I paid my money didn’t I? I should be able to take my choice then? No, not when NYC Midnight have their flash fiction competition.
One thousand carefully chosen words, a genre, a scene and an object chosen at random. Forty Eight hours to write it.
And on Saturday 15th July, the email arrived. Genre: Ghost Story, Scene: A Basement, Object: A Tattoo Machine.
I had to find out what a tattoo machine is, didn’t I? That was the easy part. A quick Google search and I found one.
I even listened to recordings of tattoo machines. Which reminded me of the dentist’s drill. That at least ended up in the story. But after listening to that, there was no way I was going to be inked in the name of research.
But me? A ghost story? My first reaction was: I haven’t written any. I was wrong. I’ve written two. One fact. One fiction. Still I researched my genre. And read some ghost stories, some great, some indifferent. And brought to mind my secret love of Edgar Allan Poe.
But a basement. I really don’t know what to do in a basement…Self doubt occurred early. But I persisted…
I scrabbled and scrambled for thoughts. Then came the flood of nefarious ghost-like events. I wrote them out. Then…
I revised what I had written. And threw it all away. Somewhere, somebody is looking at my lost notes and saying, “I wouldn’t write that either.”
Then the premise arrived. The idea was a ghost requesting permission…But I won’t add to that otherwise it would spoil the story.
And I wrote it. And I was pleased with it. But there was a problem…
The rewriting. The last time I wrote a short story (The Great Blow), I went on a re-writing frenzy. Eight or nine rewrites until I could take it no more.
This story (called Ghost Tattoo) was rewritten about four or five times. I only realised it when I posted it on the competition forum. Some of the feedback was similar. And when I read the story, I realised they were right. A few more rewrites…Still when I receive the judge’s feedback, I will rewrite it. And post it. And learn my lesson. Otherwise I will have to take the test again!
Up ahead, in the twilight, two traffic lights turned green. The first traffic light meant that the two cars ahead of me moved forward. Towards the bridge : now single lane as it was under repair. The second traffic light was across that bridge. Waiting to go across was a semi-trailer. I can still hear the sound as it blew its horn. I can still see its searchlights switched on. I can still remember it start to cross the bridge. Against the lights.
I was tired. I had worked back. I had taken the long route home. I had forgotten that the narrow bridge at Maclean, north of Jimboomba in South-East Queensland was being extended. With the only one lane open filled with an oncoming truck.
The two cars ahead quickly pulled off to the side. The cars banked up behind me stopped. The truck sped up towards me. I had perhaps fifteen seconds left.
I couldn’t go forward. I couldn’t move to the side, the two cars had left no room. I couldn’t reverse, the cars behind me were too close. I was in the only space left. I had ten seconds until the truck either went around me or through me. And he was speeding up. It was me versus truck. I briefly thought of abandoning the car like the movie Duel. Except Dennis Weaver didn’t have an LPG tank in the trunk.
I did the only thing left. I clunked the Holden HQ’s gear into reverse. I remember the whine of the engine. I looked forward for the truck. And backward along the road. I was reversing the car around the queue. On the truck’s side of the road. But that’s where I was now anyway. But I did know that not far behind me, the road widened. Hopefully there would be a space for me. I didn’t know how many seconds I had left.
I can remember thinking, I don’t know why at the time, the word “Angels!” But by then the truck had roared past me. I had found a space.
I had to wait an extra fifteen minutes as I was now at queue’s end. It didn’t bother me. I sang instead. I rather enjoyed it.
Post Script : I wrote about the incident in a letter to the editor to two of the local newspapers. Both published me. I also took the other way home.
“You over-research too much,” she said to me.
I looked up from my desk, covered in academic papers. Then down at the floor, strewn with textbooks, references and more academic papers.
“Do I? I suppose I do.” My wife shook her head at me.
My name is Andrew and I am an over researcher.
My affliction isn’t confined to my studies, now discontinued, it overflows into the workplace and most recently into my writing. I’m insatiably curious. My excuse, as was said to me is “But I want to know everything.”
What I don’t do is approach a topic seeking facts to satisfy a decided point of view. I can’t actually. I do have a question that needs answering. But I don’t know all the answers, even when I’m finished.
Which means the strangest things happen to me when I take this journey.
As happened when I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. I was one of 3000 writers who compete in three rounds. Each writer is placed in a heat, allocated a word limit, a period, a topic, a genre and a character. The first round required a 2500 word story in a week, then 2000 words in 3 days, then 1500 words in 24 hours. The winner was Sarah Martin’s The Undertaker. It is a gorgeous and touching story.
My first round genre was historical fiction, my character a Train Conductor and my topic was a Bushfire. I was daunted. I have never written historical fiction before. What I do know as described by Natasha Lester, author of A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald, was that it required immense and accurate research.
Not really knowing where to start, I choose an Australian angle. Surely, in a vast country, often riven with bushfires, spanned by an extensive rail network, surely there would be such a story. Surely the 1977 Blue Mountains bushfires would have such an incident. I found much about how bushfires are fought, how the technology has changed and how the railways do deal with bushfires. Surely not.
My searches kept turned up another disaster, the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. I ignored that. I didn’t want to write about that. Meanwhile the days dripped away. But I found nothing that could start a story. My over research was now becoming an over reach.
With only a few days left, I surrendered. And found my story. In fact, two stories. One was the well-known one of the Canadian engineer James Root and how he led a rescue train to safety. The conductor, I felt, only had a peripheral involvement. The second story is more obscure involving a rescue under the supervision of a train conductor named Powers.
Finally! I had found what I was looking for. But I had not yet completed my journey.
Then I became immersed in this story. The newspaper reports, several books and a chronicle written afterwards detailed an apocalyptic horror. The fire, or rather fires, were too extensive and fast to fight or flee. There are stories of impossible survival, people sheltering in ponds, creeks and cellars and pure tragedy where people standing side by side survived or died. Clearly, there are many, many stories that can be told of this event.
Mine went like this.
Hinckley in Minnesota was a logging town and the junction of two railways. After two months of drought, September 1, 1894, was a hot and oppressive day. While fires were common due to thoughtless forestry practices, a temperature inversion (cold air above hot air), resulted in two major fires becoming a firestorm. Ultimately, the town itself and a large area burnt until the fire stopped.
James Root’s train was approaching the town and had to turn back, picking up survivors until they reversed to safety. Unfortunately, not everyone survived. Powers, however, was the conductor of a train that was trapped in Hinckley when the fire struck. They couldn’t leave. Their route out was blocked by a recently arrived goods train. A decision was made to join the two trains together and flee the town. As they began, buildings and house started exploding around them. They waited, then took as many people as they could. They then backed the train at speed through the fire. They picked up survivors as they ultimately crossed a burning trestle bridge to safety.
That was my story. I detested it. I had written a third-person newspaper report summary. This happened, then that happened, Powers did this, his crew did that and they made it to safety. Yes it was a story. But all the while another story was unfolding itself to me. I just was refusing to listen to it. The deadline drew nearer. I started to despair. It looked like the story would not be submitted.
I thought about my dilemma. I then looked for what surprised me. It was the incredibly strong religious beliefs of both the immigrants (mainly Scandinavian) and the first settlers. The Native Americans’ stories sadly weren’t chronicled in much detail. In recounting the disaster, every person described it in apocalyptic terms using Nordic or Christian metaphors. So often people described the fire as appearing from nowhere rather than approaching from any distance. My over-research was about to become useful.
For it was then that the story revealed itself to me. Through Power’s eyes, this would be the end of the world exactly as described from the pulpit and the Bible. And worse, he had delayed the departure of the train to gather more stragglers. And his point of decision was at the burning trestle bridge. And it only had immediacy if I wrote it in first person.
Fifty minutes later it was written.
The story didn’t go beyond the first round. However, the judges’ feedback was deeply appreciated. And I had learnt immensely.
Here is the Great Blow.
My name is Andrew and I am an over-researcher. I’m also a curious and reflective one.
Hardly a call to feminism is it? With a title like “An Open Letter to Neo-Masculinists, MRAs, and General Dudebros Everywhere”, it just has to be click bait. Besides what the heck is a Dude-Bro? I checked the Urban Dictionary and its not me!
But Oliver Chaseling make his point. If you’re a man who is afraid of feminism then you are afraid of your own masculinity.
Then I don’t know what is wrong with me. Did I take the Blue Pill? The one where “You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.” Which isn’t me I’m afraid.
Perhaps it’s Mum’s fault. But then my brother is the same. We were brought up to treat women with respect. We were never brought up to control them. And in the falling forward that is life and learning to walk, I found that I had one job. That job is to ensure others gain their absolute best potential and that others don’t lose out to the worst one has experienced.
Which isn’t masculinity. Masculinity sadly is limiting. Chaseling calls it a tower. Masculinity separates men from women. Women on the other hand see feminism as unifying and freeing.
Fortunately, some men (#notallmen!!!) see feminism as an alternative. One where they can truly be themselves without having to fake masculinity! How do you fake something you’re not good at? That’s masculinity defined!
Besides I’m exasperated with people who focus on those differences alone. They have the same arguments over and again. See any random sample of social media (even the Quasi-Presidential tweets!) for verification.
Yes its Us versus Them. Feminism versus Masculinity. Left versus Right. Winners versus Losers.
Conflict is so boring that I’d rather explore the horizons that we have in common. I’d rather stop yelling. Listen a little. Learn a lot. And wait for the time (like Chaseling) until the barriers dissolve. Then we all can do some good and have some fun! Sounds like anti-masculinity, doesn’t it? I’d rather call it compassion.
If I wait long enough a story appears. It’s my calling to catch and keep it. Usually a pen or Evernote is in reach. Then the work begins: to unravel the story into most of its truth. The rest is for the reader or remains unknown.
Like unravelling a twisted string strand by strand….or unwrapping a layered gift.
Writing is putting pen to paper. Writing is also eliciting words from a reluctant place. And the standard methods that work for other writers may not work. They don’t work for me. I have had to find my own way.
Short stories, yes.
Poetry, yes though not all the time.
Blogs, pages of scribbled and reorganised lines.
Novels, next subject, move along nothing left to see here.
Isn’t there a saying that everyone has a novel in them? I have two. Two and a half. Both and a half will stay unpublished most likely. For there’s no happy ending for heroine or author in either effort.
Reputedly, authors reputedly are either planners or pantsers. In my day job, I’m a planner. I have to be. Otherwise its thank you, good night and bad luck. But after hours, it doesn’t work.
For both novels, I created the story then wrote an outline. It looked great. It even conformed with the hero’s journey. Another tick. Following on I was then able to fill in the gaps. Up to a point.
Then I became stuck. The story refused to stay still. It defied the structure set for it. Each time, each novel had to be set aside.
And of course, I felt miffed. It’s a blog, I’m a writer, miffed isn’t the exact word here. In despair, I returned to short stories, blogs and poetry. Every so often I did try to revitalise the two novels but I didn’t succeed.
I hadn’t learn the lesson set out for me. Like that saying I received the test over and over again.
Until I carried out the following short story exercise. Take a character and sketch out six situations, three highlights and three lowlights.
My first attempt didn’t work. It was pretentious garbage. It now resides in my own personal slush pile.
But my second try…in three quarters of an hour’s work, I had written the synopsis of six possible short stories. Then I wrote them.
Then an oddity intruded. I found I could add to this series, in the future and in the past. I could tell the next part of each story. As the heap of stories increased, I asked myself what the motivation was for these stories. On a whim, I added that as well and the results astounded me.
When other writers asked me, what I was doing, I’d say, “I have all these short stories. I keep adding to them. I haven’t finished. I don’t really know what’s going on.”
Then again, I tried to fit it to a structure. I specifically used the hero’s journey. And here again I became stuck. For the story didn’t fit. Then I tried the heroine’s journey. It mostly worked. Yet it was not a novel. It was a series of short stories that follow a narrative.
And I was left wondering, can this be done? Has anyone done a story in this way? No answer to that question until…
The next conversation with my writers group. I mention what I’m doing again. Then I’m asked, “Have you heard of Junot Diaz?” I say, “No”. Then another person says, “He’s good, you’ll like him.”
I google Junot Diaz. He writes short stories revolving around a single character. He’s also a fan of the original BBC TV series of Edge of Darkness : a mini-series in which each episode is a story that stand she alone. We have more than one thing in common.
Twitter is like someone sitting next to you while you write. And as soon as you look up, she winks at you. Then you go back to writing again. Until you stop and she winks at you again. Until you put down the pen or stylus and return the look. For you realise that she has been waiting for you. And when you do, you have to stop yourself from staring. For something new has appeared.
As happened to me when I looked up after Twitter winked at me. That Twitter eye catcher was Trust, and the Only Fruitful Response to Betrayal in Intimate Relationships Maria Popova’s review of Martha Nussbaum’s book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (public library).
I can only rely upon the book excerpts in the blog. And similarly to the blog, my experience was eerily similar. Except I’m now staring aghast at this new thing I’ve learned.
Yes I was betrayed. My trust was utterly vapourised. And me being me, I told myself it was my own fault for being so vulnerable. And not being watchful enough.
Yet vulnerability as that blog above states is the way back. For me, the other ways didn’t work. If there are better ways, I’d be happy to learn.
I falsely thought I had forgiven the betrayals. No I had simply coloured over the incidents. And yet I remember many things clearly, for instance, the pattern and colour of my baby high chair. Until four years later when the perpetrator recalled them. Then my life was a video replay of the content that I won’t divulge here. When challenged, the perpetrator denied them completely. I was still focussed on the act rather than being angry at the person who did it as Nussbaum states.
That betrayal still constantly denied, found me and made its home in me. Have you ever had anger turn in on itself and feed itself? Still my response was repression, ignoring the video replay in my mind and the taunts in my ears the best I could. Nussbaum refers to my feelings as a status injury, which made me an ex-husband well before I separated!
Then three years later, she admitted the betrayal was true! I still recall the date, the time of day, the light that afternoon, the trees in the driveway, where the car was, where she was standing, where I was standing and how I reacted. I chose suppression. I said nothing and walked away. I had to.
But this time the anger was different. It wanted truth over revenge. It took me eight or nine months. Until I confronted her. She denied it again. This and every other time I had focussed on the first incident. That night, for the first time, I described the exact details of the second incident including the danger I experienced. There was no response. For all defences had collapsed.
This time, no answer was an admission of truth. She knew it too. Afterwards, I would joke to myself that like the spies say, “Everybody talks”, that is everyone tells the truth eventually. Yet the truth can also be told by omission. For what had been excluded had finally formed the real picture.
After the admission, came the explanation. I shook my head and walked away from that too. It was a contradiction of present words versus previous actions! I can laugh at its inanity now. Then I was too sad. When I was angry afterwards, I had nothing to feed now I had found out the truth. And being angry just made me tired and sad. I suppose I had met the truth at last.
That was the way out. And in time I left.
But the problem with grief is that it is so easy to keep it at a distance. I was simply afraid that if I didn’t it would overwhelm me and crush me. Then I would have to admit I was vulnerable.
Which it did. It took another relationship for that. And this is where Maria Popova’s blog devastates me. For one cannot ignore grief. I had read about grief in Kluber-Ross On Death and Dying, but I never really had it happen to me.
Grief? It’s the wave taller than you that flips you and lifts you then throws you down to the sea floor until you become sand.
It leaves you with nothing. But I knew that. I just didn’t want to experience it!
From nothing, all I could do was renew. I think what I was doing was Kintsugi reassembling broken pottery with gold!
That was the way back. I did what I needed to renew and review. From that nothing, I studied, I wrote, I walked, I listened to music, I had people appear and help me, I made friends and I started a charity. Every day I looked for joy. And nearly all the time, I found it although I was still unexpectedly surprised!
I consider myself lucky that I could get through. Not all of us can. It is better to admit vulnerability and ask for help. I have done, I still do, although I find it challenging. The road is not ending anytime soon. And as I have found there are switchbacks and recurrences.
So often, one forgets those times and are then unprepared for its recurrence. And still unprepared to recall the resilience that saved. Besides I don’t like fairy tale endings. Living happily ever after almost certainly is death by boredom!
Now that I’m out of the fairy tale, there is learning ahead. I learnt and am still learning to trust myself. I learnt and am still learning to accept my vulnerabilities. Then I learnt and am still learning to forgive myself. It sounds so trite and easy but it’s ruddy well not! I have not always succeeded either and there are relapses. That’s what the self-help books don’t tell you. The road is endless.
In there, somewhere, I don’t know where exactly, I learnt to forgive the betrayer, the betrayal and free myself. And leave them to deal with it.
In truth as Nussbaum writes, all of this runs closely together. For I had chosen all this. I was therefore responsible for the negative consequences. I know better why I chose it and I’m the wiser (not yet wise) for it.
I’m also responsible for the positive consequences which is, once you get through the worst, you know what you can get through, then you look back and discover life has given you a bonus. That was last week’s truth.
Now I’m left with today’s truth. Betrayal, misusing trust and taking advantage of the vulnerable is too difficult a life to bear isn’t it? Yet such behaviours are an admission of vulnerability from the perpetrators too.
For them, the road hasn’t yet begun. For me it has yet to finish.