Putting Away Childish Things

cowsWhitey Roy mopped sweat from his forehead with a gear oil-stained red bandana. Everybody knew that the ancient gas pump at Dunnavant’s service station ran slower as the temperature climbed. Though the faded printing on the oversized disk thermometer, nailed crooked to the side of the office door, topped out at 105, its rusty red needle was pinned far beyond that. Whitey figured it was at least 110 degrees.

Across Pigeon Roost Road, Mac Murphy’s hay field wavered like smoke, as though the landscape was smoldering in the late afternoon sun. A few dun-colored cattle stood still as statues, except for the occasional fly-swatting swish of a tail. A puff of breeze raised dust on the gas station’s buckled pavement. It felt more like an open pizza oven than wind. All the while, the faded numbers on the pump rolled slowly. At this rate, he thought, it’ll take an hour to fill this five gallon can.

The pump said: “Klackity-chuff, squeeek. Klackity-chuff, squeeek. Klackity-chuff, DING.” From the tired sound of the thing, Whitey could definitely tell it was running down. He wanted a cigarette and a beer. If the damn gas nozzle still had the auto-clip on it he would have left it stuck in his battered red gas can and lit one up in the shade of the scraggly hackberry tree at the edge of the parking lot. Whitey Roy knew he was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but, as he repeated often, “My momma didn’t raise no dummy.” He could smell the fumes from the 97 octane like he had his face right there in the can. He mopped ineffectively at the sweat running into his eyes and squinted at the hay barely shifting in the blast furnace air. “Ker-poof,” he said, imitating the last sound he would likely hear if he lit a match near that pump.

Everything looked burned around the edges; a comic book portrayal of some rural hell where all the colors were washed out. The grinding innards of the pump slowed noticeably. It was too hot to get excited, but Whitey considered it. He could have gone to the Phillips 66 further up 31 at the end of Buford’s Station, but that would have taken another half hour and he was already behind in raking his hay. He sighed.

A shadow poured quickly like paint, spilled over the station, plunging him into shade. The relief was overwhelming. Before he could look up at the cloud that caused it, the pump squealed to a halt. The numbers stood frozen at three point three gallons. He clicked the handle twice and looked into the nozzle end, shook the thing a few times, and said, “Aw, c’mon!” That’s when he felt it.

At first the rumble seemed to be in the air around him. After a moment, he dropped the pump handle and clapped his hands over his ears, but it didn’t help much. Charley Spits’ beagles started howling and yapping next door. It got darker, and cooler, and the wind rose and threw candy wrappers, empty beer cans, and small stones around the lot in spirals.

“Mus’ be a tornada,” he murmured.

Something hard smacked him on the shoulder and the vibration in his legs felt like an earthquake. The rumble became a violent shaking.

Whitey bent forward with an unavoidable wave of nausea and projectile vomited his turkey sandwich onto the oil-stained pavement. He fell to his knees, grinding skin into the tar and shredding his jeans. The low frequency pulsing was joined by a piercing high note that descended the tonal scale so rapidly that all the glass in his truck windows, the store front, and the face of the pumps exploded, spraying shards of glass .

The pressure grew inside his head; blood leaked from his ears. He opened his mouth to scream, but the sound was drowned out. A barn-sized disc shot out of the dark above him and descended over the hay field and stopped fifty feet above the small herd who did not seem to notice the commotion.

The rumble and squeal blinked out and the wind died. The resultant silence revealed a quieter purring sound that came from the direction of the disc. Cows lowed, tails swished. Whitey Roy tried to catch his breath. He couldn’t.

He was still on his bleeding hands and knees when he realized that the pavement was scorching hot. Jumping to his feet, he wiped at his runny nose and eyes with the sleeve of his dirty denim shirt. He tried to focus on the disc hovering above the cattle. It was at least two hundred feet across. The surface was dull, dark gray, like primer paint. There was no texture or marking on its smoothness.

Whitey wanted to run, but his legs refused to obey. He fought the urge to vomit and defecate simultaneously. The part of his mind that usually held a running commentary about things was mute, struck dumb by the enormity of the thing. His heart felt like a clogged drain. Not enough blood was getting to his head.

As though a vacuum cleaner were switched on, two of the four or five cows flew up into the sky disappearing into the bottom of the disk. One more followed, tumbling head over hind and mooing once just before vanishing. The last two evaporated similarly.

Whitey mumbled, “Cows…”

Without a sound, the disk swooped off at a forty-five degree angle and paused like a hummingbird several miles away. He looked up into the darkness and realized that the clouds he thought had covered the sun actually looked like the reflection of a city in the surface of a river. The disc shot into an opening in the face of this upside-down city. After a moment it began to move away slowly, growing smaller as it receded, the low rumbling was much quieter but still present. Soon it had become small enough for the afternoon sun to shine under it, illuminating the sides of buildings and the sparkling glass of a hundred million windows. Within a minute, it shrunk to a dark smudge in the sky’s bright blue field.

Whitey stood in the glaring sun, mouth agape, for a second. The pump began to gush gasoline, soaking his boots, cuffs and calves. He reached out toward the handle, but before he got it, the pump rang one final time and the flow ceased. The wind picked up again, slightly cooler now, though the sun was just as searing as it had been moments before the darkness approached.

Whitey shivered. His mind was as blank as a flat rock. A scrap of lined notebook paper blew against his chest and stuck there like it was glued to his shirt with paper hanger’s paste. He pealed the sheet off and looked at its surface. It was a brightly colored crayon drawing done by an unsteady child. The picture clearly showed a pink, four fingered hand reaching down toward five tan cows in a field of tall green grass. Whitey Roy’s arm dropped to his side, fingers relaxing. The wind snatched the page away. It shrank to a speck, finally disappearing into Mac Murphy’s field.

›š—

This story is included in my short story collection, Hey, This is it. I’m Going to Die,
published by Libros Igni in 2014.

You can get the book direct from me, or at Powell’s in Portland, OR and if you don’t mind supporting the evil empire, it is also available as a print on demand from Amazon.

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The Writers Road Trip

The Writers Road Trip.

This is a reprint of an article we wrote for The Writer in the World.

Descended at least culturally if not genetically from the ranks of our most exulted literary road warriors – writers like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey – my wife Karen Walasek and I have exercised and exorcised our wanderlust cyclically throughout our forty year marriage. There have been many, many journeys punctuated by periods of growing and transplanting roots. In the first twenty years of our marriage we lived in sixty different homes. We moved so often that family and friends were annoyed at having to repeatedly revise their address books. Banana boxes housed our possessions during those tempestuous early years.

We drove east, north, south and west, crossing the continental United States at least fourteen times. Most of these journeys were made by car, though a few began with planes or trains, and there was one drive-away rental car that we wrecked in Zanesville, Ohio during a snowstorm. We hitched home from Tucson to New Jersey for Christmas one year and got stuck on a milk run Greyhound from Pecos, Texas which became the scenic backdrop for my novel, Jam. Talk about long, strange trips.

As a novelist, songwriter and artist, I think of traveling as the little known tenth muse. I call her Varvara, or Βαρβαρα if you are Greek. Varvara delights in our discovery of ourselves through the strangeness of others. She coaxes and teases, leading by a trail of the tiniest breadcrumbs, whispering in her raspy alto. Her song is like the tug of the stars on my heart.

Most writers have used prompts. I assign timed ones to my students as a way to bypass the censor and get down to the deep stuff. A month long road trip is a bit like immersing your whole body in a writing prompt. Motion occupies the conscious mind and lets your creative self – wander – absorbing the peoplescape. All you have to do is copy down your impressions.

We began referring to these trips as vision quests after our “vacation” to New Mexico in the early 1990s took a surreal detour from the normal planned family excursion. Karen was about to attend her first Goddard undergraduate residency as we set off from our home in eastern Pennsylvania during the hottest part of summer toward the Southwest, bisecting Tennessee on Interstate 40. Our favorite movie at that time wasThe Milagro Bean Field War, Robert Redford’s 1988 film version of John Nichol’s novel. The movie became a template for our trip as we wandered around New Mexico in search of Joe’s bean field. It was a sweaty trial, six of us pressed into an overheating Volvo wagon. We didn’t know that the town they used in the film was chosen more for aesthetics than fact (the novel was a fictionalization of a real water rights war) or that plastic bean plants were driven into the dry soil for the filming.  Ruby Archuleta’s goad to Charley Bloom, the reluctant editor of Milagro’s alternative paper La Voz, surfaced as commentary on the deficiencies of our preparation: the air conditioning “wasn’t up to it.” The voice of our muse, Varvara, narrated the inner landscape as the sun purified us.

We didn’t plan it, but a member of Karen’s Goddard cohort lived at the mouth of the road to our primitive campsite. She prepared Anasazi beans, brown rice and corn bread, a gift that connected our modern family to the indigenous cliff dwellers of an ancient land. Looking outside her kitchen window at the neighboring straw bale adobe buildings across the fields, she explained that Joe’s actual bean field had grown right there, next to the Pilar Yacht Club, a whitewater rafting outfit.  Back then we were surprised, called it serendipity (which is another favorite movie.) These days we know it was part of Varvara’s plan.

Road trips have always punctuated the geographically stable stretches of our marriage. It’s a cycle independent of season.  We grind through our daily lives, making small headway in our various endeavors when the tumblers unexpectedly align, opening our sights to new possibilities. Once again, that lock has fallen open.

We bought a new/old SUV and a DSLR camera. We will journey across the north to Vermont through Canada, diagonally dissect the southeast to visit our farm in Tennessee and then power on to Prescott, Arizona via Interstate 40, retracing our earlier journey through Taos. We plan to return home to Oregon along the coast of sun parched California.

In this post Clinton/Bush/Obama culture, this road trip promises to braid new stories with the journeys and vision quests of the past four decades. Varvara is whispering themes of resistance, indigenous identity, and the impulse to decolonize as we head out to embrace the country’s changing narratives, both dominant and otherwise.  It is going to be a trip. We even bought a mini refrigerator and a blender for the car with plans to make yogurt and sprouts on the road. Maybe kombucha, too! You can come along.

Most importantly, we are journeying with our senses and writing muscles tuned. As the fabric of the land and American psyche impresses itself upon us, we are hopeful she will feed us with wonder and possibilities for a more resilient future. This summer, Karen is beginning her fourth degree, a low residence PhD program in Sustainability Education at Prescott College. And I am embarking on my third, also in sustainability, at Goddard’s Vermont campus. Both happen in August. Updates can be found here. I hope you will join us for the ride and do let us know if we are in your neighborhood. We’d love to connect. Who knows what plans Varvara has for all of us?

This is not the first road trip and it will not be the last.

Additionally, we are running a crowd funding campaign Wishlist on GoFundMe. Most of these items are going to become necessary before we are done (some, like flushing the fluids in the car are necessary now) and there are a few luxuries on there – check them out. We would love it if you just want to donate the item if you have it or can provide it. Contact us via social media or email.

I will update this post when the campaigns go live.

 

Updates for our preparations (we are leaving August 1) can be found here in successive posts as they develop – so please follow our blog as well. As said, after we depart, we expect to publish updates, which will include articles by Karen and Ron, photos and videos (if we get a Go Pro, we will publish Finn Cam – the record of Finn’s adventures from a dog’s eye view) every couple of days. I hope you will join us for the ride and do let us know if we are in your neighborhood. We’d love to connect.

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.

What Good is this MFA?

fakeGODDARDCOLLEGEDEGREE

  1. It was a great way to spend $8000 a semester of student loan money (and if I can’t get a job I will not be able to pay it back, so I am not obsessing about it, yet).
  2. I will have a terminal degree (which I thought was going to allow me to teach at college level – but I seem to be competing with every out-of-work teacher in the entire world).
  3. It will be packaged in a nice blue padded folder. (That’s nice, isn’t it?)
  4. Even though I never cared for titles, I will be able to put those three letters after my name…
  5. It taught me to be a better writer, to know a lot about literature and to conduct heady diatribes about Bruno Schulz, Clarice Lispector and Raymond Carver.
  6. I am more broke and displaced than I was when I started but at least I am out of the South.
  7. I met some of the most talented and original writers in the world and I will forever be part of their cohort.

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#7 is the main benefit of any graduate program and mine is no different. One through six are just a rant. Though I do love writing and found all of my reading time (and all of my creative writing time) very fulfilling – I even learned how to hammer out critical work, though I dislike it. I went to a self proclaimed progressive college called Goddard. Some interesting people have come out of Goddard: Mathew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, Phish, David Mamet, William H. Macy, Piers Anthony…It is a pretty open program where you get to create your own courses. Don’t think for a moment that this is in any way easier than a traditional MFA – it isn’t. At the same time, they did not do much for my ability to teach. And my self esteem suffered while I tried to figure out if I was shit or not – but I figure every program does that to you.

While I was in my Undergrad I got to work with some pretty amazing people, Walter Butts (who’s iconic voice I can hear whenever I read his notes to me),  Ryan Boudinot and Bob Braille among them. I am officially still a student in the MFA program, so in keeping with the adage that one not shit where they eat, I will withhold all comments about the graduate program until I have that diploma in my hot little hands.

The main reason I wanted the MFA was so I could teach college. Sigh.

So looking over the precipice of my impending commencement, I have been occupied with the big beginning and ending question: What the fuck am I gonna do now?

I have been sending stories out and I got some published. I have been trying to meet some writers in my area and get out to read more. I am editing on a couple of journals – this is highly recommended.  But none of these activities are paying me anything and I don’t expect much to change even if I were to get an agent or a publisher. ANd I have been working with both, but it is a long long road.

I just don’t have enough information to predict.

Before I went back to school in 2009 we ran HillHouse Writer’s Retreat for about 8 years. Here is a link for a video we did as part of our failed KickStarter grant attempt back in December of 2012. It shows Karen’s enthusiasm and love for our farm. It also gives you a little visual information to put with HillHouse Writer’s.

But if there is one thing that living on the planet Portland for the past 2 years has taught me, it is that Tennessee is much more alien and twice as hard to make a living in – and we have been nearly homeless here.

No, if we are going to run retreats, we are not going to be able to use our house. We are not going back. But, what if we ran one week retreats in other more exotic locations around the world?

And with a nod to Goddard, the college that both Karen and I got all of our degrees from (up till the end of this year when Karen will get her Master’s in Education from PSU), we have been talking about running a 15 week packet and follow up. I guess that I should explain that a little better for those of you who have never attended Goddard.

The idea is that you figure out what you want to learn and what you are going to do to learn it. Then you create a contract with yourself and the school called a study plan. Then you spend a week talking to your assigned advisor and the other people in your advising group, attending workshops and eating meals (HillHouse had the meals thing down) and listening to other visiting writers and industry folks. Then, every 3 weeks (for 5 sessions or 15 weeks) you send a packet of your creative work to your advisor and the advisor marks your writing up and sends it back.

At the college, you do this for a few years and you get a degree (along with #1 above).

We are trying to keep it affordable, maybe around $2,000.

We are just in the planning stages, but the first retreat might be as soon as November.

I want to open the advisor positions up to others from my cohort who have their MFAs – We would all be in charge of marketing (which is a much needed writer’s survival skill that no one seems to remember to teach) so we will all get plenty of experience trying to figure out what works.

It seems a little weird to me to be arriving where I left six years ago. Of course I am more qualified now, more knowledgeable and a lot more experienced, but really. I had to do all of this work to find out that I was pretty close to the right spot when I started. Even so, it has a certain ironic logic to it.

I am looking forward to feedback about this. I invite all of my friends to chime in with positive ideas (even if they are warnings). Use the comments section on the blog so we can interact with the widest audience.

I am, at heart, an entrepreneur. It doesn’t take much time for me working for someone else’s bright idea to realize that I have bright ideas too, and that I will be paying myself more than a poverty wage on contingency. Please join me for our latest adventure.

NOTE: I added sex to the tags for this post. I was not being disingenuous. Really getting down to the guts of writing is more like sex that you might want to admit. And sex is at the root of everything, without it, there wouldn’t be any writers or readers.