Category Archives: Writing

MY JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: A Way Towards Me

by Christopher Allen


When I was 10, my piano instructor—a dour stickperson named Eva Jo Alpress, who told me I was going to be a concert pianist one day—quit. She “discharged” me in a long, painstakingly written letter that outlined my mother’s shortcomings and mine. I wish I still had the letter. What a gem. While almost all of it is lost, one phrase does resonate down through the decades: “Your son is an arrogant opinionated juvenile.” We had a good laugh at that. Eva Jo certainly had a knack for unwittingly hitting nails on heads. She thought she was telling me what a little dickhead I was, but she was actually telling me that I was a person with something to say. 

The reason Eva Jo discharged me: I wanted to trade études for ABBA. I wanted to play keyboards in a band. It was 1974. I wanted to shake my groove thang. I can still see my teacher’s eyes when I pulled out the sheet music to “Take a Chance on Me.” Horror? Disdain? That moment when you’re not sure if you need to sneeze or vomit? We got the letter the next day. There would be no Good Will Hunting end to the story.

I have to give Eva Jo credit, though, for spotting the truth in this situation. The keyboard part of “Take a Chance on Me” is really easy, especially for a ten-year-old apparently destined for Carnegie Hall. Without the band and a few Swedes “Take a Chance on Me” was boring.

I’m telling you this not only because it’s a fun story, but also because it’s one of a hundred formative experiences that have led me to where I am today: sitting in my office in Munich, writing about writing, wondering who I am. Who knows what moments are more important than others? I was going to be a musician when I was ten. That’s important. I was a little dickhead. That’s also important. In many ways I’m still that little dickhead.

But before all that, I was going to be an oceanographer. I was fascinated by the thought of living on the ocean floor in a never-ending labyrinthine sprawl of modular, pressurized compartments. I expanded my underwater city every day in my third-grade class. I’m sure the drawings were absolute crap. I can’t draw, not even a stickman. Point is, I was obsessed by the idea of slipping myself into a little world—or maybe I just needed to escape to where it was quiet, maybe it was a Jungian thing. I don’t know. I hate the water now, haven’t been swimming in decades. We also drew the flags of the world, which I was much better at.

At university I studied music until the end of my sophomore year when, in the hospital with mononucleosis, I missed my juries and all my finals. I also missed several weeks of my first professional singing gig in a gospel quartet—a ridiculous summer. When I got back on my feet I didn’t want to study music anymore, so I changed majors to music business. All the cool kids were there I guess or maybe just all the kids who understood the worthlessness of a music degree. Maybe both. And, yes, you’ve just noticed that I skipped my entire adolescence. I knew I wouldn’t get away with it. I was hoping you’d ignore the leap, maybe accept the gap, like the lost years of Christ. I find it hard to talk or write about that time. How about we leave it at this: from 1976 to 1982 I spent most of my time hating myself for being gay, praying to be delivered from being gay, and ending up being abused by the minister of music at my church—book forthcoming.

But did those years of depression, suicidal feelings, and fear that someone could figure out who I really was lead me to write? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’ve tried to write that novel several times, and it’s just not happening yet. Sometimes I think all this writing is just practice, that I’m groping around in the dark for the voice that will finally tell my story the right way, that all these stories aren’t me but maybe a way towards me.

At the beginning of the nineties, a very close friend of mine was killed in a plane crash. His death changed my life and my priorities. I moved to Los Angeles to get away from Nashville and the music industry. He’d been a keyboard player for an A-list country singer, and I was a studio singer. Everyone I knew was in the music industry, and it was just too sad. When I later returned to Nashville, I’d decided to become a writer; and because I wasn’t sure what that meant I enrolled in a master’s program to learn everything I didn’t know about literature—because by then I’d figured out that having an opinion about everything was a sure sign that I knew almost nothing. Realizing how little I knew was a giant leap towards understanding myself.

In graduate school, while I was reading everything Henry James wrote, I wrote a screenplay partly about my friend’s death, a poignant road-trip movie in the vein of This-Will-Never-Be-Publishable. Also while in graduate school, I published my first short story, “Air-Conditioned Souls,” which one of my professors said “made no sense.” I also published my first two (and last two) poems: “The End All” and “last night I dreamed we dreamed a poem.”

Then I moved to Germany and spent the following ten years trying to write and rewrite that screenplay. Then I wrote and rewrote a novel manuscript: “The Sure-Shot Rabbit Association.” And then I wrote another one: “What You Don’t Know.” And another: “Three-Handed Bridge.” And another: “Conversations with S. Teri O’Type.” And another: “The Lambent Light,” finally trying to tackle my own story. And a screenplay manuscript: “Almost Ophelia.” Except for Conversations with S. Teri O’Type, an experimental and episodic work of linked flash fiction that I self-published in 2012, I’ve pretty much walked away from all of these manuscripts. They terrify me because they are not perfect. They are all massive derelict buildings.

At some point in the middle of all these construction sites I joined an online writing workshop called Urbis. What an intense time of learning that was. I remember getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to read and write reviews. That workshop forced me to think about my writing objectively. It taught me to write economically, to write competitively (in a good way), and not to settle for a boring phrase. Lots of stories that I workshopped in Urbis ended up published. Urbis gave me the push I needed towards becoming a writer.

In 2009 I started editing at the daily litzine Metazen and became the managing editor there. Sadly, Metazen came to an end in 2014. In the same year I joined the team at SmokeLong Quarterly. The journal is a big part of my life. When I love a thing, I love it big.

I feel all grown up now, but I still need to disappear into my little worlds. I still feed on sarcasm. I still need music. And I still feel incomplete. So I suppose my Planet Write is some amorphous gas planet or maybe some inchoate hunk of volcanic chaos—very much a work in progress. And that’s fine. I just love being at the party.


Here’s a link to one of Christopher Allen’s award-winning stories:
Semi-finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017

First published by The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts


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Christopher Allen is a freelance editor, translator and writer living somewhere in Europe. His work has appeared in more than a hundred journals and anthologies both online and in print including Indiana Review, Juked, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others. He’s been a finalist at Glimmer Train, a finalist and semi-finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017, and he’s won some awards too. Allen is the managing editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, the author of the episodic satire Conversations with S. Teri O’Type, and the curator of the travel blog I Must Be Off!which sponsors an annual travel writing competition.


One Writer’s Awakening: Andre Dubus III

I’m at the point in Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie when he describes that moment in his life when he had his first very vivid realization he wanted to write.  No, wait, that’s not what he says.  He says, he didn’t want to write, he had to write.

In this part of his remembering, he has this girlfriend – one of his father’s writing students.  He is losing her to another man, but he’s not all that certain he cares.  He stops by her dorm room.  She not there, but a story by the other man sits on her desk.  He reads it and is carried away by the power of the story.  He notices its precise language, specific details, as well as the emotion created by the text, the empathy he feels.

It is an awakening.  Partly because the character in this other man’s story is similar to himself: the diner busboy-dishwasher, for example, Dubus had been one.  But it wasn’t only that. It was that the story illustrated a moment of consciousness of conscience that Dubus had been encountering in his own  life.  Not just the awareness of the wrongs in the world which he’d been witnessing and going through since childhood, but the awareness that writing about these wrongs might carry weight and power.

Dubus describes a drive down the highway through a forest and how, after reading this story from his would-be rival, he finally sees trees as they really are: each one different and separate rather than an unrelenting mass of green. That same day, instead of meeting a friend for their usual workout, he sits down and writes a story.

What’s interesting to me is that Dubus’s father was Andre Dubus II, a man who wrote short stories and taught writing most of his life, a published, well-respected author.  Children often follow in the footsteps of the parents, doctors have children who become doctors, lawyers have children who go into law, teachers beget teachers and so on.  But Andre Three grew up learning to deal with his problems with his fist. Often picked on as a kid, his solution was to make himself as strong and formidable as he could through weight-lifting and boxing.  His world-view was one of danger, conflict, injustice, and literally beating an aggressor to the punch.   He didn’t understand that words, too, could change how people think and behave and can do so on a much larger stage than what the towns along the Merrimac River represent.

I came to Andre Dubus III through his novel House of Sand and Fog. Since most of the reading I do these days must include CDs and earphones, this book just happened to be on the library’s “What’s New” shelf.  I found it a revelation, how Dubus could bring his two antagonists so close to recognizing each other as real human beings – and thereby bring them to an understanding – and then how he snatches that opportunity from them.  This novel illustrates how underneath we are all human with human needs, and how our anger and prejudice keep us from recognizing ourselves in others.

Dubus’s memoir not only reveals  his first awareness of his need to write, but his source material.  As with most writers who draw from their own emotions, his stories are rooted in his own life, and reading Townie is like rereading and treasuring HOSAF all over again as well as The Garden of Last Days, and the stories in Dirty Love.

Reawakening to life and its many details, including the complex contradictions in our humanity, is what hooks so many writers.  To write is to see the world in high relief and to relive it through the lives of the people we create. This lesson is never more clear than it is in Townie.

Stroking the Details to Deepen the Story

Reprinted from Flash Fiction Chronicles article dated January, 2011

One of the comments that is difficult for many of us to come to grips with is when someone tells us our stories are not deep enough or that we haven’t given the reader enough to go on. I used to think: we’re talking flash here, micro flash, hint fiction, short shorts!  How am I supposed to “go deep?”
But for something to resonate, it must have context.  Readers want to feel empathy with the main character—or some kind of emotion for the main character—even if it’s distaste.  The question is, how does a writer do that with a limited word count?
Details not only set up time and place, but also suggest a back story, the circumstances, or even a trait or two of the main characters.  Specific details also anchor the story for the reader, giving them something to visualize while reading on to find out what happens next. Context and empathy come about through concrete, specific details that immerse the reader in the writer’s world.
A lake and two small boats give
context to Munch’s painting

I’m not suggesting there’s any need to describe an entire room or tell the reader the exact time of day, but rather to stroke in a detail much as a painter might do.  If you examine a painting closely, you may discover that the person in the background is just a line squiggle with a touch of brown at the top to suggest hair and a swish of red to suggest a skirt or as in Munch’s The Scream: two small boats in lake.

The man screaming in the foreground of the Munch painting is alone while behind him there are two figures on the road and two boats on the lake.  I have no idea what the artist had in mind, but for me, this structure and detail suggests a strong fear of facing the world alone or facing death and because these details are behind him, he has no hope.

These details do not need to be written into a piece immediately in the rough draft–get the story down first–but can be added in the revision stage of the process once the writer understands what details will best serve the story in a thematic way

So detail, if carefully chosen, can suggest setting, foreshadow events (remember Chekov’s gun), as well as deepen character, and underline theme.

Here’s an example:

Water drips from icicles outside the kitchen window. Clear skies glisten through dirty glass panes. I’m pouring my first cup of coffee when I hear snow sliding down the roof and know it’s time to call Carissa.

This image sets scene as well as mood

This is the opening to my story, “Spring Melt.” It’s a stroke like a painter’s stroke.  The whole house isn’t  given, not even a whole kitchen,  just the suggestion of a house because it has a kitchen, dirty window panes, and a sloping roof.  There is a sense that winter is passing into spring and that brings the narrator to a decision to call some woman. It’s a specific image to carry the reader into the next paragraph, but also to give the story context and later, a thematic pay-off.

Details should be as carefully chosen as anything else in a story.  Which will enhance the character and hint about what could happen next? Physical appearance often dictates personality.  A woman who has always been admired for her beauty may never feel compelled to grow artistically or intellectually, and therefore has little to talk about except hairstyles and Botox. This narrowed point-of-view could, in turn, bring conflict to a piece about marriage or best friends or wherever the writer wants to go.  

Showing tension between characters through dialogue becomes easier when there is a trait or detail in the story that sparks deep feelings.  Here’s a brief exchange between Anna and Matt from “She Can’t Say No” to show how this can work.


…Alone at the table, Matt asks Anna how she knows his friend, Kerrick, a fast-track kind of guy, gel in his hair and Hugo Boss shoes.  

“I met him once,” she says and smiles. When she smiles, the scar on her upper lip whitens. Sometimes when he wakes up alone in the morning, thinking of her, the word “harelip” pops into his brain. He’s hinted to her about childhood operations, bringing up tonsillectomies, appendectomies, avoiding the words “quadrilateral mirault flap,” but she says nothing.  

Looking at her mouth now, he can almost feel its slight ridge on his tongue. He coughs. “And?”  

And what, Matthew?”  

“You were flirting.”  

“I know.” She slips the side of her naked foot along Matt’s calf and tucks it behind his knee. “I’m sorry.”


People in stories don’t always have to agree and when they don’t, they argue, and when they argue, they bring up old grudges, other disagreements, and reveal who they are and what’s important to them.  In the example above, the relationship between the two characters is revealed by how Anna parries Matt’s jealousy.  It’s not a fight, but it’s still a moment of revelation.  Then Matt remembers how it feels to run his tongue along the scar on Anna’s mouth telling us that although he is jealous of her past with men, he’s also aware of her affect on him. The detail of her scar makes this scene more interesting and deepens the emotional risk for both characters.

Sometimes a story may work without specific detail, but going deeper can often be as easy as changing a word or two, adding a line, using a bit of dialogue, or throwing in a specific detail that gives the reader context for the unfolding events like Anna’s slipping her naked foot behind Matt’s knee. She has the power and he knows it.

More EDF good news and a lesson learned from whittling

MY heart still hip-hops into my throat when I open my Yahoo account and see on the
“From” line of an email, the words “everyone@everydayfiction.com.”

It’s the line that appears when they are sending a rejection, an acceptance…or actually maybe a rewrite. Any which way, I always take a moment before I open it. If I prayed, I guess you’d say that’s what I’m doing. Luckily for me, they like my “Stranger on the Porch” bit and are going to publish it sometime in the future. Hooray!

This is actually a piece I’ve adapted from my novel. As I’ve said before, I’ve been struggling to keep the seat of my pants in the chair. When I’m doing one thing, I’m often distracted by another. In this case, the idea of writing a 1000 words has so much more appeal than rewriting 80,000 words. But I have resisted the lure of flash so far this month even though titles and ideas on how to make those titles work assault me at the sink, in the shower, on my walks. Then one day–mid-anguish/temptation–I had a revelation.

Since I use a dramatic arc in each chapter by opening with conflict, torturing my character, and finally having her take some action–the same dramatic arc that I use for a story as a whole–I wondered if I could cadge something from the novel to satisfy my need to send off a submission to EDF and thereby not get totally out of the world of my novel characters. Write flash but have it benefit the novel too. Maybe chapter 1?

I took a look. Yep the arc was there, but I’d have to whittle it down to fit the 1000 word criterion. Wow. An amazing thing happened during this process.

Because I wanted to flash the chapter, I brought to it a much more critical eye, and suddenly realized how much better it was turning out. The whole experience reinforced my belief that parameters create in a writer the ability to dig deep and come up with something better than if there are no parameters.

What happens in this first chapter of my novel is not straight forward, and I’ve often changed it, edited it, played with it. But this time I knew I had to achieve more clarity for it to stand on its own as flash. The images became sharper, the character more interesting. Whittling worked again. What an incredible lesson I keep learning over and over.

Now my hope is that people like it. That it stands on its own. I hope it’s as good for you guys as it was for me.

TAGGED


by Alan Beard

I’ve been ‘tagged,’ whatever that means, by Alan Beard, author of Taking Doreen Out of the Sky. The editor of the great ‘Short Review’ Tania Hershman tagged Alan to answer some questions and Alan, in turn, tagged me. Here I go with more info than you ever wanted!

1) What were you doing ten years ago?
1998? I was walking everywhere and very fit because I let my son use my car to get he and his sister to school. It was a good thing. What I remember about it is that being without a car, time slowed down. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. I remember I wrote every morning. I’d had no success in placing any piece anywhere, but I hosted a writing group every Thursday (maybe it was Wednesday) around my dining room table.

2) What 5 Things are on your to-do list today?
**Work on the novel. I’ve listed the chapter numbers on scratch paper and as I edit each one I cross it out. Just started this process for the millioneth time a couple days ago. I’m on Chapter 6 and determined to get to the end this time.
**Walk at 8:30, this weird cross-country ski thing (on the streets of SoPas) I do now every Monday and Friday with Estelle and her band of acolytes.
**Go to lunch with my mom-in-law and some far-flung cousins in from Oklahoma.
**Cook dinner.
**Welcome my husband back from London. I have missed him!

3) What would you do with a billion dollars?
Revamp the education system in the United States. Encourage the culture to elevate the position of “teacher” to the status of JDs, MBAs, and MDs. All those kids who go to law school because they have no idea what they want to do would go to hard to get into grad schools to learn how to really teach and to develop new and effective strategies. I know. The teaching to teach and the strategies happens, but if a country cannot lure its brightest citizens to the profession, then the profession needs to be put on a par with those that do lure. What is that lure? Money, yes, but also cache, status, and satisfaction in actually contributing to society.

5) List the places you have lived.
Louisiana, Iowa, California, in my head.

6) List the jobs you have had
Parks and rec, retail sales, counter person at Rusty’s Roast Beef, as well as store manager, district manager, buyer, and teacher. Did I say wife and mom and mistress of Risuli and Cinder?

7) List the people you’d like to know more about.
Not so much “know about” but rather to go to lunch with: Joyce Carol Oates, Carol Shields (alas), Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, W. Somerset Maugham, Pablo Picasso, Abigail Adams, Jane Addams, Helen Keller, and Joshua from “So you think you can dance.”

BTW, the numbering isn’t mine though I probably messed it up somewhere!

Another Lesson From Reality TV: Emulate those who succeed

Project Runway is my absolute favorite reality show. Although my other favorites feature real talent and creativity, PR features the kind of creativity that I relate to. Not saying I could do what they do anymore than I can sing or dance. I can’t sew anything but a curtain panel, but I’m talking about deeper stuff, that digging into the hidden corners of the right brain when doing art and finding originality. That’s what two designers were able to do on last night’s premier of Project Runway, Season 5.

What is originality? Talent and imagination, certainly, but also a third component, knowing what to do with it. One could say a person either is talented or not, has imagination or doesn’t, but I don’t believe that. Like everything else in our genes, the amount of talent and imagination varies, but of more consequence is what we do with what we have. Last night’s first episode of PR is a good example of what I mean. There is talent and imagination in each contestant, but two of them also showed that third component: savvy, the wisdom and shrewdness to pay attention to those who succeeded rather than to those who failed.

I can’t remember their names, Blond Tattoo Girl and Wistful Guy is what I’ll call them here. BTG and WG are obviously students of the show and so were familiar with last night’s challenge: Season 1’s grocery store outfit, and they were successful because they looked to the winner of that challenge while everyone else focused on what previous contestants had done wrong. That shift of perspective last night made all the difference.

Here’s the set-up. The contestants were taken to a grocery store and given $75.00 to purchase materials to fashion an outfit. Tim Gunn told them to think about the WOW factor, to come up with something that would “blow the judges’ socks off.” Austin Scarlett, the competitor who WON this challenge four years ago, pointed out that he succeeded by delivering the unexpected. The name of that episode was “Innovation” and his design, a bustier sundress made of corn husks, transformed an ordinary agricultural product into a snazzy little summer number. Yet despite these admonishments, many of the contestants headed straight for the easy-way-out aisle.

The most obvious and forgiving “materials” to purchase are, of course, trashbags, shower curtains, and table cloths. My immediate thought as they scurried into the aisles to buy these exact items was “These guys have thought about this challenge.” Of course they have. Me too. Everytime I take onions and avocados out of their plastic netted bags I think ‘evening gown yoke.’ But unfortunately, this year’s designers focused on the contestants who floundered with seemingly unsewable products, and they were determined not to fall into the same trap.

All except Blond Tattoo Girl and Wistful Guy. They paid attention to the winner of that challenge. They recognized Austin’s inventiveness and had considered about how they too could innovate. WG made probably one of the most impossible choices. He bought plastic drinking cups. As one of the judges said, “Exactly what ANYONE would hurry to grab for this challenge.” But it worked. He molded–literally with an iron–a corset top and bell skirt that looked wearable and was definitely sexy. He remembered the word “innovation” and by the silhouette he chose, he also remembered the corn-husk design. He kept it simple and pretty, AND used the unusable.

This worked for BTG, too, who won the challenge. SHE was crazy-creative with her vaccuum cleaner bags, her coffee filters, her tacks, and her binder spirals. Again I’m positive she’s thought about it before the show, asked herself, “What would I do if…” Her dye and bleach treatment to the bags created a fresh and artistic skirt. The burn-out filters worked humorously with the tacks for the bodice. It was charming. I was pleased she won.

So why am I–a writer–spending all this time on this topic? Because this first episode of the season carries with it a potent message: emulate those who succeed, not those who lose.

How many times has a writer, a friend, or even me, said, “I read the worst book. I know what’s wrong with it, so I know what not to do!”

Is this what any creative person should think about? An artist? A designer? A writer? Or should he or she instead, study what’s hanging on the walls of the Norton Simon and MOOLA? Watch what’s coming down the runway at Olypus Fashion Week? Or read closely for the content, the structure, the language of To Kill a Mockingbird or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union or Tess of the D’Urbevilles and shout out loud, “Now this is the kind of art I want to do!”

The two best pieces last night were created by savvy designers who listened, who studied the winners, who dug to the center of their imaginations, and who executed with confidence and verve. That’s the kind of writer I want to be. An original.

About Focus, Passion, and Risk: Passion

The first time I heard the word “passion” in reference to me, I was stunned and flattered. It happened this way. I’d signed up for a writing class at UCLA extension. This was back in the late-eighties when I was finally trying to write again and Real Life and two children had derailed me. Giving it another shot. I’d written a screenplay that proved I knew how to place words on paper, but discovered I had no idea how to tell a story. I didn’t get structure. So I decided to go to school.

But as Real Life always finds a way to thwart our plans, we were going on spring break, taking our kids up to the mountains to ski and I had to miss the first class. I sent a letter to the instructor asking him to please not drop me. I wasn’t all that familiar with extension then, and didn’t realize if the school’s got your money, you can miss the whole course and no one cares.

I spent an afternoon composing the note. After all it would be the instructor’s introduction to me, and I wanted to get off on the right foot. I don’t remember exactly what I ended up with, but it was light, a little humorous, and short, all things I knew should bring me a little slack for not appearing at the first class.

And it worked. The instructor wrote back that he looked forward to having me in class and was impressed with my passion for writing. Passion for writing? How had that come across? I was surprised, but pleased. I couldn’t wait for the class. I hadn’t thought I had it in me to be passionate about anything. Little old conservative, dull ME?

It was a great class. I worked hard, my writing improved, and the instructor encouraged me to enter the Diane Thomas competition sponsored by the Writers Program at UCLA extension. I did, and didn’t win, but I found out that, indeed, I had a passion to write.

I never thought the word “passion” had any relevance to me or my world. Even though I wrote fairly well, majored in English, had placed second in a high school writing contest sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly, I didn’t feel I had the “IT” factor. The best I thought I could expect was to write a good letter and have fun with the hobby of writing screenplays. But somewhere in the back of my mind—or was it something buried in that intrepid muscle pumping blood somewhere deep in my chest—I felt I could have “IT,” IF I worked hard enough, couldn’t I? If I learned some of the skills, at least I might develop some “it,” albeit not in capitals?

So “passion” came with the actual “doing.” Taking a class, getting good feedback (as well as developing a thick skin to repel the bad feedback), and focusing on the writing itself. I’ve been distracted from writing off and on since then, but I haven’t abandoned it in twenty or so years.

It’s taken me a long time to accept who I am and what I can do, to understand that the passion was always there, but might have gone undeveloped if I hadn’t made the conscious effort to focus on the skills needed to produce a structured, polished piece of writing. I’m still not there, but I “get it” now. As Curt Rosengren says on his website, “Passion is the energy that comes from bringing more of YOU into what you do.”