staying out of the way.   (Kindle Loc. 147-150)

As the story reaches its climax, the seriousness of the situation is down played with lighthearted metaphors and observational wisdom:

I have a hold of Stephanie’s ankle. For the longest time I’m not hurt. Her rate of fire is spectacular. The ordnance coming back at us sets everything in the kitchen into electric life. Our overhead fixture’s doing a tarantella. (Kindle Loc. 228-229)

There are events in which every second can be taken out of line, examined this way and that, and then allowed to move along. This is one of them. (Kindle Loc. 230-231)

The title story “Love and Hydrogen,” set in the Hindenburg over the last few days of its final voyage told in the present tense, follows the homosexual relationship between two crew members: Meinert, a German war vet who took pride in his bombing raids on England and France, a Gnüss, who is much younger, jealous, and infatuated with Meinert. The tension displayed from Gnüss’s perspective of their relationship is filled with fond memories of their love and Meinert’s war stories. As the drama plays out the dark humor creeps in at unexpected moments juxtaposed against the reader’s relentless knowledge that the Hindenburg would soon meet its fate:

Egk is a fat little man with boils. Meinert considers him to have been well named. (Kindle Loc. 277-278)

[Gnüss] goes below and stops by the crew’s quarters. No luck. He listens in on a discussion of suitable first names for children conceived aloft in a zeppelin. The consensus favors Shelium, if a girl. (Kindle Loc. 411-413)

Ultimately, Gnüss’s despondency and jealousy brings down the zeppelin and everyone aboard:

Inside the hangarlike hull, they can feel the gravitational forces as Captain Pruss brings the ship up to the docking mast in a tight turn. The sharpness of the turn overstresses the after-hull structure, and the bracing wire bolt that Gnüss overtightened snaps like a rifle shot. The recoiling wire slashes open the gas cell opposite. Seven or eight feet above Gnüss’s alarmed head, the escaping hydrogen encounters the prevailing St. Elmo’s fire playing atop the ship. (Kindle Loc. 475-478)

The fireball explodes outward and upward, annihilating Gnüss at its center. More than 100 feet below on the axial catwalk, as the blinding light envelops everything below it, Meinert knows that whatever time has come is theirs, and won’t be like anything else. (Kindle Loc. 479-481)

The final story of the collection, “Climb Aboard the Mighty Flea,” follows a small squadron of German soldiers during World War II who stopped caring about the war. Their job was to fly the “Messerschmitt 163 [the Komet], the first manned rocket-powered aircraft, the first aircraft in the world to exceed a thousand kilometers an hour in level flight, and in statistical terms the most dangerous aircraft ever built in a series.” (Kindle Loc. 4593-4595) They were intended as a line of defense to take down Allied bombers over Germany, albeit with poor effectiveness. Their lives were built around the high risks in piloting these rockets during testing and training exercises:

So? we said to ourselves. Everyone knew that learning to fly meant little more than learning to land.

But pilots are taught to land by flying alongside instructors. There was no room for two in these things. So we’d have to be told, rather than shown.

“Does the landing,” Ziegler asked in a classroom session, “have to be perfect?”

“No,” Wörndl shrugged. “You could die, instead.” (Kindle Loc. 4663-4667)

 As the story goes, a number of pilots die horrible deaths or experience grave injuries. Yet, it carries on in Shepard’s light-hearted and sometimes grotesque manner:

The cockpit was filled with a black-and-red-and-yellow soup. The yellow looked like chicken fat. The fuel cells had shattered and the fuel had poured into the cockpit. Those who understood explained it to those who still didn’t: Glogner had been dissolved alive. (Kindle Loc. 4724-4726)

The next Komet exploded on the flight line. When we reached the spot, there was only a blackened and steaming stain. Medical personnel found a bone fragment, and brought it in on a stretcher. (Kindle Loc. 4733-4734)

Rösle’s Komet flipped on landing just before the perimeter. It didn’t explode and he was pulled from it just conscious, but pints of the fuel had run over his back while he hung there, and when they tore off the flight suit, the skin underneath was a jelly. He was on enough painkillers to last until April. (Kindle Loc. 4827-4829)

The collective psychology of the squadron enters a mix of depression and isolation. They adopt a gallows humor to cope with the near-death risks of their job while celebrating their love for the Komets:

My turn came next. “Come come come, Baby Bird,” Uhlhorn said as I held up my straw. “Your one-six-three-B is steaming and ready to blow. We need to put you in it or it will blow up for no reason.” (Kindle Loc. 4735-4736)

We are all insomniacs. We are, as a group, a picturesque compendium of physical tics. (Kindle Loc. 4779)

WHEN I WAKE there’s an impromptu celebration and meeting around my bunk. It transpires that Wörndl’s Komet caught fire right above the field. He had to bail out forty meters from the treetops and his parachute caught the upper branches of a big pine, insuring he only cracked his ankle. He tells everyone that it was like jumping off a church steeple with an umbrella. (Kindle Loc. 4823-4826)

In conclusion, I could discuss this collection for endless hours, as the stories are rich in vivid content and unusual circumstances. I highly recommend Love and Hydrogen to anyone who enjoys the art of short fiction.

Writing for the Reader in Me

I have heard countless times since returning to writing and pursuing my MFA degree “write for yourself.” Coming from the profession I have spent my whole career in, the target audience has always been the first influence on work I have created. So the reader, naturally, is someone I want to write for, never mind the fact that I don’t know many of my readers – if there are even many outside of this blog.

Every writer must have experienced the exhilaration of reading their own work after some time has passed at least once. It’s like a whole other person produced it; a deliberate subconscious separation to a completed story that allows the writer to read it for the first time. It’s a beautiful thing.

Since I don’t have a specified audience for fiction in this embryonic stage, I write about subjects that excite and interest me, maybe scare me, and often stuff I want to learn more about. For example, I have never worked in a circus or government office, so a character I create may be campaigning for a local office or a veteran sideshow performer.

Then there is that old adage “write what you know,” which I do fair amount of. Thing is, some of what I know isn’t necessarily based on first-hand experience, some of it is observational and intuitive. I was never a patient in a psychiatric hospital nor have I committed a murder, but pulling from what I know about these subjects based on research and observation, I can place my head in those spaces and become those flawed characters, in the figurative sense. I know how they think and feel, whether they are rational or irrational, what they base their decisions on. They become real live humans in my brain and on the page. This is probably normal for any writer, perhaps all creative-types; I don’t know, I never asked. Whatever the case, it’s part of my writer’s tool box.

So I write for myself now with the intention that other people of similar mind and dysfunction will appreciate it – maybe even love it! It’s working out so far with another short story this year due to publish soon in an anthology about demons.

Tell me about you. I’m always interested in learning how others think about these topics. Do you write or create for yourself or others? Do you become your characters who deviate widely from your real life?

Happy November!

Writing Craft: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

The collection of short stories of Jesus’ Son is something of a paradox. The graceful and poetic language portrays dark and depressing situations occupied by people at their lowest points performing despicable acts. Fluid and sensuous prose carry the narrative forward effortlessly; the time it takes to read the book becomes irrelevant. This was my first time reading Denis Johnson’s work, and not knowing anything about him, I wondered if these vivid stories were pulled from real-life experiences. Either way, I was captivated.

Johnson makes a hospital orderly moving through his day in the story “Emergency” on a drug high sound warm and simple. He seemed to have reached a heightened state of bliss among a bleak and stressful world, while the dire risks of his actions were always prevalent.

Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand. (Loc. 694-696)

Duality is consistently portrayed in an illustrative storytelling motif throughout the stories through an inebriated perception of people and self, and their relationships to the environment. This is a polar extreme to the clichéd my head felt like a balloon and floated from my body and over the green pastures type of hack:

Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground. (Loc. 39-40)

It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller. (Loc. 451-453)

All senses are engaged. Johnson places the reader in the environment through deliberate figurative prose. Landscape description appear frequently, along with the integration of nature, setting the tone of the immediate physical world and then on a higher existential level consistent with the protagonist’s thought process. Consider these examples:

The road we were lost on cut straight through the middle of the world. It was still daytime, but the sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge. In this light the truck’s hood, which had been bright orange, had turned a deep blue. (Loc. 753-754) 

What word can be uttered about those fields? She stood in the middle of them as on a high mountain, with her red hair pulled out sideways by the wind, around her the green and grey plains pressed down flat, and all the grasses of Iowa whistling one note. (Loc. 567-568)

Descriptions of settings often take on a stream of consciousness quality through the protagonist’s altered perceptions while incorporating actions and people as part of the holistic environment. In this way, Johnson effectively animates common activities like riding on a ferryboat or a subway train:

The day was sunny, unusual for the Northwest Coast. I’m sure we were all feeling blessed on this ferryboat among the humps of very green—in the sunlight almost coolly burning, like phosphorus—islands, and the water of inlets winking in the sincere light of day, under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God, despite the smell, the slight, dreamy suffocation, of some kind of petroleum-based compound used to seal the deck’s seams. (Loc. 1000-1003)

I sat up front. Right beside me was the little cubicle filled with the driver. You could feel him materializing and dematerializing in there. In the darkness under the universe it didn’t matter that the driver was a blind man. He felt the future with his face. And suddenly the train hushed as if the wind had been kicked out of it, and we came into the evening again.(Loc. 948-951)

People are treated in a similar descriptive manner giving them identifiable realistic traits leaving no room to question their authenticity:

He stood hugging himself and talking down at the earth. The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here. (Loc. 560-561) 

He walked with a bounce, his shoulders looped and his chin scooping forward rhythmically. He didn’t look right or left. I supposed he’d walked this route twelve thousand times. He didn’t sense or feel me following half a block behind him. (Loc. 920-921)

I found the following quote in “Happy Hour” fitting to wrap up my take on Jesus’ Son. By intention or not it seems Johnson was poking fun at the style of his writing and its juxtaposition to the subject matter:

I stayed in the library, crushed breathless by the smoldering power of all those words—many of them unfathomable—until Happy Hour. And then I left. (Loc. 1147-1148)