The Road To Her True Self #flashfiction

Nova traveled along a straight arrow highway in her four-door Honda Civic. Her book of CDs lay in the passenger seat. She had been on this road, the road to being her true self, since leaving her parents’ house for good.

“Be careful where you stop, Nova. Be careful who you’ll meet.” Her mother had said.

At first, Nova only stopped in well-lit places for gas and fast food chains. In this way, Nova made excellent progress on the road to her true self. She stayed steady and healthy and safe.

One day, Nova’s hands gripped the wheel at ten and two, when she noticed the country road expand to an eight-lane thoroughfare with north and southbound traffic. She waved at her fellow travelers, but they moved too fast to notice.

Eventually, she spent too long on this road. It was hard to get noticed by other people. She became very lonely, and took the off-ramp headed west. The sun was an orange ball of fire in the distance.

“I’m going to stop today,” she said out loud. “I’m going to stop, first chance I get.”

It was a squat brick building on the side of the road. The sign read, “Welcome Weary Travelers!”

Nova made a friend in that squat, lone building. They hit it off. They took a chance. Nova’s friend would join her on her journey. She didn’t have to be alone anymore!

As the two pulled away in Nova’s Civic, her friend popped a CD in the disc player. It was a long-distance back to the highway. They rode with the windows down. The music blared, the night was chilly, the moon shone bright.

“It’s just up ahead,” Nova’s new friend had said, “the highway is just past this light.”

It was more of a toll booth, a giant structure leading to the highway. Hundreds of cars waited in line. A massive mechanical arm moved up and down, letting each one through. A little man sat in the control tower.

“Okay,” said Nova, a little unsure. She turned to her friend. “I guess we wait?”

The night turned to day, and the day turned to night. The full moon that illuminated their faces and street and other cars disappeared behind the cosmic shifting of the earth. The days turned to months, to years, to decades.

“I know they’ll let us through,” Nova told her friend, “We just have to wait a little longer.”

Nova’s friend began to lose hope. To her right and left were other cars that had been waiting too. There were grey-haired men and women with wrinkled faces. There were corpses at the wheel.

“Don’t you see!” Nova’s friend finally said, “They’ll never lift the mechanical arm for us!”

But Nova would not give her friend up. She would wait until the end.

Nova’s friend died the next morning, in the passenger seat with the CD case on her lap. Up ahead, the traffic moved. A giant mechanical arm lifted. A green light shone up above. Nova changed the CD, turned on the ignition, and continued on her journey to the road to her true self.

Projects on The Back Burner

Lately, I have been struggling to write, either on here or work on my manuscript. I even had a military paper I was working on with Team Chief that somehow turned into two professional articles that ended up falling off the rails at the end because I didn’t have the bandwidth to work my part of the argument. We managed to publish the original, shorter, and more narrowly scoped paper yesterday on a professional association blog. I think some people read it. I’ll take that as a win. Yay.

A guarantee of 20 minutes of uninterrupted writing time a day does not mean I can work on my manuscript, for example, because 20 minutes is not an absolute number in terms of writing time. Some projects I can jump into, others need a short warm-up before I can jump in, and one needs a major warm-up before I can jump in. I will now use a running analogy.

In a runner’s world, life cycles around races and race seasons. Training consists of speed days, tempo days, distance days, and easy days. Speed and tempo days require at least a two-mile warm-up. Distance days don’t need warming up so long as the pace is comfortable, and easy days are short and slow by definition. Depending on your mileage goal, speed, tempo, and distance days can take two-three hours. Easy days take less time and less mental energy. All components count and are necessary to a well balanced training regime that will get you where you want to go, without injury.

Writing is like this. Blogging is the “easy day” activity. Other projects like professional papers and novels are the big race performances, broken down into bits that require a warm-up, and 20 minutes isn’t going to cut it. It takes me 15 minutes just to remember where I left off on my big projects! I hate having stuff on the back burner. It frustrates me to start over on things every day with very little forward progress. Until remote school is over, projects requiring a warm-up will have to wait. And I hope they don’t die in the process.

One Small Win After Another

P is drawing a picture of a thunderstorm in her composition notebook right now. The clouds in her picture are orange, and for the lightning, she is using a black dry erase marker. This is annoying since she has her Crayola markers to use, and dry erase markers are specialized and more expensive, etc. etc. She does not fight me on this, fortunately, and for today the dry erase markers will live another day for the whiteboard, and we can delay the slow, wholesale consumption of office supplies in this house.

I’m two weeks into remote learning with my kids, and I admit that the task has absorbed most of my bandwidth. I am lucky. My parents are a huge help in prepping breakfast and lunch every day. This frees me up to have the patience to corral and prod my kids to do their morning chores, have breakfast, use table manners, and log in to their computers, all without the aid of YouTube. When their lessons begin, I start my day of cycling back and forth to each one, paying attention to what the teacher wants and what they’re supposed to be doing, and if I see one of them lying on the floor or spinning around, I help them correct. I spend my day making corrections. Maybe this is too heavy-handed of me, but I don’t see any other way. It’s like driving a vehicle with bad alignment, where the only way to stay on course is to keep pulling on the wheel. When you let off, things drift off course.

This morning I spent ten minutes working on my manuscript. Dependapotamous sent me a fantastic short story by a guy named Dustin M. Hoffman (not to be confused with the actor), and I love the way he uses imagery (cigarettes!) to tell this story about construction workers just before the 2008 financial crisis. This morning, with this short story in mind and whatever I learned about figurative language the other day, I fleshed out some more of my chapter. I think writing is like this: every time you sit down to write, you push yourself to learn at least one new thing; it’s this constant act of untangling ideas and making sense of them and trying out new ways to say what you want to say. A lot of things are like this.

I’ll take my small win today, and the one from last week, and the one I’ll get tomorrow and next week and next year, until it adds up to something real, something that looks like I know what I’m doing!

With my pre, pre-teen

Handling Character Descriptions A La Tom Wolfe

I’d never been so happy to sit and watch Penny play soccer as I was the other day. The rain from earlier in the afternoon brought with it fresh tropical air and a blue-streaked sky, and it was good to sit back and watch the kids do normal kid things. The league has taken great pains to reduce COVID risk: the teams are small, the drills are spread out, and the scrimmage time is short, to name a few things. The field where she and Nick play sits at a slight elevation, surrounded by a giant pond with a sprawling hospital campus in the background. On the north side of the field is another, larger lake, with a wakeboarding water park, climbing tower, and mechanical zip-lines.

As I struggle through my character descriptions, I want to take a look at how a character description master does his thing and what I might be able to incorporate into my writing. On the drive to Florida, we listened to Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, and I was struck by how vividly Wolfe sketched each character. He’s famous for doing a few things: 1. He presents characters from different points of view so that the result is multiple character descriptions of the same character. 2. He uses unconventional means to start a character description. See this excerpt below:

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I am Charlotte Simmons

Rather than do the usual thing of going straight into a physical description of Hoyt, Wolfe uses the scene to make Hoyt active and create a sense of movement. So, in addition to getting the information of what Hoyt looks like, the reader gets the picture of Hoyt looking in the mirror, checking himself out, thinking he looks pretty hot because he’s got great teeth, a masculine square jaw, hazel eyes, and he’s jacked! The physical description is active in this scene.

First They Killed My Father

Here’s another example of the same thing, but in a less flamboyant style. The author, Loung Ung, offers a description of her mom from her perspective as a child, overhearing her mother’s friends talk openly about how beautiful she is. In this way, we can picture Ung’s mother moving through the house, handling domestic life (and reprimanding Ung) with effortless grace and beauty.

It looks like well-executed character descriptions do two things:

1. They serve to fill the scene and become part of the movement of the scene.

2. They serve to reveal the interior life of the character by only mentioning pertinent physical details, i.e., Hoyt is jacked therefore maybe he’s vain; Ung’s mother is beautiful, so much so that her friends envy her, therefore maybe she’s conservative in her ideas of femininity and is not endeared to her daughter’s tomboy tendencies.

Soccer.

The Zoom and the Pan in Descriptive Writing

Today is the last day of projects at my house. The crew replacing many of my windows have been here since 10 am and are now attempting to replace the glass on the sliding glass door where my darling dog, Poppy, left hundreds of tiny scratches. Since the door is open, rather than air condition the back yard, I have turned off the central cooling unit and now sit at my kitchen nook in sticky solitude at a balmy 85 degrees.

In my letter from my editor, one of the (many) helpful things she recommended was for me to consider how I draw my scenes. “We need the zoom and pan,” she said. I think it’s relatively easy to tell what is zoom and pan in visual media. In literature, it’s a bit more tricky.

In this excerpt from A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s description of the countryside has this panning camera feel as he guides the reader through the village, the river, the plain, and the war.

In this excerpt, we (slowly) zoom in on the scene, taking in some sculptures, the chair, the cap, frescoes, and the lovely but doomed Catherine Barkley.

In each of these examples, Hemingway has guided the reader through the description, and it has a fluid, kinetic quality, much like the active panning and zooming of a camera. In writing, this movement feels more explicit since it’s words that must guide the reader through the scene. Frankly, it’s hard to put into words how this pan/zoom thing is different in words versus visual. Maybe it’s the same. The only difference is the difference between words and space and time. In other words, the medium. (Duh).

But like many things done well, if you don’t look for the pieces, you won’t notice them. It’s interesting to see what draws in the reader through Hemingway’s lengthy descriptions. Now for some reverse-engineering, here is a screenshot example from a favorite cinematography technique from Breaking Bad. One of the show’s trademarks shots is the use of what they call near/far, like this kettle that’s in the foreground, and the bokeh dramatic action in the background. How would words convey this or something like this? I’m searching for literary examples.