Sunday, July 23, 2017

See Where the Heat Is

“You should request Sarah to be your mentor next semester, she’s fabulous!” said Susan Conley, the visiting workshop leader for my fourth residency in Dingle, Ireland, which ended just over one week ago.

My upcoming semester is a biggie—I’ll complete my thesis, which I hope becomes a published book of short stories.

I followed Susan's recommendation and emailed Sarah and asked if she’d like to work with me. But the next day, even before Sarah responded, I said to Susan, “I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I was thinking: would you like to work with me?”

The typical residencies for my Stonecoast creative writing program in Maine are small enough to know who everyone is yet large enough not to be able to befriend everyone. My recent residency in Ireland included 10 students and two faculty members, a size that allowed me to become besties with everyone. On the second day of residency, I realized something: Susan was amazing.

Susan was also on board with my idea for her to mentor me. “I was thinking the same thing last night!” she said.

With Susan’s help, over the next four months I will revise my short stories into about 125 pages of beautiful prose. Well, the 125 pages will be all me and Susan, while the beautiful prose will require the additional help of a leprechaun. During this time, I plan to tell my friends to temporarily fuck off so I can write. Except on NFL Sundays. Priorities.

During our intimate week at Bambury’s Guesthouse on the Dingle Peninsula, I learned more about writing than if I'd read James Joyce's novels ten times each. One cool thing resulting from writing and reading is that, sometimes, you learn about yourself and the human condition, and the lessons apply elsewhere. Here are some of those writing lessons I learned during my residency in Ireland (these are not direct quotes). Consider whether you can use these lessons in your own life by substituting “language,” “metaphor,” etc. with “relationship,” “prostitution ring,” or whatever you want:

Susan says:

  • Find where the heat is. Sometimes, the heat can be on the language, but it’s often on the tension.
  • Tension should look like an EKG report, full of little spikes overlapping the story arc.
  • The first sentence of a story is an embrace. It should have an electrical current that shocks and illuminates.

Kevin Barry, our guest presenter who has won the International Dublin Literary Award, says:
  • It takes 10-11 years for the emotional charge to come out of an experience. That’s the length of time to feel properly embittered.
  • Everything you start, even if it sucks, finish it. Writing a good story only comes after you write bad ones.
  • The bits of your writing that make you recoil, feel embarrassed, or feel vulnerable, those are the bits to keep. Dig deeper.

Ted Deppe, one of Stonecoast’s resident poets, says metaphors:
  • Align with the way the brain works. Writers use them to convey information and give the reader pleasure.
  • Create a veil; they create distance before bringing the reader back through.
  • Show readers how the writer sees the world. They’re not just to make the words pretty.

Lastly, Susan says fiction and memoir share many of the same features and the two genres can be blended. For example, a memoirist may use fiction to protect his or her loved ones. Ted agrees and says that poets make things up to tell the truth. Both Ted and Susan gave us a few minutes to complete different writing prompts during our workshops. Below is my favorite writing in response to one such prompt. Is this memoir or fiction? A writer never tells...unless you treat him to Irish whiskey.

Her eyes lock with mine. “Want to climb?” she says.

Of course. I tie my figure eight knot as she secures the other end of my rope to her carabiner. How long has she climbed? A few years. What does she do? Raises money for good causes, only the things she wants to and nothing else, and smiles. Why does she smile so much? She both gets joy from and gives joy to others.

Do I want to start climbing? she asks.

Yes, but first I must note that my previous observation that it can take just three minutes to think I’m in love has now been reduced by one minute.
Stonecoast in Ireland Summer 2017 Crew
Me and my fellow Stonecoast in Ireland students during the summer 2017 residency in Dingle.
Related Stories
See the video I made after my first residency, and read about the lessons I learned from my second and third residencies.

My Next Big Thing
The Story Collider plans to turn the story I told in September into a podcast. Check back here in the coming weeks to see when the podcast airs.

Some Recent Social Media Posts

Leia Mais…

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Scrapping (Sorta) Like Conor McGregor

Yesterday morning began like most others for me: meditate or pretend to, perform 20 pull-ups, jump on a trampoline, eat eggs, drink coffee, read my coveted 15 minutes of Trump news, and then switch my phone to “do not disturb” and set its timer for 60 minutes. It was writing time.

That’s when my morning became unique: I couldn’t crank out words. I was stuck on one paragraph in the middle of a 22-page behemoth essay I’m revising and hoping to get published in GQ, Rolling Stone or Playboy . . . dream big.

Hey brain, ignite! I read the writing note I had left for myself the day before, and then the last page I’d written, and then the last three pages I’d written, all in an attempt to point myself in my essay’s intended direction. The problem was I already knew where my revisions were going; I knew exactly what I was trying to say. I just didn’t know how to say it.

So, I sat at that keyboard and visualized the scene from six years ago about which I was writing; played music that reminded me of the summer of 2011; considered every single word I typed; clarified both my writing and thinking by asking myself simple questions like “Why?” and “What does that mean?” I scrapped, and by the time my timer beeped, I’d typed 164 words inside seven long sentences.

The morning was mine, despite the paltry 2.73 words per minute. My essay now at least had a draft of one of its critical moments of vulnerability. More importantly, my journey towards those 164 words led me to learn something about myself and the human condition.

Time is everything, but sometimes all we need is to demonstrate both patience and scrap to get what we want. Well, demonstrate patience and scrap, listen to the Foo Fighters, and curse at an LCD.

Life Update — I’m going to Ireland!
A few hours ago, while walking towards my Lyft which would take me to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, I said, “Good afternoon,” as I approached a panhandler sitting on a bench.

“Afternoon. You got McGregor?”

I didn’t hear the last word he had said. I stopped and turned around to get clarity. “Do I got what?”

“Conor McGregor. You remind me of him . . .”

Because you think I’m as strong as him?!

“. . . Because of your beard.”

I thought Floyd Mayweather would win in their future boxing match and told this man so.

“I got McGregor. He’s scrappy,” he said.

Sometimes, life gives us signs. I was headed to Ireland for my fourth residency in my Stonecoast creative writing program. McGregor is from Dublin. I thought about how, after my incredible safari in Tanzania last year, I rooted for Tanzanian athletes in the Olympics. Assuming my time in Ireland, which will begin some eight hours from now as I sit at a bar during my layover at John F. Kennedy International Airport typing this story, will also be incredible, I’m going to root for McGregor.

“You changed my mind,” I said. “Bearded dudes unite.”

“August 26, let’s go! I bet you’re scrappy, too!”

I wished the man a nice afternoon and walked away towards my Lyft. On August 27, the day after McGregor’s bout, I’m going to visit that same bench in hopes of seeing that man. We’ll need to discuss the fight.

Appearances
My friends in my writing program and I will be reading on July 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Dingle Bookshop: 2 Green St, Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

Some Recent Social Media Posts

Leia Mais…

Friday, June 23, 2017

Make It Count

This story is brought to you by Secrets of the Cancer-Slaying Super Man, my second memoir about having confidence when there’s no reason to have any in the face of deadly illness. Secrets is for ages 10 and up. If you like this free blog story, then you’ll love Secrets which is only 800 cents more!

***
Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! and I stood on the grassy hill in the University of Virginia football stadium for the final time together as students. Maybe we’d stand again later as graduates, maybe we’d sit together in seats later like proper old men, or maybe neither. Who knew how often my former dormmate and I would see each other again, which meant this shouting contest between us on a sunny and crisp Saturday afternoon in late October was critical.

At 6’5”, Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! had a voice with enough bass to scare away some monsters, though not enough to frighten a cancerslayer. I was up for our final shouting contest despite being far from 6’5” or having the voice typical of someone that tall.

The contest went like this: before our Cavaliers kicker kicked off to start the game, the Cavalier players on the field lined up behind the ball. At that point, Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!! and inhaled as much oxygen as our lungs could hold. His lungs were larger, but I always killed it on pulmonary function tests, so I was no slouch. Then, our single-breath screams began as quiet and low-toned “ohs.”

The kicker raised his right arm, signifying he was about to kick. Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! and I raised our decibel levels like any Christopher Nolan film just before its climax. Matthew McConaughey found the black hole in Interstellar. I would find shouting glory.

The players’ feet began moving. I shouted louder. They began sprinting towards the ball’s plane. My vocal cords unleashed fury on the air and students around me. The kicker wound up his leg and made contact, lifting the football high into the bright blue sky. A screech exited my throat so loud I considered I was in the process of causing an aneurysm. But, I accepted that risk, and as the ball made its descent towards the NC State University Wolfpack players across the field, we finished our shouts and our contest ended.

“Who won?” I asked our impartial friend Dirty-D as I tried regaining equilibrium and a normal blood pressure.

Dirty-D laughed. “It was a valiant effort, Benjy,” he said, and left it at that.

That was almost 11 years ago, and Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! and I haven’t attended a game together or had a shouting match since. He served our country in the Navy, traveling around the world in submarines with ceilings not nearly tall enough, married and had three kids. We saw each other when we could, including a few nights ago when he came up to D.C. for training. We tried pinpointing the last time we’d seen each other. At first we feared it had been over six years and then we got excited when I recalled the time I visited him at his parents’ house before his latest nine-month deployment. That was about four years ago.

Suddenly, four years since our last encounter was a good thing. Considering family, jobs, the accumulation of obligations and new friends, that made sense and didn’t sound that bad. As Tim Urban wrote in Wait But Why, he sees the friends who live in his city 10 times more often than he sees friends who live somewhere else.

Who knew how often Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! and I would see each other again, so we made it count: no phones except his one call to his wife and the few times I logged a beer tasting in Untappd; no TV except to check the scores of the Orioles and Nationals’ games; and no debating who really won our shouting match (me).

The next time you’re with a friend who lives outside your town or city: put away your distractions for a few hours and make it count.
My good college friend and I catching up in Alexandria, Virginia

Some Recent Social Media Posts

Leia Mais…

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Google Calendar Notifies Me of Friends' Birthdays. And of Their Deaths.

Some people lie about inconsequential things like who recorded what and who peed on whom. A couple years ago, my friend Parsnip crossed the line: on Facebook, he lied about his birthday.

On the day Facebook said was his birthday, Parsnip’s timeline was flooded with thoughtful posts like “Happy birthday dude!” and “HB.” Hundreds of posts just like that from a spectrum ranging from cousins to Facebook friends he couldn’t recall ever having met.

Birthdays are meaningful and I thought deserving of a one-on-one deep conversation instead of public recognition. So I texted him, “Happy birthday Parsnip!” The exclamation point mattered. I rarely used them in writing because I thought the writer should be able to show excitement through the storytelling and not through a cheap upside down “i”. But Parsnip, who lived on the same hall as I did in our first year of college at the University of Virginia, lived his life like an exclamation point. He deserved mine.

Parnship texted back. “It’s not my birthday. I’m pranking everyone on Facebook. This is hilarious! Thanks though. My real birthday is February 28.”

This was one of many incidents in my decade-long tempestuous relationship with Facebook. Good came from this one, though: I then added Parsnip’s actual birthday in my Google Calendar as an annual event. This way, every February 28 at midnight my phone would silently notify me of his special day, and when I would wake that morning I’d see “Bday: Parsnip” at the top of my phone’s notification screen. Of course, next I would text him “HB.”

In a life filled with terrible ideas, this was among my best. I used technology to enhance instead of dilute my relationship with Parsnip. The simplicity of Bday: Parsnip and the joy it gave me knowing I could participate in his special day each year led me to add many of my family members’ and friends’ birthdays as recurring events in Google Calendar. Some friends now have kids and I want to be in their lives, too, so I added their names and birth year as recurring events. For example: Bday: Baby Parsnip (2020).

But sometimes, good things bring sad things along for the ride. On September 25 that year, I woke excited to see whose birthday joy I could share. I unlocked my phone, swiped down, and then felt ill. I saw Bday: Lings. My passionate, positive, resilient, adventurous, alive, fiercely alive friend Rachel, who I called Lings, had passed away three months before. She was among the best and my favorite people I have met.

Angry that I couldn’t text Lings “HB!” (the exclamation point was a required punctuation mark when writing to Lings), I deleted that notification in Google Calendar. In haste, I even deleted all future reminders of her birthday. In their place, I created a new recurring notification for June 11. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about my new notification “Death: Lings.” It seemed morbid and sad. I decided to leave it and see how I would feel when it would pop up for the first time the next spring. And when it did a year ago today, I felt more joy than any Bday notification. Seeing the date of Lings’ death reminded me of her life.

Today, I again remember. In particular, one image of her pops into my head. It is not the last one I saw of her alive, the one on Facebook with her face puffed up from prednisone and Lings generally not looking well. That is not the image by which I want to remember Lings. Thankfully, I see Lings nine months before her death. Her face is lean, like it always was until the end. She is resting outdoors against a rock—not one we climbed together, but still. And, she is smiling because she is grateful for this one more chance to feel the sun’s and her friends’ warmth.

Right now, I am smiling because I get to read about my last adventure with Lings and actually see this image as opposed to merely visualizing it. I will smile every June 11 when I see Death: Lings.

Some Recent Social Media Posts

Leia Mais…