I just read part of a thread on Twitter. It was prompted by a writer who saw a FB conversation about whether writers should write stories with a narrator or POV from a gender other than their own.
The writer who started the Twitter thread said that on FB most of the comments were opposed to writers writing in voices other than their own gender “because they usually get it wrong.” This was met with the typical Twitter emotion — outrage. In this instance, however, the outrage is justified.
There is no “can’t” in writing. Or there shouldn’t be.
When I wrote my first real piece of fiction — One Night in Bridgeport — I imagined a scenario I could put myself in. It’s not a situation I’ve ever been in, but I could imagine it. A one night stand followed by an accusation of rape. Putting myself into the main narrator’s head, imagining that it was me in that situation, provided me with the ability to write that story.
Every since then I have done everything I can to write stories from different perspectives, different voices, different characters.
The Marfa Lights — narrated by a teenager who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound.
Shady Acres — primarily narrated by a 100-year-old man. I’m not quite that old. Yet.
Northville Five and Dime — one of my WIP told in first person from the perspective of three different characters, two of whom are women, one of whom is paralyzed from the waist down.
Spaces After the Period — narrated by a young woman who likes bad boys until she meets a man who is the opposite of everything she imagined was right for her.
This list could go on and on and on. Very few of my stories are told by people who are me, like me. Why?
Because that’s the best part of writing. The challenge and the fun, after that first story, has always been in writing different stories about different people. There would be no challenge, no exploration, no fun in telling stories if the narrator was … well, just me. I’m far too plain vanilla for that.
While I was spending two years first writing and then re-writing Bridgeport I went to a writing conference at a local university. There were two concepts I heard there that have stayed with me ever since.
Dorothy Allison (who is most famous for writing Bastard Out of South Carolina) gave a speech during the lunch in which she described how authors steal people. She described stopping at a gas station in some small southern town and while she was putting gas in her car, a police officer pulled over on a nearby street, took a hat box out of the back seat of his car, and walked into a store. That officer and that scene went into a story she was writing at the time.
I loved that idea. We steal people.
But the other point was more fundamental. One of the sessions was led by a critically acclaimed author whose name I no longer remember, but I think his first name was Al. During his talk, a woman kept standing up and asking him questions. The one question I remember was that she had heard you can’t switch POVs in the middle of a chapter. That if you switch POV, you need to do it in a new chapter.
With each of her questions, “Al” kept saying the same thing.
There are no rules in writing, except for one. The only rule in writing is to write a good story. If you can do that, nothing else matters.
That has been the guiding “rule” for my writing ever since I heard him utter those words. It is why I enjoy writing (as difficult as it is today). The opportunities and possibilities are boundless.
By the way, during one of the sessions at that conference, we were tasked with writing something. It was then that I wrote my first short story. The story is about an immigrant from Mexico who sells ice cream from a cart, whose wife died when they were crossing the border, and who is struggling with raising his son alone while he mourns the love of his life.
None of those elements mirror any fact or experience of my life. If I can write a story like that, why in hell can’t I write stories with a female POV?
What do we hide
As we walk down the street
Wrapped in shirts and blouses
Pants and skirts
What do we hide
Behind our laughing smiles
When we grimace and frown
Or just turn away
What do we hide
Inside the skin we wear
The one we show the world
That hides us.
Is it the flab we think is too much
The blemishes we believe embarrass
Hideous tattoos we wish we hadn’t
Bumps and bulges that are a shame
Or maybe it’s something deeper
The scars of an abusive father
A neglectful mother
An uncle that took his liberties
Or maybe it’s something intangible
A conviction of being unworthy
An insecurity that nothing is enough
Or the relentless worry that halts
What do we hide
When we walk in the world
In a skin that is not ours
Which protects us
What do we hide
At our core we have a secret
Wrap it in a false skin
No one will know
We wore our real skin
Revealed our real truth
Shared our real being
We revealed our tattoos
Over at my blog, I posted awhile back about how writing prompts can help a struggling writer. In that post I highlighted Eat. Create. Repeat. – Kira’s blog where she posts regular prompts that run the gamut from poetry prompts to photo prompts to flash fiction prompts. She is now starting a project that focuses on helping blocked writers find tools that can help them get unblocked.
At the beginning of 2019, I found another blog that is offering daily flash fiction prompts. Ravyn Whyt starts each post with the prompt and is including her response to that prompt. I’ve written something in response to several of her prompts, including the prompt for January 10. I posted it in the comments section and added that I didn’t feel like it was really done.
This morning, I took a stab at carrying it a little further. Here it is.
I was sitting in a room. A single light bulb in the center of the ceiling lit the space. I was at a table, sitting in a chair. Whenever I put my hands on the table or leaned on it, it rocked forward, one leg shorter than the rest making it impossible for the table to settle into an even plane.
It had been a long night. I’d fled the scene as quickly as I could and got home, locking all the doors, turning off all the lights. Joe texted me, “Dude!” Marvin texted an unhappy emoji. I texted Cici, my girlfriend. Five times. She didn’t reply. It was the first time she’d ever done that.
I tossed and turned for a bit and finally fell asleep. They came at 2:00 in the morning, pounding on my front door. I went without resistance. I’d seen what happens when a black man resists.
A door into the room was shut. Along one wall was a mirror that I knew was two-way. There were people back there watching, waiting to see if I’d sweat or somehow reveal guilt through my actions.
I didn’t. I drummed my fingers on the table, whistled a happy tune, pretended to nap.
And a couple of hours after I was deposited in the room, the door opened. In stepped a police officer in uniform. He sat down across from me. Behind him came a detective in plain clothes. He closed the door and stood next to it, his back against the wall.
I waited to see which one would be the good cop, which one would be the bad. Turns out it didn’t matter. They just gave it to me straight.
The detective spoke first. “You know why you’re here?”
“Yeah, sure.” I shrugged, picking up the drumming on the table again. “It’s about what happened last night. At the game.”
The detective spoke again, while the uniformed officer just stared at me. “Yes, the game. Somebody set off a fire alarm. 16,000 people panicked and tried to storm out of the arena all at once. Seventeen died. Over five hundred were hurt. Both numbers may go up.”
I didn’t say anything. I waited. The officer filled the silence. “You know anything about it.”
“Nope, not me.” Listen. I knew. They knew I knew. I knew they knew I knew. And on and on. But I couldn’t make it easy for them, could I? I had to put up a bit of a fight, even if it was pretty feeble.
The officer got up, walked around the table slowly, sat back down. “Well, that’s interesting. We’ve got video from a security camera that shows you pulling the alarm. Same flannel shirt, faded jeans, mustache and bald patch at the back of your head.” He put his hand on my drumming fingers, making me stop. “You want to see it?” He didn’t take his hand off of mine.
“Well, it didn’t end the way I expected, but at least nobody important died. Okay. I pulled the alarm. It was supposed to be a joke?”
“I’m thinking the families of those seventeen dead individuals might disagree. It’s barely been twelve hours and they’re already planning a memorial outside the arena for tonight. It’s at 6:00. Maybe you should go?”
I shrugged again and looked at the officer, pulling my hand out from under his. It was kind of creepy to tell you the truth. His hand on mind, the sweat from his palm mingling with mine.
“Yeah, maybe.” I decided to stall for time. Time for what, who knows? I’d just admitted to my role. “Can I get a cigarette?”
The detective pulled a pack out of nowhere and gave me a cigarette. He had a lighter in his hand before I knew it and lit the end. I took a long drag and blew the smoke out.
“You said something interesting, Cole, about nobody important dying,” The officer looked back at the detective who left his place by the door and took the last vacant seat at the table. He pulled out his phone and put it on the table. The uniform, Officer Smeltz by his nametag, continued, “Whose your favorite player on the Kings?”
“Hmmm. Hurley, probably.”
“Yes, of course. Ellison Hurley IV. Everybody’s favorite, right?”
Hurley was the sweet shooting guard drafted three years earlier. The smoothest release and biggest grin this side of Steph Curry. He’d put the Kings on his shoulders at the beginning of the season and ridden them to their first winning record in more than ten years. It was March, the playoffs were possible. Everybody loved him.
“Like I said. It was supposed to be a joke. My friends and I do stupid things. This was …”
The detective interrupted me. “We knew Hurley is your favorite.”
“Yes,” I snapped. “He’s everybody’s.”
“No, that’s not why.” He leaned over his phone and tapped the screen a couple of times, swiped up then left and then held it out to me. “Push play.”
I did. The video was from a security camera in the Kings Corner, the store in the arena where they sold Kings branded gear. Everything from pencils to coffee cups to Christmas ornaments to shirts and jerseys of every type. The camera showed people running by outside the empty store for a few seconds and then I walked past the camera. Inside the store, which was empty since everybody was fleeing, I walked up to a rack and slipped a Hurley jersey off a hanger and put it on as I walked out of the store and joined the fleeing hordes.
“Okay,” I tried for more nonchalance. “So what?”
“Hold on a sec,” Officer Smeltz said. “There’s more.” He motioned to the detective, who picked up his phone and tapped and swiped a few more times.
This time the view was from a camera high up in the rafters, focused down on the corner of the arena where the Kings bench was. The detective told me, “We’ve got security cameras on everything. If you’re at the game and pick your nose, we’ll know about it. Push Play.”
“Listen. I didn’t realize this was going to happen. How could I know that a fire alarm down in the loading area would set the whole damned mess off. I didn’t realize there would be sprinklers. I didn’t realize it would be that loud. I didn’t realize …” And that was the problem, I didn’t realize that those sprinklers were more like water cannons and that the entire fire detection system was one completely integrated complex of alarms and signals and sprinklers and that all hell would break loose. I just didn’t realize it.
So, I did. For the first few seconds, it showed the Kings bench, the crowd behind. Everybody watching the action on the court. Hurley was taking his early fourth quarter rest with a towel draped over his head. Suddenly, the shrill bleating sound of the arena’s fire alarms pierced through and then the water cannons let loose and everybody was running. The view on the video shifted to another camera and it showed Hurley starting to run towards the exit that took the players back to their locker rooms, there were fans and players in front of him and behind and they were all panicked.
I watched and saw what I didn’t want to see. Just before he left the floor area, Hurley disappeared.
He went down. I didn’t see him get up. The video shifted again. The fleeing crowd was gone, but on the floor, right where the parquet of the playing surface becomes the concrete leading into the bowels of the arena, there was a body in a Kings uniform.
“Okay. Somebody important died.” I looked up at Officer Smeltz as the video stopped. “I guess that’s gonna be one hell of a memorial tonight.”
A few months ago, I was invited to contribute a short story to a collection that would revolve around the theme of utopia … as an antidote to the dystopian literature that seems so prevalent these days.
I actually came up with an idea and wrote a story that now appears in that collection, Utopia Pending. You can purchase the Kindle version of the collection here. Some day soon, there will also be a paperback version. Berthold Gambrel has performed a valuable service by reviewing the collection, with a short comment about each story.
Here is the first chapter of my short story, Two Turtles, to maybe entice you along for the ride — an eclectic collection of stories that dance around the theme of utopia.
The turtle’s largest organ is its liver.
An herbalist in a small Chinese village prescribed the ground powder of dried turtle livers to the villagers who complained of abdominal aches. The herbalist’s name was Ru Shen. He lived by himself in a hut on a hill above the village.
“Please, please,” villagers might plead for the cure to their distress after making their way to Ru Shen’s hut. “Please, the pain is too much.”
“Ah, but I have none in my stocks,” the herbalist would reply. It was true. He did not. In his supplies of dried plants, powders in clouded bottles, and ointments that smelled of rot, he had no turtle liver. Why? Because he refused to stock it. If his friends and neighbors were idiotic enough to consume and imbibe of things that unsettled their system, he would not help them. Other than to point them in the direction of a cure.
“You must obtain the turtle liver yourself,” the herbalist mumbled whenever challenged. “That is part of the magic. You must understand this. It is yours to obtain. Yours to use.”
“Yes, yes, I will do so,” each villager would scream, fleeing the herbalist’s hut in search of a turtle. And its liver. With the hope he could find one, dry it, and consume the powder as the old man advised before the discomfort became too much.
“Dry the liver,” the herbalist told each villager who came to him. “Grind it into a fine powder and stir it into your tea. Do this each day for a week and you will be cured.
More often than not the cure worked if the villager was able to locate a turtle and harvest its liver and dry the animal’s liver and follow the directions in time. For seven days, dropping a few pinches of the powder into their oolong tea. Blowing on the hot liquid, sipping at it, enjoying the turtle soup they consumed alongside.
Those who couldn’t, spent months and years in growing discomfort, eventually dying at an early age. Their bodies fatigued, their skin yellowed, their appetite diminished. The herbalist paid no mind to the deceased. His job was for the living.
There came a time when the villagers became so convinced of the herbalist’s wisdom and finally recognized that Ru Shen would never provide them with the cure that they kept their own supplies. Harvesting softshell turtles to extract their livers and leave them in a plate on a window sill until dried. The meat cut up for soup.
In that little village in China, digestive systems worked like oiled machines and the herbalist was able to spend his time on other matters. Headaches. Women desperate for pregnancy. Old men who began to see things that didn’t exist in this world. His own ambitions as well. Ru Shen would sit in the doorway of his hut and look to the sky, pondering the mysteries of the sun and of the dirt before him. He wished to solve the secret to life itself, but all he had was his cures on a shelf and questions that remained.
If the curative powers of the turtle liver had remained a secret known only by the villagers and their healer, we would not be talking about the impending extinction of an ancient species. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, one day a white man by the name of John Ingram came to the village. He took samples of the soil and snipped leaves from the trees. The man spoke to Ru Shen and asked him, “How do you treat insomnia?”
The herbalist replied, “With the root of radish, the flesh of hawthorn fruit, and the peel of an orange.”
“And body aches?”
At this question, the herbalist furrowed his brow. “Turtle liver,” he finally replied.
“Yes.” Ru Shen then looked at John Ingram and asked, “What do you believe is the source of life?”
“Why God, of course,” Ingram replied.
“Pffft.” Ru Shen spit in the dirt. “God? There is no such thing. There is only man and what he does to his fellow man and this round place we call Earth and which is our home.”
The westerner returned to the States and began to tinker. At one point, he asked his assistant to acquire 100 turtle livers and his assistant, being the good assistant that he was … did so. Ingram put the livers in a dehydrator, analyzed the powder that came out, and reached some conclusions.
Months later, the results of a blind test proved Ru Shen’s old cure and Ingram’s conclusions correct. There was something in the liver of turtles that provided remarkable restorative effect to those with cirrhosis of the liver, fatty liver, and well, pretty much any disorder of the liver. The scars healed themselves, the fatty deposits melted away, and yellowed skin returned to a healthy glow.
You might wish instead of turtles, we were dealing with the end of snakes. Or spiders. But, no, that is not where we have ended up. Snakes and spiders and iguanas and bats and all sorts of loathsome creatures continued on in blissful ignorance. If only somebody had bothered to check on the spleen of the iguana, the heart of the bat. Well, you get the idea. There are many mysteries that remain undiscovered.
Of the many turtles that have trundled along on land and swam in the planet’s oceans, only two remain because the mystery of the liver of the turtle was discovered.
To Osaka blows
Wind waving the pampas grass
Good-bye love, life fades
To Osaka blows
Swirling, shivering wind, snow
Drying with summer
Wind waving the pampas grass
Two lovers lay, sun shines down
Moments, hours, days
Good-bye love, life fades
Cold returns, an end, no more
To Osaka blows
Two hearts forming one
Friendship, Love, Humanity
Embrace each other
Differences divide us
One heart is it, all we have