Plots I Never Finished

CURB ALERT: I’m setting out a bunch of unfinished story plots on the side of the road. First come first serve! If this post is still up, it means plots are still available. Thanks!!!!! Please no phone calls!!!!

The one about a girl trying to lure a boy first into a motel, and then into the woods, for nefarious-lite reasons (e.g., not murder, but lots of shadowy psychological manipulation). I finished several versions of this for workshop and then it just didn’t feel right so I wrote something else.

The one about a brother and sister who move to New Orleans after some unclear tragedy happens in their past. The sister starts hallucinating another self; this Other Self begins to achieve agency. This story has been through so many iterations I don’t even know what to do with it. Free to a good home.

The one where the title was filched directly from a Bolaño novel. It was a good title!!! I just couldn’t bring myself to, you know, steal it. And adding in some sort of attribution (after Bolaño or whatever) makes the page look so messy. Ironically, months later I stole the ending from this story and grafted it onto another story, which was published here. The weird thing is that I don’t really remember doing this. It’s as though I went into a Dr. Frankenstein-like trance, committed the surgery, and then woke with no memory of my horrific kleptomaniacal deed!!!

The one where my former best friend became a cannibal and ate her brother, because it was the apocalypse and everyone was starving. THIS ONE WAS REALLY WEIRD. No wonder a bunch of lit mags rejected it.

The one about Anne Boleyn’s beheading. Who hasn’t tried to write this story?? #Tudoriffic

The terrible one about a guy who ran a store in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where he sold old film cameras and sheaves of developed film. I wrote this one this past summer in a feverish desire to rack up page counts. I was flushed with victory, having just finished a 35-page story in a week, and felt that I could do anything, even write stories about men with MFAs in Performance Art who own old film stores (insert vaguely meaningful social commentary about art here). Alas, the manuscript limps along for a while and then just falls to the ground, exhausted, like a small deer who’s been chased by cheetahs for hours. Note: this simile has not been fact-checked.

The one about the dream I had where I was a journalist who follows Amy Winehouse into a surreal underground funhouse. Note to self: dreams rarely translate well into stories.

The one that began, “Astrid was always very wounded. I never quite knew what she wanted.” If I had a dime for every time I tried to name a character Astrid…

The one that began, “I read history books; I learn from the best.” Note to self: good opening line.

The one about parents who set their house on fire and kids who run away and vanish into the woods. Thematically similar to a lot of my early stories, wherein a Bad Thing happens inside the house, because the house itself is sort of a demonic figure, and salvation is found in nature, or, escape is found in nature, or salvation is escape, or escape is salvation, or something. Weirdly, there is a fish pond in this story and one of the kids accidentally steps on a fish and kills it. Like…that would never happen in real life, right? Fish are far too fast!

The one about the girl who goes fishing with her grandpa for the ghost of her dead sister but then it turns out her grandpa is already dead and her grandma is some sort of witch. A super traumatizing tale that doesn’t make a lot of sense (sample line: “I was scratching at his back, feeling the old fabric of his shirt shred under my fingernails and feeling his dry dead skin come off in strips.” EESH) but what can I say? I was working a 9-5 at the time; my brains were addled by capitalism!

Writing As: An Introduction

A young Tori fresh out of college, considering a career as an oil painter.

A young Tori, fresh out of college and considering a career as an oil painter.

I’ve tried to update this blog—this PORTFOLIO, sorry, this portfolio—a million times this summer and fall, but I’ve been wracked with that weird form of writer’s block that comes from having too much to say and too much money to be bothered to write it down and too many conflicting celebrity birthday party invitations to attend them all which has resulted in a lot of very hurt, very famous feelings, as you can imagine.

The past twelve months have been full of so many changes. For example, I lost some skin cells and grew new ones. I also started washing my hair with yarrow root and researched video games. Exciting statistic: I’ve officially been a full-time freelance writer for a year! Yeah, it was right around the start of football season that I quit my hilariously lucrative, moonshine-soaked waitressing job so that I could write full-time, and by “write full-time” I mean “write fashion news blurbs for almost no money full-time.” But the journey of a thousand miles starts with one underpaid gig, compatriots.

So it’s been a year of thinking about writing in a much more tangible, practical way than I ever thought about writing before. It’s not so much, “Ooh I like writing OOH HERE’S A GOOD TITLE FOR A POEM: EARL GREY RAINWATER,” it’s much more, “What do I want to write? What am I good at writing? What role do I want writing to play in my life? How do I want to write? Is there a void in the world that only my writing can fill?” (Yes there is, and it’s called TARANTINO’S GHOSTWRITER.)

In short, it’s been a year of thinking about my calling, which is sensitive term that I used once in an awkward meeting with an Indiana University administrator. I told him I didn’t want to be a teacher because being a teacher wasn’t “my calling.” He actually laughed at me.

“You believe in callings?” he asked. I didn’t say anything, but what I should have told that sad, incredulous man is, “How can you not?”

So I’ve decided to write down my thoughts on the subject of writing like a bored housewife keeping a diary on the back of her grocery receipts during the awful summer heat of Arizona, 1964. I’ll make it a series: writing as all sorts of different things. I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of them, but this is what writing means to me at this moment in time as I sit in my air-conditioned mansion and count my millions and, well, I could write about it all day.

Brief, Impassioned Book Reviews in Capslock

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Want to know my favorite thing in the world that I’ve loved since I was 12? Sleeping in on Saturday mornings, rolling over groggily, and picking up a book. O! for the days when that book was Harry Potter! I may never know such passionate investment in a world again. (I’m like 20% invested in this world.)

I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately (Charlie and I are trying to finish The Office and hoping that Jim and Pam die at the end), and the difference between zoning out in front of the TV and reading a book is just MIND-BLOWING. TV-watching doesn’t even relax you! It stresses you out more! My brain literally feels better when I’m reading—relaxed, aware, empathetic, intrigued. When I’m fully engaged in a novel (which is hard, as I now have an iPhone and my attention span is more gerbil-like than ever; have you seen how I use parentheticals?)—that is, when I’m experiencing la douleur exquise of wanting to know what happens next and needing the whole thing to be real, well, friends, that is absolutely the greatest thing about books and really the only thing I want to accomplish in my own writing. So here’s how I feel about my latest reads IN CAPSLOCK, BECAUSE THERE IS NO OTHER WAY.

Endless Love – Scott Spencer: AMAZING CULT NOVEL FROM THE 70S ABOUT OBSESSIVE TEENAGE LOVE.  JUST EXQUISITE AT THE SENTENCE LEVEL; SOME MIGHT THINK IT’S OVERWRITTEN BUT I FOUND IT IMPASSIONED, AS THE NARRATOR IS ONE OF THOSE GUYS WHO SORT OF CAN’T BEAR FINDING THINGS SO BEAUTIFUL. I’LL NEVER FORGET THE IMAGE OF WALKING DOWN A HALLWAY AND HEARING THE “SWEET WHITE NOISE” OF THE SHOWER RUNNING. THE PLOT IS CRAZY AND BY THE END YOU SORT OF FEEL LIKE NONE OF IT EVER HAPPENED. INTENSE EMOTIONAL EXPLORATION. NOT TO BE A TOTAL SEXIST BUT IMPRESSIVE TO SEE THIS SORT OF ACCURATE EMOTIONAL PITCH COMING FROM A MALE WRITER. THE ENDING MADE ME CRY.

Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert. I FOUND THIS IN A THRIFT STORE AND I THOUGHT, “WHY NOT?”  A SMALL ACT OF REBELLION AGAINST THE LITERARY ESTABLISHMENT ON MY PART. DIDN’T EXPECT TO ABSOLUTELY LOVE THIS BOOK. THE WRITING IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN YOU’D THINK. IT’S A CLASSIC STORY OF BREAKDOWN AND REDEMPTION. ONCE SHE GETS TO INDONESIA I WAS KIND OF DONE WITH THE STORY BECAUSE EVERYTHING WAS SO PERFECT AND READING ABOUT PERFECTION GETS OLD. STILL, I JUDGE YOU IF YOU JUDGE THIS BOOK WITHOUT READING IT, BECAUSE THEN I KNOW YOU ARE A LITERARY SNOB WITH NO SOUL.

Amy and Isabelle – Elizabeth Strout. ELIZABETH STROUT IS MY HOMEGIRL. SHE’S BASICALLY THE NOVELIST VERSION OF ALICE MUNRO. AN INCREDIBLY SENSITIVE WRITER. ONE OF THOSE AMAZING AUTHORS WHO KNOWS WHAT EVERY CHARACTER IN THE ROOM IS FEELING AT ANY GIVEN TIME. THIS IS A HEARTBREAKING MOTHER/DAUGHTER STORY. A LITTLE SLOW AT FIRST, BUT PICKS UP QUICKLY. THE INTERNAL LIFE OF THE MOTHER IS JUST UNBELIEVABLY RENDERED. THE ENDING MADE ME CRY. ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL LAST SENTENCES I’VE EVER READ. SHE’S PROBABLY NEVER USED CAPSLOCK IN HER LIFE BUT DON’T GET ME WRONG, ELIZABETH STROUT IS NO PUSHOVER: SHE’S NOT AFRAID OF CHARACTERS WHO CURSE, YOUNG GIRLS WHO SEDUCE OLDER MEN, OR PUTTING DEAD BODIES IN CAR TRUNKS.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – Karen Russell. THIS COLLECTION MIGHT BE BETTER THAN SWAMPLANDIA. THE MOST IMAGINATIVE STORIES ABOUT CREEPY CHILDREN YOU WILL EVER READ, ALL BRIMMING WITH THAT POIGNANT PAIN THAT’S SO PARTICULAR TO CHILDHOOD AND THAT I ALWAYS TRY TO WRITE ABOUT BUT SINCE KAREN RUSSELL IS THE MACARTHUR-WINNING QUEEN OF CREEPY EMOTIONALLY SENSITIVE CHILDREN I GUESS I SHOULD JUST BECOME A HEART SURGEON LIKE EVERYONE IS ALWAYS TELLING ME TO BE. ANYWAY, SOME OF THE ENDINGS HAD THAT DISTINCT WORKSHOP-ENDING FLAVOR, BUT OVERALL AN INCREDIBLY ENGAGING READ.

Atonement – Ian McEwan. THIS IS THE FAVORITE NOVEL OF TWO OF MY VERY BEST FRIENDS SO I FEEL LIKE I PSYCHED MYSELF OUT BEFORE I EVEN STARTED IT, LIKE, “I NEED TO LOVE THIS I NEED TO LOVE THIS.” I ALSO THINK SEEING THE MOVIE FIRST MADE THE READING EXPERIENCE POORER. STILL, AN AMAZING BEAUTIFUL NOVEL AND I LOVED THE WAR SCENES. THEY MADE ME CRY.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman. AMANDA PALMER WHO? I AM THE ONE WHO NEIL GAIMAIN WAS SUPPOSED TO MARRY. I HAVE LOVED HIM FOR A LONG TIME AND I THINK HE’S JUST THE BEST. INSANE IMAGINATION. HAS THAT LOVING SENSIBILITY THAT ONLY GOOD CHILDREN’S WRITERS HAVE, BUT ALL ADULTS SHOULD READ HIM TOO. HE DEFINITELY BELIEVES IN THE MAGIC HE WRITES ABOUT AND I BELIEVE, TOO. I FIND THAT OCCASIONALLY HIS BOOKS START FEELING A LITTLE FAIRY-TALE-DERIVATIVE, BUT THIS WAS A QUICK FUN READ. STILL, IF YOU HAVEN’T READ ANY GAIMAN, YOU ABSOLUTELY MUST READ “THE GRAVEYARD BOOK” NO QUESTIONS ASKED IT IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF ALL TIME. AND SEE “CORALINE,” THE MOVIE, IT’S AMAZING.

 Where’d You Go, Bernadette? – Maria Semple. MY FAVORITE NOVEL RIGHT NOW. YOU WANT YOUR POP CULTURE-INFUSED, QUICK-PACED, FUNNY BUT STILL EMOTIONALLY RESONANT, MULTI-MEDIA-TYPE WRITING? PUT DOWN “A VISIT TO THE GOON SQUAD” AND PICK THIS UP.  I REALLY HOPE THIS WINS THE PULITZER ALTHOUGH THERE’S NO WAY IT WILL BECAUSE IT’S NOT “LITERARY.” EXCEPT IT IS LITERARY, IT IS QUINTESSENTIALLY LITERARY. RICH CHARACTERS THAT YOU DEEPLY CARE ABOUT DOING HILARIOUS, UNEXPECTED, BIZARRE THINGS WHILE FREAKING OUT ABOUT LIFE? WHAT’S MORE LITERARY THAN THAT? YOU CAN READ YOUR TAO LIN ALL DAY BUT I BELIEVE NOVELS WERE MEANT TO BE ENJOYED. YES, I’M BITTER, ONCE A SEMI-FAMOUS CHICAGO AUTHOR WAS REALLY RUDE TO ME AND MY FRIEND OUTSIDE A FALAFEL JOINT. IT CREATED A WOUND IN MY HEART THAT WILL ONLY BE FILLED BY POP PSYCHOLOGY AND FINDING THE TRUE GREATNESS IN SEEMINGLY SHALLOW ART FORMS. THIS IS WHY I LOVE MILEY CYRUS AND WILL DEFEND HER TO ZEUS HIMSELF. THIS IS SERIOUSLY AN AMAZING BOOK THOUGH, THE BEST BOOK I’VE READ ALL YEAR, READ IT, YOU’LL LAUGH YOU’LL CRY YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO PUT IT DOWN. JUST DO IT.

poundit

PS: HAS ANYONE NOTICED I’M HAVING A MOMENT WITH SEMICOLONS? NO? FINE.

The Work of Writing: Week One Update

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In case you missed it, I’m embarking on a month-long project of trying a different writing work style every week. If you’re a non-writer who’s wondering why I’m doing this, STOP READING MY BLOG AND GO BACK TO YOUR FINANCE JOB. Just kidding, I ADORE you. I’m doing this not-so-glamorous experiment because nobody really talks about the pros and cons of different writing styles–people just talk about how Hemingway drank daiquiris. Oh, really? Writers tend toward alcoholism? LOOK IN THE MIRROR, SOCIETY. IT’S YOU. 

Ugh times ten thousand. This week was not only sickeningly hot, it was a study in everything that is frustrating about writing. If you recall, I was planning to write only new content for an hour a day at the same time each day. Some lowlights:

1. I couldn’t write at the same time every day because my schedule is different every day. Where’s the genius who thought up that parameter?

2. I didn’t write at all on Thursday because I was so sleep-deprived that I had to choose a nap over writing during the sliver of free time I had between jobs. I don’t regret it because I was near death, but I feel guilty about skipping a day.

3. On Friday, I began to get frustrated with the sloppiness of the story. The trajectory seemed off–as though I’d taken a wrong turn circa page 15 and was now careening down a terrible highway. As you may recall, I set a goal for myself to only produce new content–and I did, 20 pages of it, girrrrrl–but once things started feeling off-balance, I just wanted to go back and edit. Or drink myself to death.

4. Yesterday’s “writing” was just awful. I’d-rather-be-anything-but-a-writer-level awful. I was at Intelligentsia, it was packed with loud tourists, I have never felt less inspired. I left in a rage and stalked down Michigan Avenue with my best I’m-a-serial-killer-get-out-of-my-way-you-plebeian-scum face on and bought some expensive honey at Whole Foods.

Some highlights:

1. Despite the fact that I am now on the Chicago serial killer registry for kickstarting the Great Fruit Fly Massacre of 2013, I have 20 pages of a brand-new story that simply did not exist a week ago! I want to fling the pages around an Egyptian temple and make my acolytes strew herbs on them. WRITING A NEW STORY IS THE GREATEST FEELING IN THE WORLD. I KNOW YOU FEEL ME! Earlier in the week when I was young and the world was mine, I was feeling pretty high on the whole concept of creation. Coming up with something new can make you feel like you’re that elusive autopoietic machine or whatever it’s called. FREAKING COOL, RIGHT?!

2. I remembered that stories need to have an “inciting incident.” OH, RIGHT. As I wrote, I started asking myself questions as though I was in a bad relationship: where is this thing going? What’s the point? What am I doing here? Why is that man talking LOUDLY ON HIS CELL PHONE CAN’T HE SEE I’M TRYING TO WRITE?

The takeaway:

If you decide that writing every day is your thing, it’s probably going to feel like what it is: a grind. You won’t always feel like an autopoietic genius. There are a thousand things waiting to burst through the seams of your structured day and just overwhelm you. It’s hard to get enough sleep and make enough money for rent. It’s even harder to carve out time in the day to work on your own stuff when you’re constantly getting new emails, tweets, and texts, and the dishes are piling up, and you remember guiltily that you haven’t eaten a vegetable in days, and also you now have cholera and are skidding towards the grave.

Don’t let the frustration of general existence tear you away from putting in a little time to write. Some of what I wrote this week was awesome, since I am a MacArthur fellow. Some of it was stupid, since my brain is 40% 15-year-old boy. It wasn’t the greatest week of my life, but I put in a little time and I got results: a Frankensteinian baby of a story that needs drastic plastic surgery. Nobody ever said fiction was going to look beautiful without a few stitches.

The Means of Production

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It’s impossible not to love April. It’s the prettiest month, the crocus month, the herald of the lover’s month (wait, how could I ever pick the prettiest month?): May. As soon as April hit, so did inspiration. I started the month buzzing with near-delusional creative energy and I have the crazed texts to prove it. Some of my friends and I are writing and emailing each other a poem-a-day in honor of National Poetry Month (although in the case of your faithful correspondent, I’m writing flash fiction…ish), and I can’t tell you how rewarding it feels to think up a brand new title night after night (I love titles, I will lick them off the page if I must, DON’T TREAD ON ME). I want to say something like “creation breeds creation” because I think it might be true. I skidded into the last week of March writing 15 desperate script pages a day, completely burned out, feeling like I would never write again. But then April came. Last night, I couldn’t sleep because I kept playing out new scenes in my head. And the scenes were creepy–dead body in the oak tree? nursing a dying baby?–so my inner child-eye refused to close because it was so freaked out. Does anyone else have their best ideas at night? Isn’t that moment when you force yourself to turn on the light and write them down so agonizing? And don’t you feel so self-righteous when you do?

You have to listen to your inner artist just like a pregnant woman listens to what her baby demands from her body. Sometimes you lay fallow and you can’t hate yourself for that. Because this is what happens when you don’t force yourself to churn out page after tepid page. Spring comes, and your whole self blooms.

Making Things Happen

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Friends, Romans, countrymen:

I just had a storytelling revelation. It may not mean much to you, but it’s big for me. If you all give me five bucks, I’ll share. By reading this far you have already agreed. Awesome. I’ll send my accountant around to collect. Isn’t it great how the Internet lets us make up our own rules?

Right now, I’m trying to write something long. Writing a 100+-page piece is so, so different than writing a short story. And it’s freaking hard, since I don’t exactly have my long-form muscles developed: over the course of my long and illustrious writing career I’ve written two novellas (both featuring nightmares and ghosts, obv) and a couple 30-page stories. Everything else has hovered around the 10-20 page range. I’m pretty sure all the non-writers in the audience just fell asleep. PAGE LENGTH IS REALLY INTERESTING TO WRITERS, OKAY? I could talk about the difference in tension between a 10-page story and a 15-page story all day, and maybe I will if you all don’t stop being so mean!

In short-form literary fiction, we’re encouraged to be so delicate. We have to handle huge issues with grace and extreme minimalism, with subtlety and poignant images that mean so much more than they say. So when I describe a grandfather clock that’s no longer ticking, you know immediately that I’m talking about MORTALITY. A salty little wave gently creeping up on the beach? EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY AFTER SOME BAD THINGS HAPPEN. &tc. &tc. &tc. (By the way, for people who get confused when I write “&tc.”, I’m 70% sure I once saw David Foster Wallace write “etc.” that way and I have appropriated it for my very own, like someone stealing a small kitten with one missing eye.)

But then it hit me like a ton of bad similes: in this longer piece, I simply have to make things happen. Real things! People can die, babies can be born, people can marry and divorce and fight viciously with both guns and something worse than guns (HURTFUL WORDS), people can change their mind not once not twice but THREE OR MORE times, dishes can fall crashing from the shelves because of dinosaurs walking by, bad weather can reverse the entire plot trajectory, and so on and so forth. In a 10-page story, there’s only so much that can actually occur if you’re trying to avoid a rompy melodrama. But in a longer piece, if not much happens, you’re left with a snoozefest like Melancholia (oh!).

So I need to abandon grace and delicacy for the moment (I’ll pick up those valuable tools during the revision stage) in favor of one thing and one thing only: ACTION. Plot action and character change and inexorable forward movement. There will be no new spring leaves softly scraping against the windowpane in this draft, baby. No nubile young girls singing nursery rhymes to contrast with the protagonist’s slow acceptance of death. No no no. There will be car chases and people exploding out of dark closets and terrible, terrible screaming matches. I need to let go of my crippling fear of melodrama. I don’t know if I can. It’s too ingrained in me. This is what happens when your parents give you a good education. (Thank you, Mommy and Papi! I love you!) But this is really important right now—it’s time to smash down whatever imaginary dam is keeping the movement out, and let the flood roar in.

(METAPHOR: STILL GOT IT.)

Also, happy Saturday and much love to everyone reading this, even the bad ones! This post may come across as slightly aggressive, but it’s just the breve, I swear.

Tori

PS: I’m usually all, I don’t care what people think! But in this case I actually do. Thoughts on creating something lengthy? Am I missing some important mark?