A friend, concerned--and rightly so--that I too often succumb to bouts of undiscipline with regard to keeping to a writing schedule, has issued a bit of a challenge: Write 10 short stories, he said, before December 25th. That's 10 days from now!!
I should mention, in all fairness, that he assigned me this task way back in November. I am just now getting around to it.
Some people have a tremendous problem with writer's block, and for days sit in front of a blank piece of paper or computer screen, unable to find a subject to write about, much less the words to do so. I have the opposite problem: my head is exploding with words and stories and ideas--but I don't get them out. They stay locked in there while I procrastinate. That will have to be one of my New Year's Resolutions for 2010--start revising those old stories languishing in the desk drawer, get those sentences and images out of my head and write them down, and establish some kind of regular writing schedule--and stick to it.
Okay, here we go, Story No. 1, nine more to go. [The writingstyle is intentional--not all the stories will be in this vein. I was just experimenting.]
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Lawrence passed his 62nd birthday alone in his study sorting through his writings and stacks of unpaid bills when the telephone rang. It was his editor, the woman he had hired to transform his pencilled outpourings into readable, grammatical text. But this time he had an important project that he wanted completed as soon as possible: he instructed her to compile all the poems he had ever written to a former lover, a certain French woman with whom he had spent a magical summer some decades ago in the South of France, and arrange them into a little booklet that he intended to publish before his death.
Lawrence thought of Death often. He felt his was imminent and no amount of reasoned argument could persuade him otherwise. Although he had occasional bouts of indigestion and struggled with insomnia, he was, in fact, as healthy as a horse.
He was tired that day, though, out of sorts, not wanting to deal with the mechanics of assembling, organizing, arranging and placing the poems in the order he might want them to appear in the booklet. It required just too much concentration, and though he thought it a necessary and worthy endeavor, he simply couldn't face it, not this morning, when it was all he could do to make the coffee. So he simply handed the thick folder of old, typewritten poems over to his editor, asking her to see to their final preparation. Now what Lawrence didn't realize, and the editor didn't know, was that there were three particular poems in there that were written for someone other than the French woman to whom the collection was to be dedicated.
One frosty morning a week or so later, the editor came to his house with the completed manuscript. Lawrence had been unable to sleep and had been up since 4 a.m. A mug of dark, cold espresso sat abandoned on his desk, alongside three chewed-up yellow pencils and a dozen wadded-up balls of paper, evidence of his continuous battle with Blockitis..
"It's all finished, Lawrence," said the editor. "Have a look at it and let me know if there is anything you want changed or added or deleted."
Bleary eyed from lack of sleep and fighting a nasty cold, Lawrence waved her away with a sweep of his hand, as if swatting a fly. "I'm done with it, I can't think anymore," he said. "I trust your judgment. Go ahead and get it printed up." The editor left and Lawrence went back to bed, sneezing and coughing.
Lawrence felt that he had already done the hard part--the writing and preserving of the poems. That was, of course, back when his heart was actually into writing. It wasn't anymore. Try as he might, he could never top those first, early poems. It was as if the boldness and intuitiveness, the sensitivity and passion which seemed to come so naturally then had slowly deserted him, until finally, he became nothing more than an old, discarded vessel whose interior cracks ceased to contain even what he deemed the smallest, finest parts of himself. He did not really need to be involved in the tweaking and arranging and formatting and all those other tedious technical specifics of manuscript production. That's what editors are for, right?
In short time the manuscript found its way to a small, local outfit that specialized in publishing poetry on demand. Pods, they called it. A lifetime of writing and no one asked to see his work anymore. There was no new work--hadn't been for some time, actually--but that was beside the point. They still could have asked. Anyway, Lawrence had instructed that 200 copies be printed of the love poems booklet, which he planned to distribute to his family and friends, his writing colleagues, and his alma mater, if nothing else than to remind them he was still there; and he planned to have dozens of copies strategically placed at the three bookstores in town.
One morning about about a week later, his cold now gone, he was sitting in his study, after the first full night of sleep in weeks, rested, alert and ready to work again. Sipping his piping hot coffee he opened his mail to find a copy of the newly published little poetry booklet that the editor had sent him, and he began thumbing through it, rereading, with high pleasure, each and every poem that he had written those many years before in the throes of his passion for the lovely Marianne in Paris. He liked the way the way the booklet looked, especially that stunning photograph of himself on the cover, in black and white, where he appeared far more sophisticated than he usually saw himself. He liked the way the little book felt in his hands, the way each page's poem recounted scene after scene after scene of tender memories, revealing the hidden, adoring glances and the shared, magical hours of their impassioned lovemaking.
He was so enthralled with the overall production and so caught up in the memories evoked by the first ten poems that he put the book aside and closed his eyes to allow himself a brief, quiet visit to the past. Distracted by the barking of a neighbor's dog, he grumbled and picked the book up again, inadvertently skipping a section of the book that, had he noticed, contained some poems that really didn't belong there. And then he came to the last page--the finest poem of them all, in the editor's opinion--a farewell pleading from Lawrence to his lover, asking her not to ever, ever forget him. Except this particular poem was not written for Marianne Lefournier of Paris, France but to one Isabel Edith Elizabeth Jackson--of Wicita Falls, Texas.
When Lawrence saw the title of the poem, the blood suddenly drained from his face. Tiny beads of sweat
suddenly appeared on his forehead. He rushed to the phone to call the editor. "How could youlet this happen?!" he blurted into the mouthpiece. "That last poem should not be in there!" Pacing the room in circles, he punched the air with the fist of his free hand, as he detailed the poem's history.
"You should have looked the material over more carefully before handing me the folder," scolded the editor. "You said to put ALL the poems into the booklet. How was I to know one of them wasn't meant to be there?" Neither Lawrence nor his editor, at this point, was aware of the two other misplaced poems that had also been erroneously inserted.
Well, the damage was done. Two hundred books had already been printed and on being distributed. Poor Lawrence had neither the funds nor the energy to have them all recalled, corrected and reprinted. He slumped into his armchair, clutched at his hair and moaned. "What if she sees it?" he wailed into the phone.
"Marianne?" said the editor. "Why, I think she'd be flattered, Lawrence. That last poem was truly beautiful. And there is no way she could know it was not originally meant for her."
"No, no!" Lawrence cried, "Not Marianne! Isabel!! Isabel Jackson!! I wrote that poem for Isabel Jackson, not Marianne!! Isabel lives in the next town over! What if she comes over shopping this week and sees it in the bookstore? We had a wild affair for a few months when I was on sabbatical abroad but I broke it off because she was so violently jealous. She once threatened to kill me, you know, if she ever caught me with another woman."
"I see," said the editor, who then suddenly remembered something. "Lawrence, uh, we inserted Marianne's name into the opening line of each and every poem in the book, remember?--yes, well, I can see how that might make this Isabel woman a bit miffed, should she read it, that the poem you wrote to her was subsequently altered and recycled addressed to another woman."
"She won't be merely 'miffed'," cried Lawrence. "She'll go ballistic!" He recalled with horror the first days of their courtship when, after an imagined slight, Isabel had shown up at his door at three in the morning, demanding an apology, and when he wouldn't let her in at that hour, she stood on the porch shrieking as she hurled a brick through the living room window, shattering glass and dirt all over his newly purchased Persian rug.
Lawrence shuddered at the memory. He shot up out of the armchair, jammed on his coat and boots and rushed to the bookstores to grab back all the copies of the poetry booklet, before Isabel--should she be in town that day--would discover its existence.
Now while Lawrence was in Bookstore #1, hastily stuffing the booklets into a large vinyl sack he had brought with him, Isabel Jackson was wandering among the shelves of Bookstore #3, examining the newest releases in the Mysteries and Science Fiction division when a thin volume lying on a table nearby caught her eye. It caught her eye because of the photograph on its cover. "Oh my God, that's Lawrence!" she said aloud. She recognized the photo immediately--it was one she herself had taken some years before, when they had gone to the beach one afternoon. Her copy was now in a landfill somewhere, after she had summarily shredded it, not wanting to be reminded of the only man in her life to have ever dumped her.
She looked at the title and blushed. "Love Poems for All Time," it said. She tried to remember the last time
Marianne?! Who the hell is Marianne?!! Isabel was so taken aback, she dropped her bulging handbag, which fell to the floor with a loud clunk, startling a fellow bookbrowser in the next aisle. Her fury mounting, Isabel flipped the pages forward so roughly that a salesperson who happened to be walking by, stopped and frowned at her. "Don't worry," she said, answering his concerned stare with an even stronger glare back, "I'm buying it."
Isabel stopped and sat down, suddenly out of breath. Thank God for those wooden stools they place everywhichwhere in bookstores for people to not have to stand so long. All that pent-up emotion made her overheated and lightheaded. She loosened the collar of her jacket, took a deep breath, and continued reading. Like the stills from a silent film, page after page of her former lover's infatuation with another woman--a foreign woman!!!--passed visually before her. She felt like an eavesdropper, hiding behind the curtains, shocked and humiliated, but unable to look away. That was bad enough--to discover that he'd loved another woman--but the worst was yet to come. On page 22 was a poem about a tryst at Cafe D'Orsay.
"Wait a minute. He took ME to that cafe!!!" she shouted.
"Shhhhhhhhh!" said a voice behind the bookshelves. Reeling from the realization that Lawrence had not only taken both her and the other woman to the same cafe AND that he sat with this Marianne person in the Exact. Same. Corner table! near the window overlooking the street, Isabel completely, as they say, lost it.
She viciously ripped the page from the book, then felt immediately guilty. No matter how angry she was at that cad Lawrence, she needn't have taken it out on the book. She lowered her eyes and attempted to smooth out the cover, now bent and mangled. Still... Her blood boiling, she forced herself to keep reading, and on page 39 discovered a poem Lawrence had actually written to her, Isabel, titled "To My Love with the Auburn Hair". She knew the words of this poem by heart. They still stayed with her, not so easy to erase as the shredding of his picture had been. Except now it contained an additional word at the beginning of the first line that she hadn't remembered being there before. It said "Marianne, my auburn-haired beauty ..."
Her poem, now addressed to this Marianne person!! Isabel skipped to the last page. She had had enough. More than enough. But she was curious which poem Lawrence had chosen to end the book with. Obviously this Marianne woman wasn't currently with Lawrence; Isabel would've heard about it. People talk. She still had her sources. She knew he was alone. Lawrence, in his later years, gave all his attention to his books. They were his loves now. At this stage in his life girlfriends were irrelevant. Or so she believed. So let's see, what poem did he end with? Isabel was about to receive her second big shock when she saw its title.
It was THE poem--the one he'd written especially and exclusively for her, the night after their afternoon at the beach, where he had unabashedly declared his undying love for her (well before the brick-hurtling incident, of course). And now, without the least compunction or even miniscule sense of decency, it was being dedicated to someone else, this French someone named Marianne.
Isabel had read about fits of apoplexy in novels but never imagined she herself might ever be afflicted with one. "How could he, the absolute ...CAD!" she sputtered, stamping her foot on the bookstore's worn red carpet. "These were my poems!!!
"SHHHHHHHHHH", pleaded the voice from behind the shelves again, only louder.
"This isn't a damn library!" Isabel shouted, hoisting her hefty bag over her shoulder and storming out the doors of the bookstore, leaving the volume she had promised to buy, bent and ripped and discarded in the corner of the aisle. She headed for ...
You're wondering what happened next. Did the aggrieved Isabel eventually track down the dasdardly ex-poet and exact her revenge? Would the French woman Marianne across the ocean ever become aware of the drama involved in the publishing of that obscure little booklet meant solely for her? Did Lawrence fire his editor and abandon the idea of ever again publishing poems written to former lovers? We will never know. Because the word limit has been reached for this particular short story and, well, rules are rules.
Note: This was a true story, by the way. And no, he didn't fire me. Names were changed here to protect the innocent, as well as the guilty (the fictional Lawrence's real-life counterpart bravely admits he took both women, in separate years, to the same French cafe. "What was I thinking?" he says), as were locations and nationalities, physical attributes and reported quoted remarks. I have taken liberty not only with the character of the protagonist but totally fabricated any and all events after the inadvertent improper filing of the poems was discovered and publication halted. Rather than being upset by this revelation, however, the poet in question actually found it amusing. And we are taking steps to prevent such a frightening scenario as that depicted in this fictional account from ever becoming a reality.
I have asked his kind permission to post this story assignment here on my blog. I'd initially feared he might be offended, my using certain elements of our professional editor/client project as the idea for my first writing assignment. To the contrary, he insisted I include it, as another wacky example, I suppose, that "Truth is stranger than Fiction", and so, there it is..
For those who believe in serendipity, in the wildly improbable but easily exampled notion that there are truly no coincidences in life, it makes perfect sense to imagine that that last poem in the story, written to an auburn-haired lover in the heat of a passion that has long since thoroughly evaporated, itself insisted on having the last say in the matter, so to speak, its language being applicable to either woman, neither of whom currently seems to want to be associated with its author. The poem is convinced, however, apart from that unfortunate reference to a particular shade of hair, that it speaks of a certain universality.
As for Isabel Edith Elizabeth Jackson (who doesn't actually exist), it was all the proof she needed that men in general, and poets in particular, are indeed fickle, monstrous beings who think nothing of airing their personal affairs as improbable verse just to get their words published. And like spiders fashioning intricate webs, glistening, practical, and deadly, where all manner of creatures could be caught in them unawares, altering their lives forever, they continue to weave these treacherous threads of deceit. The character Isabel wishes me to state that. I would never word it in such a way. Honest. True to nature, it is this character, Isabel, and not the poem that ends the cruel charade, that wants to have the last, and final, word. So I let her.
So there it is, Story #1, in which the words exploded out, thereby clearing the way for a cleaner closet, so to speak, hopefully one where its imaginary inhabitants will gush less but say more, i.e., opt for quality rather than sheer quantity. But ... it's a start.
Story #2 will be about the secret life of a tool shed. And definitely not comedic.