Free Fiction Friday: The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber

First published in 2004 at Pindeldyboz, “The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber” also began as an exercise. It’s one of my favorites, because once I left off from the prompt, I let my imagination roam, connecting images from real life (the beheaded snake) to the characters shaping in my head as I wrote.

The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber

Simon Beachcomber’s life had been most simple and most ordinary, and therefore, most terrible. Simple because he did not work at a stressful job that required much thinking. Simple because he and his wife, Frances Beachcomber, never quarreled, nor did they put forth undo emotions of any kind. Ordinary because he worked an eight-to-five job in an office, behind a desk, underneath a bright fluorescent light. Ordinary because each morning he drank coffee and read the business section of the paper while Mrs. Beachcomber also drank a cup of coffee and worked the crossword puzzle.

Both liked solving crossword puzzles and each evening Mr. Beachcomber would buy a second newspaper at the convenience store on the corner and solve the crossword while Mrs. Beachcomber cooked dinner. After dinner they compared answers. Most of the time they had answered the puzzle correctly.

Then Mr. Beachcomber would read at night before going to sleep. Mrs. Beachcomber, on the other hand, turned in and went to sleep right away.

Every week, every month, every year was the same.

Years, indeed, did pass and Mr. and Mrs. Beachcomber realized they were growing old together. And, Mr. Beachcomber, when he retired, had saved enough money over the years that he and Mrs. Beachcomber could live comfortably, spending their days working crossword puzzles, attending to ordinary life.

A few months after retirement, Mr. Beachcomber began to notice something missing, out of the ordinary, and it worried him greatly. He woke up one morning and realized Mrs. Beachcomber had been misplaced.

She hadn’t left. He just didn’t know where she was. He hadn’t noticed that for the past fifty years Mrs. Beachcomber had been shrinking steadily, until now she was the size of a quarter.

Mr. Beachcomber dressed, put on his favorite, though now unfashionable fedora—he had worn it every day since V-J Day—he buckled his belt, which just the day before he had to punch new holes in because it seemed he was losing weight daily, and fingered some lint in his left trouser pocket (Mrs. Beachcomber clung to his car keys as the cracked nail of his left forefinger scratched the surface of the pocket’s cloth), and he set out to search for his wife. On that first day, there was no luck. He hadn’t driven anywhere, only lumbered around the house.

There had been some excitement, though, when he hacked the head off a chicken snake that had crawled into the garden to digest a mouse. He mistook the chicken snake for a rattler and leveled the garden hoe against its neck, taking the head off in one chop. (And Mrs. Beachcomber always said the hoe wasn’t sharp enough to defend against a snake. He wished she were around to see it.)

After disposing of the snake, he went inside, laid his car keys on the dresser and took a nap. (Mrs. Beachcomber clung to the ring, her legs kicking through the vast gulf between the pocket and dresser, hollering frantically. Oh, if he’d only turn up that damn hearing aid!)

On the second day of his search he looked on his dresser where his keys lay. How odd, he thought, normally those are in my pants’ pocket. Why are they here?

Mr. Beachcomber sat on the edge of the bed, thoughtfully recollecting the actions that led to putting his keys on the dresser rather than leaving them in his pocket. He killed the snake; it could’ve been a rattler. Its head was like a rattler’s. If only Mrs. Beachcomber had been there. Now she might never know. She would have thought him brave.

What else had Mr. Beachcomber done? After killing the snake he saw fresh tomatoes on the vine and thought he’d pick them. Fresh tomatoes would please Mrs. Beachcomber, too. As Mr. Beachcomber stooped to pick each tomato his keys would slide out of his trouser pockets. So, he had them in his pocket then.

He then rubbed his left hip which was sore for some reason. Underneath his fingers he felt a small lump, what he figured was a bug bite (Mrs. Beachcomber had bitten and scratched him) and then remembered that while in the garden he had thought it was his keys that were scratching him, so he came in for a drink of water and retired to the bedroom where he decided to take the keys out of his pocket and lay them on the dresser while he napped.

The heavy key rings fell across Mrs. Beachcomber’s chest. She screamed. The rings had pinned her against the wooden dresser. Before long, her breath was crushed out.

Mr. Beachcomber stepped up from the bed. A scrim of blood and cloth seemed tangled in the key ring. He bent to investigate. There was his wife, the size of a quarter. Her limp, lifeless body.

Dead. Mrs. Beachcomber was dead. Though married to her fifty years, at that moment, looking at that tiny crushed body, Mr. Beachcomber thought he knew nothing about his wife. She was only Mrs. Beachcomber, a woman good at crossword puzzles, a simple and most ordinary thing.

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On Writing: Staying focused and maintaining interest in writing projects: advice from Joe Lansdale

Joe_lansdale_2013

Joe R. Lansdale at the 2013 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. Photo Larry D. Moore. 

I wrote a little about this yesterday, about my mind jumping around from interest to interest of late in my writing, a jump prompted it seems by a re-upping of interest in journalism because of a freelance gig and a waning interest in the second draft of my novel.

This isn’t the first time for me to lose interest in my novel project. As I mentioned yesterday, it was about this time last year my interest in the first draft waned. So, it’s possible I’m at the moment in a sophomore-draft slump.

Last year at this time, writer friends online encouraged me to press on. For awhile this year, in the midst of job and apparently major career changes, I felt the first slump coming on sometime around the Christmas holidays. It seemed to coincide with a major case of holiday blues — these blues hit during that time of year, largely because I find the whole season intolerable; I want it to go away, get sent in a bright red package with a bright red bow to some holiday Gilligan’s Island and get lost and stay lost.

To stay with the fearless-crew-of-the-Minnow theme, perhaps I was lost, overwhelmed by multiple stressors, including the black-dog depression brought on by so many stressors. As you well know from your diet of of pop psychology, major life changes can upset your creative traveler like Gilligan’s storm.

However I got there, I was pulled out by a writer infinitely greater than myself: Joe Lansdale.

Writing tip. Don’t let those who can’t, or won’t do it keep you from doing it. Spend less time explaining the reasons you can’t and more time showing that you can. That sounds like a slogan, but it’s the solid truth. There’s always someone who has an excuse, and sure, there are some that have valid reasons. But most people don’t have valid reasons. They just have reasons they don’t write. I don’t have time is the main one. And hey, that’s a toughie.

But I didn’t start out as a full time writer. I did other jobs, and sometimes two, meaning one was part time on top of whatever else I was doing for a living at the time.

I eventually realized I had a lot of time. Time that I was spending sitting around worrying  about not having the time, or planning a block of time. I decided, what if I wrote from ten thirty at night until midnight. My original goal was one page, and I learned very quickly I could do that.

So, I decided to expand on the idea. I would do three pages of prose. I had to get up at six a.m. to go to work, so I gave myself a carrot, so to speak. I thought, what if  gave myself an out and wrote three pages of good prose, even if I wrote it in thirty minutes. I did that, I could go to bed before midnight. So it was ten thirty to midnight, or three pages. It was usually midnight back then, and sometimes I didn’t get the three, but over time I managed to the majority of the time.

It wasn’t any good, by they way, but I was learning. In time I turned to working mornings, as I had an afternoon to tent-thirty job as a janitor, and weekend jobs as I could grab them. Practicing and teaching martial arts part time. And writing.

On the weekends I would write when I could, even if it was but for thirty minutes. I still made time to be a husband and a father, and my wife and I have managed a great life out of it all. I spent time at my kid’s events, and with them, and still do, even though they are grown.

There is time, if you make it. It’s still hard work, but of a different nature now. I say this merely to say you can do it too, not that I did anything amazing. That’s the point. It wasn’t that amazing. I learned to balance my time without turning it into a chart I had to check off or frustrate over. I relaxed and did it.

This piece of advice spurred me along, and I made time to write and work on the second draft of the novel.

Now, my problem isn’t time. It’s focus. But, I realize, as I’ve just reread and retyped this quote, the shift of focus may be exactly what need to do. Maybe I need to hold off on the novel and use the writing time I’ve set aside for myself for nonfiction writing?

So, does this happen to you? Do your interests flip-flop or jump from project to project? How do you handle it?

— Todd

Current News: Cats, Freelance and Staying Focused/Interested in Writing

I’ve inherited a cat. I’ve never owned a cat and hadn’t really planned on getting one, but Callie the Calico became part of my  life just a little more than a month ago after a friend’s death.20180430_201537

Now, I wonder why I haven’t had a cat before, though I know next to nothing about them, other than they apparently evolved some 6-7 million years ago in the Middle East and were worshiped as gods.

Callie seems to be a good companion so far, and I’m glad I was able to adopt her. It’s probably good for writers to have cats and clearly there are some famous literary cats, like Hemingway’s six-toed feral cats that  roam his Key West estate.

***

Since February I’ve had a regular freelance gig writing advertorials for local newspapers. These have been fun and a nice source of side/supplemental income. At the same time they’ve juiced  my journalism jones again.

I guess I’m like James Bond, never say never, again. I was convinced I was done with journalism last September, at least daily newspaper journalism, and maybe that part of my writing life — at least full time — is done. It’s hard to tell.

The renewed interest in journalism has also led me to reading some great nonfiction again, including Mary Roach’s Grunt, about which I’ll write more in another post.

Reading nonfiction and writing a form of it, though, has put me in the mood to write more of it and that’s why I’ve been blogging more lately. I hope you’ve enjoyed the output.

***

This freelance gig and a renewed interest in journalism and nonfiction, though, has also distracted me from working on the second draft of a novel, a second draft I had fully expected to have finished by now.

Getting distracted by different forms of writing seems a constant for me. At times all I want to write is fiction or a specific genre of fiction such as science fiction or mystery.
Then I get occupied with wanting to write more nonfiction.

Do you experience this as a writer? Does your interest in a form jump around?

But, besides my mind jumping around from fiction to nonfiction, I’ve lost interest in the second draft, lost interest in the novel itself. In one way, this is a bit discouraging. I really wanted to see this thing to the end. But will I? I’m feeling doubtful about this.

Then again, it was about this time last year I was growing tired of the first draft and was ready to chuck in all in the trash bin.

So, maybe, I’ll push through and complete it. Maybe, what I need is some distraction like blog posts to push through the block. To keep writing.

—Todd

Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

Lesson learned

I think I learned a beginning writer’s lesson: Always read the submission guidelines thoroughly.

I submitted a short story Friday morning and about an hour later received a message that I hadn’t formatted my submission correctly. I was frustrated not only by the message, but by the complicated process of editing the submission so it would conform to the publication’s format.

Part of the frustration I felt was that the manuscript I submitted was already set up in a normally acceptable format from William Shunn. The requested format wasn’t too much of a deviation — an elimination of all references to the author’s name, supposedly for a more objective consideration of the story. But, then reading the guidelines further, the editor mentions not to use Courier. Times New Roman was preferred.

This seemed very absurd, overly picky. But I changed the font.

After resubmitting, my frustration subsided. I kept thinking about students I’ve had in the past who couldn’t get formatting. I was feeling like those students must have. And I wonder, too, if not submitting the story correctly had something to do with the quick rejection — received today.

Did it reflect on my professionalism not submitting correctly?

— Todd

Writing short

If you’ve read my story collection, The Arc of the Cosmos, you know I’m capable of writing short short fiction. And yet, I have a hard time writing short, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, although stylistically I tend toward writing lean. I just seem to have a lot of story to tell.

I am currently in the process of revising a longish short story, “Earl,” the original draft of which runs just a little over 6,800 words. As I revise, that count keeps moving up. And as I revise, I wonder if the story will end longer than it started. Which makes me wonder if my original idea is too expansive for a short story.

I love short stories, love learning how to write them. I like the “window of the world” stories present, as much as I like the expansiveness of novels.

I’m not averse to stories like Joan Didion seems to be in  this essay from Brain Pickings.  Like Didion, I like having “room in which to play.” But am I playing with too much room?

I think about this too after a recent interview—due out next month—with science-fiction writer Lou Antonelli, who is known for writing lean, swiftly moving prose. He told me his revisions tend to shorten his stories.

How much expansion is too much expansion? How much tightening is too much?

—Todd