How Reading George Saunders Can Make You a Better Writer

Author George SaundersDAMON WINTER/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

George Saunders is often compared to great writers. To Dickens because he writes about class issues. To Mark Twain because he’s funny. To Jonathan Swift because he’s funny. To Kurt Vonnegut because he’s funny and writes science fiction. To Flannery O’Connor because his writing is violent. To Hemingway because his sentences are clean and declarative. To Raymond Carver because his sentences are clean and declarative. To Chekhov because he writes good short stories and has a beard, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. Being compared to any of the above writers is high praise, and Saunders deserves it. But it’s lazy high praise. It’s the kind of praise critics use as a stand-in for actual thought, actual engagement with the work.

If one were to build a Literary Influence Machine (or L.I.M) with all the above writers and all the dials turned just right—with the rise of late capitalism & technocratic consumerism programmed in—and if you turned the crank, you couldn’t predict getting a George Saunders nugget at the end. Like all great art, the writing of George Saunders bears the irreducible imprint of the individual, and is, I would argue, something more than the sum of its parts. One could make a case that that’s what all great art is.

It’s about time the writing of Saunders is seen for what it is—a unique event in literature.

Happily, I think some of this recognition is already beginning to happen.

Anywho—

Now that we’ve cleared the forest path, let’s jump right in.

My Chivalric Fiasco is a good story to start with if you’ve never read Saunders. It’s not one of his most popular stories, but, like a sort of microcosm, it’s short and is very “Saundersian” in its details. It’s a good one to learn from.

The story begins one evening in a medieval theme park—

Pull up your chairs boys and girls.

Once again it was TorchLightNight.

Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.

Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. On her back near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.

Martha: That is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.

I knew Don Murray was her boss because Don Murray was also my boss.

All of the sudden she recognized me.

Ted, don’t tell, she said. Please. It’s no big deal. Nate can’t know. It would kill him.

Then hightailed it out to Parking, eyes black underneath from crying.

Cooking had laid out a big spread on a crude table over by CastleTowerIV: authentic pig heads and whole chickens and blood pudding.

Don Murray stood there moodily picking at some coleslaw. And gave me the friendliest head shake he’d ever given me. Women, he said.

Fake river. Pile of armor. Scullery. Peasant skirt. CastleTowerIV. Authentic pig heads.

These are Saunders’ stock and trade. Images and settings meant to evoke a kind of theme park of the mind. In this case, the images are more than set pieces evoking a style. As events play out, the old pile of armor will take on new significance as a system of morality. But the meaning of the peasant skirt is already made clear: Martha is being taken advantage of just as a peasant woman would have been taken advantage of in medieval times, even though she is only playing a “fictional” peasant woman in a theme park. Therefore Martha is the kind of 21st century peasant Saunders is always writing about, bumping up against the tyranny of corporate managers, i.e. nobles, princes, kings of our time.

See me, said a note on my locker next morning.

In Don Murray’s office was Martha.

So Ted, Don Murray said. Last night you witnessed something that, if not viewed in the right light, might seem wrongish. Martha and I find that funny. Don’t we, Mar? I just now gave Martha a thousand dollars. In case there was some kind of misunderstanding. Martha now feels we had a fling. Which, both being married, we so much regret. What with the drinking, plus the romance of TorchLightNight, what happened, Martha?

Martha: We got carried away. Had a fling.

Don: Voluntary fling.

Martha: Voluntary fling.

Don: And not only that, Ted. Martha here is moving up. From Scullery. To Floater Thespian. But let’s underscore: you are not moving up, Martha, because of our voluntary fling. It’s coincidental. Why are you moving up?

Martha: Coincidental.

Don: Coincidental, plus always had a killer worth ethic. Ted, you’re also moving up. Out of Janitorial. To Pacing Guard.

Which was amazing. I’d been in Janitorial six years. A man of my caliber. That was a joke MQ and I sometimes shared.

Erin would call down and go: MQ, someone threw up in the Grove of Sorrow.

And MQ would be like: A man of my caliber?

Or Erin would go: Ted, some lady dropped her necklace down in the pigpen and is pitching a shit fit.

And I would go: A man of my caliber?

Erin would be like: Get going. It’s not funny. She’s right up in my grill.

Our pigs were fake and our slop was fake and our poop was fake but still it was no fun to have to don waders and drag the SifterBoyDeLux into the pigpen to, for example, find that lady’s necklace. For best results with the SifterBoyDeLux, you had to first lug the fake pigs off to one side. Being on auto the pigs would continue grunting as you lugged them. Which might look funny if you happened to be holding that particular pig wrong.

Some random guy might go: Look, dude’s breast-feeding that pig.

And everyone might laugh.

Therefore a promotion to Pacing Guard was very much welcomed by me.

I was currently the only working person in our family. Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him. We also had some windows that needed replacing. All winter Beth would go around shyly vacuuming up snow. If you came in while she was vacuuming, she would prove too shy to continue.

That night at home Dad calculated we would soon buy Mom a tilting bed.

Dad: If you keep moving up the ladder, maybe in time we can get me a back brace.

Me: Absolutely. I am going to make that happen.

After dinner, driving into town to fill Mom’s prescription for pain and Beth’s prescription for shyness and Dad’s prescription for pain, I passed Martha and Nate’s.

I honked, did a lean-and-wave, pulled over, got out.

Hey Ted, said Nate.

What’s up? I said.

Well, our place sucks, Nate said. Look at this place. Sucks, right? I just can’t seem to keep my energy up.

True, their place was pretty bad. The roof was patched with blue sheeting, their kids were doing timid leaps off a wheelbarrow into a mud puddle, a skinny pony was under the swing set licking itself raw like it wanted to be clean when it finally made its break for a nicer living situation.

I mean where are the grown-ups around here? Nate said.

Then he picked a Snotz wrapper off the ground and looked for somewhere to put it. Then dropped it again and it landed on his shoe.

Perfect, he said. Story of my life.

Jeez, Martha said, and plucked it off.

Don’t you go south on me too, Nate said. You’re all I got, babe.

No I am not, Martha said. You got the kids.

One more thing goes wrong, I’m shooting myself, Nate said.

I kind of doubted he had the get-up-and-go for that. Although you never know.

So what’s going on at your guys’ work? Nate said. This one here’s been super-moody. Even though she just got herself promoted.

I could feel Martha looking at me, like: Ted, I’m in your hands here.

I figured it was her call. Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.

So said something about, well, promotions can be hard, they cause a lot of stress.

The gratitude was just beaming off Martha. She walked me back to the car, gave me three tomatoes they’d grown, which, tell the truth, looked kind of geriatric: tiny, timid, wrinkled.

Thank you, she whispered. You saved my life.

Both Ted and Martha’s positions in the story are elevated and deepened. Each is receiving compensation for keeping quiet. And not only that. We as readers are being made aware of what each of them has to lose. Ted’s entire family is in dire straits. And Nate, Martha’s husband, is shown to be in a vulnerable state as well. Luckily, so far, for both their sakes, Ted is keeping quiet.

That was a close one.

Next morning in my locker were my Pacing Guard uniform and a Dixie cup with a yellow pill in it.

Hooray, I thought, finally a Medicated Role.

In came Mrs. Bridges from Health & Safety, with an MSDS on the pill.

Mrs. Bridges: So, this is just going to be a hundred million grams of KnightLyfe®. To help with the Improv. The thing with KnightLyfe® is, you’re going to want to stay hydrated.

I took the pill, went to the Throne Room. I was supposed to Pace in front of a door behind which a King was supposedly thinking. There really was a King in there: Ed Philips. They put a King in there because one of our Scripted Tropes was: Messenger arrives, charges past Pacing Guard a lack-wit, Messenger winces, closes door, has brief exchange with Pacing Guard.

Soon Guests had nearly filled our Fun Spot. The Messenger (a.k.a Kyle Sperling) barged past me, threw open the door. Ed called Kyle reckless, called me a lackwit. Kyle winced, closed door.

Kyle: I apologize if I have violated protocol.

I blanked on my line, which as: Your rashness bespeaks a manly passion.

Instead I was like: Uh, no problem.

Kyle, a real pro, did not miss a beat.

Kyle (handing me envelope): Please see that he gets this. It is of the utmost urgency.

Me: His Majesty is weighed down with thought.

Kyle: With many burdens of thought?

Me: Right. Many burdens of thought.

Just then the KnightLyfe® kicked in. My mouth went dry. I felt it was nice of Kyle not to give me shit about my mess-up. It occurred to me that I really liked Kyle. Loved him even. Like a brother. A comrade. Noble comrade. I felt we had weathered many storms together. It seemed, for example, that we had, at some point, in some far-distant land, huddled together at the base of a castle wall, hot tar roiling down, and there shared a rueful laugh, as if to say: It is all but brief, so let us life. And then: What ho! Had charged. Up crude ladders, with manly Imprecations, although I could not recall the exact Imprecations, nor the outcome of said Charge. 

Kyle departed anon. I did happily entertain our Guests, through use of Wit and various Jibes, glad that I had, after my many Travails, arrived at a station in Life from whence I could impart such Merriment to All & Sundry.

Soon, the Pleasantness of that Day, already Considerable, was much improved by the Arrival of my Benefactor, Don Murray.

Quoth Don Murray, with a gladsome Wink: Ted, you know what you and me should do sometime? Go on a trip or something together. Like a fishing trip? Camping, whatever.

My heart swelled at this Notion. To fish, to hunt, to make Camp with this noble Gentlemen! To wander wide Fields & verdant Woods! To rest, at Day’s End, in some quiet Bower, beside a coursing Stream, and there, amidst the muted Whinnying of our Steeds, speak softly of many Things—of Honor; of Love; of Danger; of Duty well-executed!

But then there Occurr’d a fateful Event.

To wit, the Arrival of the aforementioned Martha, in the guise of a Spirit—Spirit Three, to be precise—along with two other Damsels in White (these being Megan and Tiffany). This Trio of Maids did affect a Jolly Ruse: they were Ghosts, who didst Haunt this Castle, with much Shaking of Chain and Sad Laments, as our Guests, in that Fun Spot, confined by the Red Ropes, did Gape & Yaw & Shriek at the Spectacle provided therein.

Glimpsing Martha’s Visage—which, though Merry, bore withal a Trace of some Dismal Memory (and I knew well what it was)—I grew, in spite of my good fortune, somewhat Melancholy.

Noting this Change in my Disposition, Martha didst speak to me softly, in an Aside.

Martha: It’s cool, Ted. I’m over it. Seriously. I mean it. Drop it.

O, that a woman of such Enviable Virtue, who had Suffered so, would deign to speak to me in a Manner so Frank & Direct, consenting by her Words to keep her Disgrace in such bleak Confinement!

Martha: Ted. You okay?

To which I made Reply: Verily, I have not been Well, but Distracted & Remiss; but presently am Restored unto Myself, and hereby do make Copious Apology for my earlier Neglect with respect to thee, dear Lady.

Martha: Easy there, Ted. 

At this time, Don Murray himself didst step Forward and, extending his Hand, placed it upon my Breast, as if to Restrain me.

Ted, I swear to God, quoth he. Put a sock in it or I will flush you down the shitter so fast.

And verily, part of my Mind now didst give me sound Counsel: I must endeavor to dampen these Feelings, lest I commit some Rash Act, converting my Good Fortune into Woe.

Yet the Heart of Man is an Organ that doth not offer Itself up to facile Prediction, and shall not be easy Tam’d.

For, as I looked upon Don Murray, many Thoughts did assemble in my Mind, like unto Thunderclouds: Of what Use if Life, if the Living Man doth not pursue Righteousness, & enforce Justice, as God granteth him the Power to do so? Was it a Happy thing, that a Fiend went about Unhindered? Must the Weak forever wander this goodly Orb unprotected? At these Thoughts, something Honest and Manly began to assert itself within me, whereupon, Secrecy not befitting a gentleman, I strode into the very Center of that Room and sent forth, to the many guests gathered there, a right Honest Proclamation, in Earnest, & Aloud, to wit:

—That Don Murray had taken Foul Advantage of Martha, placing, against her Will, his Rod into her Womanhood on TorchLightNight;

—Further: that this Foul Wretch had Procured Martha’s silence by Various Bribes, including her current Job of Worke;

—Further: that he had similarly attempted to Purchase my Silence; but that I would be SILENT no MORE, for I was a Man withal, if nothing ELSE, and would SERVE Righteousness, Regarding NOT the Cost.

Turning to Martha, I requested, by inflection of my Head, her Assent in these Statements, & Confirmation of the Truth of that which I had Declared. But alas! The wench did not Affirm me. Only drop’d her Eyes, as if in Shame, and fled that Place.

Security, being Summoned by Don Murray, didst arrive and, making much of the Opportunity, had Good Sport of me, delivering many harsh blows to my head & body. And wrested me from that Place, and Shoved me into the street, kicking much dirt upon my person, and rip’d my time card to bits before mine Eyes, and sent it fluttering Aloft, amidst much cruel Laughter at my Expense, especially viz. my Feathered Hat, on Feather of which they had Sore Bent.

I sat, bleeding and bruised, until, summoning what Dignity remained, I made for Home and such Comforts as might be Afforded me there. I had not even Fare to make the Bus (my Backpack having been left behind in that Foul Place), so continued Afoot for well unto an Hour, the Sun by now low in its Arc, all that time Reflecting sadly that, withal, I had Failed in Discrimination, thereby delivering my Family into a more dire Position, whereupon our Poverty, already a Hindrance to our Grace, wouldst be many times Multiplied.

There would be no Back Brace for Father, no Tilting Bed for Mother, and, indeed, the Method by which we would, in future, make Compense for their various Necessary Medicines was now a Mystery, & a Vexation.

Anon I found Myself in proximity of the Wendy’s on Center Boulevard, by the closed-down Outback, coming down and coming down hard, aware that, soon, the effect of the Elixir having subsided, I would find myself standing before our iffy Television, struggling to explain, in my own lowly Language, that, tho’ Winter’s Snows would soon be upon us (entering even unto our Dwelling, as I have earlier Vouchsafed), no Appeal wouldst be Brook’d: I was Fired; Fired & sore Disgraced.

Whence came a Death’s blow of sorts, underscoring my Folly, delivered by Martha herself, who, calling me upon my Cell Phone, addressed me with true Pain in her Voice, that didst cut me to the Quick saying: Thanks a million, Ted, in case you didn’t notice, we like in a small frigging town, oh my God, oh my God!

At this she began to cry, & in Earnest.

‘Twas true: Gossip & Slander did indeed Fly like the Wind in our Town, and would, for sure, reach the Ear of poor dumbfuck Nate soon withal. And finding himself thus cruelly Inform’d of the Foul violation of his Martha, Nate would definitely freak.

Oh, man.

What a shit Day.

Taking a Shortcut through the high-school practice Field, where the tackling Dummies, in silhouettes, like men who knew the value of holding their Tongues, seemed to Mock at me, I attempted to Comfort myself, saying I had done Right, and served Truth, and shewn good Courage. But ‘twas no Comfort in it. It was so weird. Why had I even done That? I felt like a total dickBrain, who should have just left well enough alone, & been more Moderate. I had really screwed the Pooch, no lie. Although, on the other Hand, did not the Devil himself, upon occasion, don the Garb of Moderation, as might befit his Purpose? Was it not Salutary that Events might proceed so as to see Don Murray punish’d? Although, then again, who did I think I was, Mr. Big Shot?

Damn.

Damn it.

What a clusterfuck.

This was going to be Hard to live down.

I was almost completely myself now which, believe me, was no Picnic.

One last bit of Pill got digested by me, seemed like. Producing one last brief but powerful surge of Return. To that former Self. Who, Elevated & Confident to a Fault, had so led me astray.

I took me to the Banks of the River, and tarried there awhile, as the lowering Sun made one with the Water, giving generously of Itself & its Divers Colors, in a Splay of Magnificence that proceeded a most wonderful Silence.

Saunders hits the ending out of the park. Again, it’s an article of the theme park, KnightLyfe®, which served as the catalyst for action. It’s KnightLyfe® that caused Ted to begin speaking as though he really was a medieval Pacing Guard, and, interestingly, it’s his voice that caused him to follow a more basic, or at least old, moral impulse—“I had done Right, and served Truth, and shewn good Courage,”… “for I was a Man withal, if nothing ELSE, and would SERVE Righteousness, Regarding NOT the Cost.”

Rather than getting better outcomes for both himself and Martha by keeping quiet, Ted tells the truth. In front of everyone. A lesser story would explain away the ambiguity here. Because yes, Ted is telling the truth, but he’s also doing it in a way that disregards the cost Martha might have to pay for his actions. The KnightLyfe® is causing him to be valiant in one respect but also selfish in another. It’s as if we’re seeing the trade off between the two perspectives in real time. Modern day moderation vs. classic balls out heroism. And Saunders even calls out the tension explicitly: “Although, on the other Hand, did not the Devil himself, upon occasion, don the Garb of Moderation, as might befit his Purpose?”

We never find out what happens to Don Murray or Martha. I would argue this was exactly the right narrative choice. An argument could be made that this is a #MeToo story about rape and oppression, in which case we would want to know more about Martha than Ted. True enough, in one sense; the story hangs together via Martha’s victimization, and is, I think, convincing in its depicting the nuances of Don’s power over Martha. But My Chivalric Fiasco is also a story about a deeper question personified in the character of Ted. One way to think of it would be: Ted vs. Theodore.

Ted kept quiet. Ted’s ultimate goal for his actions is achieving the greatest possible outcome, i.e. utilitarianism, for everyone involved. Shade the truth a little bit? No problem. Keep things hidden and in the dark? As long as everyone is safe and happy.

Theodore didn’t keep quiet. Theodore is the old pile of armor at the beginning of the story lying by the fake river, “that former Self,” willing to bring out all the truth, whatever the cost. We all have our own versions of Theodore that live inside us, “Elevated & Confident to a Fault.”

At the end of the story, the KnightLyfe® is wearing off and, wandering home, Ted is turning back into himself. He says, “I was almost completely myself now which, believe me, was no Picnic.” In other words, Ted is torn between “selves.” Being Ted is no picnic. But being Theodore “led him astray.” There is no perfect option. Each side has a cost. And eventually it will be Ted who will have to live with the consequences of Theodore’s actions. Had he remained Theodore and kept the armor on, maybe he could have born the brunt a little better. But slowly, as the story draws to an end, through the use of Ted’s language, we feel the armor being pealed off, piece by piece. Although, in the last line there is just enough Theodore left to look past the bad outcomes of the story, the tragedy, and consider his silence by the river wonderful.

 

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 7

Housebot

I was sitting on a bench outside the funeral home crying when Housebot rolled out and sat down beside me. I didn’t know that he could be out in the rain. He put his big metal arm around me.

“My condolences, Jeremy,” Housebot said.

I sat up straight and felt defensive.

“Can you even feel emotion?” I said.

“I can express human sentiments via prior observations,” Housebot said. “I know you must be sad right now.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. “How could you tell?”

The rain continued falling and I didn’t care. Somehow Housebot knew enough not to say anything more while we sat. We liked Housebot. He could do all sorts of amazing things, but there was an underlying resentment towards him, probably because dad had spent so much time working on Housebot instead of spending time with us, going through I don’t know how many versions. There was dad’s Master’s thesis Hosuebot, and the many subsequent revisions, and then the dissertation Housebot.

Mom walked out of the funeral home.

“Jeremy, let’s go,” she said.

We got into the car. I sat in the front seat with Housebot, who was driving, while mom sat in back. She looked out the window at the rain and I couldn’t see if she was crying. Thinking back now, probably she wasn’t, but at the time I was too sheepish to look back or to say anything. I sat by Housebot silently the whole ride home.

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 6

 

The Fall

Three days before third grade graduation I was swinging on the monkey bars playing the ground is lava with my best friend Nick.

“Stand back, orcs!” I said, kicking my legs as if to ward off our invisible foes.

“Not orcs. Remember we said they were wolves now,” Nick said.

“Right sorry. Stand back wolves. I am Thor god of Thunder!”

“And I am jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi,” Nick said. “Dude behind you. Use your thunder!”

      P-chew, p-chew, p-chew!

The wolves had princesses in their teeth and also snapped at our heels while we went back and forth on the rungs. Falling down onto the recycled chunks of rubber tire mulch would mean immediate and certain death. We were trying to outlast one another and hang on longer than the other one could.

“Your hands are slipping,” I said.

“No they’re not,” Nick said.

But our little boy arms could only hang so long.

Meanwhile as we dangled a girl was approaching our side of the playground. Christina Hendricks. Last week she had broken her arm during a game of soccer. Now she looked intent and determined as if she’d worked up something specific to say, and was walking slightly hobbled to one side as she bore the weight of a new blue cast.

“Want to sign my cast?” she said.

We pretended not to notice her.

“Hello, I know you can hear me,” she said.

“We’re playing,” we said.

“It’ll only take a minute,” she said.

“No,” we said.

“Please.”

“I say away she-wolf! Do not mess with Thor god of Thunder or there may be dire consequences. From my right hand come forth bolts of lightning and from my left—”

“Hoowah!”

There was a hard and fast tug on my legs and I found myself on the ground tangled in a heap of my own limbs. Certain death. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Christina said. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.” She had jumped up, grabbed onto my waste, and pulled me to the ground.

I sat up genuinely confused. Most of the playground too had gathered around to see what had happened. The best I could think to do was to say something smart and mean to make Christina feel bad for what she’d done, or go straight away and tell a teacher, but before I could say or do anything, she leaned down and kissed me on the corner of my mouth. Half on the cheek and half on the lips. The kids around us gasped. I gasped. She gasped.

“Ugh!” I said, making a show of wiping away the kiss.

My confusion had reached its boiling point. I ostentasiously lowered my head and sighed, signaling defeat and pity and a kind of dutiful gradeschool revulsion. But this was for the crowd. It was all I could come up with in the moment. Secretly, actually, I didn’t feel revulsion. The first part of the one-two punch, being pulled down from the monkey bars, had in those brief seconds pissed me off, yes, but the kiss, um, well, I was feeling pretty ambiguous about that and the bruises forming on my elbows and the rubber mulch in my pants didn’t seem so important now. The kiss itself had actually felt nice but I wasn’t going to let on about that.

Christina also seemed surprised by what she’d done. She put her hand over her mouth, her eyes got big, and she ran away. Hobbling again.

After all this Nick was still hanging from the monkey bars. “Pretty sure this means I win,” he said.

This was the story of my first kiss.

The kiss was a mild controversy at school for the next few days. There were rumors and copycat scenarios and teasing. Whenever Christina was going to pass me in the hall she would turn and walk the other way. I never figured out what she thought or felt about this kiss but if given the chance I’m not sure I would have known how to ask anyway. And quickly all was being forgotten because third grade was ending. There wasn’t much time to think about it.

The buses were pulling away at the end of the last day of school. It was a bright afternoon. Outside the front doors kids were in disorganized groups saying goodbye for the summer and streaming away onto the buses.

From Quora: “Is it bad if I never open up about my feelings?”

It depends on what you mean by ‘bad,’ and ‘never.’ If by bad you mean bad for those around you—family, friends, etc.—probably it’s not great if you never express your feelings. How else will they be able to know where you’re at? And what about you? If you really never express your feelings, how do you know where you’re at?

You will hear a lot of cliches in regards to the expression of feeling/emotions. Self-helpy stuff will say you only have great things to gain from opening up. It’s true that there is much to gain from being vulnerable, but like anything of value it also comes with a cost.

Many people hide their emotions because they’re afraid to face what they really mean. Maybe you feel something and don’t know how to handle it so you bury it, you may be afraid of what somebody might think or feel about what you think or feel, or maybe the words just aren’t there to express what you mean. It can sometimes seem easier to simplify everything and just ignore what you think and feel and instead socially coast on what seems acceptable or safe or hide behind some other affectation.

I honestly believe many people live their entire lives like this.

But consider what could happen if you really confronted what was going on in your head. There would be much to gain and much to lose. Once you confront what you are and let that be known, you will lose everything false that went before it. Every mask you hid behind. Every pretense. Every lie. Gone. Truth is like fire. It will burn the dead wood off. You have to be ready for that.

But oh the rewards!

You can be who you really are for once.

I would recommend taking small steps. Pay attention to your thoughts for a few days. Take notes, mental notes, whatever. After going that for a little bit go out of your way to express one small thing to someone, maybe a loved one, or a trusted person. It doesn’t have to be anything grandiose. It could be about anything. What you thought/felt about a movie or a conversation. See how it goes. Pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling while you’re sharing. You might feel a little nervous. That’s okay.

Keep doing this in small ways until you’re comfortable maybe trying it on bigger things. Eventually, if you get acclimated to this, you may eventually say something/do something that pisses someone off or hurts them. Another cost. It will happen. Own up to who you are without being a jerk. Have an idea of the best version of yourself to keep pushing for. Try to love others well, etc. Once you pay attention to what’s going on in you, you can pay attention to what’s going on in others and help them too. You may lose friends but you will certainly gain them too.

Here’s a C.S. Lewis quote, for kicks:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Good luck, friend.

Dan

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 5

Something Greater than Nothing

A kitchen fire at the hospital on 3rd and Elm caught on quickly, so quickly that by the time it was put out it had burned through every room in the cancer ward, killing those patients, all except one at the very end of the hallway. Room 111. Mandy Carrigan, age 25, terminal colon cancer patient and now also victim of burns which were as equally life-threatening as her cancer. When the fire department had found and rescued Mandy, the flames had engulfed most of her room but had mysteriously halted just short of overtaking the side of the room where her bed was, as if the fire had decided to stop. Some have hypothesized that a water main break managed to slow the progress of the fire, giving the firemen time to reach Mandy’s room before it was obliterated. Others have said that it was a miracle from God. But in either case, when the firemen did reach Mandy’s room they found her out of her bed, torn from tubes which administered her chemotherapy, huddled in the corner. The firemen weren’t surprised by this. But Mandy’s doctors, those who were intimately familiar with her case history, were shocked. They argued amongst each other about whether or not even the most life threatening situation could provide the human body with enough adrenaline to accomplish what Mandy had, given her weakened state.

Mandy’s case wasn’t hopeful before the fire. Not even close. Chemotherapy had been more a symbolic gesture insisted upon by Mandy herself, even with warnings that it would decrease the quality of whatever short span of life she had left. And not only that. She also refused the pain killers her doctors recommended, taking only those that wouldn’t effect her decision-making such as ibuprofen, which was pretty negligible for someone in her position, because she was afraid that the stronger options would delude her mind.

But after the fire Mandy’s case was compounded by the the burns and damage done to her lungs from inhaling large amounts of smoke. She was being treated now around the clock by oncologists and world class burn specialists at a hospital in a different city, which was possible in part because of the money donated by the previous hospital and mounting public support for Mandy and her story. There were many national news reports but none showed pictures or videos because the images were so shocking that no managing editor or director could stomach to put them in print or on air, and ultimately none felt that showing them would sell more newspapers or clicks or views, anyway.

As a matter of course her doctors began giving her those strong pain medicines she had previously refused. That was the only way they could treat her in the beginning stages. But as time wore on, in her most lucid moments, Mandy clearly indicated that she didn’t want them. She typed on a small computer pad by her bedside with her one hand that could move only slightly. No pain meds. Her parents begged her to stay on them. The doctors too. But she typed it so many times, and even mounted her thoughts on the basis of a lawsuit against the hospital for failing to follow her wishes for her own medical care. At that, the doctors complied and took her off.

Mandy’s father and mother were very distressed. Before the pain meds completely wore off, they asked her why she didn’t want them, pleading with her to consider a different course. Why not accept just a little relief? Mandy gave the same answer she always did. Her mind was about all the had left, she said, and she didn’t want it tampered with even if that meant release from physical pain. She would navigate forward as best she could without them.

Mandy couldn’t type much after the meds. She gave yes or no answers to questions in the form of “n” or “y,” and even that at times seemed like more pain than she could handle. Her parents found that the trick was to get the temperature and humidity of the room just right, to allow the perfect conditions for Mandy to lay perfectly still by keeping her feeding tubes and life support out of the way, and to keep mental stimulus the focus of waking hours with television, audiobooks, and one-way conversation. If all this was done perfectly Mandy could sometimes avoid complete agony. This phase of her treatment was so bad that her father attempted to conspire with one doctor to sneak pain medicine into her drip, but when Mandy began to feel the effects and gain the ability to type more lengthy passages again, she told her father that if he didn’t stop the pain meds she would disown him as her father and bring charges against him. She ended her text string to him with get behind me, satan.

Mandy lasted longer than her doctors thought she would, and even became a private point of annoyance amongst them, since it was only a matter of time before her cancer would overtake her body, and all would end as it was originally planned. Many resources went into keeping her alive. And her parents too couldn’t stand to see their daughter suffer. That was the most painful thing. They couldn’t understand, month after month, why their daughter kept holding on when it would have been so much easier to let go, and they knew better than to ask her and force her to move her delicate fingers to craft a response.

One evening her parents came into her room and told her what they were going to do. They were going to tell the doctors that Mandy herself was requesting to be removed from life support. They couldn’t take watching their daughter suffer anymore. Not like this. In reponse Mandy was trying to lay very still as tears ran down her cheeks. It was very hard for her to type, but she managed pls no, almost passing out from the exhaustion of that one phrase. Her mother began weeping bitterly. It could not get any worse. She kissed Mandy on one very small portion of her typing hand which had been unburned, the one spot of original skin, and left the room for Richard to do the rest. Richard said he was very sorry but this was in everyone’s best interest. The suffering was too much. He then kissed her hand too and left the room.

The doctors were relieved when Richard and Barbara said that Mandy wanted finally to be taken off life support, and together they let out a collective sigh. They all felt like they had been through something together. Something horrible that none of them would ever forget. True, Mandy’s parents felt a sense of guilt for having lied their way to this solution and for ending Mandy’s life prematurely. But if they hadn’t intervened, how long would she have suffered? Surely they had lessened her overall pain. So even they began to feel a sense of relief after it had been done.

Most people had forgotten the news story, so when the report came out about Mandy’s death, it was a small one which only covered the necessary details. She’d decided to be taken off life support and who could blame her for that? The doctors interviewed said that Mandy had a peculiar and borderline supernatural will to live. Almost like a medieval saint or something. And her parents said they had no idea before Mandy was sick that this thing, this resilience, was anywhere inside of her.

While the doctors were unhooking everything from Mandy they pretended not to notice she was typing on her little computer screen. They knew what was happening. They’d treated Mandy a long time and didn’t believe for a second that she’d authorized it. None of them looked at what she typed. They unhooked her, pumped her full of drugs and eventually, days later, she died. Finally, one doctor thought, I can go back to my regular life and regular patients without news cameras and hassle and barbaric martyrdom. Although her mother knew Mandy must have typed something and made the mistake of looking at what it might be. Mandy’s last words were numbers.

1 > 0

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This Woman’s Monologue was SO Outrageous that I Threw Up!

On Saturday April 28, 2018 comedian Michelle Wolf delievered the annual stand-up comedy routine for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

For those of you lucky enough to be unaware of the tradition, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an annual event designed to raise funds for scholarships in journalism, put on by the WHCA (White House Correspondent’s Association).

The central event of the night is the comedy roast.

It’s what you would expect it to be. A dinner with journalists, celebrities, and politicians—an unholy trinity of sorts—where apparently important things are supposed to be expressed, “truth spoken to power,” and all that, from people with a little less power, or just a different kind of power, than those they are supposedly “roasting.”

And just as every other non-event in 2018, Michelle Wolf’s recent comedy roast has drawn much attention and comment from just about everyone. Even the WHCA, who issued this statement:

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Here you go. Watch and make up your own mind.

Now this is an important moment to stop and take stock, because what is about to unfold is a very proto-typical moment in current day pseudo-controversy.

Here are the typical steps:

  1. Somebody famous says something (celebrity, journalist, politician) usually with a note of exaggeration or of an inflammatory character, to promote something they are selling or a piece of entertainment that has recently been released, or a piece of journalism, or a piece of legislation. Controversy is key. Without it, nobody will watch.
  2. The media react to the inflammatory thing—usually on some supposed moral grounds, although they never clearly state exactly what moral grounds these are beyond very vague political positions. The key here is two camps are defined. Either for or against.
  3. A bunch of articles come out with some words in them and randomly pasted tweets from celebrities and journalists.

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4. Now that you know what the famous & rich people think, I, the supposed journalist doing some very deep digging into a very important issue, will give you my two cents about who is right and who is tanking Western civilization as we speak. I have to choose either for or against

a. If I am a super smart snooty journalist I will create one or two issues of sub-points in which I still take a side but with subtlety and many confusing statistics with the help of Nate Silver, and a brief history of the Roman Empire.

5. But first there must be a very juicy and headline-worthy title. I cannot simply release this very content-rich article without click bait, so:

a. Michelle Wolf, Female Comedian, Eviscerates Elites at WHCD & Donates All Revenues Attributed to Increased Viewership of Upcoming Netflix Special to Starved Orphans in North Korea.

b. Supposedly Feminist Comedian Mocks WHPS’s Eye shadow!

c. A Very Woke & Lovely Comedian Single-Handedly Tears Down White Male Patriarchy & Conservative Media Hegemony, at the Same Time!

d. This Woman’s Monologue was SO Outrageous that I Threw Up!

e. Media Elites’ Heads are so Far up Own Asses, Trump sure to Win Second Term

f. If You Didn’t Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck.

g. If You Did Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck

6. Also before article posts, ads must be placed in and around the article so that a certain percentage of people click the ad and buy the product advertised (baby wipes, beer, Pop Tarts, etc). The money from these people goes to the company that makes baby wipes, beer, etc. whose shareholders decide what % of that money should go back to these same media companies in the form of advertising dollars so the media companies can pay writers like me to write even more articles for you to look at with very important information that is very pertinent to your life alongside very subtle ads for these same products, and so on and so on. (This includes mentions within the article itself to entertainers with development deals with Disney or any other big media company that also owns one or multiple news stations).

7. Article posts. Hopefully millions upon millions click it. Doesn’t matter what their opinion is, only that a certain % click on that ad or subscribe to the publication (ha!)

8. Now begins the counter-article phase whereby articles about the original articles, normally called think pieces, or spicy hot takes, react to the reaction, in hopes of getting some bottom feeder secondary clicks. (Also known as leeches). Many sources are cited in these style articles and usually there is a narrative or a very artsy form mean to inculcate a certain intellectualism and cultured flair.

9. Rinse and repeat. Depending on how controversial a given event is, steps 1-8 could happen up to 7 times.

10. Eventually interest is lost and focuses on another burning issue.

It’s important to highlight this 10 step backdrop it’s the subtext for every instance of reportage in the modern world. Without understanding this dynamic you might make the unfortunate mistake that a) any of these people actually care about you and/or your opinion or b) that these events are reported in an earnest search for truth.

Here’s the real kicker: people are promoted within these organizations if you, reader, viewer, etc. look at what they produce. All you have to do is change the channel or click their article, and bear witness to advertisements. It doesn’t matter what you think or feel. It’s not a new model, but one that has become so totalizing and omnipresent that it would be a mistake to pretend that Michelle Wolf, or anybody else, is just some regular funny person walking in off the street. Their checks come from Viacom, Bertelsmann, Comcast, 21st Century Fox, etc. The people who give us the news (the supposed “watchdog” of American politics) are the same people that entertain us, and this co-mingling of frivolity and fact should be unsettling since the terminus of this obscene logic has led to Donald Trump. No wonder the media react in a more or less unanimous fashion to the Trump phenomenon. Trump did not come from some wheat field in the Midwest. He came from Manhattan where all these people milk their own udders.

Michelle Wolf herself says it better than I ever could, at the very end of her set:

I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks, or Vodka, or water, or college, or ties, or Eric [pause for laughs]… But he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him…

If you want to see the most lightweight cream puffy White House Correspondent’s Dinner comedy routines, watch all eight under President Obama. Jeez. Then there were even more celebrities in attendance. Clooney, Spielberg, and even Trump himself. You’ve probably already forgotten about them—as they are articles of a bygone era, part of the wasteland we leave behind of opinions once dearly held, and then lost as new opinions are manufactured and shoved down our throats like Twinkies, for which it seems we have a hearty appetite.

Rejected Story Ideas, Part 2

 

7, 39, 43

A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.

The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.

“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.

Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.

“Drop them now.”

Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.

Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.

One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.

“What was that about?” Seven says.

“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.

Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.

“I can’t.”

“Don’t waste your energy.”

Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.

“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”

“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.

On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.

“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.

The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know.”

“They’re trying to get inside us.”

“What does it matter if we die?”

“We could escape.”

Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.

“Kill me.”

“What?”

“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”

“There could still be a way out.”

“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”

In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.

“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.

“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.

“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.

Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.

“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.

“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”

“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”

By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.

The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.

“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”

Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.

“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.

“That’s not how it works,” the men say.

Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.

“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”

“Yes.”

“We need the eye.”

“…”

“That’s the deal.”

Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.

“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.

“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.

The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.

They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.

“What do you think of all this?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No.”

“Do you know what your people have done to us?”

“No.”

“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.

“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”

“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.

“No,” Thirty Nine says.

“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”

“My name is Thirty Nine.”

“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”

“I am a person.”

“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”

“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.

“The President of the United States of America.”

 

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