Friday, April 18, 2014


Ice pit
Ice bites into my fingers. It’s not going to hold. Already, I can feel sandy granules breaking off against my skin. This isn’t solid, like some sheet of water frozen in one go; this isn’t orderly molecules aligned in hexagonal prisms. No, this is an amalgam of ice pebbles, with a mortar as arbitrarily strong as my muscles: some strong, some weak, some tearing under the strain.
A twitch vibrates up my thigh; I can’t hold out much longer. What can my abducting muscles handle: 80 lbs? And they’re holding at least 150. My triceps scream, but they can hold the other 100 lbs for a few minutes more. Enough to ease myself out of this chimney.
God, damn it. I saw the rock. I knew it was there. I know better than this, to walk near one. I know they melt the snow under the crust, leaving pockets. And I fucking walked right into it. Foom. Buried to my thighs, ice walls on my right and nothing but pocket everywhere else. Just air, like someone decided to make me a bedroom in the great outdoors. My breath didn’t even frost down there; it must be 40 degrees. The ceiling dripped onto the sides of the rock, releasing silicate smells in the dampness. My salvation, however tempting, would not be the rock. “Rock solid” doesn’t apply to the snow around the damn thing. Ice walls it would have to be.
And now, most of the way up the ice walls, the side of each knee digging into any divot I can find, I grip the top of the crust of snow, away from the rock, and I know it’s not going to hold. It’s going to crack, or melt under my bare fingers, or it’s going to break when my thighs give out.
I pull my body up, an inch at a time. I don’t even hear the break.
I fall. Foom. Into the snow. Back into my bedroom of ice.
Would it be so bad, to take a nap here? I’m tired. My legs are shaking and now my arms are shaking and when was the last time I ate anything?
The snow collapses in my hand. I suck the water, so much less voluminous than the snow. No napping. Recharge and retry.
The walls are too clean. No footholds, but too close together to put my back to one and push against the other. That would be the ideal way, my biceps femoris and my quads can support my whole weight plus a hundred pounds, easy, indefinitely. Well, for minutes and minutes and minutes. Enough minutes to get the Hell out of here.
The walls are too clean. I know that’s my problem. My real problem. I’m only stuck in here because I can’t get a grip. I only have the one knife—no climbing picks. But compress ice and what happens? Water. One of the few substances on Earth for which that’s true. And a knife functions on what? Pressure. Force applied to a small area-the edge. Maybe I can cut some footholds, some handholds. After all, I’m in here until I get out, right? I have all the time in the world. Three weeks, to be exact, since I have insulation in the form of the air bubble in the snow, and I have fresh water. I’ll live until I starve, and with my reserves, that could be more than three weeks. Plenty of time to cut into the ice.
I push the blade, using my weight and not my muscles to apply the pressure. It’s working. The knife is sinking in: a half a centimeter. A centimeter. This might actually work. Ugh! But it’s hard!
Fuck it. I’m not going to try that hard. This place is comfortable. So what if I die here? It’s nice here. I’ll work with what I’ve got in here and I won’t use my tools or put in a lot of effort. Besides, the snow will melt some day and I’ll be able to just walk out of here. In three weeks, it will be May. I’m sure it won’t snow much in the meantime.
My stomach growls. Muscles shake. God, but I’m hungry. Oh, well. It doesn’t matter anyway. This story was just for fun.
…and THAT, my dear colleagues, is why it is so frustrating when people don’t really try your advice, or they say they aren’t serious after you’ve done a lot of work. Trying and failing is fine, as you can see in the story. But not trying hard is unsatisfying. We are all the protagonists of our life-stories. If we don’t try with every bit of what we have, or if we say it’s not serious, then we are doing a great disservice not only to ourselves, but to the audience—our loved ones, our friends, our acquaintances who watch our lives. And how many times will you read a story if you know the protagonist always gives up? How often will you engage?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

To the Cusp

My parents could have worked in Marketing for any University in the world. All my life, they told me that if I just hung in there, I would go to college, where the professors would take me to the cusp of knowledge, to the very precipice, to the cliff, after which the wide gulf of discovery would open up before me.
The cusp.

That’s where I feel now. Not the cliff my parents talked about, but the crest of a hill. Right now all I can see is my dashboard and the sky, but in a minute or two, my car will level out and I’ll see the wide world of creating verbal art. I’ll see it from the airplane perspective: all geometric fields and wooly forests. Rivers of plot wind through character rills, and the perfect stone outcroppings dot the world like upthrust thumbs.

The sensation started with the gut-level understanding of something that had only lived in my head: stories are manufactured. Everything in them is planned and calculated for effect. They are DESIGNED.
Well, duh. That’s what my head said. Of course they are manufactured. They don’t grow under mushrooms (although a few ideas have grown OUT FROM mushrooms, I must admit).
But my heart did not hear this. My heart heard: I will sit at my keyboard and story shall stream from my fingertips!

Then I picked up Swain. And I believed. Ahh! Cried the angels. I learned even more: climax must be a choice between what is right and what is easy, for both the protagonist and often the antagonist. Then the character should get what he or she deserves: the essence of (not the actual) his goal, or conversely the actual accomplishment, but robbed of meaning. Judgment. Justice.

Stories aren’t real life! Bad guys get punished. People get second chances! Good guys finish, if not first, at least with their dignity intact! Oh my God, how did I never see this?

After that, of course I devoured Stein. And Stein had even more to say: dialogue should be a confrontation. An oblique one. It shouldn’t sound “real”, because you’re only using the meat. But it should be distinguishable, from character to character.


And then, the coup de grace: What we want to see is that picture in the pocket that the characters hide from everyone else. That one soul-jerking moment, that one vulnerable spot.

This echoes with what Randall has been teaching: be vulnerable. Suddenly, I read Stein saying the same thing: Start with your vulnerable moment. Start with that photo you wouldn’t show your best friend, that the paramedics would find upon searching your pockets, and you’d be mortified (dead!) if you knew they saw it: the dirty undies of your soul.

And here I am, encased in this knowledge, cresting this hill: I get it. I get it, and I’m ready to DO it. I will dive into the gulf of discovery, taken to the cusp of knowledge by these wonderful authors and editors.

And, after a good swim, I’ll be ready to dive back into these and other books for my next cusp.