Category Archives: Creativity

All I Want for Christmas is a Chainsaw to Cut My Novel in Half

Guilt is for children with sticky fingers and mysterious stains.

I declare this to be true in defiance of all religious and sociological thought, because I don’t want to mess with guilt today. I haven’t posted for a month, and I don’t even need a reason, never mind a good reason, because I state that I do not.

Ignorance, however, is for everybody.

I am not as clever as God, nor am I even as clever as J.R.R. Tolkien. A couple of years ago I took on a fantasy novel project. After three months of obsessive writing, during which my wife suspected I was no more real than Bigfoot, I produced an 180,000 word story that I adored. To provide a sense of scale, 180,000 words are roughly the length of the New Testament, or The Fellowship of the Ring. What joy to stand among such giants.

God probably didn’t have to impress literary agents. Perhaps Tolkien didn’t either. I do, and agents let me know in a snapping hurry that 180,000 words is an unacceptable count for a novel, no matter how much I love it. If I can’t bring them something about 100,000 words or less, I should just go back to sitting around Starbucks and talking about the book I plan to start writing someday.

I had created a waddling beast of a manuscript.

I’ve met writers who spend years trying to fix their novel, ending up with a book that forever needs one more month of polish. So, I put the manuscript on the shelf like a third grade science medal, and I moved on to more disciplined projects.

This fall, with some of my newer projects floating out to agents, my Godzilla project arose from the shelf and dared me to cut it in half without killing it. I don’t want to get too detailed, but my process involved staring at an Escher print for about a month. Then I irradiated the manuscript for two months like I was a mad Japanese scientist, and I finished with a 103,000 word story. Today I celebrate.

Tightening language and eliminating redundancy got me part of the way there. Advice from Roz Morris of Nail Your Novel on ways to cut a novel was invaluable. But my secret weapon was to:

Find everything I love most in the story and kill it. Well, perhaps not everything, but a lot of things. The more I loved it, the less likely it was to really help the story. I silenced clever dialogue, I obliterated characters from the storyline, and I blasted subplots out of the space-time continuum.

With as much objectivity as I can manage, I believe that this version is a far better story than the original. Final editing can wait for my brain to quit vibrating, and anyway, I need to sit and stare at my Escher print for a while to think about the next project.

That’s what I hid in my office and did with my holiday season. I hope yours was just as much fun and just as terrifying.

BillMcCurryWriterEditingNovelLengthHumorFantasyBooks
Artist’s conception of an agent mesmerized by my newly-trimmed manuscript.

Artist: William-Adolphe_Bouguereau
Museum: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Mary D. Keeler Bequest

 

 

The Carrot and the Stick and the Lithium

My wife gave me that look again yesterday. It’s not really a bad look, but it is specific to certain situations. I like to imagine that at some point General Custer was talking about whether to ride down to Little Big Horn or to just go home and drink beer. And I like to imagine that during that discussion Custer’s aide looked at him the way my wife looked at me last night. It’s the look that says, “I don’t know why you’re saying these things, but I hope we end up having a party instead of pulling arrows out of each other.”

I started off by telling her I had an unimportant question, and then I asked what the idiom “the carrot and the stick” means to her.

“It means you reward someone to get them to do something, and you punish them if they don’t do it,” she said.

“Yeah, that’s the common definition,” I said, “but that’s not the way I learned it. The carrot is a reward, and the stick holds the carrot in front of the donkey where he can’t get to it. He just keeps pulling towards it.”

I paused to let my wife say something in response. Instead, she gave me that look.

“Nobody gets punished,” I said.

She kept that look trained on me, even though the cat chose that moment to dig his claws into her leg and launch himself across the den like a cruise missile.

“You don’t hit the donkey with the stick,” I went on. “The stick just hangs there.”

My wife rubbed her perforated trousers leg and said, “Is this for something you’re writing?”

“No, I’m just thinking about it.”

She leaned away from me a fraction, the way you’d stand back to get perspective on a magnificent tree, or to get perspective on a manic person who’s talking about pudding enriched with brain-strengthening vitamins.

“Really! Think about it!” I said. “If you hit a donkey with a stick, you may get bit. Even the stupidest donkey in the world isn’t going to think the stick hit him by itself.”

I paused again for my wife to speak, but she just gave me a glacial nod to continue.

“But if you just use the stick to dangle the carrot, the donkey won’t get pissed off and bite you. Even if he gets aggravated, he’ll probably just bite the stick. It’s better all the way around.”

My wife crossed her legs and said, “Okay. And why did this come up?” Followed by the unspoken, And were you stockpiling food and Geiger counters at the time?

“No particular reason. It’s just, you know, the donkey never sees the stick that’s holding the carrot. So, when I look around here I can see the carrots. Where are all the sticks?”

“Are you complaining because you can’t see invisible sticks?”

“No! But if I’m working for carrots that I can never get because some hidden something is keeping them out of reach, I want to know what that something is and do something about it!”

My wife leaned back another fraction. “Are you complaining because you can’t see invisible sticks and then bite them?”

“Well… yeah. Kind of. Not literal sticks. The sticks are metaphors.”

She waited for a bit. When I didn’t continue, she said, “Metaphors for what?”

“I don’t know! That’s what I want to find out!”

“Should I clean out another closet so you can fill it with bottled water?”

“No, you’re missing the point!”

“Which is?”

“It’s hard to explain,” I said.

“Does it have something to do with the donkey? You have to give the donkey a carrot before all this, or he won’t know he likes carrots.”

“Yeah, it goes without saying that the donkey likes carrots!”

“And if you don’t feed the donkey sometime he’ll die.”

“Just forget about the damned donkey!”

“You’re the one who wanted to talk about the donkey. I was watching TV,” she said.

The truth of that statement kicked me in the larynx, and I stopped talking for a moment. Then I said, “You were right, this is for something I’m writing.”

I saw her shoulders relax. That look disappeared from her face like a pricked soap bubble. “Oh, okay. Anything else?”

I shook my head, kissed her, and went back to my office, where I further contemplated the question of donkeys and invisible sticks. That question had become secondary, though. My primary interest had become appreciating the complexity of my wife’s job.

My wife contributes to our partnership in a lot of ways, and one of them is observing my behavior. She doesn’t so much observe it as she scans it with the diligence of a forest ranger. But she’s not scanning trees for signs of fire, she’s scanning what I do and say for signs of an irrational brain that needs tweaking. You could say that she’s a Brain Ranger.

It’s a hard job. People pay me to say things that no one would expect a normal person to say. Even when my brain is working fine, I sometimes say things that make everyone stop for a moment and then look away. How can a Brain Ranger tell when I’m malfunctioning and when I’m just being my normal, strange self?

I can’t explain how she does it. But I will say that for a person like me with an unruly brain, a vigilant, no-bullshit Brain Ranger is invaluable. There’s nothing like having someone who can listen to you talk about your metaphorical donkeys and invisible sticks in the context of your metaphorical forest and figurative fire, and assess whether your behavior is abnormally weird or just regular weird.

Someone's Brain Ranger has some exciting times ahead.
Someone’s Brain Ranger has some exciting times ahead.

Public domain photo by Karen Murphy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, My Blog Was Uglier Than a Goat’s Armpit

I know, goats technically don’t have armpits. I’m not sure they even have legpits, and I didn’t want to name any of those locations where a goat’s limbs might intersect. Armpit, then.

I have been working on a new website for about a year. More precisely, I have been thinking about a new website for 50 weeks and working on it for 2 weeks. The Grand Strategy involves bringing my entire online presence into one location so that I get higher search engine rankings and bored teenagers in Prague can find me more easily. That means bringing my blog into my website, and that’s why my blog no longer looks like a moist caprine body part.

The new website design pleases me pretty well. I suffered to get the dates the way I wanted them and to figure out the right shade of blue for the text. My wife is responsible for the lavender box around the name of whatever page you’re looking at. (I was going to make it silver. All right, I was going to make it gray and call it silver.) I strategically employed my resources to find the photo for the header, which means I skimmed through my photos and grabbed the first one that had colors I liked.

The photo shows the Inverness skyline at sunset. I took it in 1998 with my Pentax K-1000 using real film and no Photoshop. If at all possible, you should rush right out and visit Inverness. It’s a lovely town in August. You can tell it’s a town rather than a city because the church has no spires, so the residents told me. It’s only six miles from Loch Ness, and it had a rocking Ghost Tour in 1998.

I plan to add more content to the non-blog part of the website. I know what a lot of that content will be, I just need to find time to put it up. If you have any feedback about the site, by all means let me know!

Oh, if by some chance the old url (whimsoffairness.wordpress.com) erroneously takes you to the Home page rather than the Blog page, try clearing out your browser history and temporary files. It took me about five hours to figure that one out.

Here are some other photos I considered for the header:

Miscellaneous Scottish boats
Miscellaneous Scottish boats

 

A seagull watching two guys in a boat in New Hampshire
A seagull watching two guys in a boat in New Hampshire

 

Feline brain-massage
Feline brain-massage

Bullshit Threatens My Artistic Sensibilities

I pitched my new book to agents at the writer’s conference today. Two of them want to see chapters, and one wants to see the full manuscript. I hope the words on paper will live up to the words that came out of my mouth. I’ve only been writing like a maniac for a few years. I’ve improvised, cajoled, and spouted bullshit on a professional level for a lot longer than that.

Even though agents have asked me for chapters before, this makes me nervous. Yeah, I should be ecstatic, and a sliver of my consciousness is partying like Keith Richards on the day they legalize smack. But most of me is fixating on the gulf between the writer I am now and the writer I want to be. I refer to writing skill. I refer not to the glamorous lifestyle of a professional writer.

My sister is an artist of fabulous skill and determination. She once traveled to another city in which a gallery was showing her work. She said it was like being a rock star. People drove her around town, took her to eat, effused about her work, and generally worshipped her. It was an amazing week. The day she returned home she had to scrape dried peanut butter off the kitchen floor.

It puts things in perspective.

I wonder if I waited too late to get aggressive about writing. It takes time to get good at things. I’m a better actor now than I was 20 years ago. It’s not like I’m John Barrymore or anything now, but it’s relative. The universe of things I don’t know about writing stuns me when I can stand to think about it. Actually, I think about it a lot. My brain won’t stop thinking about writing.

Bad brain. Off the couch.

It’s almost time for tonight’s party here at the conference. I’m certain most of the writers, agents and editors will be there. How do I know this?

Open bar.

Free gin and tonics. That’s the glamorous lifestyle of a writer for you.

Definitely not John Barrymore
Definitely not John Barrymore

Photo by Ariana Berdy

I Will Take My Beating in Cowed Embarrassment

Writing brings out the mental illness in me. My wife can testify to this.

I’m in control of my behavior almost all the time. As Mark Twain said, “For business reasons, I must preserve the outward signs of sanity.” If I wake up to find my brain mired like a mammoth in tar, I can trick my brain into sucking itself free and stomping onwards across the plains. I rarely buy extravagant, useless things, because I have a rule. If I want to buy something that costs more than a couple of hundred dollars, I can’t buy it until I think about it for at least six months. I almost always follow that rule. Almost.

Judiciously applied chemicals are my friends. Free range chemicals and alcohol are not welcome in the home of my brain, apart from the occasional tequila shot or pomegranate martini. Come on, I’m not a nun or anything. But my best friend is me acting the way I want to feel, no matter how my brain tells me I feel, or at least doing my best to create the outward signs of sanity.

It works pretty well at this point in my life.

My wife refrains from trying to convince, trick, or bribe me into not behaving like a crazy person. It’s my job to take care of all this. She’s happy to help if I ask, and she demonstrates philosophical acceptance when I suddenly fill up the office closet with 30 gallons of bottled water, or when without warning I decide we need some more cats. Not only is she tolerant, she’s smart. If she tried to manage all this for me, I’d probably explode like a hand grenade.

Writing screws all this up. Well, not all writing causes problems. I can write a thousand words, declare success, and smile as I move on to something else. It’s the big projects that make me crazy. I’ve written three novels in the past three years, and the insanity they create goes like this.

I get an idea for something I want to write. It’s the best idea for a book that anyone’s had in the past 100 years, or maybe ever. I’m so excited that I talk to my wife about it almost every minute we’re together. I lay awake thinking about it and even consider waking my wife up in the middle of the night to talk about the greatness that is my idea. This goes on for about three days.

I begin the planning and research required to bridge the chasm between having an idea and writing words. I realize that my idea is rubbish. It’s less creative than a bucket of vanilla pudding. If brought to reality, it would be less popular than asphalt-flavored baby food. I feel shame. The only reason I keep working is that I talked it up so much to my wife I’d be embarrassed to never write a word of the thing. This goes on for about a month.

I start writing the first draft, expecting that after one chapter I can honorably surrender to the fact that my idea was horrible. After the first thousand words I find that I’m amusing myself, and I start to feel better about the project. I read the first chapter to my wife. She doesn’t say anything bad about it, which confirms my growing suspicion that it’s a work of magnificence. I begin laughing and hooting like a fool as I write, and I find I’d rather write than eat or sleep. This goes on until I finish the first draft, or about two to three months.

I put the manuscript aside to cool, planning to begin editing in about six weeks. Within 24 hours I realize that I was engulfed by irrational euphoria this whole time, and in fact my manuscript isn’t fit to wipe the ass of a sweaty heroin addict living in a ditch in Bangkok. I try to put this debacle behind me and concentrate on ideas for my next project, but I can only generate enough motivation to watch Saving Private Ryan and eat pie. This goes on for about two months.

Some grisly sense of obligation forces me to open the manuscript and pretend I’ll edit it before I trash it and funnel my creative urge into learning the ukulele. After reading three pages I can’t believe I’ve forgotten how brilliant it is. I perform several rounds of edits like one of those yipping dogs that never stop to sleep. I’m afraid that if I take a day off then the magical spell will be broken and I’ll once again see that the manuscript is just a snap-toothed yokel with mismatched shoes. This goes on for about six weeks.

The manuscript is finally as good as it’s going to get without an editor. I begin writing query letters, synopses, overviews, biographies, and the other artifacts that agents and publishers want to see. I become profoundly convinced that any agent would be more impressed if I just sent her an envelope full of fish guts. I grit my teeth and push on. I’ve come too far now. I’ll just send out the queries and then take my beating in cowed embarrassment.

Then it’s time to start a new project. And even though it means starting the cycle of crazy all over again, I don’t mind all that much. Not everybody get to experience three days of knowing that their book idea is absolutely the most perfect and radiant idea of the last century. It feels great. It’s entirely worth the subsequent months of the despair when you understand just how appalling your idea in fact was.

Really. I’m not joking.

Outward signs of sanity, dude.

Little yipping dogs - my spirit animal when editing.
Little yipping dogs – my spirit animal when editing.

Photo courtesy of cutedogs.com via wakpaper.com.

“You Can Look at the Funny Man, But Don’t Touch Him. He May Have a Liberal Arts Degree.”

I joined two teenagers in holy wedlock yesterday. I consider it an accomplishment since I’m not a minister, they hadn’t thought about marriage when they got up that morning, and I was wearing a pair of boots on my head. In fact, they had never seen me and didn’t know I existed until three minutes before I pronounced them man and wife in front of 30 strangers who didn’t even bring gifts.

All in all, it was a pretty normal spring-time Sunday for me.

I work at a renaissance festival in the spring. Most people go there to have fun, except the guys dragged there by their girlfriends when they’d rather be watching NASCAR, but they fear they won’t get laid tonight if they say no. I don’t go there to have fun. I go there to goad other people into having fun. I get paid just like most professional actors, which means I earn less per hour than a blind dishwasher in Burundi.

People have a lot of different opinions about renaissance festivals, and festivals are run a lot of different ways. There are a lot of jokes about renaissance festivals, some of which are hilarious. For example:

You know you’re at a bad renaissance festival when there’s an eight minute drum solo in the middle of “Greensleeves.”

Mainly I work there because it’s an acting challenge. I like to call it theater with no stage, no script, and no separation from the audience. To put it another way, I have no idea what I’m going to say or do until it happens, we have 33 acres so I have to pin my audience against something so they can’t get away, and I have to make them look brilliant even if they’re gaping at me with a sliver of turkey leg hanging off their cheek. I can tell when I’ve done a decent job of transforming into my character, because my character likes almost every person he’s ever met. You can ask my wife and my friends just how much that does not describe me. So—good acting challenge.

In most cases you have to select your audience, stalk them, and approach them. The best part is when they see you coming and their eyes get that desperate, calculating look. It’s as if they were trapped between a river and an army of tigers, and they’re assessing whether they can make the jump to freedom. At the same time they hover between smiling and not smiling, because they’re not sure which one is most likely to draw the tigers’ attention. That’s the best part because they have such trepidation when you arrive, and you know that when you’re done in a few minutes they’ll be happy, or amused, or feel welcome. Or maybe they’ll feel relieved that you’re done, which is at least better than getting drunk and kicking a mime.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about renaissance festivals. I just said all that in order to say this.

One day fifteen years ago at this festival I don’t want to talk about, I got tired of selecting and stalking my audience, so I set a trap. I gathered a double-handful of little rocks and sat on a bare, flat spot on the ground. Then I began placing and stacking rocks in patterns that didn’t mean a damn thing. Within ten minutes I had a bunch of little kids, about six or seven years old, picking up their own rocks and stacking them along with me.

I didn’t give them any instructions or rules. My only rule was that whatever they did was perfect. If they knocked down 30 existing rocks, I told them that was the most beautiful thing ever and those rocks must have been in the way. The funny thing was that most kids had a parent standing nearby telling them to be careful and not mess anything up. We tried to ignore those parents as much as we could.

This weekend I realized I hadn’t set a kid trap in a decade and a half, so I gathered up some rocks and went to work. In the first five minutes several kids stopped to look, but none of them sat down to play. In the following five minutes a couple of kids brought me rocks, but they wouldn’t sit down to help, even though I invited them. The parents, who were grown up versions of my kids from 15 years ago, just looked and didn’t say anything. After 30 minutes I gave up and moved on.

What the hell?

I pondered this change last night as I ate an economically priced New York strip, and I came up with a small array of possible explanations:

Stacking rocks loses its charm when a child can play Angry Birds on his cell phone 24 hours a day, even on the toilet.

For a child today, sitting down to play with an unknown person seems as dangerous as injecting arsenic into your neck.

Today’s children are expected to follow rules that govern every type of human behavior, so when they looked at the unstructured rock-stacking activity, their minds couldn’t deal with it. Their brains had to reset like a computer that’s been told by Captain Kirk to divide by zero.

I didn’t like any of those explanations. They’re all depressing. And since I possess modern man’s ability to convince myself that the things I don’t like are untrue, I denied all these explanations. As I choked down the last gristly bite of cow, the correct explanation revealed itself.

It’s me. I am 15 years older. I’m 15 years stranger. I no longer look like the fun but kind of weird uncle. Now I look like the really weird old guy doing something with rocks that’s inexplicable but probably bad. No wonder they stood out of reach, watching like I was a musk-ox in the zoo. They didn’t know what to make of me, but they were sure nothing good was going to come out of me.

So I’ll put my kid trapping techniques aside from now on and go after older audiences. The kids are safe. Wait until they’re teenagers on a date at a renaissance festival, though. Then I’ll own their asses.

"When's that man going to do something interesting, mommy? I want a wooden sword so I can give my brother a concussion."
“When’s that man going to do something interesting, mommy? I want a wooden sword so I can give my brother a concussion.”

Photo by Steven H. Keys via Wikimedia Commons.

Something to Amuse and Perplex the Entire Family

Last night I looked up from writing my novel synopsis and eating peanut butter cookies, and I realized that this blog has achieved a phenomenal milestone. It has existed for 660 days. The significance may not punch you in the face right away, so I’ll explain. The numeral 660 is the area code for Sedalia, Missouri. That town is only a two hour drive from Branson, Missouri. I visited Branson once. I think it’s pretty much how Las Vegas would look if it were built by the cast of Hee Haw, and yet the place entertained me in spite of myself. Ergo, milestone. Don’t you feel silly that you didn’t see it for yourself?

In celebration, I devoted a few minutes to thinking about the posts in this blog, and the number of posts (176) made it hard to keep them straight in my brain. If my tentacular mass of prior posts confuses me, then it probably confuses more recent regular readers, not to mention folks who stumble across the blog.

And I don’t know about you, but when I find an interesting blog with a long history, I’m puzzled about how to locate the parts of that history I might be most interested in. I know that’s what categories and tags are for, but what does it really mean when a post is tagged “camel”? How to ride one? How to raise them? How do they taste roasted? Do you prefer regular or menthol? It would be nice if the blogger would do some extra work for me. I have my own work that needs to be done and cookies waiting to be eaten.

A quick survey revealed that while this is my general humor blog, it does often follow certain themes. Creativity, marriage, work, family, fear and confidence are common themes. In addition, 33 posts mention movies, 35 posts mention death, 17 posts include strong profanity, 7 posts mention snot, and immersion blenders figure prominently in 2 posts. Cats appear in a full 100 of my posts.

Okay, this is a perplexing mess, and I’m cutting through it right now. I’ve extracted eight general groups of posts and a few posts from each group. You can find them below, along with a sentence or two describing each group to help you decide whether those posts might be interesting to you in any way at all.

My Wife

In order to understand a lot of my posts, it helps to understand my wife. This group of posts describes about 10 percent of her being, but that’s the portion she employs daily, not the 90% capable of sinking you like the Titanic. We’ve discussed getting t-shirts that say “Bill will make you cry. Kathleen will make you disappear.”

Travel

These posts chat about a couple of our recent vacations, both of which almost killed us. Jamaica was romantic. Disney World was nostalgic. Both were horrifying in their own way.

Family

My mother died last year, so these posts may not make you pee with laughter the whole way through. Some are a bit somber, but I tried to avoid maudlin.

Baron Yörg Goes to the Movies

My acquaintance Baron Yörg, a 500 year-old vampire Lord of All Things Foul and Unholy, provides the occasional movie review. I’ve been begging him to review Bambi, but no luck so far.

Jobs

Employment and unemployment seem to weigh on everyone these days. In these posts I touched on employment challenges, with a subtext of living in a ditch and eating dirt, rejected by everyone with more than four teeth, and forced to count my lice to keep from going insane.

Death

These posts contain a below-average number of chuckles, but they do touch on some real ways that death forces itself upon us.

Weirdly Philosophical

All right, maybe this shouldn’t even be a category, but these posts look at some odd aspects of living in the world, such as fear, failure, and walking around with a metaphorical stick up one’s backside.

Top 3

These were the three most frequently viewed posts that didn’t fall into any of the other categories. Yeah, I didn’t do any work at all to list these, but they seem cute to me.

I hope this presentation was helpful to folks interested in checking out some of the older posts. Putting it together helped me. I had no idea I’d never written a post containing the word “spleen.” Until now.

If we're going back in time, let's go all the way back.
If we’re going back in time, let’s go all the way back.

If I Start Looking Too Happy, Shoot My Cow

I’m thinking about murdering some flying cows. It wouldn’t be hard, at least on the technical side. They’re cows, so they’d just stand there and take it, or maybe they’d chew their cuds and hover a little. But I’d struggle on the emotional side, because they have huge brown eyes, and they’re goofy looking, and they make me giggle.

These are fictional cows. I’ve written them into a story I’m working on, which I guess says a lot about the maturity of the story and my maturity as a person. I just love them. The story isn’t about them, and they don’t show up that much, but when I get to write about them I feel giddy. If you’ve never written about flying cows, I suggest you run right out and try it. It’s better than playing golf while you’re high.

And yet, my friend Dan has a great rule about acting. If something makes you giggle for more than 15 seconds, don’t do it. I believe that applies to writing too. If it entertains me that much, it’s almost certain to aggravate and insult a lot of other people who don’t share my sense of humor. A large proportion of the relatively small number of people likely to read my story would despise my flying cows. My cows might be sad. So instead I should shoot them between the eyes with the Delete key.

I’m now trying to talk myself out of writing a eulogy for my cows, since I have a couple of thousand more words to write before I go to bed tonight. Maybe I can just say that like many things in this life, too much good is bad. A slice of cake is good. A barrel of cake frosting is a heart attack. Flowers from an admirer are good, but a gift-wrapped leather sofa containing a hidden webcam is a restraining order. It’s about perspective and proportion.

“Perspective” is not my middle name. My middle name is “It probably won’t kill us, so let’s pour the green stuff into the pink stuff and see what happens.” I sometimes get into trouble because of that, causing me to tell people things that make them never talk to me again, get locked up in remote places, and have parts of my body mashed off. I was walking out of my psychiatrist’s office once (which sounds like the evil twin of a bad joke), and he shocked me by saying, “Let me know if you start feeling too happy. That’s a bad sign.” That was a hell of a note. But it made sense when I thought about it, because being too happy is bad for me, just like too much sex would be. I can’t think of exactly how it would be bad, but I’m sure it would be.

So, I know what I have to do. The road to mental health and literary excellence seems to be paved with the bodies of flying cows, and it’s slaughtering time. I’ll do it after this next chapter. It contains a flying cow chase scene, and they’re just so cute when their ears stand out like wings and their udders flap in the wind.

Cyclone the Flying Cow - She's like Chuck Yeager, if Chuck Yeager were a cow. And a girl.
Cyclone the Flying Cow – She’s like Chuck Yeager, if Chuck Yeager were a cow. And a girl.

Photo from http://www.cumanagement.org/article/view/id/Purple-Skies-and-Flying-Cows

 

 

Sparkle, or I’ll Cut You

At Disney World, if you don’t glitter then you’re a drone. You can push strollers, pay for ice cream, block the paths with your chubby waddle, and fill up queues to make it hard for the real merry makers to get to the Haunted Mansion. But you don’t add to the corona of happiness enfolding the place, and you’re just no fun. Today I saw a man who would kill you just for blinking, but in Fantasyland he strutted around wearing a red sequined Dumbo hat, complete with tail and ears that light up. That guy was fun.

I’ve seen more little girls dressed as princesses than I’ve seen Jack Sparrow t-shirts and coffee mugs. They were cuter than these kittens:

The little Scottish princess from Brave was popular, as you can see:

My favorite tiny princess wore a shiny lavender fairy tale dress and sparkly shoes, and her hair was done up with glitter and other girly doo dads. She was in the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop with a hook on her hand, wrecking everything on the shelves and threatening anyone less scurvy than herself. That princess was pretty, but she didn’t take any shit. My kind of girl.

What did I wear on my journey through the Magic Kingdom? A plain gray t-shirt, gray trousers, and sneakers that I think were black five years ago. I looked like a piece of lint. I was useful for buying hot dogs and saying, “Excuse me,” to people blocking our path to the Hall of Presidents. Apart from that, I was the black hole where merriment goes to die.

I did make a tiny effort to increase the overall tonnage of fun in the park. As we hustled through Frontierland, we heard joyful, terrified shrieks distorted by distance and the Doppler effect. My wife, who’s more afraid of roller coasters than a bottle of gin is afraid of Keith Richards, said, “You can go ride that if you want to. I’ll hold your glasses.”

“Come on. Am I not man enough to make you feel safe?” I said.

“I don’t think so, unless you can reach in and make my gut feel safe.”

“I can do it,” I said. “Maybe I can be the gut whisperer.”

That was not a popular response. Twenty minutes later I was watching robot Abraham Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address. There was very little screaming involved.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t think Disney knows that Christmas even exists. You can tell from this picture.

 

 

 

 

 

I Couldn’t Tell He Was Real Until He Stopped Making Sense

When my grandfather went out to eat he always put sugar in his coffee, even though he didn’t like sugar in his coffee. He did it because the sugar was free.

I’ve heard that little story dozens of times since I was a boy. It comes up all the time when my family talks about my grandfather. It sums him up in two sentences. If you know that story, you know a lot about him.

Lately I’ve been working to make characters come to life in a story I’m writing. I struggle. I create backgrounds for them so I know how they think, how they talk, what foods they hate, and what they shout when having sex. I make them do and say significant things that will show who they are. But I often fail to build the thing I’m looking for—that fundamental, defining image as stark as being caught in a lightning flash.

I think I’ve overlooked the Free Sugar Factor.

The Free Sugar Factor involves a person doing something that’s habitual, probably trivial, and always unusual. It’s the kind of thing his family would bring up when they talk about him. They might say, “Oh yeah, whenever Aunt Jane got mad she’d drive to the grocery store and sit in the parking lot for an hour or two. What a character.”

The Free Sugar Factor isn’t some pathological behavior, unless the person really is a maniac. It’s doing something everyone else thinks is peculiar, but it makes perfect sense to the person doing it. We all do these things. It’s part of what makes us real people. I’m not sure, but I think mine may have something to do with turkey sandwiches.

To illuminate this whole concept, here are a couple of Free Sugar Factor examples from real people.

My father’s Aunt Delphi, who he swears was the best cook in the world, made a gigantic pan of biscuits in her wood burning stove every morning, far more than the household could eat. The family would eat about a fourth of the biscuits, and then she’d feed the rest to her husband’s coon dogs.

When I was a boy, my father kept a perfectly tuned diesel engine on blocks in the backyard, as I’m sure everyone else’s father did too. It drew diesel fuel from the gas can sitting next to it. Every day when he came home from work he started up the engine and stood there letting it run for a while.

The Free Sugar Factor usually involves a habitual act, but not always. Some isolated acts are definitive in themselves and forever after show what that person was about. For example, when my mother was three years old, her six-year-old brother took her to the nearby store to see Santa Claus. They joined a long line, and they stood just behind an overweight woman. My uncle kicked the woman right in the middle of her ass and said, “Get the hell out of my way, fat lady, I’ve got to go see Santa Claus!”

I’ll bet that gave you an image of who he is.

I think the cigarettes were free too.