I'm thankful for the moment when The Hairpin folks saw something in my writing they found worthwhile, because it gave me a boost just when I needed it most
"Kill your darlings," said Ernest Hemingway, meaning when you revise, sometimes you have to cut stuff you really like. Here's a scene I really like from THE WILD INSIDE--it survived multiple drafts, but in the end, I realized it didn't really belong in the book anymore. But it still contains a nice moment between my protagonist, Tracy, and her dad. Enjoy!
I stepped on the runners and gripped the handlebar, on the sled by myself for the very first time. I felt something change in me. My body got tense and relaxed all at once, the way it does when I set for a good while in the trees, waiting and watching, but all the while my mind as calm as the surface of the lake on a still night.
Okay, I said, then yanked the snow hook loose.
Racing dogs don’t get started gradual. Dogs that are raised to run want to run. I’ve seen adult men struggle to keep a small dog in control while putting it on the line. The anticipation mounts up in them, like they will explode if they don’t run soon. So once the snow hook is released and the dogs feel this untethering, they become wild. They are working dogs, they have been civilized and given a job to do, and they want to do it. But they are also the children of wolves. There’s a lot of years that separates them from their ancestors but they’ve still got that wildness in them all the time, like a tiny flame that flares up when you pour fuel onto it. You see it in their eyes, how most of the time they are keeping the flame in check. But when my dogs run, they let that flame burn wild.
Su and Howl and Flash lunged forward and the sled jerked, but I held on. None of the dogs had been exercised in a good week, what with all that had been going on. My three dogs was fresh, and they run like fresh dogs, galloping almost, sleek and sure and fast. Straight for the trailhead.
I knew soon as I seen where we was headed that I didn’t want to go down the trail, not for my first solo run. My dogs could run fifty miles and barely tire themselves out, so the three miles from our yard to Ptarmigan Lake wouldn’t phase them, they would shoot off the trail and onto water that was only partially frozen that time of year. We’d break through the ice before I could stop them. A sled has got a brake but it don’t work like the brake of a car, where you know putting your foot down will make a full stop. A sled brake is just a suggestion. You don’t train racing dogs to stop.
When I seen my team headed for the trail, I hollered Haw! and torqued my handlebar left and leaned my weight that way. My dogs went left. Good, I said under my breath. That’s good.
With every new dog, Dad done training the same way. He always started by running the perimeter of our property, round and round, getting a feel for how the dogs are going to perform, pairing rookie dogs with old pros, seeing who’s going to quarrel with who and which dogs work well together before he takes them out on the trail. Su and Howl and Flash was old pros, they hadn’t run the loop-de-loop since they was practically pups. Once they understood what I had in mind, though, they obliged and took me sailing round the yard. Their backs rising and falling, their paws kicking up little fans of snow. My heart pulsed in my throat and I felt my own warm blood rushing through my veins. A kind of calm come over me, different from the way I feel when I am hunting. Alert, eyeballs sharp, but my body loose. Relaxed. I stood on the runners where my dad normally stood, and the dogs did not balk at having someone strange running them, they started their fifth turn round the yard and for the first time I looked away from the trail they had made in the snow and found Dad, standing out by the barn, watching me, a smile on his face.
I stood on the brake and tossed the snow hook out behind me, started working my team to a stop, gradual. We passed by the house and when they was slow enough I called out, Come haw! to double the dogs back to the barn.
They turned just like I told them. I had control.
Then that fox come back. All that winter, this little gray fox had visited us on a near-weekly basis. He would saunter into the yard, sniff at the corners of the shed, piss wherever he pleased, barely even look at the twenty-seven dogs barking their fool heads off at him. I think he knew all them dogs was tethered and couldn’t get to him because he would go right up to where they could almost reach him and stand there and stare at them while they went crazy at the ends of their chains. All winter long, I’d been dying to get my hands on that fox.
Su spotted the little bastard first. He come trotting into the yard, didn’t even notice that there was three dogs tied to nothing but my sled with its smooth runners for gliding over the snow. Su was lead dog, she turned all at once, dodging right, and Flash followed because she always done whatever Su told her. But Howl was on Flash’s right, she plowed straight into him. He stumbled, then regained his feet, then seen just what Su and Flash was after, and the three of them angled back toward the trailhead, sprinting after the fox.
Dogs can make sharp turns. Sleds can’t. The dogs veered right and the sled tipped onto its side and dragged along behind them, bumping and jerking and bouncing over the snow.
The whole time, I held on. Dad had told me plenty of times, If the sled ever falls over, if your feet ever slip off the runners—hold on. So I did, with both hands. I clutched the handlebar of the rig and slid on my stomach, my feet kicking. I kept my head up and got a faceful of ice and snow and dirt.
Over at the house, Steve and Scott was drawn outside by Dad hollering at the dogs, they stood on the back stoop to watch the strangest parade they ever laid eyes on: a skinny gray fox running for its life; three barking, snarling dogs tearing after it; the overturned sled they dragged behind them; and me, whipping across the snow on my belly. Even from across the yard, they said later, they could hear me laughing.
The fox darted left and wriggled inside a hole between two bales of straw piled up against the kennel. That’s how we finally stopped. Dad run over and I stood up and fell into his arms, laughing and gasping. Up on the stoop, Scott clapped his hands, and Steve come jogging over to help wrangle the dogs.
Later Dad did what he called damage assessment, the two of us in the bathroom, him peeling the paper off the back of a bandage while I set on the toilet lid, dabbing at my bloody knee.
He shook his head. Said, I don’t know what I was thinking. Your mother—
The words come out and hung in the air, like how a breath will fog and freeze on the coldest days. Almost a solid thing.
He cleared his throat.
Your mother would kill me if she knew I let you run three dogs on your own.
Water dripped from the leaky faucet, plunk, plunk against the bottom of the sink, so loud in the quiet between us. He knelt down and put the bandage on my knee, then pressed his hand gentle against my side, feeling my ribs to see if they was broken. Looked into my eyes to check for concussion. He said, You’re okay, aren’t you? Just a little banged up.
He grinned real big and said, You weren’t scared at all, were you?
I should’ve known, he said. You’ve always been a natural.
It wasn’t just how he was smiling but that he was smiling at all, it was the first time in months he didn’t look like someone who’d lost an eye or a lung, some vital part of himself gone.
I wanted to say something then. Anything to make the happiness on his face stay. I rolled words around in my brain, trying to put them one after another, like the cars of a train, but they wouldn’t line up right.
All of a sudden, he grabbed me. Just picked me up from where I set, like I was a little girl again, and he wrapped me in his arms and I pressed my face against his shoulder, he smelled like the woods and cold air and dirt, a smell like everything I love. I hugged him back, hard. I had this thought, if I squeezed him hard enough all the words I couldn’t find would seep through my skin and soak into him, and he would know everything that was inside me that I couldn’t say.
Happening now. Working on a new novel is like bumbling around a house in the dark, in a storm, with only the intermittent lightning outside to show me where I might be going, or what might be in the room. First drafts require all the patience I can muster for my story, and myself.
A couple weeks ago, I took a road trip with a friend to a part of Alaska I'd never before visited: Kennecott, an abandoned copper mining camp that's now a National Historic Landmark. There's a lodge and several guiding companies that can take you ice climbing or hiking or rafting, and there's the Kennicott Glacier (the two different spellings come from a historical clerical error--and that's why it's important to proofread, folks), but maybe one of my favorite parts of the location was the old Kennecott Mill.
After prospectors discovered the richest concentration of copper ore, ever, near Kennicott Glacier in 1900, the mill and mines attracted men from all over the lower 48 with its high salaries. Men worked in this isolated town seven days a week, lived in bunkhouses, and got their dance on at the local recreation center built by the mill's owners. If you were a lady in Kennecott, your dance card was full, by the way, because there were only a handful of you; single women only were allowed to work as teachers at the small school, nurses for the one doctor in town, or secretaries--and if you got married, you got sent home, because that's where a woman's place is (according to Steven Birch, mining engineer, manager of the mine and mill, and obvious feminist).
Today, you can hike up around the mines, but you can't get inside the old mill building unless you have a guide. I took a guided tour of the mill, and I highly recommend the tour to anyone who visits Kennecott: I'm not one to go crazy over architecture or mining, typically, but the mill is fascinating, and being inside the building really evokes what it might have been like to be one of the men working in Kennecott back in the day. Imagine working in a wooden building attached to the side of a mountain--one that's vibrating constantly, thanks to the mechanical separating apparatuses that sort the copper. (The building was so loud, our tour guide informed us, that people in nearby McCarthy could hear its noise.) Despite the availability of steam heat, the mill was kept fairly cold because Birch believed a cold environment was an impetus for working harder.
My favorite factoid from this visit was that, to save time and get quickly down the mountain from the mine, instead of walking the trails, some of the men would ride a bucket down. Remember, these buckets were filled with copper ore, so the men couldn't just hop into a bucket for a comfy, safe ride; instead, they would precariously cling to the side of a bucket for the steep, harrowing journey back to the mill.
Historical fiction isn't really my jam, but it's not lost on me that Kennecott could make an incredibly cool setting for a ghost story. This is one of my favorite things about Alaska: The state is so big, there's always a new place to visit and a new history to learn. You can't get bored in the 49th state.
This essay on Hazlitt is everything.
"What makes a work of art special and meaningful is your private relationship with it, the magic of finding it amidst the noise and distraction, the magic of letting it speak to you directly. You found it, it’s yours."
It's "spring" in Alaska, where "spring" always comes with quotation marks, since to the rest of the world, it still looks suspiciously like winter. But I went for a run yesterday in high-thirty-degree weather, no wind (no sun, either), splashing through snowmelt, and it felt like real spring for the first time this year.
New things are born in spring, and although I started a new project a few weeks ago, after shifting my focus briefly to the line editing phase of The Killing Drink, I'm back to the new thing. This is one of the hardest phases of writing for me -- the first draft, when everything is uncertain. I'm trying to embrace this part, when I can play, and experiment, and throw in every idea I have. Clean-up comes later. Right now, it should just be fun.
I'm lucky enough to live in an apartment with a second bedroom, which I use as my office/cat habitat. The office part is pictured. (The rest of the room is home to a cat tree and several cat beds.) I work full time, so most of my writing time happens first thing in the morning, around 5:30 a.m., after I've had a little internet time and enough coffee to wake up. Sometimes the darkness of an Alaskan winter can be tough, but I really love being up that early, writing by the glow of my desk lamp while everywhere else, it's dark; it's like writing in a cave, with only a small fire to keep my company. (Well, a small fire and a purring cat.)
The Post-It notes are mostly words of encouragement/advice I've gleaned from other writers. (Right now, my favorite is "The best reason to write something down is to change it," which comes from Jean Thompson.) Yes, there's a picture of Idris Elba asking, "Shouldn't you be writing?" (Hey, if Stringer Bell tells you to get something done, you do it.) And yes, there's a framed drawing of a stick figure smiling and pooping. Because even if everything comes out shit, there's still a reason, somewhere in the mess, to be happy -- even if you're just happy that you have something to change the next time you sit down to write.
Drawtober -- or "Inktober" -- is back! My friend, Bryce Huff, is creating drawings from the Drawtober/Inktober prompts provided by DeviantArt. Once again, for each of his drawings, I'm going to attempt to write a short story (emphasis on the word "short," although my definition of that word is not necessarily other people's idea of short). I'm starting with Day 3 because I also don't understand numbers, apparently. Or logic. Or order. Chaos rules! Day 3's prompt: "Collect."
The garbage men work at night. The tall one has been on the job longer. His shoulders are slumped and his back hunched, as if he has spent the last decade hoisting the brimming trashcans and dumpsters himself, instead of using the truck's hydraulic arms.
The new garbage man is short, but muscular. His hands, in particular, look very strong. Until now, his hands have been his most valuable tool. Tonight, he only uses them to press a button, steer the wheel. Signal to his partner.
He looks into the sideview mirror to see the tall garbage man wave, then eases the truck forward to the next house.
They creep through the neighborhood in this way until the new garbage man sees something different in the sideview. The tall one slashes a single finger across his throat.
"What've you got?" the new one says after he has cut the engine and lowered himself from the truck's cab.
Garbage. Bags of it, each of them knotted at the top. The tall garbage man produces a switchblade and slices one open.
"You see?" he asks his protégé.
At first, the new garbage man doesn't. He plunges a hand into the trash -- greasy fast food containers, blackened banana peels, twists of used Kleenex, toenail clippings, wads of hair -- then the tall one shakes his head. The new one takes his hand out again, wipes it on the leg of his coveralls, then regards the trash for a minute more. Then he says, "I see."
Wordlessly, he follows the tall one to the front door of the house where the trash belongs. It's a modest place. A perfect square with a triangle roof, like a child's drawing of a house. A set of stairs leading to a screenless front door.
They do not knock.
Inside, dishes are piled in the sink. More fast food containers, the kind that come with a toy, strewn across the counter. The television is on. Infomercial. The computer is on, too. Images that make the tall garbage man turn away. That make the new one's mouth fill with the taste of vomit. He chokes it down.
The first bedroom is a child's. Action figures, train set, dolls arranged around a tiny table, waiting on tea. Empty bed.
The second bedroom is the one they came for.
The man is asleep. He looks no different than any other man. His neighbors will say that he was friendly, but quiet. Kept to himself.
The new garbage man waits for the tall one to do what they came to do. Instead, the tall one takes out his knife again and offers it to the new one.
The new garbage man hesitates, then shakes his head. Wraps his hands around the man's neck. The man's eyes open; his mouth pulls at the air like a fish's. The new garbage man is patient -- he has to be, for this kind of work -- and watches the whites of the eyes go red as the vessels in them burst.
Outside, they light cigarettes.
"You understand?" the tall garbage man asks.
The new one inhales. Up the block, the houses are dark, the windows blank. Each one holds secrets. Tonight he will learn them. A woman is having an affair. A child wet the bed, hid the sheets from his mother. A teenager cheated on a test. A girl has a crush on her teacher. A man is stealing from his employer. Most secrets will be uncovered, given enough time. Or they will vanish without ever being shared. Some will be kept for lifetimes.
Others need a reckoning.
The new garbage man flicks the butt of his cigarette to the pavement. Grinds it out with a heel. He thinks of the blood in the eyes. The toys in the empty room.
Says, "I understand."
The most challenging Drawtober pictures were ones that featured already existing characters. Am I going to write a Bob's Burgers episode, or an homage to Donnie Darko? Not quite. This drawing allowed me to make good on a little idea I've had for a long time: a story set in a movie theatre at the dawn of the apocalypse.
They’re still trying to catch their breath when they take their seats. The theatre is empty. It’s an old building — Toby’s grandpa has reminisced more than once about the “nickelodeons” he used to see here — and practically soundproof. They can’t hear if they were followed, or who might be outside.
There’s no one in the theatre. Toby had a key. He’s been manager now for three weeks.
“Who the hell were those guys?” Kim asks. “Did you see — ?”
“Yeah,” Toby says. “I saw.”
He doesn’t want to admit yet what he’s ninety percent certain of. It doesn’t seem possible. This is the kind of thing that happens in the movies he shows here, in this very theatre. Up in the projector booth, Dawn of the Dead is on the reel, ready to flicker its way across the blank screen. It’s the Scare-o-Thon, brainchild of his boss, Mr. Harker; they do it every year. This year’s theme? Zombies.
Toby lets loose a laugh that borders too closely on the hysterical.
“Hey,” Toby says to her. “You okay?”
“She hasn’t said a word since those guys —”
“Don’t say it,” he cuts Kim off.
“Say what? That I just saw four guys in Adventure Time costumes tear Bart Simpson’s arms off and eat them?”
“Fuck!” Jules says. She’s drawn her knees up to her chest and started to rock back and forth. Her bunny ears tremble.
Toby can’t help it; he has to smile, looking at her. He also can’t help the pride and strange sense of satisfaction that wells up in him. He was the one who noticed the Adventure Time guys first, and he was the one who had snatched Jules by the back of her shirt and whispered in her ear, “Run.” If it weren’t for him, they’d all be — well, who could say? Dead? Undead? He has no way to know what they're dealing with yet. Only that there are things out there, things that tear people limb from limb and eat what's left.
Jules sniffles, and Toby sees that she's crying.
“Hey,” he says.
She shakes her head, and her bunny ears wobble wildly.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I just —” She falls silent, shaking her head again.
“I know,” Toby says. He can’t quite bring himself to put his arm around her, even though this is a movie theatre and if there's any best time to make a move like that, it has to be in a dark movie theatre at the dawn of what could very well be an apocalypse.
Kim stands up, tears the glasses from her face. They're fake; she only wore them for the evening, to complete her Tina look. She throws them to the ground.
“For fuck’s sake,” she says. And storms up the aisle.
“Where are you going?” Toby shouts after her.
She lets the door to the lobby swing closed behind her.
Toby sits back in his seat, his arm brushing against Jules’s. It's almost like the date he never got around to asking her on. But tonight was never a date. The three of them had agreed to go to the Halloween party at the Rec Center together. Come as your favorite cartoon! the flyer had instructed, and they’d barely even discussed it. After all, they watched Bob’s Burgers every Sunday together, cramming for Monday morning classes during the commercial breaks.
Jules pushes her ears back and rubs her eyes. Toby has to smile again. She hadn’t been able to find the right ears for her Louise costume, but leave it to her to take a can of pink spray paint to her Frank mask from last year’s Donnie Darko party and call it good. When she pulls the mask down over her face, it looks like an Easter-themed Frank is trying to eat Louise’s face off.
The notion of someone eating someone else’s face makes Toby’s stomach drop.
“Toby?” Jules speaks up.
Her eyes are huge, and they tug at him, begging him to know what to do in this situation. To be the hero.
“Wait right here,” he says.
He passes Kim in the lobby, where she's trying to raid the snack bar. “Everything’s locked,” she complains when she sees him.
Toby produces his key ring, a bulky thing he initially balked at — how could he be expected to keep so many keys on his person all the time, as Mr. Harker had directed? (“You never know when there might be a movie emergency!” the old man had claimed; for once, he hadn’t been wrong).
Now, Toby selects the snack bar key and unlocks the glass case with a flourish. “All yours,” he says, and Kim dives in, grabbing Reese’s and Mars bars by the handful.
Another key lets him into the upper reaches of the theatre, and a third key unlocks the projector room. He turns the projector on, readies the film, moves about the room almost automatically — he’s been working at the theatre since he was thirteen, back when all Mr. Harker would let him do was sweep floors and count the inventory. Once the film is running, he stays in the projector room long enough to make sure the picture is synched up with the sound, then he descends the stairs.
“They don’t build ’em like this anymore,” Mr. Harker has said more than once of the Palladium, and it's true. The new 16-screen theatre out by the mall has a glass facade that lets the daytime sunlight stream into the lobby. The Palladium has no windows, except two tiny portholes in the grand-entrance doors — thick doors, and heavy, and wide, meant to make coming inside the theatre an experience, which it would have been, back in the day when Toby’s own grandpa forked over his nickel and lined up to see the latest cliffhanger. The Palladium, Mr. Harker had claimed, could probably withstand a bombing or an earthquake, its walls were so sturdy.
Toby draws close to the doors, which he’s made sure are locked. He has to stand on his toes to see what's happening outside.
When he sits down next to Jules again, he's shaking. His hands tremble so hard, he dropped his keys half a dozen times on the way back to his seat.
“Everything okay?” Jules asks between handfuls of peanut M&Ms.
She seems calmer. Normal, almost. On the other side of her, Kim is contentedly nibbling on a Mars bar. Up on the screen, Stephen and Francine have already decided to steal a helicopter to escape the city overrun with zombies.
But there are no helicopters. There’s no help coming, Toby knows, and no escape. There’s only this theatre, the Palladium, and its thick walls separating them from what he saw in the streets of the city, through the window, tonight.
“Everything’s fine,” he says, and takes the Snickers she offers him. They sit in the flickering light, watching actors flee a horde of monsters, while outside, the world crumbles.
Toby slips his arm around Jules without even thinking about it.
When you're writing stories about someone else's art, sometimes you get a nice landscape or a really moving scene. And sometimes you get this:
When Dave Grohl woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed. Before he even opened his eyes, he tried to scratch an itch on his cheek. But his hand had no fingernails and, in fact, he had no hand. Instead, he had a sort of nub. A nub covered in slime, he discovered when he made contact with his cheek — which was also covered in slime.
He opened his eyes to find that his vision seemed different. Elevated, somehow. He reached with his nubs and discovered not eyes, but stalks, upon which his eyes were mounted.
“What the holy hell?” he muttered, and the sound he heard was not his voice but a sort of thick, gravelly garble.
He tried to raise himself onto his feet, but of course he had no feet, and instead slid out of bed into a gelatinous puddle. At first, he merely quivered where he was, unable to stop himself from trembling, a great mound of lime jello with nubs and eye stalks. Once he had calmed himself, though, he found that by concentrating very hard, he could inch forward. He pulled himself toward the full-length mirror on the wall and beheld what he had become.
“A slug?!” he garbled. “This can’t be!”
“Oh, but it is.”
The voice, smooth as silk, came from the corner of his room. Dave swiveled his head as fast as it would swivel, a motion that more accurately resembled the final movements of a wound-down wind-up toy.
“You recognize me, Dave?” asked the well-dressed man who sat regarding him.
Dave’s mind reeled. The man was familiar, he realized. He remembered a summer day, the year he turned twelve. He’d gotten a guitar for his birthday and his mother had signed him up for lessons. But he’d hated them. He hated the lessons, but he loved the guitar. He loved the music he heard over the radio from the nearby college station, and he loved the idea of standing on stage, rocking out to an auditorium full of screaming fans.
That summer day, he’d been walking home from his most recent lesson — a debacle, he had absolutely no instinct for chords or rhythm, and his fingers were thick as sausages, and about as graceful. He’d dragged the guitar behind him in the dirt, no longer caring if it got broken. If he couldn’t play it, he didn’t even want to look at it.
“Oh, dear, that’s a terrible way to treat such a fine instrument.”
It was the well-dressed man. He wore an elegant linen suit and shoes that somehow had not a speck of dust on them despite the dirt road and the clear fact that the man must have walked to this spot, since there was no car in sight and the bus didn’t run this far out of town.
“You want it?” Dave asked the man. “I can’t play for shit.”
“Would you like to change that?”
Dave frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what if you could play that guitar like a god?”
And then the well-dressed man told him what was possible. The gift of music, flowing freely from his fingertips. The success of a rock star. Auditoriums full of screaming fans.
“You can have it all,” the well-dressed man said.
Dave scoffed. “In exchange for what? My soul?”
It was the well-dressed man’s turn to scoff. “Please. Souls are passé. I’m interested in something more…entertaining. Let’s just say that when your bill is due, I will collect.”
Now Dave regarded the well-dressed man and remembered what day it was. He was to be honored tonight at the Billboard Music Awards with a lifetime achievement award.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he said. The well-dressed man seemed able to understand him, despite his strange voice. “My bill is due now?”
“Like I said.” The well-dressed man stood and straightened his tie. His suit was silk this time. “I love entertainment. So entertain me, Dave Grohl.”
The well-dressed man doffed his cap, revealing a pair of small, jet-black horns that complemented his pointed goatee. He bowed, returned his hat, and vanished in a puff of smoke.
“What the devil?” said Dave, then realized what was happening. “Oh. Duh.”
It had been a long afternoon. And he wasn’t sure it had been worth the effort. But there was only one way to find out.
It wasn’t hard to convince the limousine company that was sent to pick him up to instead take the large box on his doorstep and put it in the back of the limo. After all, he was the third-richest drummer in the country; if he wanted to parachute into the venue, someone would have made it happen for him. And it mustn’t have seemed terribly irrational to event coordinator when Dave requested, over the phone, that the box be placed on stage just before he was to go on. Rock stars were always making strange requests, and famous people always got what they wanted in situations like this.
Still, he wasn’t sure what would happen.
He trembled slightly as he listened to the announcer list his many achievements: drummer for Nirvana, founder and front man of the Foo Fighters, member of Queens of the Stone Age, numerous awards. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been nervous to play the guitar. That summer day, perhaps.
“Ladies and gentlemen…Dave Grohl!”
The audience screamed and, with all his strength, Dave slipped the lid off the box and raised himself onto his gelatinous belly, then wobbled at his full height, his guitar around what approximated his neck.
The audience screamed.
He’d practiced all afternoon. His nubs flew across the strings as he began to play. And was it him, or was he playing better than ever?
The audience gasped.
The were terrified, he could see, but he kept playing, and slowly he began to win them over. They swayed and sang and danced. He still had it. He was still the greatest guitar player in the world. He played the two songs he’d been scheduled to play, and then he played an encore. And then he should have stopped, but he kept playing.
Five songs. Ten. Twenty.
His nubs began to bleed.
The other musicians left the stage. The audience began to filter out of the room.
Someone shut the lights off, save one spotlight that shone directly on Dave.
They weren’t even songs anymore — just one endless guitar riff. His nubs moved so fast, they were a blur. Could slugs sweat? He felt something pouring down his forehead. He gasped for breath. His soft limbs ached and he longed to stop. But he couldn’t.
He looked into the audience, hoping there was someone there, someone who could help him, stop him, tackle him to the ground and make him stop playing.
There was a figure. Seated in the front row. Dapper in his silk suit, still wearing his hat.
“Please!” Dave howled. “Let me stop!”
“Now, Dave, why would I do that?” the well-dressed man said over the music. “I told you I love to be entertained.”
Dave’s whole jelled body began to quake. He had no control, yet he kept playing. He never would, he realized. There had been no concert, no award. He’d never spoken to anyone at the venue. When he’d gotten into that limo, it had transported him, but not to the auditorium.
“Entertain me, Dave,” the well-dressed man said. He smiled. “I want one hell of a show, you hear?”
Another Drawtober story, this one a little shorter, and creepier, than the last. Here's the inspirational drawing.
When I was a very small child, it never occurred to me to wonder why my mother drew the drapes — heavy, black lengths of cloth that fell to the floor in puddles — over every window of the house every night. Nor did I question why I had to be indoors long before dark, long before the other children. I would sit at the kitchen table, spooning mother’s hearty stew into my mouth, and listen to the other children of our town laugh and shout as they played outside. I longed to go to the window to watch them, but the drapes were already drawn.
At age eight, I finally asked.
Then came the stories of a gang of madmen who had roamed the countryside looking for families reckless enough to leave their windows open. The men would creep through villages, their knives concealed inside their clothes, until they came upon a house where the curtains had been left withdrawn, the window open the tiniest crack. Once inside — my mother shook her head.
They did awful deeds.
And then they would vanish into the night, wiping the blades of their knives on their thighs, leaving streaks of red that looked black in the moonlight.
But this was a word I had never heard. Moonlight?
There is an orb, she said, much like the sun, which illuminates the sky at night. But the light which emanates from this orb is different. Dangerous.
We lived at the end of the village road, on the edge of the great wood. By day, I would stand at the window and watch the trees for sign of the men. Somehow, despite their reputation, I did not fear them. Instead, I was fascinated by them — by the way they roamed the earth, homeless yet resourceful, and by their comradeship. I had no friends. No siblings. Father had left the night I was born.
I was fascinated, too, by moonlight. I murmured the word as I tipped the bowl and drank the dregs of the stew’s thick red broth.
By day, I did my chores and played with the neighbor children until their mothers told them to come inside. I heard them scold their children and couldn’t understand why. After a time, the neighbors wouldn’t play with me anymore.
I gathered our chickens’ eggs and harvested the last of the potatoes. I milked our goats, then watched as mother slit the throat of the oldest one, drained it and collected the blood in a bucket. I asked what she did with the blood, but she didn’t answer.
I drew a curtain back the tiniest bit and looked for the madmen with their knives and dark purpose.
Come away from there, mother said.
I dreamed of moonlight. I imagined standing outside in the middle of the night and the moon showering its light down upon me, and my skin glowing with it. When I woke, it was in darkness, until mother came and drew the curtains, and harsh sunlight poured itself into every corner and banished the shadows from every room.
I heard the clatter but I was not there to see it. I came running into the kitchen, where mother had been placing jars of the red stock she had canned onto the high shelves. But the ladder had fallen, and so had mother. Her head cocked at a strange angle. Her eyes open but unseeing.
Mother, I said.
I sat with her that day and into the night. At some point, I must have fallen asleep, for when I woke, I realized the curtains were open. There was no mother to close them, and I had not thought to do so.
Moonlight poured into the house from every window.
It drew me across the room. My hands against the glass, I gazed upon the great white orb in the sky, heavy with its own light. It painted everything in the yard with silver. Wanting to touch the light, I opened the window, reached out.
I began to change.
I felt my organs shift. My skin burned and tore. I shed the hair on my head, grew something matted and coarse to replace it. My teeth rearranged and sharpened themselves.
With the change in me, I felt an insatiable hunger. I do not remember deciding to run across the grass and into the street. I do not remember coming upon the home of a girl I’d once considered a friend, or peering into her window. Discovering that her mother had neglected to close the curtains completely. I worked my fingernail, now as long and sharp as the blade of a knife, under the window frame.
I left only minutes later. Dropped from the open window, sated now, my stomach no longer gnawing at me. I wiped my long claws against my thigh, leaving bloodstains that looked black in the moonlight.
Funnily enough, I wrote this story to go along with the illustration at the top of the page. Then, twenty-six days later, Bryce — who had no idea I was writing these stories at the time — drew this for Drawtober Day 30:
If this Drawtober story were a T.V. show, it would be an episode of The Twilight Zone. Here's the drawing that inspired it.
Sheffield tossed the iPad onto Danny’s desk. It clattered across the surface, and Danny winced. He didn’t know how much an iPad like this one cost, but he knew he couldn’t afford one.
“What the fuck is this supposed to be?”
Danny glanced at the screen before it went dark.
“What you asked for,” he said. “Bears.”
“I asked for photorealistic bears that also look cuddly and appealing to children,” Sheffield said. “And you gave me monsters!”
“They’re not monsters…”
But a swipe of the screen told Danny that it had happened again. He’d drawn something without realizing it. The bears — which were to be the stars of Pixel Entertainment’s newest short film, Grin and Bear It — had started out fitting the description Sheffield had emailed that morning. Danny had drawn Papa Bear as an overstuffed grizzly with a dopey grin; Mama was his match, with eyelashes and a softer, more feminine face. The kids were roly-poly black bears, and their neighbor, an adorable panda. Danny was especially proud of Petey Panda. Once the film hit theaters — attached to Pixel Entertainment’s feature film, Sideways Sam — he knew that the stuffed version of Petey would sell like hotcakes.
But not this version of Petey. This version of Petey had fangs. Instead of front paws, he had mechanical claws, and one eye had been replaced with a metal eyepatch capable of firing a laser. He was half bear, half machine — a steampunk bear. Truth was, he looked kind of cool.
The rest of the bears had their own problems. Papa Bear peered from the screen with clouded eyes, his fur a white shroud; he looked like some sort of ursine sorcerer. Mama’s fur was gone completely, replaced by a coat of live rabbits that hung over a bear skeleton. And the bear kids? Danny didn’t think America’s parents would be too happy about their kids seeing a short film about zombie cannibal bears.
“Shit,” he muttered.
“‘Shit’ is right, my friend,” Sheffield said. He dropped into the chair on the other side of Danny’s desk. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s gotta stop. What were you thinking?”
Truth was, Danny hadn’t been thinking. It happened every time he picked up his stylus and began to draw. At first, he felt in control, knew exactly what lines to put down, where to shade, how to make the pictures he saw in his head come to life. As he worked, though, he always fell into a sort of trance. This was what flow was like, he’d learned from his favorite art teacher. That moment when you no longer felt in control, and the thing you were creating just flowed through you, like a gift from the muses. Inspiration came straight from them, bypassed your brain, coursed through your hand and onto the page. Or iPad screen.
It was when that flow took over, though, that Danny got into trouble. He couldn’t seem to control what happened when he was under that spell. But surely he hadn’t emailed these bears gone wrong to Sheffield? That was career suicide.
“…career suicide,” Sheffield was saying. “It’s not just your reputation on the line, here, kid.”
Danny tried not to resent Sheffield calling him “kid,” and failed. After all, they’d gone to school together. In the same grade. There was a time Danny had called him “Joey,” not Mr. Sheffield. Just because Joey “Fartface” Sheffield’s daddy owned the country’s most successful independent animation studio — something Joseph Senior had actually earned with his own talent and hard work — Joey Fartface had landed a position as lead animator, despite a monumental lack of real ability and exactly zero imagination. He’d kept his position by farming out the most difficult jobs to his underlings. Guys like Danny, in particular, who had actual skill and an expansive imagination.
Still. Danny wouldn’t have taken the job if he hadn’t needed it. If it wasn’t at least a foot in the door. He wouldn’t work for Sheffield forever. Already, the higher-ups had started to take notice of him, even despite Sheffield’s attempts to take credit for Danny’s work. Why, Joseph Senior himself had stopped by Danny’s cube only a week ago to compliment him on the robot character he’d developed. Said it showed that Danny had “real imagination.” Joey Fartface had deemed the robot “too scary” for kids, so Danny had no clue how Joseph Senior had ended up seeing it. But he’d liked it; that’s what mattered.
“…even listening?” Fartface Sheffield was saying. “I’m going to do the generous thing here, Danny-boy — ”
Danny stabbed a sharpened pencil into his own thigh to keep himself from telling Sheffield to fuck off.
“ — and give you one more chance. Because like I said, I’m the one who got you this job, and I’m lead animator. So it’s my hide that’s gonna get tanned if I have to bring Psycho Bears to the table tomorrow. Do it again, and do it right this time.”
“Joe — Mr. Sheffield, I mean.” Danny grimaced. “It’s already after five. I told my kids I wouldn’t be late tonight.”
“Should’ve thought of that before you drew this garbage.” Sheffield was already out the door, his words fired back over his shoulder. “Do it again.”
So Danny did it again, after the phone call home. After the explanations and apologies. He could hear his kids in the background, giggling, playing. He’d been planning on drawing with them tonight — his favorite kind of drawing, when the kids would scribble a shape, and then Danny would create something from that shape. Those drawings, he never lost control of. Those drawings flowed, too, but not like the stuff he came up with for Pixel.
He drew the Bear family again. Drew the friend, Petey. Drew their neighbor, ungainly Mr. Moose. They all started out right, but they ended wrong. Who wanted bears with horns? A panda with the scaly wings of a dragon? Who wanted a moose that looked like a monster from another dimension altogether?
Danny’s cell phone buzzed, and he glanced at the clock as he answered. Midnight? Shit.
“You missed bedtime again,” his wife said.
“I’m sorry, I really am.” Danny swiped the Bears and their friends away. Mindlessly sketched as he talked with his wife. “I didn’t realize the time.”
“I know you said you were going to be late, but Danny — this is nuts. You’re not a surgeon or a firefighter.”
He drew a bulbous head with one great eye. Tentacles.
“I don’t get why you let that Fartface guy push you around.”
“I told you, Annie. He’s my boss.”
The octopus took shape on the screen almost independent of his hand.
“It just doesn’t seem worth putting up with so much bullshit. Especially when you’re the one with the real talent. What did Sheffield Senior say? That imagination like yours is what started Pixel in the first place?”
The suckers on each tentacle were huge, almost like giant mouths themselves.
“Listen, I’m leaving now, okay?” Danny said. “Be home in twenty.”
He stood and pocketed his phone. On the iPad screen, his octopus glared up at him, covered in neon zebra stripes.
Danny shook his head. “What’s wrong with me? Some imagination.”
He tapped the screen dark and left his cubicle. If he drove fast, he could be home in ten.
The next morning, Danny arrived to discover the flashing lights of several squad cars reflecting off the exterior of the Pixel Entertainment building.
“What’s going on?” he asked the receptionist.
She shook her head. “I’m not sure.” Then lowered her voice. “They say it’s Mr. Sheffield.”
Danny grimaced and hurried down to his cubicle. But his cube was blocked by a crowd of suits and uniforms.
He tapped one of the officers on the shoulder.
“Excuse me. This is my cube?”
“You’re — ” The officer glanced at his notepad. “ — Daniel Wong?”
“Any idea what Joseph Sheffield, Junior, might have been doing at your desk last night between one a.m. and three a.m.?”
“What? No. What’s going on?”
He pushed his way past the officer to find Sheffield Senior in a corner, holding his head and surrounded by secretaries and more police. Plainclothes detectives swarmed his cube, each of them careful to step around the body in the floor: Joey “Fartface” Sheffield, his face a purple-blue shade that only an absence of oxygen could account for, his neck wearing a red ring of welts.
“This him, Mr. Sheffield?” asked the officer Danny had just spoken with.
“Yes, yes,” Joseph Senior said. “It’s just awful, Daniel. My son — it seems you were the last to speak with him?”
“I guess I must have been. I left around midnight — ”
Joseph Senior waved a hand. “Yes, there’s no concern that you — the security cameras show you leaving at midnight, just as you say. It’s just — ”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Sheffield.”
“Listen, son.” Joseph Senior took him by the shoulder. “We’ll need someone to take over Joey’s projects. Immediately. I know, given the circumstances, it’s asking a lot of you. But you’re the only animator I can think of who would be up to the task. Are you?”
“Uh — oh. Yes,” Danny said. “Yes. Thank you — thank you for the opportunity, sir.”
The officer gestured to Danny. “This is technically an active crime scene, but I know it’s also your office. You want to gather up whatever you need and see if you can find another space to work?”
Danny grabbed his essentials and let himself be led down the hall — to Joey Sheffield’s office, it turned out. He let the secretary who’d shown him there close the door, then let out a trembling sigh. It was too much. It was awful. And yet —
“No more Fartface,” he murmured as he swiped his iPad’s screen.
His stomach dropped.
There was his octopus, its huge tentacles curled beneath it. Its silly neon stripes practically glowing on the screen. It gazed out at him with one huge, knowing eye. But it wasn’t the octopus he’d drawn — it wasn’t in the same position he’d drawn it. He swiped away from the screen and found the Bear Family, their moose neighbor, earlier drafts of the Bears, the robot Mr. Sheffield had liked so much. There was no other octopus. Just the one he’d drawn. Yet not the one he’d drawn.
He thought of Sheffield’s purple-blue face. The welts on his neck, just the size and shape of —
“No,” Danny said to the screen. “Impossible.”
The octopus on the screen dropped its eyelid. Gave him a wink.
Here's the very first Drawtober story I wrote, along with the picture that inspired it. The prompt for the drawing, "A Medieval robot, along with its operator," helped set the tone.
One hundred turns of the handle. By the time he was finished, his legs trembled beneath him and his breath came in short, wheezing gasps. Merek lowered himself from the platform and gazed up at what he had created: a man. A sort of man, hewn of wood, bolted and wired together, carved by his own hand. Crude, but magnificent.
Merek nodded, satisfied.
“Come,” he said to the wooden man.
The wooden man wore the pack Merek had prepared, while Merek carried a rucksack and leaned on his walking stick. At the edge of his modest property, which was marked by a small stone upon a larger stone, Merek looked back, once.
One hundred turns of the handle would power the wooden man through one entire day. The wooden man easily kept pace with Merek as they moved across the fallow field, toward the village.
At the end of the first day, they camped. In the morning, Merek hoisted himself into the low branches of a small tree and cranked: one hundred times.
They detoured around the village, a longer route but necessary. Merek did not want to be stopped or questioned about his companion.
On the third day, he looked back. He could no longer see his home and wondered if he was making a mistake. In sixty-three years, he had never left. He’d been born there, grew up there, learned his trade. Took care of his father and buried him under the willow tree when old age took him. Merek had married his love young, and they had shared his home. She was gone now, too. Had taken with her the children they never had, ghosts of their own hopes. Still, it had been a happy place. At night, after the sheep were in their pen and the work of the day was done, he would take out his knife and carve by the fire, while his wife knitted and sang. Curls of wood fell onto the floor. He held up the object he had made.
“A bird!” his wife said, delighted.
He placed it in her hand and she fingered the handle.
“Turn it,” he said.
She did so, counting under her breath. “…ninety-nine, one hundred.”
The bird flapped its wings, turned its head to and fro. Its tiny beak opened and closed.
“It’s brilliant!” she exclaimed. “Will it sing?”
Merek shook his head. “It has no tongue,” he explained.
“Then I shall sing for it.”
And she did, her lovely voice warmer than the flames that blazed in the fireplace.
He made other birds. He made a furless dog, able to wag its tail but unable to bark. He carved creatures no one had ever seen, and they roamed the yard until they wound down, and then Merek turned their handles again — one hundred turns for each.
He never showed her the child he made. Instead, unable to bring himself to disassemble it, he left in the night and buried it in the center of the fairy ring that sprouted each spring, out by the willow tree where his father rested.
Now, Merek pulled himself onto the top of a fence. Balanced as he turned the wooden man’s handle.
They walked side by side. They crossed the river, Merek riding the wooden man’s shoulders. At night, under the stars, when Merek grew cold, he drew the arms of the wooden man around him.
He crawled onto a boulder and turned the handle. Once finished, he sat at the base of the rock, breathing heavily. Regaining his strength.
He dreamed of his wife. Of her laughter, often heard, as sweet as her singing voice. Of her body, warm against his in the bed they’d shared for more than forty-five years.
In the foothills, as they climbed, Merek’s walking stick broke. He took the wooden man’s hand and continued to climb.
The rain came, and Merek sat beneath a tree to wait out the storm. He fished in his rucksack and found the oil can he’d brought along, and when the sun returned, he oiled the wires and bolts that held together the wooden man’s joints.
Higher up, the air grew thin. Merek labored for breath. He ate the last of the bread he had packed, drank the last of the water. Above the treeline, the mountain was covered in scrub brush and stones. No trees to climb, no fences upon which to balance. He moved slowly, hunched over, and slowly gathered stones. Piled them. Wobbled as he turned the handle. “…ninety-nine, one hundred.”
Together, they climbed.
Sometimes when the wind picked up, he heard her voice, singing.
On the fifth or sixth day, Merek stumbled. His legs were finished. His stomach moaned, the sound of a wind blowing through a hollow tree.
The wooden man lowered itself to the ground, its handle turning more and more slowly, until it stopped.
“We are finished,” Merek said.
He fell asleep dreaming of the mountaintop.
In the morning, he found himself floating. Hovering several feet above the ground. He opened his eyes and discovered that he was being carried in the arms of the wooden man. Its joints creaked as it walked. Its face and shoulders were chipped, its body weathered from the journey. Its handle turned, and somehow, the wooden man climbed.
Merek drifted to sleep as he was carried, lulled by the gentle movement of the wooden man. He dreamed of a giant wooden man, even larger than the one he had made, one whose strides spanned whole cities, whose arms could carry entire families.
He woke when the wooden man stopped. It had finally happened — the handle had stopped turning, and the wooden man would move no further. Merek steeled himself, searched inside himself for the strength he would need to drop to the ground, gather stones, climb them, and turn the handle again. He searched, but could not find it. He had no strength left.
He opened his eyes. They had reached the top of the mountain.
Merek gazed out from the pinnacle. It was a clear day, the afternoon sun blazing. He could see everything. The forest where he and the wooden man had gotten briefly lost, where he had played as a child. The river they had crossed. The village they had bypassed — Merek had sold his sheep’s fur there, had bought flour and sugar and a scarf he knew would please his wife. His own home, a tiny speck. The land he had tended all his life. The place where his wife was buried, not far from his father, not far from the child he had made.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice barely a rasp. “Thank you,” he told the wooden man.
The sun began to set. A gentle wind rose. Merek’s eyelids fluttered, and he struggled to keep them open, to keep his gaze on the rivers and trees and village and home. Shadows on the mountaintop grew longer as the swollen sun sank lower.
Merek rested in the arms of the wooden man. He heard singing. The wind had died and carried no tune, and there were no birds at this altitude. Yet he heard it: a wandering melody, punctuated by a faint creaking, as if the wires and bolts of the singer’s jaws were rusted, as if the singer himself had never before given voice to the song inside him.
The sun dipped behind the mountain, and the people in the village below lit their fires.
Last year, my friend Bryce participated in Drawtober, a Deviant Art challenge to draw something new, based upon a prompt, every day in October. Unbeknownst to him, I decided to participate in my own challenge: to write a story about every picture Bryce drew. But then I got a book agent (yay!) and suddenly all my writing activity focused on the revision of my novel, and like so many writing projects, "Write-tober" (ugh, not a good name) had to die. But I had a lot of fun writing the few stories I managed, and looking back at them, some are kinda nice. So I thought I'd stick 'em here on the blog, in no particular order, over the next couple weeks. Here's the first one. And here's the drawing that inspired the story.
They’d heard about this day.
“There goes another one.”
“There. Building on the corner, window on the tenth floor. Where Buddy likes to sleep?”
There’d always been rumors. End of times. Loss of power grid. Riots, chaos. Mass hysteria. Like the movie said, Dogs and cats, living together. As if.
“You think Buddy’s okay?”
“He knows the drill.”
One by one, the lights of the city went out. They watched it all from their window.
A quick glance over the shoulder. Doug hadn’t moved in at least twenty minutes. His phone, still lit — he never remembered to set it to Power Save Mode, even in times like this — showed the last number he’d tried to call: 911.
Another light flickered, went out.
“That’s Slinky’s place.”
“That lucky bastard. You ever seen the size of his lady? He’ll be in hog heaven.”
“You are so insensitive.”
“Oh, come on. Like you haven’t had the same thought. Meanwhile, here we are, living with the world’s most committed runner. Nothing but muscle.”
They perched on the sill until the last light went out and the entire city was plunged into darkness. Still, they had no trouble making out shapes in the darkness.
“Well, that’s it. Next the riots begin.”
“They’ll do each other in and leave nothing.”
“Just like our parents warned us.”
The phone went dark.
“I could eat.”
They leaped from the sill. They’d known Doug all their lives, but still, it never paid not to be cautious. He was changed now; he no longer walked, or talked, or sat on the couch yelling at the television. They approached one step at a time, their backs low, shoulders hunched. Sniffed.
“Where do you want to start?”
“I’ve heard the eyes and cheeks are good and soft.”
Later, they licked their paws clean.
“You were right. That was much better than the dry food.”
“I’m so stuffed, I could take a nap.”
And while the riots began and the world below their twentieth floor apartment tore itself apart, that’s exactly what they did.
How the comfort of a familiar voice opens the door to uncomfortable ideas
Yesterday, had the driver in the car next to mine glanced to his left, he would have seen me talking. He might have assumed I was talking to myself or, if he was in a generous mood, maybe he figured I was on a hands-free call. Wrong on both counts, pal. I was talking to Slate's Julia Turner.
Of course, Julia didn't know that. Julia might as well be my imaginary friend. So might Julia's cohosts, Dana Stevens and Stephen Turner. So might Sarah Koenig, and Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson, and Phoebe Judge, and Ira Glass, and Dave Cole, Tara Ariano, and Sarah D. Bunting, and Linda Holmes, and Karina Longworth...You get the point. There are a lot of voices in my head.
That statement becomes a lot less crazy-sounding when I clarify that those voices all come from podcasts. I listen to a handful (read: an unmanageable number that grows daily), and I often find myself talking back to them, despite the fact that the hosts obviously can't hear me. I do this not because I love to hear the sound of my own voice, but because I actually feel like I'm talking to a friend.
Plenty has been written about the intimacy of podcasts, the trust it creates in listeners, and the way a podcast, more than any other medium, can make you feel like if you ever see randomly see Kevin T. Porter walking down the street, it totally won't be weird if you run up to him like you're old friends and ask him if Kelly Bishop smells like autumn, the way you imagine. It's not just that podcast hosts -- their voices, their quirks, their tastes -- become familiar to you over thousands of hours of listening. It's that you really are engaging in a collaborative effort.
Abumrad, the Radiolab host, has himself observed that, in the absence of visual information, when he describes something to listeners on the radio, “In a sense, I’m painting something but I’m not holding the paintbrush. You are. So it’s this deep act of co-authorship, and in that is some potential for empathy.”
No wonder I feel compelled to talk back at Julia Turner when I listen to the Culture Gabfest. We're in this together, man.
What compelled me to yap at Julia this time was a segment of the Gabfest's December 30th episode. The hosts were talking about podcasting as a form and referring to Weiner's piece, where he gets into that idea of comfort as one of the defining features of podcasts' popularity. Here's Julia's summary:
Julia Turner: You get these kind of little cadences and rhythms and this repeat relationship that is fundamentally comforting. And [Weiner] raised the question at the end of his essay about what it means for a form, a critical form or an artistic form or a media form to be fundamentally -- have that comfort laced within it, and does that mean that it would be more difficult within the form to raise challenging ideas or to kind of confront or surprise the listener in interesting ways.
I had to pause the episode then to think through my response. Because my immediate reaction was, "No way, man." In fact, I think it's the comfort that podcasts offer that makes them exactly the right medium through which to confront challenging or uncomfortable ideas.
(This is about when I started talking out loud, as if Julia -- and, by extension, Jonah -- were in the car with me.)
It's like this: If I'm about to head down a dark alley in a strange city at night, I'm not going to take the hand offered by some stranger. I'm going to take the hand of a trusted friend and let her lead the way. Podcasting is the same: The fact that I trust the hosts makes me more willing to explore ideas I might normally shy away from.
I am a solidly middle class white woman from the Midwest who lives in Anchorage -- which is another way of saying that I'm not forced to confront racial inequality on a daily basis. That shit is uncomfortable as hell to get into; I'm afraid I'll say something stupid or realize I hold a terrible preconception or have an ignorant reaction. But I have been listening to Another Round's Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton long enough to know that their rapid-fire questions round is called "Pew, Pew, Pew" (just make a space-gun sound when you read it) and that I'd better not profess a love of squirrels if I ever meet one of these women. Suddenly, because I feel like I know Heben and Tracy, and because I like and trust them, it gets a whole lot easier to confront and think about race.
It's true across the board. When I listen to Reply All and hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt say they're going to talk about how computers work -- a subject about which I could normally give exactly zero craps -- I don't hit "skip." I stick around and listen because I know ("know") these guys well enough to trust that they're going to take me on an incredible audio adventure. (They did.)
In the movies, it's always some strange wizard or time traveler or Hagrid who says, "Come with me on a great adventure!" But for real: If that happened IRL, you'd be like, "A) Are you a rapist or serial killer? and b) Homeland is on in like five minute and also I DO NOT KNOW YOU." In real life, it's the people you trust that you're willing to follow some place unfamiliar or scary.
I think this is why it's so hard for me to get into a new podcast. I'm uncomfortable with people I don't already know and trust. Or, as Weiner puts it in his essay, "In a podcast, the moment we lose faith in our guide, it becomes increasingly excruciating to keep listening — intimacy curdles into invasiveness." If that faith's not even there in the first place? It's super hard to get on board with the automatic intimacy podcasts offer.
My friend and fellow podcastophile (there's got to be a better word for that, right?) Mara raved to me about Gilmore Guys, but when I tried to listen to the first couple episodes, my reaction was, "I can't with this." Part of that was the shaggy nature of a brand-new podcast; GG hadn't quite figured out its own rhythms early on. But the real problem was I didn't know these dudes. We didn't share any jokes, I didn't know what they found funny or sad, I wasn't familiar with the rhythm of the show or the rapport between Kevin Porter and Demi Adejuyigbe.
When I told Mara this, she encouraged me to skip a few early episodes and give the show a second chance. Now, 522 episodes in, I recite the intro to "Pop Goes the Cul-ture" with the hosts every time; I, too, believe Bishop is Queen; and I've developed a slightly inappropriate crush on Demi. It took a little time, but eventually the trust grew because I found the comfort a familiar podcast can offer.
In the Slate Plus version of his article, Weiner includes an addendum in which he remarks:
Still, I don’t know of any truly experimental or avant-garde podcast — the kind of off-kilter gem you might have once stumbled upon at 2 a.m. on a local free-form station, or, indeed, on public-access television — where part of the experience of listening is to be knocked askew, assaulted, and otherwise disturbed, even as you’re enthralled. This connects to the earlier point about the role of empathic connection in the medium: Podcasts, by and large, establish a relationship marked by comfort.
Weiner might not know of any avent-garde podcasts, but the comfortable relationship and capacity for empathy are exactly the qualities that would make podcasting the perfect medium in which to try a show like that -- because those very qualities are what would turn listeners into willing participants in the experiment.
Ah, that glorious time of year when best-of lists abound! I even made one. What could possibly be better than talking about the best? Nice surprises, that's what. It's super exciting when I get to run out to the bookstore, say, and pick up a much-anticipated new novel. But it's even more exciting -- and amazing, and kind of touching -- when someone else does that for me. The pleasant, unexpected thing is kind of the best.
This year was chock full of pleasant surprises when it comes to pop culture -- the kind of stuff that makes me go, "Awww, yeah, I loved that!" when I think of it. Here are some of the things that might not have necessarily made a best-of-2015-T.V. or Top Movies of This Year list, had I made one, but nevertheless brought me great joy.
iZombie: To be able to change one's mind is a wonderful thing. When I first saw promos for the CW's new show iZombie, I thought it looked like a dumb show trying to smoosh two popular television standbys (zombies and procedurals) to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Boy, was I wrong. From the creators of Veronica Mars, iZombie features the same snappy dialogue as its predecessor, along with the same bubblegum exterior barely concealing darker concerns. Both the characters and the actors portraying them are infinitely appealing (particularly Rose McIver as the titular zombie Liv Moore [I know] and Rahul Kohli as her medical examiner buddy, Ravi Chakrabarti). Every week, this is the first television show I want to catch up with. (Also, it's got a pretty killer credit sequence.)
Gilmore Guys podcast: Some things take a little warming-up-to. For me, Gilmore Guys was one of those things; I didn't get into the first couple of episodes, possibly because the hosts of the podcast, Kevin Porter and Demi Adejuyigbe, hadn't quite found their groove yet. But a second try got me hooked, and now I binge-listen to the two guys recapping episodes of Gilmore Girls with the help of a different guest each episode. As a bonus, I'm pretty sure Kevin and Demi single-handedly brought about the upcoming new season of Gilmore Girls, no matter how adamantly they insist otherwise.
Quality horror: The Babadook, It Follows, The Visit, and Krampus. Holy Krampus, has this been a fantastic year for horror movie fans! The Babadook and It Follows delivered with legit scares paired with thoughtful explorations of grief and sexual trauma, respectively. Then M. Night Shyamalan pulled his own head out of his ass, kept to the writer-director's chair (instead of sneaking into the actor's trailer) and delivered laughs and frights with The Visit. And, just in time for Christmas, we got the wicked ghoul-fest, Krampus, a delightfully nasty, Gremlins-esque holiday horror. Clearly, Santa decided that I was at least halfway decent this year.
Hamilton: Hey, you guys! Have you heard about this cool new musical, Hamilton? Probably not, right? Ugh, I am so not cutting edge. Earlier this year I polled my Facebook friends for new running music, and one of them suggested the Hamilton cast album. "Please," I scoffed. "I can't run to Broadway tunes. What will happen when I get to the inevitable sad ballad." Well, apologies are due to Anna Whiteside because six months later, I'm eating my words. Actually, I'm garbling my words as I try to keep up with the rap and hip-hop rhythms of Lin-Manuel Miranda's ear-wormy musical -- which is, as it turns out, actually great to run to. What I really love about this show -- in addition to the music itself -- is the way it takes this big, abstract concept (creating a nation) and humanizes it through the characters, their relationships, and their own ambitions.
Rufus Wainwright in Anchorage: Living in Alaska has its drawbacks, most of them tolerable. But one of the big bummers is that not a lot of musical acts decide to take their tours this far north. This year, though, I got two see two pretty fantastic shows. First, Garfunkel and Oates played at the University of Alaska. No offense to those funny ladies, but the second show I got to see could never be topped: Rufus Wainwright came to Anchorage! The venue was kind of intimate, the seats were actually fantastic, and he played most of my favorite songs when he wasn't complaining about the "tassels" on his mountain-man-type shirt.
Blackish: I don't know why I just generally don't watch half-hour comedies. After Parks and Recreation ended, I wasn't sure I'd be including any non-animated comedies on my DVR roster (Bob's Burgers would have made this "pleasant surprises" list, except that I was pleasantly surprised by it about two years ago.) But nothing consistently makes me laugh as hard as Blackish, which has a crazily stacked, hilarious cast -- including four child actors I actually don't hate.
The "Pandering" article: You know when someone writes something, and you read it, and you go, "Damn, this woman is expressing everything I feel at this very moment in time"? Claire Vaye Watkins's "On Pandering" is that, except I only felt that way about 50 percent of the article; the other 50 percent made me go, "Oh, I need to be more aware of this kind of thing and pay attention to it and think about it all the time."
A Dark Room: I'm only not a gamer because I didn't get into gaming early on and now I feel like an old dog that just does not have time to learn new tricks that require you to press a combination of A+Up+Right+Right+C. Which is why A Dark Room is perfect for me: It's a completely text-based game that has you gathering fire wood and building traps and wondering what those the strange creatures are that keep stealing your bait. The less you know going into A Dark Room, the better, because the game unfolds like a story as you continue to steadily work and make discoveries.
The cats and cucumbers viral video: I don't understand why it's funny. And yet IT IS.
RuVealed: This was year I discovered America's actual greatest top model show, RuPaul's Drag Race, which is excellent on its own. But I've gotten a lot of joy out of watching RuVealed on Logo, which is just a re-airing of old seasons, with the addition of RuPaul providing commentary, Pop Up Video-style. I love how Ru loves a cheesy joke.
The Shining Girls and Fates and Furies: Both these books made my Top Whatever list this year, but these are the two that really surprised me. I figured both would be good, but I wasn't prepared for how much I would love them.
Limetown: Billed as "Serial, but fiction," Limetown is a story told episode by episode, in the guise of an NPR-type longform investigation. Its host, Lea Haddock, tries to find answers to the mysteries surrounding a small town whose entire population vanished. While later episodes didn't hold up quite as well as the early ones, I still looked forward to each new installment and really loved hearing the story unfold.
TheBillfold's "How Gilmore Girls Do Money" posts: I'm not normally a fan-fic reader, but I've been loving Nicole Dieker's "How Gilmore Girls Do Money" posts, which imagine each character years after the show's end and how their financial situations impact, or are impacted by, their lives now.
Marvel's Jessica Jones: Now that I've finished the new Netflix series, it's hard to remember a time when this show wasn't a sure-fire hit for me. But my history with superheroes is this: I like them at the movies, not so much on my T.V. I tried Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and couldn't get into it; I really liked Marvel's Agent Carter (particularly Hayley Atwell's performance), but it got lost on my DVR and I never bothered to return to it after the first two episodes. But Jessica feels like an altogether different creature, and I love it. Can't wait for season 2 -- and in the meantime, it actually convinced me to give Daredevil a try.
Pocket: No I will never stop trying to make Pocket happen. I just won't. Because it's amazing. It's the simplest thing on earth, and yet it has changed how (and when) I read things on the internet. Just download it. Do it.
Pontypool: The very definition of a pleasant surprise, since I knew nothing about this movie before watching it, as I chronicled here.
The "It's Going to Be Okay" post from The Oatmeal: Imagine you're having a bad day. Then imagine you read this. Yeah. Everything's going to be okay.
Friday Night Lights: I KNOW. It took me a really long time to finally watch FNL. I think I actually started watching the show with my friend, Sara, earlier than 2015, but we finished up this year. And even though I'd heard from every T.V. critic in the world how great this show was and how it wasn't really about football, I was still surprised at how much I came to love Dillon, Texas, Coach and Mrs. Coach, the Dillon Panthers and the East Dillon Lions, Matt and Street and Tyra and Vince and Tim Riggins. And Lance! The motto might be "clear eyes," but mine were pretty misty by the time the last end credits rolled. (This piece on Vulture, which describes how the kids on the show were cast, was also a nice surprise.)
"What the Flula?!": Game of Thrones is a pretty incredible show. But this might actually be more incredible.
MST3K anticipation: We won't get the new episodes until next year, but the massive success of the Kickstarter campaign means we get fourteen to look forward to -- with Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the Mads.
Adventures at the movieplex: Everest and The Martian. Seeing The Martian may have been one of the funnest times I had at the movies this year; seeing Everest might have been one of the most sweat-inducing.
What We Do in the Shadows: Mockumentaries are a little played out, so maybe I can be forgiven for not expecting too much out of this goofy remedy to another played-out trope: vampires. Shadows has quickly become the kind of movie my friends and I can put on the T.V. as "background noise," then quickly succumb to, spending the rest of the evening asking each other if we would "like some basghetti."
More Black Mirror is coming!: Black Mirror might be the best show that virtually no one else I know seems to know about. But you've got time to catch up on this British answer to The Twilight Zone -- the original run is just six episodes, all of which are available on Netflix. And then, after you've become completely dazzled and shocked by the series, you can thank Netflix for reviving the show for another 12 episodes, which should hit the internet sometime in 2016. (There may actually be nothing in this world that can top the very first episode of Black Mirror -- another viewing experience you should try to have without knowing anything about it beforehand, by the way -- but I'm anxious for the new episodes to give it their best try.)
I have mentioned how writing can actually make you less literate, sometimes; sad, but true. But I did manage to sneak some reading in here and there this year. According to LibraryThing, where I keep track of my yearly reading adventures, I managed to finish 27 books this year -- everything from a collection of Sedaris essays to a trilogy that makes getting lost on Lost look like a trip to Disneyland, from Oliver Sacks's final memoir to the worst thing I read all year (made all the more disappointing by all the reviews I read that proclaimed it super scary and un-put-down-able; I did not find it to be either of these things). But why dwell on the unpleasant? I know the year isn't quite up, and that a week spent visiting my parents will mean that I probably manage to knock back at least a couple more novels. In the meantime, though, I've been thinking about some of the books I got to read this year, so now seems like as good a time as any. Here's the best of the best on my 2015 reading list:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My year got off to a great start once I caught up with everyone else by reading Station Eleven and realizing how brilliant it is. This is exactly the kind of fiction I yearn for: It has elements of genre (post-apocalypse fiction, in this case) but it also leans "literary," with lovely prose and complicated characters and themes that go deeper than just "oh, shit, the end of the world!" Much of the book is really about the bits and pieces of individual lives, how they intersect, and how individuals create (or recreate) community.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
"Modern twist on a fairy tale" is not an automatic for me. I'm not really into fairy tales, and the idea of taking one and reinterpreting it in whatever way seems interesting, but not necessarily like required reading. But Boy, Snow, Bird -- a sort of reimagining of the Snow White fairy tale -- is phenomenal. Oyeyemi uses motifs from the fairy tale to tell a story that goes beyond female beauty or what it means to be wicked and explores mother-daughter relationships, race, and feminism. The main character, Boy, is a complicated and often difficult character, and both her daughter and stepdaughter become variations of her but also confront her with creatures very different than herself.
Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own by Kate Bolick
As an affirmed spinster myself, it's nice to see one's own life choice validated. Spinster strikes the perfect balance between personal memoir and historical research and builds a bridge between the two as Bolic adopts her five "awakeners," those women who represent a steadfast determination to make lives of their own. There's something about Bolick's voice, too, that I find intimate and frank, funny and headstrong. At first, I was the teeniest bit put off by the fact that neither Bolick nor most of the women she examines are single in the strictest terms -- Bolick has had a series of romances, while four out of five of her women married at some point (some of them more than once) in their lives. But I changed my mind when Bolick ended her book by transforming the idea of singlehood: It's not determined by the status of your relationships, she asserts, but by your determination to live a singular life in which you are the one in control, deciding your own fate.
Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman
This is actually a re-read; I first read Zinoman's treatise on 1970s/80s horror when it was published in 2012. This time around, I realized why I like horror films from this era so much: The combination of a willingness to experiment and take risks on the part of the directors, paired with the limitations they faced in creating special effects, results in films that push the boundaries of what can be done in a horror movie while retaining a realism created by actors reacting to practical special effects. Zinoman's writing is lively and his research is thorough; reading about the movies he digs into is almost as fun as actually watching them.
On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
I have loved Oliver Sacks's insatiable curiosity and singular way of looking at and interpreting the world ever since I saw Awakenings. I've loved his contributions to Radiolab, and his last interview with Robert Krulwich for that podcast moved me to tears. The world is a little bleaker without Sacks in it, but he left us with a last, vibrant glimpse into his life, his loves, his adventures, and his ability to continue asking questions and see beyond a disorder or disease to the person, in every case.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
I mean, sometimes it takes me a really long time to get to the party. I'd heard about this book from every podcast I listen to, read about it a million times before I finally read it. I admit to being a bit of a snob: If everyone likes something, how can it possibly be that good? (That's why it took me so long to read Gone Girl, too.) As usual, Linda Holmes of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour finally convinced me, and I was not disappointed. Taut and twisty, smart and dark, The Girl on the Train is a revealing look at addiction and obsession that also serves as a great summer thriller (which is when I read it).
Flora by Gail Godwin
The plot of this book is maddeningly simple: Girl's father leaves her with seemingly naive aunt for the summer, girl experiences a coming-of-age, girl instigates a terrible incident that transforms everyone's lives. The what happens of Flora, though, is hardly the point. The interior lives of the characters and the way they intersect is the most compelling piece. Godwin nails an adolescent girl's simultaneous superiority and insecurity in Helen, while giving Flora enough of an edge -- hidden beneath layers and layers of what the character Finn would call "simple-heartedness" -- to make her interesting in a more-than-meets-the-eye way.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
This is the kind of book that makes a writer envious in the best possible way. It's so beautifully written and paints such a thorough, complicated, delicate portrait of the couple at its center, you almost ache with jealousy at Groff's achievement -- but knowing that managing something so well written is possible inspires you to keep striving to write your very best, too. It was a pleasure every time I opened the pages Fates and Furies and became engrossed with the story of Mathilde and Lotto, their marriage, and their separate experiences of it.
Into Thin Air by John Krakauer
I saw the movie Everest, based in part upon Krakauer's book, this year and thought that was about as intense as it could get. Then I read Into Thin Air and gave myself nightmares about falling off of narrow trails at high altitudes and freezing to death in the Himalayas. Still, I love a good adventure book. Sadly, the thrill (and thrall) of Everest is tempered by the knowledge that so many people -- more than just the ones in Krakauer's expedition -- have died on the mountain.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Time traveling serial killer. How has no one thought of this premise before?! To be honest, I'm glad they didn't because in Lauren Beukes's hands, the premise goes from being the pulpy cat-and-mouse chase through time it could have been and is instead refracted through the author's singular point of view, her examination of how a city changes (and doesn't change) over decades, and her desire to put the emphasis not on gratuitous violence but on the bright, shining lives of the female victims and the tenacity of the final Shining Girl. Also, it's a really captivating thriller.
Well, I fell short of my 20-scary-movies-in-31-days goal, but only by four days. Happily, that's due in part to a recent glut of freelance work and some other writing-related stuff. I'll give it the ole college try again next year. In the meantime, here's one for the road, and a belated happy Halloween! For my final Halloween-o-Thon entry, I decided to go light -- especially since I anticipated hitting pause repeatedly to run to the door with candy bowl and greetings for the hordes of trick-or-treaters. Turns out, my neighborhood is pretty thin on trick-or-treaters, and now I'm drowning in Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and mini Twixes. This is not the worst problem to have.
Somehow, I've never managed to see a single Final Desination movie. I was its target audience -- a horror-loving teenager in the year 2000 -- but managed not to succumb to the lure of Devon Sawa and a brunette Ali Larter. Now, as a hardened and embittered 36-year-old, I found the movie sufficiently cheesy. The movie's honestly got a weird mix of tones, at once earnest (mostly thanks to Sawa's performance as a kid determined to thwart an already-thwarted death) and hilarious (intentionally? unintentionally? The bus death and Seann William Scott's beheading were both laugh-out-loud moments for me) and a little tense (whatever its issues, the film does build little moments of anxiety pretty effectively).
Amazingly, it also manages to portray one startlingly human moment. Once a handful of French students dodge death, it starts stalking them one by one, beginning with poor Tod (Chad Donella), whose brother died in the plane crash he was also supposed to die in. Toilet water and the thinnest, wiriest shower curtain string conspire to strangle Tod, whose death will look to everyone else like a suicide.
It's a lengthy-ish sequence as Tod's feet slip and slide against the tub porcelain while he struggles to stand. His floundering lasts long enough for him to glance wildly around the room for a way to free himself. At a particular moment, his eyes dart to the left and he stares at something. The camera assumes his point of view for a moment, and we see what he's looking at: a couple of stuffed bath toys on a wicker shelf. The stare back at him with their blank eyes and silly grins. They don't offer any hope of escape, but the camera lingers on them a moment.
For all the movie's back-and-forth about death's design and who's going to die and who's going to live, this seemed to me like the moment that got to the heart of what it must be like to actually die violently. Tod is dying; there's nothing he can do about it. And in his last moments, he focuses on something completely useless and mundane. In that moment, I can imagine him thinking, Is this all there is? And the answer is yes, this is all there is. Life -- and death -- is violent and mundane, and also terrible and silly and wonderful and dumb and frustrating and exhilarating, all at the same time.
It was one real moment in an otherwise pretty goofy movie. And kind of a bummer of a note to end this post on. But hey -- fall back, people! Happy daylight savings time!
“That’s my favorite mountain in Illinois,” snickers Mike during a Mystery Science Theatre 2000 screening of Beginning of the End. The movie ostensibly takes place in fictional Ludlow, Illinois, and then in Chicago, but from the outset it’s clear that, as Mike later says, “Guys, this is so not Illinois.” Because of cost and other factors, plenty of movies (and television shows) shoot on sets or disguise one city as another, rather than actually contend with the headache of filming on location. Honestly, the evidence that pops up on screen to reveal that it’s, say, Toronto subbing for New York rarely distracts me. I don’t usually notice license plates or the fact that there’s a random palm tree sprouting on what’s supposed to be a Midwestern lawn. (The one time I did notice something was amiss was during an early episode of Orphan Black when Tatiana Maslany receives a huge pile of colorful Canadian money, and my U.S.-centric reaction was, “Seriously, they couldn’t get the props department to make something that at least looks like real money?”)
There’s a lot — a lot — I love about David Mitchell’s film It Follows; it may actually be my favorite movie of the year. The quiet tone; the unstoppability of the “monster” (which may be setting a new horror trend, according to Noel Murray); the performance of all the young actors, anchored by the astonishing Maika Monroe (who also had a completely badass Final Girl role in The Guest, a really fun and bloody film).
But the thing that really sticks with me every time I rewatch It Follows is its sense of timelessness. Like the best horror movies, this film could be taking place right now, in modern times, or in 1979 (a great year for horror films), or in a slightly off-kilter future — who knows? I feel like if I see this movie in another ten or twenty years, it’s still going to fell both contemporary and like a throwback. That’s due in great part to the props (clamshell eReader!), sets, and wardrobe, all of which manage to indicate no time period and every (modern) time period at the same time. But I also think Mitchell’s decision to film on location in Detroit plays a big part in the film’s simultaneous familiarity and strangeness.
I’ve never been to Detroit, but I’m from the Midwest. I don’t think you even have to hail from the center of the country, though, for the city and suburbs of It Follows to look simultaneously familiar and strange to you. These suburban homes and distant cityscapes are familiar enough from other movies we’ve seen. Yet the blight and ruin that permeates the setting lend an eerie atmosphere. Being in the world of It Follows is akin to landing on Mars and discovering a small town just like the one you grew up in. It feels right to you, yet you can’t shake a feeling of wrongness.
It’s the same way I feel about the other trappings of It Follows — the details are just right, but also wrong. Every physical detail in the film combines to throw you off-kilter, so that you’re not certain of anything, including the nature of the monster that stalks the protagonists. It’s a terrifying monster, to be sure. But the atmosphere in which that monster lives amplifies the terror until it’s nearly unbearable.
- Birth.Movies.Death. used to be Badass Digest, and when it was, it ran this great interview with director David Mitchell about the inspirations and decisions behind It Follows.
- This piece from Slate more deeply explores how setting the film in Detroit reflects the movie's themes and tone.
- And this article has interesting ideas about how all those off-kilter elements combine to create the movie's tension.