A History Lesson in Writing

For Dan Stern, from whom I learned patience, compassion and everything there is to know on building character.

A Poisoned Apple for the Teacher:
Bashful, Dopey, Asshole and Lazy

Mr. Fottler’s smile widened as his humming smoothly tuned into a perfect, warbling whistle. He eyed me, a knowing look in his eye.

“Bing Crosby,” I said softly, eyes downcast, my face blooming into varying shades of pink and red. “Blue Skies.”

“Right again, Miss McDermott. Right again. Two bonus points added on to that perfect test score for correctly identifying this morning’s tune. If the rest of you weren’t so busy smoking that wacky-tobaccy, perhaps you, too, would be more aware of your history, your government, and, more importantly, your musical classics.”

“I don’t even know who the fuck King Cosby is,” Dan muttered from behind me. —
Houston Daze, 2001-2002..ish?

Y’know, that ain’t too shabby for an utterly obliterated of mind/body/overall everything twenty-four-year-old chica. Obviously, the writing could be significantly better, but—shock me, Ace Frehley!—that I recalled with such detail my high school years, those written of above? Let's just say that, given the amount of dope in which I every day drowned back then, well… Holy Diver, Dio! There must've occurred some kind of divine intervention! Anyway, it's a miracle any memory was penned. Typed. Whatever.

I cannot get over these revelations given forth by this excavation into my writing history. Some of this stuff…is really, really good—mostly USF, undergrad writing. I was so young! So naïve! So…stupid! Which lent me enough of that oh-so-necessary ego and arrogance to dive right in, reassured in my inborn talent.

Hell yes, I’m good! Watch me take your breath away! Sit back in stupefaction, fellow classmates, while I systematically disembowel your gutty confidence! Wipe clean from your visage that self-righteous, “Wait’ll they get a load’a me…” smirk and make of it a useless Joker in your wasted hand, for I hold the Ace!

Truly—I used to think that way!

On the inside. On the outside I remained self-effacing, modest, demure… “Aw shucks, me? No, really—it’s not that good and I— Really? You think so? Well, if you wanna say that, go right ahead. Who’m I to stop you?”

To quote the great Denis Leary… “Whattan’ asshole!”

The irony, then, that I struggle so mightily this morning to author even ¼ of a page of pure tripe. Trifle. Truffle. Tribbles. Trekkies?

Terrible. Truly.


A Freudian Slip:
I axed you to be careful climbing up there…

He’ll shout in my face—he’s the type. Older—late-sixties—tan, a long, turquoise tattoo blurred with age snaking its way down his bronzed and still muscular forearm, probably etched into his flesh during a furlough in Korea. He has the distended, bloated belly of a beer-swilling retiree, yet the defined arms, barrel chest and silvery buzz-cut of a former fatigue-wearing, grenade-tossing upstart lieutenant. A crucifix caught in the matted swirls of his salt-and-pepper chest hair tells me he believes in God, and that his God understands there was a WAR going on and anything’s liable to happen in wartime: things like a spinning drunken stupor that rounded him and five of his troops about a screaming, bleeding Korean whore, the click-clack of his dog-tags keeping rhythm with his thrusting pelvis, thoughts of his young, leggy wife clutching a tear-stained black-and-white in her shaking hands far from his mind. His God understands momentary lapses of reason. His God realizes that war makes good people do crazy things. He’ll feel compelled to share a bit of his God with me; he’ll have something important he has to say to me.

Just a minute, Margie. I need to stop and say something to this young man here.

Oh, but Bill...do you think you should?

Now Margaret, don’t be like that. He’s one of God’s people, isn’t he? He needs to be talked to, just like you or I do—right?

I suppose but, Bill, he seems...it looks like something’s wrong with him mentally, or like maybe he has cerebral palsy or MS...or maybe he’s just severely retarded. Are you sure he’ll even hear you?

Of course he will. And even if he can’t, he’ll know what I’m saying, just the same.

Just as I expected—I can feel his spittle on my cheeks. He yelled his kind sentiments two inches from my face because to people like him, a wheelchair signifies hard-of-hearing, deafness, blindness—an insufficiency of every sense. He feels better about himself. He feels like he just did his goodly deed for the day. He is one of God’s chosen sons for having screamed into the face of a cripple. —USF, 1999

Twenty-three. Where, oh where, did that come from?

I don’t mean to sound oh-so impressed with myself, but I couldn’t write like that today, almost a decade later, if I tried. Nope, no way, nuh-uh.

I know the source of the subject matter: recall that with great clarity. I felt trapped in my own body back then, defined by illness: arthritic agony, my misfortunate face, the incessant, petulant voices begging me to return, come back to painful purging, sweet starvation… This nameless, faceless man and his lone companion (a similarly frozen action figure) for me embodied, in the most literal of senses, well…me!

That passage is cut from a short story without conclusion I once considered “art,” or as close to it as I'd ever reached. Whether it is or not argues itself dizzy in that special circle of hell reserved for critics and high school debate teams. Art, as always, remains a subjective medium. For so long, I separated, set aside in my mental gallery this particular work as my Van Gogh—the only writing from my twenties that mattered, the singular story bearing weight or consequence: the masterpiece worthy of an ear. However, this current digging into my massive, branching Rowan Oak of words past proves…


To be sure, there is a sudden winter—an audible
thud! as I fell in the manner of a dead limb into the dirt (ah, the duality of “dirt”…) below. It’s interesting to read the passage of seasons and their everything eventual: the simultaneous explosion of the Id concurrent with an inflation of the super-ego—an overwhelming sense of guilt and conscience—and the bizarre domination of depression into all of their infinite, internal, tick-tocking clockwork.

I mean, wow. “To every season,” right?

Yet even those blizzards of consequence—squalling into wordy white-outs, piling into slushy snow banks—even they have their moments: breakthroughs of shiny, star-pocked sobriety and consciousness where I managed to string together some light bulbs of ingenuity, sequence a pretty little threading of illumination to wrap ’round one of those itty-bitty artificial Christmas trees, sparkling and flashing with alternating speeds of glimmer and dim, brilliance and fade.

Stupidly, I tried to place atop its delicate, phony, plastic bristles one of those dazzling, luminous stars meant for greater, bolder, stronger trees. Just too heavy, too much for a form of such weak character, such small constitution. Damn thing kept falling from the top.


Artistic License:
Writing Under the Influence

I’m gonna write you a book. I hope it’s nice and long, so I can use it to get into grad school. I hope it proves to be an effort of marked brilliance and talent. I hope it makes me a millionaire…Upon having just moved to Tallahassee with BA in-hand, clean & sober, December 2000

It shouldn’t be so bright. Seems inappropriate, to be suicidal and have the sun blare in through your windows all at once. The feeling, the overwhelming urge to get it over with once and for all, is familiar yet abrupt. It had gone away a few years ago after a lifetime of hanging ‘round. From the age of six, quick mental flashes of my head, a gun at my temple, eyes squeezed shut as my index finger pulled the trigger – quick pictures that would fill my vision as a slide on a screen. They came so often back then, with such frequency that I'd grown accustomed to them; actually had come to find comfort in them. It was a possibility, a chance, a hope, a something I could do at any given time to make it all go away. I'd tried a few times, to no avail, obviously, but someone or something always messed it up.

The feeling is with me today, as it has been for months now. When it first resurfaced, it scared me, but I honestly thought it a temporary glitch; new environment, stressful settings, the newness of it all and the anxiety that brought upon me – it would fade soon enough, once I acclimated. Apparently, I was wrong, since it just roused me from a near-nap and led me to this keyboard to address it, out loud.

What would they say, in those hushed whispers, those pitying tones, those accusatory utterances behind secret hands? “Did you know she got into Houston? Oh, yes, I think that’s what did her in. Houston? Oh, didn’t you know? Yes, very prestigious. The number two graduate creative writing program in the nation. Well, I think everyone was shocked that she got in. I mean, we all knew she was a writer-type, but it wasn’t like she went to Harvard for undergrad or anything. Personally, I think it was a mix up.

In any case, she didn’t like it there from the get-go. If I’m not mistaken, she didn’t even want to go in the first place. She got in to Florida State, too, and wanted to go there – you know how she was about that school. Oh, sure, their program was good, but not number two in the nation. I heard she only went because Houston offered her money and benefits, a job and such, and also because her parents pushed her. But can you blame them – really? Wouldn’t you want your kid to go to the most prestigious university possible?

Oh, well, she didn’t fit in from the start. Apparently, she told people she was afraid of the pretense – the lifted noses and lengthy, award-winning resumes, the talent of the others. I guess she was right – why else would this have happened?”
Actually, I’ve made some wonderful friends at Houston – some of the best ever. But there’s this weird sort of secrecy of talent and of work. Many are poets, so they are obviously not in my fiction workshops, but they are close friends nonetheless, and I never once have laid eyes on any of their work. I asked in the beginning; now, I’ve given up. I’ve only really ever seen the work of two fellow first-year fictives, as we like to call ourselves, and that’s because they were in my workshop. Everyone keeps their writings and talents hidden. I would love to share, but I suppose I am alone.

Fictives. Isn’t that a hoot? I suppose I fulfill that nomenclature best. A fictive. I try to pretend like I belong here; that there hasn’t been some screw up in admissions, realized too late, too late, oh, we already notified her of her acceptance, nothing to do about it now, that poor girl Anna McDonald, that genius fiction writer from Iowa, she’ll just go elsewhere and we’ll be stuck with this half-talent, we’ll be benevolent, we’ll take her under our collective, upturned wing and make her think she’s one of us.

Didn’t work. From the moment I set foot in this city – a city that, in my head, has always been the “bad city” – I wasn’t happy. I wanted to leave as soon as I arrived. Then, classes started, I got to teach for the first time, and I had a hope, a beacon of light amidst the black hole of academics and bullshit I was enduring in the writing program. By November, I'd realized two things: that I was a phenomenal teacher and wanted to teach always, no matter what, and that I hadn’t learned a god-damned thing that semester in any of the classes I was taking. Not a thing. Each second of those nine hours I had to take, while trying to teach two classes of twenty-five students each three days a week, were worthless. I was wasting my time. I was stagnant. I was regressing back to age eleven, seventh grade, all black and angry and mental flashes of bullets and brain, splattering across my vision with an explosion of relief. Two semesters into Houston, under the prescribed care of a pain management specialist, 2002

Yeeeeeee! Whatta hoot! Wasn’t I a blast during active addiction? Not to mention, there's a tee-bit of undiagnosed/untreated manic-depression there. Just a tad. I mean, the skoshiest of skoshes. Still—wouldn’t you have wanted to spend every waking second with me?

Good Lord.

Truthfully, I have no flingin’-flangin’ clue how I remained upright at the computer long enough to type all of that out; I was a frigging mess of pharmaceuticals that summer. I must’ve written it in chapters, sayeth the author.

Terrible, god-awful writing. Professor Kauffman would have rapped me over the head with his wooden cane. Professor Kauffman, who both looked and sounded exactly like Yoda and abhorred “to be” verbs, much like his
Star Wars counterpart did The Dark Side, served as my first creative writing instructor at USF in Tampa. I can envision the scene clearly:

“All of these ‘to be’ verbs about your paper, Miss McDermott! Gone, they must be! Verbs! Adverbs! Adjectives! Your friends, they are! Just used the ‘to be’ verb tense, did I! Twice! Tell no one of this, you will!”

Yoda, awfully fond of the “to be” verbs…he

Beyond the writing…terrible, god-awful self-pity. No doubt I was very…holy shit sick. My mind flew well beyond the realm of depression into something much sicker: questioning my sanity until struck by the truth! Everyone
else was mad and I, the only sane one! Ah, narcotics. The cause of—and solution to!—allllll of life’s problems, Homer. Administer them to the already mentally unstable and you have the makings of a psychological Nagasaki.

My blessings at the time counted innumerable yet I couldn't see them. I dunno if the drugs numbed me so insensate that I suffered temporary blindness or simply stupefied myself beyond stupidity, forgetting where I last put my glasses. (Likely the latter, and more likely, they were atop my head.) But I felt entitled, due some sympathy, pathos, doling out of compassion from the world. These, my off-ramps, my exits from a highway paved with a program of prestige, a teaching assistantship straight outta undergrad, health and dental benefits packaged with this TA-ship when other graduate instructors at other universities were
on-strike for such profit! Students who adored me, a mentor who promised a published future and cared for me as a grandparent would, one opportunity after another to publish, garner, earn, win, more than just a mere roof over my head—on and on… A never-ending highway that could have led to a future of untold promise, success, continuance…


Yet what preceded and accumulated, from which I'd not given myself sufficient rest-stop or therapeutic refuge, left me spiritually and mentally exhausted. I was just so fucking
tired: too much happened too soon, too rapidly and in domino’s procession. I couldn't keep pace with, much less comprehend any of what raced about, around, and through me. So, I threw into reverse the whole damn thing and made it into a NASCAR race of self-righteousness.

“A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man!” —Jebediah Springfield

I felt… Ennobled of spirit! I felt… Embiggened of stature! I wrote… Aggrandized of prose!

I was… Bullshitting myself!

How’s that for a “to be” (or “
not to be”) statement?


Operation: Mindcrime: Bang Your Head!
I’ve got a headache this big! And it’s got…writing…written alllll over it!
It was right after my growth spurt – I’d shot up a foot in less than a year. Went from 5’5” to 6’5” just like that – swear to God – but barely gained any weight. Looked fuckin’ ridiculous – like “a scarecrow on steroids” Bundy’d say. 1981 – I remember ‘cause the Empire Strikes Back t-shirt Ma had bought me for my birthday that year was too small by that spring, exactly one year after the movie came out. Me and Sam were still kids – I was barely sixteen, and Sam had just turned fourteen a few months before, in December, and was such a little fuck then, he looked nine. Not me. That’s when people started calling me “Lurch” – or when Bundy started calling me that. I got so big so fast, and my voice got real deep at the same time – people’d hang up when I answered the phone. Bundy’d always laugh when that’d happen and say, real low, “You raaaaang?” Pissed me off something fierce. But he was 22, and even bigger than me, so I only went after him a coupla’ times – he beat my fuckin’ ass every single time.

Before I got big, he used to lock me in my closet – tied my hands and feet with gym socks and threw me in, on top of my tennis shoes. Fuckin’ stank like P.E. in there. Bundy’d leave me till Ma got home from work and couldn’t find me. She yelled at him and said stuff like You’re supposed to be taking care of him while I’m gone, Bundy but he’d just laugh at her, repeat whatever she said, copy her, piss her off. She couldn’t do anything, anyway – he was like, ten feet taller than her – swear to God.

But this one time he called her a dwarf-bitch – “Get off my back, you dwarf-fuckin’-bitch!” – and she got pissed. Wasn’t the first time either of us made fun of her for bein’ so frigging short – it was kinda’ hard not to, her barely five-feet and us almost two whole feet taller and all. Usually, she laughed – everybody said shit about it to her. How’d you fit those two in you? My Aunt Colleen, Ma’s sister, would say this to her every goddamned morning when they’d have coffee. How the hell did you squeeze those monsters out?

But Ma must’ve been having a pisser of a day when Bund said that dwarf-bitch thing, ‘cause she picked up his acoustic guitar that’d been leaning against the kitchen table and held it over her head, like Jack Nicholson with the axe in The Shining, and started screeching like Rob-Freaking-Halford. At first, Bundy’d played it off and started laughing.

“Gimme the Guild, Ma! Gimme the fuck-in’ Guild!” He was wiggling his eyebrows and growling and biting the air like a goddamn dog. I was laughing, too – it was dead-on Jack, swear to God.

“I ain’t gonna’ hurt ya’, Ma…Ya didn’t lemme’ finish – I ain’t gonna hurt ya, Ma…I’m just gonna’ bash yer brai–”

But then Bundy’s eyes got all big, ‘cause Ma took a fuckin’ huge swing at his head – barely freaking missed him, I swear – and he knew he was fucked no matter how tiny she was, so he ran to his room and locked the door. And freakin’ Ma, man – she flies after him, that guitar up in the air, and starts chopping his door down with the goddamn thing! Looked like a psychotic munchkin. The lock busted open before she did anything too bad – just some dents in the door and the acoustic – but once the thing swung open, she ran in his room, screaming like a freaking banshee, and started swinging the guitar at Bundy! I freaked – thought she was gonna’ club his fuckin’ head off – but that asshole just laughed! He put his arms over his face, she kept slamming that Guild into his ribs, and he just laughed his goddamn ass off! Swear to God!

That’s just how he was. Even Ma couldn’t stay mad at him. After she smacked him with the guitar for a couple of minutes, saw him laughing and I guess figured she looked pretty stupid, she started laughing. Called him a “fuckass” and left his room. That just made Bundy laugh harder – “‘Fuckass?’ Just what the fuck is a ‘fuckass,’ Ma?” Which made her laugh again, ‘cause she’d just made the word up, right there, ‘cause she was so pissed but couldn’t do anything, so she tried to come up with a word bad enough to call him, and "fuckass" was it. We started using it after that – it was too good a word. Tallahassee, a brief interlude with sobriety, January 2004

Donnie Darko stole the “fuckass” thing from me. I had that from way back in the 90s, dammit. To quote Carter, “Swear to God, man!”

And that’s an excerpt from the old, unfinished novel. Cart’s my most beloved guy. Well, he and Bundy both. They’re extraordinary dudes I absolutely enjoy the
hell out of writing. I’ve never had more fun describing or dialoging any characters, perspectives, plots—ever. That, I owe to my ex, as Carter's pieced together from friends we either already knew or people he introduced to me, and Bundy is my ex's older brother—100% freshly squeezed. So, there ya' go: thirteen years of relationship insanity for two outstanding dudes on paper. Ah, well. C’est la vie… Or, as Carter would spell it: say la v.

That novel will never again be touched: I know this, and it fucking hurts like hell because I truly,
truly love those brothers up above, laughing and bullshitting their way through every day. Writing them was very much like engaging in a love affair. But fiction is as fiction does, Forrest. Things are much too real these days to revert back to the unreal.

I don’t know if what I’m currently writing has any real value or if I’m just wasting my time—if this mental hemorrhaging and actual, physical anguish and exhaustion I’m exacting is a something potential or fruitless, wasted endeavor. Sure feels like it sometimes. My head
aches with words, ideas; my eyes rove with thought and desire for plot, notion, description. I crave the sculpted curves of adjectives, gorge on vocabulary, rise in honor of action.

Sometimes, it’s just. too. much.

So, I try to stifle it, Edith. Watch a movie. Listen to music. Read. Converse with others. T.V. Drive. Clean. (
Clean? Clean.) Chat with Buster. Surf the web. Smoke. Eat. (Eat? Eat.) Sleep.

Not one of these goddamned things shuts if off. Not

Much like sleep lights the ephemeral blue flame of dreams' candle, illuminating the darkened corridors of midnight’s mind, these boulders of intended obstruction prove so much flint for the steely trap: the forever falling, banging, clanging letters, words and I cannot douse the embers that eventually catch fire and set the pages to burn.

All, always, lead to sparks.


"Dan...I think I've lost my mind. I seriously think I'm crazy!"
"Oh, sweetheart. All the great ones are!"
UH Fiction Workshop, fall 2002

Goodnight, Dan...wherever you are.

January 18, 1928 — January 24, 2007

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