Friday, July 11, 2008

Current Projects IV: Short stories

By now, if you've been reading bottom to top, which is chronologically correct but blogarhythmically unorthodox, you know that not only am I a writer, but that I'm a marketing copywriter, a playwright (unproduced), a poet (well, not really), a novelist (fingers crossed), a non-fiction ghostwriter, and now...a short story writer? What's next, you might be asking yourself: fortune cookie composer?

A good 15 years ago or so, I interviewed a guy for a local arts paper about his first novel, which had just been published. He taught poetry at a nearby community college and he told me that his colleagues used to call him "the poetry guy" and now they were calling him "the fiction guy." He wondered why writers can't just be writers, free to compose and create in the form that seems most appropriate for the project at hand.

For what it's worth, I completely agree with him. I've always believed that I could write anything that needed to be written. I've been turned down for jobs because I didn't have industry experience – "We need a healthcare writer" – yet my career has proven that I can master any form, any vertical market, any audience. That hospital didn't need a healthcare writer, it needed a writer who could quickly get up to speed and consistently deliver copy that hits the mark. That's what I do, and if all those people who turned me down because I wasn't healthcare enough, or telecom enough, or anything enough were to stand in my office today, I'ld piss all over each and every one of them. Hell, I'm a trained journalist, skilled in research and interviewing techniques. You're hiring a noun, not an adjective. Want a writer? I'm a writer. A writer writer, if you insist.

Anyway, that little rant aside, I think that writer writers working on the creative side should be free to explore a range of forms as well, without being labeled any one kind of writer. One of my all-time favorite writers, James Agee, was a novelist, screenwriter, journalist, poet, and film critic. I'm not saying he or any writer (myself very much included) working in different forms will be as effective in all, or that such a writer wouldn't necessarily merit being best known for one particular form. For my money, Agee was first and foremost a journalist, and Let Us Know Praise Famous Men was his magnum opus. His other most notable work, A Death in the Family, is essentially a fictionalized autobiography, and autobiography, like biography, is essentially a journalistic pursuit. It's the investigation and clear organization of facts intended to inform and enlighten. Film criticism, too, is a form of journalism and in his day, he was a very influential critic. (Of course, another notable work of Agee's was the script for The African Queen, for which he won an Oscar; however, he was one of four credited writers and it is hard to determine how much of his work survived.)

So that brings me to short stories. Like poetry, it's not a form I have studied extensively, nor have I read many anthologies. My boss, Neal, gave me a Raymond Carver collection (Where I'm Calling From) as a gift and it was very inspiring and influential to me. Which is not to say that I adopt his innovative style, but there's a quality that I try to emulate in that the story seems not confined to itself; that there's something prior to the beginning and subsequent to the ending that we're not allowed to see yet somehow strongly suggests that important stuff did and will happen there.

I have five short stories I have written, three of which are not yet completed. The first is called "The Last Car," and it's a first-person account of a man obsessed by a woman he sees on the train every morning. He fears he's making her uncomfortable and when she doesn't show up one day, his mind creates outrageous scenarios to explain why. When she returns, it's no better and his obsession forces him to take drastic action.

The next story I started I still haven't finished. It's about a guy who meets up with an older woman he had a crush on in college. They never had sex then, but now he's determined to bed her so as to erase his two decades of fantasies about her. Whether it was worth it or not remains to be seen (since I haven't finished it yet), though the sex scene I wrote is quite a scorcher, I have to say.

The third story is also unfinished. It's called "The Untangler" and it's about a guy who gets himself in knotty situations in terms of his intimate relationships. When a set of wind chimes he was given by his ex-girlfriend get hopelessly tangled during a storm, his current girlfriend recommends he take it to her great uncle, who is known as an ace untangler. As he works on them, the Untangler imparts numerous lessons to the guy on the nature of knots and life. I wish someone would finish this for me because I really want to know how it comes out.

The fourth story is one I had pieces of for a long time, and then finally sat down one day and banged it out. It was inspired in many ways by a friend of mine. It's called "Elevation" and it's about a guy who decides to make up cards that say on them "You're very attractive," then give them out to women he meets on the street who have earned them. He's very clear that he's not doing it to pick up women; he sees himself as acting altruistically, giving people positive feedback about themselves. When he finally gives one out, though, he discovers something he hadn't counted on. I know it sounds goofy, but I really like this one.

The last one is unfinished but I think it has a lot of potential. All of these, you may have guessed, are heavily inspired by my real, somewhat pathetic life, littered as it is with numerous interpersonal regrets. But this one, at least, doesn't involve a woman. It's about a guy who finally meets and talks to someone he's known for years only by his disability. I know there has to be some kind of a zinger at the end, but I haven't figured out what it should be yet. But here's the beginning. It's called "Kegger."

by Jason M. Rubin

We called him Kegger. There were two reasons why we called him Kegger. The first was that we didn’t know his real name. The second was because he had some kind of physical disability that made him walk in a jerky, emphatic fashion so that he looked like someone leaving a “kegger” (that is, a keg party). In other words, he walked like he was drunk, even though he wasn’t. We used to joke that when he was shitfaced, he probably walked perfectly normal.

He was a classmate of ours in college. That was almost 20 years ago. He and I were in a class together once, but it was in a large lecture hall so the only way I could learn his name was to go up and talk to him. Suffice to say, I never did that. And neither did any of my college friends, though we used to see him on campus frequently. Were we cruel? Ignorant? Scared? Yeah, sure. Or maybe at a large state school like ours, with so many people all around, there was no great impulse to get to know someone who’s…well, different.

I don’t know what his ailment was. It could have been something like muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy, but to tell you the truth, I don’t really know what those diseases are all about. He could have sustained a brain injury in an accident. I don’t know. It would have been so easy to get the answer…no, strike that. Even had I introduced myself to him and learned his name, I don’t think I would’ve had the nerve to ask him the nature of his disability. “So what’s with the funny walk: brain damage or incurable disease?” I don’t think so.

The strange thing is, ever since we graduated, I see him around the city every so often. Maybe once every three to five years. I don’t even see most of my college buddies that frequently. Like I said, I went to a large state university and for all I know I’m constantly coming into contact with people from my class – but I wouldn’t know them from Adam, because there’s nothing about them that distinguishes them in my mind. Not like Kegger. I’d know Kegger anywhere. It’s true, because I’ve seen him with and without a beard, and there’s no question it’s Kegger.

Usually when I see Kegger, I call or email some of my college buddies to tell them about my sighting. It’s usually good for a chuckle or a : ) or even an “LOL!” I’m the only one of us still in the city so no one else has seen him since college (actually, that’s not true; one guy saw him at a Grateful Dead concert. For that night only, his name was changed from Kegger to Acid Casualty).

It should be obvious to you now why I’m telling you this. I saw him again. Just yesterday, walking down the street. Only this time, I talked to him.

© 2008 Jason M. Rubin. All Rights Reserved.

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