A friend of mine recently came out with her first novel which was so delightful that I wondered if I could do the same. Needless to say, I’m discovering that it ain’t easy. All my life, I’ve been writing short essays, not fiction, on my take of what’s happening. I don’t write diatribes or commentary, though. There’s enough of that on the opinion page of any newspaper. In fact, we stopped our subscription to our local rural paper, since I couldn’t help myself from reading the owner’s nonsense each week and then fulminating over how worthless his ideas were and how pathetically he expressed them. But I couldn’t resist. As soon as the weekly arrived, I would turn to page two to see what the the old fool was blathering about this week. I resolved then that I would never torture anyone with such scribbling.
I don’t know if I’ve kept my promise, but I’ve tried to channel my thoughts through an observer’s eyes, rather than one with an opinion. After all, opinions are like certain orifices, everyone has one but there’s no reason to call attention to it all the time.
So recently I’ve been trying to come up with openings that might catch the ear of my reader so they don’t put the book down. I know I’m hooked when I can’t wait to turn to the next page. I’ve been reading Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye and found myself under her influence. She’s a master story teller who has the narrative skill that keeps me interested in a cast of characters that are really not all that interesting. I think that’s the clue to good storytelling…if you can talk for thirty minutes about how a battery works and look out at your audience that is wide-eyed with wonder, you’ve accomplished quite a feat. Her skill, like that of my friend, is not slight of hand, no trick to sucker you in. When reading a good storyteller you can ignore Kurt Vonnegut’s belief that “all the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.”
I’ve discovered there are no tricks involved. Just a lot of work. Since we all have so much to say to one another, it’s our duty to share in a human way.
Now, if I can just get the conversational part down to the believable chit-chat that you want to hear over coffee…
Here are a few openings I’m developing:
He saw the picture in his mind’s eye when he heard the pop in his calf. He immediately saw the old sports page photo of the great Washington Redskin quarterback Sonny Jurgensen hobbling off the field and Billy Kilmer running on to replace the hurt starter. Like Jurgensen, he too had ruptured his Achilles tendon many years earlier when playing football with a group of high school kids.
He still doesn’t know how he did it that day, but he managed to drive himself home with a buddy in the passenger seat. What amazed him was that the buddy did not offer to drive and insisted on stopping en route for a fast-food hamburger. This time, though, he knew it wasn’t a tendon he had injured playing squash, but it hurt bad just the same. He limped out to his car and again drove himself home
More than the hurt, it was the amazement over what had happened that wouldn’t get out of his vision. It was the suddenness of it all, the complete irreversible moment from when he felt fit and fine and the next when the sharp pain wouldn’t let go. That was all he could think of. There was none of the practical side of how long he would be laid up, how many Ibuprofins he needed, was it ice and then heat or the other way round that would bring the swelling down fastest.
He was back to young boyhood when he first stared seriously at his own blood. The blackberry thorns had burned his forearm after taking a bite out of him. It was then he knew he would not live forever.
Breakfast With Sappho
The little one was going home this morning and as we sat and ate our breakfast I thought she said “one legged” instead of her choice of two rather than just one egg. We laughed and praised grandma for whipping up our delicious omelets, although Sappho didn’t want any of that spicy salsa in her meal. I suggested she might rather have a mix of colored gummy bears melted in, especially if they were red ones. In her soon-to-be 7-year-old cock of the head and exaggerated twist of one eyebrow, she said sure, what a great idea. She saw no problem with such food, despite some complaints earlier about her permanent teeth that have now about filled out her smile.
She is a bit of a drama queen, though, and is fond of telling us of the “growing pains” in her mouth. But I distracted her this time with tales of grandma who I said has no teeth and who’s been around well over a hundred years and has mastered the art of riding corn stalks that are still standing in the field this time of year. Probably why she prefers the cold days of November. I don’t think she believed me but she seemed to enjoy the break from her own stories of princesses and fairies. Grandma, though, was not amused.
In The Blink Of An Eye
He found it droll that his first name was just a variation on Erin, the name of his new girlfriend. Like him, she was tall and thin and quiet.
Aaron was unusual for a young man in his early 30s, since he liked to read about why so many people over the ages had created gods to explain their own mysteries. And now he was puzzling over why the gods he had inherited were all desert gods from a desolate landscape where old men ruled over sheep and goats, sons and daughters. Why not Swiss gods that chocolate makers prayed to?
He asked out of the blue if I liked Picasso, since he didn’t understand what was going on in the paintings. It wasn’t that he preferred Norman Rockwell’s photo-like realism, he just didn’t know why he was supposed to prefer contorted figures with lots of angles and distortions over life-like images of people and homey scenes. He also liked a sweet cocktail drink like an old-fashioned Manhattan or the latest fad, Sex on the Beach, over a beer. He enjoyed Blink, the book by Malcolm Gladwell, a new interpretation on thinking and about the choices that seem to be made in an instant, in the proverbial blink of an eye. He was especially intrigued by the decisions we make that actually aren’t as simple as they seem.
His girlfriend listened and then said she had recently learned a new French phrase, “coup de foudre,” a sudden unexpected event such as love at first site. Erin laughed and wondered if Gladwell had ever considered such an example. They were big fans of the sitcom “The Big Bang” and she suddenly recited parts of a Louis Jenkins poem by the same name.
It concluded with:
You had a case of beer on ice in the back, cruising down Highway number 7 on a summer afternoon and then you parked near Loon Lake just as the moon began to rise. Way back then you said to yourself, “Boy, it doesn’t get any better than this,”and you were right.
That stopped him in mid bite of his breakfast.
Where Have You Gone?
She still lay there curled up leafing through Go Giants by the poet Nick Laird while her boyfriend showered. A few minutes later when he toweled off, he heard her laugh. She cried out “I’m beeswax and you’re birdshit.” In her own way of celebrating the beginning of a new day, she continued to giggle when she read one of the poems aloud, “The gardener mown down. The typist erased. The postman dispatched and the vet put to sleep.” That was all he needed to crawl back into bed with her.
It was only later, weeks later when he was no longer anywhere to be found, even out of extra-terrestrial cell-phone range, that she realized she was still finding bits of him around, despite having the apartment scoured by professionals to the point of detail work. Fingernail clippings, nose hair remnants, the faint ring in the adjoining sink where someone had spit a mouth of toothpaste foam. And there was hair… he wore a beard so the hair was almost pubic in its coarse curliness. And gray. She wiped that out of the shower drain.
The exciting force of desire that had joined them was gone, but the ever accumulating body leftovers without a body was starting to creep her out. She had the place professionally cleaned again and then was afraid to come home for fear there might by some diaper-changing moment when a Jack Nicholson look-alike, complete with wild-eyed menace and maniacal laugh, would burst through the bathroom door at her. She was certain she would wet her pants. And if there was any cranberry juice left over from a lunch-time Cosmo, it would come erupting right out of her nose. But this time, she found nothing, absolutely nothing.
With all the scary stuff aside, she did miss him. His flavor came right out of his fingers. And she knew his touch which made her realize she had never dreamed of such pleasures before.