Creative Writing Exercise: “Gasket”

A friend of mine is something of an expert on the history of prostitution. Over the years, he has amassed quite a large collection of books on the subject, particularly the role that brothels played in the expansion of the American West. Whenever we are traveling around Arizona exploring old ghost towns, he’s a ready source of entertaining stories and clever bits of trivia (like the origins of the word “poon-tang,” for example). However, at least as far as I can tell, his knowledge of prostitutes is purely academic.

I first became aware of the world’s oldest profession while growing up in a small Indiana farm town. As a kid, my only exposure to anything even remotely resembling a prostitute came from watching T.V. westerns, such as Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke or those friendly gals from The Cheyenne Social Club (a film starring Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Jones. Yeah, that’s right—the same woman who would one day become the matriarchal caregiver to the Partridge Family). In those old shows, it’s hard to imagine that such flamboyantly dressed dancehall girls would ever be intimate with a dirty, stinking cowboy. But then again, no one ever said entertainment was supposed to mirror reality.

My encounter with a real prostitute happened when I was about eleven years old. At the time, there was a boy living next door named Brian whose family epitomized the 1970’s drug culture. Brian was two years younger than me and the only boy I knew who smoked; he could also blow really cool smoke rings and roll his own cigarettes. He was a chubby kid who spent his summer days running around the neighborhood shirtless and shoeless. Brian and his mother had been renting the big blue house across the alley for about two years, and during that time, their household had expanded to include his mom’s brother, Roger, and several of Roger’s friends. It was Roger who had taught Brian to smoke, along with several other vices he would acquire over the course of his brief young life. Roger moved in shortly after Brian’s dad was sent away to prison to serve a five year sentence for selling hard drugs.

It turned out that Roger’s stay was precipitated by his recent dishonorable discharge from the army. No one, including Brian, ever bothered to ask why Roger had gotten out of the army a year and a half early. All we knew was that one day he showed up at Brian’s mother’s door with a G.I. haircut and a nasty attitude. Brian’s mom gave Roger Brian’s room, which meant that Brian was now forced to sleep on the downstairs sofa. So while Brian’s mother worked two jobs to support the household, Roger and his buddies sat at home drinking beer and smoking pot.

Being young, Brian and I took these events in stride. But one day while we were playing catch in the front yard, we noticed an unfamiliar car pulling into the driveway. Out of the car stepped a young woman we had never seen before. She was very pretty, with a petite body and a hint of Asian features about her eyes and cheekbones. It was clear from where we stood that she wore no bra under her tight-fitting t-shirt, although she didn’t seem to notice us looking at her. In fact, she seemed to stare right through us and the two other guys who were helping Roger work on his car in the garage. Roger walked over to the girl and whispered something to her. Then they went up the steps and into the house. “Why don’t you go to NAPA and get head gasket for the El Camino,” shouted Roger to one of his friends through the screen door. “We’ll finish the brakes this afternoon.”

A little while later, Brian wanted to go up to his room to get a different baseball mitt, but one of Roger’s friends stopped us at the bottom of the stairs. “Roger’s going to be busy up there for a while,” he said. Like most boys our age, we understood the mechanics of the sex act if not the motivation, yet a situation like this was entirely new. We went outside and stood underneath Brian’s second story bedroom window. We said nothing, but soon we heard the unmistakable sounds of moaning and the squeaking of bedsprings. Brian and I stared at each other for a moment. Then, like primitive aborigines who are fearful of what they do not understand, we picked up some stones and hurled them at the side of the house. Roger came to the window and yelled at us to stop, and soon one of his buddies chased us away.

A short time later, the girl emerged from the house. Her eyes looked distant and sad, yet she managed to give us a quick smile as she got into her car and drove away. I often wondered what would compel a girl like her to give herself over to the likes of Roger and his ilk. Perhaps she was unable to reconcile her mixed parentage in a town made up almost exclusively of W.A.S.P.S. (After all, the Grand Dragon of our state’s chapter of the K.K.K. lived in the neighboring county.) No doubt she was driven by desperation. Was it the same feeling of desperation that ultimately led Brian to take his own life a few years later?

It was not until my senior year of high school that I would once again encounter a professional Working Girl in a situation that I call, “The Jamaican Shoe-Swap Proposal.” But perhaps that’s a story for another day.

Sing to me, O muse…

Nine Muses dancing with Apollo, by Baldassare ...
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If people discover that you write fiction, one of their most common questions is, “Where do your ideas come from?” It’s a difficult question to answer. Unlike Milton’s image of Sin leaping fully formed out of Satan’s mind, my story ideas seldom reveal themselves with any sort of clarity. Instead, they are usually snippets of something—fragments of a scene or impressions of a character or a situation.

The ideas themselves could come from anywhere. Perhaps it was a face in photograph, some obscure detail from a book or a magazine, or an overheard comment from a stranger in the supermarket check-out lane that morphs into an imaginary conversation between some yet to be conceived characters. Somehow, almost magically, these slippery elements embed themselves in my subconscious and wait for the right moment to emerge. And then together, we slide down the rabbit hole to see where they will lead. Often these ideas hit dead ends, but if I’m persistent, they will occasionally grab me by the collar and plunge me into a creative space where I meet a host of characters I never knew existed.

For me, some of my best story ideas have come when I was not thinking about writing at all. Instead, I was doing something else, like taking a walk, mowing the grass, or some other mundane task. Perhaps the combination of doing something involving physical movement (while at the same time requiring very little mental concentration) allows my mind to wander into that zone where creative ideas emerge.

Whenever I write a short story, for example, I usually have a clear picture of the opening or closing scene, but I have no idea what the rest of the story will look like until I start writing it. The novel I am working on at the moment was inspired by a scene from a dream I had a couple of years ago. While those creative rushes are no doubt fun, it’s also important to remember that if there’s a story worth telling, it’s going to take some work to bring it to life. Eventually, you have to leave the mysticism behind and simply write the darned thing. Like Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

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A Pocketful of Prosody

American author Stephen Crane in 1899

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I love poetry, and as a high school English teacher, I would like my students to enjoy it as much as I do. While this may be an inherently futile endeavor, I continue to fight the good fight anyway and make pitches for my favorite poems and poets. If I’m lucky, the students who’ve learned to hate poetry may come to dislike like it perhaps a little bit less. At the very least, I try my best to repair the damage done by their former (albeit well-meaning) teachers who managed to drive the love of verse out of my students somewhere between kindergarten and junior high.

One thing my school did this year to promote the enjoyment of poetry was participate in “Poem In Your Pocket Day,” an exercise sponsored by and The Academy of American Poets. The idea is simple. On Thursday, April 29, students are encouraged to keep copies of their favorite poems in their pockets to share with friends, teachers, co-workers, and family. Our school librarian even organized a prize drawing for students who showed their poems to their English teachers.

The results of the event were both interesting and encouraging. First of all, more than a quarter of my students carried poems with them to class—a much higher percentage than I anticipated. Some of the poems were classics, others were written by contemporary authors, a few were song lyrics (a valid form of poetic expression, in my opinion). The encouraging thing was that students seemed genuinely excited about sharing their poems with their classmates, and most insisted on reading the poems aloud so that the words could have maximum impact. Perhaps poetry as an art form is not dead after all.

By the way, the poem I carried in my pocket was one by Stephen Crane:

Poem 96

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

I love that poem.

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Water from the Well

Lately, I’ve had difficulty getting into a writing frame of mind. While I understand that success in writing requires an unflinchingly consistent work schedule, when your Muse has packed up and gone on vacation, there’s only so much you can do. Professional novelists often talk about their need to consume a steady diet of reading material in order to do their own creative work, and in recent days, I’ve found myself returning to the books and authors that inspired me to write in the first place. One such book is Edward Abbey’s memoire, Desert Solitaire.

Desert Solitaire is the account of Abbey’s experiences working as a seasonal park ranger in Arches Nation Monument in the late 1950s. (This was prior to its designation as a National Park when the roads were still unpaved and the rangers had the place pretty much to themselves.) It’s a sprawling book that takes in everything from the searing Utah heat to the long-standing conflict between forces of commercial exploitation (“industrial tourism” is what Abbey calls it) and those who prefer to keep wild places unblemished.

Although Abbey is often labeled a “nature writer,” this was never his aim. He simply wanted to write well, and for him, it was the outdoors (specifically, the rugged landscape of the American Southwest) that served as the backdrop for much of his work. The modern conservation movement owes much of its origins to people like Abbey, and works like Desert Solitaire continue to inspire new generations of readers to get out and experience the country’s wild places on their own terms. While I don’t always agree with Abbey’s opinions, I do admire his uncompromising spirit and his gift at describing an often indescribable landscape.

Reading Ed Abbey makes me want to write, and this is precisely what my thirsty soul needs right now. So how about you? What “go-to” books do you turn to when your creative well runs dry?

Nothing New Under the Cinematic Sun?

I finally saw Avatar. I realize it’s been out for months and earned an obscene amount of money at the box office, but I have a thing about crowds and prefer to wait until the hype has died down before I see a blockbuster like this in a movie theatre. I must say that James Cameron’s film certainly lives up to it reputation in terms of visual spectacle. The scenery is indeed dazzling, and the 3-D effects will likely spawn dozens of imitators for years to come—which is only fitting, since imitation is pretty much all you get with Avatar in terms of its storyline.

Granted, it’s nothing new for artists to build on the work of their predecessors. George Lucas freely admits that he dove deep into the archetypal pool (via Joseph Campbell) when scripting out his Star Wars saga. Likewise, the Wachowski brothers drew from a host of literary and religious archetypes when they created the Matix trilogy. However, Cameron does not pay homage to these traditions so much as he downright steals from the work of other screenwriters and filmmakers.

While watching the three-hour long Avatar, I found myself making a mental checklist of the cinematic allusions being played out on the screen.  Dances With Wolves is there in bulk, as are the aforementioned Star Wars and Matrix movies.  There are also echoes of Braveheart, Pocahontas, Medicine Man, Independence Day, Donnie Brasco, Apocalypse Now, The Search for Spock, Total Recall, and Kingdom of Heaven. Cameron even seems to borrow from himself a bit with nods to the Alien and the Terminator franchises. Plus you get a movie with Romeo and Juliet-esque star-crossed lovers and a narrator who is divided between two worlds—much like the protagonist in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant novels.

Don’t get me wrong, many writers have built careers based on adaptations of other people’s ideas (William Shakespeare comes to mind), and James Cameron’s film is worth the price of admission if only to admire the work of a talented team of animators. But without the stunning visuals, Avatar’s storyline seems a bit shallow. Then again, this is Hollywood we’re talking about, and in a country whose reading habits continue to decline, perhaps movies are the only form of cultural transmission we have left.