Workshopped

So on Monday, the rough draft of my short story, “Silence”, was workshopped during my college fiction class. For those of you that are creative writers, this is quite possibly the best thing you can do to improve your writing. Workshopping simply means that a group of your peers as well as your professor/teacher will critique your writing and discuss ways in which it can be improved.  Most of my issues were at a purely structural level, having to do with plot as well as point of view. My personality is a bit of a force of nature and I oftentimes waaaaay overdo it with almost anything in my life. So my biggest problem was probably that I just had too many moving parts to the story. Too many characters. Too much stuff which crowded all of the potentially great writing I could have accomplished.

Though there were times I wasn’t happy with my writing– its easy to get out of that otherworldly “writing zone” at times– the one area that my professor commended me for were large portions of prose within the story. He read some of it out loud and I actually heard gasps in the room when he finished followed by his remark that “that is some F#*^ING good writing.” I was satisfied with that one remark, despite the fact that he took me to task with everything else.

Some advice on workshops

  1. Become dead inside. This is some advice my prof gave us in the beginning of the summer. Your feelings will probably be hurt, especially if you are new at this whole writing thing. Don’t let it get to you. You are learning something new. Keep going.
  2. Your peers might be stupid. Some of them actually don’t know how to read literature. At least critically read it. After one of my fellow students was asked to give a summary of my story, she mentioned that it was about “the power of prayer”. WHAT? How is this, in any way, about the power of prayer? It mentions prayer but someone commits suicide in the end so don’t really think it’s about how prayer changes things. Anyway. I now must become dead inside.
  3. You can’t do everything everyone wants you to do. Some of your peers might have contradicting advice and you can’t possibly make all of the changes to your story that are suggested. Honestly, just listen to the advice of your professor. It is good to hear how your fellow students are reading the story but they mostly don’t know what they are talking about.

If you are serious about your craft, take some college creative writing classes and expect your work to be torn to pieces. That is how you become a good writer– workshops and reading anything (well-written) that you can get your hands on.carousel_download6

Ending of Rough Draft– Silence

Mrs. Jewel was cleaning the nursery that day. She lifted the bag of diapers from the diaper genie and as she tied the plastic in a tight knot, she peered out the window to see Angela exiting Pastor Jason’s office. Quickly, she picked up her phone and pushed record, filming the scene from the darkened nursery window. Jason had his hand on Angela’s shoulder and pulled her around, wrapping his arms around her, hugging her so tightly she was lifted from the floor. “I love you, okay? That isn’t going to change”, the pastor said. Angela walked down the hallway, wiping her face and patting it lightly as she made her way out of the building.

Push pause. Push stop. Push send.

*****

Angela had been sitting on my couch for an hour now and I was finally adjusting to her news. I had pulled out the Kleenex box after I had recovered from the initial shock and found myself weeping with her. Her whole world was crashing down around her. She was losing everything in this moment. I could offer no words of wisdom to console her and when we had finally been able to take several deep breaths we began talking about practical issues. Did she know what she would do with the baby? Where would she go? What would she do for a job? Money? Neither of us had answers and I told her that it was okay if she didn’t yet. I patted her gently, trying to conjure my maternal side.

My cell phone rang from the kitchen and I ran to see if it was anyone important. Mrs. Jewel. Damnit, Mrs. Jewel. I let the call go to voicemail. Ping. Text message from Mrs. Jewel.

Julie, hello. I’m sorry to interrupt you but we need you at the church. Emergency meeting. Please come.

I’m kind of in an emergency at home right now. Are you sure this can’t wait?

Unless it’s life or death, I think you need to come right away.

I bit my bottom lip and my eyes momentarily scanned the room considering my options, finally walking back into the living room.

“Ang. I’m so sorry but Rylan is napping and she’ll probably be down for another hour, at least. Would you mind just sitting here in case she wakes up?”

“Of course. I mean, I might need the practice,” she forced a goofy smile, patting her belly. “Is everything okay?”

“Probably. It’s Mrs. Jewel. She said they are having an emergency meeting. I’ve never actually known her to go quite this far,” I know my face displayed my displeasure at this interruption. Angie and I exchanged a suspicious but knowing look and I gathered my things and opened the door.

*****

Jason and Julie were both silent at first as they made their way home. They had sat around the long rectangular conference table with the twelve orange rolling chairs they found at an auction after another church had closed its doors. Julie walked into the room to see Jason already there with his board of elders, all of them wearing grim expressions, except for Jason, whose ears were red and head hung. A laptop sat in the middle of the table for all to see. They had just watched a video of what they said was evidence of the pastor’s infidelity; of a scene too intimate and inappropriate for a pastor to be having with a single woman. Rich had agreed with the elders. They decided Jason needed to take a leave of absence until a full investigation had taken place. Rich, his best friend. His compadre, acting like he didn’t know Jason at all.

Jason was incredulous, “Angie and I are just friends. That’s clearly just a friendly hug. She’s like a sister to me!” Julie watched as his face became the same color as the eggshell conference room walls. She knew that look. It wasn’t a look of anger but defeat. He was tired of trying. He was tired of having to defend himself. He was tired of misunderstanding and betrayal and deception. He had given up. She had never seen him entirely give up and she wasn’t sure she would be able to talk him back into fighting again.

Afterward, they drove in separate cars. She had called him on the drive hom, “I believe you. I do believe you. This is all nonsense. You would have never sent Angela to see me if… I know you are good friends. You’re right. You’re like a brother to her.” Jason was silent. Julie continued, “I’m gonna come pick Rylan up and take her to stay with Melody. I don’t think she needs to be around this right now. I think it needs to just be us.”

Jason’s response was barely audible. “That’s fine. I’ll be ok.”

*****

After Julie had left for the hour and half drive to Denver, to drop Rylan at the home of an old college friend, Jason found himself pacing the knotted pine floors again. Angela had left. Julie had left. His pace quickened rapidly as the dark thoughts increased in intensity. He could save everybody from himself. Everywhere he went bad things happened. People said bad things about him. No one believed good things. God was nowhere near. God was distant. God was silent. He was no defender. He did not come to his defense. They were going to kill him. Kill him. Kill him. They wanted to kill him and they wouldn’t give up until they did. He wanted to die because they wanted to kill him. He wanted to give in. So many reasons why this was a good thing. So many. Julie, Rylan, so much suffering with him.

He knelt on the knotted floor and pulled a long, black case from the darkness under his bed. Reaching up, he retrieved a small key from the nightstand and opened the case to expose his 7mm-08 Remington. This time he didn’t run his fingers along the smooth black barrel with pride as he usually did. He loaded the magazine hastily, not allowing any other thoughts to penetrate his currently clear head. In fact, he didn’t do any thinking at all. Sitting on the bed, he propped the end of the barrell on his forehead. It felt cool to the touch. It felt nice. Like relief. It all felt like a relief.

There was a spray of red on the wall above the headboard but his body slumped to the right, out of the bed and onto the pine floor where blood pooled into the grooves and knots of the pine slats, staining them the deepest crimson.

*****

I sat in the car in my friend’s driveway in Denver and felt calm.  I didn’t understand why I felt calm. This was the time I would usually pick up my phone and make the sing-song sound with the buttons. But I didn’t do this. I had gripped the steering wheel with the absolute terror on the way to Denver. I had never felt such terror, even when Jason had broken our engagement. And this situation, whatever it was, was the most terrifying of them all.

But after I had kissed Rylan’s soft cheek goodbye, I couldn’t seem to leave the driveway for some time. Instead of dialing my phone or giving my steering wheel a tight deathgrip, I instead placed my hands, palms up, uncurled fingers on my lap. And when I had done that for a moment, I drove home.

Perfection and Shame

I wrote this blast nonfiction essay during the week for my Personal Essay class. Enjoy.

It was June of 2007 when we all sat around my Aunt Becky’s patio table in Wisconsin. My cousins Megan, Danielle, and Heather, who are all towering and blonde while I am petite with hair that is almost black, my 80-something year old grandma, a few of my aunts, and my own mother were having a reunion of sorts. We were all from middle class families. Christian families.  The kind that aren’t peculiar in any way. We sometimes made mistakes but we weren’t isolated in this way. They were mistakes you find in just about every large family.

My grandmother, whose words are normally carefully selected and few, intermittently divulged family secrets that few of her grandchildren had heard.

“Your great-grandmother used to prostitute herself to the milk man during the Great Depression,” she proclaimed in her Wisconsin accent. Megan sat directly across from me, our mouths both agape from shock and dismay.

“What?!” was all that we managed to say.

My mother interjected, “that is just something people had to do then. She had to feed her children.” I pictured my great-grandmother showing some leg to the milk man as he set the bottles of white creaminess on her porch. I had heard about this great-grandmother before. She had been married several times, often beaten by her spouses until she would move onto the next man. She had never been someone grandma liked to talk about… until now.

Myself and the cousins finally managed to compose ourselves when something else was betrayed to our innocent, 20-something ears, “your Danish great-great-grandfather wasn’t really your great-great-grandfather. Your great-great-grandmother was pregnant with another man’s child when she married him. You’re French Canadian, not Danish.”

“Oh… we don’t really know if this is true or not.” My mother whispered quietly but my grandmother heard.

“No. That’s what my mother told me.”

“Well still… we don’t know.” And then my mother quickly changed the subject to other things like growing vegetables or church politics or some other nonsense.

“And then there was the time when your great aunt and great uncle had a child together.” All of the cousins were speechless.

“Wait. You mean a brother and sister? They had a baby together?” Megan’s face squished into something unrecognizable.

“OH MY GOD!”, we all screamed. “OH MY GOD!” The horror of it all struck us dumb and none of us could look each other in the eye.

“What happened to the baby?”, I asked with some hesitation and reserve.

“She died several years ago. She was in her thirties and had severe retardation,” one of the aunts said.

I am not sure any of us took a breath for an entire two minutes as we ingested the information.

“Things like that happened in the country back then. It was actually fairly common,” my mother, again, with all of her explanations for the shame that was now our family. We all looked at her and cringed as if to say what the hell are you talking about? This is not normal. It was never normal. People still speak of incest in renaissance England with disgust.

My mother had always been uncomfortable with shame. She was a pastor’s wife so we had to portray a squeaky-clean image. Her father’s alcoholism when he returned from World War II was talked about only with a tight-lipped quietness. My cousin Heather’s illegitimate pregnancy was not discussed around my other grandma, her mother-in-law. My younger brother’s experimentation with weed in middle school was completely taboo.

God forbid if someone visited when there was dried toothpaste on the bathroom counter, a dirty coffee cup in the sink, or hair in the tub. God forbid if I gained 15 pounds and weighed a whopping 140. That made me instantly “way overweight”. No, my mother wears her shame like an invisible cloak. Which means she doesn’t realize that it is shame that keeps her from walking around with her head held high, impermeable to the opinions of others.

Why do we carry shame around when we know that not a single one of us is completely innocent? Not one of us has a past that is altogether pure and wholesome and without blemish. It makes me wonder why shame even exists because no one is really fooling anyone else.

5 On: Russell Rowland — Jane Friedman

For all of you budding writers. Another really great post from Jane Friedman.

In this 5 On interview, author Russell Rowland discusses the big mistake he made with HarperCollins, whether the journey of writing is truly its own reward, why his Indiegogo campaign worked so well, and his experiences with publishing–from one of the Big 5 to self-publishing. Russell Rowland has published four novels, all set in Montana.…

via 5 On: Russell Rowland — Jane Friedman

Section 8- “Silence” Short Story

“Hey chump.” Jason looked up from his computer to see Angela walk into his office. She slowly shut the door, pausing for a moment before turning around to face her boss and friend. She didn’t respond with the usual playful retort but cautiously made her way to the plush chair across from his desk. Her face was pale and drawn, her hair a little stringier or greasier than normal, she attempted to smile.

“Angie. What’s up? You look like you might need a nap.” Jason turned his chair from his computer to face her squarely, sensing he needed to adjust from multi-tasking to listening.

Angela didn’t look Jason in the eye. She rubbed her hands against the tops of her thighs and then nervously clasped them together in her lap. “Ok. So I have something I need to tell you.”

Jason waited, a half-smile, friendly, and disarming appeared on his face. Angela relaxed slightly but before the words could form in her mouth, her lips began trembling and her eyes made salty rivulets between her nose and cheeks. “What’s going on Ang?” Jason asked softly. “You can tell me anything. You know me.”

“I need to turn in my notice. I can’t work here anymore. I can’t be your worship leader.” Angela avoided the look on his face, intentionally looking at her folded hands. She heard a loud sigh and then hestitantly looked up to see his two eyebrows squished together in concern.

“Can you tell me why this is happening so suddenly?” His voice was gentle and Angela was reassured that Jason might as well be the big brother she never had. She could trust him. She might still have to leave her job but she knew he would accept her no matter what.

“I’m pregnant.” She forced the words from her mouth in one fell swoop.

Jason sat in front of her, silently nodding, taking in the information. He didn’t seem surprised and she wondered why. Angela continued, “I think I just need help with some things. I think I need counseling. I’m kind of a mess and I didn’t really know who or how to talk anyone about it.”

“Angela. You know Julie and I love you and we will help you get through this. This isn’t the end of the story. We will figure this out together, okay? Thank you for telling me. I’m gonna call Julie right now. Why don’t you go over and hang out with her? I think you need to be around someone right now.”

“Thanks Jason!” Angela let out a gasp and her body heaved uncontrollably as sobs rose through her.

“Come here. I’ll walk you to the door. I’m calling Julie right now. You just head over there.” Jason opened the door and Angela followed. They both walked outside the door and Jason swung her around, giving her a large bear hug, lifting her small frame slightly off the ground. “I love you, okay? That isn’t going to change.”

 

 

“Silence” Section 7

I moved quickly around the house on Monday morning, tidying up. I knew I should have some down-time with my daughter, whose mess I attempted to contain in one corner of the living room, but I also knew what would happen if I sat down for a moment. Rylan was a rare child who was happy playing by herself and I was thankful for something I didn’t need to worry about. When I had completed my morning chores, I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat on the sofa, mindlessly picking up a National Geographic from the top of the small, decorative stack I displayed on the coffee table. I eyed Rylan who was chattering to herself, playing with a plastic dollhouse and her miniature, fat, plastic dolls.

Look at the pictures. Think about them. Aren’t they beautiful? Festivals of Brazil. Look at all of the colors. I could never wear something like that. I tried to focus on something other than what was on my mind but my breathing became heavier and I felt the familiar tenseness in my chest. I placed the magazine back on the table and picked up my phone to look at my credit card app. I was terrified but I had to do it. Three hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars I had spent that week on phone calls.

Jason didn’t know the extent of my spending because he was too overwhelmed with life as it was. Having knowledge of what was in our bills would only compound his issues but it had become too easy for me to hide. This addiction, whatever it was that I had, had become completely unmanageable and the shame I felt was debilitating.

I remember when it all started. In seminary, after we had been engaged for a few months, Jason started having second thoughts. In fact, he even asked for the ring back. He was the guy that every girl at school wanted. He was handsome and fun and not at all stuffy like most of the guys we knew, not coming from the “Bible Belt” like many of the students. I couldn’t lose him. It was terrifying and I couldn’t sleep at night. I worked at Bed, Bath, and Beyond part-time and was once caught sobbing behind the drape display in the back of the store. One night, I was on the phone chatting to my best friend from high school. I couldn’t talk to any of the girls at seminary because, well, some of them had anticipated me losing Jason. They were waiting for it to happen. So Sara, whom I had grown up with in Winnipeg, was my confidant in the months that followed the break-up. She, too, was having relationship problems. She married very young and a year later discovered her husband, a local musician, had been cheating on her. One night she called me while I was on my lunch break, her voice excited and a bit shrill.

“Oh my God, Julie. You’ll never guess what I did.”

I waited for Sara to finish.

“Jen and I went to see a tarot reader. This old woman who lives about two hours west of here.”

“Gross Sara! Why would you do something like that?” I responded, in shock that she would do something that was pretty forbidden in the Bible. She should have known better.

As I listened to her recount how the old woman had laid each of the intricate cards in a pattern on a blue-clothed table, turned them over one by one and told her many details about her complicated life, I became enthralled. But I was also disgusted at how enthralled I was.

“Julie, I feel so much better. So much more at peace. I think you should do it too. I think it will help you get through this.” I retorted that I would never do such a thing. I needed to trust God with my life not some fortune teller. That would be betraying him… wouldn’t it?

But I couldn’t get the advice out of my mind. I just wanted to feel better. I didn’t want this dread to be suspended over my head. I wanted to know the outcome to the enforced limbo Jason had placed me in. I wanted to know what he was thinking. Everything felt so insecure.

It was two days later when I drove to a white house with a chain link fence and several lawn ornaments placed haphazardly in the front yard. A different woman, young but tired-looking with dark hair, placed painted cards in front of me and told me my future. She must have left out all of the bad things that would follow because she made everything sound hopeful and happy. Driving away, I felt a shot of relief.

It was much later that Jason finally conceded. He explained he just needed more time to be sure. He had felt a little pressure before and didn’t want to make the wrong decision. He knew he couldn’t live without me, he said. He wanted to marry me. So wedding plans were reinstated. We got married in Dallas around all of our school friends as soon as graduation was over. Both of us lived so far away and we wanted the people that had supported us through the relationship to be there. But even in those months of bridal store visits and handmade floral arrangements, any time I felt panicky or insecure, I would pick up my cell phone and call the same number where the voice on the other end of the line would assure me that Jason loved me and that everything would be okay. My parents covered most of the wedding expenses so my job at Bed, Bath, and Beyond covered the bills to the 1-900 number.

Shame. Shame all the time. But I couldn’t stop even after the wedding when we packed everything up and moved to Colorado where Jason began to display alarming behavior. The stress of planting a new church, the financial strain, as well as his own insecurities became too much for him to handle. His rock-like exterior began to crack under pressure and I continued to feel like our lives were on the brink of disaster. The phone calls continued, the credit card bills were at times unmanageable but I told myself that I couldn’t survive any of it without hearing those words, “it’s going to be okay.”

I glanced at my three-year-old daughter as I sat on the couch. She was completely clueless to how unstable both of her parents were. I picked up my phone and dialed again. I dialed because I knew if I didn’t, this feeling wouldn’t leave me and I wouldn’t be able to function for the rest of the day.

Rich and Jason. Section 6. “Silence”

Mondays, for Jason and Rich, were typically what would be considered Saturdays for everyone else. They both made sure to relax, as best as they could, on Monday mornings. But for Jason, Mondays were particularly difficult. The high of preaching a sermon on Sunday mornings would usually wear off by Sunday evening, leaving him questioning if he had been effective enough or if he had completely bombed his message. The dread would come and the darkness would descend over him again and it sometimes would not leave him until the next Sunday, when the cycle would happen all over again. Julie had convinced him to stay away from the computer on Monday mornings and leave all church business for Tuesday because inevitably there would be at least one or two emails from the older congregants, haranguing him for some theological or doctrinal statement he had presented.

That Monday morning, Jason and rich had planned a hunting trip just an hour from Colorado Springs. Jason had not grown up hunting as Rich had but the only person he considered to be his best friend had convinced him that this was the most masculine way to alleviate the stress of pastoring a church. The fresh air and the murder of innocent creatures had fast become a tradition for the men. Just before dawn, the two men packed their gear tightly into the back of Rich’s black Ford Bronco, clad in orange vests and fur hats so ridiculous the men had convinced themselves they were worn purely for self-amusement. The two didn’t turn on the stereo as they drove north on highway 24 and then west on Interstate 70. It was too early for loud music and they both enjoyed listening to the rhythmic friction of rubber against pavement and the occasional abruptness of the Bronco hitting a weathered patch of unrepaired Colorado road. Two canisters of hot coffee were placed in the cup holders and when conversation was at a lull, which it often was, the silence was softened with not-too-loud slurps.

Jason and Rich had met in Dallas at seminary, years ago. Jason from Oregon and Rich from Indiana, the men came from different backgrounds but felt united, as students, in their reproach for the overly-conservative institution they attended and eventually graduated from. Together they had voiced concern over the racist statements of Dr. Cushing as well as injustice they felt toward the lack of opportunities for female students. Rich had even refused to cut his hair which had grown well past the collar, a rule that hadn’t been breached intentionally for the entire 90 years the school had been open. Of course, he was kicked out for a semester until he finally apologized and begged to return. Together they had pulled numerous pranks such as flooding the dorm hallways with water and soap and gathering the other residents together to slide down the hallways in their underwear. They had shaving cream fights and even filled an old phone booth up with a hose to surprise anyone who might be using it to call their girlfriend late at night.

Jason graduated a year before Rich and moved to Colorado with his new wife to plant a church. Rich soon followed his best friend to help lead the church and gather a great worship team that would attract the ideal paritioners: young, progressive, and open-minded. But there were always a few who felt it their duty to herd the masses of naïve congregants and steer them in a more traditional direction, one that was “Biblical” and not as “dangerous” as some of the things Jason taught. Mrs. Jewel was one of those sheepdogs.

The two men finally arrived at Valhalla. Rich unpacked his 308 Winchester and Jason handled his 7mm-08 Remington with care. They would often playfully bicker about their choice of rifles. Rich accused Jason of using a hipster rifle and Jason accused Rich of not being open to new things. Rich would roll his eyes. That’s such a hipster thing to say. Classically hipster. These are the kinds of things they usually discussed. Feelings? Not so much. They were men, afterall. Men who were best friends but who were also often competing for power so revealing any kind of weakness was completely off the table.

“You’ll never believe what Mrs. Jewel said to me yesterday.” Rich exclaimed, shaking his head, a shot of breath exiting his nose.

“Do I want to hear this?” Jason

“Probably not. But it’s still good. She just said that she heard Angela puking in the bathroom yesterday and when Mrs. Jewel asked her if she was okay, she burst into tears. She actually said to me… get this… that she thinks Angela might be ‘with child’. Angela.”

“WHAT? That lady has lost her mind. What made her think that?” Jason hesitated for a moment and Rich noticed it.

“Well, I don’t know. She seems to think that you two are too friendly, sometimes.”

“What the hell? So she… does she think I am the father of Angela’s supposed child? Is she freaking kidding?” Jason stopped for a moment on the trail and turned to face Rich. They had not yet entered a forested area and Jason felt exposed. Only short, brown stalks of cheat grass and dying thistle surrounded them.

“Dude. It’s alright. Everyone knows the lady is off her rocker.” Rich made a circle with his hand to prompt Jason to turn around and keep going but he wanted to conversation about all of this to end. Handling discomfort was not one of his skills.