What the Hell Is Subtext? by, Eric M. Witchey

PunchingImpliedWhat the Hell is Subtext?
by Eric M. Witchey

I’m a lucky guy. A couple of writing groups in and around San Antonio, Texas recently pooled their resources to fly me to San Antonio to teach. Some were publishing professionals. Some were aspiring professionals. All were wonderfully kind and accomplished. While there, I even got to do some touristy things.

So far, I’ve written in general terms about things that were fun for me. Readers may now be thinking, “Get to the point, Eric.” However, if that first paragraph were in a short story or a novel, the reader would be, in the back of their mind, wondering what it means in the context of dramatic development. If, as would probably be the case, it added nothing to the reader’s sense of tension or character change, they would get disgusted, drop my story, and never look at another one of my tales.

Go, readers!

That’ll teach me economy in language. More importantly, it will teach me to figure out ways to imbue even apparently mundane passages with some additional layer of meaning, subtext.

Normally, I teach subtext by introducing students to a seminal article in discourse analysis. I then extrapolate from that article into the use of implication in dialog. Once that has become clear, I demonstrate how “subjective interpretation of setting through the character filter” can create an underlying sense of changing character psychology in the reader’s experience. That all takes a day or two, and it takes a fair amount of practice.

Did you catch the subtext? I’ll translate. “This set of very specific skills takes time and practice.”

However, I’m writing a blog entry, so I’ll try to give you the quick and dirty. I stopped short of calling this a shortcut. It isn’t. The time and practice is still necessary.

For my first bit of sleight of hand, I’m going to replace the term “subtext” with another term I think is more descriptive of the function of a number of techniques. The term is “implication.” Writers manipulate the text in order imply things that are not actually part of the explicit text.

Above, in the paragraph beginning with “Normally,” I described a longish process that wasn’t actually necessary if I just want to tell you what I’m about to tell you. However, I did put it in the blog entry, which tells the reader that I am either just horribly wordy or was implying something. The reader tries to fit what I wrote into their growing sense of the purpose of this blog entry. Since I then talked about a shortcut and the technobabble paragraph is more than I needed to write about the shortcut, the reader tries to find additional, underlying meaning. If they can’t, they think I’m stupid. If they can, they think I’m brilliant. In truth, they don’t even actually know they are looking for that subtext. The brain does it automatically.

In fiction, if a character says more (or less) than they would normally say or than they actually need to say in order to respond to their circumstance, some other meaning is being conveyed. The reader unconsciously examines text in conjunction with context in order to draw the special meaning from the text.

In practical application in fiction, it looks something like this.

“Honey,” he said, “I need to take the car to Bend this weekend.”

“The Metzgers are having a lawn party on Sunday,” she said. “Jennifer will be sixteen, and her oldest brother, the Army doctor, is in back from Afghanistan. Can you believe he wants to meet our daughter?”

She said a lot more than she would normally say in response to his statement about the car. In fact, all she had to say was, “Okay.” Of course, she might also have said, “No. We have a party to go to.”

Instead, she said, interpreting the subtext:

You have other responsibilities this weekend. Show some respect to our friends. Demonstrate that you at least pretend to care about their daughter. If you can’t pretend to care about our friends, then think about the returning soldier and how important his homecoming is. If you can’t get your head and heart around that, then at least think about the happiness of your own daughter.

To get all that from a couple lines of dialog, the reader needs a little more background. In fact, the reader needs the same things we need in the real world in order to interpret the wonderfully obscure things we say to each other. The following is a classic example is of people communicating by using implication:

“Honey, what time is it?”

“The ice cream truck just went by.”

The answer does not, strictly speaking, answer the question. However, both people know it is four o’clock because they share history that involves the ice cream truck.

Consider once more the car and weekend problem from above. In order for the reader to get the full impact of the indirect statement made in response to the statement about using the car, the reader has to be aware of the same shared experiences of the characters that allow the characters on stage to speak to one another in indirect ways.

We use this kind of implication all the time when we talk. In fact, it turns out that when we are trying to cooperate and get something done, we speak pretty directly to one another. If you and I are building a dog house together, I can say, “Give me that hammer.” Your answer might be, “Okay.” It might also be to hand me the hammer. Either way, it’s pretty direct and clear.

However, if you and I have some personal history with home projects not getting done, you might answer differently. Consider this dialog couplet:

“Give me that hammer.”

“And the paint brush, broom, and shovel?”

Now, suddenly, you are telling me I have a lot more to do. Additionally, neither one of us is having a good time.

Turns out that we figure out what these kinds of non-responses mean because they differ from direct, cooperative responses in one or more of the following four ways.

  • The response says more (or less) than is needed.
  • The response doesn’t appear at the surface to be a relevant to the initial statement or question.
  • The response isn’t clear.
  • The response somehow lacks the needed quality to be a full response.

The short list is quality, clarity, quantity, and relevance. Even so, this kind of communication relies on shared experiences. Those experiences can be shared within culture, community, family, or individual association.

Given the above, getting dialog to be indirect so that it implies more than is said is a pretty direct process. Start with something direct and revise it until is drips with additional meanings.

Draft 1:

“Take me home,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.

Draft 2:

She says, “My bedroom ceiling is more interesting than these people.”

“That guy,” he said, “spent last year in Tibet.”

“And my bedroom is warmer than this field.”

“They’ll light the bonfire in a minute.”

“Two cuddled under quilts is the best warm.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’ll just say goodnight.”

In draft one, the two people are being cooperative and direct. In draft two, one is being too clever, and the other is being a bit dense. A lot more is going on in terms of the psychological interactions of the desires of the two people. Of course, the passage could be improved—a lot. That’s not the point. The point is the implied meanings. In this case, the reader gets them because of shared experience in cultural context.

If, as writers, we understand our characters, their growth, their needs, and their backgrounds well enough, we can manipulate the text so that multiple layers of meaning appear from this kind of indirect interaction.

Narrative, when compared to implication in dialog, is both the same and different. If the narrator is external, the narrator can be seen as engaged in a sort of dialog with the reader. What has come before in the main story or in back story can be used as shared knowledge (the ice cream truck). However, narrative is usually more powerful if it has moved into the heart/mind of character.

The following two passages represent a transformation from one of the great traps into which writing instructors fall, focusing on the use of “concrete details,” to the use of those same details to imply more about the life of the character than is strictly accounted for by the text.

Yes, concrete details are necessary. However, students of the written word often focus too tightly on the detail and miss the point that the story is about a character who inhabits the fictional world.

Passage 1 (concrete details):

He entered through the south door and paused. He wore J. C. Penney docksiders, pale blue argyle socks, tan cotton Dockers, a burgundy, button-down Bugle Boy shirt, and a thin gold chain around his neck. His build was medium and toned. He had a sharp jaw line, straight nose, blond hair and blue eyes. He wore a businessman’s haircut. He looked to his left. He looked to his right. He crossed from the door to the dining room table and placed a small pile of envelopes on the table. The table was made of stained cherry wood veneer over a pine base. In places, the veneer was worn through and the pine was visible. The table had brass screws holding it together. Three chairs were mission, two were Victorian, one was a folding steel chair. He walked around the table, called his wife’s name, and exited the room through the north door.

Passage 2 (implication through the use of details):

Squeaking hinges announced his arrival and reminded him that Sharon had a honey-do list for him this weekend. He crossed the threshold into neutral ground, the dining room, paused, and turned his head to better catch noises coming from the kitchen. Concentrating on the sounds of the house, the ticks and creaks and movement of air through dry, old cracks in the walls and floorboards, the mail he held nearly slipped from his sweating hand. He gripped it more tightly and crossed to the dining room table, careful to tread lightly on the white-rubber balls of his topsiders. He sorted the mail so the bills were on the bottom then set the stack in a neat pile at Sharon’s place, in front of her martyr’s chair, the folding metal church chair she insisted that she use so no one else would have to be subjected to its indignity. He wiped his palms on the burgundy Bugle Boy she’d given him for his interview, then he thought better of it and checked to see if he’d stained the shirt with his own sweat. Satisfied that he was presentable, he rounded the table and headed for occupied territory–her kitchen.

I showed these passages to one of my writer friends. Their response was, “Eric, that’s just close, subjective narrative.”

Well, yes. It is.

That’s sort of the point of close, subjective narrative. We know the characters, their needs, their current desires, their underlying desires, their changes, their emotions, their back stories, their relationships, and their minds. Because of that knowledge, we can write in a way that implies many things that are not explicit in the text.

For example, we can write narrative that reveals levels of marital tension, the nature of personal fear, levels of social dominance, tacit agreements about control of territory, habitual behavioral dynamics, and the psychological underpinnings of two people who have driven one another to estrangement. Later, the reader will share this understanding with character and narrator. If done well, the reader won’t even know they have picked up on these cues. These things can then be exploited more deeply through indirect dialog and subjective narrative as a story moves forward.

The subtext of the opening paragraph, based on shared experience with my friends in Texas, is, “Thank you.”

I suppose I should stop now. This blog entry is late, and I have said a lot more than I needed to say in order to fulfill my responsibility to my cohort of shared bloggers.

Since I have written more than was strictly needed, there is subtext. The subtext is, to be explicit, that I believe this idea of implication (subtext) is very important for writers who want to enhance the reader’s experience of story.

Realerism: Why Does This Story Feel More Real Than That One? By Eric M. Witchey

Realerism Redux

Source: pboehringer. Purchased under license @ istockphoto.com for use in this blog.

Realerism: Why Does This Story Feel More Real Than That One?
By Eric M. Witchey

Text that evokes the heart, history, and physical experience of character while managing dramatic timing and avoiding reminders that the story in the mind of the reader is actually coming from text on the page tends to “feel more real.”

I’m writing this the weekend after Thanksgiving, and I am thankful for my many writing friends, and I’m especially thankful for people who ask me questions that help me think about what I do and how I do it.

This week, Chris Pence, one of my online writing buddies, asked me a question that got me thinking. A while back, Chris read my original ED ACE article from Writer’s Digest, and he’s been working with that tool for a while. As most writers know, if you work with any specific technique for a while, you find its edges and new questions to ask. This week, Chris asked me about the illusion of realism. Specifically, he said, “I’ve been re-reading Stephen King lately, mostly early stuff, and I’m struck with how realistic he was able to make those stories feel. Too many stories I read never quite shed the “fiction” feel. What advice do you have on increasing the realism in a story?”

Before answering, focusing on two things in this question is important. First, Chris is asking about “feel.” Second, he is asking about the reader’s experience rather than the concept of realism as it is used in literary criticism.

The question is simple enough, but the answers are complex.

Note the plural of answer.

The factors that mix in order to create or detract from a sense of realism are myriad.

First, consider that each reader brings their genetics, early life imprinting, personal history, family culture, community culture, regional culture, national culture, religious background, gender experience, sexual experience, travel experience, etc. to their reading. Therefore, realism for one reader is different than realism for another. In Jungian terms, while there are culturally recognizable archetypal images and symbols, each specific image and symbol has its own much more particular meaning for any one individual. In fact, Jung believed that it was not possible to decode an individual’s relationship to their own symbolism until extensive personal history and background had been fully understood. As writers, we don’t get to sit down with each reader and explore their background. We get to write from our experience and with a general sense of our audience’s experience in mind. If we all wrote the same way, from the same experience, and with the same sense of the symbolic, we would all have the same audience. Luckily, we don’t.

The written word, in fiction, is a guided meditation–a sort of hypnosis–in which the writer is the guide and the text is the voice the guide uses.

The reader begins with trust that allows them to slip into the illusion. In fact, the opening of a book is a ritual of trust. If the writer does nothing to violate that trust, readers allows themselves to be immersed in the experience. Once the writer violates the trust, the reader breaks free from the illusion.

Realism, in the case of Chris’s question, is a term that describes the reader’s ability to completely believe in the experience of the reading.

If the above is all true, which is debatable, then the mix of techniques employed by the writer interacts with the set of experiences and expectations of the reader to create a completeness of belief—a feeling of realism.

So far, none of what I have said is particularly helpful to a writer attempting to place little black squiggles on a white background and call it a story. Execution is very different from theory. However, the above is important to understand in terms of background for what follows.

Here’s a piece of the execution side of realerism.

For me, and I stress that this is a description of my experience, the sense of the piece being “a piece of fiction” lingering in the background results from slight violations to my sense of immersion as a result of character depth, timing, and attributions. This is a fairly simplistic description, but those three things can be used as categories for larger and more complex subjects. However, it is important to keep in mind that many more factors can influence the reader’s belief in the fictive dream. For example, I won’t be talking about objective correlative, clinching details, telling details, concrete imagery, and many other things.

Traditionally, narrative immersed in character experience is called “close subjective narrative.” Personally, I prefer the more descriptive phrase, “reader experiencing through the character filter.” What I mean by that is that every moment and everything in the story within the perception of character is selected and interpreted based on character psychology, physiology, social history, emotion, and agenda. That experience and observation is grounded in the sensory and reactionary experience of the character.

You can say:

He felt the warmth of the sun on his cheek and wondered why she had left so abruptly. No matter. He would find her that evening at her mother’s house and prove his love.

Note that the character in question has a sensory experience. He has emotion, curiosity followed by determination. He considers and decides. The lines can be mapped to the ED part of ED ACE. The character has an Emotion that drives a Decision.

Aside: For people not familiar with ED ACE, it is an acronym for an emotional logic cycle that often functions in the mind of the reader as they experience story: Emotion drives Decision, which results in Action, which initiates Conflict, which results in a new Emotion. The new Emotion initiates the next cycle. I’m sorry, but I don’t have space here to provide a more detailed exposition of the concept and how it can be used and abused.

However, the sun on the character’s face may not have anything to do with his deeper psychology and emotion. Consequently, the reader will feel that he is false–not real—because he is paying attention to something that violates the reader’s internal sense of who that character is and how they “would” behave in this moment. Additionally, he is “feeling” the sun, which means that the reader is not in his skin experiencing the world through him. This creates another level of distance that is “unreal.”

Here’s a revision of the lines. This time, I’m making the world something that is experienced through the selection caused by his truer emotion and interpreted from the perspective of his specific psychology and emotional state.

He had loved the summer sun warming his cheeks when they had played on Aunt Sophie’s beach as a children, but this sun, the sun of the midland forests, was an insult to life and love. This heat in his cheeks raised his hackles and made unwelcome goose flesh crawl up his arms.

He abandoned their driftwood bench, rejecting any place where she had turned her cold cheek to him. Heading through the forest toward the parking lot, he kicked through the fern-choked undergrowth, imagining himself a god striding through delicate ice castles in her heart. The crack and slap of each frond was another wall falling, another defense against him dying.

She could not hide her heart from a god. Tonight. Tonight at her mother’s house he would make her understand his love.

Okay, what has happened is that every object in the experience of the character has taken on significance to him in the context of the emotional experience he is living through. A small amount of back story created contrast between an earlier life innocent state and a current obsessive, tainted state.

This is what I mean by depth of character. Every detail that is selected, recognized, interpreted, and experienced by character is a result of the character’s psychology and their emotional state and agenda in that moment of the story.

Strained Example: Given the above character in setting, consider how the reader would respond to the following.

He had loved the summer sun warming his cheeks when they had played on Aunt Sophie’s beach as a children, but this sun, the sun of the midland forests, was an insult to life and love. The white sand back then had been a mystery, and he had more than once set out to count all the grains on the beach. Once, he had even tried to take a bucket of sand in to the kitchen table so he could count grains while it was raining outside. Of course, nobody had helped him at the time, and his mother had gotten angry. Luckily, his sister had been willing to help him clean up the mess. Now, the heat in his cheeks raised his hackles and made unwelcome goose flesh crawl up his arms.

He abandoned their driftwood bench, rejecting any place where she had turned her cold cheek to him. Kicking through the fern-choked undergrowth, he imagined himself a god striding through the ice castles in her heart. The crack and slap of each frond was another wall falling, another defense against him dying. Each fern matched his sense of order in the way that fiddleheads and fronds confirmed nature’s use of the Fibonacci sequence. It would have been good to sit down and unwind a few fiddleheads just to count the curls and see the numbers and symmetry. He supposed that he wouldn’t be able to explain that to a poet or a songwriter, but what did he care about people like that?

She could not hide her heart from a god. Tonight. Tonight at her mother’s house he would make her understand his love.

In this example, the reader’s sense of character is either strained or broken because the interpretation of the images contradict one another in terms of their support for his emotional state and psychology. Because they are not quite resonant, they also create a violation in the reader’s sense of timing. Even though a case could be made that the passage on Fibonacci reinforces his obsessive nature, such a passage strains the reader’s sense of belief in how he “should” think and behave if he is experiencing the suggested emotions.

Now, a few words about timing.

Each genre has expectations. Story is story, but the mix of techniques for rendering story changes from genre to genre. On a more subtle level, the mix of technique also changes from writer to writer. Timing is a function of the way in which the writer provides narrative content, character experience, conflict, and detail. When the timing is right, the reader never considers the components of story in any way. When the timing is off, the reader becomes aware of the words and how they are organized on the page. While the writer can manipulate timing, they cannot control the reader’s sense of how the timing should be managed.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Once I got used to the language, I was able to read (insert classical author name here).” For me, that’s an apt description of how I feel when I read Tolstoy, Jane Austin, or Henry James. I have to get used to the rhythm of the narrative and the movement of narrative distance in and out of character experience. I have to get used to the flow of the syntax that was used at the time the tale was written. Only after I choose to spend some time reading such stories do I relax into the experience of the worlds they render for me.

Consider if in the passages above the character had, in addition to considering fiddleheads and Fibonaci, waxed poetic on the carpet of fall leaves beneath the ferns and the way in which some were already damp and rotted while others were caught in fern fronds as if immune to the natural mortality of the earth and the cycle of life. Imagine if he had moved from that little internal essay into an assessment of his own relationship to the woman in question and how she wanted him to be a damp, moldering leaf while she remained green, and full of life on the tree as if the coming winter were a mere inconvenience. . ..

This type of introspection might function well for one type of reader. They might consider it quite wonderful and part of the realism of the psychology of the character. Another reader (me, for instance) might consider it overwritten crap that gets in the way of the truer, more terse interior truth of character. For me, the timing would suck, and I would stop reading after one or two passages like that.

Interestingly, however, I would not stop listening if the book were in audio form and the reader were accomplished. Different input experiences create different tolerances.

In the timing category, issues of presented detail during the Decision in the ED ACE cycle and narrative overburdening of the E tend to be where problems demonstrate themselves. In fact, in terms of ED ACE, the decision is often implied by emotion and context in order to manage timing and not violate the reader’s sense of realism.

Timing problems also often result from inconsistency in how the E and moments are handled. If the character is prone to the poetics described above, the writer has to be careful to make sure that the poetics occur when action, conflict, and emotion are equal in tension and speed. When, for instance, action is frantic, the poetics will disappear to an extent. In a moment of peace prior to a reversal, the poetics might go on for a while in order to create the idyllic lull that will be violated by the coming plot turn.

So, what about attributions? Most writers develop a sense of when to, and when not to, use dialog attributions (he said, she said). If at all possible, I like to allow scene business, character action, diction, and dialog implications to provide attribution. These techniques help keep the reader in the experience of the dialog. Of course, it is not likely that a writer will get rid of all dialog attribution.

In the same way, sensory attributions are occasionally necessary. Example of sensory attribution:

He felt the heat of the sun on his cheek.

He felt, saw, heard, tasted, wondered, etc….

All of these are sensory attributions.

A common error in developing writers is constantly, and without reason, narrating at a level outside character. One of the markers for that type of narration is sensory attribution. If “he felt the heat,” then the narrator is watching him feel it, which means the reader is experiencing it second hand through someone telling them about it. Refer back to the second passage above in order to see how the “felt” got replaced with direct experience and interpretation that was more true to character psychology, desire, and immediate experience.

These sensory attributions are, at times, necessary. However, text that relies entirely on them always “feels like fiction.” In addition, scenes that only allow the reader to “see” the scene and not to smell it, hear it, feel it, taste it, and have an emotional sense of the ambiance also cause the reader to feel outside the reality of the story.

So, text that evokes the heart, history, and physical experience of character while managing timing and avoiding reminders that the story in the mind of the reader is actually coming from text on the page tends to “feel more real.” Of course, how real depends on the skill of the writer and the mix of personal characteristics and expectations that the reader brings to the text.

-End-

Making Waves with Particles, by Eric M. Witchey

Image

Making Waves with Particles,
by Eric M. Witchey

(Image source: Damkier Media Group via iStockPhoto)

Story meaning is both a wave and a particle.

The classic double slit physics experiment works quite well when applied to stories. In fact, slits aren’t even necessary for the experiment. All a writer needs is a pair of eyes, or even just one eye, or even braille. For this little thought experiment, think of the eyes, eye, or fingertips as one slit. When a story passes through that slit, the particle scatter patterns emerge.

Take a look at this text. Here is an ‘A.’ Here is a ‘B.’ Notice that the text you are reading is really just a long string of little black squiggles on a white background. One squiggle after another, the little squiggles appear. Readers scan the squiggles. Every now and then, a little extra white separates one group of squiggles from another group of squiggles, and the reader recognizes that a word has ended and a new one has begun. The squiggles make word patterns, and the word patterns appear in rows, lines.

Lines group together. Paragraphs appear. Scenes appear. Chapters appear. All the little particles line up in rows one after another until they have marched one particle at a time from the first letter of the first page to the last period of the last line on the last page.

Letters, words, lines, paragraphs, etc. are the scattering of the particles on a backdrop. The reader’s eye, eyes, or fingertips pick up each little squiggle and combines it with the next to create words. The reader picks up each word and pulls the meaning from it and combines that meaning with the next. One after another, the reader picks up individual meanings and combines them with other meanings. Patterns emerge.

Notice that in the last paragraph, the description of the reader’s experience included an interesting shift from recognition of the little squiggles to the pulling of meaning from the emerging patterns.

The second slit is the mind’s eye, the eye behind the eye, which is a calm pond into which the particulate words fall like pebbles. Each pebble creates a ripple. The ripples expand and interact. A ripple peak meets a trough, and they cancel into a moment of calm water. Two peaks meet, and they create a new peak that is higher and stronger than either one alone. These rippling interactions of meanings add to or subtract from the power of the reader’s experience. Each ripple has amplitude and frequency. The driving power of the ripple is emotion, and the power of the emotions cancels and amplifies.

A yellow dog playing with a boy is a happy thing to read. A yellow dog dying is a sad thing to read. Alone, each has power in and of itself. Combined with a story’s many other ripples, all of which combine to amplify or cancel, the second image becomes the tear-jerking end to Old Yeller.

Perfect, particulate words and events are not enough. Emotion captured in an individual line, a conflict set, or a single page is not enough. Awareness, intuitively or consciously, of how the particle patterns and wave patterns are related and how the wave patterns interact allows a writer to create the contrasts and amplifications that keep the reader’s mind and emotions focused on the story that emerges from the page. The emotional power of an ending depends on how the ripples created by the first word of the story are amplified or cancelled when combined with subsequent ripples.

For your consideration, examine the following short story for the patterns of particles and for the complimentary and contrasting wave interactions. Please, if you see the particle/waves duality and the power of the interactions between waves, leave a comment and let me know. I hope you enjoy the experience.

The following story was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Prose Award and was first published in The Best New Fiction of 2012. All typos and variations from the published version are my fault and not the fault of the editors. Also, Dr. Hansey is a real doctor. He was my doctor. Use of his name is my bow in his direction. Without him, I would still be sealed in my own metaphorical car in the sun. Namaste, Dr. Hansey.

 

Reunion

Eric M. Witchey

 

The sealed car is heating up under August sun. Gordon lets the sweat roll down from his stubble hairline, along his neck, and under the collar of his linen cabana shirt. It reminds him that he’s on an outing like a normal person.

A family reunion. Lots of people go to them. Now, he does, too.

He tells himself family reunions are happy things. When he was a kid, he remembers them being happy things. He especially remembers galvanized steel tubs filled with water and ice nests cradling huge, sweet watermelons.

For some reason, the memory of one family reunion includes a fixation on a nearby swimming pool he and the other kids weren’t allowed to go to. The chlorine smell of the water, sounds of splashing kids, and squeals of joy and laughter tortured them in heavy August heat.

He supposes the pool, like many memories in his life, is burned into his mind because he couldn’t have it.

Like Sussette.

She still dominates his thoughts, but his meds helped disconnect his actions from those thoughts. He’d finally gotten to the point where he could leave her alone. He’d even deleted her old number from his cell phone. With Dr. Hansey’s help, he’d almost deleted her new one twice. That day would come pretty soon, he was sure.

But the meds hadn’t made it so he could get out of the car, so he watches his family reunion from inside the protective, purifying oven of glass and steel.

Kids run back and forth across the park lawns. Some play soccer. Some play chasing games. There are so many kids. Chaos on the hoof, and he can’t imagine any good will come of it. They’ll crash into things, spill things, break things. If he gets out, they’ll bump him. One might even touch his skin.

The sweat on his neck chills and makes him shudder. That’s what he tells himself.

He’d been a kid. He remembers it whether he wants to or not.

It’s just crazy to sit in the car because he can’t stand the thought of them bouncing around like agitated molecules. They touch everything. They scream and squeal.

He must have been like that. Must have been.

What if he had gotten together with Sussette? They would’ve had kids. She wanted them. She desperately wanted them. He wanted her. He would have agreed to anything to have her.

The restraining order was pointless, really. She had no idea how much power she had over him and how little power he had over her. If she’d asked, he’d have followed her from two feet or fifty yards. He’d have done anything for her, but she hadn’t seen that.

A Frisbee hits the side of the car. The plastic on metal thud startles him. He ducks and sucks in a lung full of hot, vinyl-tainted air. When he realizes he’s okay, he lifts his head enough to peer across the seat and out the passenger side window.

A laughing eightish-year-old boy runs to the car, sees him through the window, and mouths the word, “Sorry.” Then he snags the disk, spins, and lets it fly back toward the field of loose molecules.

Gordon checks the door locks. None of the kids are near him now. He’s safe, and he does a breathing exercise to relax a little, then he thinks back to what it was like when he was a kid.

The first thing he remembers is that he could fly. It’s always the first thing he remembers. He had to be naked, and the day had to be sunny, too. He remembers the warm sun on his skin felt good, like ripe watermelon on the vine tastes — a sweet, spreading liquid rightness flowing into every shadowy nook and cranny of his body and mind. He used to lie down in a field of clover and close his eyes. While his eyes were closed, when the rightness filled him full and replaced every heaviness in him, he would stand up and fly. It wasn’t a super power sort of flying––that fast, driving flying that tore at the air and pushed it aside. It was more of a leaning into the breeze, hands slightly out from his sides and palms forward. He leaned and let the cool air touch his chest, belly, and arms––let it gently lift him from the earth like a kite with no string.

By turning his hands and leaning, he could slide along the waves of wind and rise and fall and move forward or let the wind push him back.

In the heat of the car, he closes his eyes and tries to find that feeling of freedom, of rising above all the ugly stuff that had become his life.

All he finds is orange heat behind closed lids.

All he feels is the drip of sweat on his neck and off the tip of his nose. He can’t even find the smell of the clover or make the heat of the car into the delicious warmth of sun on his bare skin.

“Gordon!” The voice is his mother.

She found him flying in the clover field. Her anger, fear, and shame made her scream, grab, and drag him to the house. She sprayed him with cold water from the hose they used to water the dogs.

“Is that you? Come on out here. Let me look at you!”

It’s not his mother. It’s a man’s voice.

Someone pulls on the car door handle. They tap on the glass. “Gordon!”

He keeps his eyes closed, willing them to believe he’s sleeping, trying to push them away from the car with his thoughts.

He has learned to visualize what he wanted to happen in his life, and he wants that voice to take its body back to the pavilion where barbeque is cooking and adults chat and trade lies and laughter.

The knocking on the window gets harder. “Gordon! Are you all right? Gordon! It’s Andy! Gordon!”

Andy. Of course, it’s Andy’s voice. His cousin. They had played together at these things.

Ball?

Yes––until Andy hit him in the head with a bat.

And running and jumping games.

He remembered Andy pushing him down a flight of three concrete steps.

Now, adult Andy yells at him to leave the protection of his metal shell. If he did, he’d have to walk across the grass. The bouncing, laughing molecules might touch him.

Grown up Andy probably has kids. Maybe the Frisbee boy is Andy’s kid.

Gordon keeps his eyes shut. Andy calls for him a couple more times, then the visualization works and Andy goes away.

Gordon is about to open his eyes when he hears people coming. Many voices. Excited voices. Talking, almost yelling voices. Andy’s is mixed in with them.

“. . . locked in, and I couldn’t get him . . .”

“. . . a hundred and fifty in there. We have to . . .”

“. . . get Zach. Quick, get Doctor Zach . . .”

Too many voices. Too much noise. Even the adults have become loose molecules. The sun has heated them all into agitated Brownian chaos and craziness. He should drive away. He wasn’t ever going to get out of the car. He knows that now. It was pointless to drive the two hundred miles to this stupid park thinking he’d gotten well enough to somehow join his family and act normal.

He opens his eyes just in time to see an arm swinging toward the passenger window. In a slow motion of terror, he sees that the hand on that arm holds a tool of some kind––a red plastic handle with a metal point sticking out of it. The metal hits the window. A spider web of fractures appears, radiating outward to all the edges of the window. The whole thing bows inward, and every tiny fragment of glass frees itself from all the others and explodes inward toward him, showering him in the fragments of his own sheltering window. Cool wind chases the glass with the smell of chlorine and mowed grass.

Then the door is open. Hands reach in. Too many hands. Andy’s hands. Other people’s hands. A pair of child’s hands.

He pushes himself away from them, kicking and pressing his back to the driver’s side door.

Grasping hands find the master lock switch on the key fob dangling from the ignition. The lock on the door behind him pops.

His door opens. He’s out, dragged onto the hot asphalt, surrounded, and held down. It’s a nightmare, the opposite of flying.

He screams and struggles to get up.

“Heat stroke,” a voice says.

“Hysterical,” another says.

They all say things, make noises, talk at him. He can’t hear them all, not all of them, not all at once.

He fights, but they hold him.

“Get back!” Someone yells. “Everybody, get back! Give him air. Give him room.” The someone makes them pull away.

One man, a man with curly red hair and a trimmed beard, kneels next to him. Blue sky surrounds the man’s face. He is a bearded balloon floating in the blue sky. “Gordon?”

Gordon manages a nod.

“I’m Zach, your second cousin. Do you know me?”

He shakes his head.

“It’s been a long time.”

He nods.

“Do you know where you are?”

He manages one word. “Reunion.”

“That’s right. You’re at your family reunion. Do you think you can you drink some water?”

Gordon looks around at the loose circle of towering, momentarily frozen, molecules. Andy’s there. It’s Andy, for sure, taller and fatter, but still Andy with his dark eyes and narrow lips. Five children of various ages stand around his legs. Gordon closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see them.

“Stay with me,” Zach says.

Gordon opens his eyes. “Hebephobia,” he says, “and OCD.”

“Shit,” Zach says. “Get back! You kids, get back! Go play! Now!”

“Is it contagious?” Andy steps back a few paces.

Gordon closes his eyes against the horrors of his family reunion and tells himself he’s home in his basement lying in the dark on the hard concrete floor. Mowed lawn and sweat smells combined with the hot asphalt against his back makes it hard to believe himself.

“Just keep the kids away, Andy. Get them to the pavilion. You go with them.”

“Is it contagious?” Andy sounds scared.

Somewhere inside, the Gordon lying crying and bleeding at the bottom of three concrete steps catches his breath and smiles.

“Go!” Zach says. A few seconds later, he says, “You can open your eyes if you want to.”

Gordon does. He and Zach are alone.

“Can you sit up?” The second cousin doctor helps him sit. “So, is this some sort of therapy for you?”

“I thought I could do it.”

“You’re here.”

“But I couldn’t get out of the car.”

“You’re out, now.” Doctor Zach tries to be a normal person and chuckle. It sounds flat and wrong. Zach pats him on the back.

“I have to leave,” Gordon says.

“I’ll explain it to them.”

Gordon looks at the pavilion full of people, at Andy standing there with a kid under each arm, talking excitedly with a gray-haired woman and a couple of younger men. The younger men keep looking Gordon’s way.

“Do you think,” Gordon says, “you could wait to tell them?”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No. That’s not it.”

“Why?”

“Just wait. Let Andy’s germs worry him.”

“I’m not sure––”

“Just for one day.”

Zach turns and looks at the pavilion, too. When he turns back, he’s smiling, and the smile looks real. “I’ve known Andy a long time. I think I can do that.”

Gordon nods and lets Zach help him to his car.

When he gets home, Gordon strips, goes out into his privacy-fenced back yard, and lies down in a patch of clover. He closes his eyes and lets the summer sun make his skin delicious. After a while, the delicious starts to sink in deeper and deeper until he’s sure it feels just right, just like he remembers. He stands. Eyes closed and arms at his sides, he leans into the breeze and rises into the embrace of summer winds.

 

 

Fish Every Cast, by Eric M. Witchey

Fish Every Cast

by Eric M. Witchey

My father was an avid sport fisherman, so my head is full of little gems of parental wisdom couched in angling metaphors.

More on that in a minute. First, a joke.

Have you heard the one about the aspiring writer who asked the editor, “What is the difference between a manuscript you accept and one you reject?” The editor smiled, sipped her wine, and quipped, “Lunch.”

In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge suggests to Marley that the ghost might be the result of a bit of underdone potato. We are all glad Marley wasn’t, but he might have been. Scrooge’s experience and the editor’s quip share very significant characteristics. Marley really is a ghost, and Scrooge embraces the possibility that human perception is influenced by environmental factors. The editor’s response assumes that the manuscript is a story, and she also embraces the knowledge that her perceptions might be influenced by blood sugar or general attitude in the moment.

Where Marley is actually a ghost, the editor’s assumption that the manuscript is a story is a huge and kind assumption. She is really only speaking to the selection between two stories from equally skilled writers. She has, in her mind, automatically dismissed the other 99% of her slush pile. Given her obscene workload, we have to allow for that.

Keep our hypothetical editor in mind for a moment while I return to my father. We used to go bass fishing on a pond in the woods at the back end of a Catholic Seminary in Ohio. That pond is where I learned to use a spin-caster. I can still hear my father saying, “If you want to learn to cast well, cast more.” I have fond memories of that place.

Now, having travelled the world and fished in many places, I can say that the little pond of my childhood was a bit of a shithole. It was choked in weeds. It was surrounded by a wall of cattails ten feet thick in places, which made water access difficult. Additionally, that pond wasn’t more than fifty yards from a landfill where we used to shoot rats, but that’s another story. Luckily, the shithole pond was full of nasty, hungry bass.

Learning to cast was an exercise in managing mind, body, equipment, and environment. Little-by-little, under the patient tutelage of my father, I got the hang of finding access, seeing where the bass might hang out, flipping the bail on my reel, letting out a little line, locking the line with a finger, swinging the rod to load the fiberglass and establish the throwing arc, and releasing the line by pointing my finger at the spot where I wanted my bass lure to land. Then, I learned to work my lures in the water in order to attract bass.

I caught bass.

However, and I actually started keeping track because that’s how my sad little OCD brain works, I only caught a bass about every 50 casts. Now, it turned out that in 50 casts, a fair number of them went astray of my intentions—especially early on while learning to cast by casting a lot.

One day, while trying hard to impress my father with my casting (and catching), I sent a hoola-popper (bass lure) out into the lily pads and tangled vines of elodea (weeds). That was not what I wanted. It was embarrassing because my father was standing next to me watching, so I quickly started to real the lure in to try again.

My father put a hand on my frantically cranking arm to still it. In his quiet, fishing voice, he said, “Fish every cast. You never know what might happen.”

Frustration at my failure battled with my desire to appear as though I believed my father. That day, the desire to please won out over my frustration. I slowed down. I worked the lure, and I caught a bass in the middle of the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.

What has all this to do with writing, Scrooge, and jokes?

Well, in case you don’t already see it coming, it has everything to do with them. Sometime in the last few years, and I won’t say exactly when, I won an award for a story that had been rejected 65 times. That’s not an exaggeration, and I won’t name the story here for the same reasons I won’t pin down the timeframe more specifically. No organization wants to believe they gave an award to a story that other editors had rejected 65 times, but that prejudice is a human foible to explore another time.

The point here is that the story didn’t change over the almost 15 years it took before an editor had the right things at lunch to set their mood and allow them to embrace it. The manuscript was always a story, and it was always a “good enough” story. I put it out on the pond over and over and over because you have to cast 50 times to catch a bass. I put it in the lily pads. I put it in the elodea. I put in open water. I hit the bank. I got it tangled in the trees. Then, one day, it magically became the right story in the right place with the right editor, who, incidentally, had had the right things for lunch. In short, I caught a fish in the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.

If, as writers, we are sure the manuscript is a well-crafted story, then it is important for us to remember that my father was a wise man. When he said, “If you want to learn to cast, cast more,” and, “fish every cast,” he wasn’t talking about fishing. Fishing was just the tool he used to slip his wisdom past my anti-parental advice defenses.

Every story is a lure. Every submission is a cast. You can never be completely sure which lure and which cast will bring a trophy bass up out of the muck and weeds. So, cast more and fish every cast.

I have to say one more very important thing. Editors are not bass. I never said that they are bass. Don’t ever tell them that they are a bass. That’s a very bad thing. Editors are people who have nothing whatsoever in common with bass. It also helps to buy them good lunches. Never let an editor eat a bad lunch.

PS: I’m adding this post script about thirty minutes before this blog entry is scheduled to go live because I just found out that the one and only science fiction story I have written about a boy and his father teaching one another to fish just sold to Daily Science Fiction. The story is titled, “Vincent’s First Bass.” I love it when the universe throws these tiny convergence parties.