Things I Wrote

An Obituary for My Aunt (Of Obituaries and Passing Regrets, Part II)

Shu Chuang Wang, my mother’s elder sister, passed away April 8, 2017. She is the first adult to have been there for so much of my own life to die. She is the person we relied on when we moved to the United States. We lived in Kansas, near her family, for our first few months here, and those first few months seemed unreasonably happy, an approximation of our life in Taiwan, where our relatives lived just one door over.

 

We were one town over, and I do not have concrete memories of those months. But I know my cousins Ken and Charles, and Ah Yi and Ah Diun, my uncle, were nearby. Later, we’d meet Edward, the youngest, and with Bor, my younger brother, our playing was nearly always a noisy mess, one or two or maybe all of us getting into trouble.

I know we visited Kansas after our move to Pennsylvania, after our move to California. I know Ah Yi brought her family to come visit us, no matter where we were. I know we took crazy American-family road trips together, all nine of us crammed into one station wagon. We kids were small enough to sit in the footwells. I remember being crammed up again Ah Yi’s leg, as she rocked it back and forth to exercise, keeping herself from getting bored on the long, long drives.

I do not remember Ah Yi in trousers, ever. Ah Yi was a perpetual lady. Long after high collars went out of style, and floral prints, she wore them, and made them look like they belonged. She was the great beauty of the family, see, and she decorated her home accordingly. Bouquets of flowers; portraits of her family everywhere.

She loved them like I’ve never seen anyone love before. Her three boys, my cousins, were–I don’t know–people to admire, people who could do whatever. Love does that to someone. Love elevates you to believe you can do, and my cousins can do. Anything. Whatever they want. Nothing is too far out of reach, or beyond you, if you’re loved.

My aunt is big on personal style. Over the years, she’d say to me, “I don’t have a little girl, so I will buy pretty things for you.” And, from Kansas, boxes sometimes arrived, always in time for Christmas, with pretty things in them, or, better yet, accompanied by Edward and Ah Yi, and sometimes Charles and Ken.

Usually, for me, they were sweaters. I have kept nearly every Ah Yi sweater that still fits. My oldest is a good decade old. I got it while I was living in Chicago, and it looks to me like a roll of Life Savers. it is cheery and fun and I love it. I love it even more because my Dad refers to it as my Lobster Sweater. He thinks its striations look like the belly bands on a lobster.

This made my aunt laugh.

The sweaters are always on-point. I picture her, holding one up to the light in a department store, turning it this way and that…”Can I see her in this? Maybe not. Maybe this one. It’s cute. It’s a little trendy. I think she would like this.” I like this imagery, so I keep the sweaters my aunt got me, and I imagine that image, that thought process, every time I wear one, every time I wrap myself in one, every time I pull some lint off one.

Of the women in my mother’s family, my aunt is the most touchable, the least prickly. I don’t know if this comes from a lifetime of living with boys or what, but she never balked at holding your hand, or patting you, or saying hello with a squeeze. I love this about her.

I went to visit her yesterday for Mother’s Day, with Jim. We sat and talked to her and put some flowers in the little vase-thing and clipped a balloon to them, and then we sat on the grass and looked over the view, and when we left, we waved and said, “Bye, Ah Yi.”

She was like that, you see. You could always go talk to her, and leave, and then come back, whenever you liked. This was the feeling she gave you.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

HELLO THERE I KNOW I HAVE BEEN GONE A LONGGGG TIME

Hello!

I have missed you guys. Well. I have not really been gone. I have been dutifully sending out a monthly newsletter. You can see a sample and sign up to get it here.

But I actually do have something NEW to tell you. Some of you may know that I volunteer for ShelterBox USA, a disaster-relief agency. Last October, I went on my 10th deployment for them, and I made something to commemorate it. It is this tiny little book:

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It is a book of 10 short stories, one for each of my deployments, and they are accompanied by hand-drawn maps, like so:

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They are meant to be a fundraiser for ShelterBox USA. More importantly, they are meant to be a front-row seat to what it’s like to be in a disaster zone. It tells stories of the people we meet there, of what it’s like to be a witness, of the ways this experience has changed me.

So many of you have played a part in supporting our work at ShelterBox. This book, I hope, will help you to tell our story to others. In some ways, it’s meant to be a way for you to share your commitment to being a humanitarian.

The books are $15 each. Shipping and handling is $5 extra. ShelterBox USA gets $7.50 for each book sold. So far I’ve printed 100 copies, but there may be more if demand, uh, demands it. Write to me directly: yishun(at)thegooddirt(dot)org to arrange for a book of your own. And then share these stories, which are yours, too, because you have helped to make this, and the work we do, happen.

Thanks very much.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What “Being On Book Tour” Means

Well.

Hi there. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? Sorry about that. Things have been a little cockadoodle, as they say in the dark hinterlands of my brain.

I have had an amazing few months. But that also means I have been neglecting this blog, which is really sad, because I really like this blog, this talking to you. Sure, I keep a diary. But somehow, work feels different when you know it’s being read by others, doesn’t it? Also, a lot has happened, and while none of it has changed much in my status quo, it is still worthy stuff to be sharing.

I have been on Book Tour. Many people have been asking How That Feels. Here is how it feels:

  • Before you go: “I have to leave the house again? For how long, this time? OH OK FINE.
  • During the events: This [reading/workshop/panel/event] is the best thing ever! I want to do this forever!
  • After the events: …What just happened?

Yeah. That’s pretty much what it feels like. But here’s what it really is:

  • Staying with friends, in their spaces. Taking that in; feeling the pieces of the puzzles–click, clack, flippity–that are your friends fall together, because you have been where they live, walked where they walked, had tea and coffee from their kitchen appliances.
  • Passing on all the knowledge you’ve amassed up until now; watching folks get excited about their own projects.
  • Exploring towns and cities you’ve always wanted to spend more time in, even if it’s freakishly fast-moving time.
  • Seeing friends you might not otherwise get to see, even those you haven’t seen in a decade or more.
  • Seeing friends you only, until now, knew online. Realizing the pleasant fizzzzz that is an online friendship gelling into something tangible–a hug! a shared interest in good liquor and food!
  • Meeting new writers you never heard of; discovering work from writers you never knew; hearing them read from their own works and walking away feeling ever so much wealthier for it.
  • Meeting booksellers. Getting to thank them in person for the work they do to forward literature.

So yeah. That’s what being on book tour is like. And that’s why I’ve been gone. But I’ll be back here more frequently, I promise. I have missed you guys. So here are some photos, as a thank you for sticking with me, along with some links. And you can sign up for my brand-spanking-new newsletter here. It’ll go out once a month and cover what I’ve been reading, some things I saw that you might be interested in, and maybe even some embarrassing photos of my drawings. :) (More likely it’ll have some writerly tips and tricks, and some other brain flotsam like upcoming events and locations.)

Okay! The photos!

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Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu now lives at the Lopez Bookshop. I was invited to appear there in conversation with my good friend Iris Graville.

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Signing books! So much fun when surrounded by an amazingly curated selection like they have at Lopez Bookshop!

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In Seattle, I got to read at the incredible Looseleaf Reading Series, along with four other really talented writers and the amazing musician Ramona Shore. Here, my talented friend, Whidbey Island MFA classmate, and Looseleaf co-founder Samantha Updegrave introduces us, along with Looseleaf co-founder Suzanne Warren. (A tremendous shout-out here to my friend Roz, without whom I am reasonably sure only a fraction of this PNW traveling would have been possible.)

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This is Iris’ dog Buddy. <3.

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Writers leave notes for each other.

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Sunrise, from the front window of the house we rent while on Whidbey Island.

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The Kenton Library, in Portland, OR, where I hosted a workshop on memoir smack-dab in the middle of the day, and then followed with drinks with a friend I’d only ever known on the Interweb. What a treat! My friend Haley Isleib, a children’s/young adult writer and screenwriter, invited me to teach here. Friends are awesome.

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Mt. Hood, Oregon–from the Fruit Loop. Fruit Loop! Not a breakfast cereal. Hosted by my friend Jo, from HIGH SCHOOL! Eeee!

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Llama llama ding dong, on the Fruit Loop. (Not just fruit, obviously.)

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In New York, I was honored to appear alongside Jen Baker (creator and moderator of Minorities in Publishing), Hasanthika Sirisena, and Leland Cheuk in a panel at the amazing Word Up Community Bookstore in Washington Heights. Y’all, you need to go to this incredible space. Tremendous thanks to Hasanthinka for setting this event up!

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In Chicago, I was in conversation with Alexandra Salomon, producer for WBEZ’s WorldView at Chicago’s wonderful Women and Children First Bookstore. I’m privileged to call her my friend and proud to count her among my peeps.

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And these people. These people saw my novel in its very first draft. They are Tabitha Olsen and Nancy Stevenson, members of my Chicago critique group and talented writers themselves. You can buy Nancy’s book for middle-graders, about a code-cracking, plucky heroine, here. It’s called “Capitol Code,” and it is every page worth a read.

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I miss you, Chicago.

 

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In wonderful Decatur, Michigan, I was hosted by my fast-talking, speedy-thinking friend, Ami Hendrickson. If you’re in need of a writing coach, Ami can help. We had amazing conversations and have wonderful synergy, and I was so happy to visit her and learn from her. Here she is, teaching her class on narrative.

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St. Joseph’s, Michigan, where I visited with Listen to Your Mother host Kim Jorgenson Gane, was a wonderful town to hang out in. I will visit again, St. Joe’s. Get ready.

IMG_4524And the whole shebang kicked off with a trip to Skokie, Illinois, to teach a workshop on memoir at the Skokie Public Library. Folks, public libraries are IT. Go. Visit. Support.

Okay. That’s it. More soon. I promise. In the meantime, don’t forget: The Newsletter!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

How I landed my publisher

…Or, I obsess over my spreadsheets.

I’m sure every writer writes a post like this. But every writer’s experience is different, and every writer’s publishing experience might be different, so I wanted to add my voice to the mix. Plus, this Friday I am teaching a workshop on publishing at my alma mater, so this is a good lead-in.

Oh, hey there, final product of years of work, or something!

Oh, hey there, final product of years of work, or something!

Here is my road to official pub date (May 6!), by the numbers:

  • Months spent querying, in total: 21
  • Agents queried: 85
  • Agents who didn’t reply at all: 20
  • Eventual offers of representation: 1
  • Small/indie presses queried: 21
  • Offers of publication (2.5; one wanted a rewrite that would have sucked the life out of the thing, in my opinion)
  • Heavy revisions: 2
  • Folks involved in the final, pre-offer, big revision (includes one top-notch agent; one publisher; one acquisitions editor): 7
  • Months between final revision and offer of publication: 4.5
  • Months between offer of publication (contract signed) and actual publication: 11

Here is my road to official pub date by mistakes I made/things I did:

When I started querying I felt I had worked so hard on this manuscript that I decided I was going to be bull-nosed about it. Much of the constructive feedback I received from agents I binned, for no good reason. A lot of this was stuff I couldn’t do anything about, like “I didn’t connect with the voice,” or “I’m not a fan of epistolary novels.” But some of it was very concrete, actionable stuff. Lesson learned: Keep every personal rejection. You will use what you learned, what they said, later in your writing career.

When I got a form rejection from an agent who had shown great personal connection in a previous correspondence, I followed up. It had been sent by accident and he had constructive, useful things to say. Lesson, with caveat: If you feel very strongly about something, I think it’s okay to follow up. But be smart about this. Don’t rant, obviously. And really ask yourself if it’s the right thing to do. 

I didn’t pay attention to conventional wisdom about novel length. Mine was too short by about 6,000 words. I joke about the day a top agent asked me to add 6,000 words (“Oh, sure, I’ll do that while I’m pooping”), but it is an agent’s job to sell books, and your job to write them. It was my great privilege to have had this feedback. And it made my work way, way stronger. Lesson learned: Some conventional stuff you can ignore–“Oh! Everyone’s writing YA now! You should write that!”–but some stuff you should be paying attention to. 

I didn’t make this my full-time job. I know for most of us, this is an impossibility. But I could have easily spent at least two hours a day querying, or at least working on my connections in the industry. And I didn’t. Sometimes, whole weeks went by where I didn’t query. Lesson learned: If you really want to make this a part of your life, get on it. 

I did my research. And I leveraged the crap out of my community. Every single guest lecturer I met at the MFA program I graduated from (the ones that made sense, anyway); every single friend I’d ever talked words with–they all played a critical part in the making of this book, from introductions to agents to how to Make Things Better. I’d have never been able to do this if I existed in a vacuum. Lesson learned: Literary community isn’t a buzzphrase. It’s a living, breathing, thing, and you should contribute to it and then gain from it. 

I included the fact that my manuscript was on offer in my bio. Every time I wrote something for someone, I asked them to mention it. This led me to experience one of the greatest possible moments in a writer’s life, ever, even including publication: Some random bigwig agent wrote to me to say she’d read my essay and loved it, and needed to see my novel. Lesson learned: Er. Sometimes pipe dreams actually happen? Yes? Yes. 

There is so much more I could say about this. But I don’t want to give up the bulk of our lecture on Friday. :)

And P.S. You can buy my book here and here. And visit my awesome publisher here.

 

 

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Cheez-Its, Springtime, and Book Publishing

Or, Stray Memories.

I think my predilection for orange food (see Cheez-Its; Cheetos [the caveman-club-shaped kind, not the poufy kind]; Annie’s Extra-Cheddary Bunnies; Goldfish; Clementines; carrots with their skin on) may have been encouraged by one Pat Crow, the first editor really to take me under his wing. He, too, had a weakness for nuclear-colored foodstuffs, and I met him at a most impressionable age.

This is Pat, with my friend Julia.

This is Pat, ca. 1998? 99? with my friend Julia.

I didn’t meet Pat until he was done with his New Yorker tenure. He used to take me to lunch, and our cubes at Audubon magazine were right across from each other. He used to buy me copies of books if he went to book signings, and notebooks from Kinokuniya when he went. He was, it’s safe to say, my very first mentor. He edited a short story I’d written, showed me where I went wrong; gave me advice on totally unrelated things: “Stop twirling your hair. You look like a twit.” (Which, by the way, is something my mother was trying to get me to stop doing for, like, ever, but I only stopped doing it when Pat told me to knock it off.)

I think, all in all, our lives only intersected for less than a year. We lost touch after that, and Pat passed away in 2011. (Read: I didn’t work hard enough to keep in touch, and he had enough young writers, I’m sure, vying for his attention beyond me.)

But in a copy of the only novel he ever wrote, Pat wrote this:

For Yi Shun —

My mentor at Audubon, my friend and colleague, who has more promise than springtime itself. 

With affection, 

Patrick Crow

And when I read it, I knew I would carry that phrase around with me–“more promise than springtime itself”–in my mouth, saying it to myself sometimes; in my heart; in my deepest of hopes and sometimes, through the query rejections that followed. If I could have it tattooed on me, massage the copy into a phrase that made sense to everyone who saw it, I might just do it, maybe in Pat’s distinct handwriting, because even if the man who edited John McPhee; who probably shepherded more young writers than I ever will; who probably passed on the name of his favorite tailor to everyone he could; who probably even told many a young office worker to stop twirling her hair, lest she look like a twit, penned that sentiment in a temporary fit of, well, sentimentality, it meant the world to me and my young career.

I wish Pat were here to see May, 2016, which is when my novel, NOT A SELF-HELP BOOK: THE MISADVENTURES OF MARTY WU, comes out from Shade Mountain Press.

It’s a big promise to fulfill, that of springtime itself, and it sure is nice to know that someone thought I could.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point, I guess, is that we might all go around saying nice things to people we feel deserve it. Something you say might provide them a little talisman of sorts, to carry around, a star to orient oneself by.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

In Which Larry and Joe, Some Dolphin Elders, Educate a Young’Un

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“Oh, look! Here comes the new kid.”

“Hey, Flipper!”

“Joe, don’t call him that. It’s not like he’ll even know who Flipper is. That show was made, like, three generations ago.”

“Oh, whatever. If his parents are anything decent, they’ll have already told him about Flipper. Yo, Flipper!”

“Hello?”

“Hiya, kid. Nice to meet you. This here’s Joe, and I’m Larry. That one over there is Neptuna. S/he calls herself that because s/he hasn’t figured out what s/he wants to be when s/he grows up.”

“Mmmmmkay. Hey! Hey! I have a question for you.”

“Good, good. Questions are good. Where are your parents, though?”

“Joe, shut up. You know how some parents are.”

“I saw a big shadow today.”

“Oh, shadows are good. Was it pointy at one end, flat at the other?”

“Yeah, yeah!”

“Big bubbles coming out of the flat end?”

“Yeah! I didn’t want to get too close.”

“No, no, not at the flat bubbly end. But you should get close!”

“I swear, where are this kid’s parents?”

“Joe, shut up. Kid, you want to get close to the sides of the thing. It’s called a ferry. It moves fast and low in the water and it makes New Waves for us to mess around in.”

“Mess around! Mess around!”

“Larry, we gotta do something about Neptuna. S/he keeps on making that same noise over and over.”

“Just smile big at her. She’ll calm down. Kid, don’t pay any attention to Neptuna yet. S/he has a thing for Messing Around, and not always in a nice way. Anyway, about the ferry. You want to get close to the sides and the front, but don’t get too close to the back end where the bubbles and the Angry Water are. You’ll get cut up.”

“OooOOOooo.”

“Yeah. You ever hear about One-Finned Flapjack?”

“Joe, shut up, you’ll scare the kid. Anyway.”

“Tell him about the good stuff.”

“Oh. If you stick close enough to the sides and look up, you’ll see more shadows. The bi-peds. They like to stand on the sides and yell if they see you. Like this: EEE! EEEE! EEEEE! Don’t confuse that with our International Distress Signal. It’s the sound that the bi-peds with the mammary glands make when they see us. Now listen. The ones with the mammary glands are nice, but it’s not those shadows you’re looking for. You’re looking for the short ones, the tiny bi-ped shadows. Stay right beneath those.”

“Why?”

“Oh, Poseidon’s rake, where ARE this fry’s parents? Kid, the tiny bi-peds are the ones that Drop Things. Crispy terrestrial things. Orange-colored curls of crunchy goodness. That mystical feed called Fruit. And the even more ambrosiac, perpetually elusive, FROOT LOOPS. (Those are homophones, Flipper. Don’t confuse the two.)”

“JOE.”

“What? It’s true. All these are good eatins.”

“Do they taste like fluke? I love fluke.”

“Flipper, there’s a whole world of foodstuffs out there, and it ain’t all flappy sloppy scaly. I want you to be worldly, see things, taste things.”

“JOE.”

“Oh, fine. Don’t eat the crispy orange things, kid. And stay away from the plastic bags.”

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The Name Game

Mr. Gooddirt is incredibly good at nicknames. He comes up with them on the fly, and they’re always accurate and evocative and appropriate to the situation. There’s no profession for this, I don’t think, otherwise we’d be living large.

He comes up with the best ones when he’s half-awake.

A few examples:
The other night I went to the bathroom and bumped into the laundry rack on the way back. It made a metallic rattling noise, and I, an angry whimper. From the bed:
“What’s happening over there, Jinglebanger?”

Or:
When Sprocket is feeling happy, he trots just ahead of Jim and me and looks backwards, over his shoulder, at us, while he’s walking. The combination of movement and situation makes for a funny walk.
Mr. Gooddirt: “Well, hello there, Wobbles.”

Or

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night feeling very displaced. The automatic reaction is to reach for my phone or my ipad and find out what time it is. I duck over the side of the bed and turn it on so the LCD doesn’t disturb the light-sleeping Mr. Gooddirt. This is usually a totally failure, because he snorts awake and says something like:
“Whatcha doing, Glow worm?”

I cannot figure out how he does this. It seems to be some kind of formula:

Noise or action
+
Creature
——————–
Nickname

Try as I might, I can’t reproduce his results. Gah.

NB: This is on my mind lately because my next work, I think, is a resurrection of the MG novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo a while back. There are talking animals. I would like some of them to be well named.
These are the things which addle my brain.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Hunkering down

And now, for something completely different:

What is that? It’s my office wall, and it’s also something I’ve never tried before. It’s outlining. [Please ignore the fugly wood paneling. It is not my fault and soon I will be painting it something else, since my life has become a DIY show.]

Here’s a close-up:

On each of the yellow index cards is a full scene. On each of the white, is, dur, the MC’s location at that point in the book. My thesis adviser thinks this is going to be a one-month draft. I think, okay, I’m game for that.

And the other part of me thinks, oh, hell, it’d better be a one-month draft. Otherwise I’m might close to deadline.

So let’s just see how this goes, shall we? Two scenes a day. Let’s just see.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Immediate thoughts upon receiving a rejection letter

“Dear Yi Shun,

Thank you for sending your work to XXXXXXX. We are always grateful for the opportunity to review new material, and we have given “Inadvertently, Miss Manners Doesn’t Live Here” close reading and careful consideration. We found many strengths to recommend your work and, overall, much to admire. We regret, however, that “Inadvertently, Miss Manners Doesn’t Live Here” is not quite right for us. We encourage you try us again in the future, and we hope that you will.

Sincerely,

The Editors”

1. OH, HELL.

2. Not AGAIN.

3. Which piece was this? I’ve forgotten.

4. Oh, right. That one.

5. Let’s see, how many times have I submitted that? It feels like five billion.

6. I’d better check my  spreadsheet.

7. Oh. I don’t have a spreadsheet anymore for that type of thing

8. Mostly because I don’t submit anymore, really.

9. Why? Why not?

10. I think I have only submitted this thing twice.

11. I guess that’s not terrible, is it?

12. Do you think it’s the title? It does look affected, doesn’t it?

13. Get a grip. If you got rejected, it’s probably not the title that did it.

14. What is this saying, really?

15. I have now read this thing fifteen times. Navel-gaze much?

16. Some day I may actually get a rejection letter that says

17. YOU SUCK LADY. DROP THIS WRITING THING AND STUDY CEPHALOPODS FOR A LIVING. YOU’RE BOUND TO DO BETTER THAN YOU ARE DOING AT THIS WRITING THING

18. Oh, hell.

19. It says that they want me to submit again.

20. I think that’s what it says anyway–it says they “encourage” me to try again.

21. And that they “hope” I will.

22. Such lovely words, “encourage” and “hope”!

23. They are so full of promise! “Encourage!” “Hope!” What lovely subtleties in each of these words. What volumes can be spoken, just with a few smart choices and turns of phrase!

24. Oh, hell.

25. Guess I’ll try again.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Le Flâneur

When I go out these days, it’s more likely than not that I am going with a purpose in mind: Meeting a friend, seeing a specific art exhibit, going to a reading. But it’s hard not to see things while you’re en route.

The Sartorialist sees fashion wherever he goes, and that usually involves taking pictures of people. Me, I like items.

Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t one of my greatest failings as a writer: I anthropomorphize everything from construction lights to goldfish. But when it comes to people, I’m less about imagining what might be going on in their heads and more about observation. I wonder which is more important. Anyway, here are some things I’ve seen recently. And some potential dialogue scraps. :) The last two are from the Norwalk Aquarium. No captions needed.

"Bubba, where we goin' now?" "Wherever the wind takes us, boy."

Gina had aspirations of becoming one of those awesome cell-phone towers, but the Powers That Be said she was too prickly for the job.

 

"Oh, for Pete's sake. How did I get here?"

 

"When I was a boy, there was none of this spackle stuff. Don't even get me started on whitewash. Laziness, that's all it is."

 

"Are you looking at my butt?" "Sorry, Phillippa--it's just--you've got some kind of weird protrusion." "What?!" *cranes neck*

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.