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Winter/Spring 2016

A Barn Burning in Piggott

 

Why Women and Men Writing Just Don’t Mix

 

By Jason Half- Pillow

 

A reader responds to Jezebel’s short story blog about the right approach to getting published. It’s not too clear for those few who have followed the blog loyally since its inception whether Jezebel writes primarily fiction, and if so, does she write it always in short story form? A month back it seemed she was writing it only by hand on used post cards bought at some thrift shop, specializing in all kinds of 19th century regalia. She’d mentioned buying a laudanum bottle that had a pickled lizard in it, sealed at the top with a wine cork covered in strands of candle wax that melted down to just cover the poor lizard’s head like a veil – if you held it just right, that is. The reader responding doesn’t know about this previous incarnation. The reader wasn’t around either for when Jezebel seemed to go through a recipe phase.

 

She was still writing the fiction but had dropped all the postcard stuff, at first proclaiming it nonsense, then later down on page three or four, hinting at some kind of blow out spat with the skinny pale guy who ran the place, which she later admitted to openly a few more pages down, and started calling him all kinds of names. The reader found Jezebel’s site by sheer accident, through Google. It was on page two. Jezebel got lucky to have it so soon – usually bloggers have to hire specialists who understand all the ways to trick search engines into giving them the prime real estate. It has nothing to do with the search words, like most people think, but that’s neither here nor there; only specialists understand it, and half of them don’t even care to.

 

No, this reader just bumbled on to her site, seeking advice about writing. He found Jezebel lucid and normal. He didn’t think those words. That was the default position of anyone going to a blog, and there was nothing that stood out in hers that suggested she had an unstable past, that she was crazy.

 

She’d switched to a whole new blogging company and even paid a fee. As far as the reader could tell, Jezebel was a well published writer with an MFA from Massachusetts, and had millions of friends and connections in the industry, and worked for a big publishing house as a reader, and knew what they were looking for if you were writing a best seller but had edited a number of prestigious journals too, one as far away as Ireland.

 

And the advice she gave seemed normal too. She’d just written to not send off your stories right away. She advised putting them away in a drawer for a day and forgetting about them and returning to them after time has passed with completely irrelevant, daily distractions, come back at them with fresh eyes, and revise them yet again.   You’ll see flaws you’d never dreamed of possibly being in them before you gave them that time. She conceded the process seemed laborious but reassured her readers that it would work. She said they could forget about them for more than a day. If they wanted, they could leave the stories in there for years. If you did that, though, she wrote, be sure to use a dresser with a big bottom drawer. She said when she grew up that’s where she hid her stories, but for a different reason. She hid them from her mom, who didn’t approve, and thought she was doing the work of the devil. That was the one odd note on this newest incarnation of her weird writing blog.

 

It didn’t matter really. The advice she gave was good; it was nothing original, but what really is? Jezebel said what she was saying here had been said before, and that was all the more reason for her to say it again. You’ve got to put your stories away in a drawer for a day and let them sit. If you don’t, you’ll just email off errors and whoever gets them will throw them away.

The first reader of the day responded – then there were more to come. All of them disputed the wisdom of abiding by Jezebel’s dictate always. Nothing was ever posted from her in response; she just disappeared from the Internet, and it is not known at all what happened, where she went. It can be surmised from the respect she seemed to be according tradition, rules of thumb that will be repeated always throughout all time, that she would have been considerate in her response, and said that all these boys had a point (for that was all the wrote in were men, which raises the suspicion that perhaps they had been Googling her name and nothing about writing at all), and in their cases, putting stories in drawers was the opposite of what they should do – based on their histories, at least , and if character is fate and impervious to change, then history would surely repeat itself – and Jezebel, had she responded, were she there to do so, had she not just disappeared, would have said that they’re the exceptions who all prove the rule. Put it away and let it sit there in the dark for a day, and when you come back, you can cut out the flaws, and set it right.

 

Response # 1 to Jezebel, which got the whole thing started: Thank you, Jezebel, for your latest blog, giving again excellent story publishing advice. I think you are one hundred percent right, from an aesthetic point of view, about “putting stories” aside and not rushing them off right away to journals. This is true, as you say, even if you’ve given them a good once over and feel sure they’re ready to go.

 

They usually just aren’t and are in need of further refinement but you can’t see how in the moment. You’ve got to give them time.

 

How many times I’ve sent out something with the word “will” spelled “well” in my opening paragraph and just kicked myself all day for the mistake – more than I can count. I won’t tell you how many times, even after second, third, and fourth looksies, my characters still say they’re doing “we’ll enough” when queried as to how they were. As we know, editors hate “sloppy errors” like that and promise to throw down the pieces and let the janitors sweep them up later the same night.

 

 

However, if the choice is between actually “putting them [sic- your stories, that is] away in a drawer somewhere and forgetting about them,” as you advise, or getting them in the mail and into some editor’s hands right off, I have to disagree and strongly urge that, at least as far as all the men writers out there are concerned – that they all do the latter and just send them off – just get rid of them.

 

It is, albeit, perilous, now that I think about it, not so much from an “aesthetic” point of view but simply from a typo point of view; but still, regardless of the risk, it is the safest and best bet – and I have an anecdote to prove it.

 

I put a few of what I think may have been my best stories away in a dresser drawer, atop my then girlfriend’s undies. The undies are still hers, though they’re not in my drawer any more, which was also hers back then too. We’re no longer an item. That’s what I’m trying to get across.

 

She got sick of seeing them there (not her undies, but my stories, that is), and thought the content of the stories was some kind of hint that the two of us should quit graduate school and go on a tragic cross country crime spree, mostly just shooting things up, like people’s mailboxes and roadway signs and do so in our underwear and nothing else. I tried telling her there was robbing in the stories too, not just shooting things up, that the characters were dumb and knew they needed money and had to eat, and the whole point of them was that the women killers always pushing the men on to ever more reckless and insane acts of violence, in the end, died sympathetic just like Lady Macbeth; but she wasn’t interested at all in any allusions and insisted I was just hinting that she do perverted things with me and throw her whole life away for the sake of my juvenile self-amusement.

 

I tried countless times showing that each story centered around a Lady Macbeth archetype, but, again, she would have none of it, and just wanted my stories out of there, so she rifle through her drawer full of undies in some semblance of peace, not distracted by her ne’er do well boyfriend who thought life was one big graduate school joke orgy of some sort. This was a recurring debate we had at our rickety dining table.

Then she graduated and got a job at a bank, and, went from being annoyed with my manuscripts in the dresser drawer germinating for later, fresh-eyed review, as you would advise, to simply being enraged that my manuscripts jammed up her search for a good clean pair of bra matching undies. It all came to a head one morning, during a particularly frenzied, early morning rush, somewhere in the middle of her first week on the job.

 

She kept grabbing too quickly the same three pairs of undies and holding them to the bra she was wearing and turning to me to query if they matched, if it was the light, if I could get off my ass and come over and look more closely or at least put on my damn glasses, and before I could comply with any of her requests or answer any question, she returned them back to the drawer and rummaged around in it all over again only to pick up the same pair again and turn and hold them up and just say “well?” and turn and put them back before I could even blink.

 

She’d had a few cups of coffee that were clearly taking effect and looked to me to be going right out of her mind. She kept saying “your God Damn stupid stories” as she clawed in the drawer like a dog digging and scratching at a bare patch of dirt, and then finally she took out all three of the stories I’d put in there and tore them all to shreds, right before my very eyes.

 

I said what the hell are you doing, after I sat up in the bed, looking, I imagine, both shocked and hurt. I told her those are my stories, and she turned and with an expression as frighteningly Satanic as any I’d yet to see or have ever seen since, and she hissed and shrieked at me to give it up and just get a food service job – that I was a hack and would never be a good writer, that that was the reason all those journals rejected me; and no, she took special care to say, that one in Pennsylvania – the one I thought really regretted and really wanted to publish my little story… – they didn’t, she said, and said I was a dipshit for thinking they did, that somehow circumstances beyond their control prohibited them from putting it in there. They weren’t even being nice, she hissed – the rejection saying “please try us again” was a form letter; that’s it -nothing but keeping false hope alive and my pathetic pipe dreams on life support. Give it up, she hissed. Give it up.

 

I had my way with her, and we both enjoyed it; but it was too bad those pieces are now forever lost in the shreds of time. Her immediate supervisor at the bank, he was profusely forgiving when she showed up fifteen minutes late, embarrassed as he was that they had put her in a teller position for which she was, by virtue of having a Masters Degree, so obviously over qualified.

 

I tried telling her that she was a perfect fit for the position, that she wasn’t at all overqualified, that at no point in a person’s progression through any Masters program in creative writing, or anything else for that matter, does a person jump through some hoop that signifies they have mastered all the skills needed, and thus can be said to have what it takes, to be a bank teller. I told her she was lucky to get that job and was lucky they were all dumb enough to think that a degree in short story writing somehow put her far above the rest of them. I told her that if she was so God Damn overqualified, then how come she had no idea what the hell she was doing, and needed the assistant manager hovering around her all day, correcting all her mistakes and looking down her blouse at her cleavage? I asked her what steps I’d have to take to open a six-month CD and got from her only a blank stare. I asked her if that was what she would advise for now, I should I wait for a better interest rate, if that was what she was personally doing, and she held her blank stare, but I could tell she was melting, that she knew her anger about my stories disrupting her damn undies quest was not merited, that I wasn’t so dumb after all, that I had bested her, and that’s when she came near the bed, at the night stand, pretending to need something from the little old rickety drawer, and I grabbed her by the wrist and she gave me another flash of an angry, resistant look, this one right out of a movie, and I had my way with her – like I said.

 

But those were some of my best stories and now they’re gone, forever. Don’t put your stories in a drawer.

 

Joe Careca

 

A reader responds to Joe:

 

I second Joe’s comments. I put some of my work in a drawer and forgot all about it. I came home one day and found that my girlfriend had sold the dresser, along with my left-handed golf clubs, which are rare (more or less nonexistent in these parts and not the kind of specialty item you want to risk ordering over the internet). She sold a mirror that belonged to my mother, and most of my vintage Playboy magazines, (half of which I ‘d vowed to one day give back to my father, then stricken with throat cancer).

She had some sudden, impromptu, garage sale out on my front lawn while I was out of town – I can’t even remember now even what for. Someone took my stories along with the dresser, giving my then girlfriend three hundred bucks for the thing because it was solid and an antique and half the price of something smaller that cost three times as much in some pompous boutique used, nay, “antique” furnishings only store in what was at that time a business pioneer in the midst of a still somewhat dangerous, not yet near gentrified, old, decrepit, and still peopled by jive ass thugs, semi-industrial, section of downtown.

 

She was no fool. She priced all the items high and then told people who stopped to look, all men –stopping mostly after catching some tantalizing site of her – that someone else had just driven off to an ATM to get money for the things, so if they really wanted it, they’d have to pay at least one hundred more. ATM’s were a new thing then, so saying someone ran off to use one was exotic and implied there was something very special and mysterious about the person who used one. She had all kinds of idiot, middle aged men drooling and falling over all my stuff trying to outbid one another for the pre-masturbatory delight of having their hand maybe touch hers as they counted out the Ben Franklins into her open palm.   So those stories are not necessarily lost in the shreds of time, but they sure as hell are long gone as far as I’m concerned. I am sure they were thrown away. The kind of men that she suckered were always fools.

 

But still, I often suspect that whoever bought the dresser submitted and sold them and has since acquired some measure of literary respectability, if not actual fame.

 

Jim Angle

 

Yet another writer offers his own input confirming the certain truth of what all the others said:

 

I third all this talk from Joe, Jim and others about not putting stories in dressers, though in my case, I’d put a huge, neatly piled stack in a wall safe, but it’s more or less the same concept as a drawer, like a door in extremis, it being so secure, like the word of the thing says, safe, impervious, even, to fire.

 

I second also Jim’s implied warning to be leery of too-good-looking-probably-for-you girlfriends because I had one who herself ran off with my safe full of stories and a couple thousand dollars of my brother on the run’s cash (he had a little bike thieving business, stealing them mostly from one university campus then simply selling them used on the lawns of another – he had not been caught doing that but had made the mistake of jilting a pot dealer and had thus skipped town; he had also a van full of bikes and one Honda Scooter, parked inside our parents’ garage).   My so-called girlfriend let herself into my place when I too was gone one weekend; in my case, I was off on some idiotic, coastal, beginning of the year, MFA grad student retreat. It was a pain in the ass ‘cause the coast was two whole states over.

 

She and some African immigrant friends of hers brought over some pix axes and went at the area of the wall surrounding my safe until they’d managed to dig it almost all the way out. Then, frustrated, I think, by it still somehow being lodged in at the back, which they had no way of reaching, they stuffed all the open space with all of my M-40’s and M-80’s (I have a cousin who sends me box fulls of the things up from Louisiana, where I think he uses them mostly to blow up unsuspecting schools of catfish) and connected all the fuses together in myriad groupings of thin grey string they’d got off all my old dud packs of fire crackers and tried exploding it right out of the wall. That did nothing. A few seconds after the blast, they’re all seen edging slowly back into the space of the surveillance camera and they kind of poked at the walls like they expected it to burn their fingers, and then, bit by bit, worked up the nerve to try pulling the safe from the wall. It didn’t budge.

 

The rest of what happened is all of camera, but I’m pretty sure they drove off to someone’s house to get sledgehammers and then came back and beat all hell and tarnation out of the outside part of the same wall. I found the following as evidence to substantiate my speculative claim: a sledgehammer stick with and the hammer itself, broke off the same stick, and freshly so judging by the color of the flayed, prickly particles of wood. You can see on the tape the safe being pulled out that way and then a garden gloved hand giving the camera a fat middle finger. There was no way to call the cops and try recovering the story, and there’s so much crime around here anyway, that they would just tell me to count myself lucky that so far I’d only been burgled, and that they had killers and rapists to track down and weren’t about to go off wasting the tax payers hard earned money running all over town asking fences and snitches if they’d come across a safe with a pile of my stories. I have to admit that if they’d said all that, they would have been right. I sometimes dream that I had taken the cash with me to the coastal retreat and used it to sneak off with a bunch of really good looking women who were kind of like the ones in the program, but only totally different, as things in dreams usually are. We went to a luxury hotel and checked into some kind of kingly, mater suite, and then, in the dream, I somehow see her and her immigrant buddies sweating over blow torches trying to get the safe open and then finally succeeding and staring with dumb, Sisyphean despair at the little rubber bound, curled stack of manuscripts inside.

 

Sam Magee-Buford

 

In chimes the last commenter of the day, though Jezebel regrets ever allowing comments and dreads there may be millions more to come:

 

I’m here to fourth, fifth, or sixth all of the above statements and sentiment and do so to the tenth power and tell you a very true story proving women and story writing and story storing just don’t mix. You can check the records, if you don’t think it’s true.

Ernest Hemingway once dated and it is said, fell in love with, some woman from the obscure as can be, tiny, out of the way – and no one hardly knows what it could even be there for, though they produce a lot of chickens – town of Piggott, Arkansas and went off and married her, which was a very dumb thing for him to do.

 

She somehow got wind of him having an affair with some town strumpet, of which there was only one, and she did not yet have an apprentice, and went out and burned tons and tons of his manuscripts he had in a little barn studio that she most likely forced him to write in, as it was outback from the stately – downright kingly for Piggott – mansion that bore his crazy wife’s family name.   All those drawers full and walls lined with sloping piles of stories, they all went right up in flames. Some said there were novels in there too, ones that showed he’d gone off in a completely different direction, which is taken to mean that everything that is said about him, regarding his views on writing, how it should be done, that none of those are true.

 

It was like something right out of a Faulkner story, which had to have really stuck more or less permanently in Hemingway’s craw. Word is it might have been his mistress; upset to find out he’d taken no steps to, and thus wouldn’t, despite all of his cooing promise, divorce his rich wife and free her from her life of home wrecking and forebodings of living out her days in a lopsided shack. That uncertainty surrounding the disappearance of what some allege may very well have been his true masterpieces sent poor Ernest right over the edge, and there are still those in Piggott who believe that fire to be catalyst that took him down the road that ended with him taking his own life. It is unknown which he lamented most- the loss of his wife, his mistress, or his stories and novels, or was it just the way such a simple thing as fire could so quickly bring an end to it all, like none of it ever existed. No matter – he fell into despair.

 

Now all that is a true story, even though no one really knows much other than his stuff was stored in a barn and women figured centrally in all of it and the barn went up in flames, just like in a Faulkner story.

 

So I agree with the others – if you’re a man and a writer and have a woman in your life, store away nothing. Get it all out of there, the second you’re done. The lesson here is simple, so I will say it again: store nothing.

 

Jason Half-Pillow