I Once Dreamed of Becoming A Dancer

Dancer500

A young man’s dreams look forward to what he imagines might become his future. He creates scenarios with equal energy and effort while he’s awake and while he sleeps. His dreams are malleable and oftentimes buoyed by a joyful sensation. His imagination knows nothing about death.

An old man’s dreams become the cherished memories of his earlier faith in infinity and eternity, a faith he lost in gradual fashion, as the wind tore off one flower at a time from his face, then bent his stem toward the soil that once fed him, and near the end began to insist that his roots must be ripped away from planet Earth.

Oblivion seems a sad place, and so we invoke fairy tales that describe an afterlife. A giant’s castle inside a cloud, atop a beanstalk. The giant falls, as fell Lucifer.

I am that old man now. I own neither future nor faith. My face no longer blooms with color and fragrance. The weight of life bends me forward; my gait is slow and hesitant. My roots begin to loosen their grip. Today I rage, along with Dylan, against the dying light. Yet, I wonder if I’ll go gentle or go gutted by a struggle against the pain of disappointment. Those who say we must surrender are hopeful fools. The truth is that we are surrendered.

I was once that young man charged with boundless dreams, most of which — as survival demands — had to be perforce abandoned. So many pleasant scripts, now no more than yellowed pages littering the archives inside my mind.

One such vision I created placed me center stage, dancing.

I owned a gift, a talent, and a flair for floating across a dance floor.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 6, 1979, I snatched my carry-on luggage from the compartment above the seat I’d occupied for six hours, walked through a snaking canvas tunnel, and met two friends inside the airport lobby.

I’d purchased a one-way ticket from Philly to LA.

My friends entertained me for a couple of hours, then drove me to the apartment where I’d sleep for the next two months, while the signed tenant traveled through parts of Europe.

I was born beside the Atlantic Ocean. I grew up with the aromas of salt and sand embedded in my nostrils. The air of land’s end filled my lungs with nourishment more important than oxygen.

So on that Friday evening, I unpacked my suitcase, found a clever place to hide most of the seven hundred dollars I owned, showered, and dressed my body in what I imagined to be LA Chic. (My polyester Guido outfit failed the laid-back LA test, but no matter.)

Splashed with an abundant amount of Polo cologne, as all East Coast Guidos are bound by unspoken oath to splash, not dab, I ran from the apartment, followed the street-sign arrow that pointed west, and walked a few miles until I reached the grand Pacific.

Venice Beach.

That night, tangerine sunset sky enriched with smog, I tapped the nearest shoulder and asked, “Where around here do people go when they feel like dancing?” In order to be understood I had to repeat my question several times. I spoke East Coast Rapid in nasal tones acquired in New Jersey.

I found the dancehall. I paid the cover charge. As was my habit back then, first I sat and watched. I searched for the best female dancer, one with whom I knew I could fly.

And yes, I flew. I twirled and I curled. I sensed and followed both the prominent and the offbeat rhythm. I lost myself in meditation, the only kind of meditation that I ever could accomplish. Today I wonder how many Buddhists know how to dance.

And yes again, the crowd backed away, formed a circle around us, cheered us on and clapped out the joy we shared.

The old man I am today dances only when he closes his eyes and entertains his memories. His legs lost their onetime flexibility. The stem leans, and the roots ache.

And yes one more time, this old man feels blue when he considers the fact that back then he lacked the confidence to pursue his dancing dream.

4TsGifts600
Merry Christmas To All,
And To All A Good Flight

Worshiping Wonder

First, an introduction. No! Please, I always skip those parts!

The logo that tops this article is one I created a long time ago, as in back before my hair turned gray and my gait began to falter. I still own the domain name it displays.

Last year a stranger wrote and offered to buy this piece of Internet real estate from me. I think he was in the business of selling coffee. Our conversation was polite, maybe even warm. I told him that what few readers I have associate me with the SpilledBeans.com moniker.

What I chose not to say, but what is even more centered on the truth, is that I want to hold close this frivolous bit of my history on the Web. Call me nostalgic. Go ahead. I won’t mind. I’m old enough to admit that looking backward has become a habit that feels comfortable, painful and wise, all at the same time. It’s a habit I don’t want to break.

These days I use my full name as my geek-bound domain address. Somewhere along that line we imagine as “somewhere along the line,” I followed a tech guru’s advice to tie my online presence together with a digital ribbon named Anthony V. Toscano (and please don’t forget the “V.”). It’s likely a good idea to do so, maybe even a necessary one. If I want to be found, that is. And I want to be found, because I want to be read.

Need I say that times have changed since I began to spill the beans online? Of course not. SpilledBeans.com was a place to keep my online journal. Some of you Social Media friends, neighbors, relatives and strangers who post photos of your recent travels, your class schedules and five-megapixel-pictures of the kitties who sit on your keyboards might know that online journals were the precursors to BLOGS. And no matter what Wikipedia tells you, the word BLOG did not originally stand for Web Log; it stood for Biographical Log, as in online journal.

Today I find myself mired inside a different kind of geek advice, a set of well-intended, born-of-experience RULES for blogging.

I’m old, but I’m technologically proficient. I know a lot about designing websites, coding and the like. The most important thing I know about today’s technologies, however, is that there’s always someone “out there” who knows more than I know.

I’m old, but I like to stay current.

So I’m taking a course about How To Blog (the right way, I suppose). About discovering and marketing one’s writer’s brand. It’s so far been a good course. My classmates are eager, friendly and supportive. The instructor is an expert with a solid national reputation.

Still, I resist. I don’t want to be a brand. I’ll never sell a book, because although I am a talented writer, what I write is not publishable in today’s market. That’s not self-pity talking; it’s rather self-analysis.

I’ve long believed that the day soon will come when readers will refuse to pay for what other people write. Fact is, yon teens, Social Media, and the Internet before it, has granted anyone and everyone who owns a keyboard — or a touch screen, or a smart phone, or a . . . — and the desire to do so, the right to claim the title Writer.

That’s the reason that most times — although not always — I post stories, scenes and poems to this website, rather than BLOG POSTS.

I’m a writer, not a brand.

I began this bloggy article by mentioning SpilledBeans.com. Eleven years ago, I posted the following story to that website. Call me nostalgic for digging it out of a file drawer and re-posting it here today. Go ahead. I won’t mind. This is a habit I don’t want to break.

************

Worshiping Wonder

“My god is wonder,” said my friend to me. “What’s not to worship in that?”

“You’re right,” I thought. “Thank you, friend. You’re right.”

Late this afternoon, I visited an antique shop. The trash-turned-treasure kind of shop that I prefer. The arrangement of trinkets haphazard, the dominant aroma that of old books and cozy attics, the lighting dim and the window panes dusty.

Whenever I enter such a place, I feel somehow replenished, as if somewhere I just might own a soul.

As I move myself from sunlight to shadow, I realize that once again I’m looking backward, and that looking backward can quick become a dangerous habit.

The psycho-therapeutic gurus warn a man that he can go blind if he looks too far back or crawls too deep inside.

But, still, in the end and nonetheless, looking toward the past while standing inside a present moment is a paradox that I enjoy.

I insist that the psycho-therapeutic gurus, on this point at least, are just plain wrong. Nostalgia isn’t bad for you. Nostalgia just is. When I was a kid, a loaf of bread cost twenty-three cents at Gill’s Delicatessen, and that’s a sweet thought, and I was a sweet kid.

I strolled past the trays of costume jewelry, fiddled with a few science fiction paperbacks from the Golden Age, and then knelt before several cardboard boxes filled with tattered magazines. I was searching for an image that might suit my frame of mind, a picture or a photograph that I could scan, crop and slip between the threads of my next story.

Inside the third box I found her. Down deep and toward the back, under a tall stack of comic books that once cost twelve cents and today cost just as many dollars.

She’s a sexy young girl, dressed up to look like Santa’s urge to procreate. Long legs curved and curled, one knee touched delicate against the other, two thighs soft and warm enough to tempt a man to kiss the lock on heaven’s gate. A calendar girl whose flirtatious smile reveals even more than her outfit leaves to a hungry man’s imagination.

I suppose that I fell in love with her. If I am to be honest, then I can’t deny that I went looking for love, and so of course I found her. I think it’s true that a man finds love whenever and wherever he looks for it.

Please spare me your speeches about potbellied men who smoke rank cigars and sell baby-doll images for the sake of a sweaty buck. Because my Santa girl whispered in my ear. And who am I not to listen to a pretty girl’s whisper?

She told me that she’d been sitting there inside her dusty bin for quite a few years, yawning and stretching and smiling and waiting for me to pull her out, just so she could teach me a lesson about the playful side of humanity, a side and a shade that I so rudely overlook whenever I dive down deep into envy and resentment.

“Have fun once in a while, you old curmudgeon,” she whispered. “Next time you step into your pulpit, wear your Santa suit and wink at your parishioners. One of them just might wink back.”

But I could hardly hear my calendar girl’s voice, because behind me the shop’s one employee — a middle-aged woman with bottle-dyed hair, meow-meow eyeglasses and a name tag that read Hilda — began talking to me. Incessantly. No matter that I looked the other way. No matter that I found myself busy with love. No matter that I leaned toward the lock on heaven’s gate. This loquacious lady told me all about her past adventures as a school bus driver. She began with Chapter Two, wherein Hilda wounds herself in the line of duty.

I don’t think it was my manly presence that inspired Hilda’s soliloquy. After all, I’m just not that manly since my hair turned gray and my vision turned inward. No, I don’t think it was me. Not at all. I’m sure that the nostalgic customer before me heard Chapter One, wherein Hilda passes her driver’s test and dons her seductive uniform.

“I held on tight to the lever and I tried with all my might to yank the doors closed,” she said, “but the wind that day yanked back so hard that my spine has never been the same.”

“Yes,” I said. “The wind in these parts can be fierce at times.” Not my best line, I admit, but I was trying to concentrate on Santa’s urge to procreate, and I wanted Hilda to be quiet.

“But do you think the bastards I worked for understood the pain I suffered?” she said.

“No, the bastards never understand,” I said.

“They never thought I’d amount to much, because I was the only woman in the bus barn back then,” she said. Her voice began to curl and match the snarled curve of her eyeglasses.

“But I surprised them,” she said. “I won a trophy at the school bus rodeo.”

To this I said nothing, although inside I felt myself falling fast and hard toward unconditional surrender. I decided to carry my calendar girl to the register, to purchase her and later in the evening to wink and whisper with her, in the privacy of my den. I moved up close to the glass-topped counter. Hilda sat on an antique chair behind the cash drawer. She finished Chapter Two and immediately began to sing me Chapter Three, wherein Hilda seeks revenge and discovers justice.

I looked into the blue eyes behind her meow-meow lenses, and at that moment I decided to listen. Somehow I understood, perhaps by the lines in her face, that Hilda was just as much a character, with just as fine a story to whisper in my ear, as was my calendar girl. If I tilted my head at just the right angle, and adjusted my vision a few degrees forward in time, then I’d be bound to find the god that I was after.

I laid nostalgia on the counter top. Hilda rang her up and slipped her into a paper bag.

“The trophy was shaped like a steering wheel with wings,” she said. “You know, the wings pointed out and up.” Hilda’s fingers traced the shape of wings before my eyes.

“Those wings gave me a perfect idea,” she said.

“You must have worked hard to earn that trophy,” I said.

“Yes, I did.”

I watched the sadness inside Hilda’s eyes. Perhaps she saw the same in mine.

“I worked hard, but the bastards never appreciated me,” she said. “So you know what I did? I handed that trophy to my boss. I aimed its wings at his face. And I told him to sit on it.”

“Ouch,” I said.

The End

Rebello’s Advice On Getting Published

Snoozie's Trattoria
Snoozie's Trattoria

Johnnie Rebello sat farting into the vinyl-covered corner booth cushion of Snoozie’s Trattoria. Dark-green upholstery, table top made of scarred railway ties, web-wrapped five-and-dime vanilla candle flickering in a desperate attempt to disguise the digestive fumes.

“So let me see if I got this right,” he said. Rebello squinted mean eyes through the cigar smoke he blew in my face. I recognized the ashy cloud as a challenge of sorts. I was certain that Johnnie had seen the gesture in some cheap mafia movie, because the bookshelf hanging on the paneled wall behind his fat head was filled with old VCR tapes of Sicilian mob fantasies.

“These two guys,” he said, “these two literati punks told the editor-at-large of some fish-wrap local rag that your story was — whatdya call it? — melancholy — that the right word? Too sad for an audience that lives in a happy part of the world where no one ever sneezes loud or has bad breath. So you murdered the story and now you want me to bring justice into an unjust world. How exactly?”

“That’s almost right, Mr. Johnnie.” I knew I sounded silly calling him Mr. Johnnie, and he knew it too, I’m sure, but the scene was written before we met, and I figured who the hell was I to change the master’s screenplay. Probably he got it from off the same dusty shelf where he kept his cigars and celluloid entertainment.

“It’s like as if they put the scalpel in my hand and told me to cut off all the meat and leave no blood behind if I wanted them to arrange it on the public plate,” I said. “So I did like they insisted. I trimmed the story down to cud and bone, and they sent my meal back to my kitchen.”

“Couple of mixed metaphors crawling around in there, but we can discuss that weakness another day. For now, just tell me this. These inkmeisters allowed the reading public in Happyland to go hungry cause they didn’t like your presentation?”

“No, Mr. Johnnie. Not that. They just served the crowd another chef’s meal.”

“Did you taste it? This other cook’s food? Was it any good?”

“I prepared filet mignon. He made them liverwurst and mayonnaise on white bread.”

“But the mayonnaise wasn’t melancholy, now was it?”

I hung my head and half-closed my eyes in an attempt to seem humble if not downright ashamed of myself. “Like always, Mr. Johnnie, you got right down to the heart of the matter.”

“It’s all right, kid. Mind if I call you kid? I mean most people don’t think I’m the kind of man who’s read Graham Greene. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve got problems with gas, or maybe it’s this fancy trattoria that makes ’em think I don’t know good literature when I read it.” Johnnie lifted his left butt cheek, let off some steam and sighed. “So, okay, kid. So maybe this time round the busboys ate your steak while the honored guests feasted on liverwurst. But there’s always another recipe waiting to be born.”

“Hey, I like that last line. Could I maybe use it in my next story, Mr. Johnnie?”

“We can hash out a contract tomorrow. One-time rights I might consider. But today let’s discuss this problem you’re having with melancholy blood. I can tell you this much right now; only those who own passionate appetites enjoy blood for dessert.”

Johnnie snapped together two of his chubbiest fingers, and a waiter in a dark-gray, shiny sharkskin suit skittered over to the eight-track player that sat on the bar. He pushed a few buttons until Pachebel’s Canon filled the air and complemented the cigar smoke and neon-orange glow that buzzed from the blinking OPEN sign that hung in the wide picture window. I blinked through the haze, stared out the window and watched a Ford station wagon pull into the parking lot and stop in front of the barber shop across the way. A tall pale man wearing a short-sleeved polyester shirt got out of the car. He walked into the barber shop, in spite of the fact that his head was completely bald. I considered making the mystery behind that scene the major plot point of my next story. The station wagon I understood. But why a polyester shirt?

“Thanks for the background music, Rudy,” said Johnnie. “It’s a good song, kid, isn’t it?”

“One of a kind, Mr. Johnnie. But it lends itself to melancholia.”

“That and lost lust. Maybe that’s what you want to cook next. Lost Lust a la Mode. Fuck Happyland and mayonnaise, kid. They’re not your target audience. I mean you understand why Happyland’s population prefers liverwurst to filet mignon, don’tcha?”

“Not really. I gotta tell you, though, it wasn’t justice I came in here looking for. But then, you knew that. You always seem to know the end of your stories before you write the first sentence.”

“It’s all about experience, kid. And experience is a matter of intellectual eyesight. Some people think that because I’m kinda fat and old-fashioned — and because I spend most of my time sitting in this vinyl-covered booth — that I don’t see things for what they are. Like as if I don’t know the difference between liverwurst and beef. But you came in here looking for an exegetical explanation as to why your story was rejected.”

“Exactly, Mr. Johnnie. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“And you don’t want no steenkin’ critique, am I right?”

“No way, because –”

“Because critiques are all about encouraging imitation.”

“You sure are literary, Mr. Johnnie. I’ll bet you’ve read all three thousand pages of Proust.”

Johnnie lifted his right butt cheek and smiled. By the bubbly sound he muffled into the booth I could tell that at that moment he was feeling happier than anyone in Happyland could ever pretend to be. For one swift Proustian second I understood the difference between Johnnie Rebello and the bald guy in the barber shop.

“So let’s compare,” said Johnnie. “Your protagonist and the one the winning chef created. How were they the same?”

“They both became dead soon after the first paragraph. They both sired wannabe writers. They both were loners in a lonely world.”

“Differences?”

“One was fat, the other was thin. One was poor, the other one thought he was poor even though he lived in a bland middle-class suburban neighborhood.”

“So okay, Marcel. Mind if I call you Marcel? Let’s get down to the business of melancholia. Both of these heroes were quick turning dead, and death is a lonely business.”

“So you’ve read Raymond, too?”

“Don’t change the subject. I know we’ve reached the painful part of this session, and Pachebel’s crescendo isn’t helping to lighten the mood, but if you want the public to eat your next meal and then lick the plate for more, then you’ve gotta stop lying by way of omission.”

Johnnie snapped two different chubby fingers together, and Rudy came running.

“Roberta Flack this time, Rudy. Killing Me Softly.”

“I think that tape skips somewhere, Mr. Rebello,” said Rudy.

“That’s all right, Rudy. Better to have lust and lost, as my dad used to say. Have I told you about my dad, kid? He’s dead now, of course, but man that guy could cook a crab and toot a horn.”

“Sounds like a good story.”

“Singing my life with his words. You understand that line, kid? Tell me, how’d your rejected story end? On what note, exactly? On a scale of Happyland to Melancholy, where did your story land?”

“Well, I guess the ending was sad. I’ll admit that much. I mean a man dies and leaves behind a son who wants to be Henry David Thoreau wearing muddy work boots as he traipses through a back-bay meadow.”

“And the winning chef?”

“More Russell Baker than Henry Thoreau. Background music described but unheard. No mud. No bay. No meadow.”

“There you have your answer, kid. In Happyland you can write about death, but you can’t expect readers to admit its odor.”

Turning Error Into Art

Hawker Hurricane
The Art of War?

When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.

It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.

I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.

I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.

These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.

My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.

And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.

I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.

A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.

“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”

I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.

“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.

“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”

“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.

I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.

“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”

“I never really liked airplanes.”

“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”

With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.

“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.

I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.

“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to become you,” I said.

“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”

“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”

“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.

“I don’t understand you,” I said.

“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”

And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.

Written in February 2000

Critique Group Block

Where are the cheap cookies?

Let’s be honest. I’m writing this brief article to tell you that face-to-face critique groups have never worked for me. That’s not to say that such meetings of writers’ minds and voices will not work for you. I suspect that I am the rare exception when it comes to mining diamonds from the mental mountain tunnels of authorial egos. Most folks say — and of course if they bother to say anything at all about the subject, they tend to praise such endeavors for sake of their careers, imagined or real — that critique groups keep them writing, offer essential advice when it comes to revision of a work in progress, help them to make contacts in the world of publication (as in schmooze the schmoozable power brokers) and provide them with an endless supply of cheap cookies and strong coffee.

Let’s be honest. I believe most of these people. Most of them, not all.

Let’s be honest. I’ve been writing for more than half a century (sounds more impressive than saying more than fifty years, either that or more arrogant). During that time I’ve belonged to many critique groups. I’ve never reaped rewards beyond the cookies and the coffee, and of late I’m diagnosed as diabetic, so the cookies have taken a certain toll.

Let’s be honest. Most of the critiques I’ve received have been well-intended, and all of them have led me to believe what I’ve known all along, that what I write is not publishable; it never was and it never will be. Not because I cannot understand what the fickle market wants, but because I don’t own the talent to compose a marketable story. I’m a word user, a verbal abuser, not an author in the making.

Let’s be honest. My latest experience with a critique group left me frustrated, saddened, defeated and blocked.

Let’s be honest. About the rules. Most critique groups agree that as a writer listens to others’ remarks about his story, he is to remain silent. It’s a good rule. Without such a rule defensiveness would reign. But inside each and every writer is an arrogant and egotistical creature who wants to defend his work. And sometimes that creature is correct. For instance, what’s the authorial creature thinking when in his story he has written that a character wore bright-red lipstick in scene numero uno, but in scene numero lasto she wore nothing but the natural color of her pink lips; and the critiquing creature comments, “Bright-red pink lipstick? That doesn’t work.”? Or when the writer offers a 3400 word story for consideration, and a critiquing creature says, “I can see this as edited down to flash fiction.”? I’ll tell you what the authorial creature is thinking. He’s thinking that he’d like to use his pen, but not for writing.
 

Let’s be honest. At the least the authorial creature wants to scream, “You didn’t listen!” Exclamation point included. But he cannot say anything. That would be breaking the rule. And let’s remember, it’s a good rule.

Let’s be honest. Again about that arrogant inner-creature; and yes, I mean to say that each and every one of you who claims to be a writer owns such a monster, so don’t bullshit me. What’s that high-falutin fruitcake do when he realizes that for all his feelings of frustration, these folks are right about his work? His work is not publishable, and he’s no kid sporting gray hair and sagging testicles just for the fun of it. What does he do? He stops writing for a while, a long while. When next he picks up his pen, he writes without publication in mind. And then he writes at infrequent intervals. Pardon the adverb, but at very infrequent intervals. As in, almost not at all.

Let’s be honest. As if you didn’t already know this, I am that creature. I’m today forcing myself to write this. As well, I’m forcing myself to post this on my blog (and god, I despise the word “blog”), because I realize that someone I know will likely read this, and so I’ll pay the price. But honesty is worth the price.

Let’s be honest. I could backtrack just a bit, back pedal, shuffle like a sad vaudevillian. After all, I’m not you, and you are perhaps a member of the majority of writers who find great value in participating in a face-to-face critique group. Matter of fact, I hope you are indeed a member of that fortunate majority.

But . . .

Let’s be honest. I am not.

 

Premature Advice, A Spooky Tale

Dyed and Almost Dead

First insulin, then dye pushed through my veins. Poked, prodded, ray-gunned and otherwise humiliated.  Dark clouds hanging in the sky outside this medical building, there to mock and match the dark and weary mood that lurks and creeps inside my deteriorating body.

“But you can’t put dye inside me, not with insulin in my soul,” I say to Doctor Golfcourse.

“If it were me with death running through me, I’d take the dye.”

“All right then, what the hell. One man’s advice is as worthless as that of another. And your golf outfit looks quite attractive on you. Or rather I meant to say that you look quite pretty tucked into your woolen slacks. And ain’t the autumn clouds so full of promise? Fuck your golf habit, and fuck your advice. Go ahead, plug me up with dye, and thanks for the effort, and here’s my check for twenty percent of your exorbitant price for the use of your machines.”

“Take off your shoes, your socks — when’s the last time you clipped your yellow toenails, old man? — and strip down to your jockey shorts, put on one of these flannel gowns that tie in the back so you can’t reach the string. Now don’t you feel like a naked worm? Good, that’s where we want you.”

“Yep, I’m ready, Dr. Golfcourse. Lay me down and scan me through this doughnut hole. I’m an artist, don’t you know? I’ll write this up after the procedure — and why these days the euphemistic term “procedure” when invasion serves sufficient purpose? — and my article will make you furious and famous.”

“All done! Now you can piss in this tiny bucket, wait a week, carry the disc that holds images of your premature demise to your next doctor’s appointment — who is your terminalnewsologist? — yes, Doctor Holeinone, and if you live long enough to see me again, I’ll be more than willing to cut you open, withstand the stink under your skin, and charge you more to stitch up your chrysalis for the undertaker.”

“Gosh, thanks, Dr. Golfcourse.”

Wiggly, wobbly, drained of the energy a more youthful version of myself possessed. I make my way to my blue pickup truck. As I approach the promise of her engine’s roar, I feel so damned masculine. Can’t handle a hammer. Can’t drive a nail straight in. Don’t know an overhead cam from an underhand oil pan, but a truck, oh fuck, a truck, not a wimpy automobile.

And so off I go to seek a different kind of advice, that of artists seeking friends to criticize, well not you, you know, it’s the work we’re talking about, and anyway, we all own tough skin, especially when we’re giving advice to someone else who looks almost dead.

“No, no, no, never say ‘His blood coagulated on his fucking lips as he lay dying on the operating table.’ Instead, cut it up into two sentences, without the cuss word, because dead lips can’t fuck, like this: ‘His blood coagulated on his lips. He lay dying on the operating table.’ Or better yet, like this: ‘He lay dying on the operating table. Blood coagulated on his lips. Guess I won’t be kissing anyone in the near future, he thought.'”

“See what I mean? The order and the number of discrete sentences involved in your description will make all the difference in the world to your readers. Believe me, because I know. I’ve been published. Well, no, not in any magazine you’d recognize, but your words haven’t yet seen print. So listen to me. And listen to Dr. Golfcourse. And for God’s sake pay attention to every word that Dr. Holeinone breathes in your direction. We, all of us, are experts.”

“But Stephen King writes the word ‘fuck’ all the time in his stories. And he makes frequent use of parenthetical phrases that begin with the word ‘as’, and he’s published, and even more than that, people actually want to read what he publishes.”

“It’s obvious, Anthony V. We need to pass your corpse through the doughnut hole another time around the bend. You’re not convinced, and before a man dies, it’s important that he feel convinced.

“By the way, want to enter your story, the one for which you as yet own no idea, in a contest? Spooky, Halloween tales, that’s the ticket. You probably won’t win, or rather and of course, your story won’t win — because we never speak of *you* but just of your work, your work, your work — but the experience will stay with you beyond the grave. Get it? Grave. Your condition is grave. A grave is spooky, like Halloween. And don’t you want to leave behind evidence, written evidence, that you existed in an accidental way? Yes, sure you want that. Now let’s work on rewriting your as yet unwritten tale to include several discrete sentences and absolutely no parenthetical phrases that begin with the word, ‘as.’ And while we’re at taking my precious advice, please forget fucking Stephen King. Remember, you want to be remembered as a highbrow and literary writer.”

“Well sure enough, Dr. Inkspot. Once upon a lifetime, there lived a man who during the season that includes the holiday known as — no strike that word ‘as’ — Halloween, found himself naked as a worm and passed through a doughnut machine.”

“But there’s no conflict in that story, Anthony. Where the fuck’s your conflict?”

“Well, see, he paid too damned much for the privilege of allowing Dr. Golfcourse to push his corpse through a mechanical doughnut hole, and this fact pissed him off, right before he pissed into a cup. He pissed blood because he was so damned angry. And then he strangled Dr. Golfcourse with the man’s own stethoscope . . .”

“Yes, I can feel the tension building, Anthony, but a corpse can’t strangle anyone, because a corpse can’t move on its own.”

“That’s the entire point. This is a tale of the supernatural. And a futuristic tale, as well, one wherein mechanical doughnuts rule the world and scan all their victims before they murder them, just so they can save the test results on plastic discs.”

“On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t enter your Halloween story in the contest. Maybe instead you should just mail it off to Stephen King.”

“Well sure enough, Dr. Inkspot. Screw your advice. Now here’s your gown. Give me back my clothes.”