The things we do for $112 and a cookie

Is writing fun? Cathartic? Rewarding? Are there some other motivations that make people, who are not compelled by outside forces to do this task, do it of their own free will?

Why would you spend precious time and energy on this task, when you could be playing, or sleeping, or working a second job – spending your mental powers on something that actually supplements your income?

If it’s your job to write, that’s reason enough, but what about the rest of us, who write anyway?

Is writing fun?

I’ve heard people say they love to write. Some people can write for hours on end, and emerge feeling like they’ve been to a great party. If I write for more than an hour, the party host has begun showing vacation slides, the liquor’s gone, and I’m turning cranky. Writing is hard for me. It’s a chore. There are many things I’d have more fun doing.

Is writing cathartic?

Some say they write to let out their feelings. Writing takes a weight off their souls and allows them to address emotions in ways they cannot do otherwise. I also feel better after a session of writing, but for me, it’s the same as feeling good after a workout, when you realize you have a whole day before you have to make yourself tired and sweaty again. I admit there have been a few times when writing has allowed me to get something off my chest. But my angry letters to Boston Market Corporate Headquarters probably weren’t my best work. Besides, the euphoria didn’t last past the next local chicken shortage.

angry letter

“Tell ’em we’re tired of them running out of mashed potatoes too!”

Is writing rewarding?

There are many different levels of reward. There’s the fame and fortune reward. There’s the flattering five-star review reward. There’s the how do I claim $112 in royalties on my income tax? reward. There’s the I’m really pleased with how this piece turned out, even if nobody ever reads it reward. There’s the I wrote 500 words today so I’m having a damned cookie reward. There are many levels of reward between these as well. What I’ve learned about rewards is they are all fleeting, except possibly the fame and fortune reward, which I know nothing about. Also they are scant reward for the amount of toil that created them. Writing for reward is a fool’s errand.

Why then?

I ask this a lot, because I consider myself a logical person, but there seems to be no logic in why I take on this task again and again.

I think I write because I can’t draw, or paint, or play the horn. I write because I can, though opinions may differ on this point. Writing is my one chance to leave something lasting. Yes, it’s a long shot, another fool’s errand, but what so far has led you to believe I’m not a fool?

If I write enough, maybe one little portion of my output will prove itself to be beautiful and I will have something to show for my time.

If you write, why do you do it?

What’s in your wallet? – flash fiction

I asked the nurse to hand me my wallet. She fumbled it a little and a condom fell out. She kept a straight face, discretely picking it up and setting in on my blanket. Then she left the room, not wanting to burst out laughing in front of me.

Rocky, my roommate, grinned at me from his bed. He was 50 years older than me, with his scraggly beard and glassy eyes.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

Rocky chuckled. “I understand. I was a young buck once. You a college boy?”

“Yeah.”

“I never went to college, but I did have my fun.” He nodded at an inevitable transition. “Then I got married. Margie and me was married 40 years, and I liked that a whole hell of lot better than carrying one of them things in my wallet.” He gestured toward the condom I struggled to stuff back into its home.

“40 years? That’s awesome!” It seemed like the right thing to say.

“It was.” He sighed. “Except for the last few. She got Alzheimer’s. I carried her license in my wallet ‘cause she’d lose it otherwise. She’d lose anything you gave her.” He shook his head. “Then she’d snip at me about it. Finally I said, ‘Margie if this next 40 years don’t go no better, I’m calling it quits.’ That was the last joke I told her.” He frowned. “Not a very good joke.”

“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“She passed almost two years ago.”

I didn’t want to say sorry again. “Do you still keep her license in your wallet?”

“No. I couldn’t look at it every time. It only reminded me of the past. But I guess she told the last joke. After all that time wedged in that little sleeve, it left a faint impression of her picture on the plastic, like a ghost staring up at me.”

“Did you get a new wallet?”

“Oh no. I don’t mind the ghost. It doesn’t give me bad memories; it says she’s still with me. And being how I already invested 40 years, I guess I’ll keep her.” He turned his wet eyes toward the window and spoke at the sky. “Yup, I guess I’ll keep her.”

If a novel had a baby would it be a short story?

A reader once asked me if I thought short stories were smaller versions of novels with fewer plot turns. It is a good question for writers to consider before transitioning from one form to the other. It’s helpful to remember the form you are writing and what its purpose is.

A short story is as much a mini novel as a chipmunk is a baby squirrel. They are completely different beasts, put on earth for different purposes. When a chipmunk grows into a squirrel, I’ll start writing short stories that are condensed novels.

I define a novel as a set of conflicts, illustrated through a series of plot turns, resolved in such a way as to leave the reader satisfied that some Wisdom was served by the narrative. This Wisdom may be love, justice, retribution, fate, or any other force in human experience that will lay the characters of the story down peaceably to rest.

This is a chipmunk. With any luck, it will grow into a bigger chipmunk and nothing else.

A short story should have one resounding point that will stick with the reader after the story is over. That point is revealed at the end of the story. Everything preceding builds the effect of that revelation.

Since the crux of a short story comes at the end, I often construct them backward. The ending is the kernel of the story, and everything leading up to that is set into place afterward, trailing back to the most natural starting point. Only what is necessary to bring forth the point is built into the story.

Novels demand to be conceived going forward. Even with a general idea of the ending, there will be too many shifting sands there for it to be the foundation. The characters have more say in the direction of a novel. They create the resolution as they travel the narrative, perhaps making the ending quite different than first imagined. Building a novel backward prevents the characters from developing into the people they should grow to be.

Short stories and novels demand different skills. Novels require more devotion to the characters, but they are more forgiving than short stories. A novel can survive a small lull in the narrative; a short story cannot. Each word carries more weight in a short story. A few ill-chosen words, or a few too many words, can quickly derail the narrative.

A squirrel, properly crafted and distinctly its own art form.

Short stories were once more popular than they are now. Their fall might be linked to the decline of literary magazines, but it may also have something to do with writers not appreciating how different the craft is from the art of writing novels.

Some short stories appear to have been aborted novels. Have you read stories that seem to come to a crashing halt, leaving you to wonder, “What was the point of that?” When I encounter one of these stories, I question if the writer set out to write a short novel, waiting to see where the story would take him. It took him nowhere, and he ran out of words.

Storytelling is about coming to a resolution or making a lasting point. The story written as a baby novel does neither. Infant novels labeled short stories are a turnoff. A chipmunk is bound to be a disappointment to his parents if his parents are squirrels.

Do you agree or disagree? Comments are open.

Paper Quarter – Flash fiction

If they wouldn’t come to him, he’d go to them.

Sneaking out of the home wasn’t difficult once you worked up the courage to try it.

There was bus stop down the street. Harold had never ridden the bus before, but he couldn’t think of another way. When the bus stopped, he climbed on. “How much is it to ride?” he asked the driver.

“For seniors it’s 75 cents,” the driver said.

Harold dug into his pocket. He had a $1 bill and two quarters. He handed the driver the bill.

The driver pointed to a slot in the post next to him. “You put bills in there.”

Harold fed the dollar into the slot. A paper card popped out of the post. “How do I get my change?” he asked.

The driver handed him the paper card.

Harold knit his brow. “This is a quarter?”

“It’s good for 25 cents toward your next ride,” the driver explained.

“Oh.” It seemed like they were into him for a quarter now, but the driver looked impatient so Harold didn’t complain.  He put the card into his pocket with his two real quarters. The bus jolted ahead. He fell into an empty seat.

Riders pulled the overhead cord when they wanted the bus to stop. Harold wanted Lexington Avenue, but didn’t know what stop preceded it. Nervous, he pulled the cord too soon. It wasn’t the right stop, but everyone saw him pull the cord. He got off and walked the extra blocks.

He climbed the steps of the porch and put his finger on the doorbell. He didn’t push the button.

This was a mistake. Their first thoughts would be to take him back. Sharon wouldn’t see her father; she’d see an escapee. It would be harder to sneak out again.

Why did he even come here?

Through the front window Harold noticed movement.  Leaning against the window frame, he peered in.

Joey sat on the carpet, playing with his trucks in the sunshine. Harold leaned and grinned as the boy tottered around on the floor, lost in his own imagination.

The toddler looked up, finding the face in the window. Harold smiled and waved. Joey waved back.

“I love you, Joey,” Harold mouthed.

Joey’s eyes lit up. “I love you, Grampa!”

Joey jumped up and ran deeper into the house, yelling to his parents that Grampa was here. Harold shuffled down the steps and hurried away. Fortunately, nobody believed children or old people.

Entering the bus, Harold slid his paper quarter into the slot. He dropped his two real quarters into the well. As they clinked onto other quarters, he found a seat.

It was satisfying to hear the clink of real quarters, and to get rid of the fake quarter they’d saddled him with. He had no more money, but at least nobody was into him for 25 cents anymore. He’d sneak back into his room with everything square, confident he’d gotten his money’s worth from the trip.