Sunday, July 22, 2012

Polishing a Turd

This week, to stay inspired and keep my positivity enema circulating, I decided to try the impossible. I decided to polish a turd.

Ghastly and tasteless, I know, but poor taste is kind of my thing.

By polishing a turd I mean literally cleaning a piece of shit. No, actually I mean taking a hideously bad story I wrote a few years back and trying to improve it.

I'm already rewriting the end of "Jesse Rules" yet again and continuing the first draft of "War of the Twin Gods: The Fall of Gorge", so it's not like I needed another project. But I felt drawn to it, so I broke it out of storage and took a jackhammer to it.

Below is the beginning. It's the story of a tormented gay eighth grader's coming of age on 9/11. The story was originally "Nick and the Insect Kingdom" and now it's just "Insect Kingdom". One way to polish a turd is to simplify it. Okay, it's official, my metaphor has collapsed.

Also, here are the links to my published works. Please buy the Saints and Sinners New Fiction from the Festival 2012 collection. My story "Divine Hand" is in it, a fine tale of an expose reporter going undercover at a religious conversion camp for gay teens. The winning story is a heartbreaker by Jerry Rabushka, "Wasted Courage", about a love that's up against racism, classism, and even Matriarchy. Every story in the book is entertaining and thought-provoking.
“The Camp Seminole Weiner Wall” (A friendship is tested by a sexually cruel camp ritual.)

“Friends and Pyromaniacs” (A young man’s awakening requires a Molotov cocktail.)

“The Gay Bomb” (A C.I.A. agent unleashes the ultimate weapon in the war against Islam – a pheromone bomb that causes gay arousal.)

The other three are free for now, and with any luck I'll be charging for them as part of my short story collection "Strange Arrangements" by the end of the year.

Here's "Insect Kingdom" pages one-two-threeish:
Insect Kingdom

Nick had a ritual involving dust and insects. It filled some of that awful time, after his mother had shoved him out the door, before the growling yellow bus slouched over the crest of Mountainview Ave, on its way to take him in.
He dropped his backpack at the edge of the road. He lifted the rotting log on the border of his mother’s garden.
There they were – the slithering and scuttling things. They were already alarmed at their exposure. Nick imagined how he would react if some godlike creature flipped his house or his town over, upset the structure of his world. He felt bad for them, the lower life forms. He felt bad for them, for a second.
Then he kicked the dry soil all over them. Their slithering and scuttling increased its frenzied speed. However low they were, slimy and segmented creatures living in the moist darkness, they had it better than Nick, and he hated them for it.
No bus was coming for them. Whatever else they were, they had peace.
They didn’t have to go to school.
He heard the grinding engine before he saw the white roof and yellow face of the bus. He rolled the log back over the insect kingdom. He shouldered the burden of his books.
The breaks sounded their steam release. The door scraped, folding itself to the side. Ms. Anderson had a big white smile across her thick black face.
“Mornin’ Nickie!” she blared. Her tone was as tangy and tropical as her pink and orange hair.
“Morning,” Nick confirmed. He slouched up the stairs and stared down the awful aisle.  
On the left, two girls argued with an opened Math book in their laps. On the right, a sixth grader who looked and smelled like a meatball.
Nick took two steps down the aisle.
On the left, two seventh-grade girls who had just discovered makeup. They sneered at Nick like they smelled fart. On the right, a tiny boy with a large head, in a purple sweat shirt.
Nick took another two steps down the aisle.
On the left, a skinny girl digging through her bag. She had an asthma inhaler and a rattling cough. The right seat was empty.
Nick sat. The bus growled forward.
He heard Kyle McGillis and Paul Johnson in the back, or at least he heard the lowness of their voices. It reminded Nick to take inventory of what he hated about himself. He started with his voice, the highness of it, the rodent squeak quality it had, especially compared to the manly baritone of boys like Kyle and Paul.
Nick stared down at his feet, remembering to hate them, remembering to hate his body for starting its puberty renovations there, of all places. It was like the puberty gnomes cut off his feet in the middle of the night and tacked on these giant flippers.
Before he could move on and hate his chicken legs, a ball of paper landed in his lap. Kyle grunted laughter from the back of the bus.
“Mistah McGillis, much too early in the school year for that!” Ms. Anderson said.
The ball of paper shifted as the bus made the sharp turn onto Franklin Street. It had one word on its crumpled side: Open.
Nick tried to think of other things. He thought of what his mother always said about not letting boys like Kyle get to him. Nick thought of his mother and home, of safety and shelter. He thought of his room and his shelf. He loved his shelf. It had his X-box games and pro-wrestling DVDs. It had notebooks full of awesome hypothetical video game sequels and pro-wrestling events. It had books by King and Rice, Tolkien and Lovecraft. It had Halo, Summerslam, and “The Silmarillion”.
The shelf meant escape to elsewhere.
But he wasn’t there – he wasn’t safe at home in his room. He was nowhere near his shelf. He was on the bus, three minutes from school. And the paper ball was telling him what to do: Open.
Nick opened it. He heard Kyle’s guttural laugh in response to the crackling of paper.
Nick recognized his deep brown helmet haircut in Kyle’s drawing. It was a side view of his head. Kyle even managed to draw the little red zit on Nick’s chin. He’d taken the time to find a red marker just for that one detail.
Cartoon Nick’s mouth was open. A leg-like penis complete with a two-basketball nut sack was aimed at his face. There was no body attached to the floating dick-and-balls, but it was coating cartoon Nick’s face with a torrent of jism just the same. Underneath the drawing was a sentence: Nick M. sucks cok.
Reading that, Nick wanted to be one of the crawly things under the log. He wanted to be hidden away under a pile of slimy life. He wanted to be still in the cool dark, and for all other things to scuttle and ooze around him.
He thought of the dreams and the wrecked pajamas and boxer shorts. He thought of how good it felt, physically, but the things he was thinking about when it happened, the showers at swim camp and things happening there with the other boys, things like what was happening on the paper in his lap, they’d left him with questions he wasn’t ready to answer.
How did Kyle know? How did everyone seem to know about what Nick didn’t want to desire?
The school building was coming toward the bus. The sign out front read: Welcome back! Underneath that it read: First School Board Meeting this Thursday, 9/13/01.

(end of free preview)

-James Russell

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Smile, for Fuck's Sake

My psychiatrist had a great line: “The cure for self-pity is gratitude.”

Of course, understanding the sentiment is easy. There was a Drake and Rihanna song a couple years ago that said the same shit. (“Just live ya’ life?” It might’ve been Wiz Khalifa or Flo Rida or some other rapper du jour.)

The point is, it’s a simple sentiment to grasp the meaning of, but acting accordingly is the hard part.

I bring it up this month because the end of the school year was particularly stressful. I definitely drifted into the self-pity camp. Actually I set up a lounge chair and grumbled my way through most of June.

Part of it was a natural let-down. May had my wedding and my first author reading – and author events always mean getting to congregate with similarly crazy writer types. I love my town, Harrison, for its cheap dive bars and completely unpretentious personality, but there just aren’t a lot of other writers, or even a lot of creative types here. In May I got a taste of the life I want, the one I’m aspiring toward – that exciting and rewarding life, that creative life.

June… June was final exams and those child care days that follow final exams. June was prepping for my summer camp job on my weekends. June was working like a dog to keep the air conditioning on. Not a lot of writing in June. Not what you’d call an inspiring atmosphere.

Yeah, I got grouchy there.

But whether it’s depressive heading back toward manic or just the fact that I’m finally down to one full-time job again, I don’t feel very shitty at all about July. In fact, the summer camp environment is inspiring. The people I work with are inspirational, positive. A lot of them are college students, about to enter an economy ravaged by de-unionization and thirty years of trickle-down horseshit economics (negative, yes, but also researched) but they don’t bitch that much at all. They pursue their dreams. They are comics, coaches, artists, and actors. They work and study; they party and date. They reach for the life they want while enjoying the life they have.

They’re a great reminder to aspire towards gratitude, away from self-pity. I need to remind myself to stop being a walking menstrual cycle and just work my days and write my stories by night for another seven weeks.

After that, I’ll be grateful to have two weeks to really try to polish my novel, “Jesse Rules”, for another run at publication. My writing group this week gave me some excellent suggestions about my flat-soda ending and how to carbonate it. I just took my fantasy novel “War of the Twin Gods: The Fall of Gorge” across the 40,000-word mark (about halfway). My short story collection “Strange Arrangements” is under review from an excellent potential publisher.

So find something to be positive about. The corporate cunts didn’t steal our health care. Justice Roberts temporarily grew his soul back. It’s a dry heat. Your condition is treatable with penicillin.

In that spirit, I’m grateful for the people at work who wanted to read my published works. Here are the links, including the first collection I’m in that’s on the e-shelf. I don’t get money if anyone purchases the collection, but it will help to keep a great literary festival going:

My story is “Divine Hand”, about an expose reporter who goes undercover at a religious conversion camp for gay teens.

And here are my freebies:

“The Camp Seminole Weiner Wall” (A friendship is tested by a sexually cruel camp ritual.)

“Friends and Pyromaniacs” (A young man’s awakening requires a Molotov cocktail.)

“The Gay Bomb” (A C.I.A. agent unleashes the ultimate weapon in the war against Islam – a pheromone bomb that causes gay arousal.)

-James Russell