Friday, February 18, 2011

Fanning the flames of love

So the UW is riding the coattails of Monday's holiday and writing today about writing about romance. It's friggin hard, peeps. HARD. No clue how the Austens, Brontes, and Shakespeares of the world pulled it off so remarkably. But with so many greats in their graves, modern romance it seems is even harder to craft. The UW is no Danielle Steele (can we agree that might be a good thing?), and the problem is that writing about smooshy (think kittens, not Jersey Shore), gushy romantic love is generally bubbly and frothy and sweet (see 'Chick Lit.') and has a super happy (and often contrived) ending. These adjectives are not in the UW's repertoire. As a character in a UW story you are looking at divorce, disease, or death at a bare minimum. So really good, non-formulaic (see 'Opposite of nearly all movie romcoms/fairytales/single women urban legends') romance is hard to write.

When going about her thesis, the UW felt compelled to adhere to some semblance of affirmative action. Henceforth, she made sure to write characters of different races, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, and parts of the country. In order to diversify the actual stories she was telling, this also meant she had to take a stab at writing a happy ending. And without reuniting long lost parents & children, the second easiest happy ending plot line is having a couple get together. So the UW did. It ended in UW fashion (housefire and applique kitten sweatshirt), but it was her most valiant effort at the art of romance. So in honor of the recent Lovey-Dovey day, here is an excerpt from the UW"s short story "The Love Letter".

(Key background info: Harry is a divorced probation officer (age: middle), Florence (age: 24) is his probatee (?) who is on the wrong side of the law for arson. They meet weekly at a diner, but for their first few meetings Florence has been less than cooperative. Harry gave her a copy of Emma at their last meeting to try to break the ice.)


The following Tuesday Harry was ten minutes late to their appointment; having been caught in traffic after his previous case meeting ran long. He rushed into the diner but Florence was not in the usual booth. He approached the waitress to ask if she had seen Florence when he heard his name.


He turned around to see Florence hunched over a stool at the far end of the counter, wearing her uniform of a black tee shirt and ripped jeans, with the book he had given her open to the last few pages. She gave a small wave. He had never heard her say his name, and something about the way she said it caught him slightly off guard. He lumbered onto the stool next to her.

“I was looking for you in our, in the booth,” his voice tripped over the word ‘our’, having not used it in years.

“The light is better over here for reading,” Florence answered, gesturing pointlessly to the book, and turning back to the pages.

The waitress brought over Harry’s coffee and he busied himself with the sugar and creamer.

“How’s the book?” he asked.

“I’m almost done,” she mumbled, focusing intently on the page in front of her.

Harry sat quietly, waiting for her to finish. She flipped to the final page, devouring the letters, her sea glass eyes darting line to line. With a sigh she snapped the book shut, and traced her fingers across the back cover before dropping her hands back into her lap.

“How was it?” he prodded.

“It was…” Florence fumbled for her words.

“Did you like it?” he pushed.

“Yes,” she answered, her voice laced with a sincerity he had not heard before.

“Well, I’m glad,” he said, stirring his coffee with a plastic straw.

A moment of quiet passed between them.

“I really appreciate…” Florence voiced trailed off to a mumble.

“You’re welcome, Florence.”

She nodded.

“So, how was your week?” Harry pulled out his notepad.

“It was fine,” she answered.

“And your job?”


“And Morrisons?”


“Florence, you have to give me something more than ‘fine’ that I can write down. We are going to have to talk about the fires you set, you know that right? You burned down an empty warehouse, an abandoned school, and three snack shacks. You are lucky no one got hurt.”

Florence sat in silence, her eyes staring at the book jacket in front of her, covered in sprawling calligraphy.


She turned her face to look at him, her green eyes pooling into lagoons.

“Not today. Please.”

Harry sighed, closing the notebook and sliding his pencil back into his shirt pocket.

“Ok, not today.”

Relief flooded Florence’s face and she dropped her gaze back to the book.

“Can you tell me more about the story?” Harry probed.

She paused, as if searching her brain for the words.

“I….it was…it was beautiful.”

“What was your favorite part?”

Florence chewed on her lip, thinking.

“All of it. Every page.”

“Well I’m glad you liked it so much,” Harry said, discarding the plastic straw to the counter, trailing milky brown dots behind it. He had never read the book, but had heard general murmurs about it from the kitchen when Kathy’s book club discussed it several summers ago. All he remembered was a character named Harriet that he kept mistaking for his own name through the loud lady cackling. They sat quietly, both looking at the book.

“I wish I could write,” Florence said, breaking the silence.

“Me too,” Harry confessed. “The last great piece of writing I did was in the 3rd grade.”

“What was it?” Florence asked.

“A book report about baseball.”

“You wrote about a book about baseball?”

“No, just about how much I loved baseball.”

“Well, it wasn’t really a book report then was it?”

“I guess you’re right. Can’t really have a book report without an actual book.” Harry conceded.

Florence unexpectedly began to laugh, a sound that bordered on choking and singing. Harry wondered if she was out of practice. Harry started to chuckle with her out of compassion, and the sound grew between them until their howling echoed throughout the otherwise empty diner. The waitress glared from behind the register, which only sent them into a deeper fit of laughter. As Florence gasped for air, their voices dissolved into giggles, followed by snorts and heaves until they finally quieted to stillness. Harry wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes and steadied his breath.

Florence’s eyes returned to the counter.

“I bet it was magnificent,” she murmured.

Her voice sounded warmer and softer, and Harry studied her briefly, trying to assess the change. Before he could put his finger on it she dropped the book into her bag and slung it over her shoulder. She pulled her headphones from the bag, but didn’t put them on. As she spun off her stool, Harry called after her.

“Next week?”

She looked back before pushing through the door, her thin body framed by the diner entrance.

“Next week,” she answered.

Harry turned back to the counter to finish his coffee; a small, undiscovered part of him wishing she had said his name once more before she left.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hodge Podge from the internets

One of the perks about being writerly is that your friends send you cool things about writerly folks. Two such bestie friends sent the UW two such things this week.

Cool thing #1:

The UW's friend Dave Mawhinney sent her the trailer for this kick ass looking documentary about bad writing, entitled "Bad Writing." See the trailer here:

The UW's favorite quote from the trailer: "There's no rule that says you get steadily better."- Margaret Atwood

Cool thing #2:

The UW's friend Tracy Mendoza sent along this awesome article, a peek into the day of an unemployed writer. After which, the UW thanked all higher beings that she has a wonderful day job.

Also, in searching the wide and wacky world of the interwebs (and passing it off as researching what publications she will submit her work of art-ish to) the UW stumbled across this gem:

No, she is not crazy enough to be submitting her rinky dink tale to the holy grail of short fiction (the UW only applies "go big or go home" to the square footage of pizza she chooses to order from the 'Hut'), but it is interesting to peek behind the curtain and how and why they make their selections.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Fine Art of Charlie Sheen

(Warning, the following post contains some Carrie Bradshaw-esque soul searching monolouge-y kinda whiny rhetorical questions. You've been warned).

Man, it's hard to keep up with a blog.

So yesterday marked three months since Lazybones Mcgee defended her thesis. And in those 90 days she drank a bunch, ate a ton, and generally met any goal that could be completed while sitting on the couch watching hours upon hours of USA network programming. This does not include writing, reading, or editing the salvageable chunks of her thesis. She has done none of that.

But it's February now - just a hop, skip and a short month to spring. And for all the general slug like qualities of the UW, she actually responds quite well to deadlines. Mind you it all gets done the night before the deadline, but deadlines help. So here, before God, the Universe, Al Gore's Internets, and you fine folks - the UW is declaring that she will indeed submit one of her stories to some publication by April 1st. What publication, she shan't say (you will just have to keep watching the fiction pages of the Washington County Penny Saver, wink). Of the 10 stories that made up the thesis, there seems to be unanimously one that the committee thought was the best and most finished (sadly, it is of course the one that basically wrote itself and needed minimal editing...) so she will be sending that story out into the cold, harsh world to be rejected like an acne riddled chubby teen girl in high waist jeans at the homecoming dance. Can't wait.

So in planning how best to organize, catalog, or display one's rejection letters (a topic Martha Stew should really cover), the UW has come to that odd crossroads of trying to figure out what is "success" in the bizzaro, reason & logic-less world known as the arts. Enter, Charlie Sheen.

Charlie Sheen makes nearly $2 million an episode on a show that managed to score the top ranking this past monday with a rerun. It is one of the most watched shows in the country. Despite his ill advised personal choices (hookers, pornstars, blow, booze, Major League II), it is hard to deny - monetarily at least- Charlie Sheen's great success as an actor. And if you really want to stretch the definition, as an artist. But the show is AWFUL. It featured a line, during a conversation about the future of a relationship between Sheen's character and some hapless vapid gal, about "putting their pee-pees together." Terrible writing, overacting galore, and that really annoying chant of "men, men, men" makes we want to punch myself in the face (with the hopes of blacking out and waking up 30 minutes later to some ever-so-slightly better CBS tv show). And in the age of such brilliant story telling and compelling characters as Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Shameless (are you watching it? you really should be, people.), and such smart comedy as 30 Rock, Modern Family and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - why do people love Two and a Half Men with such a passion? And are these Two and a half men-loving people also the same ones who are buying movie tickets to sell out shows of The Expendables and putting Nicolas Sparks on the NYT Bestseller's list? Yes, yes they are.

It is, to some degree, a matter of snobby taste. And the UW is not above enjoying some great, crowd pleasing, mass produced entertainment. Sly Stallone did in fact get 8 of the UW's hard earned dollars for The Expendables. And she is sure there is something redeeming to "A Walk to Remember to the Last Song about Dear John" but even if she can admire Charlie Sheen & Co.'s success, she will never write a story that will be made into a movie starring Miley Cyrus. Her stories are small, sometimes weird, and not the current appetite for the bulk of American consumers. So where does that leave her? If you do not land on the NYT Bestseller list, if your story is never made into a movie, or chosen by Oprah's book club - what is success? Is it getting published in the New Yorker? Is it just getting published, period? Is it getting paid for your work? Is it a professional degree in your chosen field? Is it having a whiny blog about writing that you make your friends and family read (done, check!)? Is it having someone who is not a blood relative or legally bonded to you read your work and like it? Where do you set that bar?

Is a musician, who plays in their garage with friends or write mopey girl songs in their bedroom (UW's early twenties, check) but never performs live not a musician? If you perform live but only at a local bar and are paid in free beer, does that count? Do you have to have an album - does it have to be on itunes - does it have to make the VH1 Top 20 Video countdown (yes, the UW is the only person alive still watching every saturday). It would seem, as long as you make music, you are in fact a musician. That the art and the title are in the creation. But for some reason, it does not feel - for the UW at least - that just because she writes stories that makes her writer. She still feels the pull for some degree of validation, beyond the act of writing and her fancy degree, to feel justified in the title. But how much more validation? In a meeting with one of her thesis committee members last week, he asked her what she wanted to do with the degree. And she kinda fumbled the punt. She has a day job she loves and never envisioned writing being a legit source of income. She said to maybe get published. But it's kind of a weak answer- since the process of submitting work is rigorous and disheartening and soul crushing and the UW usually just nose dives into a family size bag of salt and vinegar chips when the going gets tough. So what does she need to declare she is indeed a writer?

And as her inevitable herd of origami swans made of big fatty NOs from publishers expands, what in the world keeps real actual factual writers still writing?

So...April 1st.