Electric anthems for badass girls.
We all have our comfort zones, in life and in writing. Throughout my first nine years of writing, the only format I attempted was the novel, though I did eventually deviate from my initial comfort zones of the horror genre and the third-person limited point of view after my fourth novel-length work by shifting towards literary fiction and first-person narration. With that being said, it wasn’t until I took a creative writing workshop in my freshman year of college that I truly learned to challenge myself by branching out into new genres, fresh perspectives and experimental formats which, in turn, gave me new ideas on content, characterization and themes.
Having to take a workshop in poetry was crucial in teaching me the weight and value of every single word choice, and how deeply this could impact meaning. Furthermore (and perhaps even more crucial to my development as a writer), my numerous creative writing workshops in fiction inspired me to try my hand at short fiction, a format I had once balked at as being far too difficult; I had a hard enough time limiting my word- and page-counts with novels, how the hell would I manage to tell an entire story in 20 pages or less?
This led me to redefine my preconceived notions about what a story consisted of, and it made me find a deeper appreciation for subtlety and the unspoken. Where, in previous manuscripts I had written in high school, I could meander for pages at a time describing something that wasn’t really crucial to the plot or to character development (thus putting the story on hold), or I could waste precious plot progression time exploring a metaphor that I found particularly pretty (though, if pressed, I would be forced to admit that it wasn’t actually useful to anything but my own vanity), crafting a short story forced me to ditch these bad habits in search of the simplest way to convey an idea. Writing short stories–something I dedicated years to after that initial attempt in my junior year of college–changed my priorities while writing, and it made me more resourceful in my means of communicating information. Instead of spending a paragraph describing a sunset, maybe I could do it in one sentence. Maybe I could do it in one perfect adjective.
Writing short fiction also made me find a deeper appreciation of subtlety and small meaningful moments instead of grand, operatic scenes. My earlier writing had many such grand (i.e. over-the-top) scenes, where every emotion had to be dialed to 11 and every consequence had to be life or death. While you can certainly achieve this in short fiction, the brevity of the format can force you to, instead, look for the hidden, deeper meaning in smaller moments, quieter gestures and more restrained themes.
Experimenting with short fiction, thereby leaving my comfort zone and branching out into a new form of story-telling, would later improve how I wrote lengthier works like novellas and novels. This is also true of writing creative nonfiction (which made me reevaluate the emotional core of a story by influencing me to view my own life through this lens), and was especially true of screenwriting (which taught me to focus on dialogue and plot structure).
Perhaps the best advice I can give on the subject is this: if you ever find yourself stuck, stagnated or plateaued in the form of story-telling that you love most, be it poetry or short fiction or writing fantasy novels, one of the best things you can do to step outside of the box (and outside of the problem) is to take a break from your preferences and branch out to a new genre or format.
Study that format intensely. Read about the mechanics of poetry. Read about plot-progression and character arcs from the perspective of a screenwriter. Delve into the work of writers who only write flash-fiction and figure out the strategies they use to tell a fully-realized story in two paragraphs. Remove the blocks of dialogue and exposition from a comic book or graphic novel and fill in the blanks based off of the images provided. Do close readings of your favorite poems, determining all of the figurative language and references that add meaning to the thematic heft of the poem.
And try your hand at utilizing these tools in your own experimentation in other genres. Some of these tools will work so well for elevating your story-telling methods that they will translate back to your preferred genre and format, improving and fine-tuning your processes along the way. If you’re enrolled in any kind of school, seek out writing clubs and writing workshops in genres you normally don’t truck with. If you aren’t currently taking any classes, research workshops and seminars in your area, or create a network of fellow writers in your community to workshop each other’s work. Try a new approach or write about a topic you would never have considered interesting in the past. Seek out writing prompts and choose at random. After all, we learn the most from new experiences, new stressors, new pressures; by only sticking to what you know or what you’re comfortable with, you will stifle your potential, and you might never discover a new, reinvigorated passion for writing.
Anyone who has served or is currently serving in the military will tell you that the media in all of its forms often gets military life embarrassingly wrong. As someone who has served in the United States Army for almost ten years, I am often the one scoffing or rolling my eyes at the character saluting from the position of parade rest instead of the position of attention. This statement in and of itself likely went over many people’s heads, and that’s alright. It’s easy for me to forget how foreign the military culture was before I was initiated into it, and therefore how easy it is for anyone on the outside to simply overlook these details. After all, some of my closest loved ones still have very little understanding of what I do from day to day; despite the fact that I talk to them about it regularly, it’s practically a different language to them.
From the nitpicky discrepancies with wear and appearance of the uniform, to glaring mistakes in customs and courtesies, to unrealistic tactical decisions, to tired character clichés, many of the errors in military portrayal could be mitigated with research and communication. Below are some tips in crafting characters and events that are realistic to military experience, along with a few examples of fiction that get the military surprisingly right. These tips apply to both contemporary Soldiers and military portrayals, as well as portrayals from different eras and settings, to include futuristic portrayals.
1. Rank structure and unit dynamics: As I said before, my family doesn’t always have a firm grasp of the way the military works. When I was being promoted to Staff Sergeant, my mom once endearingly asked if the next rank for me would be Colonel. Even when I patiently explained the way rank structures work, she admitted that it still didn’t make any sense to her. For writing purposes, it’s very helpful to understand rank structure and unit dynamics.
In all United States branches of the military, there are three rank structures: enlisted, officer and warrant officer. Warrant officers are usually the subject matter experts in their field. They can be pilots, mechanics, welders and any number of specialties in between. The inside joke in the Army is that warrant officers are beholden to no one; they’re pretty much their own bosses and their own species. Enlisted service members range from junior enlisted to non-commissioned officers. Junior enlisted will be service members who either are the newest to the military, or who don’t meet the criteria to be promoted to non-commissioned officers. Non-commissioned officers are “where the rubber meets the road”: they take the orders of officers and the intent of their commanders, formulate a plan for completion and utilize their junior enlisted to execute, offering leadership and training all the while. Officers are the official leaders of any organization; they assume responsibility and accountability for everything that goes right or wrong within their unit.
The dynamics between these rank structures are practically universal in the military. If you really want to understand the inside jokes about privates marrying strippers, “butter-bar Lieutenants” and “salty Command Sergeants Major,” look no further than military blogs like Task and Purpose, Duffel Blog and U.S. Army WTF Moments. The memes and comments therein can perhaps shed more light than I could with a one-hour Powerpoint presentation.
This also applies to unit dynamics. When creating a narrative that includes a military unit, you will need to determine what kind of unit: a medical platoon in an armor battalion will have drastically different dynamics and personnel make-up than a medical company in a support battalion. Again, this may all sound like a foreign language, but Google and Wikipedia are your friends when it comes to quickly learning the basics of how a unit is formulated, who its superior and subordinate units are, and what its mission would be.
2. Military occupational specialty: Another important distinction to consider is the job your character, characters or unit performs. There is a tremendous array, any of whom could see combat depending on the situation. From cooks to military intelligence, medics to infantry, cavalry to field artillery, veterinarians to military police, everyone has a specific and unique military occupational specialty, but everyone also has the overarching expectation to understand basic, common warrior tasks and drills.
For example, my military occupational specialty (MOS) is 68W40. This is the code that designates me as a Combat Medic (68W) and as a Sergeant First Class (a “40 level” enlisted Soldier). I have training requirements to fulfill as a combat medic such as maintaining CPR and EMT certifications, and I also have basic Soldiering requirements that I have to fulfill such as qualifying on my assigned weapon annually. Depending on what kind of unit I’m in and what kind of position I am assigned to, I may have various other responsibilities and expectations to fulfill. If I’m a medical platoon sergeant in an infantry battalion, I’ll be expected to understand the battalion’s tactical movements and locations on the battle field, to allocate medics to each company, to maintain a fleet of ambulances and train my Soldiers on their medical skillsets, along with dozens of other spinning plates. If I’m in charge of a medical department in a base hospital, my mission will be drastically different.
Considering your character’s or characters’ field of specialty is crucial in understanding their unique military culture and their mission. Medics, for example, are known for having the darkest senses of humor imaginable. Keep in mind also that the examples listed are specific to the Army. The Marines, Navy and Air Force have different occupational specialty codes, designations and rank structures than the Army, which brings me to my next point.
3. Unique aspects of each branch: Every branch of the military also has their own specific and tailored mission, their own culture, their own uniforms, differing standards, their own rank structures, jobs and unit specifications. For example, there are no medics in the Marine Corps; instead, the Marine Corps attaches Navy Corpsmen to units. This may seem like a small distinction, but when it comes to creating a sense of authenticity to your world and your characters, those kinds of details can be crucial. Again, much of this information can be picked up be falling down the Wikipedia rabbit-hole. If you already know what branch, unit and occupational specialty you want for your character, you can also take a trip to the library and research, or reach out on one of those aforementioned military blogs to see if anyone would be willing to answer your questions (don’t be offended if initial responses are sarcastic or snarky, our senses of humor can appear pretty harsh from the outside).
4. Individualism vs. unity: One of the things that will drive me the most crazy about fiction featuring the military are the often clichéd portrayals of characters. Often you can find that these clichés result in using war movies as research, instead of committing genuine research. The nicknames always seem forced (and far too common; most nicknames in the military are shortened versions of a person’s last name, not some meaningful character-summarizing trait), the back stories are pulled from a hat of common back stories, and each character fulfills a preordained role: the joker, the book-smart guy, the gritty leader, the wide-eyed rookie, the man of faith, the thief, etc. In limiting characters to these roles, they never feel human, and therefore the reader doesn’t really care what happens to them, which renders every combat scene devoid of tension. Creating full backstories for your characters—to include what their lives were like before the military—helps to flesh them out, give them personalities beyond stereotypes, and make them relatable to your readers.
It’s also important to note perhaps one of the greatest attributes of military culture: diversity, and how that leads to unity. In my time in the military I have served beside Soldiers whose entire families still lived in Nigeria, Soldiers who joined the military unable to speak full sentences in English, and Soldiers born and raised in Hawaii whose parents were millionaires. I’ve known Soldiers who were single parents, widows and widowers, Soldiers who had been cheated on and stolen from, Soldiers in same-sex marriages and Soldiers who stayed single until they were 40. I’ve met people from every state, every possible socioeconomic or cultural background, every religion from Mormons to Buddhists to Sikhs. I’ve known Soldiers who immigrated from Scotland, Russia, England, Honduras, China, Romania and dozens of other countries. I’ve known Soldiers who planned to pursue a career in politics once they got out, Soldiers whose biological families died when they were young, Soldiers who had already been married and divorced three times by the time they were 30 years old and Soldiers who had juvenile records. I’ve known Soldiers who were nurses in South Korea before moving to the United States to pursue their Master’s degrees, Soldiers who already had their masters degrees in journalism but couldn’t find work in Chicago, Soldiers who had to drop out of high school to help their families make ends meet with full-time jobs.
The diversity within our ranks is our greatest strength; it’s what gives us unique perspectives, ideas and problem-solving methods, and it’s what allows us to recognize that our differences pale in comparison to the things we have in common. Our personal cultures often take a backseat to the shared experience of the military culture and the military life. Creating that sort of unity in your narrative can be one of the most realistic contributions you can make to your portrayal of the military: that even when the Soldiers fight, dislike each other or even flat out hate each other, they still typically feel a sense of duty and responsibility for one another’s safety and wellbeing.
5. Getting it right: There are a few examples when military portrayal rang particularly true, to me; ironically, I have found this more in the sci-fi genre than in war movies, though there are a few war movies where the research and advice taken was thorough. Saving Private Ryan, Platoon and Black Hawk Down were all fairly accurate portrayals for their particular military conflicts. Even Jarhead had some realism to it (particularly the long stretches of boredom and madness that come with a lack of action and activity during a deployment).
But for me, the most accurate representations I have seen are in the 2004 Battlestar Galactica television series and in James Cameron’s Aliens. Both of these futuristic takes on military life benefited from escaping the nitpicky details—they made up their own uniform standards, vehicles and weaponry, meaning I never got pulled out of the scene by an inaccuracy because everything was hypothetical to me anyhow. What these works of fiction did so well was in creating a unique and detailed dynamic between characters that perfectly mirrored military culture.
In Battlestar Galactica, the mechanics and crew chiefs were on a different social caste than the pilots, the chain of command was an established aspect of the narrative conflict, and characters’ racial and cultural backgrounds played a role in how they perceived problems.
In Aliens, a film which benefited tremendously from military advisor Al Mathews (who played Sergeant Apone in the film, and in real life was the first black Marine to be promoted to the rank of Sergeant in Vietnam), the raunchy humor, overblown machismo, one-upmanship, the posturing they might be guilty of while in the presence of outsiders, and the general ball-busting between the Marines felt very true-to-life for a very close-knit unit, as did their disdain and distrust of their brand-new (and incompetent) Lieutenant. I’ll also give an honorable mention to Starship Troopers, especially to the recruiting and training scenes (more so in the book than in the movie).
Again, the best thing you can do when creating characters who are in or used to be in the military, or when writing battle sequences, is to do thorough research. This goes beyond text books and encyclopedias. To get the full picture, the best way to understand military culture is by communicating with people who have served or are serving.
I have always been a sucker for the horror genre. There is an inherent universality to horror that other genres lack: while comedy may be unique to a specific culture, fear transcends boundaries. This likely stems from the fact that the fight-or-flight reaction the genre may garner from us has been hard-wired in our brains since the first men and women faced their first life-or-death threat. That instinct remains, even as the catalysts have changed: oftentimes we feel the physiological effects of the sympathetic nervous system during job interviews, verbal confrontations or horror movies instead of due to threats from predators. We all know what it is to fear for our safety, for the safety of our loved ones, for our social status and possessions. We all know what it is to fear, above all else, the certainty of death.
As such, the horror genre (and its trends) can be one of the truest conduits into both individual fears and collective cultural dread. The focal points of our fears often center around a symbol that speaks to our reality. Take the alien invasion narratives that haunted the Cold War era–Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) both stoke paranoia through the existential panic of losing one’s identity, being supplanted by “the other” and being homogenized into a hive-mind of sorts. Is it reasonable to link the recent surge in exorcism-narratives to cultural fears of a loss of religious identity as atheism and agnosticism are on the rise? Or to link the zombie sub-genre to consumerism? The ghost or haunting sub-genre to universal questions about death and the afterlife? The vampire sub-genre to repressed sexuality? The serial killer sub-genre (which took the reins from the Universal Studios monsters–and the safety therein, as audiences were able to associate their fear and dread with a grotesque “other” instead of with humanity itself–and most notably did so with Norman Bates replacing Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man) to growing understanding of and terror with human psychology?
Some may argue that the trends merely follow whatever is lucrative at the time, with one successful catalyst (one Psycho, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Paranormal Activities, Insidious or Scream) spawning countless tedious knock-offs. But it stands to reason that the financial success of the catalyst is due, in part, to that catalyst finding a way to find the pulse of the cultural subconscious and exploit or greatest fears. Horror, then, has a way of encapsulating the political, cultural, sociological and psychological anxieties of a given era in a way that no other genre can. Beyond that, it can also allow us to define our own fears, and what those fears say about us as people.
The genre’s respectability has of course had its ups and downs from the popularity of penny dreadfuls to the Grand Guignol theater productions, from the Universal Studios monsters to the German surrealist silent films, from Hitchcock in black and white to technicolor Argento, from the VHS horror boom in the 80’s that allowed for expanded viewership but also impacted quality, from Stephen King to Thomas Harris, from the self-aware and self-mocking horror of the 90’s to the contemporary resurgence of horror’s respectability as new mediums (particularly television) explore new avenues.
As a child of the 80’s who grew up on a steady diet of Tales from the Crypt, and whose grandfather allowed indiscriminate Blockbuster video selections, I have seen my fair share of the classics, the cult-classics and the garbage. There’s much to be said about what makes a horror film successful beyond the subject matter’s cultural significance: the ability to use atmosphere to create tension, writing characters who the reader or audience can identify with, creating scenarios that elicit dread, using imaginative and evocative imagery and metaphor to establish a deeper pang to the subconscious. One thing is certain: the most successful entries in the genre bring us all back to that primitive space where the only emotions that mattered were the emotions that kept us alive.
*This is a short story I wrote a very long time ago. Warning: some bad language and sexuality throughout. Enjoy!
“I, of the savage kingdom, will guide you to glory!” The sound of a Big Easy traffic jam punctures the steady scream of her words, a few of the syllables slipping out into the never-was. “ ‘Court not death by your erring way of life, nor draw to yourselves destruction by the works of your hands! Because into a soul that plots evil, wisdom enters not, nor dwells she in a body under debt of sin!’”
The hint of Russian singsong gives her away. I know her voice better than I know my own. They say that, no matter how early one is separated from one’s mother, the mind is imprinted with the sound of her voice and conditioned to hear it again; and while decades might pass without hearing it, the lost child could still detect the mother’s voice out of a tapestry of hundreds. Because it was the first sound, the first pitch and tone and coo to ever have existed. It was the sound on which all other sounds were based.
I’m sitting on the bench across the street, watching her, the only one watching her. Ilyena Tracy, still the magician; the way she moves her hands, pushing the air away with them, drawing people inward while keeping me confounded on this frayed bench, wondering how this could’ve happened.
Some small moments are nothing, they don’t snowball into the rest of your life. But some of them, they’re gods, they own you.
I imagine that, at one point, she lured crowds on the corner with her flailing Fascist body movements, jerks of her arms and a twist of her neck that mimicked cerebral palsy or spiritual ecstasy. Whenever she bellows the word “sinners,” her face sinks downward toward her neck, and small bubbles collect at the corners of her mouth.
I can’t stomach the battery-acid taste of the coffee anymore, and I hold the cup close to my face as if I’ve paused mid-sip, just to feel the steam siphoning through the lid. I tear confetti-sized pieces from the letter that Rita slipped into my pocket the last time I saw her. I’m waiting for my shift in telemarketing purgatory to start, in which I try to ignore the chorus of ringing, chatter, staplers, scribbling, and gnashing of teeth, and push our patented stain erasing formula.
This is my ritual: sit on the bench, mesmerized, my heart a rabid dog begging for the bullet. At work, I empty the letter-confetti from my pocket and forsake the names on the list, instead calling Rita, wanting to tell her, wanting for her to tell me what to do. For the past week I’ve only gotten her machine and her husband. I hang up, playing with the idea of asking her husband what he would do: he seems like the type that would know, with his voice calm and British asking me who’s there, who is this; talking quietly as if he’s in a glass room and he doesn’t want the walls to crash down on him. At this point, I’m usually lectured by my telepathic boss, always privy to when I’m not being productive.
Yes, I know I have a job to do, sir. Yes, I know that I’m not doing it.
Then, I study my reflection in the computer screen, trying to find a feature my mother would be sure to recognize, though so many have changed. A narrow nose broken in one of several foster homes. Glasses are no longer there to hide greenish eyes that bear the constant squint of non-trust, having been replaced by contacts.
The dimpled chin is the only thing that’s stayed the same. Is that enough to remember a son? Should I buy a pair of glasses?
I start writing a letter to my mother that I plan to slip in her Bible when she’s distracted by the Rapture. I mull over trivialities, whether or not my signature will exhibit my shaking hand. After work, I stand beside the bench, pinching my thigh in hopes of triggering a muscle spasm that might force me into my first step to her. I pay the cab fare in sweat-dampened singles, always pausing, everyday choosing inertia. On the ride home, I make the resolution that I’ll approach her tomorrow. I’ll get it over with tomorrow.
I sleep, impervious to the fact that I am a liar.
I should’ve had her figured when I was six years old and realized, seemingly for the first time, that she had really, truly, actually named me Balthazar. After kindergarten giggles and with no middle name to fall back on, I told everyone to call me by my last name, Tracy—a fragmented version of the original Tratzinsky, cleaved in half somewhere on the Atlantic. For ten years we lived like gypsies. We stayed with her friends, friends of her friends, occasionally having to squat in an abandoned warehouse. I knew better than to complain. I had no voice. I was her baggage, her immigrant suitcase.
She preached differently, back then, gracefully performing tricks of prestidigitation, making things disappear—wallets, mostly. Every incredulous question of “How?” was answered with “Magic!” A firm believer that the world might end in twenty-five years, she called America a “savage kingdom,” place with too many machines and too many brands of detergent, place where people too easily loosened their grip on time.
She talked to me sometimes about Omsk, her home, about how she was the statue of fear to all the other women. In her youth, she was a breathy scandal of a girl, running around with nomads, traveling sideshow acts, literary fugitives and Trotskyites who had escaped the purges and lived in paranoid old age. Her very footsteps caused neighborhood elders to gasp and cross themselves: her tracks, they swore, were hooved.
She had a laugh that unsettled concrete, a devil-may-care that made onlookers think that if the devil did care about anything on this lonely dull planet, it was her. His Persephone. His awful queen.
I craved her stories, her Omsk, her random switches between English, Yiddish, Russian, as if she had three tongues housed by one mouth. I felt that the stories I heard at school were lackluster in comparison, always about little brothers or missing puppies. Never in those skinny illustrated books were there stories of black markets, or missile crises, or gypsy circuses where the Conjurer carried the Lone Torso on his back.
When I couldn’t sleep she’d wave me over to her. “Bad dream, boytchik? Here, take mine. I’ve dreamt this one before,” she’d say, putting her hand on my forehead and describing her bargained reverie to me so well that I saw it all for myself, could’ve dreamed of nothing else. And when I had horrible fevers, she used to remove my dingy glasses and place her hands against my eyes, applying the slightest pressure, invoking cold with her tiny palms. She would whisper to me, her breath in a flustered hurry, a mother’s hysteria, her words leading me to Siberia.
She had bad spells, too. Anxious days when she’d look at me as if wishing I might disappear. She would watch me intently as I ate her pungent food. And then she’d abruptly stop me from eating and scrub the food off of my plate like dead skin.
For ten years this is how we lived. On the fourth night of that year, she ushered me to sleep, her palms over my eyes as she kissed my forehead. I woke the next morning alone, a note on my pillow. “I’m sorry. I’ve stopped paying for this mistake of mine. I have to set you down, Balthazar, I can carry you no longer on my back.”
I cannot claim uniqueness in abandonment: the history of the act stretches back to the Alpha, to the foundation. Think of the Jews sold out by former friends, sniffed out of their hiding places and ritualistically unpersoned. Think of leftovers, discarded ideals, uncompleted revolutions, the Rosenberg’s, Charles Foster Kane. Think of Abraham’s son, Isaac, who feigned dignity under the knife when all he wanted was for his father to say “You are more to me than God. Run from here and live forever.”
Or a man quietly in love with a sadist, wanting to tell her that he didn’t mind how she wounded him, just as long as she would stay.
Think of a ten year-old boy in a warehouse left suddenly, irreversibly alone; a boy discovered two days later, hungry and dirty, by one of his mother’s Bohemian cab-driver friends, who dropped him off at the nearest police station without a “goodbye” or a “good luck.” A boy who will never know why.
After that day came too many homes, and never enough time in them to get comfortable. Fourteen placements in eight years, the same life lesson from all the pseudo-fathers: go to school, get a job, get a wife, get a house. Obtain more possessions than those smudgy glasses and the clothes on your back. Possessions are reality. Possessions are identity. I was whittled to fit this new consumer’s world, where living in a warehouse is generally frowned upon, sleight-of-hand is only a profession in Caesar’s Palace, and dreams are non-transferable.
Before the day she left, we had been each other’s world, a cult of two. It sutures, that kind of companionship. Without it, you have a hard time figuring out where the wound starts and where it ends.
I’m fifteen minutes late for work. The boss told me yesterday that if I continue to be late and unproductive, I’m out. Still, I can’t stand up from this bench, opting instead to stare at her. “…For touch is the most demystifying of all senses, unlike sight, which is the most magical.” I tell myself that this explains everything that I am incapable of.
She slaps her hand against her ragged leather-bound Bible to emphasize a point, closing her eyes and chanting western prayers. I try to fathom a holy man skillful enough to have converted her from unstated paganism, a believer so pure and apotheosized that wherever he walked the blind cried “Messiah” and corpses sprung from their graves, coughing up dirt.
But preachers of this faith, they’re a realm away from the things my mother used to believe in. A woman like her would’ve been impenetrable to brainwashing. My best theories on her radical change involve lobotomies and Doppelgangers, or the rootless guilt she’d passed on to me.
I want her to know about my nightmare where in a room, exquisite red, we face each other, and she laughs at me, the sound bouncing from wall to wall. “In the old days, you know what they did to spineless boys like you when they were babies? The villagers saw one weakness, one defect and you were fed to the pigs.” She places her hands over my face, and when she pulls them away my eyes are viscous spider-eggs.
When I was young, I’d never had a bad dream. I’d pretended just so that I could steal hers. So she would tell me her sole parable one more time.
“I tell you story, boytchik, just this last time; the short version because I’m too tired for more. In village not too far from Omsk, the gypsy circus came once a year bringing always the sound of drums, and people would stop from their working so they could go to see it. It was a wonderful spectacle, a lady with two heads, a man with a face that has grown on his stomach with real eyes that blinked, a man with red fists that sprout from his shoulder-blades. And of course magicians and dare-devils and cannibals and fire-breathers and people with tremendous talents. One woman, she could fit herself in a shoebox. It’s true.
“The Conjurer was called this because he could beckon the dead and make them visible to all, he could make those that have vanished reappear, but he could never go to cemeteries because with all the dead begging from him his attention, he would never leave. He was quiet man, pale and thin and dressed always in black cloak and black felt-hat like peasants used to wear. And the Lone Torso, he was named because he was born without legs, but this was not an appropriate name since he still had arms that he could walk around on. He was a very gentle person, and the two became comrades.
“During all the travels, the Lone Torso was harnessed on the back of the Conjurer so that they could talk all the way, and so that the Lone Torso didn’t hurt his hands. They walked this way so often that they became fused together by their backs, from the cold. They wanted to fix it, but the medicine man said that their spines were no longer their own, and to become separate one would have to do without. This was just not possible, so they got used to the idea, and remained comrades, walking everywhere together.
“But then one day they were stranded from the group, and the Conjurer died. The Lone Torso had to haul both of their bodies with his arms. Nobody imagined he could make it, they underestimated his strength. His hands grew blistered from the road but still he pushed onward. Doing for his friend what his friend had done for him for so long…”
At this point in the story, I usually fell asleep; she so expanded on details unexplored in the previous telling that I never got to know what happened, how it ended. That was just like her. So I made up my own endings. Back then, I liked to believe that the Lone Torso absorbed the Conjurer into his body, assuaged the pain without ever losing his comrade. As a teenager, I hoped that the Torso found a carpenter who sawed the cadaver from his back, and he was then able to move without the crippling weight of his abandoner.
Now I imagine the most realistic of endings: the Lone Torso, arms shaking, giving in and falling to embrace the windswept earth for the final time, breathing the dust until his lungs were crushed and it was done.
A pack of teenagers gathers near her corner, laughing and elbowing each other. The kids are dressed all in big black clothes, fishnet gloves, spiked collars. Goth kids, convinced that they took the class on suffering, have befriended the beast in their sixteen years of existence. I was like that when I was their age.
A fat kid with blisters of acne along his jaw is the one to move toward her. I lean forward, a vigilant watchdog, one hand still pulling at the shredded corners of Rita’s letter. I swallow cigarette smoke, watching my mother crossing him with her unbendable arm.
Would she do the same if I walked up to her, baptize me, bless me?
The kid’s shirt says “I’m not prejudiced, I hate everybody!” and I picture the forty other kids wearing the same shirt all over the city, thinking that absent words alone can generate your own statement, your middle finger to a world that is indifferent to middle fingers. He’s smirking at her, getting too close. He glances back at his friends for encouragement, their black-lined eyes glittering with laughter. His breath, it must stink of pot and sugar. Gripping the edge of the bench-seat, my chewed fingernails aching, I whisper “Please” in my head over and over, but I have no idea what it is I’m asking for.
“Hail Satan!” the kid says, raising his fist in the air.
She spouts psalms about the heretics and the nonbelievers. He laughs an obscenely girlish laugh, and slaps the Bible out of her hand. I stand, a reflex, my thumb twitching. I have that post-invasive-surgery feeling that I’ve read about, the mysterious and besetting ache of the violated body.
I imagine the Goth kid shoving her, her head cracking against the curb, the garnet trickle on the pavement; all the pain I’d let her go through just to be her savior, so that I could pick her up from the ground like Simon. I would quietly tell her in a flood of syllables that I can help her, she needs help, I’m sorry and I forgive, goodbye and goodbye, that I can carry her no longer on my back, that still, I push onward.
I picture her shaking off my help, pointing her finger at me and screaming wildly, seeing past my skin straight to the muddy heart.
But the kid backs away, laughing with his friends. “Go back to Germany, you old cunt!” he shouts.
Still standing, I seem to be having trouble producing saliva. This kid, this nothing, had the guts to approach her. Having no idea who she is, that’s how he managed it: because he didn’t know that this is a woman who had somehow broken out of an inescapable country. A woman who could paint a beautiful world for you, and trick you into becoming Atlas.
This is important. This is the catalyst. This is the prologue spewed by her God, who has stopped concerning Himself with linearity.
I was with Rita the night my car pulled its disappearing act. She’d called me at work, set up the usual time and place. Her name wasn’t really Rita, I just called her that because she was a meter-maid. I’d seen the grin on her face when she scribbled the violation and the cost in her little leather booklet, bearing down so hard on her pen that the indentation left sort-of words on five carbon copies. She was a parking ticket sadist.
Rita often voiced how she wished our year-long arrangement was legitimate, so she could tell the story of how we met to strangers. It was a hot August day, a brownout. Due to the jadedness I’d gained in telemarketing purgatory, I visited the Woodward, Wight, and Co. warehouse that used to be home to me. But it looked the same, the glass and concrete and slats of light. There was no magic to be found, only half-empty cans of beer and heroin spoons. I smoked a cigarette, singeing the edges of the letter my mother left on my pillow with the lighter, naively thinking this was my moment of release.
When I left the warehouse I saw Rita leaning against my car, gripping her ticket book and staring at the meter. Waiting for the time to run up. She watched so tensely, hunched forward, like one of those students in art school scrutinizing a nude model.
I saw her right then: a woman who served the great god of Time, she would never let a moment circle the drain. Her every word meaningful when so many of mine, vague and unheard, were milled under the slightest wind. Life, to her, was too short for a job you hated, regrets, procrastination, one lover. Sleep was an unnecessary diversion. The world might end in five years.
Underneath her glacial civil servant surface lay a closet-genius; a concert pianist by fifteen, enrolled at Lafayette by sixteen, where she studied everything indiscriminately. She knew two other languages, spoke them fluently. And then she suddenly dropped it all for this mediocrity, renouncing all her frightening potential. She never told me why.
Rita had been married to some insurance salesman for two years; I had the slightest feeling this career she gave him was a calumny or a metaphor of some sort, she said it like it was a private joke. She liked to fuck with her wedding ring on. She constantly smelled of lemony wood polish, her hands forever smudged with ink. She looked like Grace Kelly’s evil twin, only brunette and with dark gray eyes. Her favorite phrase was “As I do to you, so do I to me.” Her status as proud atheist was challenged nightly when she called out to Jesus during sex; I’d never heard his name sound so sweet, so full, than the way it sounded in her voice.
She became docile before sleep, self-exposing, expressing thoughts so eloquently I couldn’t tell the difference between her words and the memorized quotes of long-dead lyricists. I told her about the Conjurer, the story without an ending. She confided in me her dreams of escaping the human zoo, becoming a recluse or a migrant or both, shedding her skin, her marriage, her vices.
Yet another prone to flight. My life filled with Houdini’s.
Rita picked the worst places on Old Gentilly to meet, places with neon signs boasting color-TVs that never worked; places with heart-shaped beds in which we were the tender arrows digging ever deep, pushing toward an exit-wound. She said that, statistically speaking, men who cheat on their wives go all out in lavish hotels, expensive restaurants, maxing out credit cards on lingerie for their mistresses. Women, on the other hand, tend to do the opposite. Slumming it. Loving the fuck even more for its taste of dirt.
Afterwards, I lay on top of her, doling out puffs of cigarette, holding it just far enough so that she had to strain her neck to take a drag. Maraschino light came in from the window, it pulled all her thorns out. She strove for the cigarette, breathed it in, held it between her dry lips.
I knew that what she felt for me was amusement, at most. Our connection could best be described as a volute, an exchange of power that coiled downward until we were both left without. It was a shocking thing to discover: that she was what I’d been looking for, the romanticized destroyer.
I put my hands over her eyes, feeling the moth-like flutter of her eyelashes.
“You should leave him. Leave the city with me.” I took my hands away from her eyes, feeling the burn of her incredulous stare.
She paused, then slowly, intentionally blew smoke in my face. She so expertly recovered all her thorns, I had to smile.
“Let’s not get poetic or anything.” A typical rejection, it meant she was far from sleep. “You say it, but you’d never leave.”
“You don’t think I could leave? Why not?”
“Unfinished business, maybe; or a talent for misery. Something you’re attached to. All the same, it’s a dreadful city, Tracy. It suits you.”
“Why haven’t you left?”
“It suits me, too. Besides, Phillip’s going places with his life.”
“I’m going places.”
“Phillip’s going good places.”
I stared at her for a second, waiting for the sting to dull before I got up to leave. I couldn’t stand the stink of the room, like Pinesol and gunpowder, the grimy red neon turning everything into doomsday. And the sounds of our temporary neighbors. All the pilgrims in other rooms screaming for that brusque high, that scavenging cock, all the pilgrims curled up in bed dreaming up Mecca.
The dusty spider legs in dresser drawers clinging to Gideon’s Bible. Motels, motels, never any home.
She talked while I got dressed, gripping the complimentary motel pen tight in her fist as she smiled. “Come on, Tracy, come lay back down, don’t throw a hissy.”
“I’m not. I’ve just gotta go,” I said, pulling on one boot, then the other. She lit a cigarette and waved the match until it curled up, bent its head, a gray shamed child.
I opened the motel room door. Lo and behold. All the energy spilled out of my body at once. A man with a black coat and a satchel on his back was strolling through the white lines of the parking-space where my car once waited.
And the new concrete world established its strictest law to me: don’t get attached to anything, son, if you gained it you’ll lose it someday. Just you wait.
“What are you standing there for? Is this a pivotal moment where you make some life-changing decision?” Rita asked with a nasty little laugh.
“No. My car’s gone.” I looked back at her, numb. She furrowed her brows and waited for the “Just kidding,” but it didn’t come.
The next day I took the streetcar to work for the first time ever, the taste of Rita a film on the roof of my mouth. Across from me a woman bounced her lemur-eyed baby on her knee. The old man beside me waved at the baby, made silly faces.
After reaching my stop in Downtown, I walked along the pavement on a stretch of O’Keefe I’d never walked before, brushing past workers and businessmen who seldom looked up. Someone was whistling. Everyone chatted on their cell phones. And somewhere in that latticework, a familiar voice. A phrase I’d only heard her use. “America, the savage kingdom…”
Realization fell down my spine, like a body crashing through water, the slow sink once the surface was breached. My brain a knot of electricity, I told myself to run, but it seemed to take whole minutes for my legs to receive the message. Then, once I was moving, there was no clarity of thought, just jumbled noise in my head, sounds without source or meaning. Animal sounds, industrial drones, the chant of “Please.” Hope and hell and motion. I drafted new endings for the parable: the Conjurer suddenly waking from a skein of beautiful dreams, the Lone Torso relieved of his bleak loneliness. Carried, defined, once more. The weight fading in the descending night.
My limbs were pushing through the crowd without any real instruction, pushing me against the current. And then the sea parted and I saw her, in a black frock, surrounded by candles, a great nuclear fallout come down on this city. Every incredulous question of “How?” now answered with “Jesus!”
She was across the street, on her knees, her hands pressed together in shouted prayer. She looked so old, nothing like how I remembered her. She had the face of a shrinking rose, dry and curled around the edges. Slender, bird-like shoulders. Eyes like a jack-o-lantern’s, scooped out and empty. Her silvery hair butchered. This was not her, this woman with her eyes blinking at the sun. My mother knelt for no one.
How little I knew her, how much of myself that had been lost in the transition, new weight that I couldn’t take. The Lone Torso, lugging the Conjurer and a cross on top of that.
Drained. My breath a ragged joke, my throat like stretched leather. Wanting nothing more than to fucking scream, I sat on a bench. I haven’t gone farther than that.
I’m an hour late for work. I smoke a cigarette on the bench, not caring what time I show up. The new world has collapsed. I can’t sit through that purgatory anymore, selling a product that erases stains, all the while wishing I could take long harsh swigs of it to cleanse or to kill, if there is any difference.
I feel the corners of Rita’s note in my pocket rubbing against my leg. I pull it out of my pocket, resisting the urge to tear a piece away, and unfold the surviving paper. After my week of picking at it like a scab, all that’s left are the last few lines: “Goodbye is for funerals, yet I have thought it every time I saw you. What you fail to realize is that there is not one of us without a corpse on our backs, and only the weakest of us need some third party to remove it. The strong can be their own carpenters, they are the ones who push unremittingly and let it decompose and turn to dust, as all things do. For your sake, I hope that it does. P.S. Sorry about your car.”
Because the god of Time can be vengeful. Because I’m tired, my own weight is enough. Because the world is in a constant state of ending, I flick my cigarette out toward the street and stand on quietly shivering knees. I suck in a deep, lightheaded breath, relaxing my clenched jaw like an animal letting go. I brush past strangers. Her voice grows closer. My head feels staticky, like I’m dreaming a dream I stole from her.
My feet are warmed by the vicinity of her candles of all the futile saints. She shouts after discreet prostitutes a corner away. “‘Depart from her, my people, so as not to take part in her sins and receive a share in her plagues’—”
She glances at me for a second, her eyes squinting until they’re beady and hawkish. I half expect her to single me out as supreme Blasphemer, Beelzebub, Judas. But her eyes, the master copy of my own, stare with the faint recognition usually reserved for strangers who frequent the same grocery store, who offer that pleasant, noncommittal smile and don’t say a word, and keep pushing their carts down the aisle.
She turns away from me, shouting her verses. “‘Depart from her…For her sins are piled up to the sky and God remembers her crimes.’”
There is only one ending: the Torso does not stop crawling. He pushes onward, alone, toward some unknowable dot at the belt of the horizon. As he crawls, the Conjurer is slowly erased, picked up by the wind, disseminated like seeds. The corpse breaks down, back to the elements, to the dirt of it all, and a stain of gray atoms that will trail the Torso wherever he goes marks the long passage to Omega. This is how she would have told it. This is what she would have wanted me to know.
She pauses in the middle of a verse, some further slander against Babylon. I can see the twitch in the back of her neck as she finally realizes, as the weight settles. She is silent and stiffened. Her fingers tighten around the Bible’s throat, as she grabs at a deep and stuttered inhale with her mouth open. I see her slowly start to turn her head.
She will not turn around before I do. She will not follow as I walk away.
Chances are, if you’ve faced rejection as a writer, you’ve also had to face criticism. Whether that criticism is levied against your work or your desire to write in the first place, it can be just as unpleasant an experience as rejection. Some of the emotional responses are the same: self-doubt, loss of confidence, and questioning whether you truly have what it takes to effectively tell stories or express yourself. There are some nuances in facing criticism, however, that you don’t have to worry about when facing rejection. How you respond to that criticism, for example: when dealing with rejection, you often aren’t in a position to respond to whoever has rejected your work, but with criticism that is often not the case. You might have to hear criticism face to face, and how you react to it will be pivotal to how you are regarded as a member of the writing community.
It should go without saying that every time you put your work out there—either in a creative writing workshop, on an online forum such as a blog or literary journal, or by enlisting the help of beta readers—you are opening yourself up not only to appreciation and praise, but also to criticism that can range from constructive to harsh and destructive. Having sat through dozens of creative writing workshop sessions where 12 or more students (along with the professor) discuss what they like and don’t like about your work while you are expected to silently listen and take notes, I have experienced the full spectrum of feedback. I’ve had fellow writers who had nothing but praise for my work, I’ve had some who provided constructive criticism in a professional and respectful manner, and I’ve had some who seemed to get great pleasure in issuing out the most mean-spirited, condescending and venomous critiques they could muster. In my junior year of college, I workshopped a story about a pianist undergoing a mental breakdown; one girl in my class, seemingly having a hard time differentiating between the narrator and the writer, stated more than once that “this scene just made you sound crazy.” In these situations, how you react (and how you absorb the criticism) can be crucial to your reputation, to how you view your work, and to your own sense of self-worth.
Below are a few tips for handling criticism.
- When dealing with unconstructive criticism: There’s really no way of knowing why some fellow writers (or readers) choose to be intentionally hurtful and mean-spirited in their criticism. Maybe they’re jealous of your talent. Maybe they’re an elitist who truly believes everyone else is beneath them. Maybe they don’t realize how abrasive they are because they don’t understand the concept of tact. Maybe they think they’re doing you a favor by not sugar-coating their response to your work. Maybe they get off on schadenfreude because they’re just a dick. While it may be embarrassing and infuriating to have to listen to this asshole, the best thing you can do in this situation is put on your poker face, thank them for their input and remind yourself that you have promise. That person just might not be your intended audience.
It might also be helpful to pay attention to the feedback of others, just to see if you’re being too sensitive (if you’re having the same emotional response to everyone’s feedback, you might be taking criticism too personally), if there are any consensuses on problem areas in your work, or if anyone actively opposes the harsh critic’s points (if the critic hated your use of metaphors but the majority liked or loved your figurative speech, for example).
I highly recommend not engaging the harsh critic in debate or trying to defend your work in a workshop setting, as doing so often looks like you’re making excuses, that your work can’t speak for itself and requires an explanation, or that you’re being thin-skinned. Ignore the sting, check your gut (as in determine whether there are any grains of truth to their criticism) and continue to believe in your work.
- When dealing with constructive criticism: It’s usually a lot easier to handle constructive criticism; these critics have your best interests and the improvement of your work in mind when they tell you what didn’t work for them. Often these critics know how to talk to you about their issues with the story, chapter or poem in a way that is tactful, respectful and promotes a sense of camaraderie instead of competition. This kind of criticism is a gift. It allows you to make the necessary changes to elevate your work to the next level. However, just because criticism is constructive doesn’t mean you have to implement it. The gut-check is just as important with constructive criticism as it is for unconstructive criticism. Listen to what the critic has to say, take your notes, and give deep consideration to what you think would actually help your work out and what wouldn’t.
I once had a workshop critique for an excerpt from a dystopian novel set twenty years in the future; the critic was very constructive and helpful in most of her feedback, but one of her suggestions was that, instead of bullets, it would make more sense for guns to be firing lasers because the story is set in the future. Again, though most of her stylistic advice was very helpful, this particular piece of advice was something I absolutely had no intention of implementing, for several reasons: one, no one else had any difficulty believing this story was set in the future just because the weaponry is similar to contemporary weaponry (had there been a consensus, I may have entertained the idea for a moment), two, this critique didn’t feel necessary or helpful for the story, and lastly, I knew in my gut that I wasn’t just being sensitive about it. My decision to ignore this particular critique, therefore, passed my gut-check.
- When responding to criticism: Whether you agree with the criticism you receive or not, and whether you feel it was constructive or intentionally destructive in nature or tone, the best thing you can do to maintain your professional bearing is to thank the critic for their feedback and extrapolate as much helpful lessons as you can from the criticism. Even when a critic is being a dick for the sake of being a dick, if a writer responds in a touchy and hysterical manner, the writer is going to look worse. That may seem unfair and it probably is, but artists are expected to have thick skins. This isn’t to say that you can’t give trolls a piece of your mind while maintaining professionalism and poise. For lessons here, just study J.K. Rowling’s Twitter: when you have mastered her level of composed sarcasm, you too can call out dickishness without looking fragile.
- Applying feedback to your work: The most important reaction to receiving criticism is to find the little nuggets of truth—those flaws in your work that maybe you suspected were there but couldn’t quite pin down, those imperfections you hoped no one else would notice, or those inconsistencies that you didn’t even realize were there—and to apply them when you revisit your work to edit. If you receive feedback from 20 readers and find nothing in their comments that prompts you to change something about your work, you might be being too stubborn and sensitive to accurately view the value of their points. And if you go through that much criticism and don’t change anything about your work, then you endured all those harsh words and blunt dissections for nothing.
Writers put their unfinished work out there to get honest opinions, to get the hard truths about their own shortcomings as writers, all for the purpose of going back and improving their work. If you don’t have the stomach for criticism, then you may want to be the kind of writer who only writes for their own enjoyment and not with the intention of releasing their work for others to see. And that’s fine, if you’re that kind of writer. It’s better to identify that early on than it is to keep torturing yourself until you give up on writing altogether. If, however, you hope for others to read your work someday, it behooves you to learn to process criticism, apply changes that you agree with, and thereby improve your skills and creative instincts.
- When dealing with criticism about your passion for writing: There are going to be people in your life (often people who aren’t writers or artists) who will view your endeavors as a writer with skepticism and condescension. They might say snarky things like “Do you even make any money writing?” or “You haven’t published anything yet?” or “Must be nice to have enough time on your hands to waste it on the computer.” They might make jokes about starving artists or useless English degrees. Or it might be your parents, worried that you don’t get out enough because you spend all your free time cooped up in your apartment working on a novel. The temptation might be there for you to give up on writing altogether, to pursue “normal” hobbies or social events, to go for the practical degree in something that bores you to tears. If you are passionate about writing, though, don’t listen to these people. The easiest way to respond is that you are just as likely to make it big as a writer as a high school football player is to make it to the NFL. Your goals, talents and interests are just as valid. You gain and learn just as many vital skills in the pursuit of writing as your mother did in her pursuit of gardening or tennis. If writing grants you fulfillment and a sense of purpose (and, sometimes, pure happiness) then that should be all that matters to anyone, especially anyone who cares about you.
Like rejection, facing criticism is never easy, but it does get easier with time and experience.
For more tips, check out Terrible Writing Advice’s take on Criticism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-v4R2ZcxPlA