I’m working on a reflective, retrospective story right now, so I went back to Different Seasons to see how Stephen King handled reflection and retrospection in “The Body.” I wanted to revisit the narrative to see how he handled dialogue particularly, as it strikes me as a little slippery in reminiscences but, as always, new eyes led me to notice new things.
All the gestures of artifice and artfulness are there, and it’s hard (having read King’s On Writing more than once) not to notice debts to geography and biography in King’s work. But what caught my eye most this time around were the plotting and the violence, especially in terms of how the story portrays pain.
I won’t spoil too many features of the narrative, but I think it’s fair to say the plot is broadly mimetic in its effort to capture memory. Although we know the narrator, Gordie, has grown up to become a writer, the piece follows the contours of his remembrance, which is a kindly way of saying it’s sprawling. But it sprawls revealingly, catching at all the moments that Gordie has attached to the singular experience of traveling down the train tracks with three friends to see a dead body. In short, until they reach that body and live out all the consequences of doing so, not much happens. They buy supplies, they swim, they walk and talk. We get glimpses of how Gordie sees the world along the way. King spikes the journey with thrills and horrors, as one might expect, but the walking and talking is paramount.
And at story’s end we get a grim epilogue. If you’ve seen the film adaptation, Stand by Me, you might imagine that the focus of the conclusion is on remembered friendship, a bit of misty-eyed nostalgia offered by an older, wiser man who sounds a lot like Richard Dreyfuss. In the narrative, however, the ending centers on pain. Most vivid, I think, is the depiction of the beatdowns the reader is led to expect. Older bullies, thwarted in their ambitions earlier in the story, pick off the members of the quartet one by one. Blood is shed and bones are broken, and King catches at the harm done vividly and viscerally.
More haunting, however, is the manner in which King threads other kinds of pain through Gordie’s reflection. We learn a great deal about how life treated these four boys after this pivotal event–about the changes they underwent, about the kinds of young men they grew to be. Gordie’s story fixes particularly on the fate of Chris, his closest friend, and reflects on his short life in a clear-eyed, almost declarative way. But pain–felt pain–comes through. It’s subdued, understated, and tinged with the matter-of-factness that characterizes Gordie’s point of view most of the time. It’s a pain that lingers, however, that lasts after the wounds have closed and the bones have mended.
I think that’s one of the elusive qualities that elevates King’s stories in the eyes of his audience. Over the past few weeks I’ve binged on quite a bit of cinematic horror, and in those stories it’s easy to see both how fragile and durable our bodies are (at least on the silver screen). Between Scream 5, the Fear Street trilogy, and a few other flicks I’ve seen at least twenty slashings and a great deal of blood loss. Those moments shock and appall, just as you’d expect.
But the stories, like “The Body” itself, take on depth and complexity when viewers and readers see costs and losses, when they plug into characters with sympathy and imagination and try to envision what a life would be like with all those absences, with all that trauma. Those costs and losses, when reckoned well, seem to me more meaningful, more momentous. At least a couple of the films I’ve screened have thrown in an extra knife wound or two just to remind the viewer that no one is safe, that no one comes through the experience without shedding a little blood. But to me, at least, those casual stabbings are gratuitous in a suggestive way. We don’t need to see them to know that the characters we care about are leaving the screen harmed and scarred, with the sort of aches and pains that will haunt them all their lives.
(The following is a short story I tailored for an anthology submission, but it admittedly got away from me and took on a life of its own. Even so I like the story just the way it is, and I like Maisie and Alice just as they are. I hope you enjoy it!)
The Soft Constellation
I knew I loved Maisie McCorkindale the moment she picked up that shovel. Something about it was so wrong—not the fact that she was going to dig a hole to bury my Roy, but that she somehow seemed solid to me for the first time, her who was all soaring clouds and shooting stars. It was like she had come down to earth just for me.
She pretended to spit in her palms and winked at me when she drove the spade into the ground, and anything in me that might have held back that love gave way.
We would laugh about it after: me seven months pregnant, squared up like a gunslinger in front of Roy as he staggered off the porch of Maisie’s summer cabin, emptying his daddy’s pistol into his chest. Maisie had given me such a look, a look that said she was exasperated, a little bit proud, and more than a little bit tickled. “Oh, Alice, why’d you have to go and do that?” she’d said, shaking her head with her hands on her hips. “I killed Roy ten minutes ago.”
She tried to shoo me away, sent me to wait inside, but I wanted to see it through to the very end. I think Maisie recognized that need in me, so she let me keep her company while she laid him down. She huffed and puffed as she dug, working up more color in her cheeks than I’d ever seen, but she kept talking to me as if we were up at the big house, me tidying up the living room or fixing her dinner.
“The stars told me you were coming, you know,” she said, and I could see that twinkle, the mischief in her. She knew I didn’t go in for all that, but she’d always liked to tease me.
“I should have known they were talking about you,” she said, pausing just long enough to tie her hair back and point to the sky. “Just look at how bright Spica is up there in Virgo—might as well be written in neon! But I was all wrapped up in what they had to say about the when and how of seeing to Roy.” She eyed him and made the grave a few inches longer. “I slipped him night-blooming jasmine and Japanese star anise in the whiskey I keep for company—my little way of saying goodbye.”
When she was ready to cover him up, Maisie paused and waited on me, but I shook my head. Everything I ever needed to say to Roy had already been said. I might have let him hit me, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him hit my baby girl. I told him so, and when he took a swing at me I twisted his arm behind his back and drove his face into the wall a few times. He had all the answers he was ever going to get, and the look of surprise on his face told me they were not the answers he expected.
Maisie and I drove to the quarry outside town when Roy was in the ground, and she threw the gun into the cliff side of the lake, her talking the whole time to fill up the quiet and put me at ease. She told me how she’d managed it: how she’d invited him up to the cabin, offered him a stack of cash to skip town and leave me be, how she’d brewed a pot of tea but he grabbed her whiskey, just like she knew he would, and how she’d let him wheedle for more money, let him play at being a big man for as long as he liked, right up till the poison started clutching at his gut.
I sat listening beside her with my head back and window down, holding my belly, feeling sick to my own stomach. I hadn’t made any plans for after the cabin, didn’t really know what was supposed to come next. Maisie took me back to my apartment and walked me inside like it was any old April night. I grabbed her hand, and she let me hold it.
“Don’t you fret, Alice—everything is going to be just fine,” Maisie said, setting me down on the edge of my bed and looking me right in the eye when we were inside, then turning to pack up a couple of bags with anything that looked like it might be important to Roy. “Smell that?” she asked. “That’s a good rain coming. It’s going to make everything new for you. And by next week you’ll be up at the house with me.” She scanned the room and nodded, as if everything were settled.
I can’t say exactly when I fell asleep, only that I fell asleep believing her, fell asleep to the sound of rain.
The police didn’t come round until Roy missed his Friday night poker game, which was maybe the only commitment he could ever bring himself to stick to. Deputy Dunning glanced at my belly, saw Roy’s clothes and needfuls were gone, and sized things up pretty quick. I told him what Maisie had told me to say, and we drove up together to see her at the big house.
He was a world different up there, wiping his shoes, holding his hat in his hands, sitting where he was told, saying “Yes, Ma’am” to every line Maisie fed him. She told him the whole unvarnished story, save for the killing. The deputy didn’t even pretend to write anything down. I had plenty of questions myself—about Roy’s car, about the blood, about all the evidence any half-assed search would turn up at the cabin. But Maisie’s story lined up with everything Dunning already believed about Roy. And that was that.
Maisie brought me up to live with her in the big house midway through the next week, just like she said she would. She settled up the last months of my lease and fitted up the guest bedroom next to her own as a nursery, had Jack Hansom knock a hole through the wall and put in a door. Folks said it was the least she could do, rich as she was, hard as I’d worked for her. And once Birdie Nash said it was a good and proper thing—just like when Dottie McCorkindale took in in Ida Underwood after the war—there was nothing more to be said.
Maisie paid no mind to town talk herself. Telling tales about her family had always been a popular pastime in Embry. She never said a word about all the arrangements she made for me, either, except when she wanted to know what I might like, what I might prefer. She never said a word when I crawled into bed with her the night she moved me in. She just made a space for me in her big bed, curled herself around me, stroked my hair, kissed me like I needed to be kissed. At last she said she’d always loved me, and I knew it was true.
When Astrid was born the joke around town was that she was Maisie’s natural daughter. There I was, six feet tall and broad-shouldered, freckled, suntanned, and callused from fifteen years in gardens, yards, and kitchens, and there was my Astrid with her blonde curls and blue eyes, like an old-fashioned porcelain doll, a perfect miniature of my Maisie. It felt so good to see them together it made me ache.
Maisie urged me to leave off keeping house for folks in town, to get some rest and enjoy myself, and so I tried. It took some getting used to—it had been a long time since I’d been with someone who wanted me around as much as she did. She wouldn’t let me tend to all that needed doing in the big house, either. She took up a share of the daily chores and hired Cecily Fox to come by twice a week, though that arrangement only lasted about a year, until Cecily’s daddy told us she was setting aside all her pocket money for nursing school. We sent her off in the fall, Maisie paying for her schooling and her daddy paying for her room and board, and we got a little better at cleaning up after ourselves.
All the while Maisie kept at her work, which was more like a calling than anything I had claim to. She’d wanted to leave off, to spend more time with me and Astrid, but folks spread out over three counties knew to visit Miss McCorkindale if they had a big risk in mind or thought they’d found a sweetheart worth keeping. She’d sit with them in our parlor, working out her charts of the stars, and tell them how things looked for the long haul. She was just too soft-hearted to send anyone away, especially when the stars always had something to say about luck, or love, or all the things in this life that really matter.
I didn’t know what to do with myself, but Maisie insisted that I needed time to be with myself, time I had never had much of. So I did what I did when I was a girl, back when spending time with my daddy outside was pure pleasure. I kept busy in the garden and the orchard in the spring and the summer, though I made plenty of time to go fishing, too. I hunted deer in the fall and grouse in the winter. I did a bit of woodcarving—just simple things, animals and such. I even tried my hand at tanning deerskin leather, setting up a rack behind the summer cabin. I got good at it after about two years.
And when my days away were over, I’d walk or drive back to the big house and find Maisie and Astrid waiting on me. The best part of going out on my own was having a family to come home to.
We spoiled each other for nine years, the sweetest nine years I could ever imagine. I took Astrid out on long rambles some days, and sometimes the three of us went out together. Sometimes we’d spread a blanket at the edge of the orchard so we could watch the clouds roll by and get caught out in the rain on purpose.
Astrid had a green thumb like I did, and she loved our days in the garden, but we could tell early on her head was in the stars. She never got tired of watching Maisie draw her charts, and the refrigerator was covered with the ones she worked up herself, all white crayon on black construction paper. On fine nights we would spread our blanket out just after dark and watch the sky, Astrid nestled between the two of us.
On one of those unseasonably warm March nights Maisie pointed out Spica in Virgo, one of the few stars I knew on sight. “There’s your momma’s star!” she said. “Look how brightly she’s shining tonight!”
“So that must be you,” Astrid said, sure of herself, picking out another bright star nearby, “and that’s me over there!”
“That’s exactly right,” Maisie said, leaning in. “That’s a bit of Corvus and a bit of Libra in the old-fashioned way of reading stars, but what you’ve picked out is what I call a soft constellation, the most important kind. It’s a map of the stars we draw with our hearts.”
I cuddled our girl between us then, reaching over Astrid to squeeze my Maisie’s hand, and for the first time, with an intuition that rolled over me like a cold wave, I could feel Maisie fading.
By the end of the week the doctors confirmed what I already knew: Maisie would only be with us for a few months more. Maisie had herself a good cry in my arms at the doctor’s office, but she was her old self by the time we got home to the sitter.
As for me, I could only manage a brave face when we were together with Astrid. I was more than a little ashamed of myself—me who should have been comforting her—but it couldn’t be helped. Nine years wasn’t nearly enough. I wanted nine lifetimes.
Eventually we sat Astrid down and told her together. We were ready with all the comforts and consolations we could think of, but she surprised us both. “It’s okay,” she said, sitting between us and holding our hands. “I talked to the stars about it, and they promised you both would always be here to watch over me—stars in the sky, just like them.” She nodded, looking at us as if we would be silly to think anything different, and then went back to playing.
I swear I wouldn’t have done what I did if Maisie hadn’t proposed it. I was afraid I’d get it wrong, but if she’d asked me to pull the moon down from the sky for her I would’ve. And when I understood what she really wanted and why she wanted it, I loved her all the more.
The time Maisie spent in Embry with her doctors, lawyers, and old friends I spent in the library with Astrid, figuring out how to do what Maisie needed me to do. At night we treated ourselves to whatever we liked for supper and dessert, and then we snuggled up with Astrid to watch movies or play games. After we put Astrid to bed we would slip out into the yard and make love until Maisie fell asleep or pretended to, always in my arms, always under our stars.
When Cecily Fox got word about how Maisie was doing she signed on to be her home nurse, stopping by every morning to see her before she left to start her shift at Fairlawn and every evening on her way home, though the big house was well out of her way. Cecily was a first-rate nurse, and if there was any pain to be faced, Maisie didn’t feel it. She even made sure Maisie had her daily colloidal silver at our request, though she wasn’t one to go in for alternative medicine. Together we asked Cecily if she would help us when the time was right, and she promised us she’d do as much as she was able.
And the right time was set to come too soon. Maisie worked out one of her charts with Astrid by her side, and she settled on a night in mid-May, a night when the moon would be full and the sky would be clear. I had myself a good cry in private most every day after that, but Maisie caught me and held me and told me to feel whatever I wanted and to cry whenever I liked. “You’re mine and I’m yours,” she said, “and that’s the way it will be till the stars go out. When I’m inclined to cry, Alice, I think back on the years I’ve had with you, and I can’t help but smile.”
The night Maisie was meant to pass on we fixed it so Astrid was away at a slumber party with her friends in town. We’d let her sleep between us in the big bed the night before, making much of her and holding her close, saying everything shy of goodbye. Cecily came and went, right on schedule, and I got myself ready.
We drove up to the summer cabin and watched the stars come out, me holding her as tight as her body could bear. Maisie seemed so happy, so radiant, and she looked to my face and looked to the stars in wonder, as if they were one and the same.
Like she promised, Cecily had helped as far as she was able. She had left a syringe full of morphine for me earlier in the week, and when Maisie was ready—when she saw Spica, held my hand, and nodded, I gave it to her. And then the two of us said “I love you” again and again and again, making sure those were the last words we’d ever hear from one another. I kissed her and she kissed me, and she raised her hand to touch my face. When her hand fell away I caught it and pressed it to my heart, and she smiled the sweetest, dreamiest smile as she drifted off.
When I was sure she was gone I let myself cry, burying my face in Maisie’s hair. It took me a half hour to collect myself, but when I felt able I gathered her up in my arms, walked halfway down the drive, and presented her to the stars. I couldn’t compose myself enough to say “thank you,” to say all I wanted to say, but I felt sure that they knew what I meant.
Then I brought Maisie inside the cabin and got to work.
Though he took some convincing, Mr. Osborne at the funeral parlor at last let me have my own way. Part of it probably had to do with the distinction of making the arrangements for a McCorkindale, which was a big deal in Embry, but when he saw how I’d settled Maisie down in the satin he realized he had no cause to worry about his reputation. She looked joyful, luminous, almost holy, just as she looked when she left me.
Close to three hundred folks came to the service, which obliged some of the men to stand in the back so we could squeeze them all into the church. Only about thirty of us went to the cemetery to lay her down in the family vault and pay our respects, and while we were there Maisie’s sister June took me aside to let me know that she’d talked it over with the clan and they meant to save the place beside Maisie for me. I’d managed to hold myself together for most of the morning, but that kindness did me in.
Folks came up to the house in the afternoon, and we played some old country music and ate little chicken salad sandwiches and swapped stories until the sun dipped low. June, Cecily, and a few friends helped me clean up, and Astrid and I went to sleep early in the big bed, with her being careful not to let her little body slip into the space that belonged to Maisie.
When Astrid was ready to return to her own room a few nights later, I tucked her in, put out the lights, and sat on the edge of the bed beside her. Her eyes were half-closed, but when she saw what I’d done she sat right up and held me tight. Together we looked at the shining silver stars I’d made and arranged on the ceiling above her, the soft constellation we had grown up around us—her, our Maisie, and me. At last the tears she’d been holding back came, and I stayed with her there all night, the two of us missing Maisie and looking up at those shimmering stars while they watched over us.
For almost ten years Astrid slept beneath them, and she’s since gone off to college to study astronomy, which I’m sure would tickle Maisie. Sometimes when I’m missing her I’ll sit out on our old blanket after dark and look up at the stars, imagining how they look from where she’s standing.
And on those nights when I’m alone in the big house, feeling it echo and creak with my own footfalls, I slip into Astrid’s room and stretch out on her old bed. It always makes me feel better—closer to her and closer to Maisie. Above me I can see the bits of Corvus and Libra that Astrid claimed for us, pulling us together in our own pattern, like a little promise the stars made when they first caught fire.
There’s so much of my Maisie in that pattern, the whole of it glowing soft and silver just like she did when I carried her into the cabin, but when I drift off I always find myself gazing on Spica, the star Maisie picked out just for me, and holding my hand to the place above my heart where I cut it loose on a sweet night in mid-May to join her in the night sky.
While I’m only a few weeks into The Academic Summer, the season is already off the rails. As always, I gave myself a couple of weeks to gear down from the semester. I tackled a few cleaning projects and domestic diversions I’d deferred, and I also wrote/revised some short stories I thought I could manage in the three-week frame of May. It made for a goodly transition, and June and beyond were reserved for the revision of the novel manuscript. I made that plan last December, and it seemed like a fine one at the time.
Predictably, alas, I’ve moved into June with reservations. The trick for me invariably involves deciding if I’ve got reservations of the right kind.
As a rule, I resist (or try to resist) deferrals inspired by dread. If I suspect I’m avoiding a project because it looks daunting in prospect, then I’ll talk myself into proceeding (though it might take me a few days to get my skull on straight). Fear is a bad reason to punt. Revising the novel does seem to me like a sizable, significant thing, but it’s also an eminently manageable one–it’s work I’ve done before and I enjoy doing. I’ve jotted down notes since December to guide my revision, and I know exactly how I have to start. It will involve several weeks, but I’ve tucked into far more time-consuming work before. It’s decidedly doable, which of course means that a horde of smaller, more manageable projects are vying for my attention,
Some of them are bright and shiny–lots of anthology calls for short stories, for example, all of them with cool presses I’d love to work with. Some of them are also sizable and enticing. I have an idea for a volume of thematically-bound genre poems, for example, and in the process of sifting through the folders on my desktop as part of my three-week cleanup I realized I had a measure of the prep work already finished. Forward momentum seems like it should be well worth capitalizing on. But in the scheme of Wandlessian thinking both the shiny and enticing tend to be perpetually renewable resources. I could get more stories done for June deadlines, but then will I be able to resist new calls when July arrives? And completing a poetry manuscript would certainly involve not only realizing the bigger vision but also making sure that I’ve got plenty of stand-alone pieces to put into circulation. It’s the sort of thing that would be rewarding but would certainly stretch into next summer. And in both cases the work is on the speculative side–I’m not entirely sure what calls for stories I would answer, and I’m not certain what shape the collection will finally take. I’ll have to write my way toward those destinations in a loose, exploratory way. There’s heat to be had, but not light–not a clear sense of design and destination, a sense of how it would fit into the scheme of progress that will still see the novel revised in some definable amount of time.
The nail in this summer’s coffin for me, however, has been an opportune convergence, a more or less fully realized vision for a 30,000-50,000 word novella that grows a little sharper for me every day. It builds on the sort of impulse I generally trust: I had a vague recollection from my youth I wanted to flesh out, and it converged with a superficially unrelated idea that gives it shape, scope, and energy. If I just had a raw-yet-solid idea in mind I probably could set it aside. But this one comes with a sense of plot escalation right out the box. And a vivid sense of character arcs. And, as it turns out, a tone and a theme that very much vibe with my Wandlessian obsessions. That’s the sort of work I can’t easily turn away from. The heat is there, and so is the light, and I’d be a chump not to see where it leads me.
So my summer is off the rails, but I ain’t even mad, as the kids are wont to say. It’s not a trolley problem: I’m confident the new rails I’m on run parallel to the ones I planned to ride this summer. And if I learn a few things along the way that allow me to come at the revision of the novel with fresh insight and energy, then it’s a side quest well worth accepting.
This is proving to be a jugglesome summer, with a bunch of optional tasks and ambitions piling up all willy-nilly on my desk. In the next few weeks I hope to finish off and send out a couple of stories, chip away at the revision of my novel, and work on a few hypnosis recordings, in addition to any game writing that might come my way from the fine folk over at Superhero Necromancer. All the while I’ll be trying to revise and tighten up my daily routine, which currently features my return to the gym, some low-level household repairs, and some prep for the fall semester. It should make for a pleasantly hectic stretch.
I’m also trying to keep up with some of my usual diversions in the new shuffle, and most mornings I swing by Discord, Reddit, and a couple of other channels to see what’s happening in the worlds of hypnosis, ethics, gaming, and other areas of interest that intrigue me. It’s not much of a morning ritual, but it’s usually enough to get the gears spinning.
Today’s visit to HypnoDiscord was particularly interesting, insofar as what I believe to be an adult human male–one in his early 40s, as it turns out–is having a meltdown. He has, to his thinking, made an earnest effort to engage and be engaging, to enter into dialogue with his fellow Discordians respectfully and amiably, to earn himself the sort of exposure that will make him a fixture on the channel he’s joined for years to come. Alas, his efforts have not paid the dividends he expected, and this morning he’s railed against the in-crowd for denying him the access he deserves.
Folks, he’s been on the channel for about eleven days.
I will not pretend to be wily in the ways of human interaction, networking, or suchlike things, but (since Discord makes retracing steps fairly easy) I went back and took at look at how this critter engaged with the channel. And Lo! it was perhaps not as wholesome and inoffensive as he suggested. He indeed put himself out there, as the kids say, but often in intrusive or obtrusive ways, popping into conversations and offering underinformed opinions, offering tactical compliments to the users he hoped to impress, and otherwise doing things that struck most other users as a little bit disingenuous. And at a second level of engagement he was behaving in less savory ways–piling on in some exchanges when he could see which way the wind was blowing, reflecting negatively on other contributors in order to install himself at a higher place in the conversational hierarchy, etc. It made for an interesting portrait, all told. What struck me as telling, at day’s end, is that he felt his efforts were sufficient to earn his way in after a very short tenure on the boards.
In general I do believe that most social fora involve some level of earning in, but in-crowds tend to be more inclusive than exclusive phenomena. They’re most often matters of finding ones folk, surprisingly enough, rather than going out of one’s way to bar others from admission. The recent Stoker Awards make for a fine illustration, especially since I “watched” them mostly from the sidelines on Twitter. I think it’s 100% normal and healthy to be envious of the lively interactions had by folk in the horror community on such an occasion, especially since they were lovely folk having a lovely time: gorging on books, meeting old friends and peeps they’d long admired, and celebrating one another. More intriguingly, at least with today’s theme in mind, you could see folks Earning Their Way In live–not by dint of being so important and conspicuous that they couldn’t be ignored, but being friendly and accessible, attentive and generous, genuine and gentle. There is of course a natural, inevitable dimension of self-selection (one would rather expect that folk who regularly see each other on the convention and awards circuit would be apt to meet one another and form friendships), but on the surface there’s no evidence of the sort of concerted gatekeeping that our pal on HypnoDiscord called out. There are just folk being folk, looking out for like-minded folk out there in the madding crowd, doing all the honest, authentic, and open things that connect folk to one another.
While I’m here trying to connect, however, I might as well mix in some overt self-promotion, for I am in the final round of the contest over on the Big Purple Wall. If “Clicker” diverts, amuses, or moves you, be sure to give it a vote! You can vote every day over the ten-day contest run, and I’d sure appreciate it!
Still sifting through the rubble left over from the semester, and I’ve wound up with a list of things to do about as long as my very-long forearm. Last summer/fall was entirely preoccupied by a single task, drafting the novel, so this year I find I’m rather out of practice in living life a little more organically.
Most years I feel a little bereft the week after school wraps up for the term. A highly-structured, high-accountability life with dozens of human connections lurches into the blank expanse of summer, which is no less work-intensive but much more discretionary and features far fewer players in the ensmble. It’s of course one of the auld ironies that plenty of folks assume teachers begin the annual ritual of gallivanting about when summer comes around, but at best I’ve got a soupcon of gallivanting tentatively penciled in for about two weeks this year. Among the topmost items on my to-do list, however, are investigating new books to teach in 2022-23, fleshing out a new class to pitch to the university’s newly-launched Center for Learning through Games and Simulations, redesigning some peer review structures for composition classes, etc. It’s quite a lot to do, and it’s best to do it while the spring experience remains fresh in my memory. And when it’s all done I get dessert: the chance to chip away at some new fiction and poetry projects, all the while chipping away at the revision of the novel.
Though I’m not a fan of thought-terminating cliches, I often have to remind myself that the work is the work. There are parts of it that are enormously rewarding, but the lion’s share of it aligns with my desire to put food on the proverbial table. I might well get the university equivalent of a merit raise this year, but when I look back on the documents I compiled to apply for that raise I come away with a vivid sense of the structure behind the structure, the grindy, hustly, churny bits of buiness that make the pleasures I sometimes get to indulge in possible. I have four years’ worth of documents foldered on my computer desktop, and another new folder awaits all the materials I’ll need to compile for 2026-27. The trick generally involves making the daily grind look and feel organic, like a natural, intuitive process rather than a systematic, rule-bound march toward that distant destination. Sometimes, however, the bones lay bared before me.
Every profession has it or something like it, of course–that under-structure of work that seems blandly mechanical at one level but becomes artful in practice. In teaching it most often occurs as a rhythm, a musical balance between classroom instruction, fielding questions, and getting and returning work, all while being responsive to the improvisations of students and administrators as we go. It’s true of every profession, however. My partner had a bit of dental work done on Wednesday, for instance, so I went to grab her the dinner she wanted from our local mashed-potatoes dispensary. And while I waited in line I could see a cashier utterly in the zone (whipping through customers at an impressive rate, keeping the lines of communication between the counter and the kitchen humming) coupled with a prep cook who was merrily pulling and packaging orders with dazzling automatic efficiency.
The snag in the system, however, was a middle manager (at first blush it looked like he had just started his shift) who was utterly out of sync with everyone else, working on a different set of imperatives that had a bit of footing in the dinner rush but was probably looking forward to all the tasks he needed to tackle by closing. It’s the sort of thing that gives one pause whenever a pundit speaks of unskilled labor. There are yawning chasms between knowing the work one is meant to do and doing that work efficiently and artfully. We can see it in its boldest, plainest strokes–the bench-riding second-stringer standing in for the masterful athlete, for instance–but generally forget that most steps in our daily experience hinge on someone who has worked long enough and hard enough that all the tricks of their trade become instinctive and invisible.
I’m thinking about that a lot when it comes to fiction today, the ways in which technique, when artfully accomplished, vanishes into the flow of a story–and the ways in which accomplished writers can venture past established techniques, can improvise and innovate to tell stories in unexpected ways.
Speaking of stories, while you’re here why don’t you swing by The Big Purple Wall, where my short story, “Clicker,” is freely available and currently in contention in a lively virtual scrum. If the spirits move you, you can vote every day, but I hope you enjoy the story any which way!
The past few weeks have afforded me the time to do a bit of extracurricular reading, which has served as a poignant reminder of how the reading/writing feedback loop works, at least for me. I think every book of writing advice under the sun tells us to read widely, variously, and voraciously, but I find what happens after is not discussed nearly as often.
Only rarely do I find myself directly influenced by any text I’ve encountered. I’ve never told myself to write a story or poem just like the one I’m reading. Every now and again I’ll come across an interesting poetic form, for example, and try to reverse-engineer it via a few trials of my own, but for the most part the new input caroms around the inside of my skull like billiard balls. Today I’m rereading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders, for example (I selected it for a class sight-unseen, based on good classroom experiences with Lucky Fish, skimmed it over Christmas, and am giving it a class-prep scouring right now), which is a lovely blend of natural observation and personal reflection. Inside my melon, however, the new content I’m pouring into my brain is colliding with memories, stray thoughts, and daydreams as well as snatches of facts and all the interruptions one is apt to encounter when one tries to sit still for an hour or three. It makes for an unpredictable mixture, but from it–because my brain is feeling pretty spongy this morning–I’ve been able to pluck out several unexpected bits and bobs that might turn into poems or stories as well as a few Notes to Self that could figure in my revisions for the novel manuscript when May rolls around. It’s much like adding loam to depleted soil–there’s a little nourishment to be had, but there’s no telling what will grow from it.
The chief challenge when attempting to encourage the reading/writing feedback loop is capitalizing on those chancy, flickering collisions. For the same reason I keep a bedside journal (and have an overhead bedroom lamp I can turn on remotely with the push of a button)–to catch fleeting thoughts before I drift off to sleep, thoughts I would otherwise surely forget–I tend to keep my phone beside me when I write. My Notes app is filled with ideas and reminders, suggestions I hope my future self will be able to take advantage of. As a tag-along clause, it’s important (for me, at least) to jot down hints and intimations with sufficient clarity for Future Me to follow up on. If I don’t, I generally find myself mystified by the cryptic, impressionistic ravings of this “Bill Wandless” person–if that is his real name.
Those habits of receptivity and recording, coupled with practice as constant as I can manage, might well be the most important formative forces in my writing life. While I sometimes rather wish I had a bit more control over what those forces actually form, it’s hard not to be astonished and delighted by the way my mind can surprise me.
As far as social media goes, I tend to be supersaturated. I use one platform to keep up with old friends; I split Twitter three ways, with one site serving as a professional destination, another as a site dedicated to my morning doomscroll, and another devoted to hypnosis. I also frequent about five Discord channels to keep abreast of hypnotic oddities. All of which is to say I have Ideas and Opinions about social media.
You’ll find plenty of guides out there with good and useful advice for representing oneself professionally on various platforms. This is not one of them. This, however, is a collection of user-end reflections that I hope will suffice as food for thought. A light snack, mebbe.
The first rule of thumb, as I see it, is Giving Folks Something to Find. That might seem like it goes without saying, but I can think of more than a half dozen writers and creators off the top of my head who host professional destinations they update once in a blue moon. (In at least one case I mean that literally: an active writer of no little renown hasn’t updated their official site since mid-2020.) I don’t think one needs to go bananas, posting every ten minutes, but I think it’s important to give folks a reason to visit one’s corner of the Web every now and then. I clean out my bookmarks every couple of months, and much of the cleaning centers on deleting sites that seem defunct.
The second rule of thumb, such as it is, is to be complex and genuine. Even though I’m subdivided into a half dozen Wrackwellians, I still try to exhibit a bit of variety in my various online personae. Just because one destination is devoted to hypnoweirdness doesn’t mean I won’t talk about books, music, games, or my various Ideas and Opinions from time to time. I harbor suspicions about people who are always on message, whatever the message might be. Humans tend to ramble and digress; to do otherwise seems to me at least tedious and, on occasion, even inauthentic. As most creative folk will tell you, there’s no persona so bland that someone won’t take offense to it, so you might as well go ahead and be yourself. Given time, the like-minded will find you.
2a, while I’m at it, is to exhibit some variety even when you’re posting self-promotional content. It’s part of The Hustle, and it should not be disregarded, but (as above) I can name a half dozen creators off the top of my head who post the same promos at the same time every day. There’s probably some tactical savvy in that practice, but as a reader I just scroll on by every day. If they’ve actually mixed in any new content, alas, I’ve certainly missed it.
The third is to network authentically, which is I think a smidge different than simply being complete and authentic. Follow creators you like. Ask questions and offer answers to some when and if you can (but be sure not to cut in if you can see someone is purposely engaging another respondent). Be supportive and kind. Promote projects you’re excited about. Be circumspect, polite, and mindful of context. If you make a mistake, apologize openly, wholly, and sincerely. I like to think when you do those things that folk will be happy when they find you. Your web presences might not take off as rapidly as you might, but they’ll grow in time.
3a, while I’m at it, is to hold back if you think any online behavior of yours will be viewed as tactical or transactional. Because it probably will. Fun fact: a writer has done a great job of digesting the reasons to resist that impulse, but because one of my stories is under consideration for a volume they’re editing, I won’t link it here right now. (Though I will later if I remember.) I think one is always free to promote the work of one’s friends, but of course most readers will take those recommendations with a grain of salt. In my experience readers really latch on to disinterested promotion. If I tell you I absolutely loved Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, for example, and link to his site, or if I tell you I’m very much looking forward to Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel and point you toward one of the creator’s Twitter feeds, then you might consider checking them out. Maybe you’ll consider me a Gentleman of Rarefied Taste, which is a sidelong benefit, but you probably won’t view the referrals as a crass attempt on my part to sell you something. It’s useful and good to express admiration; creative folks need and deserve plenty of support. But people are pretty dang savvy when it comes to judging if folk are posting to score points or are hoping to gain in some way by making the recommendation. They tune out if they detect fawning or insincerity or–worse still–if they see you’re trying to hop on someone else’s coattails to promote your own stuff.
Somewhat related to the third point is the fourth: try to be mindful of sloppy slabbery. You’ve seen them before: early reviews for a writer’s Hot New Thing come in, and suddenly your Twitter feed consists of an undifferentiated slab of links to those reviews. I might pause and take a look if the recommendation happens to come from someone whose opinion I respect, but otherwise I’ll scroll right by and maybe miss out on something I might have otherwise considered. As above, it’s easy to tell when someone is being gracious and graceful, easier to tell when they are clogging your feed to Create an Impression. This is doubly true when we can all queue reviews up so that folks just see a couple each day. I tend to think that yields a more effective kind of buzz.
That’s all for the moment, but only because I’ve overshot my dedicated blogging time. I have more Ideas and Opinions, alas, but they’ll have to wait for another day.
My writing habits have been a little off-kilter of late, in part because of spring break and midterms, in part because I’ve been doing a little more work with hypnosis, and in part because Elden Ring was released at the best and worst of all possible times. Perhaps someday down the line I’ll write a bit about the narrative art of the Soulsbourne games, but first I’m going to hop in that open coffin behind the Valiant Gargoyles and see what happens.
In terms of storytelling, however, what I’ve been thinking about most often lately are olde-skool narrative ethics, the ethics of telling. It’s a subject that filters into common conversation from time to time when we look at an era and can detect trends and movements (when we look at the horror flicks of the Eighties, for instance, and quite reasonably perceive the connection between sex, drugs, and death), but an ethical imperative is always swimming just underneath the surface every time we tell a story. When we can see the moral of the story too clearly we often judge the work clumsy, but there are plenty of ways ethical telling can go awry from both the writerly and readerly side of things.
I’ve groused on here before about my resistance to nihilistic horror, horror in which it’s clear that nothing the characters do is driven by good motives or ultimately meaningful. There’s a whole genre devoted to those sorts of exercises. Some of them simply punish any character that espouses their principles or attempts to act selflessly, but some of them are more programmatically self-aware, having their villains spout philosophy as they indulge in their wickedness. I like to interpret those gestures generously when they occur in horror movies, working with the assumption that the writers and directors view that cynical indifference as extra-scary, but for the most part I just avoid them, even if the work is considered Very Important. I know that sort of content is not for me–I simply won’t enjoy it.
But here at the Abbey we watch more than our fair share of Acorn TV, and as a result my mind is normally flooded with murder mysteries of the quasi-cozy sort. I think the genre is especially revealing in terms of laying bare ethical attitudes. Lately we’ve been watching the shortish episodes of the Sister Boniface Mysteries as a shot and the longer episodes of Midsomer Murders as a chaser. They make a sense of narrative contrast fairly plain to me. The former are almost uniform in their essential attitudes: the series, which feels as though it’s steered by a single authorial hand, is generally good-natured and optimistic. It’s had a vengeful human monster or two in the mix, but it takes for granted that most folks are driven by a variety of motives but would probably be mostly decent if fed, homed, cared for, and left unattended. Sister Boniface also often takes an extra step or two to punish the boorish and cruel people who are not actually guilty of the murder of the week, and it’s not at all shy about making its murderers somewhat sympathetic. I think that’s at the heart of The Cozy Ethos, in which genuine wickedness is exposed and contrasted with the virtues and milder vices of most characters.
Midsomer Murders is more interesting to me, however, because it’s often easier to feel the influence of many authorial and directorial hands. Since Neil Dudgeon has become the lead the series has centered on something like common-law psychology, with DCI Barnaby unriddling mysteries by dint of his superior understanding of human nature. But in some episodes we’re treated to fairly grim visions of village life: people despise each other, harbor deep, petty resentments, and will gladly wrong one another so long as they believe they can get away with it. Getting at the central crime usually involves wading through a handful of more minor crimes, most of them motivated by envy or jealousy. Where Midsomer is most jarring, however, is in its effort to mix a bit of comedy into every episode. When the murder is genuinely cozy–when a normal human has been murdered and a motivated culprit identified–we get a mingling of guilt, confession, and rueful humor, which comes as a balm. In “The Miniature Murders,” for example, we get manslaughter and a duo of women who’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to protect one another, driven by feelings of fondness and indebtedness. On those occasions when the village vision is particularly grim, however, the laughter at the end often feels forced. We get to see an ugly Before picture matched with an equally unhappy After, with a series of casual and vindictive wrongs piling up in between. The tensions and conflicts have all been laid bare, and in the final assessment there’s not much to laugh at.
I know there can be such a thing as too much goodness, when the characters feel stiff and artificial in their enactment of some principle. I think our most vivid expression of this tendency is for villains to accidentally bring about their own deaths, so that the protagonists can keep their hands clean. But I tend to wonder and worry about writers, readers, and viewers who can indulge in cynicism and bitterness for long, unrelenting stretches without relief. That feels too much like life to me, at odds with some of the most imperative needs art can meet.
The last week has been fairly hectic for me, in part because it involved the run-up to Spring Break (and, perhaps less festively, midterms) and in part because it involved the kind of preparatory space-clearing needed to make something of a free-ish week. My Inner Delinquent would like nothing more than to take a deep dive into Elden Ring, but I can see enough enticing deadlines on the horizon to keep the creative gears turning.
To get myself ready I made time for a deep dive: I have seven holdover stories from the latest edition of my submission tracking guide, and I gave myself about a week and a half to revise four of them, normally with a specific destination in mind. In some cases that was simple work–trimming off a couple hundred words, and in one case adding 400–but others involved more extensive reconfiguration. It’s easy to get caught up in the zest of a fresh draft, but there’s real pleasure to be had in spending time with an old friend and seeing how it’s changed since last you met. Still happy with all those pieces more or less as they were and as they now are, and I think it’s healthy to go back and revisit old haunts, if only to see how they’ve changed and how you’ve grown.
The tricksier bit of business is owning up to unreadiness. The two remaining stories from that holdover set are, I think, pretty dang good, but at the moment the places I’d most like to send them are closed to submissions. There’s a sort of insistent impulse to send them somewhere–anywhere!–just for the sake of feeling as though I’ve got irons in the fire and many things to look forward to, but I’d rather see them sent to the best homes I can think of, even if that means waiting for another month or three.
And the same general principle applies to writing new stories, especially in response to anthology calls. I’ll often rattle ideas around in my skull for days and even weeks, but sometimes they just don’t catch (or, with an annoying degree of regularity, they emerge in an underdeveloped form and find themselves shouldered aside by far more energetic ideas with much later deadlines). An older version of me might have forced the issue, trying to write something–anything!–for the sake of maintaining momentum and good writing habits. But I think that’s a disservice to both the editors of the world as well as my own sense of what it means to write good stories. I can be prolific when I try, but I’d rather be a smidge more discriminating.
Circulation, especially during dry spells, can feel quite a bit like running in circles, trying to beat your own best time. But when it comes to writing, and to writing the best fiction I can, the clock or the calendar is probably not the instrument best suited to measuring progress.
As someone who just spent twenty minutes following up on a step in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness proceedings at the behest of the student aid hierophants, only to be told I am not at all eligible to do the thing I was specifically instructed to do, I have fairly strong opinions about data analysis and associated forms of number-crunching.
There are, of course, useful numbers. When a story or poem is rejected, especially with kind words from an editor, it can be comforting to know that your piece was one submission out of 250, 500, or 1000. There are Clifford Garstang’s Perpetual Folly rankings, indispensable resources for gauging the relative difficulty of placing a story or poem in any given publication. And there are the numbers I track on my own computer, which tell me what percentage of my fiction and poetry I’ve published. I’m not much inclined to get too bogged down looking at spreadsheets (I just use Word documents for tracking, truth be told), but anything that offers me a sense of the overall lay of the land is valuable.
I think there are also some advantages to be reaped from a bit of amateur analysis, too. When I look at patterns of acceptance and rejections, for instance, I can usually see errata–outlier stories that I probably ought to revisit before considering starting the submission engines again. I’m currently revising just such a story, one I find quite beautiful but (to my thinking) falls in the Neither Here Nor There category. It has speculative elements, but it’s not horrific enough to be salable horror, nor is it fantastical enough to be salable fantasy. It’s a subjective assessment, of course, but I figure any evaluation that prompts me to re-imagine the shape of an unpublished story probably arises from an intuition worth pursuing.
And at bottom it does my heart (such as it is) some good to look at a chronicle of rejections that ended in an acceptance. It took me a sizable quantity of saved-up gumption to start submitting my fiction back in the day, and while I’ve landed a couple of pieces in lovely homes on the first go, I think one of the more important writerly lessons we have to learn is pure, dimwitted persistence. I think it’s more than sensible to set a piece of work aside after a dozen rejections, but the creative marketplace really is–really and truly, no foolies–predicated on that elusive quantity called fit.
The fact that a story or poem doesn’t land right away does not mean it’s garbage. It just means a single reader (perhaps a screener, perhaps the editor themself) is not picking up what I happen to be laying down. And when I imagine that uncontrollable facet of the work in those terms, I sleep a little easier at night. I just get back to telling the best stories I know how to tell, and trust in time and persistence to tend to the rest.