Not so creative writing (12” O. Henry Remix)
“I am part of everything I indict.” -Lenny Bruce
Day 1. Our journey begins
So in my ever Quixotic attempts to enter the rarefied kingdom of arts and letters, I frequently check the “writing” section of Craigslist. Sometimes I send in stories and poems to vaguely defined literary magazines and webistes, most of which are met with an e-wall of silence. In my more paranoid moments, I think there’s a vast and nefarious cabal who is harvesting my writing and that of other struggling idealists and someday we will see books that have, Frankenstein-like, sewn our stories together into some Oprah worthy novel. We will raise our hoarse voices in protest, but be squashed by all powerful corporate lawyers.
I digress. The other month, I saw a posting for editor/reader positions at a fledgling (or floundering) online magazine. I applied and several weeks later, they sent me a link to 7 stories, which I had to read and critique. Like a lot of aspiring writers, I consider myself a pretty good critic. Plus, I read a lot, which I’m pretty good at, and am kind of an opinionated jerk. So the opportunity to eviscerate some of my anonymous peers’ (read: the competition) work was welcome. I sharpened my knives and dug in.
I didn’t even have to work up a sweat with the first story. To begin with it’s called “The Vernal Equinox of Death.” Seriously. Perhaps it’s wrong to make up your mind about a story before you read it, but I’m pretty dead set against this one which strings together “important” words (ooh, it’s about death!) into a web of inanity. It’s a bad prose poetry mess of pretentiousness, lame weather imagery, and utter earnestness. It feels like something from a college writing workshop. Brevity is its best quality.
I’m supposed to categorize the stories as yes, maybe, and no. I give this one an emphatic no.
*Bonus Sample Line: “The unequivocally non-melancholic death of a Butterfly in outer Tokyo instigates the paradigm shift in the Sahara’s storms of nihilism and despair.”
Next up is “The Beginning of Wisdom.” I’m not sure if the title is meant to be a Biblical allusion or not. Probably not, as there’s nothing in the story to support it and most writers are post-God these days. After the incoherent rambling of the previous story, it’s nice to see a plot and characters. The opening line compares the city to Pac-man. I’m in Generation X (whoo! grunge!) so I dig the pop culture references. That was a great game. Even better was its distaff follow up Ms. Pac-man, a milestone of third wave feminism. There’s some pretty good description throughout. It’s about a quiet, cipher of a guy who, while walking home from work, sees a woman being raped in an alley. He hesitates and contemplates helping her, but instead flees and goes home, his one opportunity to break out of his deadened, Prufrockian self and be a hero. It’s a bit grim, especially the description of the rape. It gets a maybe.
*Bonus Sample Line: “He saw it right there in front of him in all its shabby reality. He froze. Just froze.”
Number 3 is called “Jackie O’s Dress.” The title is literal, as one of the characters bought one of the former first lady’s cocktail dresses. It attempt to delve into the strange subculture of obsessive collectors (Barbies, porcelain figures). There’s also some kind of romantic plot that I didn’t really get. The character with the dress is a convert to Hinduism (?) and eventually wears the dress at some function, thus ruining its value. It’s as shallow and thin as it sounds. Maybe it’s trying to ironically appropriate the detritus of dead famous people, but it’s a thoroughly empty enterprise and more emblematic of, than critical of, a desiccated culture caught up with the ephemera, rather than the substance of life. The question I scrawled on the coffee stained text (the top came off my thermos) was “Who are these people and why do we care?” So no.
*Bonus Sample Line: “I bought this damn dress that used to belong to Jackie O. and, by the blue of Vishnu, I’ll wear it!”
At almost half way through the stack, I’m starting to despair about finding a decent story. I may be cynical, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be surprised or to actually whole-heartedly recommend a story. Are these the best they could find? Or is this some kind of gauntlet? An arcane hazing initiation? Our literature-loving hero is puzzled. And bored. So very, very bored.
Story no. 4 is “Soledad.” I’m somewhat put off by its 14 pages (remember the “short” in short story bub). It’s the first person account of a somewhat bitter, restive Englishman coming to Mexico City to get some contracts signed. If he doesn’t, it’s his ass on the line! What these contracts are and what the guy does is hazy. The story revolves around his relationship with the title character, a spunky, punky Mexican girl who is the niece of the man who needs to sign the papers. Because if doesn’t get them signed, it’s his ass! The two drink, talk about Johnny Cash and art (she’s an artist) and suicide. They don’t, despite road signs pointing in that direction, fall in love or lust. The characters are pretty good, though the narrator’s not very pleasant and he doesn’t like Mexico very much, calling it a “shit-hole” and calling Mexicans “savages.” Maybe it’s an oblique commentary on our current immigration crisis. Soledad incorporates his contracts into her artwork (wtf?), so it’s totally gonna be his ass. It trails off, rather than ends, with the protagonist wanting to see the sea. It gets a maybe.
*Bonus Sample Lines: “Mexico City. Shit. I was jet lagged and needed a whiskey and this bunghole town stinks. God damn I hate it here.”
Day 2. The lights darken and it’s not safe to go back into the prose
OK. We’re back. Just when things were getting a little better, we get # 5, “A Lifted Idea.” (Somehow the virtually unlistenable, grinding, bloody fingers on metal sheets brutality of Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks playing on the stereo helps.) It starts with the protagonist getting an idea for a story (a-ha!). What follows is a series of increasingly inane simlies (“like drinking to forget,” “like a cat”), the nadir of which is a comparison between writing and baking cookies. Mmm, bad analogies. There’s also some stuff about philosophers like Wittgenstein. The story (at least it’s only 3 pages) ends, as it begun, with the protagonist getting an idea for a story and mentioning cookie batter. A story about a story-very meta, very house of mirrors, very hackneyed. Unequivocal no. Nien and nyet and “no” in 45 other languages, including pig latin.
*Bonus Sample Line: “Like the sun dawning on the day, the idea floated across the calm water and settled on his desk as a feather falling from the muse.”
Left somewhat staggering by the uppercut of # 5, I am vulnerable to 6’s vicious gut punch, which nearly finishes me. It’s titled “Quicksand.” It starts out as a kind of as a tough cop story, using throwback phrases like “the concrete soul of Elizabeth Street” and more up to date ones like “gaydar.” The beat cop looks like Spencer Tracy. He finds a purse with coke hidden it. He returns it to the owner, a pretty woman that the cop mentally undresses. He grills her about the coke. Then around page 7, unexpectedly and unfortunately and awkwardly, the story becomes yet another tired and vacuous excursion into self-conscious, po-mo claptrap. The characters start to address the author and complain, rightly so, about how they don’t like how they’re written or used in the story. The author talks back. There’s a third rate Charlie Kaufman vibe here or a very poor man’s Pirandello. Clearly the quicksand of the title is the mire of mediocre and derivative writing. I don’t even know what to say about it except “Boo!” Dial “N” for no.
*Bonus Sample Line: “Why do we have to listen to what you say? This story sucks! I don’t look anything like Spencer Tracy. Let’s blow this lousy popsicle stand of a story toots.”
There’s one story left, thank God, Buddah, Allah, and Ron Hubbard. It’s the longest and I feel I’ve wasted enough paper, so I don’t print it out. It’s called “No More Alligator Feet,” which is at least different. It’s about a pool cleaner who likes to work bare footed, which hardens his feet, hence the title. His girlfriend doesn’t really his feet and eventually she leaves, but not just because of that. Alligator feet guy is the best drawn, most amiable character of the bunch. It’s more of a character study than a story and it does go on too long. The character could use more of a story, as this meanders somewhat without any real direction or destination. Still, it’s probably the best story. Though beating the competition here is like Matt Dillon beating handicapped kids (“Gifted, my ass.”) at football in There’s Something About Mary.
*Bonus Sample Lines: “My alligator feet are me Sarah. They’re part of who I am. You gotta take one with the other.”
Phew. Well, I don’t know how representative these stories are of the state of short fiction. I strongly suspect that these writers are in college or recently out of college, as they all smack of college creative writing workshop and there is a self-conscious earnestness to many of the stories. At least I hope they’re young writers because inexperience covers a multitude of sins.
This is a cautionary tale for you English majors out there because if you’re not careful you’ll end up like me, sporadically employed (substitute teacher), bitter, reading crappy stories for a position that, even if you got it, wouldn’t pay anything.
If this is your story I’m making fun, I’m sorry. I’m not going too far out of my way to be mean, really. And it’s not personal, it’s creative writing. If you’re offended, please contact me with your insults/death threats/mummy curses. Good night and good writing.
Epilogue (2 weeks later)
I received a friendly e-mail rejection (an e-jection!) from the editors. I was one of many talented applicants, but, just like in Highlander, there can be only one whatever it was that I was applying for. They encourage me to submit my own writing. Fat chance.
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Portland Fiction Project
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