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!

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Tonight, I was sitting on the curb drinking a glass of wine—AS WE DO HERE IN CYPRESS PARK, LOS ANGELES—and thinking about the city vs. the country. I’ve read a couple of things lately that have emphasized the difference. Don’t be impressed by my nocturnal musings, please. I was thinking about my immune system. And I was thinking about my skin.

Apparently kids who grow up in the country have stronger immune systems. They’re exposed to dirt, bugs, and swampy muck, and the result is an immune system that can withstand a lot of outside nastiness, unlike those milquetoast city kids who are running our financial centers of industry!!! But cities have their demons, too, and all the pollution of cities is really hard on your skin. Wrinkles. Cancer of the eyeballs. The usual suspects. Anyway, I was just sort of emptily musing about these different places and the various degrees of trouble/salvation they hold.

And then I just thought: whatever. The fact that we even have this dichotomy—city vs. country and all the nuances in between—is amazing. I don’t really care if I’m breathing in a little pollution right now. It’s so incredible that I’m sitting here with my feet—OKAY, MY BIRKENSTOCKS—planted on concrete that covers dirt that covers pipes and water and the army Beyoncé is slowly building underground. It’s pretty incredible that I can see the moon and a few sad stars and that there’s also an electric light over my head. I love that it’s dark out but I can see two teenage girls sitting on the stairs of the school across the street and gossiping. I love that I can see a few ants milling around. And I love that there is such a thing as the country, and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful, and I can see it whenever I want, because there are also things like Rental Cars and Airplanes and Jobs that Pay and Credit Cards For When You’re Really Desperate to Get Out.

AND THEN!!!!! (Never talk to a fiction writer if you want a short story, unless you’re talking to a flash fiction writer, in which case you may have to lean over to hear what they have to say because they will be laying on the ground because most flash fiction has no spine. YEAH, I WENT THERE.)

Then I reached down and touched the concrete.

About a year ago, maybe more, I wrote a flash fiction piece (I AM NOT IMMUNE TO SPINELESSNESS) about the end of the world. Fine, fine, I’ll link to it, go ahead, twist my arm. It was about a mother, in a space station, who watches the world split in half. I felt very emotional when I wrote it. I felt, deeply, how sad it would be if that actually happened. I know that sounds like an obvious thing to say, but just think about it. Ehhhhhh? Are you imagining it? The little grave you dug for your parakeet when you were 7? The name you scratched into that tree and then, embarrassed, tried to scratch out again? The last batch of recycling you threw away, thinking somewhat guiltily that recycling old birthday cards feels wrong but hey, are you supposed to save them all forever?? ALL OF THAT GONE.

And then a couple of weeks ago, I read a submission for Cicada (a hip cool teen mag I freelance for) about…a girl in space watching the world end. In both pieces, the world ends in flame. In both of them, humans watch it happen with a particular gaping nostalgia-tinged grief. And when I say “the world ending,” I mean the world LITERALLY BEING DESTROYED. No zombie apocalypse or global warming happening here. I mean the planet physically blowing up/burning up/cracking apart.

When I stroked the concrete I thought for a second that maybe I was stroking the spine of the planet. Like it was some big animal that we’ve all forgotten about. I actually whispered something to it. I wanted it to know that I remembered it. I just couldn’t bear the thought of Earth not existing anymore. I mean, it’s so amazing! And yes, it has been the unwilling—unwitting?—stage to so many horrors. And all we talk about are those horrors. And we should talk about them. But all this time, under us, has been this great sleeping animal. And I feel like me and this other writer were probably feeling the same way when we wrote those little pieces. Like, we really haven’t appreciated the Planet-ness, the Globe-ness of this earth enough. And the whole thing will probably split open someday. And won’t that be awful. Won’t that be the ultimate sadness.

13 Things I Loved in 2013

Peeps, I am PSYCHED for 2014. I think it’s going to be a fantastic year for all of us. Shout-out to my little sister who’ll be graduating high school and starting college, everyone from IU who’s going to be graduating with an MFA, and all others undergoing life changes big and small. Oh, and an extra-meaningful shout-out to anyone who’s about to come into a lot of money. These thrifted cardigans don’t pay for themselves!

In an effort to remain optimistic and grateful instead of defaulting into my usual mental state (fatalistic and consumed with a senseless desire for revenge), I’m taking a look back on the highlights of 2013–a strange and frightening year for young Tori if there ever was one. There were lows, there were ant infestations, there were terrified moments spent deep under the covers wondering if the apocalypse was nigh, there were creepy men on street corners talking to figures I couldn’t see, but there were also highs, and kindred spirits, and candles, and champagne, and paycheck after paycheck with more than 6 figures on it.

Here are some of the things I loved.

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2013-121. Hanging out with my guy. He cooks delicious egg sandwiches, he cracks me up, he lets me take hilarious photos of him when he’s carrying his bass over potholes, we’re in a top-secret band together, he’s not too grumpy, he’s the most supportive person of my writing by a long shot, he took me to a champagne salon on my birthday, and he is far too precious to be elaborated on via the Internet. screenplaygurrrrl

2. Writing a screenplay. Aside from some novellas in college (what up Northwestern CW Honors Program ’09), this was my first real foray into long-form writing, and gee willikers was it hard. But my seemingly senseless toil earned me the ultimate prize: having my name appear…in a list…ON THE INTERNET…beneath the name of someone who doesn’t use the Oxford comma!

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3. Going on a whirlwind trip to Colombia, aka “Colombia the country,” with these kindreds. When my friend Joe called me for a little commiseration about his “failed” trip to Colombia, neither of us had any idea that in about forty-eight hours, we’d both be on a plane to Bogotá. Our spur-of-the-moment trip taught me so much about how I want to live my life. I finally understood, viscerally, that no action comes out of inaction. There’s never going to be a perfect time, you’ll never have enough money (what up Indiana University graduate student “salary”), and you will always have to shuffle your life and budget around like a professional juggler. But if you bring yo’ passport and pack super light and are okay with not washing your hair for a while, it’s going to be amazing.

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4. Waitressing the night the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. It was basically like going to a huge party where ecstatic strangers buy you drinks and you walk away with $300 cash. Hanging out with Toews and the Stanley Cup was pretty awesome too, but as you can see, I was in a bad mood that day for no good reason. Women, right?!

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5. Actually, waitressing in general. I spent the summer waitressing and freelance writing, and it was just the funnest, most laid-back summer ever. After a while, I couldn’t keep up with the late nights/Jameson shots + early mornings article deadlines, but waitressing and writing are the perfect combination of extroversion/introversion, human interest/dreaming.

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6. Travels. Despite the fact that I’ve become terrified of flying after entering into an alternate reality via airplane in the spring of 2012 (long story), there is little I love better than going to a new city/town/country/bullfighting festival/party in West Egg/Yoknapatawpha county/WHAT?!

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7. Writing flash fiction, the world’s most enjoyable art form. This is probably my favorite thing I’ve written this year, if yer interested.

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8. Making tiny videos. I got no technical/financial/practical reason to do so, it’s just SO MUCH FUN. And is there a better reason for doing anything? (Funny. KitschySad.)

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9. Embracing the art of the terrifying decision. 2013 was the year I left three different jobs. No wait–four jobs. No, wait, five jobs–geez, #likearollingstone, am I right?! Because I’ve learned that what you don’t do often defines you just as much as what you do.

2013-52013-1010. Bloomington farewells, Bloomington reunions. Proof that just like Snow White and Prince Charming in “Once Upon a Time” (obscure art world reference, don’t worry about it), writers will always find each other.

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11. Meriwether reunion. We may not be any closer to world domination and we may have forgotten to create our famous podcast, “Insanity,” but we’re still the queens of the comedy hour. The question remains: is it all in our heads?!

photo-40 photo-41 photo-4212. SISTER reunion. We’re probably going to be roommates when she’s in college, because that’s what normal people do. And she gon’ be my best friiiiiiiiieeeend.

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13. All things family. Is this me ending with a sentimental cliche? No, this is me ending with a Marilynne Robinson quote:

There’s so much to be grateful for, words are poor things.

Everything I Know About Narrative Realist Fiction I Learned From “The Call” by the Backstreet Boys

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I’ve been studying creative writing since I was a kid, but I never learned much from “books on craft” (ugh) or discussions about whether or not creative nonfiction needs to stick religiously to the truth (yawn). As a matter of fact, it was a single song from the turn of the millennium that — despite its humble length and heavy reliance on “club” sound effects — taught me everything I know about good fiction. It begins with a simple phone call; it ends with universal heartbreak. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll question everything you knew about high art.

1. If you do nothing else, at least begin in media res.

Before the Backstreet Boys, pop music was heavily reliant on archetypal openings like a “sick beat” or a few pounding guitar chords. “The Call” ignores all that musty traditionalism in favor of something as intriguing as it is simple: the ringing of a phone. Why ease into the (narrative) pool when you can perform a (literary) cannonball instead?

2. You have approximately two seconds to establish tension.

Without tension, your story falls immediately — I have to say it — flaccid. Never ones to risk losing their underage audience, the Backstreet Boys hook us mere seconds into the song. A sleepy-sounding woman picks up the phone. “Hello?” A man’s cigarette-roughened voice begins, “I’m sorry, listen, I’m going to be late tonight…”

Dun dun dun. It’s not a new juxtaposition — innocent girl at home, hard-partying man anywhere but — but it sure is an effective one.

3. The truth is ambiguous. Play around with it.

What one character knows to be true might not necessarily be the truth of the story world. What the narrator insists is true might not necessarily carry weight in the real world. It’s called narrative unreliability (I think), and it’s one of the most interesting techniques a writer can play around with.

Forget Humbert Humbert and Holden Caulfield — “The Call” doesn’t get nearly enough credit for featuring one of the most famously unreliable narrators of all time. Before the song even starts, we hear the protagonist hanging up on his girlfriend without answering any of her worried questions, insisting, “My battery must be low.” As readers, we’re privy to the fateful night that follows, so when we look back on that “call that changed [the protagonist’s] destiny,” we realize that he was totally lying about the battery! What else has he been lying to us about? Is the girl at the club even real? Are you on drugs?

4. Down with the fourth wall! DOWWWWWWWNNNNNN!

Many of the world’s greatest stories have a narrator who introduces him or herself to the reader. Forget about that whole “Call me Ishmael” shtick. The narrator of “The Call” doesn’t even need a name:

Let me tell you a story ’bout the call that changed my destiny.

Suddenly we’re just a bunch of cavemen, sitting around the world’s first fire, listening to that most universal of entertainments — the story.

5. Please, please, please, please, don’t spend time describing the club.

Or the bar, or the coffee shop, or the restaurant. Nobody cares that the music at the club was “hot, sweaty, and sensuous, with a beat like the ragged breathing of a panther.” We understand that coffee shops are full of “scruffy men writing the next Great American Novel in ratty notebooks, wondering if anyone is watching.” And we definitely know that bar floors can be sticky. Don’t bore us with your unnecessary descriptors. The main action of “The Call” takes place in a club, but the Backstreet Boys give us only this:

Me and my boys went out, just to end up in misery.

Our imaginations quickly sketch in the rest of the scene, and no one needed to hear about “the yellowing lime rattling around in her gin-and-tonic.”

6. Let your protagonist second-guess themselves.

Guilt. Regret. Indecision. Terrible emotions to experience in the real world, but they make for some of the richest characterization in literature (HIYA, PRUFROCK). Though the narrator of “The Call” quickly establishes himself as a sleezebag, the Backstreet Boys save him from becoming a stereotype by allowing him to express doubt and self-loathing, transforming him from a one-dimensional club bro into a nuanced, near-sympathetic protagonist:

I should have said no. … It eats me up inside/that she’s not by my side/just because I made that call to lie.

7. The most interesting moments often take place during the denouement. 

While the climax of a story may be the most exciting part, it’s often fairly one-dimensional — sometimes the real story lies in what happens afterward. Sure, “The Call” is about a man who cheats on his woman, but the story doesn’t end at the cheating itself, since that’s not the interesting part (BSB tantalizes, without cheapening the moment, by a simple “I’ve got a little place nearby — wanna go?”).

The emotional heart of the story lies in the narrator’s regret after he’s cheated on his girlfriend, especially once “one of her friends found out that she wasn’t my only one.” The regret is so poignant, in fact, that it can only truly be expressed by singing the chorus over and over again. In this way, we understand the dull inescapability of his pain.

8. There is real magic in repetition.

Writers have this irritating obsession with finding the newest, the most original ways of expressing things (“ocean” becomes “a glittering mirrorball wherein my future lies unformed, pulsing like a white dwarf” and the rest of the world mutually agrees to jump off a cliff). But seasoned narrators understand that sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is repeat a single word or phrase (see the now-legendary ending of Oscar Wao: “The beauty, the beauty!”).

Instead of telling us what happens post-breakup, the Backstreet Boys imply the empty future of the protagonist with a haunting repetition of the opening word: “Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?” This time, it’s not the sleepy inquiry of an innocent girlfriend left drowsing at home. It’s a vengeful ghost, whispering in the ear of a man who will never know true peace again.

9. When all else fails, sing the chorus again in a different key. 

Aaaaand modulate up a full step. Feels so good!

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.

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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 Work of Writing


TORILISA

Due to a series of terrifying life events that none of you would understand, I’m embarking on a month-long project. Fine, if you insist: my sisterwife/fellow sugar daddy-hunter/coffee shop aficionado/curator of divorces/practitioner of extremist fascism/PRESIDENTIAL RUNNING MATE Meriwether “Poet w/ Eye of Dictator” Clarke is out of the country for one month. Where is she, you ask? Oh just my homeland, SOUTH AMERICA. She’s probably digging up Neruda’s bones to see if he was actually murdered as we speak. Now that Ms. Clarke doesn’t have text messaging access 24/7, I have a lot of free time. You say codependence, I say potato. Anyway, I have decided to conduct several experiments. One: Can a Young Woman Really Survive on Nachos and Iced Coffee for an Entire Summer? Two: Staying On Top of Emails. Three: Surviving.

And Four: Which Writing Production Method Works Best for a Frequently Crazed Biddy with Two Jobs and Several Pairs of Converse but No Reliable Form of Transportation Ever Since Evil Hoodlums Wrecked Her Bike’s Innocent Front Tire? Short title: Writing Stuff.

I have never quite hit my writing stride when it comes to the day-to-day grind. I typically write when I have a good idea, because I don’t think inspiration can be harnessed, and also because I’m just so, so, so, so, so cool (see above portrait of me and Lisa Hiton). But as my days get busier and my nights get shorter and I find myself evolving into the female version of a Norwegian summer, I want to give this structured thing a try. Should I do a lot of hemlock, like Socrates drugs, like Hunter S. Thompson? Write prostrate, like Truman Capote? Summon a broken novel out of madness and jealousy, like Zelda Fitzgerald? I’ll start with something a little more straight-edge:

WEEK ONE: PAVLOV’S WRITER.

THE STRUCTURE: Write for one hour a day at the exact same time every day. Only produce new content. Yesterday I wrote 1500 words, or five double-spaced pages, in an hour, so I’m feeling good. No wait: genius. THE HYPOTHESIS: I’m hoping that writing at the exact same time every day–preferably with a fresh cup of coffee in hand–will turn into a sort of Pavlovian thing, where I look forward to the ritual and my brain gears up to be creative at the assigned hour.

WEEK TWO: THE  HUSTLER.

THE STRUCTURE: Down with the Muses. This week is all about making a strict to-do list and accomplishing every single thing on it, from intangible things like revision to tangible things like submitting to literary journals. THE HYPOTHESIS: I don’t think this is a very viable long-term way of writing. However, it might be a useful means of cranking out dreaded revisions and sending pieces off into the ether of Literary Bros Who Start Journals Just to Publish Their Friends.

WEEK THREE: THE LONE (W)RANGER.

THE STRUCTURE: This week is all about inspiration, flirting with the Muses, and wandering lonely as a cloud through places that inspire me (which, unfortunately, are dark alleys and train yards at night. Perhaps I should finally invest in some pepper spray?). No to-do lists, no daily word counts, just activities that a) are proven to help the creative mind (like ignoring the brain’s filter) and b) inspire me personally (like watching Woody Allen films). If I feel like writing, I’ll write. If I get an idea, I’ll jot it down. No pressure. THE HYPOTHESIS: Obviously, I can’t wait for this week. I doubt I’ll produce a lot of concrete work, because, well, it’s easier not to, but I think I’ll come up with a lot of ideas. And if I do nothing but read Neruda in the sand, it will have been a good week. (How’s that for a verb tense?)

WEEK FOUR: TBD.

WHAT SHOULD I TRY THIS WEEK? Writing only by hand? Writing after midnight? Writing in unfamiliar genres? Writing only about love? Only about hate? Outside? Imitating different authors’ styles? Help! I want it to be somewhat useful, and nothing too shtick-y…like sipping on hemlock.

Psst, let me know if you want to join in! I’ll update here, promise. And you can, too.

Revenge Fantasy No. 14 [Video]

I don’t know what happened to the technology-hating pyromanic I used to be, but I now own an iPhone. This means I can now shoot and edit movies (on my MacBook, GAH), and lemme tell you, I AM LOVING IT. There’s something about working in multiple dimensions–sorry, mediums–that is just really, really fun.

Anyway, I was thinking about how musicians are always shooting artsy music videos for their songs, and I started to wonder why writers don’t get to do that for their short-form work? AND WHY DON’T WRITERS GET TO READ THEIR CONFESSIONAL MEMOIRS TO SOLD-OUT STADIUMS WHILE MAKING  MILLIONS IN T-SHIRT SALES?!? WHY DOESN’T ANYONE CARE WHEN WRITERS MAKE CONTROVERSIAL FASHION CHOICES OR POST PICTURES OF CHRIS BROWN ON THEIR INSTAGRAM ACCOUNTS?

Well. Inaction is no friend of mine, so I decided to start making music videos for my flash fiction. Okay, they’re not music videos. There is no music involved (YET). But they’re conceptually similar. If anyone wants to join me, I’d love to put some up here on toridotgov. Unless they suck, then please don’t send them to me.

(And the iPhone? Every day I fight it for my soul.)

Half a Year: Photos

I bought a Moleskine planner today. (It’s a thing.) I cleaned out my camera. My new planner starts July 1st. While in limbo, I thought I’d look back on this first half of the year. This is a totally skewed portrait, since I never had my rather bulky DSLR at any of the many FABULOUS, STUDIO 54-WORTHY parties I’ve gone to, nor do I have screenshots of the MILLIONS OF GROVELING EMAILS begging me for a lock of my hair, but I like these photos nonetheless. What has this half-a-year been like? I couldn’t say. Some of it was a melancholy blur. A small part of it was spent blissfully cracked out on that elusive beast, writing inspiration. A little bit of it was spent careening through the air in a metal tube that runs on jet fuel–a terrifying activity that I hope to do more of in the fall. A lot of it was spent dancing and drinking. Many decibels of this year were expended in honor of my polygamous husbands, the BLACKHAWKS, STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS 2013. But what was it? What would I name this half-a-year, if I were Adam and God was asking me to give everything a name? I would say, “I don’t know.” And then I would ask God his thoughts on East of Eden, a freakishly good book…I think.

JANUARY: San Diego, LA, Bloomington (or: home, kindreds, grad school)

California etc 375 California etc 379 California etc 128 California etc 267 Bloomington 029

FEBRUARY: reading, coffee, Valentine’s hair, Chicago

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MARCH: Spring, Easter

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APRIL: Cohort

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MAY: Moving, writing, Colombia (PS: MORE PICTURES COMING SOON), existential despair

IMG_2455 IMG_2463 colombiachaosIMG_2558 IMG_2570IMG_2515

JUNE: Farmer’s markets, hustling

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Love List #5

Makarova-Baryshnikov_OtherDances'sRobbins

Positivity…you and me…oh yeah! That’s just a little pop song I wrote for us today. Apparently meditating for 5 minutes a day can make you happier, and keeping a gratitude journal can retrain your mind to focus on the good things in life instead of the bad things, like the fact that EVERY MORNING THIS WEEK I have been woken up from a text from my arch-nemesis, CHASE BANK, informing me that my bank account has been overdrawn. This is what happens when DUKE ENERGY (another nemesis) refuses to process your debit card payments in a timely fashion. Anyway, I’ll start that whole meditating and gratitude journal thing this summer when I’m not so busy “writing a paper” and “grading” that I can barely spend a lazy afternoon watching old Marilyn Monroe films. What am I digging today, besides the new Selena Gomez single, “Come and Get It”? I thought you’d never ask.

1. Flash fiction.

Flash fiction is so ridiculously rewarding to write I can’t even deal with it. Basically you just write about 5-25 nice sentences, slap on a fancy title, and email it to all your friends and family, who are spiritually obligated to respond, “This is great!”

2. My Rihanna + Nirvana playlist

Best idea I’ve ever had.

3. My cohort.

I love you guys & gals. See you at the Pulitzers.

4. Lists of names.

Sometimes I have a hard time choosing names for my characters, because every name comes with so much baggage (I can’t use a name if I know a real person with that name: unless it’s something really neutral, like John…OH WAIT I HAVE A BROTHER NAMED JOHN.). So, like lots of writers, I spent a significant amount of time scrolling through baby-name websites and shutting down pop-ups that say things like MOMS! CLICK HERE FOR BREAST-FEEDING TRICKS! And sometimes I get a little emotional scrolling through the names. They’re just such a beautiful representation of our human history, you know? Hildegarde. Hippolyta. Helen. Every name has such a crazy story behind it. She who frees the horses. Sometimes it just feel amazing to be alive in a world where so many other people lived, walked, touched, ate, loved, and were named and named and named. Not that I would ever, and I mean NOT THAT I WOULD EVER name a character “Hildegarde.” Not tryna be Wagner 2.0 over here.

5. Jalapeño-brown-sugar simple syrup.

THE BEST THING I HAVE EVER MADE. PAIR IT WITH WHISKEY NOW.

6. Writing while lying down.

Get in bed, put your computer on your stomach, and type lazily. This is the perfect type of writing position for working on multiple things at the same time, verrrry slowly. You’ll feel like a consumptive Victorian lady in the best possible sense.

7. “The Misfits”

Beautiful movie about American freedom and American heartbreak, described so well by Joyce Carol Oates:

The characters resembled broken-down actors. Famous faces yet not themselves. You looked at Gay Langland and thought Wasn’t he once Clark Gable? . . . You looked at the battered rodeo performer Perce Howland and thought My God! He used to be Montgomery Clift. These are people you knew when you were a kid. . . . Hey: do you know me? These were ordinary Americans of the 50’s yet mysterious to you because you knew them long ago when the world was mysterious and even your own face, contemplated in a mirror, in for instance the cigarette vending machine of that bus station or in the water-specked mirror above a lavatory sink, was a mystery never to be solved.

8. Entry fees.

JUST KIDDING I HATE THEM SO MUCH. World, why do you only want people who work in finance to succeed? WHY DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT US?

9. Dreaming about a new computer.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my tiny little Netbook so much. It’s been with me through thousands of commutes and millions of coffee shops. It’s helped me write GENIUS stories, SCINTILLATING screenplays, RADICAL articles, SUBVERSIVE papers, ERRATIC emails, IRONIC Tweets, DELUSIONAL song lyrics, and a million blog posts. But…it’s so slow…and the screen is so tiny. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I just want Alexsander Petrovsky’s XXXTREME 3-screened computer system. And then I will rejoice.

(photo source)