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Writing Is Hard – Part 2: In Flight

And so here we are again… meaning here I am again. Writing fiction. OK, not right here, exactly; this is more of a reflective semi-public journal. But I’m at it again, the fiction, these days.

It’s been a long time, I have to admit, since I have written fiction in any meaningful way. I’ve abandoned two manuscripts in the past two years, and it was painful to do so, but there came those points at which I had to accept that the sunk money fallacy was at play and simply stop spending my time and effort on stories and characters in which I found no passion. The reader would have seen right through it. Actually, the reader might simply have stopped reading. As I recently looked over some the pages I’d written over those years, I found plenty of fine paragraphs, some engaging dialogue, and even a few sentences and phrases that were just gems. But overall, there was something missing, something akin to what Stephen Pirsig was searching for in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Or rather what the late Pirsig was looking for in life: quality. When it’s there, you can feel it. Ditto the dearth.

And maybe I’m in the forest and only seeing trees, sure, but right now, the work I’m doing feels, finally, after many years, not like work at all. It’s a pleasure again. And I think that might damn well mean there’s quality. Averaging 900 to 1,000 words a session, and I’m writing at least five nights a week. It’s like old times, I’m glad to say.

What changed? What is it that helps a writer finally get his or her hands out from under his or her ass and get them back on the keys (or wrapped around a pen, if freehand is your thing)? For me, it involved a lot of changes and progress in life, sure, but also the removal of excuses (AKA bullshit) and a concerted plan. First I read a book and plenty of articles and essays about writing. Read more

Caesar’s Breath

As they tend to, this poem arrived almost fully formed a few years back. I don’t quite remember the context, to be honest, but I remember thinking: “Well, suddenly time to write another poem.”

I just can’t force them. I’ve given up trying.

A thought or sensation becomes a few words, which become lines, which become the piece. I may alter a word or two, maybe delete something a year later, even, but the bulk of any poem I ever share was written at the first pass.

You shouldn’t go out on the Charles anymore

The ice is too thin, I think.
You shouldn’t go out there when it’s like this.
The ice is too thin and you might fall through.
I know it’s tempting.
Believe me—I know it’s tempting…

Falling through

But don’t go out there anymore.
Spring is almost here. Soon it will be spring.
The ice will melt to water and go back to where it goes every year.

We’ve all got Caesar’s breath in us they say.
That’s a statistic: they say we’ve all got Caesar’s breath in us by now.

But which?
His dying breath,
Or just one in between?

A Few Places You Can Find My Writing

In case you were interested in something(s) like camping, hiking, the history of nuclear proliferation, terrifying sea creatures, homemade hot sauce, or the true meaning of April Fools’ Day, you can check out my articles on some of the websites to which I am a regular contributor.

I recommend starting with these two; may the general interest rabbit hole consume your lunch hour and beyond:

https://www.themanual.com/users/steven-john/

http://www.theclever.com/author/steven_john/

 

The Death of Antonio José de Sucre

I wrote this story using excerpts from the essay “The Assassination of Sucre and Its Significance in Colombian History, 1828-1848,” by T.F. McGann, published August, 1950, in The Hispanic American Historical Review. Thomas McGann was my grandfather, though I never knew him; he passed away a few months before I was born. I hit on the idea of writing a short story using some of his words and some of mine a few years ago, and this is the product of that work. I kept a version with his writing made distinct through italics, but prefer to simply let the prose mingle.

 

The Death of Antonio José de Sucre

by

Steven C. John and Thomas F. McGann

                  The night of June 2, 1830, Antonio José de Sucre slept in a rude hut by the side of the trail leading from Popayán to Pasto. The hut was ten feet long and eight feet wide and set back a short stone’s throw from the road, but a thick stand of untended banana trees blocked sight of it from the path. The trail was rutted from wagons pulled through deep mud caused by rain that had fallen throughout much of the previous month, and the going had been slow.

Sucre and his men rode atop mules ill-suited to the poor mountain roads, having thus far spent their lives attached to plows. But there had been no time to wait for proper mounts, and no time to wait for the mountain road to dry out and harden. José Antonio de Sucre, the Grand Marshal of the Revolution, was homeward bound to Quito after the closing of the “Admirable Congress” in Bogotá.

“Admirable,” he whispered under his breath, looking around the small, dingy dwelling. “Mierda, puro mierda, nada más.” How many years had he given to this cause or that? More than any of it would last, surely. Almost surely, anyway. Read more

The Rocks Have Been Rolled Smooth by Waves

I wrote this poem while sitting at a sun-drenched table outside the main entrance of the main office building of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. At the time, I worked in that towering structure, the same building featured in Diehard as Nakatomi Plaza.

That was a while back, that part of life. This poem is one of the better things that came out of the whole ordeal. But that’s another story. I can’t remember the exact inspiration for this piece. Most of the limited number of poems I’ve written with which I’m truly happy take shape in my mind rather quickly, with the first and final drafts not differing greatly. I can write poetry well only as long as I never try to force it. Thus gaps of a year or more often passing between any decent verse.

So it goes. Anyway:

The rocks have been rolled smooth by waves

The rocks again rolled smooth by waves.

Some had once been humble mountains

Some had been old soldiers’ graves.

Others once were Grecian fountains

Hewn by long forgotten slaves.

Some had borne the painted wonder

Of shivering men who crouched in caves.

Many once were rough; were mighty

The rocks have been rolled smooth by waves.

Some had been the works of man

The rocks rolled smooth by countless waves.

A Short Story Based Off a Short Moment

This basically happened. I didn’t catch all of it verbatim, no, but the awkward little moment is essentially rendered as-is. Or as-was, rather. We’ve all had these moments, and usually we let go of them, as we should. But this one stuck around in my mind, so finally I went ahead and let it sear its place even deeper by writing it out.

 

An Old Dog

                  You want to talk about Left Field? About something coming right the hell out of Left Field? Get this: so I’m in a pharmacy the other day, drugstore/convenience store kind of place, not like a medicine-only kind of place (who goes to those, anyway?), and I’m buying, Christ, what was it, even, it was something so goddamn insipid, like literally tissues I think. Anyway, and I’m walking toward the counter, and on the ground is one of those long plastic mats with the outline of feet on it every eighteen inches or so and then a curve at one end with an arrow pointing toward the cashiers and the words WAIT HERE above a red line, this all with the intention that blisteringly stupid people will look down and think: “Ah, I’m supposed to form a line and then go up to the cashier(s) after the people in front of me have gone up to the cashier(s).”

Anyway. So I’m walking down this little strip of foot outline-demarcated PVC toward the WAIT HERE line to wait my turn, standup citizen that I am, and from one of the aisles—let’s call it the Hallmark Cards aisle, because it was, I think—this seriously old man comes bearing down on that WAIT HERE line at a pace that says Fuck That, and he’s pushing a shopping cart, which is always weird in this place, because it’s not a grocery store, and usually you forget they even have carts, but anyway, so this guy blasts past WAIT HERE and instead he waits where he wants to (THERE, I guess) inches behind a woman who was already at the cashier counter.

Now, me? I’m more than patient enough to WAIT HERE even when some old guy cuts me off. In fact, even if it had been a young guy, I probably would have mumbled to myself “Pick your battles” and convinced myself that was righteousness, right there, but this guy was old as a motherfucker so case closed. The woman who had already waited her turn and made it up to the main event — paying — was paying with cash which she had not thought to maybe get out of her wallet which she had not thought to maybe get out of her purse and so on down the line; long story short it was taking a while. Read more

One of My Earliest Short Stories

I wrote this 381 word short story when I was either 19 or 20 years old; about the same age as the two young men therein featured. This was perhaps the first story I wrote at the age of something approximating adulthood, and brought me out of a long dry spell wherein I had written nothing save for school papers and correspondence. It’s often jarring to read something one wrote long ago, especially when young — we tend to change quite a bit from our 20-year old selves, after all, but this vignette I would write much the same even today.

 

Forty Seven Seconds

            The man was about a hundred yards away. He was sitting, his back against a tree, with his eyes closed. He was facing away from Thom. His profile was not striking. He needed to shave. Unconsciously, Thom stroked his own chin, clean-shaven for the moment. He wondered…

The man by the tree opened his eyes, blinked, and took in a long breath. Then he closed his eyes and lowered his head back onto his chest. He had a cigarette behind his right ear. He was thinking about a football game he had played in when he was younger. He had caught nine passes that day—the best of his short career. That was during high school, in a suburb of Houston.

Thom did not know the man had gone to school in Texas. He did not know that the man had only been a smoker for three months. Thom had smoked since the age of sixteen. Half a decade had past since then; Thom had smoked twenty-one thousand, nine hundred and thirty cigarettes in total. He did not know this specifically, of course.

The man lying against the tree had only smoked one thousand twenty-six in his life—mostly Lucky Strikes and Camels, and a few foreign brands he could not name. He was a virgin, but had created a rich fabrication to subvert this fact.

Thom knew none of these things about the man. All Thom knew was that he needed to shave, and that his right bootlace was not tied. It hung limply. Thom knew about the cigarette behind his ear too, and that his boot needed lacing. Thom did not know why the man had joined the army. Thom did not remember exactly why he himself had volunteered. But he knew that the man’s uniform was green, and that his own was gray, and so he closed his right eye and steadied his hand.

The man under the tree had never made it beyond junior varsity, and had never been with a woman. He had untied his bootlace to relieve pressure on a massive blister. It had been bothering him for days. He was unshaven and was about to smoke his one thousand twenty-seventh cigarette when Thom shot him, through the neck, from about one hundred yards away.