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-

Write What You Know

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve been fortunate to have a career writing and teaching fiction. I love fiction. I love reading it, I love writing it (sometimes), and most of all, I love watching a new writing student’s fire ignite with the passion for his or her own fiction.

This is why I am annoyed by one of the biggest truths and biggest lies that circulate and recirculate around the writing world—academic and otherwise—which is “write what you know.” I am annoyed because it is misunderstood.

writer

If I took this advice on its face value, I would write about a middle-aged, middle-class woman, married with children, average income, average height, average experiences. I make dinner, I keep house, I do the laundry, I go into my home office and write. I can’t imagine anything more boring to write about than my life.

This is not to say that my life is boring; far from it. But it would not make good fiction.

There are other things that I know about, and they require a broader, deeper investigation of the advice to “write what you know.” I know about love. I know about the first blush of a crush, I know the deep and abiding knowledge of another person for whom I would gladly give my life. I know about loss. I know the chest-crushing experience of grief and the periodic waves of it that have rendered me unable to move. I know joy, and anger, and frustration to the breaking point. I know anxiety, stress, and responsibility far beyond my ability to be the adult-in-charge. I know about betrayal and infidelity. I know paralyzing fear. I know soaring, thrilling triumph and how to put it all into perspective.

This is what I know, and this is what I write about. And because I write about these things, I can write from the point of view of a man, or an alien, or in a place I’ve never lived, in a time far before or after my limited lifespan. That is the imaginative, tale-telling aspect of fiction.

While many people would resonate with trying to figure out what to cook for dinner, my readers deeply resonate with my portrayal and reaction to a cancer diagnosis. Or the face-slap of a dear friend’s betrayal. These are the things I know that you know. These are the things that you can and should write about, because fiction is about adding your voice to the chorus.

Writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. Your voice is important, and you must speak your truth. Not about choosing where to buy your produce, but how you reacted to the major upheavals in your life. Your voice is unique. It adds depth to the choir.

Write boldly. Write courageously. Write what you know.

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-