Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Big Stone

Here’s a sample from my book, lifted from the middle of a story called “This Handful of Pebbles,” which links to another story, “The Green Beetle.” This is a scene between Marv, a plumber who loves popcorn, and his friend Sid, whose son is in a coma after a car crash. Just a couple of regular guys doing their best to figure it all out.

Marv feels honored. Sid has asked him to come along as he visits the crumpled remains of Matthew’s VW bug in the gravel-covered yard behind Manny’s Garage and Tow. The sky is gray, the air chilly. Sid is leaning awkwardly into the cramped, glass-strewn interior, picking up papers, pens, books, CDs, and putting them into the blue knapsack from which they seem to have exploded as the car rolled, those three long nights ago. Marv watches, his hands feeling wooden, unsure what to do to help his friend. He looks around at the drab assembly of crunched vehicles and wonders if there is a sad story to go with every one.

When Sid stands, straightening his back with a groan, his eyes are wet. He looks through the tears directly at Marv and says, “Do you believe in God?”

Marv is not accustomed to this—to tears, to God-talk, to the twisted carcasses of death-trap cars. His mind goes blank except for one memory: the look and feel of the popcorn kernels he held in his palm last night—their tiny roundness, perfect symmetry, golden sheen.

“I... I don’t know,” he says. “But I believe in... something. You know, that everybody is really more than just a... a body walking around.”

Sid stares at the ground. “I never understood people’s need for religion until now,” he says.

Marv picks up a handful of pea-sized stones from the ground and holds them in his cupped palm under Sid’s gaze. “See these pebbles? See?” Sid nods.

“Now imagine they are popcorn kernels. See, every kernel is not just a little round hard thing... you apply the right amount of heat, and... pop! It turns into a beautiful flower.”

Sid sighs, “Marv, please, enough with the popcorn.”

“No, but don’t you see—they’re just like people, wrapped in their shells, but with all this beauty inside, totally unique, like a divine spirit.”

Sid’s hand suddenly covers his eyes as he lets out a guttural cry, “Aaaahhh!”

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Shit, Marv! I’m all messed up, I don’t know anything, nobody ever taught me! My son might die! I mean, I need answers, not, not, you know, a handful of frickin’ gravel!” Sid turns away and strides toward the gate, his shoulders hunched.

“Wait Sid, I know, I’m sorry about the popcorn thing.” Marv hurries to catch up, the stones still in his outstretched hand. An image has leapt into his mind, and he has to speak it.

“But look—look at this handful of pebbles. Every one seems like a separate little stone, you know, an individual, right? But see, that’s not really true. Because they all came from the same big stone, see? They’re all the same stuff, all one substance.”

Sid doesn’t look as he keeps walking. “I’m gonna take Matthew’s bag to the hospital, talk to Emily, see what’s up. You wanna come?”

“Maybe that’s what God is, Sid.”

“What? What the hell is what God is, Marv?”

“The big stone. The substance we’re all made of. You, me, Emily, Polly, Matthew, everybody.”

At his car, Sid stops and turns to Marv. He takes a deep breath. “Okay. You can come with me if you stop with this. Throw the gravel away. I’m just asking you to please shut up now.”

Marv nods and doesn’t say another word. He drops the stones on the ground, wipes his hand on his jeans, and gets into the car. He senses waves of sadness emanating from Sid, silent in the driver’s seat next to him, and he feels his own separate sorrow, wishing he could have been helpful. But as they cruise the bleak streets of the city, his mind cannot stop toying with the feel of pebbles in his palm.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Craft + Heart + Truth + Philosophy

An exchange of comments on Jim Murdoch’s blog set me thinking about what I want to read and what I want to write -- about my own standards for “good fiction.” This is not a new subject of contemplation for me. When I was editing the literary journal Prima Materia, I established three elements that were required in the work I published: Craft, Heart, and Truth. In the years since, I’ve decided to add another one: Philosophy.

My definitions of those terms are, of course, my own. They are entirely subjective and are always evolving. You may have different definitions, or entirely different criteria. Whatever works for you is valid.

Craft: Skillful technique. Confident, effective use of the writer’s tools -- vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhythm, pace, structure, even punctuation. This is essential, bottom line.

Heart: Compassion for the human condition, empathy with one’s imaginary characters. An acknowledgment of the emotional component of experience, in balance with the physical and intellectual.

Truth: A sense of honesty or authentic communication, in which the author is not showboating or sacrificing believability for manipulative ends. This is not related to “facts” or “non-fiction.”

Philosophy: An underlying idea or worldview, especially when it feels like an enriching, exciting discovery. Best when under conscious control by the author, although frequently is a side-effect.

Somewhere at the intersection of these four streets is where I want to stand as a reader and as a writer, and where I tried to land with my collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility. Perhaps my reader-self can let go of Philosophy occasionally. My writer-self can too, but then I find myself wondering, why bother? Storytelling is fun, but I feel compelled to serve something greater. And I get creative juice from “deep” ideas, the more esoteric the better. I’m on a path that includes group therapy and a little light study of nondualism and quantum physics, and I’m often excited to capture in my fiction all the awesome stuff I’m learning.

The main problem with this Philosophy thing is that it can too easily slide into over-concern with Theme, or even into Pedantry (oh, the horror!). So I keep in mind the truths expressed by Thomas McCormack in this essay,‘Theme’ and Its Dire Effects (thanks to Mark Barrett of Ditchwalk).

Any ideas on the subject you want to share? I’d love to hear ‘em.