Sunday, December 11, 2016

Looking Ahead

I always feel a kind of heaviness at the end of the fall semester. Every year as it winds down, and as my students work diligently (I hope) on their final papers, projects, and revisions, I can't ignore the fact that it's the end of another year as well. With its shorter days and chillier air, December provokes sobering reflection on the previous months, and--like usual--I have very mixed feelings about this particular year. On the one hand, it brought some incredible joy--the publication of my second book, That Hidden Road, for one, and the all-but-improbable World Series win of my beloved Chicago Cubs, for another. Yet there has also been the bleak political landscape and all the mess stemming from what has been--in my opinion--the most chaotic and meanest Presidential election of my lifetime.

For these reasons, 2016 stands as a year I'll regard with much more ambivalence than normal. And of course, the New Year is an arbitrary point; the repercussions of the previous year always continue into the next. But right now, the fear and uncertainty is way too big to take on, so I'll concentrate on something a lot more manageable (and self-serving)--some upcoming events early in 2017 where I'll be reading from and/or signing copies of That Hidden Road. Sometimes all we can do is share a little bit of ourselves with other people in the hopes of making a connection, and it's in this spirit that I look ahead to these places where I've been given the opportunity to do so:

On Thursday, January 12, I'll be at Anderson's Bookshop in Downers Grove, Illinois, at 7pm. For more info, click HERE.

On Sunday, February 5, I'll be at Warwick's Books in La Jolla, California, at 12 noon. For more info, click HERE.

On Tuesday, February 14, I'll be the featured author at the "Writers Read" program at the Fallbrook Library in Fallbrook, California, at 6pm. For more info, click HERE.

In addition to their intrinsic rewards, I've always found teaching and writing to be distractions from the sometimes oppressive onslaught of daily life, and I'm certainly hoping that they continue to be in 2017.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

Well, it’s almost here. In less than three months, on October 1st, my second book—That Hidden Road: A Memoir—will be released. It’s the story of a lot of things (and I’ve excerpted parts of it on this blog), but the framing narrative is the two months that I spent crossing the U.S. on my bicycle. Incidentally, if you’re interested, you can read the first chapter ON MY WEBSITE and preorder the book HERE.
It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to hold an actual copy of this book; for me, doubting that it would ever see the light of day became a twice- and sometimes thrice-daily activity.
In truth, I thought the whole thing would be a lot easier.
I don’t mean the bike ride. I knew that would be tough and it was. No, I mean writing this book. Way, way back, I thought, How hard could this be? I blogged regularly when I was on the road, and I kept a journal, too, so the book was pretty much already written. All I had to do was string together the posts, add a few things from the journal, do a little editing, and ta-DA…a book!
Well, it didn’t work out that way at all, and I’ve been writing and teaching writing long enough to have known better. In fact, I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that in every way except for physical strain, the riding was a lot easier than the writing. It certainly took a lot less time. I’m reminded of something I wrote very late in the book, something about being incredibly innocent or stupid or (most likely) both as I stood on my bike, Rusty, at the beginning of the ride with no real idea of what I was getting into.
Turns out, that’s a pretty accurate way to describe writing a book, too. Not a single word written, and all those pages to go…
The truth is that I wouldn’t have gotten through either journey without a lot of help from a lot of people.
First, the ride. Deep thanks to everyone who helped me along the way—the people who stopped to see if I was all right or needed anything, the people who housed and fed me, the people who read my blog and left a comment or two, and the many people who just saw a guy with a ton of crap on his bike and decided to talk to him for a few minutes. All of them made a lonely endeavor a lot less so. I especially want to thank the people who were a big part of my trip but—due to the mercenary demands of storytelling—didn’t make it fully into the book: Brian and Angie McNeece; Eileen and Richard Travis and family; Jody and Dave Travis and family; Dave and Pamela Craig; Paul Winer; Daniel Young; Tom and Stanna Galbraith; Jake Heath; Karen and Jeff Wilson; Ron from Boulder (I never did get his last name); John and Sharlene Sampson; Bill Haddan and family; Alan White; Lance, Michelle, and Christian Freezeland; David and Erin Anthony; Eddie West; Christine North; and Chris Nielsen.
Special thanks to Jan and Bill Montgomery, who were the perfect guides through the “heart” of this journey, and to Tom and Ann McConnell, who were the perfect guides through the “tail” of it.
Thanks to all my family and friends who helped me recharge during my Chicago “intermission”: my brother Vince, his wife Jean, and their kids; my mom and dad; Pat Gonder and Teresa Aguinaldo; Jerry Karlin and Karen Klebba; Paul Sternenberg; Marc Kaplanes and Julie Hubbard. And a special thank you to Greg Hart for the dance and plane ticket (two separate things).
And the ride would have been possible but a lot harder without the work of whoever created the iPhone apps for “Track My Tour” and “Warmshowers,” so thanks, Anonymous Programmers.
Along those lines (and as regards the book), I owe a big debt to whoever created and maintains Google Earth and Wikipedia; both were instrumental when my memory or perspective failed, or when I needed to find out something about Dodge City, or the Irwin Cobb Bridge, or the Tennessee Valley Authority. I’m also indebted to Elliot Willensky’s When Brooklyn Was the World (Harmony Books, 1986) for helping to add a little color to my dad’s memories.
Big thanks and an even bigger hug to my favorite geologist, pseudo-sister, and dear friend Suzy Gonder, who patiently answered all my questions about rocks and geological time.
A big thank you to Lawson Mabry, who closely read and reread the sections about his family and its history and has offered nothing but hospitality and encouragement to me since I met him. Thanks also to Brian McNeece and Erin Anthony for their generous and rigorous readings of an early draft of the book. Big thanks to members of my Palomar family for the same: Barb Neault Kelber, Deborah Paes de Barros, Jack Quintero, and Carlton Smith. My colleagues are, quite simply, the best, and I’m also grateful for the friendship and encouragement of Leanne Maunu, Andrea Bell, Teresa Laughlin, and Jenny Fererro (to whom I might still owe a Clif Bar). And thanks, too, to my other readers: Pat Gonder, John Lucas (who also helped with the comics), and Colin Rafferty.
In terms of reading, I owe quite a bit to two assistant agents at two different agencies—Jennifer Herrera and Lena Yarbrough—who gave me invaluable notes that resulted in a much, much better final version.
Special thanks to Robert James Russell and the editors of Midwestern Gothic for publishing sections of this book. Many thanks to Hannah Krieger and the editors of the Georgetown Review for the same.
A big thank you to the good folks who run the San Diego Book Awards for honoring my work at a time when I needed some encouragement.
Huge thanks to Kevin Atticks, Alexandra Chouinard, Nicole DeVincentis (and her infinite patience with me) and all of the other hard workers at Apprentice House Press for their support, insight, and direction—all of which helped turn my dream into the reality of the book.
Thanks, too, to my Aunt Angie McConnell, who provided stories and details about my maternal grandfather. And a big thank you to my dad, Thomas Versaci, who patiently retold many stories, answered a ton of questions, enumerated details, and didn’t really care when I added some of my own. One of the gifts of this entire journey has been to sort through his memories with him.
As always, I’m deeply thankful for my students, many of whom were interested in my trip and some of whom had the energy and patience to read parts of this book—I’m thinking especially of Sarah Bates, Nolan Turner, and Deb Ebert. Working with all of my students inspires me daily.
And finally, I am grateful beyond words for Shannon Lienhart, Nick Versaci, and Tony Versaci—without them the book wouldn’t exist.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

RIP, Darling

"In writing, you must kill your darlings."
--William Faulkner

             I've been working on the final revisions to That Hidden Road, which are due to my publisher by February 1st. This deadline, of course, is not the hard part. The hard part is following Faulkner's sage advice to cut those words, sentences, scenes, and chapters of our writing that we may have great affection for but that don't serve the needs of the story. Thus, I present to you one of my darlings, whose life I snuffed out yesterday. I used a pillow, so there was lots of thrashing around. Also, I wept the entire time. To ease the pain, I've also included some pictures.

"The Gospel According to John from Portland"

Somewhere in the Ozarks I met a biker heading in the opposite direction who told me that if I went through Farmington, Missouri, I had to stop at Al’s Place. The warm rain pelted us as we stood there astride our bikes, so I didn’t get many details about it other than that it was a biker’s hostel. I had forgotten about this conversation until late afternoon several days later, when—racing the rain—I ride into a little town and see painted on the ground the words “Al’s Place TA Trail Inn” along with two white arrows.

These stenciled announcements reappear every couple of blocks, turning me this way and that until I’m near the center of Farmington at the corner of Franklin and Liberty and staring at a two-story limestone and red brick building.

I peer into the windows in front, and all I see is a storeroom stacked with boxes and chairs. In back, though, there’s a black steel staircase leading up to a door. 

I lean Rusty against the stairs and walk up. The door has a keypad lock and a phone number to call, which turns out to be an office at city hall. Once I tell the woman on the other end that I’m a biker, she gives me the code.
Inside is a space that looks like a high-end urban loft. There’s a laundry room, a television area with two big couches, a table and chairs by a full kitchen, a big bathroom, a computer table in back, and several rooms filled with bunkbeds, clean sheets, and towels.

I call “Hello?” but no one responds.
Back downstairs, I detach my two rear panniers, my two front panniers, my rear bag, and my handlebar bag. This doesn’t take nearly as long as it sounds, but carrying them up is a different story. Because of the weight, I make two trips up the stairs and into the first room—the smallest, with only one set of bunk beds. Rusty comes next, hoisted over my shoulder with one hand while I grab the metal railing with the other and negotiate the rain-slick steps.
Once everything is upstairs, I take a closer look around. The bathroom has two showers and two sinks, and like the rest of the place, they’re spotless. Counting up all of the beds in the rooms, I figure that fourteen people can bed down here. More—many more—if some are willing to sleep on the couches or the floors. The computer has internet access, the television has basic cable, and the fridge and cupboards are stocked with pasta, sauce, crackers, drinks, and enough pots, pans, and utensils to cook just about anything.
I take a shower, and by the time I get out, the skies have opened up and the earlier drizzle is now a bona fide downpour. I hear thundercracks, too, and the last place I want to be in an electrical storm is out on the open road with a big hunk of steel between my legs.
On the wall opposite the kitchen is a gigantic frame containing a yellow, red, and blue biking jersey with “Long John Silver’s” emblazoned across the front. Next to this jersey is a sheet of typewritten paper explaining that the “Al” of Al’s Place is Al Dziewa, an avid biker who owned a Long John Silver’s in town. In 2003, just like me, he was diagnosed with cancer, and in 2005, the year I was cancer-free for two years, he died at the age of forty-nine. Some friends on the city council voted to turn this building, a 140-year-old decommissioned county jail, into a biker’s hostel.

             I poke around some more and find a sheet on the wall by the door labeled “Al’s Rules.” The only one that gives me pause reads “ABSOLUTELY no bikes upstairs. Please lock your bikes in the storeroom downstairs with the key provided.” To the right is a key attached to a wooden dowel. I glance into my room, where Rusty is propped up against the back wall.

I look out into the rain and tell myself that I’ll lock Rusty up when the rain lifts. I don’t think Al would mind.
After the rain stops about an hour later, I don’t move Rusty, but I do walk a few blocks to take a look around Farmington and get something to eat. By the time I get back, two more bikers are there. Alan from New Zealand and John from Portland. Both are riding the TransAmerica Trail, but in opposite directions. After the introductions, Alan goes back to checking his email at the computer down the hall and John joins me by the TV area. He looks to be about fifty, and he’s wrist-deep into a quart of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
“My son tells me I need to eat one of these every couple of days and drink a half gallon of juice every night,” he says.
Over the next hour, I get to hear much more about John’s son and his wealth of knowledge about bike touring. I hear all of his son’s tips about nutrition. I hear all about why his son believes that touring with a trailer—as John is doing—is far superior to touring with panniers. Emboldened by his son’s obvious authority in all matters bicycling, John issues some authoritative statements of his own regarding the importance of sticking exactly to the TA Trail as opposed to “cheating” by finding shortcuts. He also asks me no less than three times what my name is. Now I don’t claim to be a memorable guy, but I’ve never had problems with people forgetting my unusual name. I’m convinced that he’s trying to establish some weird kind of dominance in the conversation.
I turn on the television and find ESPN.
“You’re not going to tell me that you miss TV, are you?”
I just look at him.
“God, getting away from all that has been one of the true blessings of touring. My son told me how much I’d appreciate being out on the road, but I had no idea.”
The SportsCenter guys are sitting down with LeBron James, who plans to announce what team he’ll be playing with next year. “You like basketball, John?”
“Do I like basketball?” he says, looking thoughtfully up at the ceiling. “Now that’s an interesting question…”
He doesn’t say anything else for a good fifteen seconds. I figure that as long as I keep looking at him expectantly, he’s going to keep quiet, so I turn back to the television.
“Well,” he says. “I used to do some IT work for the Blazers, and let’s just say that I had some insights into the sport.”
Or let’s not, I think. Better yet, why don’t you jam some ice cream into your ear? Or does your son not recommend that?
I gesture at the TV.
“Watch,” I say, “they’ll take what should be a five-second statement and stretch it into an hour.”
“Oh, he won’t say anything,” John announces.
“Yeah, it’s a special show for him to make his statement.”
John laughs, shaking his head. “That’s not how it works. The agents are in charge of this whole deal. The fans just eat it up, no offense.”
Before I have a chance to hit John between the eyes with the remote, Alan comes over and sits between us. The talk shifts back to biking, and Alan is more than happy to ask John all sorts of questions about the road ahead. Ten minutes later, when the wire ticker on the bottom of the screen delivers the news that LeBron James will leave Cleveland for Miami, I’m tempted to jump up and shout “Aha!” but by then I’ve resigned myself to the fact that John is a douchey little peckerwood and I hate him.

A little later the front door opens and a guy in a suit walks in. He introduces himself as Greg Beavers, a member of the Farmington City Council. He’s one of the guys who helped turn the old prison into Al’s Place, and he likes to stop by to meet the bikers and find out where they’re from. Alan, being from New Zealand, makes Greg’s eyes go wide, at which point John quickly points out that he and Alan are actually biking the same distance.
“So, the only thing we ask is that you keep the bikes downstairs,” Greg says. “I saw someone’s chained to the railing…”
“That’s mine,” Alan says.
“We have a storeroom downstairs,” Greg says, looking at us. “Did you guys find that…?”
Rusty is about twenty feet behind us, behind the closed door of my room. It’s pouring again outside.
“Yeah,” I say. “The key was right over by the front door.”
I’m smiling at Greg, but I can feel John’s eyes on me.
“Yes, I locked my bike down there,” John says. “Is there more than one storage room?” he asks Greg.
“No, why?”
“I thought my bike was the only one down there,” John says, turning to me for an explanation. Greg’s eyes follow his. He doesn’t know what this is all about; he’s just politely following the flow of the conversation.
I should just say that I didn’t see the rule until after I brought my bike up and that it was raining and that I plan to take it down as soon as there’s a break in the weather—all reasonable courses of action—but before I can get any of this out I hear myself say, “Nope, I put it down there when I got here.”
John frowns and tilts his head as if he’s analyzing some evidence that doesn’t quite add up. “Hmmm. Wonder why I didn’t see it.”
“I put in the back corner.” I’m committed now and can’t blink.
Greg’s clearly not interested and wants to get going. “Well, listen…if you guys can think of anything else you might need, let us know.”
Greg takes off, Alan heads back to the computer, and I retreat to my room to get away from John.
I leave Al’s Place early the next morning, partly to stay ahead of the rain and partly to avoid having to talk with John again. Unfortunately, he’s eating a bowl of cereal as I walk out of the bathroom. He’s still eating it or maybe another one—as per his son’s recommendation, no doubt—after I get dressed and carry my bags down the stairs. He’s still there when I return and head to my room, and when I come back out with Rusty, he’s standing on the edge of the kitchen, nodding and smiling tightly as he delivers his final judgment.
“I thought so.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Good News!

Just a quick update that I'm making in part because I have timely news to share and in part because it's been over a month since my last post.

So, the news. I received word just before Thanksgiving that my memoir, That Hidden Road, was accepted for publication by Apprentice House Press, and the fact of all this is still sinking in. AH is a small press that's affiliated with Loyola University in Maryland, and it's a great fit for two main reasons.

First, in the editors' wish list were "travel stories" and "memoirs of personal discovery." Check and check.

Second, AH has a story that really resonates with me. Here's an excerpt from their website:

Apprentice House is the nation’s first entirely student-managed book publisher. Students at Loyola University Maryland are responsible for every aspect of the publishing process, from acquisitions to design and publication of every book. Our mission is, first and foremost, to educate students about the book publishing process.
As a program within the Communication Department at Loyola University Maryland, it is driven by student work conducted in four courses: Introduction to Book Publishing, Manuscript Evaluation & Development, Book Design & Production, and Book Marketing & Promotion.
Therefore, students in these courses serve as staff in Apprentice House’s acquisitions, design, and marketing departments, respectively.  After students leave the courses, AH professors and AH student staff sustain the on-going operation of the company and market its frontlist and backlist titles.

Though I spend a fair amount of time writing and like doing it (most of the time), I consider myself a teacher first, and the teaching project of which I'm most proud is my college's literary magazine, Bravura, which is a much, much smaller version of what they do at AH.

So I'm looking forward to working with the students and teachers at this press, and I'm looking forward to seeing That Hidden Road in print, which should happen in or around next fall.

Next up is my deadline is February 1, when I need to turn in the final revised manuscript. So, if you'll excuse me, I've got work to do...

Saturday, October 3, 2015

#AmWriting, #AmReading

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”

                                                               --Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

This is a different kind of post—one that is much more rooted in my teaching than in random occurrences from my everyday life. For that reason, it might not be for everybody. But, if you’re at all interested in reading, writing, and the connections between the two, then step right in.

Every semester, my creative writing class is packed to the rafters (well, acoustic ceiling tiles) with students eager to become better storytellers. They come for a variety of reasons. Some are there to fulfill a requirement (which it does). Some are there because they think the class sounds fun (which it is). Some are there because they love [INSERT LATEST FANTASY SERIES HERE] and are writing their own fantasy series (which, sadly, I don’t allow in workshop…yes, I know, I’m a monster). And some are there because creative writing creatively is a part of their lives, they want it to continue to be so, and they’d like to know how to do it better.

To all of these students, I say there’s no real secret to becoming a better writer. Really, you only need to conscientiously and regularly do three things:
  1. Write
  2. Share your work
  3. Read
Let me quickly break down the first two before I get to the third, which is the real subject of this blog post.

Number One. “Write” actually encompasses two things—drafting and revising. Of these, the first is necessary, painful, and usually not very good (“shitty first drafts,” to use Anne Lamott’s priceless phrase). The second—revising—is where it all happens. I like to remind students that “revision” means “to see again”; in other words, they shouldn’t confuse revision with proofreading. The latter is like sprucing up a room with some spackle and paint, while the former is gutting and rebuilding a functionless room with sledgehammer, reciprocating saw, and a dust mask. That spackle and paint will come much, much later.

Number Two. It’s  important for writers to get over the understandably high levels of anxiety that go along with sharing their writing. Even more important is that they share that work with the right kind of readers—readers who are smart, honest, and aware of the aforementioned difference between proofreading and revision. Such readers are more rare and valuable than a Dodo bird that shits gold, so if you’re lucky enough to find any, hang onto them with both hands, both feet, and a prehensile tail if you’ve got one.

Number Three. As the most prolific and successful writer this or any planet has ever known says (see my cold opening), reading is vital. Yet there’s a little more to it than that. Someone could be an avid reader and still not be able to write a compelling opening paragraph, let alone the rest of the story that needs to follow it. Reading is important, but more important is rereading (every bit as important as rewriting) and how we read.

Settle in, because this may take a while.

Let’s start by considering the opening paragraph of  one of my very favorite short stories—Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain”:

“Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked. A big  black wolflike animal attached to a chain, it came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park, moving easily in spite of the deep snow, making for Gold’s daughter. He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming. Gold plunged down the hill, shouting as he went. Snow and wind deadened his voice. Anna’s sled was almost at the bottom of the slope. Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts, and he knew she couldn’t hear him or see the dog racing toward her. He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gum boots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backward off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there” (199).*

In our first read of this, we probably READ LIKE A FAN

Well, maybe “fan” isn’t the best word. The point is that when we read in this mode, we read to be entertained, to consume. Most often, that thing we consume is the plot because a) we expect things to happen and b) we like to know what those things are. If a piece of writing is compelling, we don’t always notice or appreciate what makes it compelling; instead, we let ourselves be carried away, having gladly accepted the writer’s invitation into what John Gardner refers to as the “fictive dream.” There’s nothing wrong with this kind of reading; in fact, it’s this exact kind of reading that makes us love reading. And, perhaps, want to be writers.

In a first rereading of this paragraph (and with the benefit of having read the rest of the story), we might start to READ LIKE AN ENGLISH MAJOR

I use this term a little facetiously, but what I’m getting at is that when we read like this, we read beyond the page. We find deeper meanings and patterns and connections. Since this is a rereading, we now know that “The Chain” can be seen as a tragic tale of seemingly justifiable revenge gone awry, and as we look back at the story’s opening, we notice a few things. First, of course, is that chain. In the story’s opening paragraph, it’s a literal object, but upon further examination we can now appreciate it as metaphor (or symbol—a word I loathe but seem unable to escape). It’s not just a metal chain, it’s the chain of events that poor Gold will set in motion and watch spin out of control. It’s also a symbol (damn it!) of restraint, and its inability to restrain the dog in this opening will be echoed later by Gold’s inability to restrain himself. The wolf, too, can be seen as something larger. Our base animal aggression, maybe? Finally, there’s the business about Gold’s daughter’s coat. In the ensuing story, Gold’s pursuit of what he feels is right leads to trouble, and this drama is foreshadowed and encapsulated neatly in the detail of the coat. He does something to protect her (“Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts”), but now that “protection” renders her deaf to her father’s insistent shouts and blind to the dog’s imminent attack. Later, in doing what he thinks is right, Gold will open the door to all kinds of wrong.

But it’s the third way of reading that I’m most interested in, and that way is to READ LIKE A WRITER.

I tell my students to imagine a beautiful watch. Some people might use this watch only to tell time. Some people might also admire its shape and fine lines. Still others—some few others, I would say—want to take that watch apart and see how it works. That’s reading like a writer.

Let’s take the first line of the story:

“Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked.”

It’s a sharp, concise line that's elegantly symmetrical as well--eleven one-syllable words bracketed by two two-syllable words. The line also packs a punch, to be sure, but what’s most intriguing from a writer’s perspective is how Wolff packs that punch and how much he accomplishes in such a small space. The first words establish character and point of view, the next few words establish a setting, and the final words introduce conflict.

About conflict, writer and teacher Janet Burroway says it best: “In literature, only trouble is interesting.” It’s an obvious lesson, but like most obvious lessons, it’s easy to forget. Too often, early drafts of stories wade through pages and pages before the writer even suggests that there’s trouble afoot. If there’s no trouble, nothing’s happening, and if nothing’s happening, few readers are going to stick around to watch the paint dry. Writers must promise conflict, and they must promise it early. Like first or second sentence early.

By the end of Wolff’s first sentence, we know there’s going to be trouble. Moreover, those details of character, setting, and conflict that he introduces are broad enough to give himself room to subsequently answer the questions that the reader inevitably asks—What’s the hill like? What kind of dog? Who’s being attacked? Finally, there’s the overall momentum of this first line; because Wolff drops the “weight” at the end—“the dog attacked”—the reader is compelled to read on:

“A big  black wolflike animal attached to a chain, it came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park, moving easily in spite of the deep snow, making for Gold’s daughter.”

Here we have a longer sentence that begins where the first one ends, developing “dog” into “big black wolflike animal” and “attacked” into “came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park.” We get an added bit of setting—the “deep snow” tells us it’s winter—and the conflict is delivered (and intensified) again as a weighty surprise at the end of the sentence, where Wolff reveals what’s at stake: “Gold’s daughter.” More of that momentum. Now we really want to keep going.

“He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming.”

Yes, we were wondering about that “attached to a chain,” which Wolff buries in the second sentence but focuses on now in the third. He returns to a short, clipped sentence to develop a staccato rhythm. Also, as with the previous two sentences, this one ends in a familiar place. Consider the pattern:

End of sentence one: “…the dog attacked.”
End of sentence two: “…making for Gold’s daughter.”
End of sentence three: “…the dog kept coming.”

With this repetition, Wolff keeps us focused on the image of a dog charging toward a helpless little girl.

Having firmly established that, Wolff now shifts his focus, moving Gold into action with a few details that further develop the space in which the action is unfolding:

“Gold plunged down the hill, shouting as he went. Snow and wind deadened his voice. Anna’s sled was almost at the bottom of the slope.”

Three short sentences. Direct and to the point. Also, Wolff moves us away from the dog; there are, after all, two other characters in this scene. Yet he chooses his words carefully so as to continue the tone of dread and danger initiated by the (for the moment) absent dog: “plunged,” “shouting,” “deadened,” and “bottom.”

The next sentence reads,

“Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts, and he knew she couldn’t hear him or see the dog racing toward her.”

Here, Wolff delivers a brief bit of backstory that ups the ante of the situation—his daughter can’t hear him as danger closes in. Wolff continues to intensify the initial conflict with this detail, and also by returning to the dog, who once again appears at the end of the sentence.

Then, this:

“He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gum boots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees.”

There’s a fluid transition from “dog racing” at the end of the previous sentence to “dog’s speed” near the beginning of the first one here. But by and large, the focus is on Gold. Specifically, as a counterpoint to the dog. Wolff does this overtly at the beginning, where “the dog’s speed” is set against “his own dreamy progress.”

Also, he focuses on details that at once reinforce the snowy setting and concretize Gold’s slowness: “weight of his gum boots,” “clinging trap of crust,” and “overcoat flapped.” These details represent a true economy of language as they serve more than one purpose (something writers should strive for in their revisions).

Finally, by shifting the focus to Gold temporarily, Wolff leaves us worrying about how close that dog is getting to his daughter.

Creative writing teachers like myself will often draw something on the board that looks like this:

We use this image to represent the classic structure of narrative: rising tension/development of conflict (the upward slope), a climax/crisis point (the peak), and the denouement/falling action (the short dropoff). Wolff, in this opening paragraph, delivers a miniature version of this structure—a smaller story within the larger one—and his next few lines reside squarely atop the point:

“He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backward off the sled, shaking her like a doll.”

A few things to notice here. From the beginning of this paragraph, Wolff has carefully choreographed his three characters—father, daughter, dog—and in the first sentence here all three converge in a fairly breathless fashion; it’s a long sentence (a compound-complex sentence for all you grammar nerds) that unfolds across a series of actions: Gold screams, the dog lunges, Anna flinches, and the dog catches her. Then, Wolff leaves us momentarily wondering what the dog is doing with Anna by focusing again on concrete details of slowness (“barely halfway down the hill” and “feet sliding”). In fact, Wolff stretches the scene out to an excruciating degree by continuing these kinds of details (“running in place,” “held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance”) at the beginning of the final sentence before returning to the attack and  delivering the action we’ve been dreading (shaking her like a doll”).

Finally, like Gold, we arrive at the end:

“Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there.”

Note how his arrival is anti-climactic, rendered so because Wolff uses the accursed passive voice (“he was there”). Consider the difference, for example, if he had ended the sentence with “…the distance vanished and he pounced on the animal.” This crisis isn't yet over, and just as one sentence of Wolff’s urges us to read on, so too does he design paragraphs that push us into the next one.

Action doesn’t just write itself; it needs to be carefully constructed and developed by an attentive writer with his or her finger on the pulse of the story. But something else, something even more subtle, is going on here. By starting at this particular moment, Wolff patches the reader into his main character’s perspective at a moment of crisis so that Gold’s fears and feelings of helplessness become ours as well. This identification and sympathy is absolutely crucial to the rest of the story because it prevents us from judging Gold’s later actions too harshly. The readers are, in fact, the only ones who can truly sympathize; as Wolff writes about the aftermath of the attack, “[Gold] had been alone in his anger for a week now and wanted some company. Though his wife claimed to be angry too, she hadn’t seen what he had seen” (201). But we have seen what Gold has seen. And we have felt it, too. Wolff’s skillful writing makes sure of this.

Obviously, reading like a writer can be a bit tedious if we subject a story’s every sentence to the microscope, and I offer this close reading merely as an example and model for a general principle—that there is much to be learned by looking at craft and much that we often miss. If you want to become a better writer, then you should develop the skill of reading from a writer’s perspective. If you find yourself caring for a particular character, go back and see if you can figure out how the writer made you care. If you find yourself thinking about a scene or conversation in a book, go back and examine how the writer choreographed that scene or phrased and presented the dialogue. Every good story is filled with lessons about how good stories are told, and for the writers among us, these are treasures well worth unearthing.

*All quotes taken from Wolff, Tobias. “The Chain.” Our Story Begins. New York: Vintage, 2009. 199-213.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Patience Is a Virtue or Something

            I can’t remember the exact story I was telling Shannon way back when, but I do remember that the events I was relating required me to pause and announce what I see as one of my central virtues.
            “Look,” I began, “I’m a patient gu—”
            “No you’re not,” Shannon said, and proceeded to laugh.
            A minute and a half later, when she showed no signs of stopping, I finally had to interrupt.
            “I’m not patient is what you’re saying?”
            “Sweetie,” she said, “you’re many things, but ‘patient’ isn’t one of them.”

            I had filed this little conversation away but had cause to remember it a few weeks ago, when I was running late for a meeting at school yet nevertheless stopped at a nearby Starbucks. As I reached the door, a couple of young girls no older than fourteen were coming from the other direction, so I opened the door for them and gestured them ahead. They giggled out a “thank you” and skittered toward the line. I went inside and fell in behind them.
            Which is when I realized my mistake.
            I assume that everyone orders as quickly as I do at Starbucks—a grande of whichever of the three roasts looks best, a little room for cream. My average time to complete the transaction is around 17.5 seconds, and I was counting on this rapidity if I was going to make my meeting.
            The girls, however, were operating on a different clock. The two of them stood and pointed and debated what they should get. Then they asked several questions of the cashier and then conferred with each other again.
            Oh c’mon, I thought, regretting my gesture of opening the door for them.
            Behind me in line was a mother and her two children, and I sighed loudly in attempt to get her attention so that I could throw her a “high school girls, amiright?” eye roll, but she was studying the menu on the wall herself. I shifted my feet and blew air through my lips in an effort to hurry the girls along in their deliberations. When they finally ordered, I saw one of the girls lean and say something to the cashier, who couldn’t hear what she was saying.
            Ohfershitsake…let’s GO already…
            The girl called the cashier closer, cupped her hand to the cashier’s ear, and whispered something. Then she handed the cashier her phone so that she could scan her Starbucks app, which is I guess how the kids pay for coffee these days.
            The girls moved on, and I made a somewhat douchey display of finally reaching the counter, but I suspect that I was the only one attuned to my subtle physical actions.
            I ordered my coffee and reached for my wallet, but the cashier told me that the two girls had already paid for me.

            I wish I could report that this little incident miraculously transformed my default mode from “MOVE, GodDAMmit!” to “Oh no, please, after you,” but in truth, the changeover has been gradual.
            I am trying, though.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

My Hero, Teddy N.

A few months ago, Shannon and I were watching an episode of The Mindy Project (shut up—it’s good!), and there was a scene where one of the characters was sitting in his boyhood room at his mom’s house. Just over his left shoulder, in the background, I saw a green blob.
            “Oh my God,” I said, scrambling for the remote. “Is that what I think it is?”
            “Wuzzat?” Shannon said, waking up.
            I paused the DVR, backed it up a hair, hit PLAY, paused again—and then repeated this process four or five times until I was able to freeze the half-second that the green blob was onscreen. It looked something like this:

By now, Shannon was fully awake.
            “What the hell are you doing?”
            “Nothing. Oh my God. Go back to sleep. Holy shit. Do you know what that is?”
            “What what is?”
            I got up and pointed to the green blob on the screen. “I think it’s one of those wax alligators.”
            Sadly, I lack the words to describe the look on her face.
            For the record, this is what I saw through the blur:

For many people who grew up in the Chicagoland area, there should be a flash of recognition. Especially if they, like me, were treated to any family or school field trips to the nearby Brookfield Zoo. I loved the real animals, of course, but what I looked forward to most were the wax ones. Stationed at the entrances and exits of the various animal houses were Mold-a-Rama machines—bubble-topped contraptions about the size of a hefty jukebox, where, for fifty cents, you could partake in injection-mold magic. After receiving your quarters, the machine rumbled into action. Two long pistons—each holding half of a metal block (the mold) with hoses sprouting off the top—pushed slowly together. Hums and clicks and hisses sounded as fluids and air were pumped into and out of that mold. A light on top of the machine changed colors to signal the different stages of manufacture. Then, a little over a minute later, the mold halves separated, and there stood the red giraffe or black panther or green alligator. A little blade on a long, thin arm would slide from the back of the machine and knock the animal off the sloped metal surface, sending it tumbling into the chute at the front of the machine. You then opened the little door in front, scooped it out, and—holding it by the base—waved it gently for a minute or so until it cooled completely. I learned this last step the hard way when I grabbed a rhino with too much enthusiasm and put my thumb through his chest.
            You can watch the process HERE, but it’s missing two key features of the experience: the smell of melting crayons, and the sheer joy of retrieving your prize.
            I write this description in the past tense, but that’s not completely accurate. We live in a wonderful time where the collected wisdom and knowledge of the ages exist—quite literally—at our fingertips, so for the twenty minutes following my alligator sighting, I kept Mindy on pause while I Googled away and discovered several things, but for the sake of brevity I’ll stick to the highlights:

  1. Mold-a-Rama machines are still around
  2. They now cost $2
  3. The animals aren’t wax; they’re plastic
  4. I’m not the only one obsessed with this stuff

           In fact, if you type “moldarama animals” into Google Images, you get a pretty good look at the animals that come out of the machines and those machines themselves. Really, you should do that right now. I’ll wait.

            Pretty cool, right? Just in case you impatiently charged ahead in this post, here’s some of what you missed:

            What the images don’t tell is the larger story, which also exists on the internet HERE, HERE, and HERE (to list just a few).  And because it’s very likely that you’re one of those readers who won’t pause to Google mid-read, I’ll summarize.
            Mold-a-Rama was founded in the early 1960s in Chicago (and debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair), and today it’s owned by a family business that’s run out of a house in Brookfield, Illinois. The owner—Bill Jones—and his two sons—Bill Jr. and Paul—are charged with maintaining these machines, the most-recently built of which dates back to 1964. It’s their dedication that keeps this little piece of the past alive.
            After I delivered this last news to Shannon, she paused before she spoke.
            “Can we please watch the rest of the show now?”

            My obsession might have ended there, but a couple of weeks later I happened to be visiting Chicago and I found myself killing time in the suburb of Downers Grove, where I grew up. I wandered into the library and was greeted by the sight of glass display cases where local kids had put their collections on display. There was a toy car collection, a Pez dispenser collection, a doll collection, and then this one, belonging to a “Teddy N”:

I don’t have any Mold-a-Rama animals any more, but even at its height, my collection would have paled in comparison to his. In mine, animals were always in some state of injury—the panther's tail missing, the gorilla’s hand snapped off, the elephant’s base cracked. And it wasn’t nearly as comprehensive; I’m embarrassed to say that I had no vehicles and not even a single dinosaur (somehow, I was in my twenties before I ever visited the Field Museum). And I certainly didn’t have (but would have fiercely coveted) this boss Komodo Dragon:

I don’t know anything about Teddy N. other than his name (though, based on his writing, I can ballpark his age), but I have a feeling that we would be great friends, he and I.
            Needless to say, I immediately texted pictures of Teddy N.’s collection to Shannon with the words “SEE?!!” I felt vindicated.
            Alas, the feeling was short-lived. She texted back a blunt, withering question: “Why can’t you be interested in normal things?”
            She’s referring, of course, to my obsession with “junk” (her word, not mine) from the past—comic books, record albums, sports cards, monster/superhero models. In what has become an ongoing haranguing conversation, she suggests that I just get rid of the stuff.
             At these moments, I could use a friend like Teddy N. But I have to do without him and explain that these things aren’t junk; they’re valuable artifacts of the past. My past. Because, really, so much of my past—like anyone’s—is either going or already gone. Those collections are a way to hold on to something. That’s why I’ve bought back issues of some of the comics I had as a kid (but that my mom threw out)—especially old issues of The Incredible Hulk, and why I’ve bought and builtmodels I had as a kid, and why Shannon has caught me more than once spending the better part of an afternoon watching 1970s TV themes on Youtube.
            I don’t imagine that Teddy N. is reading this, but if he is, I hope that he listens to what I have to tell him. Keep that collection safe. As you grow up, move it from place to place with you, and don’t ever rent an apartment or buy a house without making sure that there’s room for it somewhere. If it’s important enough to you now to let the good folks at the Downers Grove Public Library put it on display, then it’s going to be important to you later on. Trust me on this.
            But something tells me that Teddy N. is the kind of kid that knows this already.