The Hashtag, Mr. Griffin, and the Magic Metolius River, by Eric Witchey

The Hashtag, Mr. Griffin, and the Magic Metolius River

Eric Witchey

Peeing in a urinal underneath a print of Van Gough’s Starry Night feels a bit sacrilegious, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. At least I wasn’t staring at advertisements for drugs for erectile disfunction. I could only hope that the women’s bathrooms were as classy as the men’s, but I wasn’t going to check. Karen would have to deal with whatever neo-bohemian bullshit they used to decorate there.

Staring at Starry Night and a little grateful for having the bathroom to myself, at least until some other coffee shop denizen decided it was time to release their inner tensions, I decided my scouting trip had succeeded and The Hashtag would be fine for her writing hangout during our planned getaway.

By the time I had finished, walked back out through the minefield of tables, sofas, loungers, and spindle rocking chairs creaking away on the worn plank floor, I was sure. The last vestiges of doubt driven out of me by the low, slow tunes of Postmodern Jukebox’s “All About that Bass” streaming over the speakers. I reached the sidewalk outside absolutely certain that my search for her lair of creativity was over. In my imagined near future, I would go fishing, and she would create a nest in The Hashtag. It would be the perfect romantic getaway.

And, since I was already near the river, I got in my car and headed out in search of an ever-elusive bull trout.

#

Some rivers begin high on a mountainside and roll downslope like they are trying to win a sprint. When they come to the flats, they slow down and drop the mineral loads they carry as if they are too tired to carry their burden any further. Sandy bottoms, local runoff, and rotted vegetation give way to insect life, and trout are the inevitable outcome of that mad rush and panting effort.

This river, though, appears full and alive out of the side of the mountain. The fish may spontaneously generate in some hidden cavern space deep inside the dormant volcano. For all I know, they come through from another dimension all grown and hungry for insects.

Nobody can tell me they don’t.

The river sure as hell is magic, and everybody who fishes there knows it.

So, I spent the few hours I had flipping fly line before I had to drive home to the other side of the mountain.

Since the river is born inside the mountain, it has the same temperature year round. Because of that, the fishing is restricted to the gentle form, barbless lure catch-and-release only. And, because of that, the fish are huge and smart.

So, I often catch nothing, but I always love the experience of trying. And, after a couple of hours of trying, I sat down on a grassy spot a few yards from the water and just let the feather cirrus clouds, the scent of drying grass, and the sound of the riffling water fill me. I closed my eyes and lay back, and I just floated there for a while, full of river song and confidence that when Karen came to this place, she would have a magical place of her own to go to while I let my soul float over the water and the forest.

Maybe I fell asleep. Maybe I just found that meditative space that lets time slip by unnoticed. When I opened my eyes, the sunset had begun to turn the cirrus clouds a salmon red, a color I savored while gathering my vest, pole, and net.

The net tangled on a box—a green plastic box about the size of the cube of 64 crayons I had given my niece for her birthday. The oddness of the thing made me untangle the net and pick it up. I brass plate on one side said, “Robert M. Griffin. July 26, 1934. – Aug. 20th 2008. People’s Memorial Funeral Corporation, Seattle Washington.”

My WTF moment subsided as I realized what I might be holding. I almost dropped it, but instead I cautiously opened it to see if what I thought I had was what I actually had, and to my surprise, disgust, and concern, it was.

Mr. Griffin, or at least some of him, because I think if he had been there entirely there would have been more of him, was inside the box, rendered down to whitish-gray powder.

More carefully than I had picked him up, I closed the box, made sure it was sealed, and put it back exactly where I had found it, which I suspect is exactly where Mr. Griffin had instructed his loved ones to put him.

For a few moments, I considered opening the box again, pulling out the plastic bag, opening that, and loosing Mr. Griffin on the waters of the magic river, but I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

I hadn’t known him. I didn’t know where he wanted to be or why.

I did know that I had likely lain on the bank of the river in exactly the same place he may have once lain, and certainly where he now lies forever and ever—the cirrus clouds’ feathers and salmon-color overhead, the smell of the drying grass surrounding him, and the sound of the ever restless magic river washing across the land.

#

Five years passed before I once more sat on the grass where I had found Mr. Griffin. It calmed me deeply to find that he was still there, though he was harder to find because the grass had covered him and a small blackberry bush had pushed out in his direction to protect him.

Karen hadn’t liked The Hashtag. She hadn’t liked the river, either. The magic of it coming fully born and full of fish from the side of a volcano had somehow been completely lost on her. Eventually, the magic of us had also dissipated, and she had headed off downstream in the river of life while I still sat on the bank inhaling, watching, and listening with Mr. Griffin.

That was it. That was why I hadn’t tossed his ashes in the river-why he hadn’t had his ashes tossed in the river. To ride the water downstream would have been the death of the silence of the river in his soul.

I decided to revise my will when I got home. I hoped that someday, when it was my time to let go of the march of days, Starry Night bathrooms, and an endless succession of pointless places like The Hashtag, Mr. Griffin wouldn’t mind the company there, hidden in the grass under the blackberry bush on the banks of the magic river.

-End-

The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

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The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

Eric Witchey

My agenda today is to move my readers toward more specific articulation of their character agendas. If there’s any overlap between handling dramatic characters in text and managing our own lives, it is purely coincidental and has little or nothing to do with me or my agenda.

In a recent conversation with a writer, I said something that she then sent back to me as an important quote. At the time I said it, the words meant little to me. Having them sent back to me as important to someone else made me look at them again. Here’s what I apparently said,

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

Hm, says I. Isn’t that like setting identifiable, quantifiable, achievable goals? In moments of hubris, haven’t most writers entertained fantasies of accolades, awards, and glory? Even the humblest of us have at one moment or another had J.K. Rowling’s name evoke at least a little wish to be richer than the Queen.

Of course, those visions of grandeur are generally beyond our control. Even if we follow the advice of every well-established writing productivity and personal self-help guru alive, we have to acknowledge that a number of things have to happen at the right times and in the right order. We can control how hard we work. We can control how focused on the craft we are. We can control how much we risk and how often we put ourselves out there for consideration. To an extent, we can control how we use our financial, physical, and emotional resources to pursue our paths to publication.

However, we can’t control where we started in life, our beginning cultural currency, the attitudes we were trained to and had to overcome, the beliefs we had to recognize were not useful, the dynamics of family and language that both support and limit us. We can’t control the coronavirus, the economic swings of the nation, the consolidation of publishers, changes in marketing attitudes toward various demographics groups, or the wind on the wings of the Peking butterfly.

Still, as one writing friend once told me, “Lightning can strike anyone, but it helps to put up a lightning rod.”

So, when writers meet to set our goals, we look for the things we can measure, execute within our limited awareness of the world, and pat ourselves on the back for achieving. We whittle away at the greater obstacles, and we hope the moment comes when the lightning rod of hard work and focused effort over time pays off by attracting a strike that powers us for our next sustained effort.

So why is it that as writers we create characters with agendas like, “She wants to feel respected by her culture?” Don’t get me wrong. I think that is an important theme, but it is pretty useless as a scene agenda.

When I talk about character agendas, I often parrot one of my teachers, James N. Frey, who said, “EVERY character on stage has an agenda they are trying to execute. Conflict is the execution of mutually exclusive agendas.”

My favorite scenario for describing this, which I may have gotten and modified from Jim, is the pizza delivery man at the door. In the scene, there are three characters. An assassin, the person who lives in the house, and the pizza delivery guy. The agendas are all working against one another:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
  • Homeowner wants the pizza guy to call for help.
  • Pizza guy wants to be paid for the pizza.

The stakes are life and death for the homeowner. The stakes are professional success/failure and maybe honor or several other intangibles for the assassin—perhaps even incarceration or death. The stakes for the pizza delivery person are minimum wages, tips, and maybe some distracting fantasy they have going on about someone else on their delivery list.

Which brings up another point.

If Pizza has some adolescent male otaku Japanese anime-driven fantasy about the hot schoolgirl he’ll be delivering too next, then he has another agenda that his current scene agenda contributes to. He wants to get paid so he can deliver the next to pizza to the object of his creepy obsession.

If Homeowner wants Pizza to call the police and live through the afternoon and, perhaps, get information about why someone is trying to kill them because their daughter will be devastated to lose another parent, they also have another agenda that their current agenda contributes to.

Assassin might also have an overarching agenda. Assassin wants to get finished, get paid, and move on to the next job so they can build a strong enough reputation to be able to pick and choose jobs that will let them influence the world order and eventually retire to a personal island in the Caribbean from which they believe they will pull world-wide political strings and usher in an age of greater peace and prosperity for all.

However, right now in this moment in this scene, knife to the skin over the homeowner’s kidneys, Assassin wants the pizza guy to go away. Right now, Assassin only wants privacy.

Right now, in this moment with the knife in their back and Pizza outside the door, Homeowner only wants Pizza to get a clue and call for help.

Right now, large veggie pie in hand, door open so they can only see Homeowner and not Assassin, Pizza wants to be paid and, if possible, tipped well—quickly.

The agendas are, to take a line from the gurus of goal setting, specific, measurable, and reasonably achievable. If achieved or not achieved, each agenda for each character has an immediate impact on the character’s wellbeing and life in the moment.

In the larger dramatic sense, each agenda also has an impact beyond the moment for all the characters on stage.

If Pizza gets what he wants, he’s off to the next delivery and his inevitable disappointment. Homeowner will not get what they want. Assassin will quite likely get what they want, but maybe not. The fight in the foyer is another conflict to play out.

If Homeowner gets what they want, they might survive and get information, but Pizza will not get what he wants. Assassin will not get what they want—at least not all of it. They may end up killing two people and losing the ability to slip away.

If Assassin gets what they want, Homeowner is dead. Pizza may or may not get what they want. Who knows? Perhaps Pizza will become an apprentice to Assassin.

The point for writers developing dramatic scenes is that:

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

If the scene opens with the setup described earlier and the writer sees each character agenda as something less specific, the potential of the dramatic moment changes radically. Starting with a vaguer agenda than discussed so far and moving toward the global, vague, more like a theme statements we get things like this:

  • Assassin wants to be the best assassin.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent.
  • Pizza wants to get a raise or something.

In this scenario, the Homeowner could be anyone. Pizza guy might be motivated to move quickly, so he could just drop the pie off and go. No reason not to if the ticket was paid over the phone or online. Homeowner might beg because they want to see their daughter, but the agenda statement doesn’t focus their choices to allow selection of a specific set of tactics beyond that. Assassin might see killing Homeowner and Pizza as becoming the “best assassin.” They might see killing one and getting away while people chase them as becoming the best assassin. There are a million “best assassin” possibilities here.

Let’s create broader, vaguer agendas further outside the dramatic moment.

  • Assassin wants to go on vacation.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent and chairperson of the HOA.
  • Pizza wants to go home and boost his buzz.

These agendas might be true, but they are not specific in the moment. The types of motivations this filter encourages don’t lend themselves immediately to tactic development.

If I’m Homeowner and chief among my concerns is that I want to be a good parent and head of the HOA, connecting parenting and HOA to evading assassin behavior is a stretch. It works for comedic effect, but in that case, it is actually quite specific and reveals the mental problems of Homeowner. Homeowner might be engaged with the assassin on the manager’s worst nightmare level of, “Do you know who I am? I’m the next manager of the HOA. Did Karen VanSitling put you up to this? She’s been after the chair for…”

Now, Assassin can kill them, and Reader will applaud. It’s all good.

However, Pizza might as well be an unused chair in this scenario.

Let’s get vaguer:

  • Assassin wants satori.
  • Homeowner wants the respect never received from their parents.
  • Pizza wants to rise to CEO of the franchise system.

Now, the agendas are bordering on themes that might be stated more like this:

  • Becoming a perfect killer is a type of enlightenment.
  • Adherence to early life rules and values never heals the wounded child within.
  • Ambition and diligence are the path to wealth and power.

These might be true in the story. Certainly, I’m not stating them as true in any context other than the context of a story. However, at the best they only provide nuance in the dramatic moment in a specific scene. These vague agendas/themes do not allow a writer to discover or design possible tactics for achieving an immediate result in-scene.

That said, a set of nested agendas such that each specific agenda is a contributor to a larger agenda might allow for development of details that would enhance the scene. This set of agendas might provide insight into exactly what each character would do in the moment. Assassin’s agenda might look like this:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
    • in order to build skills to become the best assassin.
      • in order to go on vacation.
        • in order to create spiritual balance.
          • in order to one day achieve satori through their art.

Suddenly, the blade at the kidneys will be held a specific way. The words whispered in the ear of Homeowner must be considered carefully in both context of the moment and in terms of how Assassin sees the moment in relationship to their higher-level aspirations. Consider how this cascade of agenda elements can affect a line like this one:

  • …pressed her back against the wall, using the door as a blind to cover her presence and the blade she held to Homeowner’s back…

If each layer influences the moment, the physical reality of the blade, the door, and the wall remain the same, but the language might change to something more like this:

  • Smooth, black silk slid between the skin of her back and the coolness of Homeowner’s stucco wall, and she brought her thoughts back from that distraction, returning her focus to the transience of breath, the inevitability of mortality at the point of her blade, and the rhythm of the pulsing jugular of Homeowner’s neck. A skilled assassin might see the vein’s rise and fall as a tell, but a Pizza delivery boy distracted by material gain, hormone-laden blood, and cold night air would not perceive the interconnections of life and death and knowing and unknowing in the words that would arrive on the wave of Homeowner’s next breath. Assassin found within the silence that gave a shape to the perception she would spend on those final, important words. Later, perhaps on the beach while meditating, she would savor the moment and seek the meaning within the words.

Homeowner said, “. . .”

Of course, I have made the leap to Assassin being the POV character. I’ll leave building the nested agendas of the other characters and writing the moment from their POV as a game to play later. The point here is that the agendas are nested. The outcome of the moment will have an impact on all the layers of each character’s beliefs and desires. To get the best result, the most immediate agenda—the desire of each character at this moment, in this breath, in this heartbeat—should be as specific as possible.

-End-

Be Writing

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Don’t Be a Writer. Be Writing.

With thanks to WordCrafters in Eugene, where I teach Fiction Fluency.

by Eric Witchey

A little late. A lot busy. The life of a writer who has the privilege of working.

Freelance for thirty years in October has allowed me certain perspectives. I’ve seen creative clusters rise, spawn careers, and fall to petty differences and self-righteous ideological splits. I’ve seen creative clusters rise, spawn careers, and… Spawn careers. That was the important bit. The rest was just human beings being monkeys who think they have to hurt other monkeys to have enough bananas. It’s the bit before they start fighting over the tiny, useless, insignificant bananas that’s important—the part where they are banding together and writing.

I’ve seen poor writers rise out of poverty and return to it again. I’ve ridden that ride myself, though things are pretty good right now. I may be on the rise. I may be on the fall. Who can say?

A few people who have called me friend have decided I’m a lesser human because they achieved their vision of success. A few people who have called me enemy began to call me friend when I achieved their vision of success. I have looked down on other writers for not being whatever it was that I thought they should be that day, and I have railed against people who looked down on me for not being whatever they thought I should be that day.

Writers and readers have ridiculed my work because it is “only genre” and, equally, because it is “literary and not imaginative enough.” Just this morning, I received a rejection letter in which the editor said, “I loved reading the story and the sense of the innocent imagination of the child character, but I wanted more depth.” Another editor rejected the same story a couple months ago because, and I quote, “Children aren’t that deep.” In college, a professor attacked me for being a technocrat. In high-tech, engineers attacked me for being “just an English Major.” I’ve been shamed for working from home and raising children. I’ve been envied for working at home and raising children. If we are honest with ourselves, envy or condescension, it’s all the same. It’s fear. Fear that what I am is not enough and I should be like you; fear that I might become like you; fear that if I see you as legitimate I can’t get the bananas I want because my path is not like yours. Fear.

People have stolen my work. I have received email copies of my own articles, sans my name, from friends who said, “This guy thinks like you do.” Once, I managed to get paid for one of my stories that had been pirated. More often, pirates have taken my work and turned it into money for themselves without a thought to my life and my effort. In a seminar, many years ago, I heard a teacher say to a student who was carefully picking up copies of the story we had just analyzed, “Why are you picking them up?”

“I don’t want anyone to steal my story,” the student said.

The teacher laughed then said, “You should be so lucky that people want to steal your work.”

Thanks, M.K. Wren, wherever you are. I’ve never forgotten. I am that lucky.

I’ve known honest, helpful agents. I’ve know agents who were liars and thieves. My name has been on black lists and white lists. Companies have tried to ruin me. I’ve witnessed, and even uncovered, some very shady doings within government agencies and corporations. I even worked as a consultant for ENRON on the project that blew up in their faces. I discovered that a company I worked for was a coke ring. Another was a front for actual spies. Another . . . And another. . . And another. . . I learned that an editor who won’t sign their own contract is not worth the argument, and I learned that when someone says, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business,” that they have never been hungry or lived under a bridge. They think there’s nothing personal about food, shelter, and feeding self and others.

Freelance for thirty years. A lot of stuff has happened. Awards. Money. Friends. Lovers. Fans. Detractors. As Vonnegut says, “So it goes.”

I get paid. I write. Sometimes, I’m asked to give advice to agencies, entities, executives, and even other writers. Generally, the advice is ignored until the issues hurt enough. That’s very human. I know I often can’t see or hear things I should until I’m desperate enough to seek change. If only I had listened. If only they had listened. If only I hadn’t listened. It’s not my fault you listened to me.

Through all the years, I write. Today, I finished reading a novel. I revised a document that will help bring clean water to a village. I also wrote a few pages of fiction that are, well, meh. A rejection came in. This essay happened. I wrote. I got paid. I did my job.

The rest is just noise in a wind that howls in the back of the mind.

My friends at the WordCrafters in Eugene, an organization I often support by teaching, have a motto, “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” They have stickers that say that. I have one on the door to my office. It faces outward so I see it every day when I walk in.

Today, I was not a writer. I was writing. It was a good day.

It was good because the whole time I was writing, I felt no pain from my life. I even smiled and laughed. If someone stole my work, I didn’t know. If someone bought my work, I didn’t know. No rejections got read. No sick children or dying family broke into that magical space where vision and feeling merge to become words on the page. Food and shelter were worries to imaginary people who only live in my heart and mind and, with luck, in the hearts and minds of others someday. Political turmoil only existed as a theme. Liars and fools and all the various types of lesser people my righteous stupidity lets me believe exist in various moments all existed only as shadows and echoes far beyond the walls of my office and the light of my screen.

I was writing. I was, for a few blissful hours, what I was meant to be and what I have trained to be, and in the being of that writer, there was no striving or regret or fear or hope. Only the dream made word existed.

Writing cures everything if you are writing instead of being a writer.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.