There is something rotten in Denmark: transforming life, scholarship, and writing toward a more sustainable paradigm —or —you’ve got the craft skills, now what are you going to do with it?

DSC_0032By Karen Walasek
Anyone alive who is paying attention knows that we are on a crash course toward climate destruction and that the burning of fossil fuels is the key culprit. Any writer who is paying attention to the adjunct market post 2008 meltdown has noticed that adjuncts are not paid a living wage. There are a great many articles on the extractive crushing of the creative class, the war on education, non-whites, women and the environment. Our food is literally killing us as the militarized mindset of ever increasing pesticide use (let’s kill off the bad guys with bigger and bigger guns) is touted as the only way it can be done, but says who? Writers, of course. We are the ones making the culture, but do we take our role seriously enough? Have you thought about it? In what ways does your writing support or enable the paradigms of destruction that are racing us closer and closer to the tipping points of planetary collapse?

When I left Goddard with my MFA certificate in hand granting me all the rights and privileges associated with that degree, I had the gnawing sense that there was something rotten in Denmark. No offense to my Goddard colleagues, professors or even Shakespeare, but it bothered me that one could craft a beautifully articulated blueprint for a dying planet that could be considered a literary masterpiece that left its readers filled with remorse and hopelessness. It is as if in our esteemed postmodern world we were all subjects of some grand cultural machine that we inevitably had no control over. The only thing that mattered to this machine was how expertly we crafted our sentences while passively describing the rising waters of Anthropocene’s doom and gloom. Oops, stop! You used a cliché. You don’t want to use a cliché, that’s blasphemy! And yet the paradigms that promote a dying planet are not blasphemous? How did we get here and do we know what we are doing? Pardon me for drawing unsubstantiated conclusions, but something tells me there’s a disconnect in the mind of writers that has a heavy sprinkling of denial, and it’s not that we are creative dreamers and have our heads in the sky. It’s something far deeper and darker than that. Who among the numerous MFA programs out are there are talking about the responsibility of the writer in promoting social change?

What about that doom and gloom, no-way-out scenario? Is there something disingenuous and inherently passive in those action scenarios that promote a survival of the fittest paradigm, only to pull a bad sarcastic cosmic joke in the end with a “Guess what! Nobody is fittest, nor a hero, and we all die; hearty har, har.” And we call that believable, realistic, or noteworthy, while anything that falls outside this paradigm is Pollyanna, Mary Sue; or heavens forbid, idealistic or romantic chick lit!

In his book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff makes the point that the words and metaphors we choose shape how we think. My first stop post Goddard was a M.Ed. in education at Portland State University where I dabbled in rhetoric, conflict resolution, sustainability and indigenous nation’s studies. It was here that I also came across the work of LeAnn Bell in a Storytelling for Social Change class. Bell used storytelling as a tool for addressing racism. She categorized stories as dominant, concealed, resistance, and emerging (or transformative). Most of the stories in popular Western culture fall into the dominant story category. They tell us that those wolves on Wall Street control the world and that our planet is dying and we are helpless to do anything about it. They are the ones that say money is the only thing anyone cares about and life is nothing more than a complicated a con game. If we want to follow the plot twists, all we have to do is follow the money. The concealed stories, of course, if I dare get political here in my professional essay, the concealed stories include those like the ones that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are telling. The concealed story is the one that David Graeber tells in his book, Debt the First Five Thousand Years, where he reveals how monetary debt and true obligation are NOT the same thing. The resistance stories include those of Black Lives Matter or the ones about that tribe of brave indigenous people in Brazil who are literally fighting for their lives to stop the Bela Monte dam. (http://amazonwatch.org/work/belo-monte-dam

I think as a writer the most important question I can ask myself is “Whose story am I telling?”

Read More at: The Writer in the World

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Out Like a Lion

This was an excerpt from my novella: In the Neighborhood Named for the Stars. It did not make the final cut, but still has a place in my heart.

As the winter released its full-nelson on the land and the ground water began to seep up through the soggy lawns, I sat alone on the wrought iron furniture on my mother’s front porch, in the early evening just as the glass-sliver stars began appearing in the broad blue wash of sky over the houses across the street. I saw a large, low shadow move between the houses, and being that age, you know, the age before fear? I did not resist my curiosity and went to seek out its source. I saw his long thick tawny colored tail in the patterned lawn light of the Older’s backyard and froze. Before vaporizing into the forest, he turned his impossibly huge head to me and slowly closed his amber searchlight eyes.

I knew well enough not to follow him, turned around and returned to my house. But I wanted to reach out and touch his fur, to speak to his unimaginable wildness. Unable to articulate ideas of this scale, I simply let my mind move on to the present concerns of my young life, dinner and television, content to process it when and if I could, later.

I know now that Puma concolor, is called by 40 different English names. By that count, it is the animal with the most names found anywhere in the world. People in the Midwest call him a cougar or a mountain lion, but he is more kin to a common housecat than any sort of lion. I have witnessed his scream and it sounds more like a woman being dismembered than the roar of any big African cat.  Imagine him, glowing golden eyes hunting the tar black night. Loose furred pelt, undulating over taught muscle wrapped bone. Sinew and cartilage stretch connective tissue; silent, predatory and cautious.

More than a century ago he roamed in our woods; reclusive, nocturnal, solitary.

His range is still vast, known to cover up to fifteen hundred miles. One spotted in Connecticut was thought to have been a released exotic pet. A day later, the unfortunate animal was killed by a car: DNA tests proved he came from the Black Hills.

I saw him that night, but I never thought to say a word. Even then I could understand he traveled the underground arteries in secret, flowing between broad rural tracts and narrow wildlife reserves, avoiding the human encroachment that blots up every natural space like a sponge absorbs a pesky spill, An animal like that collapses the distance between present and past; stalking, ambushing, gorging; advancing.

If the man I am now could be in the blackness then, I would speak to that ghost of our Eastern lion and tell him, “You know our woods do not go on forever. You can remember where forever began and can see the end, just over the next daybreak. Your habitat is like a mirage evaporating in the sun of human progress. Yet still you come, traversing interstates in secret, pressed against clapboard siding, crouched beneath closed windows, passing unknowing inhabitants within, gathered around hearths believing their superiority. You know they’re just whistling past the graveyard of a crumbling civilization propped up on thinning supplies of fossil fuel.

Marten and fox will beware your unstoppable procession, set into orbit at a time before time when earth spun on a different axis; they know, in this vernal hour, their season is ended. Puma Capricornensis, proud messenger, driven into secrecy and unaffected by time. I welcome you on your sacred mission. Because still, every year you arrive, summoned by Eostre, to spill the blood of winter and leave in his place the virgin lamb of spring.

Harry’s Thanksgiving: An Ovation of Love

In this excerpt from my first novel, Happily after Ever, Harry is remembering a Thanksgiving from his youth.

He used to play with the younger brother, Tommy, and he spent countless hours spying on and speculating the mysteries of teen-age sister Patricia, but Harry was in love with Mandy Eastman. Mandy lived next door and was in his seventh grade class, and he would go to unheard of lengths to breathe her air.

Of course, being a major lame-ass nerd, Harry could not be seen with or even look at Mandy in school. There were mysterious unwritten rules and penalties in middle school. It was a wonder that anyone learned them at all, let alone survived the breaking of one of them. Harry knew his place was at the nerd table in the cafeteria, in the corner near the poison ivy end of the dirt play yard at recess, and on Stevie Dobin’s side of a dodge-ball game in gym. (Harry was always on the side with the losers.) It didn’t matter who else was Stevie’s side. The supreme rule, however, was that Harry was never allowed anywhere near girls like Mandy Eastman. One afternoon he saw Dave Hendrickson between sixth and seventh period standing face to face with Mandy, fingering her left breast, and it nearly broke his heart. His twelve-year-old mind couldn’t articulate a feeling of that immensity, but the image stuck with him all of his life. He felt a yearning for Mandy to this day, some eighteen years later, though he had completely lost track of her.

During the summer, Harry’s little street was far away from schoolyard politics and the cliques that governed them. At home on Briar Glen Lane, he and Mandy were just neighbors. Harry would rake leaves for Mr. Eastman, go with the family to ballet recitals for Mandy’s younger sister and generally suck up to all the Eastmans in order to be near Mandy. She usually treated him with the respect reserved for lesser life forms, but during those summers Mandy and Harry were simply kids and shared a love of the trees and woods and creeks. Though not best friends, they were the next-door neighbor sort of “friends by default.”

Patricia was instructing Mandy, unbeknownst to Harry, in the subtle art of tease flirting. Mandy knew Harry had a crush on her. It was obvious to everyone but Harry. That is how Harry found himself at Thanksgiving dinner with ten of the Eastman clan. The main problem was Harry’s allergy to turkey, an allergy of which he was ignorant because he had never even tasted turkey. Harry had a deep visceral aversion to any food that was unusual in texture or possessing a strong smell. His favorite foods, what he actually lived on, were Velveeta cheese, Skippy crunchy peanut butter, and Krispy brand saltine crackers. Harry could not tolerate vinegars in either smell or acidity, and thus would not eat salad. He was suspicious of baked potatoes because his father had once used some sour cream preparing one when he was young. Sour anything caused Harry to retch involuntarily. His mom stopped coercing him to try new foods when he was five. He had ruined her dinners by vomiting in his plate too many times. She simply gave up.

To say the afternoon was a disaster is a gross understatement; like calling a rattlesnake a problematic babysitter. Afterwards Harry didn’t show his face around the Eastmans for months. He avoided using the front door of his own house because he was too embarrassed be seen by Mandy’s mom.

It began well enough, if not a little uncomfortable. Harry had not eaten any breakfast in nervous anticipation of this dinner date. In fact, he was so unnerved by the prospect of eating with so many strangers that he couldn’t tell if he was hungry. The Eastmans were not fundamentalists, but they believed in observing various Sabbaths and thanking the almighty whenever they ate. Because Harry was a guest from outside the family, he held a position of honor at the table. Marjorie Eastman, Mandy’s mom, asked Harry, “Dear, would you like to say grace?” Mandy knew Harry had never attended any church service and would have no idea how to begin, even if he could get over the terror at having all eyes upon him. Mandy and Patricia marveled at his discomfort. The older sister stifled a laugh; it sounded like a snort. The rest of the family ignored the sound, except Mandy’s Uncle Jack, a Merchant Marine cook who had already had three J & B’s.

“Straight up no ice, Marjorie. Thank you.”

He was Mrs. Eastman’s older brother, thus facilitating Family Etiquette Rule #1: The embarrassing drunk brother is always invited to family holiday meals, and no matter how obnoxious, he is never expelled. Mr. Eastman would have the right, if he were stupid enough to exercise it before bed on the eve of a day off, to whine and growl to his wife later after Jack had passed out or stumbled to his car. Paul Eastman, like most men, wanted to get laid, so he would keep his opinion of Jack to himself.

This was years before Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. At this pivotal point in American history, friends didn’t screw with their friends’ right to drive shit-faced, if friends didn’t want to get the living puke beat out of them. Cops normally let drunk drivers sleep it off and released them in the morning. Intervention in white middle class lives was regarded as a civil rights violation. Nobody talked about the many homicides committed by belligerent morons like Jack Monroe.

This Thanksgiving, however, Jack was Harry’s champion. Jack had noticed the way Patricia and Mandy treated the boy. Jack was intimately familiar with being the lame-ass nerd-boy, and he had scars to prove it.

“Christ, Marge,” he slurred. “Why not have Miss Prissy Panties invoke the blessing? And when the hell can we get to the wine, I’m thirsty!” He leered at Patricia through his thick lenses, a possible foreshadowing of abuses yet undiscovered. Harry never knew.

Mrs. Eastman covered her anger like the survivor that she was. Her father had drunk himself to death just in time to spare Marjorie’s mother the trouble of murdering him in his sleep. It would have been self-defense, though, as the old man beat her mom most nights, only beating Marge occasionally as a diversion.

After a moment’s pause to collect her wits, Marge said, “Well then, Patricia, would you?”

The teen tipped her head piously and placed her pale white hands together, fingertips pointing upward toward God. She spoke clearly in her girlish soprano, “Thank you, oh Lord, for these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive and Lord, may this food nourish our souls as our bodies, and make us truly grateful. Amen.”

She crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at Jack. He regarded her from beneath sleepy eyelids like an over-fed tiger slouching across the table from her.

“Amen,” he grumbled.

“Make us grateful,” Harry mumbled aloud. He momentarily rose out of the throes of his memory to the dimly lit room in his Nashville duplex.

Out in the backyard, the crows had given way to two grey squirrels, one possessing a woeful stump stuck full of mangy pin-feather-like hair, the other with a proud bush of a tail. They looked remarkably like two bantamweight boxers as they argued over a black rubber super ball. Stumpy was chattering and running around in circles. Bushy, holding the ball between his front hands, was hopping around in order to continue facing his maniacal opponent. Harry could see a small chunk missing from the inky looking globe.

Both squirrels were due to be sadly surprised when they tried to eat that nut.

Harry hardly noticed. A painful memory had his mind in a hellish tape loop. He drifted back.

Anyone who has attended a big-family Thanksgiving dinner knows the chaos that followed. In short, the promise of a civilized meal turned into a pig fest. Several conversations sprang up at once with loud drunken punctuations injected by Uncle Jack. Mrs. Eastman insisted that Harry sample everything on the table. Steaming plates paraded past: ham, turkey (white and dark meat), chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, candied yams, cream corn, green beans baked with Durkee fried onion curls, sautéed pearl onions, pickled cucumbers with sour cream, boiled summer sausage with sauerkraut, and several plates and bowls containing unidentified sauces in colors ranging from bright red to slimy grey.

legs under tableHarry politely tried to eat a little bit of everything. He didn’t talk. He sat next to his sweetheart, though he could hardly look at her. He glanced once at her bare knee. She had her hand resting in her lap on top of a white linen napkin. Harry glimpsed her cream-colored thigh below her hiked up skirt. His heart raced, his stomach gurgled.

He tried the turkey and the stuffing. Though the consistency bothered him some, the taste was pleasant enough; nutty and warm, the meat not gamey or dry. He relaxed a little. When the pickled pig’s feet came around, Harry’s stomach groaned again. He mistakenly thought it was hunger. In response, he ate all of the potatoes and gravy on his plate. Up to this time, Harry liked potatoes. Mrs. Eastman, who assumed that the blank place on his plate meant he loved her cooking, responded by plopping down a half pound more, splashing brown, gelatinous gravy over the whole runny mountain. The smell of the sauerkraut assaulted him, preceding an unmistakable wave of nausea. Harry had a gas pain. He would soon learn that intestinal distress was his body’s standard reaction to turkey. He only tried to eat it once again later in his life with similar, involuntary results. He felt ill, but he did not want to excuse himself. He had an unnatural fear of stranger’s bathrooms, and the thought of being sick in one repulsed him.

He thought, I only need to fart, and his stomach lurched again. The noise in the room was deafening. The adults had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol. He could tell that Mrs. Eastman, for one, was less inhibited. She was pouring gravy on her mother-in-law’s plate with abandon. The brown goo had already created a lake on the lavender tablecloth and a river was flowing toward Mandy at Harry’s end of the table. Harry could not hold back. He tried to let it slip out unnoticed, but a cramp gripped his lower intestines at that moment and forced him to push involuntarily. What came out of him was not gas. At least, that is not all that came out of him.

The clatter and bustle of the table ceased. This was no pause, no lull. It was instant silence. Diners sat staring at Harry with forks and glasses suspended in midair. Harry sat miserably in what he imagined to be a puddle of diarrhea much like the river of gravy that was pooling around Gramma Eastman’s plate. His gut wrenched again. That was when the smell reached his nose.

It apparently reached Uncle Jack’s nose, as well. He bellowed: “Christ’s balls kid, what the fuck crawled up your ass and died?”

Harry hardly heard Jack. Everyone at the table was looking at him, aghast. His stomach lurched again and he looked helplessly at Mandy. He wanted to say he was sorry, but when he opened his mouth to speak, he vomited his entire undigested turkey dinner into his beloved’s lap.

Signed Copies Available

HeacockCover.inddMy short story collection from Libros Igni is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format.

You can also get (while my supply lasts) a signed copy.

Click on the cover image above for the direct buy page which includes all three options.

 

The Shape of the Thing

Writing has a form. Beyond understanding and becoming competent in the traditional elements of fiction (such as plot, conflict, character, setting, point of view, etc.) understanding the language of form can help a writer uncover the (metaphorical) shape of the work. “The Shape of the Thing” refers to the whole form your writing takes, from the twist and turns of a sentence to the more global view of the plot puzzle.

One way to examine the shape of a novel (short story, memoir, essay, etc.) is to look for a character’s arc following a pyramid map. As old as Aristotle, this shape includes rising action, falling action, climax and denouement. The study of The Writer’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s work) adds the influence of myth and archetype in modern dramatic works.

When we take the study of shape and patterns such as found in permaculture and apply them to writing, we uncover a myriad of framework tools that can guide a written work. One way we learn is through example and copying that example. Copying shape is no different. In our workshops we help writers:

  • Identify the shape of a craft-based habit in a published work.
  • Reduce it to a general rule.
  • Apply liberally.

Come prepared to play with forms, use diagrams and reduce plot points to post it notes that will swirl around the page. Knowing the shape of your work will help you with the most important aspect of your writing— knowing the shape of your story. Come and expect to have fun at our workshop at the Writer.ly Pub Camp on November 15, 2014 in Seattle for more.

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 Come hear me talk  at Seattle PubCamp on November 15th. As one of my friends, you get $60 off the regular ticket price when you use the promo code “friends.” Hope to see you there! Yes, I want to go!

NOTE: This article was written by Ron Heacock and Karen Walasek.

Kindle Version of Hey, This is it, Now available for preorder

I read an article the other day that said once you publish a book you become an employee of your former self. I think it’s begining.

HeacockCover.indd
Anyway, the plugs will now begin. Please tell your friends.

I can send review copies to anyone who actually wants to write a review. Leave a comment here or post a comment on my Facebook Writer’s Page.

You can also Email my publisher, Libros Igni for a more formal communication.

I will have printed copies after the workshop I am doing at PubCamp in Seattle on November 15. You can register on their site.

Reviews are welcome.

I’m Doing a workshop at Seattle PubCamp! called The Shape of the Thing

Not only is my collection of short stories coming out on the 15th of November but you can come hear me and Karen talk about Structural Mapping Techniques at Seattle PubCamp on November 15th. As one of my friends, you get $60 off the regular ticket price when you use the promo code “friends.” Hope to see you there! bpt.me/852767

Here’s the short write up of my workshop:

WRITING CRAFT WORKSHOP:
The Shape of the Thing
Ron Heacock & Karen Walasek

Writers are told not to edit until they complete the first draft, because it is impossible to know the shape of your work (whether a novel, short story, memoir, etc). But when we are in the fit of the creative chaos, writers need some sort of guidance. In this workshop we will discuss and practice using structural mapping techniques that help keep the story moving through to the completion of your draft and even to the completion of your manuscript.

Why is this man Smiling?

laketahoeIf Warren Frank had spoken to anyone about his plan they would have told him it was a bad idea. Hell, even Warren, if he had thought a little, might have admitted it. But seeing as how Gilda, his wife of twenty years had been gone for months, (the number of months eluded him, as did more simple, basic data like; where his matching socks were and what was rotting in the cellar) and Warren’s only co-conspirator was an obese orange tabby named Melvin. Though Warren spoke to Melvin incessantly during the plan’s gestation, Melvin withheld his comments. Melvin’s silence should have given Warren a clue to the efficacy of his plan. It did not.

He and his captive sat hunched in a steel oil tank. Warren’s breathing was restricted by the expanse of his girth and the confining dimensions of the musty metal room. The milky yellow illumination of a $2 Eveready flashlight he’d almost forgotten to buy on his drive to the Wilcombe Estate was nearly expended already. What air was left smelled strongly of mold and diesel fumes. Though they had only been in the tank an hour the batteries in the cheap light were about spent.  Warren had run the non-replaceable batteries down while he was hiding in-between the plaster walls behind the Presidential toilet.

“Ze Presidential bach-hous,” Raymondo had called it with an effeminate flourish of his right hand. He put on an accent too; some kind of French-Spanglish concoction. Ray’s name was not really Ramundo. But that is what Warren and the other contractors called him. He was the lead foreman on the Wilcombe Estate job. Warren and four other craftsmen labored on the restoration of the 18th century Tudor-style mansion for eighteen months between 04 and 05. In two thousand and four Warren was considered a Master Trim Carpenter. That was before The Black Times covered him like a blanket. Warren could not bring himself to consider that period in any more detail that to label it black.

Fucking Black.” His voice reflected back in a close metallic echo.

“Huh?” The other man muttered.

Warren’s captive sounded as though his mouth was full of cotton. He had been sitting, hunched semi-conscious in a pair of burgundy silk paisley pajamas for nearly the whole hour that they had been imprisoned together. The Old North Dock area had been neglected after the renovation was complete. It was thought that guests would rather board the river yachts from jetties closer to the new boathouse at the front of the house. Consequentially, the Old North Docks were largely ignored by everyone except the trades’ men. The wooden docks themselves were grey and splintered. An unearthed oil tank sat obscured by shoulder high marsh weeds. After Warren dumped Pajamas through the hatch and jumped in after him the tank listed and rolled forward and back several times as it sank before coming to rest at the bottom of the lake. He had calculated that Tahoe was only fifteen feet deep at this marshy edge and left ample wire to reach. A moment after the rocking stopped the lights and heater he had rigged blinked out. Now it was getting cold.

The pajama man slurred, “Where the hell am I and who the fuck are you?”

Warren ignored him.  He looked at his cell phone. No bars. He checked out of habit, but the battery was running low too. He reasoned that the wire he’d rigged as an antenna broke the same way that the electrical extension cord must have, it’s frayed end dangling in the murky water. He hadn’t figured in the depth of the mud. That’s what sunk me. He momentary imagined the lake water becoming charged with deadly voltage but quickly realized it would simply trip the breaker in the Old North Dock tool shed. The Flashlight blinked out.

“We are at the bottom of Lake Tahoe,” Warren replied quietly. This part of the plan was not going at all well. He was supposed to take control. Demand changes. Bully the bully. Actually, nothing was going as planned.

“I have kidnapped you Mr. President, but I screwed it up.” He wrapped the flashlight on the curved floor of the metal tank. It sounded a dull ringing. The time was quarter past midnight, but even if the secret service was crawling all over the dock they would find no trace of Warren or his captive.

The flashlight glowed sickly. It hardly cast enough light for Warren to see pajama man’s receding grey hairline or ashen skin.

The older man, now wearing filthy oil stained paisley pajamas, began to scuttle around trying to stand and smacking his head on the low ceiling. He cast from one end of the twelve foot tubular room to the other, coming to rest, sprawled across Warren’s numb legs.

“They will find me, you know, I’m the President of the United Fucking States of America,” he bellowed, trying to convince himself.

“No. It’s no use,” Warren said quietly. By this time he realized how truly bad his plan was. The man he had kidnapped was only just beginning to grasp the situation. He knelt next to Warren and tried to grab the lapels of his flannel shirt.

“Were cut off sir,” Warren began, but using the title felt surreal. He forced the words out trying to ignore the feeling. “See, I was gonna use my cell to explain my demands.” The useless flip phone was still open, the light blinked off. “But the tank here is sunk into the mud now and all the ‘th wires must have pulled out.”

“You have to call them. You MUST!” His captive was staring into his face. His small eyes widened. Warren figured, Yup, the truth of the matter has finally struck the bone. The President’s eyes darted like he had lost all control.

“What the hell have you done to me you bastard?” spraying spittle into Warrens’ face. It smelled like Crest toothpaste. The President’s trembling fingers were wrapped around Warren’s neck. But the grip was weak, more like an embrace than a threat. The hands were cold.

“With no ‘lecticity and no phone we’re going to die down here Mr. President. You keep thrashin’ around like that and you’ll use up what oxygen we got left.”

The older man slumped onto his side. His thin hair hung into the dirty residue at the bottom of the tank but he only rested for a moment.  He sprang up and just missed hitting his head. “Help Me!” he shouted. “Anybody; I’m the President, I’m being held captive. Help me, please!”

The flashlight light faded. Silence seeped in as the light seeped out. The two men wheezed. Warren was calm, but short of breath. Not much time left, he mused.

“I guess my beef with you is kinda besides the point now huh?” Warren didn’t wait for an answer. The air was definitely running out. His captive was making short shallow sobbing sounds, muttering. Warren couldn’t make out what he was saying. He really didn’t care.

“You know you killed us both actually. You and your rush into those damn wars. First I lost my Jamie. Then I lost m’self. Before I knew what was going on my Gilda was gone.” He reached out and felt for the sobbing man’s head and stroked his greasy hair. “I had to do something, don’tcha see? You was killin’ everything I ever loved. My son, my country, my self…” He trailed off.

The President sobbed louder, whining and mumbling. He sounded to Warren like Jamie when he was a toddler. Warren continued to stroke his greasy hair. Somehow the older man had moved his head into Warrens lap. It was hard to speak. Warren slumped back against the cold curved steel wall and went over the plan in his mind, realizing where he had miscalculated, and making mental notes as though he would do better when he did it again.

“I got a call from Raymundo telling me you was taking a hiatus at the “Wilcombe Estate” up to Lake Tahoe. That was when my plan began to form.  I said to m’self, ‘I knows that place like it was my own.’ I nearly rebuilt that whole building with Barney Sofjet and Harry Skillington all through two thousand four and five. We was the team, we was. I lernt about the passages behind the walls where servants could deliver hot toddy’s without nobody even knowing where they came from. They’d move between the kitchens and the bedrooms in quiet; in secret. There’s a whole shitload of staircases and dumb waiters that was never in any plans.”

The man in the soiled silk pajamas was muttering incoherently. Warren mused that it was some kind of justice that he just up and lost his mind. He wondered about how the ruler of the free world could be such a weak man. All that power, no strength.

“I knew that I would never get away with it. I just thought that if I talked to you face to face I might make you see reason. Hell, maybe I could make some kind of statement with my life, like Jamie.

“I remembered the tank and the tool shed. I set up the cords and the heater and lights and antenna days before the secret service even arrived to case the place. Then I hid in-between the plaster walls behind the commode in the Presidential suite for 4 days. I peed in a grape juice bottle and ate stale peanut butter crackers. I could hear anything anybody said throughout that big old house. I knowed when you checked in and when you ate your dinner.  A’course I knowed when you took a dump and when you brushed your teeth too.

I brought an old can of ether that I found in this very house – must have been left behind by the millionaires from the last century. Some rich drug addict doctor I s’pose. It was still good though, I tried it on myself. I calculated how long it would keep you sedated by timing how long it made me sleep.

“I just stepped out of that secret door and hid in the shower while you put on your PJs. Then when you was sittin on the john readin’ that titty magazine I just stepped out and held an ether soaked rag on your face. Out like a baby. It weren’t no big deal to put you in a laundry cart, cover you with old sheets and push you to the dumb waiter.

Once I got in the cellar it was a pretty straight shot out the lower loading doors and down the cement walkway to the old north dock.

I sank that laundry cart and in a blink we were in the tank. I rocked her into the shallows, sealed the door and, well, I don’t think anyone even knowed you was gone.

“Me and Barney joked about makin’ this thing into a submarine. Played around with the sealing doors and even wielded a bunch of 55 gallon drums to the side sos it could sink. But Barney got a long term job with the state and I forgot about the whole damn thing until I heard you was coming up here to visit.”

He paused, thinking about what he expected from this man. The president, dying with his head in Warrens lap.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you mister. I never hurt nobody my whole life. I guess, what I mean to say is, I’m sorry…”

When Warren tried to take a breath he didn’t feel like he was getting any air even though his lungs filled up. Flash bulbs appeared to pop across the dark screen of his vision. He thought that he saw the news boys taking his picture – sticking microphones and cameras in his face and excitedly asking how he had done it.

“Mr. Frank, Mr. Frank, tell our viewers how you single handedly stopped the war and brought the most notorious, treasonous criminal ever elected to Justice.”

Warren Frank did not notice that the President’s sobs had ceased along with his breathing. And he did not feel the lurch or hear the clank of chain against steel as the dredging crane locked on to the sunken tank. He wore a wide grin basking in the adulation of an adoring crowd. When the Secret Service, the Nevada State Police and the FBI split the tank open with acetylene torches they found what appeared to be the former President of the United States of America dressed in dirty silk paisley pajamas sleeping peacefully in the lap of an overweight bearded man. There was no indication as to why the fat man was smiling.

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I am reposting this story because my Twitter account was hacked and Twitter did not distribute this back on March 5 when I originally put it up. Forgive the copy.

Creative Commons License
Why is this man smiling? by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-1L.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Writing Great Stories 1

booth-dog

I have been teaching a memoir class at Mount Hood Community College called Writing Your own True Story. I am working too hard, but I can’t help myself. The way I teach writing includes a whole lot of talking, assigning reading (usually to prove some point or introduce some concept) and then assigning short writing exercises. When the students turn these assignments in I have to read them and make constructive comments, praise parts that I really like (while proving reasons and a direction to go for growth).

Once a week I create a lesson outline with a PDF of the reading. Aside from staying organized and keeping my class update, the majority of my work is reading and deciding how to comment. I enjoy it, but it is time consuming. I only get paid for two hours a week (I currently have 8 students, but I am supposed to be able to handle 15.)

It is a simple formula. And my students are moving along. Everyone seems happy (most of the time). But if I add up all the prep work and the reading and mark up time, I am working more like twelve hours a week instead of 2.

I don’t know what sort of work you do, but if you have to work six times as much in order to get paid, burn out is not far behind you. I have a hard time doing less – I mean, I am serving the students, not the college.

I realized this morning that I am not going to be able to continue at this pace.

So I am working on alternatives.

One of the problems that I have found with many writer’s blogs is that they give great advice, but there isn’t anyway to clarify the concepts and try them out in a controlled environment. Unless you are enrolled in a class or a workshop, (or an MFA program) you have to flounder along alone until you decide that you have mastered a particular step.

I think the non-college student, aspiring writer, needs more options for professional feedback. So in between posting stories, I am proposing to build a portal through this blog where writers can try exercises and get feedback on them without investing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. As time goes on and I see if there is interest in this program I may expand the prompts, tips and assignments. But for now, each will be a simple concept followed by a 500 word test run.

There is a popular method of marketing gaining prevalence these days where you provide a basic service or product for free, but you charge a small amount for added value. I have heard it called a Freemium. This is what I am proposing. I will post a small article on writing every few days. You can read it and enjoy it, do it or not. No strings attached. But as an added value, you can post your work at our Submittable site with a nominal fee.

I will attempt a fast turnaround, but if this idea picks up I reserve the right to take up to one month to respond. As (if) the idea gains acceptance, I will develop more extensive projects with additional cost – I do not expect and assessment fee to ever exceed $20.

There will be some collateral reading, but in order to satisfy copyright issues, I will only be suggesting the texts. Later I may create a method to provide this reading as a part of the blog –

Stay tuned for updates.

Basic Elements of Fiction

Whether you are writing fiction, creative non-fiction, or memoir, you will benefit from the skills a fiction writer relies upon to create engaging characters and situations as well as detailed and believable scenes and environments. Think of it as a set of tools (nod to Stephen King’s On Writing) that you can keep at the ready in your writer’s virtual toolbox.

In order to have a reasonable conversation about writing we will need to start with a language so we all know what we are talking about.

We can start off with the basic elements of fiction (as said, these are really the elements of creating living characters with engaging stories). That 7 basic ones are:

  1. –Plot – The series of occurrences which transpire
  2. –Setting – Where is the story taking place      
  3. –Tone  The tone in a story can be joyful, serious, humorous, sad, threatening, formal, informal, pessimistic, and optimistic. MOOD
  4. –Style – What unique way is the story being told – distinctive vocabulary and choices in expression
  5. –Point of view – Who is telling the story
  6. –Character – Who are the actors in the story
  7. –Theme – What is the story about.

This list can be expanded or reduced. Depending upon form (short story, flash fiction, novella, novel or epic) some of these elements may be reduced. More on that to come.

So one way to make your stories better is to be sure you are including all the important aspects of each of these elements. As always, you can get really caught up in this, so try to treat it lightly and keep it simple.

My favorite place to start is with Character. And one way to learn about what works is to try it.

Lets do some character sketches. 

The easiest character to write about is yourself. You know  (or at least you have tie chance to…) this character better than just about anyone else. But in order for it to be a creative exercise you should flex your creative muscles. So for today’s exercise, I want you to write a biography with one small difference. I want you to lie. Make up every detail. Embellish it with your creativity. And only include one true fact.

Now don’t go off the rails. This should be believeable. Coleridge coined the term Suspension of disbelief, which is a little weird because it is a double negative (which if you remember anything about math, which I often do not, means that two negatives together create a positive). What he was trying to say is that the writer’s job is to create an illusion of truth. And as long as the reader believes it, then the writer has a chance to succeed.

As soon as the reader steps back from the writing and say, “Hey, I don’t think that is possible,” then the construct of your imaginary world disappears.  It is hard to recover after that. So suspend the readers disbelief by never pushing them too far. Even if it the truth, your job will depend upon making sure it is a believable truth.

Keep you attempts to 500 words or less. Put in a lot of details. See where it gets you. and stay tuned for more about character and the elements of fiction in my next post.

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If you would like feedback on this assignment, please visit our Submittable site. Follow the instructions. I will respond. See Conventions Here

Submit to HillHouse Writer’s

NEXT LESSON: Direct and Indirect exposition.


Creative Commons License
writing better stories by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-V.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Thanks to George Booth for the detail of his amazingly appropriate cartoon: Write About Dogs.