Posts tagged ‘Writing’

October 6, 2013

Writing in the Plains

It has been a long time since I have written. Summer is not a writing season, at least not for me. The summer time is spent searching for pitchers and fielders and batters. Or quarterbacks and receivers. Or ballers. Or tennisers. Or frolfers. Or I accept that no one will play, and so I play alone; I grab my blades, stick, and ball, and I find an empty parking lot. Or barren warehouse. The point, I believe, is that summer weather welcomes all sports and so summer weather envelops me.

But that is too simple, as if my summer life boiled down to sleeping, working, eating, and sports. The fact is that life is busy. People meander in and out of the coffee shop of my life, some lounging, some making a pitstop, some commanding the space, some working, some cowed by the environs. New responsibilities, new challenges. Life changes and priorities change. I wanted a retreat, a time to withdraw and to pray and to write and to write and to write. But responsibilities do not stop; the world does not press pause and let you regroup. You must prepare for the continuation before you withdraw or else everything will erupt. And for me, even when I withdraw, I’m not withdrawn. So why waste time in retreat.

I’m about eight hours from home at the moment. With some friends, I’ve driven to Nebraska for a wedding. We reserved a motel room claiming three adults and then snuck in an extra three. We made whiskey milkshakes and played board games and card games and listened to Lorde; we crammed into the bed and wriggled into sleeping bags and giggled and chortled until we collectively stopped talking. I “forgot” to turn off my alarm, the alarm that plays the most abrasive metal song I know, The Dillinger Escape Plan’s 43% Burnt. I slipped out of the darkness into the continental breakfast in yesterday’s clothes, Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her in my hand.

Breakfast is like every other motel breakfast; the TV hoisted to the ceiling displays everywhere-but-local weather coverage, the clear dispensers hold nondescript cereal, OJ and AJ, cigarette flavored coffee, bleach white bread, waffle mix, yogurt, cold biscuits and crock pot gravy. Diaz attempts to describe Dominican American life above the caterwauling television and the gossiping diners, whom I don’t know, but we all know from every motel continental breakfast. Geriatric couples mingle among the tables, making themselves waffles. They speak to each other as old friends, as though this is the local diner where they typically meet each other on Sunday mornings. Maybe it is. The couple to my left are wearing matching red polos tucked into pleated khakis.

Well, are you ready to hit the road? one asks another behind me; I suddenly envision every one of these couples creaking out into the parking lot, only to gingerly position themselves onto the most badass Harleys I’ve ever seen, red polos and all. They do not suddenly transform into badasses themselves; they remain, fragile old men and women. This posse rides their hogs like they drive their Lincolns and Buicks, ten under the speed limit in the fast lane with their blinker on for miles.

I finish my liquid cigarette, pour myself another, and slip back into the dark room where no one has stirred. I set down Diaz and leave the room again with my laptop, this time for the lobby. This is the outskirts of the great Nebraska City, where the lobby computer still runs Windows 98 and sounds like it requires its own generator. Cloaked in white noise, I settle in to write; it has been a long time and I’m not sure how to start. I open Word. I sip on coffee. I open Chrome. I am eight hours from work and I can still connect, logging into my email to check for emergencies so they don’t become someone else’s emergencies.

But really it’s distraction. I’m not ready to write. I don’t have anything to say. Not that I often have anything to say. But after an absence I feel I need to explain myself. Why haven’t you been writing? Why do you bother writing now? Why should anyone bother reading this? I don’t have any answers for any of those questions except that they don’t matter. This was fun, sitting on a surprisingly comfortable couch as my fellow vagabonds slept; the random conversations of the continental breakfast and the occasional lobby attendant functioning as my morning background.

The view from a cramped Nebraska City motel room.

The view from a cramped Nebraska City motel room.

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May 25, 2013

One Evening

He put down the paper coffee cup. His stomach issued occasional murmurs of want, but these were growing more infrequent as it began to recognize the left over pasta that he had hastily shoveled into his maw. That was twenty minutes ago. In another five his stomach would be content – no, grateful – that he hadn’t heeded the cries for more food.

He had nuked the leftovers, his own interpretation of Chicken Tetrazzini, and booked it out the door. He now sat at the square Starbucks table, sipping at his excuse to sit unbothered, with his laptop unfolded. This was his night to be productive, to remove himself from the isolation of his room and transplant him in the isolation of a public corner with headphones. Here there were none of the innumerous and detailed tasks associated with house-rentership and no roommate whirlwinds to be corralled. There was just whatever he wanted to accomplish. Not that much would be found completed when the barista came to evict him, but there was promise for the evening.

Last night had been a different productive. Everyone had been home, a rare occurrence, and there were even a couple guests, of the girlfriend and long lost friend varieties. The variety where hellos and flummoxed introductions are great, but third-wheeldom is thoroughly uncomfortable. Some days that discomfort is requisite to future friendships, but last night was not one of them, at least in foggy foresight.

So he retreated to his Lair. He hadn’t dubbed it that, but it was preferable to his previous Dungeon, which he had also not named. Dungeons are sadistic torture chambers that belligerently betray the hopes of their inhabitants, both captive and captor. Lairs are seductive and sultry, where the venturous explore, engage, and emerge triumphant. He had crawled into bed, cool sheets lighting upon his bare calves. The desk lamp beside his bed cast its gaze not towards his face, but towards the adjacent eggshell wall, which absorbed the light and then gently dispersed it over the book before him, like a saturated sponge, squeezed.

His reflection on last night’s reading was interrupted by the microscopic earthquake in his pocket. “B ther n fiv”: his brother’s hasty text. Andrew had spent the past two weekends not only torturing his fuel and discretionary budgets with trips to the Twin Cities and Grand Rapids, but also his brother with his absence.

He took another sip of the lukewarm coffee. He crumpled his nose and stuck out his tongue in minor dissatisfaction. His next sip, probably his last gulp, would be truly repugnant, as it would not be for another five when the forgotten dredges of the cup had turned frigid. But this was every cup of coffee that was not hurried and tonight he was not hurried. Andrew’s imminent arrival would slow the already meandering night until the barista, tonight it would likely be the balding-well-before-middle-age-Bill and not the slightly-flirtatious, slight-but-curvaceous, college-cutie, Tinley, kicked them out far before they were ready. Just as well; he didn’t come out to flirt tonight.

The door opened, but his headphones insulated him from its activity, even if the entering cool spring breeze brushing the plentiful golden tan fields on his arms made the joints of his lips curl upwards. He continued to stare down the Word document, tapping intermittently at the keyboard. Ponder, ponder, ponder, type, type, backspace, re-ponder.

He picked up the cup of coffee, gauging its contents by the feel. “Hmm, two more gulps probably. I really wish Starbucks served Irish Coffee.” He started the first sip, and then, attempting his best reptilian jaw dislocation, took the entire sop. His cheeks ballooned to contain it and his eyes widened in disgust.

“Sup, Little Man!” Andrew set his pumpkin latte on the table before grabbing the chair opposite and slipping the forest green messenger bag from his shoulder. He had used this term of enragement for his older brother for years, continuing to the point where it was appropriated into their vernacular.

Little Man swallowed the bilge and slowly withdrew the headphones from his ears, glaring at Andrew – 90% playfully for the sobriquet, 8% for his sneaking up to the table, and 2% residue from the taste of cold coffee – saying nothing. Andrew sat for a guilty minute, gauging his brother’s pique, waiting, to mirror the grin lurking behind the glower. And then it broke.

“Hey Punk. How was your day?”

Andrew lifted the cup for a quick sip while his brother shut his laptop. “I’ve had a hell of a day. Didn’t do anything all morning, really; class – Spanish – and whatever, but nothing really. Then I went to work and that was just stupid. No one came in all afternoon. I just walked the aisles of the store tweaking box alignments and crap like that. Then dinner and just came out here. How was your day?”

He handed Andrew his empty cup and nodded toward the trash can behind him. “Be a dear?” Andrew reciprocated the 90% mocking glare his brother had welcomed him with, “I hate you so much right now”. Guilty grins all around as Andrew snatched the cup.

“Thanks. My day was meh. I think I don’t really remember – like normal – just a blur.” It was true. Sometimes it was just the easiest thing to say and other days it was the easiest thing to remember. Today it was true. It was also true that sitting there was the highlight of the day. “But work was good, I think. And nothing is really going on, probably. What did you bring to work on?”

“Nothing terribly specific. Spanish project on the culture of some country, a wellness journal, a..”

“I hated wellness”

“You’ve told me a thousand times.”

He grinned. “Sorry, continue.”

“Thanks. Anyways, a wellness journal and I’m brain storming for Lewis’ final project.”

“That’s awesome, I loved Lewis’ final project. The freedom to tackle Medieval Lit with whatever approach you want. What are you thinking so far?”

Andrew took a short pull from his latte. His pumpkin infused coffee breath drifted across the table as he sighed, staring at the circle his finger was tracing around the lip of his cup. “I’m not sure yet. I’m considering drawing a cartoon sort of thing. Harking to da Vinci’s Last Supper, a gemishekhts of a dinner party with character’s we’ve encountered this semester.” He quickly glanced up at his brother, stealing a quick, reciprocated smile at the Yiddish he dropped into their vernacular. “That’s really the frontrunner, based on its being the most solidified concept I have. I’d then write the short paper explaining the significance and whatever. What did you do? What did other people in your class do?”

“Ha, that was the class I attempted the Iron Maiden homage that failed when I couldn’t do Bruce Dickinson’s vocals.”

“What?! You submitted that to Lewis? I hadn’t realized that! That’s hysterical!”

“Yup.” His voice dropped an octave as he elongated the vowel. “I think it’s still on MySpace. But everything in it was defensible – school-wise, not musically – so I got a decent grade. I also wrote the explanation paper as though the song – wait, maybe not the song, but definitely the lyrics – as  though they were a medieval work that I had discovered and was analyzing.”

“Nice”

“Yeah, it was fun. I’m trying to remember what other people did. I had one friend – okay, he was from Texas, so the term ‘friend’ can only be used loosely,” impudent grins were exchanged – “who wrote a romance as a western. One of the neighbor girls did a photo essay. She took pics that she thought reflected aspects of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and wrote about those. There was a trifold poster presentation on the Mystics and few other creative writing submissions. But there were a lot of papers.”

“Really? I wouldn’t have expected that.”

“Yeah. I think part of it was the superiority complex of a lot English Lit majors, and I guess liberal arts students, to provide “serious analysis” of every piece they read. Plus there were just some weird, high strung people in that major and that class. I think I’ve told you before I hate a lot of English majors, but it was particularly true in that class.”

“Haha, yeah.”

“But I think a bigger factor is that people were intimidated by the freedom that Lewis extents. There is a comfort in having your routine for writing a class’ final paper. You may have a creativity that begins and ends in procuring and supporting a thesis –and that’s great – but the sudden opportunity to not write a paper changes the playing field. They’d prefer the relative normalcy of a research paper as a practiced intellectual task. Know what I mean?”

Andrew took another drink from the latte. Gyrating the cup in his right hand, he gauged its weight before setting it on the table and clasping both hands around it. He fixed his gaze to it. “Yeah, I do. And that is a little bit of where I’m at. I know that in a pinch, if I hit a creative wall I can go write a paper. But I really hate writing the papers. Actually, no. While I’ve relatively enjoyed the stuff I’ve read for this class, I’ve held little more than distain for the most of the other stuff I’ve read this past year. And having to write on stuff you don’t give a shit about is an abysmal process.”

Little Man threw his head back and issued a single “ha” that sounded eerily akin to a cough expelling phlegm, his consistent response to sudden humor that didn’t merit prolonged laughter, but surprised enough to receive more than a warm smirk. “Yeah, that’s school, that’s life.” He leaned forward, negotiating the presence of his closed laptop with his elbows, and began working his index finger along the flowing grain of the faux oak table. “Doing a lot of what you don’t like, or at best give a shit about, in order to occasionally do what you love. There are a lot of socks, boxers, and undershirts to be washed regularly in order to live between wedding receptions.”

Andrew raised his hands and shook his head, smiling incredulously. “What?! What are you talking about?!”

He threw a sideways smirk at Andrew and glanced up from under his brow. “I guess it’s a tangent I derived from a book I read for Senior Sem, The Quotidian Mysteries by Somebody Norris. Hang on, this is going to kill me.” He stared down at the tile floor, snapping his fingers irritably. “Jeez, what is her name? This is going to drive me nuts all night.” He stared at the floor and snapped his fingers, as though beckoning an errant puppy. “Gah, what the heck? Ah, I give up.

“Anyways,” he looked back to his brother, “I can’t say it’s directly from it, but what I derived from that book, and a lot of the class, was to find the holiness in the mundane and be content with it, because that is most of what makes up life. A lot of literature, a lot of good literature, focuses on regular boring life or how to live a normal life in light of the extraordinary event. We build our thought upon the potentially extraordinary, despite the majority of life not being what we deem “extraordinary.” Yet thought still permeates the ordinary life; our lives are being gently steered by philosophies that face no challenge until we hit the extraordinary event. Then push comes to shove. That is what I love about Dostoevsky; his characters voice their ideologies in leisure, but then he introduces the extraordinary that forces each character to take their ideologies to the full extent or relinquish them. This is only compelling because he is able to give every character their own voice in an authentic way, even when he disagrees with them.”

Little Man leaned back, slightly embarrassed by his emphatic description.  “They are also really fat books,” he added cheekily.

“Dude, you and your fat books; you are such a character. You are a total English major,” Andrew goaded him, “just like the ones you hate.”

“Shut up. I’ll kill you,” his brother growled, holding the practiced glare for as long as possible, which wasn’t long, before grinning.

Andrew’s laughter at the familiar idle threat broke over characters filling the coffee shop, the proselytizing students, the gossiping teenage housewives, the old men and their newspapers. There was no line at the register, and the baristas cleaned machines and wiped counters chatting idly, occasionally glancing at the time on their cellphones. “No, you are usually not one of those characters that aggravated your education, but you genuinely love reading books and talking about books past the point of being embarrassed by it.”

Little Man again focused on tracing the wood grain. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Andrew continued. “You know, I became an English major for a couple reasons. The first was because I like to write and I try my hand at journalism when I can; Wheaton doesn’t have a program that specifically caters to that so I picked the next best thing. Second, I saw how much you enjoyed it.”

“I’m glad I have so much sway over your decisions. You will now give me your new baseball bat,” he waved his hand in a weak Obi Wan Kenobi impersonation.

Andrew focused another death glare upon his brother. “Shut up. Jerk.”

Little Man issued another abrupt guffaw. “Speaking of enjoyments, I just finished another book last night. The Art of Fielding. I think you’d like it.”

“Yeah? What is it?” Andrew’s face was both curious and skeptical, deservedly so. Little Man had a habit of imposing his tastes – literature, music, and television, but not clothing – upon his younger brother. His success rate bested fifty percent, but not overwhelmingly so.

“Well, it’s kind of about baseball, specifically a single college shortstop in pursuit of defensive perfection, but it’s primarily a relational book, examining a number of different relationships all revolving around this shortstop.”

“Huh.” Andrew peeked at his phone. Little Man continued despite his distracted audience.

“Yeah. The author does a very good job of developing characters, whether this particular shortstop, his gay roommate, or my favorite, the team captain who recruited him. He is me, but with the skill and persistence for college ball. Catcher, football player, bad knees. He’s a history major, which was my Plan B. And last but not least, he’s very Jewish, to the point of being very hairy.”

Andrew’s outburst of laughter caused a couple of other tables to crank their necks towards brothers.

“Yeah, I was written into the book. But beyond the literary version of me indulging my ego, it is a very good book. From the relationship point of view it delves into teammates, friends, romance. There is a homosexual relationship that is addressed sympathetically, but without being too patronizing. The pursuit of perfectionism is put under the microscope as well; there are a lot of broken characters who are forced to look at their imperfections.

“The book has its own imperfections. The author wanted a larger story than he had the energy or ability to execute – when perfectionism begins to unravel it does so too quickly. The expectation that he has to have the ends tied up by the end of the book – and maintain a readable length – causes the story to burst at the seams. But the first two thirds are excellent. It’s inspiring to see a not-dead guy write that well.”

Andrew chuckled and glanced at his phone again. “Ugh, dude, it’s getting late. There’s no point in me starting anything here because I’ll have to pack up as soon as I get into a groove. I should just go.”

Little Man voiced his displeasure with a drawn out but quiet boo followed by a definitive, “you suck.”

“Dude, don’t even start. You’re the one who talked my ear off about your books. I didn’t even get the chance to open my bag.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I guess I was on a roll.”

Andrew rose, slinging the strap of his bag over his head. “Don’t worry about it. I still had fun. I’ll be around this weekend; what are you up to?”

“Friday night I’ll be celebrating a coworker’s birthday. Nothing Saturday. I assume I’m picking you up for church on Sunday?”

“Yes, please. You want to hit on Saturday? Forecast is clear.”

Little Man straightened at the suggestion. “Yes, please. I’ve been itching to play for a couple weeks now; basically, since the last time we played. I’ll see if I can scrounge up some more guys.”

“Sweet! Okay, I’ll see you later.” With that, Andrew walked briskly out the door into the spring evening. The store windows faced south, so the setting sun wasn’t directly visible, but the descendant arc was noticeably more progressed than it had been earlier. The outside world was polarized; darkening shrouds draped the eastern lies of every tree, car, and person as the western poles were bathed with the caress of the setting Midas.

Little Man reopened his laptop, scowling at the indigo glow as it slowly resurrected, bringing forth his work. Now that Andrew was gone, he’d have to meander back through what he’d written to restore the voice. There were some people who could just write, carrying with them a bag of voices to pour out upon the page. Some writers could draw out sweeping narratives in hours, leaving the minutia for another time or their copyeditor. He could not. He belabored the minutia – grand scheming be damned. Every word was a puzzle piece to be twisted, contorted, and connected to another piece that was twisted and contorted and purposefully selected in relation to the next. Which twisted the knife when he’d realize he’d forgotten to type a word. Or painted himself into a narrative corner with his details. Or discovered there was no exposition to follow his ornate epigraph. His unfinished, directionless Word docs could fill a flash drive.

He glanced at the clock. Bill would be making the rounds soon.  Andrew had left twenty five minutes ago; the same twenty five minutes he’d just spent staring at a screen. He hadn’t written a word, or deleted or rearranged any. He’d just stared. The shop was now devoid of patrons apart from a student staring at his own screen in a distant corner. Norah Jones wafted out of the overhead speakers, giving texture to his stare.

Knitting his fingers into a yarmulke, he leaned back and rested his feet on Andrew’s vacant chair. The words were not ready. He’d sit and wait for them to grow. They probably wouldn’t come before Bill would, but they could maybe germinate or fester until next time. But until Bill came he’d just sit and ponder.

March 24, 2012

Integrating Sports and Writing

I love sports.  I came out of the womb with a baseball, a bat and a backwards cap.  In high school I excelled as a carnivorous defensive lineman.  Over the years I’ve played in a multitude of pick-up games, from baseball, football, basketball, street hockey, ultimate, tennis, beer pong, etc.  That’s not to say that I was ever particularly skilled, but my competitive ferocity usually merited not being the last picked; if I was, I’d make you pay for not picking me.  I’m still the largest child you’ve ever seen pantomiming my Ruthian swing and smoothly channeling my inner Puckett, robbing myself of the deserved homer.

But sport has never been my sole lover; my constant mistress is the written word.  When my rapt attention is not paid to the athletic world, it is usually turned to black stains on a white plane.  The only rival to my baseball card collection is that which accumulates on my bookshelf.  Encased in my baby-book is the first semi-coherent story I ever “wrote,” as a three year old, transcribed by my mother.  The years have added poetry, letters, and papers, which, though showing growth, show no hint of prodigious talent.

These two worlds are often dichotomized.  One conveys images of solitude at a typewriter and a cigarette while the other conveys weight-rooms, camaraderie and the exertion of physical supremacy.  Sportswriters are an aged rope bridge between, falling into disrepair as a rising generation pursues ESPN’s anchor desk instead of the Washington Post beat desk.  The few planks of the rope bridge still able to bear weight are the occasional blogs of a past generation’s hold-overs and ghost written memoirs.  But, while a visible link between two worlds, much of this writing remains devoid of the sports mentality.  It remains “post-contest” or “post-career;” a separate response to sports, a leisurely transcription or analysis, but never an integration.

What I want to do is unite my love of sports with my love of writing, and I don’t mean in sports journalism or memoirs; I mean integrating the activity of writing with the competitive mentality of sports.  Winning is becoming a better writer; maybe even published. Maybe.  But this goal line is unlike the goals of all the team sports I have related to above.  Writing, it appears, is more similar to that “sport” I abhor: running.  As much as I love sports and the running associated with them (shagging flies, running routes, pushing the ball, etc), I hate running for the sake of running.  Running a sprint is tolerable at best, but talk to runners about running, particularly distance running, and the concurrent theme is “competing against your best self.”  This is the most boring of competitions, but the most necessary by measures of self-improvement.  But in all honesty, that is what practice is in other sports.  That is why Derrick Rose spends his summer and fall in the gym by himself shooting threes and free throws.  That is why Jose Bautista’s swing is no longer that of a benchwarmer journeyman.  That is why Aaron Rodgers can immediately follow a legend and yet become a legend himself.  And that, as a long-time fan of Allen Iverson, is the aspect which I hate of sports that I love: practice.  Because I hate conditioning drills.  Because I hate coaches’ criticisms.  Because I hate competing against myself.  Because I do not see the improvement; I do not see the small victories in myself.

What I need first is faith.  I need to put my faith in the process- in the practice- that I have been told is the key to this self-improvement which I cannot see.  I need to be able to lock myself in my room or stay late in my cubicle and write.  Stupid sentence after stupid sentence until they become less stupid.  And don’t forget coaching.  Coaching happens during practice, not during the game.  And coaching in writing begins, as I understand it, with reading quality writing.  Reading a bunch of crap writing is not going to improve my writing, but reading quality writing will. From quality reading coaching extends to criticism and I do have a network of critics to reach out to, I just need to swallow my pride and reach out to them, to build community with them.  And beyond practice it requires execution.   In college I would bang out papers the night before they’re due: going for the walk off grand slam, channeling my Doug Flutie, Bill Mazeroski, and Robert Horry.  Unfortunately, what makes for breathtaking, inspiring sports makes for poor, lackluster writing.  Instead I need the focus of boring, grind it out 2 minute drills.  I need small sections of writing over a prolonged period of time; a period of time that hopefully only ends with my death.  Not my complacency or despondency or my physical inability to pick up a ball, I mean, pen.  It is probably a knife’s edge to walk between pushing myself continuously to get better and still enjoying the act of writing.

But here is the resolve.  Here are the first down markers, the singles I need to hit, and the free throws I have to sink, to at least put myself in a position to win.

  1. Never stop reading.
  2. Keep writing.
  3. Submit to coaching.
  4. Always improve.