Here’s a little flash fiction update from me, inspired by my hero Chuck Wendig for a quick mid-week writing excursion. He’s my hero by the way because of an amazing post on his blog about quitting versus failing that I suggest for ANYONE to read. Like anyone, creative types or not. Anyway, the constraint of this week’s Flash Fiction challenge is that the work has to be 100 words or under. This one hit just 100 words. Enjoy!

Elderberry Wine by Shoshana Kessock

Elderberry wine tastes like piss. It made the cheese taste like moth-eaten socks.

“You’ll marry me,” Adam said. He handed me a piece of meat, which I nibbled; more socks now. Meaty socks.

I stood up. The trees overhead swayed, the wind brisk and cold. I fought down the urge to scratch my leg where an ant had crawled.

“You got the wrong meat, the wrong cheese to go with it, and the most god awful wine,” I accused. I dusted off my skirt. “The next time you want to ask a girl to marry you? Try asking correctly.”

It’s that time again. Flash Fiction challenge is up on Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. This week it’s Antagonist/Protagonist as a theme, and the idea is to write half the story from the perspective of the antagonist and the other half from the protagonist. So here’s my contribution to that, which I like to call “Juggling Is Hard, And Also Murder.”

 

Juggling Is Hard, And Also Murder by Shoshana Kessock

There’s a technique to juggling, they say, and Robert Fagan knew he didn’t have it. He stared hard into his reflection in the mirror and tried a basic hand-off without looking. The ball in the mirror went from his right hand to his left with careful fluidity. His doppleganger made it seem a lot easier than it felt. Robert frowned, then tried the pass again. His fingers fumbled on the ball and found purchase; no drop. Still, it wasn’t clean, wasn’t smooth. He tried it again and his thumb fumbled, wouldn’t close over the sphere, wouldn’t complete the movement. A phantom pain juked through his knuckles and he fought the urge to wince. He’d been practicing for too long.

“I’ve got four days to learn to juggle,” he said over his shoulder. “Four days. God had more time to invent the world.”

Behind him, the only response was the uncomfortable shuffle of feet. Robert grinned into the mirror, sheepish. “Sure, I guess that’s a bitter analysis. God had a lot more to put together than a simple three-ball toss. Still, God at least had the tools when He started out. He had the design knowledge, one would expect, for life and the totally-phenomenal cosmic power workbench from which to launch Universe 1.0. All I’ve got are three balls and a fourth on the side that’s never going to get used.”

The word never hung in the air thicker than Robert liked and he turned from the mirror. Behind him, Carina stared at him with her impossibly wide eyes. She shuffled her feet but otherwise sat silent, still.

“Do you think that’s stupid?” Robert asked. He held up the ball in one hand. “I can’t help but imagine that I’m overstating the importance of this, but you do understand, don’t you? They’ll hire someone else if I don’t get this. Then where will I be? Jacky Hardooley is just waiting for me to fail because he wants to get off the midway. He wants into the tent and if it means manipulating the Boss Man into unrealistic expectations-“

Robert stopped, then ran a hand through his hair. “What am I saying? What am I doing here?” He threw the ball up in the air and caught it with a satisfying thwack. “Last year I was at Fordham, now I’m here. Last year I was debating where I’d go for my PhD for Chrissake and now-“

He tossed the ball up in the air with more force. It came down, a loud smack on flesh. Carina winced.

“I’m sorry,” he said and found, strangely, he meant it. He set the ball down on the worn dresser that rounded out his battered, road-worn furniture. As he did, Carina tensed and Robert saw her eyes track to the ball and then back to him. “I’m talking too much about this, aren’t I? I’m just under so much pressure. I shouldn’t talk so much about myself.”

He knelt beside Carina’s chair and his knee kicked up a cloud of dust. Robert hesitated, then put a hand on her slender, perfect foot. The charge of skin on skin contact made him shudder and he heard her whimper. It sent a jolt through his blood and he looked up at her with barely masked adoration.

“You’re just so easy to talk to,” he confessed, then set about checking the rope around her ankles.

 

Talking, Carina thought. The key was just to keep him talking. That’s what they said in all the shows, but how did one do that without being able to talk back? How did you make small talk, build empathy, with a dirty pair of Jockey’s shoved in your mouth?

The eyes. Windows to the soul, weren’t they? Carina’s heart rate rode high in her ears, her blood pounding, and her mind fragmented into a million cliches: windows to the soul, home is the place your heart is, grass is always greener, and all that jazz. She felt crazy, the taste of cotton and sweat in her mouth driving home the inevitability that said she was seeing, for the first time, the real face of this rodeo clown Devil’s Rejects escapee.

He talked. He talked for hours. When he wasn’t speaking, he tossed that ball. She watched the ball because as long as it was in his hand, he didn’t have a weapon. Only his words. Only his hands.

Carina wasn’t sure how long she had been in that chair. She knew it was long enough for her to have to piss so badly that she’d nearly cried. He’d brought her a bedpan and humiliated her by smiling kindly into her face while she used it. Had he been a nurse? She saw the scars on his knuckles and thought better of it. Boxer? MMA fighter? The thought made her cringe. He had barely used his hands on her when he’d carried her from the midway at the close of the day. Could he do more? Was he trained? Was he capable?

He kept talking and Carina watched the ball in his hands, reading his words and not his body language. He was calm and she wanted it to stay that way. Gain an inch, she might get a mile in return.

She shuffled her feet; there were the cliche’s again.

Her eyes widened as he turned to her with those too-wide eyes. He earnestly asked her a question and knelt beside her chair. It took everything she had not to scream when he touched her foot and she felt the eager tremor in his moist grip. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and steadied herself.

If she was going to embrace cliche, she’d stick with something about darkest being before the dawn. She prayed, hope against hope, that he wouldn’t figure out the ropes were loose.

I woke up this morning with the unbelievable drive to read a book, read a book, read a m-****ing book.

(Sorry, I had to quote that song. Consider that the first use of real profanity on this blog. I’ll keep it to a minimum, promise.)

It’s not as though I don’t get the urge to pick up a book any given day. I think one of the driving forces behind my interest in writing is my almost insatiable appetite for books. In fact, the happiest way for me to spend an afternoon is browsing a book store, lost in the various sections in an attempt to discover some tome I’ve never seen before. But today of all days, I woke up with the urge to read, not write.

I’m staring down the barrel of a deadline that is, for all intents and purposes, tomorrow and all I want is to pick up a book and lose myself in a good story. Is it the drive to procrastinate that’s keeping me away from my work? Is it some self-sabotage instinct? Not this time. This time, I believe, it is the voice of the inner muse reminding me of one glorious notion: others have walked the path before you and more will come behind. See what they’ve done in the past and are doing now and be reminded that it can’t be that bad.

The line – it can’t be that bad – has always come with a particular voice in my head since I was in high school. One of my favorite shows, Babylon 5, had the most brilliant character in it in the form of Centauri Ambassador Londo Molari. His accent was some kind of Eastern Europe space hodgepodge and when he spoke, he let vowels drip like wine. In one episode, he consoles a morose Security Chief Garibaldi by telling him a story about how in his intensely stressful life, he was once sitting in a strip-joint and couldn’t concentrate on the dancers due to his inner angst. Suddenly he looks up and there is a beautiful dancer there, looking at him. She leans down, kisses his bald dome-y head, and says, “Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad!” That little moment of stripper-provided wisdom stuck with me for years, especially spoken from such an awesomely tragic character as Londo in such a hilarious scene. Because sometimes you need a reminder from the weirdest or most off-beat places that it really can’t be that bad.

I had prepared an article for the blog about the isolation that can come from being a writer, especially when one is like me and tends to find the best writing times in the dead of the night. I wanted to talk about the difficulty of telling friends ‘it’s cool, go out, I’m going to stay home and work’ when you want to be there yupping it up over some beers, but your manuscript is calling. I was going to jam on messed up circadian rhythms and the secret joy of finding your muse hiding at the bottom of your second cup of coffee at two AM when nobody is around to witness your discovery and triumph. Then I got an eyeful of Chuck Wendig’s latest blog post about caring less as a writer and I sat back to think, really think, about what can be taken from the lessons I’ve learned lately about being a writer.

First and foremost, I’ve learned to shut up and stop complaining about being a writer so much.

Let me be clear about that statement. Being a writer is no easy roll of the bones. It is an often thankless, uphill battle against your inner demons, resource (time/money/patience) management, and the ever-capricious well of ideas. It can cause you no end of strife either internally or with your family/friends. Hell, it can cause strife with total strangers when they read your work and suddenly you’re in the middle of a flame war online about the true meaning of words like ‘misogyny’ or ‘feminism’ or, y’know, where you put an apostrophe in a sentence (because people just like to fight over ANYTHING but ESPECIALLY grammar). And talking to your friend/significant other/whatever about what is going on in your head is healthy to a certain extent – it’s called sharing and helps make us well-adjusted little keyboard-tappers.

But behind all the fighting and the fretting and the problems writers have, there’s an inherent magic that I think we keep forgetting about. The act of creation that writers embark upon is, at the risk of sounding way too hippy-like, a beautiful one at heart because creation is beautiful. And when we sit down to make the choice to be creators, we take upon ourselves the task of bringing something new into this world.

I’ll highlight that important bit there that we often forget about: we take upon ourselves. 

A brilliant editor I know, John Adamus, once told me that the first step in being a writer is making choices. I also amended that in my head to the first act of being writer is making the choice. When you sit down to the laptop, when you pick up a pen, you are choosing to take up the chance to make something new. There’s no writer chain gang, shackling us to our desks, demanding it’s ten thousand words before your opportunity for parole. And then, shortly thereafter, you make the choice whether or not to fret yourself to death over the very same choice. It’s all within our power to control and those inner stressors we put upon ourselves are within our power to control if we would just, to quote Chuck Wendig, care less.

Those outer stressors, like money and time managements and friends who wish we’d come around more and parents who ‘just don’t understand’, may be more outside of our control than our inner workings, but it’s still our choice where we put our time and our resources. We make the hard choices to find time to be a writer if we want to. We take the power of creation upon ourselves. And then, when we need to outgas some of our self-imposed internal worry, we crank about it aloud and make it part of our creative process. Sit down, write, fret, grouse, get back to work. I took a hard look at that cycle and thought to myself: which parts of these actually serve the creation process and which don’t? I can tell you, it’s those two in the middle that don’t vaguely resemble work.

I spoke last night with my best friend Andrea who recently completed training to become a doula. For those who don’t know what that is and think that’s a very funny word, a doula is someone who helps with childbirth and yes, it is a hilariously funny word. (It always reminded me of Aanold in Kindergarden Cop trying to pronounce ‘tumor’ – tuuumah!). She just went through her second birth yesterday and we caught up as she recovered from the strain of the whole thing. I marveled at her ability to go into a room and help a woman bring another life into this world and told her so – the very notion of the whole childbirth process freaks me out so badly I can barely listen to her describe it. Yet she made the choice to take up a calling to help bring new little people into this world, and as she talked about the long hours and the worry and the shouting involved (there’s a lot of shouting in coaching a birth apparently, just like on TV), I marveled at the excitement she had for all of it and the pride with which she spoke about the entire affair.

Suddenly, all of my complaints about my long hours behind a keyboard went away. I was just helping to bring some sentences and ideas into this world and all I had to worry about was getting them in the correct order to convey ideas and (hopefully) some proper grammar. I wasn’t standing in a delivery room, worrying over a new life coming into this world. If she could find the joy in the midst of stress, the accomplishment in the middle of BabyDefcon One, then what was I missing? Why did I let my stress overwhelm my creative joy? Why was it inherently part of my process?

I won’t go into why I stress about writing here. It’s a long, drawn out conversation that, in it’s own mental Olympics way, can cycle into that woe outgassing cycle in it’s own way and that’s not where I’m going with this. Instead, I’ll say that in the light of perspective, the little things that drive us to neuroses about our writing can be put into silence if we make our choices and keep an eye on where we fit in what I call the chain. That’s where the books come in.

For a writer, reading isn’t just the act of doing research on the greats in the field, or a chance to lose yourself in the work of your favorites. It is a chance to realize that once you picked up the pen, you are among a peerage that stems back to the first time someone chiseled something into a rock for fun and said, “Hey, Caveman Joe, you gotta read this!” You’re among those who made the choice to spin words out of dead air into strings of new reality that spark the human mind the moment they touch a reader’s eyes. And you’re burdened with the idea, just like they were, that if you don’t bring your particular vision to the world, who will. That book in your hand should remind a reader that there are others out there who could look at your stress and your inner demons and say, “Hey buddy, I feel you” and mean it. You as a writer are not alone and in the end, whatever it is that’s holding you back internally and setting off the monkey on your back, it can’t be THAT bad. There are real-world concerns to stress over that need to be focused on, sure, but the woe we generate over our creative selves sometimes needs the perspective only a good book can give.

Or, y’know, a kiss on the head by a beautiful, wise stripper. But if those are in short supply, take your revelations where you can get ’em. I’m sure trying to.