“Hey, Ralph, got a minute?”
Cripes. Ralph cups his forehead. “Jeez, Lester, just go away.”
“See? Right there, Ralph, ain’t that exactly what I’m talkin’ about? See how you treat me?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I’m trying to write, Lester. Go back to whatever cranial cavity you oozed out of and leave me alone. You’re not in this scene.”
“What, you can’t spare one of your pivotal creations even a mere minute?”
“Pivotal creations? A mere minute? Where do you come up with crap like that? And no, I can’t. Lester, you’re just a third-rate, throw-away character in a second-rate novel I’ll probably never even finish, let alone publish. Now leave me alone, huh?”
“You’re writing about that Stroud guy again, aren’t you?”
“As a matter of fact.”
“Sure. Always Stroud, while you let my character linger and languish.”
“You’re an ancillary character; a dime-a-dozen thug, Lester. You don’t get to use words like linger and languish.”
“See, that’s exactly what I mean. I got lots more to offer than you realize, Ralphie, but you don’t see it, you’re so busy with pretty-boy Stroud.”
“Stroud’s the protagonist, Lester. You’re just another pain-in-the-protagonist’s-ass. That’s how these things work.”
“But, Ralph, you’re wastin’ my talents, see? I could be an even bigger pain-in-the-ass.”
“That, Lester, is hard to believe.”
“C’mon, man, you’ve got me languishin’ in jail for three full chapters now. The grub in here sucks like a Hoover, and you ain’t even sent me a public defender yet. What happened to my Constitutional rights, huh? Besides, you know I couldn’t be the moke what offed old man Hermann in chapter two,‘cause you had me in on the jewelry heist when the old goat was gettin’ his throat slashed. Remember? Chapter two, verse seventeen. And that’s gospel.”
“Very true, Apostle Lester, but the reader doesn’t know any of that yet, does he? All you mokes were wearing masks, remember?”
“Sure, I remember. Donald Duck. Why you got to humiliate me like that?”
“And stop saying languishing, will you? It’s totally out of character and my editor will throw a hissy fit if she catches you talking like that.”
“Who? My editor? Marcia? Yeah, I guess, in a Teutonic dominatrix kind of way.”
“You writers get a lot of action, don’t you? What is it with women and wimps gummin’ up computer keys with stupid stories?”
“So you don’t want me sayin’ languish. What am I supposed to say?”
“Say … rotting… Yeah, that sounds like you. Say ‘you been rottin’ in jail’ …yada, yada, yada. And be sure to drop the ‘g’.”
“Okay, so I been rottin’ in jail since chapter two. When you gonna do somethin’ about it?”
“When I get around to it, okay?”
“Make her hot, would you?”
“Make who hot?”
“My public defender. A red-head with a big ass, okay? And I don’t want Stroud nailin’ her first! That’s a deal breaker, Ralph. I feel a certain antithesis toward that guy.”
“Antithesis? Lester, are you nuts? You can’t say antithesis! I never wrote you to say antithesis. And you’re using it all wrong. What the hell has gotten into you?”
“Well, if you’d taken the time to delve into my backstory …”
“What backstory? You’re a fat-necked thug with the IQ of an ant trap; end of backstory.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me.”
“Yeah, I heard, but you said it with condescension. I never gave you condescension, so knock it off.”
“You never gave me squat but a broke nose and few stupid lines of dialogue would make Mortimer Snerd spit toothpicks.”
“Hey, I resent that. I gave you solid lines totally appropriate to your character.”
“What character? You never gave me any character. And as far as lines, you gave me stereotypical drivel to drool.”
“Stereotypical drivel, huh? That’s it, Lester, next chapter, you’re getting shivved in the shower and good riddance to you.”
“Threats? Really? Who’s the thug now, Mr. Big-Time-Author-With-The-Hot-Bod-Editor? Oh, and as soon as we’re through here, Shelly needs to talk to you.”
“Hot-bod editor? I never said Marcia had a hot bod. And who the hell is Shelly?”
“Hot-bod. It’s what you think, Ralphie boy, not what you say. Remember, I live up here in your noggin. You ain’t got no secrets from me. You don’t remember Shelly? You know, the gum-chewin’ waitress from page 32 brought Stroud grape jelly instead of strawberry for his English muffin?”
“The waitress wants to talk to me?”
“Yeah, see, she thinks if you give her bigger bazoomas, and knock about ten years off her age, she’d make a quirky love interest for pretty boy.”
“Waitress? Love interest? She brought him a nosh, for god’s sake, that’s it.”
“Yeah, but you got to admit there was chemistry between ‘em, huh? I could feel it all the way over in the jail. Remember how Stroud winked at her?”
“Wink? He never winked. There was no wink.”
“But there could have been, Ralphie. An easy edit. What’s a wink, huh? Give the girl a break. She’s got three hungry kids to feed.”
“What kids? I never gave her kids. She serves coffee, she walks away, she’s gone, we never see her again.”
“What, waitresses can’t have backstory now? What are you, a fascist?”
“Fascist? What? So now you’re giving my characters backstory?”
“Somebody has to.”
“What do you mean, ‘Says who?’”
“Who says coffee servers have to have a backstory?”
“Geez Louise, Ralphie, everybody has to have a backstory.”
“She’s a minor character, Lester. She delivers coffee. She has no part in the plot, she has no backstory, and that’s the end of it.”
“So why does Stroud wink at her?”
“Stroud doesn’t wink. I never wrote a wink.”
“But if you did …”
“But I wouldn’t.”
“But if you did …”
“But I wouldn’t.”
“But if you did …”
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
STORIES BY LEE ALLEN HILL
POEMS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
ESSAYS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
COFFEE HOUSE CHATTER
Nothing is ever as intense as a first love. As adults, we smile and patronize our children who experience the superlative soar of their emotions and the depth of their angst as they navigate their way through new emotions.
Occasionally there is a fairy tale ending to this thing called love, but more often than not, our first love shatters. We walk on broken glass, bleed and find missing pieces that were not wept up by the broom. Every new cut reminds us of the exquisite agony of the all-consuming need for that other, the special one.
We are convinced we will never feel that way again.
I was reminded recently about my reaction to a story I finished. It sneaked up on me, a prompt that stirred my imagination. I had no idea where I was going with the structure or the plot.
If I were to expand this analogy between writing and love further, I’d remind myself of the song lyrics, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
As the story began to take shape and race across the screen, I became totally invested with the scene, the characters and their miserable situation. Time dropped away. For four thousand words my everyday, real life faded as I became consumed by my own creation.
My manic obsession with the story went uninterrupted. When I sliced through the final sentence, hit save and closed the computer, I immediately broke into tears. Hours had elapsed. The bright sunshine of the afternoon was twisted into evening shadows.
For days afterwards I stumbled around, convinced I’d given everything I had to that story. I didn’t think I’d ever write anything again. How do you top that?
Months later, I went back to my manuscript. My passion had ebbed. In between, I wrote some formula stories and essays that required technical ability and a minimum emotional investment. I wrote a few thousand words, simply to amuse myself and take my creative temperature, but I never forgot the story and the emotional toll it took to travel through, from beginning to end.
When I sat down and opened the file for the second time, all the old emotions came rushing through. I got a lump in my throat. I knew how it was going to end. And then, somewhere between the second and third paragraph, a strange thing happened. I began to edit.
Within minutes, I became my own critic, slashing through sentence structure, replacing passive language with firm style. After all, I knew how it was going to end. I improved my intent, solidified nuances that would become important and deleted insignificant trivia.
After I completed my first edit, I poured myself a glass of wine and silently thanked my grammar teachers. I experienced a smug satisfaction that I’d improved the story. I didn’t retrace my tears or the emotional connection with the characters I’d lived with that afternoon so many months earlier. No, I’d returned to my role as a writer. I preserved the passion, but put it into perspective.
I suppose, as parents, that’s what we do when our children fall in love for the first time. We sit in our lofty perch, knowing that time and distance can improve vision and put things into perspective.
And yet, the burning need to live the love story is never wasted.
ESSAYS BY INGRID THOMSON
This is a true story: names and places have been changed:
Writing is our thing and we covet every moment we can grab to turn out a few pages. More often than not, external life pressures will find a way to trample all over our writing progress. We roll with it because most of us have no choice, that's the way it is, and probably won’t change anytime soon. If writing is a passion in your life, you can be sure family and friends don’t always get that. There is always something lurking in the shadows to snatch up more of your creative time.
My recent nineteen day hospital stay, and now follow-up therapy, caused a train wreck in my scheme of things. Fallout is trying to get its claws into my reformatting progress of my novel,The Legs Collector, with the use of the damn walker, pain and now edema [swelling of the feet and legs] to kill my concentration.
I'm fighting it, but the demon is grinning.
I'm lucky to get two pages formatted before I have to back up and elevate my right leg.
Being among the hobbled wounded is not something I'm cut out for, and it's a current reality that's a well of aggravation.
And here I sit holding a golden apple of creativity and ability watching the fruit turn brown.
Actually, I should be ashamed for complaining at all, and I'll share an example of why I feel that way:
After nine days in the hospital wing, I was transferred to the nursing facility for ten days of physical therapy. Of course, I raised a fuss because my new laptop was stuck in some Fed-X hub and I couldn’t work on my book.
Already ticked over lost time, I was not a happy camper.
* * * *
There were two patients to a room at the nursing home center. My roommate, Bob, fifty-one years old, was a victim of some horrific accident [I didn't ask] and he's been in the facility for nine and a half years. You read it right, and he's confined to his bed; Bob will never walk or sit up on his own again. The nurses use a portable mini-crane, with a canvas sling, to lift the man off the bed and transport him to a special shower stall.
For therapy, Bob gets lifted by two strong men and a male nurse into his elaborate wheelchair. That's the only time he can get fully dressed and take a ride to the physical therapy center. It's the highlight of his week.
My heart sank and I welled up when I saw all of the above for the first time.
Bob's speech is erratic and difficult to understand. I learned that, in his mind, his speech is clear as a bell. He has brain damage and there's a metal plate in his skull.
Nevertheless, when awake, Bob loves to chat. I told him I was hard of hearing so he would speak up and slower.
His mind slips and he loses track of the conversation. He must've asked me fifty times what my daughter's name was. He reintroduced me to every shift change of nurses, which of course they already knew, and he never failed to tell them I was an author, which they were already aware of.
We would debate about watching Letterman or Leno based on the guest lineup and I went with whichever Bob wanted. By the end of that hour he'd turn off his set and drift away for the night.
TV is Bob's sole entertainment and he loves game shows, Jerry Springer and People's Court, so I played along. There was no way I could watch other shows on my TV at the same time, it became pure chaos. In the evening I would ask what program he wanted to watch and told him I'd tune to the same one and we could watch together. He was so delighted by the gesture I damn near cried. Of course, my offer was to kill the chaos. He was a channel-hopper, so I joined the game and that pleased him more.
Bob has the use of his arms and upper third of his body, so he could turn toward me and talk and fire his trusty remote at the TV without a problem.
When he saw me writing notes, he'd ask if I were writing a new book and wanted to know what it was about, so I told him about scenes from the Legs sequel. He understood and asked several times how to order it.
I never had so many lumps in my throat as I did during the ten days I shared with Bob. Not once during that time did he have a visitor. His wife and son live about an hour and a half south of the complex.
I ached for the man and shed a few private tears on his behalf.
When my daughter, Jeanne, came to take me home, I introduced them. Bob said, "Your dad is a very kind person." To me he said, "Thank you for being nice to me."
I choked out my thank you and held back a flood of emotion.
For me to even think about complaining would be shameful to say the least. I feel blessed by the experience and brought something home with me. It's a treasure you cannot touch or see, and it remains in my heart for always.
God bless Bob forever, which I believe is being done every day.
ABOUT TED TILLOTSON
STORIES BY TED TILLOTSON
ESSAYS BY TED TILLOTSON
It is easy to be a critic. All one needs is an attitude and the perception that I’m the one with the blue pencil that determines whether the publication will pay for the writer’s work. It’s like the guy that signs his name on a pay check each week, an anonymous, mystical creature that lives high above the assembly line, in some obscure office, likely adorned with fragments of his life---buck-toothed wife holding snotty-nosed kids.
Some romanticise this power, imagining that the critic will emerge like some prim-lipped librarian that only needs to release her tight bun, let her hair flow around her shoulders, to become the woman of our dreams. She’ll instantly love you, and you’ll watch as she licks lips that suddenly grow rich and luscious beneath our gaze as if they suddenly got an injection of botox.
Being a reviewer is tougher. Accepting the intent of the writer, skipping over flaws and measuring words, not by word count but by the emotion that substantiates the story, should be easy, but it’s not.
Some people simply have nothing to say. Their linguistic abilities overshadow their boring self-indulgence with technical store-bought tutorials.
When a writer marches across the page and stirs a physical reaction, it is akin to a person being asked to imagine they are sucking on a lemon. Their mouths automatically begin to water.
A great writer does exactly that. He or she makes the reader feel the sense of dread, wonder or awe. We are instantly transported into a forest, feel the knife as it pierces our flesh or fall in love and audibly sigh.
Strike a chord, hit a nerve or evoke a sense of outrage. If your words don’t connect with the anonymous reader, you can still make a living as a writer. Understand and take pride in your ability to knit yarn into argyle. Write copy for brochures or sell your language abilities online as a masterful letter writer who can turn other people’s emotions into dynamic letters. But know your limits and don’t be pretentious. You can’t be all things to all people or genres.
On the other hand, if you are a bleeder, someone who has powerful emotions that seek paper, don’t be afraid to let the fountain pen ooze onto the page. A writer can take courses, find technical support, but the person who can make another taste honey in some distant winter storm, should not be shackled.
Writing, at its basest level, is nothing more than asking a stranger to walk beside you.