Rejected Story Ideas

I like to write fiction, and have a huge stockpile – binders full! – of really bad stories.

A lot of you guys are writers. You know how it goes. You work on something and then it runs itself into the ground and it never sees the light of day. This is a tragic situation. Only 1% of writing ever makes it into a final draft. And what happens to the rest? It gets thrown away. A lot of good stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the final form has to be cut. Or a premise is developed and it never goes anywhere.

So this is the first – and perhaps last – installment of Rejected Story Ideas. Stuff from my binders that I’ve never been able to get off the ground.

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The Professor Trilogy

1

Some scientific entrepreneur—let’s say Elon Musk—finds way of reviving body of FDR within days of 2020 Presidential Race in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. Zombie FDR wins in landslide.

2

Sociologist/professor develops algorithm & test for determining citizens’ fitness to vote. Rules out dumb voters vs. smart voters. Part IQ test, implicit bias test, sensitivity test, etc. Professor is world-renowned researcher. Gives TedTalks, writes best-selling books, is public intellectual of highest order; very witty and likable and good-looking. Work reviewed by many in media as ‘that which will save our civilization,’ etc. Research into political upheavals and human motivation ‘will add to 21st century era of technical and political crises a note of humanity and tenderness.’

In latter stages of development, professor excitedly makes a much covered & talked about presentation to his local government authorities about new findings and voter test. Unexpectedly government eagerly adopts findings & test, and immediately writes as mandate into local voting laws. Now all citizens must take test to vote. Mayor praises professor as guardian of humanist values & unimpeachable genius. Ensuing media coverage reaches boiling point. Begins national conversation re voting rights and government sovereignty. Is freedom dead in America? is one headline. New voting test now weeds out bottom feeders another reads. Professor receives many letters of commendation from well-known figureheads such as celebrities & business people & heads of State, as well as a few crazed death threats on Twitter from people with fewer than 50 followers.

In response to the viral articles & national media attention, professor & newly hired public relations manager concoct event to ease polarized tensions and news coverage. Also, PR guy adds, this will be a way for the professor to show himself as an upstanding and generally nice guy and not in any way above his own critiques of society & public life. The event is a press conference to be held at town city hall in which professor will be the first local citizen re-registering to vote using own test. Cameras are rolling as the professor fills out test on iPad and questions are projected onto a jumbo-screen & Facebook Livestream; questions like: If an elderly lady is clearly seen to be unknowingly wandering into oncoming traffic, how likely are to lend a helping hand and guide her to safety? Check: Very Likely, Likely, Neutral, Unlikely, Very Unlikely. Now if the lady is a member of a minority group? The press conference is relatively quiet and even respectful as those in attendance are marking this as a kind of historic & symbolic event, not to mention highly publicized. The professor answers the last question and rises to his feet smiling. Cameras are popping and there is a general bustling as the jumbo-screen is to reveal the professor’s voting score 1-100 (100 being the highest possible score & anything below 50 being a failing grade). The lab assistant is clicking through a few preliminary screens with infographics displaying specific voting traits, Conservative vs. Liberal, Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Intelligence profile, & Compassion vs. Self-Interest Index. The lab assistant is sweating profusely with shaky hands probably because she is young and on national TV.

But then she clicks through to display the final score and immediately there is uneasiness and slight laughter. The professor’s score is 48 therefore disqualifying him from registering to vote. The professor laughs and the journalists laugh. Very funny, Samantha, the professor says. Now put the real score up. Samantha has a look on her face that is a mixture of panic and wincing fear. That is the real score, she says. Haha, okay. Sam we get the joke really this isn’t the time. Samantha looks at the professor and hands him her iPad. The professor looks at the score, scrolling through pages, & refreshes it a few times, and thinks, Sure enough, and looks up at the crowd which by now are going absolutely bananas, on the phone with their editors & producers, already breaking the story. The guy standing at the voting registry counter with the big pair of scissors lowers them from the red ribbon with a confused look on his face. Microphones are shoved to the professor’s face. How does it feel, Doctor, to be ruled out by our own test? And so the professor becomes the first citizen ruled out… by his own algorithm.

3

The newly elected Zombie FDR adopts the professor’s test at the National level via Federal mandate—one of the most unprecedented uses of Presidential power in United States history—sparking widespread protest. Now the now infamous test is required to vote in any of the states.

The once-lauded professor, now a shamed public figure, has resigned from his teaching & research position at UC Berkeley and is living in exile at an undisclosed location. One foggy evening at a bar in this undisclosed location, as the professor drunkenly hangs his head over a 7th glass of beer, he is approached by a shadowy figure who hands him a slip of paper inviting him to join a shadow organization that is attempting a coup against the U.S. government. They want to stage a cyber attack on the professor’s now ubiquitous voting software which they believe Zombie FDR is manipulating in his favor in the 2024 Presidential primaries. Let me be, the professor slurs. I’m afraid I can’t do that, the shadowy figure says, sticking a syringe in the professor’s leg. The professor faints. The shadowy figure catches him in his arms, and says casually to the bartender, Looks like my friend here’s passed out.

When the professor wakes up he is in a shadowy room with a dripping pipe somewhere echoing while he sits on a fold-up chair under a single hot light with his hands tied behind his back. The shadowy figure sits across from him with one leg folded over the other, puffing on a cigar. The figure pulls down his hood so that his face is now visible to the drowsy & drugged professor who is slowly regaining consciousness. The professor cannot believe what he is seeing. Zombie Abraham Lincoln. Just as stately and magnanimous as you would imagine, but with flayed and rotting flesh much worse than Zombie FDR. And there is still a gaping hole in his head.

We need your help, Zombie Lincoln says.

I can’t, the professor says.

Now is the time to right your wrongs, Zombie Lincoln says.

But what were my wrongs, exactly? How could I fail my own test? the professor says.

You didn’t fail your own test, Zombie Lincoln says.

What? the professor says.

We had one lad working on that one for a while, a real techie. Hacked the software and manipulated your score, Zombie Lincoln says.

Fuck, the professor says.

Took a lot of work to get that one exactly right, Zombie Lincoln says.

But—but—

Now is the time to right your wrongs.

 

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The Fork in the Road at the End of Looking Down Your Nose

Many cite The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 as the symbolic birth of popular music.

In the decades since the 1950s & 1960s popular music has become almost too big and varied to write about. How to sum up the careers of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber? Impossible. Each artist uniquely emerged in stylistic and market contexts defined by forces which greatly supersede mere personal talent. There are many talented musicians in the world, but only a few who can also embody a culture and reach a mass audience.

This makes the history of popular music remarkable to study. Just a little over half a century and we have gone from The Beatles to Kendrick Lamar with many decades of amazing music in between.

It was with this sort of doe-eyed plucky optimism that I approached my teenage brother-in-law one day and asked what sort of music the kids were listening to these days because, as a twenty-something old fart, I had been out of the loop for a while, listening to a lot of my old favorites, and was curious what new terrain there was to explore.

This is what he played for me:

 

Congratulations. You’ve been introduced to ‘mumble rap.’

Now, I consider myself to be a broad-minded person but… this was horrible music. Never before had I been repelled by something so mainstream and popular.

This moment was what I now call the fork in the road at the end of looking down my nose.

I hated this music, so I had two options:

1) accept that the pop music industry had left me behind and be ok with that 2) or try and argue that the pop music industry was now irreversibly dumb and this music was proof of the death of a once beautiful and vibrant creative industry.

In the moment with my brother-in-law I picked something like a compromise between these two options, trying to hide my absolute disgust while casually offering up other rappers I thought he could relate to that I considered better i.e. Kendrick Lamar.

That was the end of that conversation.

Reflecting back on this moment was slightly horrific because deep down I had to admit: I was becoming that old person who always annoyed me when I was a kid, picking at the younger kids’ music and recommending they listen to the ‘real’ stuff/the classics that really had the magic, etc. Ew. How did this happen?

Were these old farts right all along? Was the music I listened to as a kid really this bad to their ears? Maybe.

This is of course only a crisis if you’re a big music fan, and I had to admit to myself that, yes, music was this important to me. I believe in the transformative power of music. There have been many nights where an album lifted me out of a depression, accompanied me during a rough breakup, or made the drive to school more uplifting. For all the flack pop culture catches from high-brow critics, I had to admit that pop music has been a constant companion to me, and I wanted to understand it moving forward, but I also didn’t want to give up on what has really touched me in the past.

Still not resolved.

But one way I’ve tried to move forward is to proactively search for common ground and find those spaces in popular music where there is overlap with music that is or has been moving to me in the past. The old stuff will always be there. But younger kids are having experiences I never had and are reacting to art that resonates with those experiences. Who am I to say that my experiences should supersede theirs? Or that the music I heard was any truer to my experience than their music is to theirs?

And I had to think maybe the music I liked as a kid wasn’t better by some objective standard. Maybe I had just been there as a young and impressionable kid to appreciate it. Perfect fodder for grand-scheme marketing campaigns. Maybe there was nothing special and sacred about those artists per se, and they were just one small piece of a larger tapestry that is beyond any one person’s ability to comprehend it, which twists and turns down unexpected paths.

Who knows.

I think can live with that interpretation.

So with that I leave you with what my little brother-in-law and I could agree on:

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How Reading Denis Johnson Can Make You a Better Writer

Denis Johnson died on May 24, 2017 at his home in Sea Ranch, California.

Johnson wrote poems, plays, short stories, novels, journalism, and screenplays. Taken together, it’s an astounding body of work. Every book he wrote is like nothing else you will ever read. His voice was unique and irreplaceable.

His three rules for writing were:

1) Write naked. That means to write what you would never say. 2) Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it. 3) Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Many people who have read Denis Johnson come to him by his most famous book, a collection of stories entitled Jesus’ Son.

Jesus’ Son is famous for a few reasons. First, it’s amazing. This is no guarantee you’ll personally like it, depending on your taste, but what is certain is that people will still be reading Jesus’ Son many years from now. And secondly, the subject matter of the stories is something very few have pulled off. Namely, the everyday condition of people at the bottom of society—junkies, losers, burnouts, etc. But Jesus’ Son isn’t a journalistic study from a disinterested ivy league alum or a hack beat poet. Denis Johnson himself struggled with drugs, alcohol, and immense personal struggle. That and the first person tense tinges the stories with a sense of direct experience. And apparently the literary world is filled with ambiguity about whether or not Jesus’ Son is straightforward autobiography. If that’s true, even if it’s only a little bit true, that would be quite alarming. As you will soon see…

Without laboring any further to try and explain Jesus’ Son to you, it’s probably best to look at the text itself.

One very short story in the collection is called “Dundun.” It’s as good a place as any to get a grasp of what Denis Johnson is able to do on the page, and more importantly to learn lessons about how to write a brilliant short story.

The beginning of “Dundun,”—

              I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmeceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck. 

             He greeted me as he was coming out into the front yard to go to the pump, wearing new cowboy boots and a leather vest, with his flannel shirt hanging out over his jeans. He was chewing on a piece of gum.

            “McInnes isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.”

            “You mean you killed him?”

            “I didn’t mean to.”

            “Is he really dead?”

            “No. He’s sitting down.”

            “But he’s alive.”

            “Oh, sure, he’s alive. He’s sitting down now in the back room.”

            Dundun went on over to the pump and started working the handle. 

There’s a lot to take in in this little chunk of text. Immediately we are aware (as we are for all of Jesus’ Son) that drugs are playing a central role and are likely a part of any conceptual gaps or confusion we may experience during the narrative. Many writers write about drugs. And many do it horribly because they use drugs as an excuse to jump all over the place or overuse dream images and hallucinations which only tends to disorient and bore the reader. Johnson, on the other hand, hasn’t overstepped any bounds. We are aware something horrible has happened. We see Dundun is apparently more out of touch than the narrator as he casually is working the water pump. But the narrator is immediately concerned and goes to investigate.

            I went around the house and in through the back. The room just through the back door smelled of dogs and babies. Beatle stood in the opposite doorway. She watched me come in. Leaning against the wall was Blue, smoking a cigarette and scratching her chin thoughtfully. Jack Hotel was over at an old desk, setting fire to a pipe the bowl of which was wrapped in tinfoil. 

            When they saw it was only me, the three of them resumed looking at McInnes, who sat on the couch all alone, with his left hand resting gently on his belly. 

            “Dundun shot him?” I asked.

            “Somebody shot somebody,” Hotel said.

            Dundun came in behind me carrying some water in a china cup and a bottle of beer and said to McInnes: “Here.”

            “I don’t want that,” McInnes said.

            “Okay. Well, here, then.” Dundun offered him the rest of the beer.

            “No thanks.”

            I was worried. “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

This additional scene-setting adds more uncertainty to the original situation. Not only has McInnes been shot, but he is among people who seem not to have noticed or who are at least fuzzy on the details. Johnson does this with one piece of dialouge. “Somebody shot somebody.” We get a broader sense of indifference and the influence of drugs. Also, we see Dundun is already developing as a character. The reason he was outside pumping water wasn’t for idle amusement, but to fetch water for McInnes. Meanwhile the narrator continues his concern, “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

            “Good idea,” Beatle said sarcastically.

            “We started to,” Hotel explained, “but we ran into the corner of the shed out there.”

            I looked out the side window. This was Tim Bishop’s farm. Tim Bishop’s Plymouth, I saw, which was a very nice old grey-and-red sedan, had sideswiped the shed and replaced one of the corner posts, so that the post lay on the ground and the car now help up the shed’s roof.

            “The front windshield is in millions of bits,” Hotel said.

            “How’d you end up way over there?”

            “Everything was completely out of hand,” Hotel said.

            “Where’s Tim, anyway?”

            “He’s not here,” Beatle said. 

            Hotel passed me the pipe. It was hashish, but it was pretty well burned up already.

            “How you doing?” Dundun asked McInnes.

            “I can feel it right here. It’s just stuck in the muscle.”

            Dundun said, “It’s not bad. The cap didn’t explode right, I think.”

            “It misfired.”

            “It misfired a little bit, yeah.”

            Hotel asked me, “Would you take him to the hospital in your car?”

            “Okay,” I said. 

Johnson complicates the effect of drugs by slowly revealing the failed attempts of the group to help McInnes. It’s not that they are hardened junkies bent on depravity and destruction; they simply can’t carry out the tasks they wish to, leading to their request of the narrator to drive McInnes to the hospital since he is the only one of them that is sober enough to do so. This is a nice subtle little element of realism.

            “I’m coming, too,” Dundun said.

            “Have you got any of the opium left?” I asked him.

            “No,” he said. “That was a birthday present. I used it all up.”

            “When’s your birthday?” I asked him.

            “Today.”

            “You shouldn’t have used it all up before you birthday, then,” I told him angrily. 

            But I was happy about this chance to be of use. I wanted to be the one who saw it through and got McInnes to the doctor without a wreck. People would talk about it, and I hoped I would be liked. 

            In the car were Dundun, McInnes, and myself. 

            This was Dundun’s twenty-first birthday. I’d met him in the Johnson County facility during the only few days I’d ever spent in jail, around the time of my eighteenth Thanksgiving. I was the older of us by a month or two. As for McInnes, he’d been around forever, and in fact, I, myself, was married to one of his old girlfriends. 

            We took off as fast as I could go without bouncing the shooting victim around too heavily. 

            Dundun said, “What about the brakes? You get them working?”

            “The emergency brake does. That’s enough.”

            “What about the radio?” Dundun punched the button, and the radio came on making an emission like a meat grinder.

            He turned it off and then on, and now it burbled like a machine that polishes stones all night.

            “How about you?” I aksed McInnes. “Are you comfortable?”

            “What do you think?” McInnes said.

The narrator’s desire for drugs is again reasserted, connecting it to the beginning of the story, but the complication of this motive provides him an opportunity to “be liked.” It’s telling that this is a worthy trade off in the eyes of the narrator. To me, this is why all of the stories in Jesus’ Son are relatable to the non-drug user. Johnson’s real subject matter isn’t drugs so much as the motivation for taking drugs, i.e. a lack of human connection and a desire to feel that connection, or at least to feel the feelings that tend to accompany that connection. And we will see this logic build a climax which could be interpreted as bizarre if this underlying condition isn’t held in mind.

             It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller.

            What can be said about those fields? There were blackbirds circling above their own shadows, and beneath them the cows stood around smelling one another’s butts. Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say. 

            “We’ll never get off this road,” I said.

            “What a lousy birthday,” Dundun said. 

            McInnes was white and sick, holding himself tenderly. I’d seen him like that once or twice even when he hadn’t been shot. He had a bad case of hepatitis that often gave him a lot of pain. 

            “Do you promise not to tell them anything?” Dundun was talking to McInnes.

            “I don’t think he hears you,” I said.

            “Tell them it was an accident, okay?”

            McInnes said nothing for a long moment. Finally he said, “Okay.”

            “Promise?” Dundun said. 

            But McInnes said nothing. Because he was dead. 

If we reverse engineer this section, we can find many surprising things. First, we have obviously reached the level of tragedy. McInnes is dead and the worst has been realized. But we also see, just before this revelation, an admission of guilt from Dundun. “Tell them it was an accident, okay?” Dundun’s main concern is to establish a refutable innocence, to cover his own ass, and McInnes’ last words reveal he’s willing to play along for Dundun’s sake, even as he dies. “Okay.”

What at first seems like an overly poetic two paragraphs describing the fields around them becomes an understandable reflection on the part of the narrator, who knows what’s coming in advance, to try and find physical significance and beauty foreshadowing the moment McInnes dies. What are moments like this supposed to be like? Are there signs? The narrator wants to find significance, but seems to recognize that moments like this are just like any others. Death is normal and banal. “Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say.”

            Dundun looked at me with tears in his eyes. “What do you say?”

            “What do you mean, what do I say? Do you think I’m here because I know all about this stuff?”

            “He’s dead.”

            “All right. I know he’s dead.”

            “Throw him out of the car.”

            “Damn right throw him out of the car,” I said. “I’m not taking him anywhere now.”

            For a moment I fell asleep, right while I was driving. I had a dream in which I was trying to tell someone something any they kept interrupting, a dream about frustration.

            “I’m glad he’s dead,” I told Dundun. “He’s the one who started everybody calling me Fuckhead.”

            Dundun said, “Don’t let it get you down.”

            We whizzed along down through the skeleton remnants of Iowa. 

            “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” Dundun said. 

            Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history. There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings. Most of the farmers didn’t even plant anymore. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.

            Dundun tortured Jack Hotel at the lake outside of Denver. He did this to get information about a stolen item, a stereo belonging to Dundun’s girlfriend, or perhaps to his sister. Later, Dundun beat a man almost to death with a tire iron right on the street in Austin, Texas, for which he’ll someday also have to answer, but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.

            Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into something like that. 

We’re reminded, almost surprisingly, that this is a story about Dundun. The ending reveals that this episode is the first of many heinous acts committed, and it’s retelling is perhaps an attempt by the narrator to remember back to when it all first went wrong for Dundun. When the first domino fell.

Although the two characters seem to show almost complete indifference when McInnes dies, clearly the narrator sees some significance in the death. Otherwise he wouldn’t invoke “the time before history,” and “the moment before the Savior comes,” in his closing description. These spiritual symbols are woven into the physical landscape and the bleakness of the Midwest, placing Johnson in a long tradition of American writers.

When the Savior does come it’s in the form of Dundun’s eventual fate… “but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.”

Dundun gets what he deserves and yet the narrator is trying to plead his case until the end. Yes, he shot a guy. But we are asked partially to consider the role of drug usage, which, the author implies through metaphor, isn’t as voluntary as it may seem. And at the beginning of the story Dundun’s fetching McInnes water then offering to go along to the hospital with the narrator shows that, at least at first, he’s not all bad. But then it happens. And the tragedy of Dundun is allowing oneself to be trapped by one’s own fate, and to turn into something one wasn’t before. “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” he says. And that’s one brutal metamorphosis.

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State of the Blog

Recently some of you may have been wondering, Where have the blog posts gone? It seems as though a previously steady stream has slowed to but a trickle. Did the will-power tank peter out of gas? Is this another one of those countless blogs to be buried in the mass blog graveyard of forgotten dreams?

Well, hopefully, no.

Over the past few months I have been working hard on the beginnings of a novel. When I started I didn’t realize that writing a novel is a vortex of creative energy. More is required the further you get along until a kind of single-minded mania sets in. And like everybody else on the planet I have a full-time day job so in order to write I have to set aside a specific time or it doesn’t get done. Always this time has been divided between 1) fiction and 2) non-fiction (blog), but slowly, as this novel thing has ballooned into an uncontrollable mass with some actual but crude momentum, more time has been going towards trying to figure out exactly where it’s going.

This is not an epitaph but rather a new beginning! The blog posts I have been writing for the past year have largely been focused on thinking hard about what great artists and writers do and how they do it. As I learned I also became eager to put that learning into practice. So by looking at a few masters I was trying to write myself into being a better writer, and I’m glad to say I think it worked! At least I have become more patient re my own limitations. And hopefully you readers feel you benefited from a few of these reflections as well.

When I originally created this blog I wanted to keep it’s focus broad because my mind is always going down new rabbit trails and I’m not very good at boiling down my reflections into a marketable or niche-worthy form, (i.e. one of my many limitations). In the presence of a preset model, even a good model, my creativity withers and dies. If you tell me to write a story about a boy who slays a dragon, I will somehow end up with one about dragon befriending a boy, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t doing this just to spite convention. Even when I tried to impose a convention onto myself as a way to auto-produce an effect I admired, I couldn’t do it.

I don’t know exactly where this new chapter in blogging is going. All I know is I have thoughts to put down and I’d like to put them down here more regularly. You readers have been very supportive and kind in your comments and feedback. I couldn’t think of a better place to continue to explore new territory as a writer.

Stay tuned.

 

At a Small Smoky Jazz Bar in a Forgotten Corner of Heaven

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How Flannery O’Connor Writes a Freak

For my money Flannery O’Connor wrote a better and more convincing freak story than Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson or Cormac McCarthy. In her stories there is always something meaningful at stake. When asked about freaks in Southern literature she said that Southern writers can still recognize a freak because “to be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” O’Connor practiced what she preached. A highly theological writer herself, many of her stories are case studies re: a kind of freak that is only possible in a universe big enough to contain both Heaven and Hell.

I always thought writing a story about a freak would be easy. The weirder the better. But you figure out sitting down to write one that it’s much more difficult than it looks. If a freak is too weird the reader cannot relate to them and therefore doesn’t care to read about them, but if a freak isn’t weird enough they aren’t a freak. They’re just a little weird.

“Good Country People,” is a helpful object lesson in how to navigate this problem. Hulga Hopewell, the main character of the story, is painted in absolutely unflattering terms and yet we still care about her. Below are some of the physical characteristics O’Connor uses to describe Hulga:

large blonde girl

had an artificial leg

thirty-two years old

highly educated

large hulking

constant outrage

her eyes icy blue

her remarks were usually so ugly

her face so glum

standing square and rigid-shouldered

neck thrust slightly forward

poor stout girl

had never danced a step or had any normal good times

big spectacled

her arms folded

nothing wrong with her face that a pleasant expression wouldn’t help

had a weak heart

six-year-old skirt

yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it

blank and solid and silent

wore a pair of slacks and a dirty white shirt

she did not own any perfume

round freezing-blue eyes

You get the idea. There is almost nothing positive written of Hulga; but I was pulled into her character because O’Connor switches her third-person narration to and from the point of view of Hulga, Hulga’s mother (Mrs. Hopewell), and a more omniscient classical third-person narrator. This has the effect of giving the reader a view from many angles. It becomes clear throughout the first part of the story that Hulga is possibly being unfairly judged by her mother. Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga have very different ideas about life. Many of the descriptors above come from either the mouth or mind of Mrs. Hopewell in response to the antagonisms between them. Mrs. Hopewell is also a fan of platitudes and obvious statements like “nothing is perfect,” “it takes all kinds to make a world”, “they’re just salt of the earth people,” etc. which she often uses as stand ins for actual conversation with Hulga. All these subtle moves had me rooting for Hulga even though the surface of the story is unforgiving to her. But Hulga is not only a freak to her mother. There is a cast which supports Mrs. Hopewell’s perspective, a tenant family which lives in the house, foregrounding the notion of good ol’ fashioned hardworkin’ country people who don’ have time to thunk ‘bout the meaning of life and such—distancing Hulga from the consensus in the house and adding irony to her situation.

In this way O’Connor is trusting us to make up our own minds about Hulga. We know she isn’t overly pleasant but we’re not sure we trust Mrs. Hopewell either and consequently discount some of what he hear about Hulga and perhaps even feel sorry for her.

But these complications in point of view only serve to make Hulga an outcast. A freak is something more. I think this is why O’Connor risked overstating her case by taking one of Hulga’s legs. This type of move is classic O’Connor though she doesn’t do it without purpose. The leg serves an important narrative function which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read the story. But the missing leg doesn’t make Hulga a freak either. It’s more like a symbol-laden prop for the Southern gothic style.

The definition of freak, the real enchilada, comes from Mrs. Hopewell herself as she’s observing Hulga from a distance. A definition we can perhaps all relate to.

It seemed to Mrs. Hopewell that every year she [Hulga] grew less like other people and more like herself—bloated, rude, and squint-eyed.

Less like other people and more like herself.

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Joy Williams: Microfiction isn’t Easy Fiction

Few writers have mastered even one form of story-telling let alone three. With Joy Williams it all depends on how you classify. She doesn’t write plays or scripts. It’s all prose. Everything happens on the page. So what options could there be? Novel? Check. She’s written four, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer, and another is being republished in a new edition next year. Short story? Definite check. She’s been in the New Yorker, so…

But if you are a frequenter of fiction writing on the internet, you probably know of one other form that has been in vogue since the collapsing of the average attention span. Flash fiction or microfiction—basically really short short stories, usually under 1,000 words. Microfiction lends itself to internet writing because, as it seems common sense would tell you, shorter fiction requires less time on the part of the reader, therefore writing them should require less time on the part of the writer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a testament to the difficulty of shortness. Each story in this collection is about one or two pages long, but they weren’t written with internet-length or disposibility in mind. They are like mini-novels with only the most essential detail included, boiled down to their most bare form.

My favorite story in Ninety-Nine Stories of God is called DRESSER:

Our mother was an alcoholic, though she’d stopped drinking twelve years before, but once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. She’d had all those cakes. She moved around a lot, but wherever she was when the anniversary rolled around she’d get a cake.

Now she was dying. She’d stopped eating and was skin and bones, lying on a bed in her house, a house she’d said more than once she’d bequeathed to me. The house was the last thing I wanted.

I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation, one’s mother dying only once.

Our mother’s eyes were dark, black almost. Earlier that morning the skin on her arms was bleeding, but then it stopped.

She’d been quiet for hours, but then she said in a surprisingly strong voice, “Where is the refuge for my bewildered heart?”

It made me shudder. It was beautiful.

“Guide me, Good Shepherd,” she said, “Walk with me.”

My sister had to leave the room. I could hear her crying into the telephone. Who on earth could she be calling, I wondered, and why, at this moment? We know nothing about one another really, though we’re only a year apart.

Then our mother said in that same strong voice, like a singer’s voice:

“Tony, I’d like a martini. Make me a martini, honey.”

But I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I felt she’d regret it. I felt it just wasn’t right.

I cannot stand Joy Williams for being able to write this story using only 247 words. I am so jealous. I couldn’t write a story 1/3 this impactful with 5,000 words.

She leaves out all the right things. For instance the narrator says her mother’s house is the last thing she wants, but she never says what she does want, and Joy Williams is a genius for never telling us.

Also notice in the 3rd paragraph the tense switches to present and then back to past before the sentence ends. “I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation…” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a writer do that before.

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