Lieutenant Columbo, Meet President Trump

I haven’t watched TV at dinner time with my brother since the last big election. We’re both retired. We watch a lot of TV. If it were up to my brother, he would never flip from his favorite news channel. Without fail he argues with different viewpoints than those found on his channel. Often, he argues with me before I speak.

We used to watch the detective genre. I like to see the bad guy get caught. “Murder, She Wrote,” “Hart to Hart,” “McMillan and Wife.” Sometimes I’d pick newer shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Unfortunately, some of the newer crime shows are very detailed, very scientific. My brother always refused to watch CSI.

I remember my last dinner-time detective show we watched together in the kitchen. It was an episode of “Columbo.” It was very interesting. The murderer was a magician. If you have never had the pleasure of watching “Columbo,” the show’s premise is very simple. In the show’s beginning, a murder is committed. We, the TV audience, witness the crime, the alibi, and, of course, the criminal. We know who did it. The fun is in watching the seemingly inept detective use his smarts to catch the criminal and bring him or her to justice.

This magician was very clever. While supposedly locked in a trunk and then lowered into a tank of water, he killed the nightclub’s owner. But the constant objections of my brother regarding the magician’s guilt during this episode made it very difficult for me to enjoy the show.

We witnessed this magician leave his trunk before the trunk went into the water. We watched as he climbed down a step ladder, went into his basement office, changed into a waiter’s uniform, and snuck upstairs to the owner’s office. He picked the door lock and shot the owner. All this time, the magician was supposed to be locked in a trunk in a tank of water. Despite what we witnessed, my brother wasn’t convinced the magician was guilty.

“I don’t know how you can say that the magician isn’t guilty,” I told my brother.

“It’s simple,” he shot back. “He’s a magician.”

Without trying to sound boastful, I challenged my brother immediately. I reviewed every point of the magician’s steps he took to commit the crime and conceal his guilt. Each time I was met with my brother’s objections. I pointed out that we saw the magician climb down from a trap door out of his locked trunk.

“I didn’t see him leave the trunk. I saw him climb down the step ladder.”

“We watched him put on the waiter’s uniform.”

“I saw many other waiters,” my brother countered.

“We saw the magician shoot the owner.”

“I saw the magician fire a gun. Then the owner fell.”

Imagine my frustration. I tried to explain to my brother the act of pre-meditated murder. The person guilty of the crime must plan or consider the act beforehand. He cannot act out of emotion, nor can the death result from accident or carelessness. The corpus delicti, as the deceased is sometimes called, must be the direct result of a conscious, mindful act.

Over the course of the show, every time we watched Columbo prove part of the magician’s alibi a lie, my brother refused to accept it. He claimed every revealed clue could be a lie. “Don’t be stupid,” he told me.

I told him not to call me stupid. “Columbo follows clues. He doesn’t lie to the TV audience.” Otherwise the rumpled, cigar smoking character whose name also serves as the show’s title would lose all credibility.

He pooh-poohed me. “Clues don’t matter. People use fake clues to throw everybody off track.”

I had him. “That’s exactly what’s happening on the show. The magician’s trying to throw everybody off track. Columbo has to follow a reasonable path. The clues have to add up. They have to make logical sense.”

When a commercial came on, my brother changed to his channel. The brand new President was speaking. He had recently made his inaugural address. I had watched part of the address and recalled it had rained. As a bit of harmless small talk, I mentioned that very fact to my brother. “Too bad it rained for his speech.”

My brother shushed me.

“But we had a massive field of people,” President Trump continued. “You saw them. Packed. I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field. I say, wait a minute, I made a speech. I looked out, the field was—it looked like a million, million and a half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there. And they said, Donald Trump did not draw well. I said, it was almost raining, the rain should have scared them away, but God looked down and he said, we’re not going to let it rain on your speech.”

“Hah! It didn’t rain during his speech. You don’t know shit,” my brother laughed.

I said, “I remember seeing open umbrellas and ponchos covering people in the audience during the inauguration. Please get my show back.”

“A lot you know,” my brother laughed. “So much for clues.” After he switched back, he pointed at the TV. “Look, Columbo’s wearing a raincoat. I suppose it’s raining inside that nightclub they’re in. That would be some magic.”

After his ridiculous remarks, I left my brother and took my dinner into the den. I heard him change channels. After watching this program for well over an hour, my brother was content to skip the end. This annoyed me. Determined to have my brother witness the inevitable outcome where the magician is proven to be the murderer, I finished eating and waited until the last five minutes of “Columbo” before I returned to the kitchen. As I put my plate in the sink, my brother stood up and handed me the TV remote.

“Go ahead. Watch the end of your program,” he said. “I’m going to take a shower. I’ve seen this one before.”

I’ve eaten in the den ever since.


This essay, originally titled, “No Clue,” appeared in different form in From All Corners, a collection of five finalists in an Unsolicited Press essay contest.

Writer Dead Time

Bless me, blog, for I have ignored thee. Devoutly, for half a year, for 1/132 of my lifetime (66 x 2). And why? Because I wanted to, because I needed to, and because I can. That sounds like the President, doesn’t it? Let’s examine those items one at a time except for the President bit.

I wanted a break. I admit I took a complete sabbatical. Toying around with an old short story and getting banned from Twitter don’t count as writing. From June when Beat the Blues came out until November, I did not sit down to write. I did not consciously get to work. Leaves didn’t get raked, dishes remained stacked in the sink. The vacuum cleaner didn’t run by itself. You get the idea. My juices or inspiration or any other term identified with the creative process skipped town. Instead of characters spinning in my head, I thought of pleasant diversions such as, wait a minute, some vacuum cleaners–those robots–run by themselves. Useless drivel in other words. I enjoyed it.

I needed to. I’ve been retired from teaching for exactly eight years. In that time I’ve done a lot of writing–four novels worth. I ignored things in my personal life to accomplish this. Most of my days revolved around sitting down and getting to work, how long I worked, how much I completed. When that kind of work is your day’s major routine, the rest of your time sometimes seems trifling. For a young writer with more energy, that might not be a problem. You can go places, do things, keep the motor running. Doctorow said that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Perhaps I became less inclined to begin the trip.

I can. Mark Twain stopped Huckleberry Finn for two years to “let the well fill up.” Huck and Jim had passed Cairo, and Twain knew he had a different sort of book on his hands. Hell’s bells. If Twain could do it, so can I. Maybe as writers we get to know ourselves better as we work. If we write to discover how we feel about things, perhaps we pause to figure out exactly what things we want to examine. Now there’s a couple of chapters of a new novel saved on my hard drive. There’s a new short story out in several Submittable accounts. There’s a lot of cleaning up to be done, and it’s time to get the vacuum out of the closet and get moving.

Novel Dedication 6/21/18

Tomorrow my new novel gets released. But I’d gladly scratch that event off the calendar if the wonderful man I dedicated the novel to got well. I’d rather talk about him.

He was an LIU teacher. He taught special kids, troubled kids. He worked one-on-one with them in grade school, followed them to their jobs after h.s. Worked with their bosses. Checked on them. Paid more attention to his students than many parents pay attention to their children. He kept in contact with them after h.s. He visited them, checked up on them long after his job requirements ended.

He loves his kids. He knows them and follows their progress in life after most teachers are concerned about the kids sitting in front of them. He makes me, also an ex-teacher, feel very inadequate. He never dismissed kids–passed them on to another grade, lost his sense of humor about them–(believe me, you need a sense of humor if you’re going to teach). In short he’s a man I admire for many reasons.

We talk all the time. We talk about this country. He thinks maybe it’s time to admire what’s best in us. Even if we don’t see it in ourselves. Even if we don’t like the sound of it. Laws, for instance. Immoral laws like separate lunch counters, separate drinking fountains. Like two people, any people, not being able to marry. Those laws weren’t our best. And they were changed. But change seems to be heading backwards.

Maybe it’s time to admit our shortcomings as a nation and aspire to something better. You pick the source. I’m not a preacher. I’m picking my friend. That’s why I dedicated my novel to him. I’m 65. I’ve seen some shit, and he’s seen some shit. And I can guess–if this country doesn’t pick something or someone who appeals to our better selves, my friend is going to be very disappointed.

Robert Francis Kennedy

Robert Francis Kennedy begins my novel Beat the Blues.

Robert Francis Kennedy was nine days dead, and not one of Katie’s Inlet Terrace neighbors gave a damn.

RFK is probably a hero to Beat the Blue’s main character, Katie. I say probably because she never admits this, never even hints at it. Yet the fact is apparent to me simply because they share the qualities of courage and idealism.

I’m old enough to remember RFK. I was 15, a sophomore in high school. America was a mess, and Kennedy’s assassination seemed a blow to the hopes of fixing that mess. 1968 was a year of political assassination, social upheaval, violence in our streets, and the escalating war in Vietnam. On the occasion of Kennedy’s death, though I shed tears, I had little knowledge of the notion of regret.

Katie confronts readers with the notion of regret in the first line of Beat the Blues. As a new high school graduate, she is unaware of life’s ebbs and flows, and so resents the everyday normalcy around her so soon after Kennedy’s murder. She informs a neighbor, “…tragedy is a form of history.” Introspective and sensitive, four years later as a college graduate, she heads off to New York City on her own in search of a career in print journalism. Carrying her portable typewriter, Katie tells her mother, “I’m going to help fix the trouble.”

Since the novel takes place over the course of 40 years, characters are tempted to look back to their pasts. They find it difficult to look back with objectivity. The past takes root, grows, and bends with the winds of their lives–the hurts, the slights, the regrets. To fight the winds, they build foundations. They choose a place, gravitate toward fellow believers, and hold on. Sometimes when they look back, their memory plays tricks. Memory illuminates what they wish to recall, dims what they desire to dismiss.

But fiction, like history, tolerates no such trickery. Fiction concerns truth. Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,~Albert Camus. Katie’s idealism and courage never leave her. She stays true to those qualities. Even though she may be unaware of life’s ups and downs in the novel’s first line, she is quite aware and unafraid of them at the novel’s end. Perhaps the way Robert Kennedy was made aware of life’s cruelty after the assassination of his brother.

Robert Kennedy is a hero to Katie. Was he a hero to me? It isn’t important to the novel. I can say with certainty he wasn’t a hero when I was 15. But change in real life is as certain and as necessary as change in a novel. I can see more clearly now what was lost when RFK died. I can see who and what has taken his place. And I understand the notion of regret.

Beat the Blues releases June 21st.

The Autonomous Writer or I’ll Write How the Fuck I Want, Thanks

The autonomous writer…autonomous meaning, “acting independently or having the freedom to do so.” All-powerful, self-publishing, kick-ass independent.  The AW isn’t afraid to use three hyphenated adjectives in a single fragment. The AW says it’s perfectly okay to begin every concluding paragraph with “And so,” every contradictory paragraph with “But on the other hand.” Because of self-publishing. (The AW starts sentences with “Because” too…well, in the previous example, another fragment).

Is autonomy when it comes to writing a good thing or a bad thing? Autonomous or under contract or both, chances are one of the following words has spiked your interest when it comes to writing: rejection, advice, and aspirations. I’m speaking about people who are at least serious enough to accept writing as a craft, and a difficult one.

Let’s look at rejection. I’ve spoken with writers who, having been accepted for publication, claim to have forgotten all about their rejections. I also know writers who don’t deal with rejection. They publish on Amazon and collect money. Fine for both. What about the unpublished writer who wants to have his work juried but can’t tolerate rejection? Some find writer groups, a spouse, or tech sources such as a blog or Facebook page. As long as you write, the experts say, you’re okay. Writers write. But for whom? There have to be readers, no? It’s a shame writers don’t get the immediate feedback painters receive. And our books don’t become more valuable after we die.

Advice must be examined with the writer’s age in mind. A young writer doesn’t seek advice–she goes to school and learns, probably from other writers. What about older writers? Out of curiosity–and, I hope, an urge to assist–I twice attended a local writer’s group meeting. These meetings were run, for lack of a better word, by a very nice writer who had self-published a number of books. I won’t call the meetings classes. There was advice given and notes taken, but the discussions resembled a writer’s anonymous meeting. Instead of stories about getting bombed and wrecking Aunt Ethel’s birthday by vomiting at the dinner table, there were lots of stories about writing stories. And that’s fine. Everyone knows the number of times published writers employ writers as characters is too frequent to contemplate.

Many of these writers in the writer’s group reminded me of the Aesop tale of the fox and the grapes. You remember–sour grapes. One man made fun of literary writers by pushing up the end of his nose and pronouncing the word literary in a mock-snobbish sort of way. Another man insisted that five word titles were absolutely the most effective. Five words, but never longer than five words. Too much of the advice seemed to center on marketing rather than technique.

As for dreams and aspirations, I suspect many writers wish to be famous and wealthy. Writers used to appear on late night TV. Now some have TV commercials. Not many of us make it that far, published or not. Too much ambition and not enough talent can be a bad combo. People who really shouldn’t write anything other than “at the store” on the fridge notepad write on Facebook and Twitter despite a general lack of knowledge. People die trying to write and drive, although I’m convinced if the laws forbid “writing while driving” instead of “texting while driving,” most people would stop breaking the law.

And so (wink) does autonomy help negate fear of rejection, often times useless advice, and dashed dreams? Maybe. Everyone knows anyone can get published.  Then again some of us just have to write. It’s part of us. It’s not a hobby. If you’re a serious writer in charge of your own writing, good for you. If you have a publisher, an angel in New York (agent), or both, good for you. If you are autonomous and have a publisher and an agent, you’ve already laughed until coffee came out of your nose.

You can find thousands of quotes about writers and writing. I’ll leave you with this from Raymond Carver, who wrote in a return letter to me, “Good luck with your own writing.”

Beat the Blues Final Preview

This blog gives a more concrete preview of my forthcoming novel Beat the Blues, being released June 21st by Unsolicited Press.

Two summers ago when I re-read Willa Cather’s My Antonia, a particular line stuck with me. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again. I found that notion interesting. I had a love story already in mind, so I set out to write a love story about memories.

With love at its core, I began to think of specific characters and settings. I decided on an event to steer and complicate the plot. I believed I had my protagonist set. With what I thought at the time were sufficient elements to get started, I got to work.

I rewrite as I work, and this novel went through quite a few rewrites before it reached anywhere close to fifty pages. I eliminated characters and settings. Scenes large and small were relocated or deleted. Something wasn’t working.

Characters steer my plots, and I knew my protagonist, Ronny, from my trilogy The Belmar Series. But I realized Ronny no longer carried my interest. Luckily, like Ronny I fell in love with Katie. Having her become a split-protagonist energized the writing.

I think the idea of discovering a new voice in a work-in-progress is an important point to examine. I originally had Ronny figured as my main character. Katie was around, but sometime during the writing, it became more her story than Ronny’s. How and why that happened might be another blog. For now I’ll keep it simple–I liked Katie’s outlook on life.

I think most readers will, too. As for writing from a feminine viewpoint, I’m not a big believer in the saying “write what you know.” I believe you can mix up what you’ve been through and know in your bones with what your imagination tells you. Raymond Carver said, “There are significant moments in everyone’s day that can make literature. That’s what you ought to write about.” That’s what I tried to do with Katie.

The novel’s first half takes place over twenty years, from 1968-1988. Those years are presented episodically, a sort of yearbook over two decades. Following a twenty year span when Ronny and Katie do not meet, a twenty-four hour reunion takes place. Watching them over the course of their big day gave me much joy, as does sharing their story with you.

A wise character in the novel declares, “We’re not here to get you into any trouble. We’re here to beat the blues.” I like to think he’s speaking to you, the reader. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Writing About Sex

Welcome to Part II of my novel preview, Writing About Sex in Fiction. Yes, I omitted two words for the title. The word sex attracts attention, and there it is at the title’s end, and here you are. That’s the whole point. As a reward, I’ll share everything I know concerning writing about sex: “Omit needless words.” ~William Strunk, Jr. Mr. Strunk wasn’t specifically speaking about sex and fiction, but his words do just fine.

I don’t want you to get the idea there’s no sex in my novel. People in love often act certain, predictable ways. But no young reader will memorize page numbers as I did with my parents’ copy of The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins. No mature reader will dog ear specific passages–not much there to titillate. I’d like to think, however, I had a few interesting problems when it came to writing about sex in Beat the Blues.

The most obvious is it’s a love story which takes place over forty years. The main characters move from their late teens into their fifties. Luckily, I know about sex in all of those decades. I can even remember some examples, although they’re more numerous and less trouble than they were in reality. Thankfully my characters are a hardy couple.

Another problem is the passage of time. There’s the question of evolving social mores. In 1968, one summer after the summer of love, morals and attitudes were quite different than they were in 2008, the year my characters reunite after 20 years. So much has changed: marriage, women’s careers, communication (phone & snail mail vs all that’s new),  pharmaceuticals ( one pill for the gents vs a month supply for the laddies) to name a few. The constant is the protagonists’ fear of rejection, uncertainty, insecurity, and hopes. Those things don’t change when it comes to love.

Timing is critical when it comes to sex. Not as much as it is in comedy, but important. Some readers like to see sex coming. That is, some readers enjoy anticipating a sex scene. I prefer spontaneity and surprise. There’s something to be said for two people who feel strongly about one another doing unexpected things at unexpected times and places. Not to pick on Americans, but many of us don’t agree. We’d rather mutter “get a room” than sigh and appreciate mutual affection.

To get serious for a moment, what’s most important is the reader should have a sense of the lovers’ hearts. In the long run, whatever our attitudes are about sexuality, when readers invest time in fiction, they want sincerity. I don’t like tricks in fiction. If you try to fool a reader, eventually you’ll be found out. The first time my two lovers are seen together in the novel, Katie, who is my main character, and Ronny are sitting on stairs listening in to a conversation between Katie’s parents. Katie is 20, Ronny 16. He has a big time crush on her; she has other male interests. While they are eavesdropping, Katie’s father disparages his only daughter, and this happens:

Ronny’s hand consoled her soft upper arm. She tucked her chin, leaned her head on his shoulder, and bumped his heart.

If you bump a reader’s heart, I don’t think he or she will mind if a sex scene isn’t up to snuff. After all, I wouldn’t have bothered with Harold Robbins if in my day there had been…well, you may be familiar with those websites already.

Beat the Blues, published by Unsolicited Press, is set to release June 21st, 2018–a summer read on the summer solstice. Novel preview III coming soon.




Can Male Authors Write Female Characters? (Novel Preview I)

This entry is the first in a series of novel previews for my upcoming release in June ’18 titled Beat the Blues. The reason I’m writing these is the same reason I write anything–I write to see what I think. But I’m not comfortable about this one–specifically the question in the title.

I wasn’t comfortable writing a love story with a female perspective. Right there the old chestnut write what you know went out with the bathwater. Accompanying uncomfortable were fearful, confused, and exasperated. So I did what I used to do before French vocabulary tests for which I had not studied–I cheated. Well, I compromised. I threw a male perspective into the mix.

I have no problem answering the title’s question if it doesn’t concern my own writing: Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. But for every wonderful example, there are dozens of gems such as: Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun…She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms…She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. Suppose female writers presented males the way male writers sometimes present females? He walked downstairs, noticing how his limp penis pressed against the front of his underwear, his nubile balls dangling hairily below.

Those two examples are from a web page, and of course they’re purposely terrible. How about a well known example from a canon author? I’ll pick on Hemingway. I’m familiar with him; some female authors, those who still pay attention to him, don’t like him; and he can no longer shoot me. Catherine Barkley, his heroine in A Farewell to Arms, seemed like a talking statue when I first read the book. That was before she died. Once deceased, she’s actually described as a statue: It was like saying good-by to a statue. That’s great description–death’s pallor. Of course description is one thing. Relating events and emotions through a character’s perspective is another.

I found writing from the viewpoint of my character, whose name is Katie, very educational. I got to know her much better by writing through her (I write to see what I think). Seeing her from the view of the novel’s male protagonist allowed her to come more into focus. Same with Katie’s relationship with her parents. My novel takes place over 40 years. Knowing Katie as a child allowed me to know her better as an adult.

All of which took me to the answer I needed to know to begin the novel: how did Katie as a young girl see the world? Here she is in the novel blurb, an undisguised advertisement for the book: “Katie Kline, a hip, introspective eighteen year old spins classic blues records and reads Susan Sontag. As a crusading reporter for the Village Voice she will lambaste Nixon and bird-dog John and Yoko.”

Gore Vidal said, Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. … I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.

Perhaps as some male authors get further removed from their younger, hormone-fed selves, they are able to view female characters more fully. I don’t know. I haven’t yet mentioned sex. That’s the next entry. Although given the current events and headlines, I may have to skip sex and go right to bar etiquette.

Writer Rituals

What, exactly, are writer rituals, and what is their purpose?

First I’ll tackle the rituals. I know writers have rituals because I’ve read about them. Someone asks the above question, and the writers, being agreeable or drunk, answer. Mr./Ms./Mrs. Writer, do you have any rituals before, during, or after you write, and if so, what are they? an intern or person who’s not getting paid may ask. And writers, who may or may not be getting paid, respond.

I invested a good half hour on the internet to check out writers’ responses. Of course now, these nuggets are free. In my day, knowledgeable students saved their parents’ money and risked pilfering copies of The Paris Review from the college library to learn such secrets. From several sites, here are rituals of familiar writers. I don’t know if they’re true.

Henry James, Virginia Woolf, A. E. Housman, and Wallace Stevens liked to walk before writing. James Joyce used crayons since he was blind as a bat, sat down, and wore a white coat. Ernest Hemingway stood up. Joan Didion slept in the same room beside a nearly finished manuscript. “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it,” she said in a 1968 interview with, you guessed it, The Paris Review.

I found this statement: “rituals are familiar, automatic, and often productive of a hypnogogic—that is, a dreamlike—state.” If this is a definition, it doesn’t tell me much. For one thing, I don’t like the words familiar and automatic. They’re too close to the word routine. Brushing my teeth is part of my morning routine. A priest celebrating communion is part of a ritual. Either can be important or useless depending upon one’s oral health or piety. I’m unfamiliar with the word hypnogogic, but I get the part about a dreamlike state. If I’m having a good day, hours may pass between the time I sit down to write and when I finish. Other days not so much. I take breaks. I may drink a glass of water, troll some reactionary’s Facebook page, or watch sports video highlights. In any case I get bored quickly and quit for the day.

There seems to be agreement most rituals fall into one of three areas: time, environment, and behavior. I understand time. Write at the same time every day. I try to. Sometimes things come up, though. Time also implies production, better known as word count. I have never nor do I expect to ever ask another writer, “How many words did you write today?” (Please excuse the numbers not being written out. I like to keep my word count down.) Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 3,000 words a day. Hemingway wrote 500. That’s closer to my average. Michael Crichton had the number 10,000 after his name. Given 25 words per bottle of beer in “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” to reach 10,000 words one would need to type all the way from 100 to zero bottles of beer 4 times, singing being optional.

I write at my safe spot, so my environment’s cool. Yet I’ve seen writers at bookcons writing under their 10′ X 10′ instant canopy, typing away as drunks yell from a beer garden and street vendors hawk their wares.

As for behavior I found this tidbit: Consider sixteen-year-old Andrea, who says, “I have to be sitting to write. My brain works harder I think. I have to be drinking a tall glass of Coke with about eight cubes of ice. When I write and stop, I’ll grab my glass and take a drink. Let myself do something else. Think for a moment. Take a drink. Boom—idea.” The Boom–idea part interests me. If it works, I’ll be selling my Pepsi stock and buying Coca-Cola. As for being sixteen, I don’t remember much other than dealing with pimples and unwanted erections when summoned to the blackboard in math class.

Considering the rituals’ purpose, an article summarized thus: writers…touch on the importance of ritual in reducing anxiety, increasing fluency, and increasing power and control. That sounds similar to the reasons I rarely worked busy shifts as a bartender stone cold sober. A nip now and then kept my salesmanship, smile, and testosterone going on Friday and Saturday nights.

I suppose we writers do anything we can to help ourselves. Rituals are part of that. How big a part I’m not sure. Right now I have to empty and wipe my ashtray. I can’t tolerate more than one cigar butt in my 1964 World’s Fair ashtray. And I need to run a few errands. My last 75 watt bulb just blew. I have some 100’s, but they’re too damn bright. Driving on my way uptown, I’ll pass the dog next door. The son of a bitch barks at leaves dropping off trees. I can hear him plain as day in my safe spot. It’s almost the first day of fall, and I may have to relocate.

An Act of Discovery

Years ago I read an essay by Flannery O’Connor titled “Writing Short Stories.” She talked about writing as an act of discovery. When I read the essay, I felt tremendous relief. I’d thought I was writing short stories all wrong. I’d never know where mine were headed. Eventually, I wanted to write novels. How the hell was that going to happen?

Some time after reading O’Connor’s essay, I wrote a story that eventually made it into Beloit Fiction Journal. The story concerned a father and son. The son, twenty, planned to marry. The father, Carl, had serious reservations. The night before the wedding, Carl lost his cool and caused a scene. He followed that up next morning by storming out of the house. He was out on his own, and I didn’t have any idea what to do with him. Something had to happen.

I had a twelve year old kid on his bicycle run Carl over. The kid rode on the sidewalk and clipped Carl’s leg hard enough to put him down. All of a sudden Carl had a direction to go. He was going to catch that little bastard and teach him a lesson.

Of course I realized Carl was really chasing his son. The boy on the bike was merely a substitute. An accident of circumstance had taken the place of Carl’s conflict at home. He saw a resolution, and he was going to pursue it. When Carl came upon the boy and a group of his friends, he verbally reprimand the kid. But the kid’s buddies circled Carl, threw sand at him, and mocked him. He took it. He realized his anger had pushed him in the wrong direction. Home he went to reconcile the day.

Looking back, there would not have been a story without that kid and his bike. Carl may have wandered for eternity and taken my story with him. Where did the kid on the bike come from? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. But I do know what Flannery O’Connor meant. In order to discover, you have to put words down.

As for novels, I sat down a year or so ago to work on my latest attempt. Thirty thousand words in, I was stuck. I’d written ten pages the previous month and two sentences in three days. To take heart, I should have remembered the kid on the bike. In the novel out of nowhere, a dog showed up. It ran crazy down a street. Things happened one after another. The novel, Beat the Blues, is due out in April, 2018 from Unsolicited Press.

E. L. Doctorow put it this way: Writing a novel, he said, is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.