NONFICTION

NONFICTION

Two work time incidences of masturbation, one (*several*) in the stock room at Blockbuster Video, and another not by me at all

Simon Pinkerton is a nebulous concept who lives with his wife and two sweet boys in London, England. He has the craziest expression!! Please read his stories and show him some love on Twitter @simonpinkerton


There are two jobs I’ve enjoyed in my life so far: delivering electronics for a department store (John Lewis), and working in a video-rental shop (Blockbuster Video).

At John Lewis, there were a couple of noteworthy adventures: I was chased out of an apartment block by a voodoo priest — almost naked, arcanely-painted, hair covered in a white powder, crazed eyes, spewing nonsense. When the customer called to ask why his TV hadn’t been delivered and I told him, he apologized and rescheduled for “a time when Rodney isn’t in the building.”

During another delivery, I was invited in by a thirty-something lady in a robe who had placed an order for a stereo. She had placed a sex toy on the dresser and eyed it, and me, suggestively when I asked her where she wanted me to stick it. She said, “to the side of the mirror please,” and promptly started masturbating on her couch as I knocked the vibrator (enormous) to one side and wired up her new stereo (eyes flicking to a reverse image of her reclined form, mind strangely transfixed on whether she was going at it clockwise or counter clockwise and how the mirror affected my perception of this). I wired it up incorrectly, or so I found out after I got back to the shop (she had called). But, fuck if I was going back there to fix it. I sent my friend Wayne, having told him the buyer was really friendly. He asked me how I managed to mess up such a routine installation, and I told him there had been something on my mind. I was confident he would be fine, as it was rumored he had been compelled to pay a Berlin prostitute double her usual price for a blow job at a bachelor party, such was his lack of romantic appeal. He never refuted the claim.

With regards to the latter job, proximity and laziness pulled and languidly pushed me to apply for and get a job at the Blockbuster Video right next to my home. I’m maybe writing about this as a nostalgia-piece for myself and my contemporaries because such a job doesn’t really exist anymore -- or if it does, I haven’t seen it for a long time anywhere near where I live in London.

For the benefit of younger readers, Blockbuster Video was a franchise of physical Netflix stores. Instead of scrolling through selections, you would enter the store and walk about looking. Upon making your selection, you would take an empty box representing your chosen tape or DVD or game cartridge to the desk where you would have a social encounter with a member of staff, who would take your box and swap it with a box of a videotape or DVD or game and then make a sarcastic comment about your choice before half-heartedly trying to upsell you M&Ms and bags of popcorn. Netflix doesn’t represent the old experience of video stores in a number of ways, but the main one for me is that there are no digital homeless people wandering around on your screen. Perhaps a future patch will rectify this omission?

Before too long I naturally excelled at stacking boxes, chatting with customers, selling M&Ms, and masturbating in the stock room, so I was functionally made the number three guy in my small store (a sort of manager’s assistant without either the concomitant extra wages or the badge with the star on it). I even impressed the big corporate bosses one time with my winning smile and attentive customer service -- this despite having lost my voice the previous night screaming at friends to be heard over 90s pop in a tawdry nightclub, and having an intermittent bass-baritone lower than Barry White. Extra responsibilities were layered onto my role until I was in charge of opening the shop most mornings and taking care of the necessary marketing and sales tasks that were beamed to me via what felt like magic (imagine the World Wide Web without a browser to view it on) and swathes of paper on a dot-matrixprinter (an old printer with shitty resolution).

Due to living next door, I was able to set my alarm for five minutes before opening-time (a generous 9 am), roll out of bed and into my uniform, and open the doors and start the printout. When there were no customers I would go back to my house and make breakfast, shower, and watch from the front window in case anybody arrived. At 9:30 I would go back in and settle myself behind the counter, steal and eat a chocolate bar, and then get up again and look for any new soft-core pornography DVDs that had arrived. Blockbuster didn’t carry the hard stuff because it was a family store, but it did carry some very odd, very loose parodies of popular films but with boobs, and occasionally what my co-worker Ben used to call biff hair.

When Ben would come in for the morning shift at around 10 or 11 am, I would demonstrate the new haul of erotica and we would play the most incredible-looking one on the store’s screens, fast-forwarding to the parts most likely to show boobs and biff hair. We’d watch it while we tidied and sorted the DVDs and merchandise and other miscellany. After this I would mostly be in the backroom doing the money stuff and he would be shop-side: he had the remote control in hand to stop the DVD when a customer came in, unless it was a homeless person in which case he just let it roll.

On many occasions we were nearly caught out by mothers who would come in early with their kids looking for cartoons on tape. Some were suspicious so I would tell them that when a tape or DVD was returned faulty it was our duty to check them on our equipment, but because some of the movies were unsuitable for children, we were obliged to stop them when children came into the store. This believable tale was all my own work, and Ben thought I was a genius.

On one occasion however, he hit pause instead of stop, and the three or four screens positioned strategically throughout the store framed a gigantic close-up of a vagina. I distinctly remember the lady who was in there at the time with three noisy children: she had jodhpurs and riding boots on, and she smelled vaguely of manure. I caught her eye as I popped my head out from the backroom, and I saw a fire in it — the kind of fire you see ignite in the eye of somebody sequacious who stumbles upon a situation in which they can be the centre of attention: the fire that shows a realization of control, of added power (especially bureaucratic/legal).

There are few situations as humbling and sleazy as getting berated in front of the whole staff by a manager the same age as you but much stupider, for watching really bad soft-porn while there were children in the store. At least I had Ben next to me to share my dry-mouthed, red-faced shame. We didn’t get fired, which was a bonus, but I was functionally demoted to number four in the hierarchy. A bearded man named Chris was now tasked with opening-up, and I was switched to evening shifts so I could be supervised at all times.

I never masturbated in the stock room again. I could barely look at the soft-core video boxes without feeling nauseated. When a man I knew who owned the toy store down the street returned a DVD of a pornographic Buffy the Vampire Slayer and apologetically said to me, “I thought it was the actual Buffy the Vampire Slayer” I didn’t sarcastically ask him why he would want to watch Buffy in his mid-40s, but instead took the DVD in hand, placed it behind me, and wistfully said, ”I understand. There’s no biff hair in that one is there?”

It was still a great job though. I got to rent up to seven movies or games a week, free-of- charge! Which in this age of streaming (stealing?) anything you want at any time and mostly anywhere gives my story a farcical bent to the modern Millennial.

But let me assure you, teens and young-twenties: back then, that many free rentals made me a king among men, and my witty disdain of your choice of movie was the talk of the local franchise.

NONFICTION

SEX AND FEAR, MID-TO-LATE NINETIES, APPROXIMATELY

——1

It’s November. It has to be November, because I am going to Disneyland with my family (if we go to Disneyland, we go in November). We are stopping to visit my parents’ friends on the way. I am nine or ten years old. Their son is older than me. He has Downs Syndrome. I run up with him to his room, and we sing into a karaoke machine his parents bought him. It’s not much of a karaoke machine. It’s just a tape player with a cheap plastic microphone and a shitty speaker. He has way too many toys, the sort of stuff you find in the pediatrician’s office. We hop around the room like kangaroos. We slither on the carpet like snakes. I jump up on his bed and start hooting like an ape.

He grabs me and pins me down.

I try to wrestle my way out of it, but he’s incredibly strong. He pins me down again and plants some blunt, weird kisses on my forehead, then he starts squirming all over me, really worked up. His face scrunches. He wiggles for a while, then gets extremely tired. He lays there panting on me. It looks like he’s going to pass out. I writhe out from under him and walk downstairs, angry because of—I can’t tell? What just happened?

I tell on him, and his parents freak out. They’re going ballistic. My parents freak out. I don’t understand why everyone is freaking out.

——2

Sex was presented to me as a system of predator and prey. There was danger lurking around every corner. Girls had to guard themselves because, given the chance, teenage boys would fuck anything that moved. If you were a man, you were a walking, talking erection. You were supposed to be thinking about sex twenty times a minute. Women were supposed to tolerate sex for the emotional benefits, but if they actually liked sex, they were disease-ridden sluts. Gay men were even hornier than the straight ones, and gay women were ugly combative man-haters.

I learned all this before I’d ever had an orgasm, when I still thought women got pregnant by men pissing inside them.

——3

I am in sixth grade, and Kaiser Permanente is putting on a play called Nightmare on Puberty Street. We sit cross-legged on the floor of the gym. The set is blank except for a spraypainted backdrop of silver geometric shapes and neon squiggles. A fog machine fills the stage with blue haze. Then a dozen or so teen actors emerge from behind the backdrop, pushing each other around in a typical playground name-calling scene. They clear out for some reason, but a single kid remains center stage. The spotlight hits him, and he bursts into song: “Noooor-mal!! Am I noooor-mal? What is noooor-mal?” The rest of the play doesn’t matter much. A conversation about moms buying kids jock straps. Something about a suicide scare. “There’s not actually a bone in there,” someone explains, “it’s just called a boner.” The actors stick around after the performance to counsel students. My friends and I joke about boners.

——4

When we were young, health class told us sexual feelings were normal, nothing to be ashamed of. We watched grainy videos from the ’70s of dudes in bell-bottoms watching girls play soccer and feeling something funny going on, of guys prepping their younger brothers for a first date, of girls talking their younger sisters through their first period. Cartoons shimmying beneath bedsheets, then, nine months later, a baby.

But as we got older, health class became sinister. The teachers read lists of STD symptoms: shaking, spots on the legs, parasites, warts. Dementia, heart failure, impotence. We saw photographs of everything. If you had HIV, you wouldn’t know until it was too late. It invaded your bloodstream, turning your white blood cells into virus-ridden bio-bombs, and as soon as the symptoms surfaced, it would be over for you. You’d get a cold, which would turn into a bronchial infection, then pneumonia, and without any white blood cells to fight the infection, you’d be dead. That’s how it was described to me. Another acting troupe dramatized the quick spread of HIV through a group of strangers. I think the play ended with a funeral, but I may be wrong. Don’t have sex, kids.

——5

I kept a laminated business-card-sized abstinence pledge in my wallet. Something like “I commit to save myself for marriage.” I received the card from my church, after a youth group sex talk. “You see,” the youth pastor explained, “all forms of intimacy lead to sex. There is a lot of gray area, like, you know, uh, heavy petting, and, uh, other forms of intimacy, but these are all designed to get you ready for sex. So you need to draw the line at a safe spot and stick to it.”

I went to the youth group with my girlfriend. We never really talked about sex, but we were having plenty of it. We didn’t think it counted, because back then everyone said penetration was the only thing that really mattered, and the rest was all part of an ever-shifting baseball system. Was oral sex was “third base?” I’m not really sure.

——6

I worried that I didn’t think about sex as often as men were supposed to. Was there something wrong with me?

I did have a scar on my penis from a clumsy circumcision. Was that it? Deeply submerged psychosexual terror from a traumatic infant experience?

——7

Sometimes I wondered if I was gay. Maybe that explained why I wasn’t thinking about sex all the time. In health class, they said it was okay to be gay. It didn’t seem like the adults believed it. Most of the adults I knew were Christians. I’d hear fragments of their conversations when the AIDS crisis was blooming: “. . . bathhouses . . . what did they think . . . judgment . . .”

——8

My J.V. high school football coach sees a bunch of guys bent over, hands on knees, after running laps. “Keep standing like that," he says, "now look behind you and spell ‘run.’ R-U-N, get it? are-you-in?”

“Ha ha ha,” we laugh.

“Now stand up straight, bitches. Robertson over here gets it. He used to be a tight end, but now he’s a wide receiver, right? Tight end, wide receiver. Don’t let that faggot get on top of you. He’ll fuck you like the pussies you are!”

“Ha ha ha!”

We walk single file  to the field, our spikes clicking the pavement. The other team is lined up in front of the chain-linked fence at the entrance to the football field. They point out the players with the biggest bulges and laugh.

After the pre-game stretching, we huddle up in the end zone, underneath the goalpost. Our breath becomes a cloud in the crisp autumn air. “Okay,” says Brad, the linebacker, “these are the same pussies we destroyed in the preseason. We kicked their asses then, and we’ll fucking do it again!” Yeah! The scattered, emphatic assent is like an amen. “These cocksuckers are coming here, into our fucking house, under our fucking lights, all the way from Danville, just to get their asses handed to them!” Yeah! “Now get in close, here.” Our hot breath gathers over our heads, a misty halo beneath the bright lights. “We’re the best fucking team in the league, and we’re not going to let a bunch of faggots from Danville score a single point against us! (Yeah!) We’re gonna fucking murder them! (Yeah!) Now get your helmets together, in here.” Our silver helmets knock against each other, knock knock thud. Brad starts to chant, quietly. “We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage-and-burn; we’re gonna rape-kill-pillage-and-burn. Eat babies!” We join in, chuckling at first. The chant crescendoes, and we’re all getting into it now, we’re all fucking vikings! “We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage-and-burn! We’re gonna rape-kill-pillage-and-burn! EAT BABIES!”

My imagination goes nuts. Trains crash into each other. I tear some guy’s arm off. I punch a guy so hard that his head swivels. He crumples to the ground. I imagine my fists are smoky blue, glowing with an evil fire, like the final boss in Street Fighter II.

The loudspeakers play “We Will Rock You.” The crowd stomps along with the kick drum. Thump thump CLAP! Thump thump CLAP! Somehow, Freddy Mercury totally fits with our teen aggression ceremony.

So what?

Fucking Danville!

Those fucking faggots!

——9

A kid contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, my mom tells me. He was so brave, she says. His name was Ryan White, and they kicked him out of school, but he fought it, bless him. He lived five years longer than the doctors said he would. He passed away, from complications brought on by bronchial pneumonia, but his hope was in the Lord. He said so, as he lay dying in the hospital bed, to whomever came to visit him. And lots of people were visiting him. Famous people. Michael Jackson bought him a red Mustang convertible. He even wrote a song for Ryan, too. Elton John bought his family a house. The kid met with President Reagan, went on TV, talked about his illness. Raised awareness. He was a hero. He didn’t deserve to get that disease, my mom says, but he was so brave. She shakes her head. The Lord surely used him. He didn’t deserve to get that gay disease.

——10

“You have this wild, intense energy about you—one of the most incredible auras I’ve seen.”

“Thank you,” I reply. I’m at a girl’s birthday party in Laguna Beach. I’m hoping to hook up with her tonight. I’m eighteen or nineteen. I’m upstairs chatting with a twenty-something psychic, who assures me he’s not hitting on me. He can tell by my aura that I am not into him, he says. I like hearing him talk about my aura.

Another guy, the psychic’s ex-boyfriend, picks up a small toy monkey and dangles it in front of my face. He swings it back and forth, as if he was a hypnotist: “Be gay! Be gaaaaa-ay!”

The guy is trashed and is trying to grope me. The psychic tells him to knock it off, and the guy goes outside to smoke. As I watch him leave, I see the birthday girl lead someone else by the hand into her room.

“Whoa,” the psychic says, “your energy just spiked. Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” I say, “yeah, no, I don’t know, fuck it.”

I am almost crying. I don’t know why. It’s all so embarrassing.

I drive to the cliff to watch the ocean. I masturbate in the car and fall asleep. I wake up in the middle of the night, confused, full of fear. I hear the loud sound of waves crashing against the rocks. It takes a long time to remember where I am.

 

NONFICTION

untitled 5152016 - Marcus Cap Williams

Marcus Cap Williams is a writer living in NYC. He tweets at @mswthug


High uptown w/ squad playing this card game Palace but I sit the first round while cleaning Deadbody’s kitchen. I wash the dishes w/ those lil yellow sponges w/ the perpetually­fatigued green scrubby side; I throw those out to use the plain purple sponge, stove’s next; at the stove: wipe burners obvi but then go at the walls/cabinets that surround the hood & the knobs & eeem the knobs’ grooves, knocking out brown gunk with the back of a match; oh & the refrigerator gets some too. Everything is dingy under the kitchen lights. Two outta five are dead after the Grape Rillo & two rounds of Palace. ‘You’ve been recused from the broadcast bruv.’ Get off Yale dick, I think. You know we talk that stick talk. B. and A. are snoring so I know they good. ‘He aight he aight.’ The lacrosse commentators are coming at players’ body parts. Bum­ass knees & fucked up ACLs & etc. I woulda copped the Beyoncé I Ain’t Sorry tank w/ Boy Bye on the back for the summer­t if it wasn’t $50. Navy’s jerseys are more a John Legend beige than the accented gold it emulates on their dark blue helmets. Deadbody dies. ‘Let’s go baby Navy, let’s go!’ Thought about creating a zine and expression. General glumness on the streets of East Harlem: a dude runs west towards the Metro­North dragging his cello’s bag & another small rolling suitcase, wheels clicking & footsteps clopping; homeless men talk to themselves & shady hoodie’d muhfuckas huddle in the shadows of $1­pizza spots, giving sharp looks, whispering they got smoke; police Command Centers broadcast their classic warning of blue and red against McDonald’s & Rainbow & bodegas, Duane Reade, Jimbo’s Hamburgers. General glumness at the 125th 4/5/6. Crowded af. 13­minute trains—somebody threw themselves on the tracks. I check the time on my phone & I notice a saved photo of some woman holding bundles of Jackie Robinson’s guwop. It’s/she’s beautiful. New poster for Black Excellence.

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Why I Started El balazo Press and Am Not Quitting My Job to Run It

 photo by glen noble via unsplash

photo by glen noble via unsplash

As the owner of this small press, former employee of a traditional publishing house, and current employee at one of the world’s top content creators, I think constantly about the economics of writing and publishing. I also often get asked the following questions in the following order:

1) Would you leave your current situation for a traditional publishing job?

2) Would you quit your day job to run your small press, El Balazo?

3) If you’re not trying to leverage El Balazo for a real publishing job or trying to build it into a full-time job for yourself, then why are you doing it, anyway?

Why I Don’t Work for a Traditional Publisher

I used to work for a traditional publisher (non-big five), and quit during the recession because I didn’t make enough money to pay off my student loans. I also tried to work for one of the big five, but couldn’t get an interview there when I was young-enough to consider an assistant job. Had I gotten hired when I was younger, I might be there still, working away. Now that I’m older and have had a bit of life experience, I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

It’s well known that traditional publishers almost exclusively sign new books written by celebrities or writers who have both built up a following and whose work will appeal to a mass market.

Editor friends of mine at traditional big five publishing houses have told me that the first question they ask when considering a manuscript is: what is the author’s platform? Do they have 10,000+ followers on Twitter? Does Google auto-suggest their name in the search field? In other words: can this author basically sell the book himself with the audience he has already built?

Editors at the big five aren’t snobs and don’t hate unknown authors. But, book publishing is a tough business. Even the biggest publishers are strapped for cash, and need to make solid bets on the books they believe sell lots and lots of copies. In the past, big five publishers would subsidize the publication of cool, indie stuff with money made from the hits. Not so much anymore. In this economy, it’s not the time to take risks on new authors or on content that falls outside of what is known to be marketable. The margins from hit book sales are a lot smaller, but the bills are just as high. Fewer and fewer cool, indie books get published by the big five.

For me, the point of reading is to discover risky, energetic content written in unconventional language or structure that is so particular to a unique person — a unique artist or thinker — that it’s uncomfortable and odd and moving and exciting. Working full time to acquire solid bets, such as a Rom Com actor’s ghost-written memoir, is not my cup of tea.

Why I Won’t Leave My Day Job

I run El Balazo in addition to holding down a demanding full-time job. Yes, this means we can publish much fewer books than we could if I dedicated myself full-time to El Balazo. Yes, it means I sometimes struggle to update the blog as often as I should. Yes, it means the snowball of growth is going to take quite a bit longer to grow big and fat as it rolls more slowly down the hill.

But because El Balazo doesn’t rely on income from benefactors, isn’t beholden to shareholders, and isn’t required for living expenses, it’s free. Free as a naked bum under a tennis skirt. El Balazo can publish and say whatever it wants. If no one’s floating you or relying on you, no one can require anything of you.

Why Am I Doing El Balazo, Anyway?

Here are the facts: I pay out of my own income to publish and market other people’s writing in my free time without expecting to make my money back. What the hell is wrong with me, right? Why do I do this weird thing?

I do this because I’m a writer and I fuggin love books. I think the world needs more good, weird books that have people fighting for them and producing them professionally. I believe there is still a community of people who care about great, weird books. And I want to find them as desperately as do many other writers. 

I’m also frustrated that so much unique talent is passed over by major publishers. Because it’s lost in the slush pile. Because it’s quirky and therefore probably not marketable to a mass audience. Because, even though it might be marketable to a large-enough audience to make a nice profit, most writers don’t have the skills to create the platform publishers are looking for. Because they’re writers, not marketers. And they shouldn’t have to be.

I believe that thinking about how to market a book while writing that book dilutes a writer’s freedom to say what she needs to say. And, as you may have noticed, freedom to think and say what you want is El Balazo’s number one value.

I want El Balazo to be a place for writers who’ve not only had the cajones (or ovaries) to spend those lonely, long hours honing their writing skills, but the badassery to use those skills to say something unique — to create something new.

Why You Shouldn’t Publish With El Balazo

If you publish with El Balazo, I can’t guarantee you money. And, it’s okay with us if the marketable audience for your work is 100 people. It’s fantastic to entertain, inspire, and amuse an audience of 100 people. But, you can bet your butts that we ain’t giving over the rights to anyone in case your audience turns out to be wildly larger than that.

Although we are a new, small press open to creative content, we also won’t publish most of what gets sent to us. We at El Balazo are our own particular cat. Our taste is specific, it’s ours, and, we know it when we see it.

Why You Should Publish With El Balazo

Granted, we are only publishing our second book, and we have a lot to learn. But, we are committed to howling at the moon for new and creative writing that fits our tastes.

Because we aren’t tied to a building, to a paycheck, to a genre, or to a need to be marketable, we can and will take risks. We can and will take badass content out of its obscure corner, design it boss AF, and sell it to anyone who’s interested.

We also won’t tie you down. Go ahead. Use El Balazo to acquire some street cred, to help build that platform a larger publisher is looking for. Go ahead: be free. We wouldn’t want you to be anything less.

Interested in publishing with us? Send us your stuff!

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

why saying, "six word novels ARE bullshit" is bullshit

I met my friend Josh in a punk club one night after I had just graduated college and moved to Boise. We were introduced by a mutual friend, and after Josh revealed that he wrote for the Boise Weekly, I made the rookie mistake of telling him that I am also a writer. Newly-graduated writers: don’t do this. Nobody wants to hear about your writing.

Josh, out of politeness, asked what I liked to write. “Flash fiction,” I said, expecting a normal response like, “Oh, cool. I’ll take a look sometime,” and then an abrupt shift in conversation, because who really wants to read the work of a freshly-graduated zygote with no real writing experience?

But, what happened next was magical. Horrible and magical. Josh proceeded to yell at me over the sounds of the band playing about how much he detests the genre. Josh and I have two different versions of the same story, but the point is, what was supposed to be a casual exchange about two people doing the same thing turned into a long, arduous, draining argument that made me think, “This guy is going to make a great friend.”

Flash fiction, contrary to Josh’s description, is actually comprised of 1,000 words or less. You can check out One of These Days by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez for one of the best examples of flash fiction ever written. I write flash fiction ranging from 100 to 1,000 words, a project I began in freshman year of college. I was attracted to the structure, not because of brevity, but because of the challenge it presented. Build a world, a character, and a plot in 100 words? I knew this request was possible with 300 pages, but so few words? Now, that’s a real writing task.

Josh’s argument hinges on the fact that flash fiction is too emotionally ambiguous and lacking in plot to be complete without relying on the reader to fill in the blanks. It relies too much on subjective inference to trick readers into thinking they understand the story’s plot. Josh essentially thinks that without enough content, the story isn’t actually a story.

This argument is absurdly wrong for several reasons. Six word stories highlight that a strong message—whether it’s tragic, comedic, or simply intriguing—can be conveyed with only a few brief words. Stories are just that: messages from an author to a reader.

However, so many writers think these messages need to be complete. They don’t.

Writing lives in a liminal space. Fiction is comprised of strands of truth and shards of lies, and looking beyond just the six word, 100 word, or 1,000 word stories, we can see that the art of storytelling doesn’t rely on completion, in terms of completing a plot, but on the storyteller’s ability to convey a message to her reader. Fiction lands within the in-betweens and contradictions of the human condition (and of a story itself).

Since when does writing not live in this liminal space?

The ephemeral. The intangible. The odd, tucked away places in-between dreams. Flash fiction brings us these spots of time in ways most fiction can’t. It lives in the blurry spaces of the mind, where we struggle to piece together a memory or a dream that slowly drains out of us. Flash fiction is liberating; it encapsulates these spaces and drives readers to infer and interpret.

The nonsensical belief that any story must be complete is an arbitrary rule, just like placing a random word limit on a piece or asking yourself to exclude the word the from your vocabulary. Flash fiction begins and ends with limitations, which can force writers to produce some of their best work, like Marquez’s piece linked above. Many writers find the limitlessness of a page comforting, but a large group of us stare at a blank page and think, “Now what?” Beginning with a set value of rules propels us forward and makes our work better.

The story begins with the box. You write around the box, inside the box, and in the margins of the box. You cut the bullshit. You trim the unnecessary. You cling to the concrete. You argue with yourself about what is most important instead of rambling for pages and pages about the soft architecture of her back. In the end, you’re better for it. You can convey a meaningful message in a handful of words. Flash fiction is a new type of concise writing that encourages authors to argue with themselves, eliminate the bravado, and cinch down words tightly into a compact package that slams readers with a world, characters, and (usually) a surprise ending.

Some of the best works of art came from limitation. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the worst reviewed books of all time because she dared herself to write a complete story in only 300 pages (approximately, depending on which edition you purchase). The traditional novel had not yet been popularized, and critics admonished her for her brevity and lack of substance. Can you imagine that? One of the most celebrated novels of all time criticized because it broke the conventions of what good writing should be.

I wish I could go back and tell Shelley, “Do what you need to do to make your best art as long as you’re not hurting anyone. You go, Mary.” The degree of blithering she received from her contemporaries (who were still churning out 1,000 page tomes every few years) about the laziness of her writing was astounding. But, suddenly, people took notice of Shelley’s concise and moving story. The form of the novel took hold, and now it’s the most popular style of storytelling available.

In my opinion, Frankenstein is absolutely complete story, but for its time, it lacked the thorough details Shelley’s contemporaries deemed appropriate to tell a proper story. Shelley argued that writers are supposed to live in the liminal. I say there’s nothing wrong with readers inferring and thinking and interpreting what they want to see from my words. Go for it. I want to hear about what you think you read.

Because it’s not about completing a story, as in wrapping up a plot. It’s about impacting readers. Flash fiction forces great writers like Josh Gross to ask question after question about baby shoes and write an entire article about why he detests the genre so vehemently. It brings readers closer to the bones of a story. It forces them to confront snapshots of time. Authors can’t know for certain—whether they write 100 word stories or 100,000 word novels—if they’ve answered every question a reader might have, and that’s okay. A good story relies on impact, not length.

Flash fiction makes you think. It sparks loud arguments in bars and forms intense new friendships. It asks readers to think for themselves. That’s what good writing—interesting writing—is supposed to do.

You can read or buy Josh’s quality (and often verbose) work on his website, or check out more of my writing at erinnelson.com.

 

 

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Why Six-Word Novels are Bullshit

I met my friend Erin over an argument. She didn't like something or other that I wrote in Boise Weekly, and decided to shout at me about it in a punk club. That turned into a wild disagreement on literature that has made us friends ever since.

Erin, a book store clerk and published book reviewer, also likes to write flash fiction (stories generally less than 100 words), something I largely detest. Not because of its its brevity, but because I dislike trying to make things be things they aren't instead of letting them be the best whatever they already are that they can be, and that once you begin with the premise of writing flash fiction, you're already creating a box—extremely short form—that the story you are writing may not fit into. Stories should be as long or as short as they need to be, no more, no less.

Obviously, Erin disagreed, and brought up the so-called six-word novel, something that was big on Twitter for a while with the hashtag #SixWordNovels, but that was around before Twitter as well. Erin cited a story by Hemingway as an example of how six words was all it took to tell a rich and engaging story: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.”

I'll admit, Hemingway has never really been my thing. But the belief that those six words somehow constitute a complete story is patently absurd. We went 12 rounds over it, convincing everyone in the bar we were about to come to blows, when in fact we were having a great time.

Erin's argument was that from those six words, a reader is given a sense of plot, background, and an emotional weight that conveys the story's gravitas. I completely disagree because from my perspective the plot is wildly ambiguous, and the background and weight that would be delivered hinge on those plot points.

How so?

Why weren't the baby shoes ever worn? I'm serious. Why? If you know about Hemingway's life, or have read his work, then you fill in the blanks with the events in A Farewell to Arms (his wife and child die). But, one: that's a helluva lot more than six words, and two: not everyone has read it, and three: that's a subjective inference.

Everything that supposedly makes this story great comes from the idea that it is a tasteful take on tragedy, a concise slice of life that showcases the fine line where tragedy bumps into the day-to-day life we still have to live while enduring it. His baby is dead, and now he has to deal with the physical objects around him that stir him up through emotional association. It's heavy.

But what if the shoes weren't worn because they didn't fit the baby they were bought for, who is alive and plump without a care in the world? What if someone bought the shoes as a gag present for a person with extremely large feet? What if they were given as a gift at a baby shower and the expectant mother got two of the same pair from two different attendees? What if a junkie told her parents she was pregnant so they would give her money to spend on heroin and they instead bought her baby stuff which she was then trying to sell? What if a wholly different tragedy struck and the baby was born with deformed feet that don't fit in shoes? Etc.

The point is that those are all very different stories, and if you reach the end of the six words and you can't say for certain what happened, then no, it isn't a complete story. I accept some ambiguity of character as acceptable at the end of a story, but not ambiguity of plot. And moreover, if the events of the story are totally different than those the reader believes to have transpired, then the intended emotional connection is false as well. I don't think you can even say for certain that the story is a tragedy, and not a comedy. I'm not saying that a complete story can't be told in six words, just that I find it highly unlikely it will be truly complete or satisfying for the reader.

Some would say that art is subjective, and that you take from the story what you will. But with storytelling, the area that is open to interpretation is more about how to feel about the story, not about what it is that the story is actually about.

For example: let's assume that it's a story about Hemingway's baby dying and not any of the other potential scenarios. If so, at the end, one could feel sad, they could feel that he dodged a bullet because having kids is a burden, they could feel that capitalism is a beautiful system that allows for the best possible distribution of required goods even in the face of tragedy, or many other things. That's the subjective interpretation of art that works for this medium. But those emotional responses are still based on the perceived fact and/or events of the story, and if in fact those fact or events are different, then it's all screwy. It's like a server in a restaurant writing down on a ticket that you want a club sandwich and the cook deciding that means you really wanted a batter-fried human thumb. That level of subjectivity doesn't apply to written communication because there is an intended message. If the medium is too short to convey that message, then it doesn't work. And if it is short enough to convey that message, then that brings up a whole other issue.

Social media has driven the idea that brevity is somehow a paramount value. But there is a strong tendency for people to mistake shallow thinking for concise writing. If a story only takes six words, fine, but it probably isn't a very interesting story. Incredibly complex issues don't always fit into 140 characters, and trying to force them into that box does a disservice to your subject and to your readers. And with both flash fiction and social media, it's the box that comes first, not what fits into it.

Of course, Erin disagreed to the bitter end (last call), a truly wonderful character trait, and continued to work on her yet-to-be-published collection of flash fiction, a book I sincerely look forward to reading one day.

You can read more of Erin's “wrong” opinions on her blog, or in her work for The Blue Review.

 

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Cuz a New Town Party Don't Stop

 Pierre Huyghe. "Streamside Day," film still, 2003. Film and video transfers; 26 minutes, color, sound. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. © Pierre Huyghe.

Pierre Huyghe. "Streamside Day," film still, 2003. Film and video transfers; 26 minutes, color, sound. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. © Pierre Huyghe.

In winter 2014-2015, the Lacma sponsored a retrospective of artist, Pierre Huyghe (b. 1962, Paris). I walked into the exhibition and a man in a suit announced my full name into the dark studio. I found a hermit crab in an aquarium wearing a football-sized Sleeping Muse shell. Outside, a bee hive was the head of a lounging, nude sculpture.

Despite these distractions, I spent most of my time in an alcove watching Streamside Day: a video of a celebration Pierre Huyghe invented for Streamside, a recently-birthed planned town in rural New York.

Onscreen, a parade of teenagers in rabbit and bear and horse costumes wander down a dirt street lined with naked wood homes. The smooth, bare earth is carved in the middle of a forest. The fresh-cut barrenness reminds me of a copper mine.

In a dirt quad, families sit on lawn chairs, look at their new neighbors, eat a curated pile of rainbow donuts. The mayor of the town gives a speech into a cheap microphone from a plywood platform.

The scene evokes the feeling of the first day of ninth grade. I look at the faces of the moms and dads who just spent a chunk of change on a down payment for this very new and out-of-the-way place. I get a sneaking suspicion that Huyghe is poking fun of the families. Parading their children around in pagan animal heads. Dotting the scene with silver Mylar balloons, bare plywood, rainbow-colored food. Failing to provide chairs so families bring their own mis-matching fold-ables.

Despite this, in an interview with Art 21, Huyghe said the town, “was under construction when [he] found it, and … created—or invented—a tradition for it … a celebration, once a year.” He continues: “This is a town that has no organicity. It's an image—an instant, pure image. Months ago, there was no town. Now, it's a brand new town with roads.” A new town, which, to Huyghe, warranted a celebration.

Watching the Streamside Day video, I was reminded of the time I once drove 4+ hours from Orange County through the Mojave Desert to the hot scrawled ruins of California City. Brainchild of Nat Mendelsohn, California City is and was an 80,000 acre planned community that was birthed during the New Town Movement of the 1950s. Mendelsohn imagined California City might one day rival Los Angeles.  

Though California City did end up becoming home to a few hundred residents – most of whom work for the nearby Airforce base – it is mostly a grid of ghost cul de sacs and crumbling asphalt. Street signs stare over the hard desert ground. California City is the state of California’s third largest city, by geographical area. It can be seen from space. I visited it because I have a thing about New Towns: towns with “no organicity.”

Born and raised in Orange County, CA, most of which is a New Town-type stucco suburban sprawl on the coast of Southern California, I know some of what it feels like to grow up in a New Town. Irvine, CA, is a particularly good example: a grid of glass office buildings and apartment towns built on what feels like an arbitrary spot in a grassy expanse.

I now work in another New Town: Broomfield, CO, which sits halfway between Denver and Boulder. Youtube hosts a video from the 50’s detailing its inception and birth.

The narrator begins by detailing the achievement of a man named Morris Greeley, who paved the path for Broomfield by birthing nearby New Town Greeley, Colorado. “Morris Greeley was a man of vision,” says the narrator. “In the wide horizons of his mind, he saw the stirring future of the American West. After viewing the rich, rolling land that sweeps majestically up to the great wall of the Rocky Mountains, he advised, “go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”

The narrator’s booming voice resonates with the enthusiasm of post-war America -- an America full of middle classers seeking to flee from the dirty urban sprawl toward the healthful environs of the grassy suburbs. The narrator asks: “Why not meet the challenge of a growing area by building a whole new city from scratch … a modern dream city for 30K people where everything is carefully planned from the beginning … ?”

Why not?

“Soon, the detailed planning for Broomfield heights was underway in earnest,” says the narrator. “A firm of experienced city planners was obtained to make a dream city as perfect as man can conceive. Streets were laid out in arcs and curves to conform to the natural landscape … street arteries were planned to carry traffic easily and quickly to and from a smart, modern shopping center.”

I know lots of people who live in Broomfield (no Heights). It’s affordable, is home to dozens of tech conglomerate high-rise office buildings, and, indeed, has some nice views of the mountains. I’m guessing the smart, modern shopping center is the strip mall with the Starbucks and Buffalo Wild Wings.

It’s easy to criticize New Towns such as Broomfield, CO, or Irvine, CA. They’re populated by mostly white, middle class folks. Chain businesses dominate. Homes and apartments matchy-match like they came from a box set. Driving culture dominates. They’re usually dozens of miles from what could be considered a true city, a natural people center.

In fact, the out-of-the-way nature of New Towns is part of their DNA. Distance from the messiness of the people center is what makes New Towns feel safe. I’m not sure if Streamside is or will become a typical New Town, but it has most of the earmarks of one. And, my instinct is to criticize it, to start humming lines from the Father John Misty song:

"they gave me a useless education

... a subprime loan

on a craftsman home" 

But, maybe that isn't the right response.  At least it didn't seem to be Huyghe's. “When I first saw this town, I just went to see all the people,” said Huyghe. “And then I said, ‘I'm going to invent a celebration because it's a brand new place … I organized the whole celebration—from the parade to the concert, to the food, to the mayor giving a speech, to the kids playing—everything.'”

I hum: "Oh ... just a little ... bored in the USA..."  The narrator continues: “on an historic day, the 21st of August, 1955, a town was born … 100 new families had pioneered and found the realization for their dreams.”

MUSIC, NONFICTION

Lewis - L'Amour

"I luh to theen. I'll suhkareeh. I'll gihluhfatreehnnnh," starts the recently-discovered 80's album "L'Amour" created by rich guy Randall Wylff, aka Lewis. Lots of people have written about how album digger Jon Murphy bought the album for one buck at a flea market before Light in the Attic reissued it in 2014. The album of the sensitive wealthy ghost driving a white fog porsche.

Listening to the album is  a blurry experience. Warbling, unintelligible lyrics sung too close to the wet microphone, plucking acoustic over wandering synthesizer. It's amateur and arresting and makes me lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling in a warm fuzz coma. He plays wrong notes on an acoustic guitar over soft piano. Wrong notes that accidentally work. Whole songs in minor key ending (mistakenly?) on a major chords. Nice-sounding, wistful, odd mistakes.

The album is the product of the whim of a sensitive rich dude who puts his soul out, but doesn’t want to talk about it. A vanity album / bedroom recording in the 80s, which wasn't a thing because pressing an album in the 80s required access to extra tens of thousands of dollars.  

Is he singing in French? Is it 50 degrees out, but he stays inside for reluctance to put on pants or a shirt?

Why is he singing with so much falsetto and vibrato? Why did he name his album Lewis L’Amour like the Western writer? Why was he still wearing all white when folks from the Light in the Attic found him in 2014? 

When they found Lewis in Canada in 2014, he wondered why they were looking for him, but he didn’t want his name published. He was happy that they saw his check for royalties, but didn’t want the money.

What does it mean to be an ultra rich 80's man who makes hidden, touchy, bedroom music?

What does it mean to be discovered 30 years too late when you don't want to be discovered?

"Wuhhaidoo, cahhn I do? Can't changhe myeye-oohhh. Whuh cahn I doooh?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

What Are You Talking About? (Part 1)

 

It’s been seventy-three years since James Joyce died in a Zurich hospital after a surgery for a perforated ulcer. Therefore, it’s been seventy-three years since the rest of us have been left to fend for ourselves when it comes to deciphering the author’s two greatest works, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Since their publication (1922 and 1939, respectively), most of us know more about these book’s notoriety than their actual plots. Well, guess what? Turns out, since his death, there have been a whole slew of books written by people trying to and then deciding they have, in fact, figured it all out. You've got your reader's guides, your companions, your centennial symposiums, your methods and designs, interpretations, introductions and even unabridged republications of original Shakespeare and Company editions. On and on it goes, everyone seems to have an angle and, apparently, everyone has a goddamn book contract. 

 

Perhaps the most readable of these is 1965’s Rejoyce by Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess. (Also published as: Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction To James Joyce For The Ordinary Reader). The main reason the book’s success as a digestible look at Joyce’s work is due to Burgess’ career as a critic and linguist, both of which are fairly important decoding tools needed for the job. Though how he was able to condense a brilliant and, ultimately challenging writing career into three hundred paperback pages might be worth a book itself, but let’s not let get distracted.

 

In quick succession, Burgess unravels Joyce’s early work (Dubliners, A Portrait Of The Artist… and Chamber Music) into bite-sized pieces as he takes us into the path of that literary one-two punch of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. The early work might seem separate entities, but, as one learns from Rejoyce, each act as a stepladder to the next book. Sure, all that is typical, almost expected in a writer’s creative trajectory, but where Joyce ultimately ended up is far from typical.

 

So, once arriving at the inception, development and execution of Joyce’s last two books, Burgess strips away the perplexity and underscores certain aspects of the narratives which are often lost in the hub-bub. For Ulysses, Burgess reveals the difference between complex inner dialogues of each character which are written in that now famous/notorious stream-of-conscious style:

 

The first [artistic problem with using extensive interior monologue is concerned with characterization: how does one make one person's interior monologue sound different from another? Joyce…solves the problem by assigning a characteristic rhythm to the thought-stream of each of his main three characters. Stephen’s is lyrical…Bloom’s is quick, jaunty, jerky…Molly’s are long flowing.”

 

And then there’s this observation on the underlying thematic possibilities:

 

“Each episode of Ulysses corresponds to an act of the Odyssey, and the correspondence proliferates in a mass of subtle references. When, for instance, Bloom strolls by Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in glorious summer morning weather, he is re-creating the lotus eating episode of the Odyssey. But the Homeric parallel is only the beginning. Shape and direction are primarily imposed on each chapter by means of an Odyssean reference, but that reference suggests related references, sub-references and those have much to do with not only the direction and subject matter […] but the action itself and even the technique [.]”

 

Oy vey! Even when stripped to its foundations, Joyce’s writing is a bit…oh how shall we say, congested with meaning. And, as we know now, that wasn’t even his most challenging work.

 

While Burgess does take on Finnegan’s Wake (“Difficult?”, he asks rhetorically about the book, “Oh yes, difficult. But a certain difficulty is the small price we must pay for excitement, richness [and] originality.”), he actually saves much of his critical/analytical expertise for his second book on this subject ten years later entitled Joysprick: An Introduction To The Language Of James Joyce. Sounds like a lovely beach read, no?

 

Finnegan’s Wake is so full of mystery and verbal rabbit-holes, it’s a wonder anyone even bothers; but then, what's fun about not bothering? Anyway, in part two, we’ll take a look at the a book which may be our best source to figuring out this master’s greatest, most frustrating work. Until then, I leave you with this: 

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

mfa vs nyc, you forgot the internet

Author: Bernd Untiedt, Germany

Chad Harbach of N+1 curated a book of essays called MFA vs NYC that lays out the scene as-it-stands for NYC publishing editors, agents, writers, and satellite bookish NYC others. Kudos for all of the essays in MFA vs. NYC.

Particularly job well done on Harbach’s introductory essay. His comments on the status quo of NYC houses and MFA university programs not only ring true, but sting. It sucks that NYC editors have become like Hollywood executives searching for blockbusters and the university MFA program environments have become like writer’s camp: safe havens for writers of all shades of talent.

My problem with MFA vs NYC, is that, well, these essays forgot something rather, um, large as it relates to the culture of American fiction.

The Internet, people. You forgot the Internet.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit: Darryl Lorenzo Wellington did write an essay about his participation in the reality-TV-esque Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. But, that essay was basically an authorial confession for having played a part in the contest, not a true study on how Amazon’s publishing model affects American fiction. Also, Harbach of course mentioned that: “technology sends the New York publishing world into spasms of perpetual anxiety.” But, that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the fact that NYC and MFA programs are dual cultures for fiction, yes, but they are dual cultures running right alongside and outside of and on top of and mixed in with a third culture – the Internet – which in its wild-west-shoot-em-up-new-frontier way is fostering and promoting and creating and commenting-on and editing and disseminating and publishing fiction in new and weird and fantastic ways that have never been done before. Good fiction! Terrible fiction! Weird fiction! Mediocre fiction!

The Internet is not only a culture of fiction, but a force for fiction. A force that is running us all down like a freight train. It’s scary and loud and attracts vagrants and weirdos and might run off the rails, but, hey! It’s taking us to the new frontier!

In light of this, I disagree with many, many statements in the essay “MFA vs NYC,” and the sensibility of the collection of essays in MFA vs NYC as a whole.

In particular: I disagree with the sentiment stated throughout that MFA university programs are the only other realistic avenues to which would-be NYC writers, editors, and agents could flock. This is just not the case anymore. The Internet has become a thing of wide-open-possibilities -- giving writers, editors, and agents oodles of opportunities to make money from writing and publishing fiction. 

And even if the Internet doesn’t bestow a pile of money onto an enterprising writer, editor, agent, etc., these talented fiction-ites (if they love it enough) will do this work for free. They will come home from their full-time jobs and, despite their exhaustion, will still find the time to write. Because if they really love and need to write it will chase them like Faulkner’s demon, propel them into the gray light of the morning to their notebook or their iMac to hammer out a few more words. Because they need it more than they need sleep, wine, food, company, money. The fact that these writers who do this obsessive work have the gift of the Internet as publisher. 

Despite the fact that these prominent American writers wrote thoughtful and practical state-of-the-union essays about a specific set of NYC or MFA writers, the collection feels a little head-in-the-sand-ish considering the fact that the Internet and its fiercely chomping jaws has basically already destroyed the old guarde. Has freed them to maybe move to Cleveland (oh gawd no!) and say what they need to say. Forge their own path. Think outside the box. Create something new that speaks in the voice of their generation.

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Interview with poet and novelist ron koertge

Poet and young-adult novelist Ron Koertge has written dozens of exceptional books of fiction and poetry that have won him lots of awards. His writing is funny and iconoclastic — snarky with a strong dose of pathos.  

Yay, he also agreed to let me ask him some questions about writing and stuff. I particularly loved his comment about the "agony of the blank page." Onward ho, writer! Fill 'er up. Blank pages are for the birds. 


What started you writing poetry? 
I always wrote something, starting in high school. They were lamentable poems, usually about how misunderstood I was. When I went to the University of Illinois, though, I ran into guys who took writing seriously and talked about being writers. So, I hung around with them. In grad school I met the poet Gerald Locklin who was even then writing poems and submitting them to the  —  as they were called then — little magazines. He turned me on to them and some people our age (we were in our early 20's), and pretty soon writing and publishing were just some things I did regularly. 

What sort of thing did you write about when you began?   
Gerry led me to Edward Field and his poems about movies and life-in-New York charmed the pants off me. Clearly, I could write about anything and not just so-called serious things. Before there was the word "snarky" I was snarky and irreverent, a good way to be for the 60's. So, I published a lot for a couple of decades before tastes turned more introspective and language-conscious.   

What was one of the most surprising elements about your life as a writer?    
I'm still surprised I write for kids/teenagers. If I wanted to be a novelist, I imagined it would be for adults. Not adults to be. Someone years ago reminded me I was chronically immature so I should write for 16 year old boys. Turned out they were right. 

If you had a soapbox topic about writing (something you're passionate about/something that bugs you), what would it be?  
I think prose writers should read more poetry. Out loud. I read a lot of really infelicitous prose: the plot drives the story, the characters are riveting, but sometimes the sentences are so clunky. A discipline of reading poetry out loud would help that.  

Is there anything else you would rather have done than write poetry and fiction?    
I love the race track and might have enjoyed life-on-the-backstretch. It's a very interesting sub-culture. But, I think I would have also written about it.   

What advice do you have for poets and/or fiction writers? 
Write a lot and don't be afraid to write badly. Some of the pages I turn out are so embarrassing but my motto is this: what's the gift of this terrible poem? This cringeworthy page? This rough rough rough rough draft? There's always one.   

Any other thoughts?      
It's a pleasure to be able to write. I've never understood the so-called agony of the blank page. Just fill it up! 


Ron Koertge's poetry collections include: the ghazal collection Indigo (2009), Fever (2006), and Making Love to Roget’s Wife (1997). His novels and novels-in-verse for young readers include Shakespeare Bats Cleanup (2006), The Brimstone Journals (2004), and Stoner & Spaz (2004).

Read more of (and about) Ron's poetry and prose at: ronkoertge.com. Or pick up his most recent book of poetry,The Ogre's Wife, and his most recent novel, Coaltown Jesus, published through Red Hen Press and Candlewick Press, respectively.