It's gray and raining hard outside. Temperature in the mid-60s. A day to knock leaves off trees. I've been working on "Playing Legs." It's 4300 words now. The better one becomes at writing, the more every single thing in a work matters. Change a single word, and that can change the world. You carve and you paint. My directive with this story is rather like my directive with Glue God, which I need to return to and go through all over again in its entirety. That directive is: A to B. Move A to B. Straight from A to B. The story will be for No Mercy When We Get There: Stories to Wreck You. In fact, the title has been written into the story as of several minutes ago.
Dickey used to be a leader. On the football team before he quit when his mom got sick, he’d get some of the guys to huddle up in the school parking lot before they all got on the bus to drive them an hour away for what anyone who cared at all called a big game. The big game.
“No mercy when we get there,” he’d tell his teammates as the bus idled behind them, each with an arm outstretched and their hands on top of each other, a pile of togetherness hanging in the air. He tried to sound as tough as possible. An eater of glass because someone had to get the glass down. Someone who not only wouldn’t grant mercy, but would prefer to be asked for it so that they could refuse. And now here he was, wanting mercy himself and needing to be led to survive. His heart had never been in those cheers. But there was a part to be played, and he played it.
Leyna was elsewhere. Gone for a shower. To check on her own mother. Something. Fresh air. A nap in her own bed. She couldn’t be there every minute like he could. Like he had to be. Nothing else was that way. Not school. Not home. Only this. Dickey was relieved Leyna didn’t have to see him in his state, which would have made for an image of him that would exist under a permanent threat of being recalled to memory. That’s not who he wanted to be for her. A nurse had hugged him. He was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to do that. Dickey couldn’t recall her name or what she looked like a day later. It seemed impossible she had had a name or a face. He’d never been more grateful for anything than that hug, or felt guiltier that that had been true.
Then he was out of the room, dazed in a hallway where no one seemed to notice him, and he panicked anew about the toothbrush and the rock he’d have to place it under. How did he panic twice so quickly? One bout had stopped, and the other had begun, and it wasn’t three minutes ago that the absence of a miracle was made official. He didn’t know how he got outside. What questions he’d first answered. The form he filled out. It was as if he rolled away from all of that interiority. Slowly. Like the hospital was built on an angle. He had to tell himself that it was raining, as if he couldn’t remember what weather was either, or was on the verge of forgetting were he not careful.
As always, I invite anyone to put any work against mine. Go ahead. Line them up. That work the publishing person lies and says is amazing, and my work. Side by side. I dare any publishing industry shill to do just that. Go for it.
A to B.
When I have days where I feel like I've been useless and done nothing, I never say that I've been busy. I say that I've been useless and done nothing. But inevitably, I find that I produce far more on these days, and do far more, than other people who I know did nothing all day, who tell me they are busy and have been busy. It's funny how that works out. Every time. People are simply able to think that way about themselves, no matter what. It's hard for me to have someone like that in my life. And it is harder still because the reality is is that that's mostly everyone.
Write something for just one person. It's for them. They are who you have in mind. Maybe you're trying to help them. Or give them something. Or both. But if you do that as well as it can possibly be done--writing that story for that one person--it will be for everyone.
The other day on an M.R. James Facebook group, I saw where someone said that ghost stories have to be scary. This is completely wrong. A ghost story need feature a ghost. Then it's a ghost story. A ghost may take many forms. Fear may also take many forms, for that matter. Horror may take many forms. The unlived life is a form of horror. Loneliness can be a form of horror. In this same group there was another complaint about how this particular reader of short stories--who was a big fan of short stories--said they always have anticlimactic endings, unless there's a twist, and you can't have a twist at the end of each story, or it ceases to be a twist because the reader knows it will be there. But the ending of a story will just be flat, and you have to accept that.
Yes. If the writer sucks. Almost all writers do. Every single other fiction writer in the world right now does. Every one. There is not an exception. There is what I am doing, and what everyone else does. But let's address this, starting with horror. I love the ghost stories of M.R. James, but they're not literature. I never think of them as art. This man had a hobby, and he indulged and it was a hobby he became skillful at. But M.R. James has all of these rules when he writes. And what he was trying to do was very narrow in scope. He wanted to produce a kind of fear. They are about atmosphere. They're not about anything--or not much--that is human, in terms of truths. They're meant to create one feeling. Consider Richard MIddleton's "The Ghost Ship," which I regard as literature. Is it scary? No. It's wise and funny. It is as much a ghost story as anything can be. But it's fresh and surprising. And it's far better than anything M.R. James ever wrote. He couldn't think of something like that. I say this as someone who loves James. Who dreams about being back in his house in Rockport and reading James on night's like the one that has just passed.
Ghost stories are rarely art because ghost stories try to do one kind of scaring, and that's it. They're not giving us as much. Which is why I'm doing my book of unique ghost stories that give us everything. A completely new and radical reinvention of what a ghost story is and can be. Literature is more than a feeling, a scare. It gives us ourselves to ourselves in a clearer, wiser, more readily understood form. M.R. James doesn't come close to doing that. As for the end of stories and how they just end: Yes. That's exactly how it goes. Here's the thing: stories have a natural arc. Every real story does. There are arcs within the arc. But you have to have a story to tell. That sounds obvious, right? It's not. Look deeper. People don't have stories to tell. No writer in the world today besides this one has stories to tell. They have things they want. They don't have the work.
What do they want? They want the community, but for insidious reasons. To be fawned over without needing to possess any skill. To be given things without having earned them. Because they are evil, and you can be evil in this community because pretty much everyone in it is. What you can't be--in order to be a member--is good. They want the community because they have nothing else. They live empty, broken lives. I can write about anything and there is the full story with the full arc and the arcs within the arcs. I may pull up the blank page as I did a week ago without any idea at all for anything, and begin to compose "Powering Through"--which has a stronger, more satisfying last line than any work there has ever been that is not by me--which is then complete a week later, with many things having been written in-between. Think of a pitcher with a natural curve. They get on the mound, they throw the fastball, and it naturally breaks. The same is true with an arc. You tell the story, and it has the natural arc. When people who suck at writing that the publishing world lies about and says are good go to tell a story, there's nothing there. They are dipping into their meaningless lives and thinking "what can I fictionalize?" They can't invent. They have no imagination. They have no wisdom and insight into what makes you you and how to create a work that enables you, as you, to better understand you. And the world.
What these people are trying to do is limp through the page. They're not striding through the page with purpose--by which I mean, a story with an arc and arcs within the arc. If you have one of those, the end is never anticlimactic. Unsatisfying. It's rich and full. Apt. Bang on. Exciting. Devastating. Enthralling. A blend. Makes you stop breathing for a few seconds so that you then have to remember to start up again. If you're any good. These people are not. Very few have ever been anyway, before we got to this age when there is not more than one good fiction writer in the world. But look at Justin Taylor. He's working with nothing. He's simply a connected publishing worm. He's going to hit that word count where "it's long enough," and he's going to end the story he's been writing that's not even a story. So, yes, you're going to feel like it just ended because it just did. He doesn't have a single story to tell. You get fictionalized hipster bits from his unlived life, and these attempts to shock you. A gross out thing, a forced sexual thing. To show he's "edgy."
He has nothing. I talk about the natural curve of the arc, and this guy can't even roll the ball up to home plate. But along comes The New Yorker, and they put it in because of all these other factors that have nothing to do with writing and nothing good. And our friends at American Short Fiction. People whose most notable undertaking in this life is making a sane, normal, informed person unsure if they are a bigger bigot or a bigger idiot or bigger horrible person, in a neck and neck and neck battle. Because everything is an extreme--a negative extreme. Here's how they get away with it, though: sane, normal people who could be informed are off doing other things, because there's nothing worth their time here. This state of affairs that is the publishing industry can only exist one way: And that's for that industry to make it so that no one in the world cares. Justin Taylor and his ilk make it so that no one does and no one could. Then it's a free-for-all of evil, broken people being able to do what they want and play a very sick kind of bigoted God. Because it's in darkness. Behind the locked door.
No "writer" right now has a story to tell. They have things they want to write, not because of the work--and not even very often, because most hardly write at all--but so they can get the ill-gotten gains that are bestowed upon some of them. That's what is happening. They want to be a member of the bullshit community. For the ill-gotten gains, because they have nothing else, or both. And that's why stories just end, peter out, after having never been anything in the first place. It's not a case of "My story has been told and told well," but rather, "That's long enough." But it's always been hard to have a story to tell and a natural arc, even when there were good writers. Not for me. It's easy for me. I do it every time. But that's what's going on everywhere else. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about 140 stories in his life. I've written 400 in four plus years. He could stick that ending. But how often did he do it? With twenty of those stories? And historically speaking, that's a good percentage. The problem isn't that it can't be done and that's just how it is. The problem is very few people have ever been good enough to do it ever, let alone always.
I do love M.R. James, and I'd prefer for this not to be a "He trashed Monte!" thing. No one writes about James more and goodness knows how many interviews I've given about the guy by this time. But I like him like I like The Golden Girls and playoff baseball and Led Zeppelin bootlegs.