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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Make Your Story Make You Bleed

When you write a story, make it about you. Even if it’s about the shidduch crisis. Even if it’s about the Baal Shem Tov. Start with something that means something to you — a statement, a feeling — and let the story grow from there.
A lot of writing classes will tell you to show, don’t tell. That’s good advice, but it isn’t all true. Telling can be a great tool. But in order to tell the audience what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling, you need to take us through the steps of your experiencing this.
And that’s a lot more easily experienced by telling your reader where you were at one point — not just saying you were, say, a college dropout who refused to eat any food aside from bacon, but describing why bacon was so important to you, telling us in detail how each stick was as long as your hand and had little bumpy ridges and ghostly shivers of white fat, and how the reason you ate so much of it was that your college was Porgsley’s School of Pig-Thumpin’ and they gave it free to all the students, and not only does it conjure memories of happier times, but you sneak onto campus and get free bacon and it’s the only time you ever see all your old friends.
Then — and only then — are we prepared to hear about how you gave it all up to be kosher.
We, as frum writers, as Jewish writers, or just as writers who are somewhat preoccupied with issues of faith and belief, are especially susceptible to epiphany. I saw the light! G-d spoke to me!
It’s such a tempting idea, this sudden mental switch or a realization-from-on-high that affects you in a way that makes you stop in your tracks so fast that dust clouds rise around your ankles, and then — for reasons that are often hard to explain and sometimes so totally otherworldly that you can barely explain them to yourself, let alone write a story about them for other people — you’re a different person than you were before.
That’s the essence of a story. Or, it’s very close to being the essence of a story. What’s missing from your revelation is the story itself.
Remember The Matrix? Remember when Keanu said “whoa” a lot, and then Morpheus explained to him for like 20 minutes that all of humanity is living in little electric aquariums and the machines took over and we’ve forgotten what it’s like to rebel….and, my friends, that is a good freaking way to tell.
But The Matrix also made the telling itself into a story. Instead of just saying that there was a war between people and robots and people are sleeping through their lives and they don’t realize it, the filmmakers told it as a process. First the situation was this. Then this happened. Then, here’s another element that complicates it. They explained the situation like building a building, telling one step at a time…and then, before you know it, you’ve got a whole freakin’ skyscraper of a story.
Stories don’t have to be about somebody changing. That’s not where the energy of a story comes from — the energy comes from tension, from the moment just before whatever’s going to happen, happens. Sometimes it will happen. Dorothy rescues the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, Moses tells Pharaoh to Let My People Go.
And sometimes it doesn’t happen. When Joseph’s brothers come to him, they tell him there’s a famine, they need his help — the whole time they’re begging him for food, we aren’t thinking, Is Joseph going to feed them? We’re thinking, Is Joseph going to reveal his true identity? When he sends them away, with the troubling mission of bringing back his brother, the tension mounts. The question is still, is Joseph going to disclose the truth, but now it becomes, Is he going to tell his brothers the truth AND what the hell does he need his baby brother Benjamin for?
Stories within stories.
But if every story were about a character changing, they’d be predictable. They’d be boring. Sometimes stories do get that way. We know this as readers. Instead of thinking, is the main character going to realize he’s wicked and have a change of heart, we’re thinking, when’s he going to get to the change of heart and make everything better already.
Recognize that feeling? That’s called boring.
To keep the reader on her toes — and, even more importantly, to keep ourselves on our toes — nothing can be predictable. We need to keep ourselves guessing.
At this point, you’re probably saying, duh, Matthue, all you do is watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and read books, your life is more fiction than nonfiction, how do you build character moments in my True Real-Life Personal Essay? Well, it’s true that you’re probably not as exciting as Buffy,* but that doesn’t mean anything. I forget who first said this, but there are some people who can tell a story of walking to the corner store to buy bread and make it more tense and emotional than your mother dying, and there are some people who can talk about their mothers dying and it sounds as boring as going to the corner store.
When you start to write, set your boundaries. Tell your audience what’s at stake. If it’s a blind date, tell us about every date you’ve been on before. Is this your first? That raises the stakes even more. Tell us your dream date as a child, tell us all the ways that this date is nothing like that — for worse or maybe for better. If it’s about your kid waking you up in the middle of the night, tell us how desperately you’re craving sleep, how bad the day has been, or how good, or how you haven’t seen them at all. If it’s a story about being hungry in the middle of the night, tell us about what you ate that day, or didn’t eat that day. Tell us how much you love, say, chocolate-covered Bamba. Tell us how it’s the last packet and you and your parent/child/wife/roommate are fighting over it (or if they’re asleep, tell us how bad they’ll kill you if you eat it). Look for tension. We’re in galus, the world of exile — tension is really not that hard to find. It’s everywhere.
And if there are problems, embrace them. There’s a rule that I’m making up as I write this that says that the sadder or crazier or weirder you look on paper, the more awesome you are in real life. There’s a reason Tom Cruise is okay with getting beat up horribly in his movies, or that Woody Allen always makes himself look pathetic (well, don’t use Woody Allen as a barometer). You’re the hero. Make yourself vulnerable. Make stuff happen to you. As far down as you push yourself as a character, that’s how far you can rise up your story.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Pray Loud

Yankel, who used to be Jack, got kicked out of his last club on a Tuesday night. He wasn’t acting rowdy, not nearly as rowdy as the night when Nail and Anarchia brought the homemade volcano to the Dismemberment Plan concert, not even as crazy as the Godheadsilo show where he’d jumped from the balcony into the audience below. It wasn’t a 21+ show — not that that had mattered for quite a few years now. He even had I.D.

It was the bouncer. He was a big shaved-head guy of indeterminate ethnicity, his face like a Disney gargoyle’s face frozen with a piece of sharp metal hanging out of it. The guy did have the metal, a whole row of hoops erupting out of his lower lip. He looked like every James Bond henchman at once.

He was doing a sweep of the crowd, making sure nobody was up to no good. It’s the hardest part of these shows, Yankel knew from experience. Over the years he’d worked both sides of the table. The guy passed over the guys with piercings sharper than knives, passed over the pot-huddle in the corner. And he stopped in front of Yankel.

Yankel pretended not to notice him. It worked every bit as well as it did when he was 16.

The guy gave him a shrug, crossed his arms. It wasn’t a fierce arm-crossing. It was just to show Yankel that he wasn’t impressed.

“What are you doin’ here, man?”

Yankel leaned forward.

“I’m sorry?” He cocked an ear. Maybe he’d misheard? “What is the problem, sir?”

He’d always been polite, no matter what else he had going on. He respected these guys. It was hard being paid to constantly be about to fight and never fighting.

The guy undid his arms. One of his hands he waved at Yankel. Vaguely at first, fanning the air around him, then zeroing in on his belly — his white shirt, his black vest, the stripes of his over-the-shirt tzitzis that his potbelly poked out like a family camper.

“You, man. It’s no problem, I ain’t kicking you out — but it’s you, man, what’s somebody like you doing here?”

Most nights Yankel didn’t come to these things alone. He brought friends, he found buddies. The few guys still in town from the old days, or someone from the forums. Yankel worked in computers, on the days when business was slow, he still logged onto the chat boards, eavesdropped on what people were saying about the bands he liked, which new bands were like them, lobbing insults at each other for musical taste, avatar use, lyrical quotes in their signatures. Yankel was brief and to the point. He tried never to insult people. His avatar was a gray profile. He didn’t have enemies. No friends, really, but everyone was his ally.

Tonight, though, none of his conspirators could make it. He came alone. Watched the opening band alone. Bought a beer for him and for nobody else. Stood alone in the corner between acts, drinking it as a substitute for between-sets small talk.

“I just come for the music. I like this music.”

The guy wasn’t buying it.

“You people have your own music, man. You ain’t here to dance, you hear to look. Listen. You wanna hook up, there’s a bar across the street, this trance bar, you can rub up against all the girls you want to over there. Girls, boys, whatever you’re after. Maybe take off your little cap next time, dress a little more low key.”

“No, you don’t understand — this band, I got all their albums, I got everything.”

“That’s all I’m saying,” said the guy, hands up, backing away. “That’s all.”

Yankel didn’t have to leave. Yankel left anyway. He listened to the first two songs of the next band’s set, his favorite band from when he’d started coming to these places — but there was no point. It was so long ago. You could hear it in the music, the band’s passion just wasn’t there anymore.


He can hear the goings-on inside his house from down the block. The screams get louder as he gets close. They are tiny, breathless, pathetic. The most incredibly syncopated rhythmic cries, like some weird Norwegian or Icelandic art-rock sampling crew.

He climbs the stairs to his apartment, kicks snow off his boots, removes his coat and heads straight for the dark room in the rear.

At once he is confronted.

“Yankie, please, take her.” She thrusts the baby into his hands. The little thing sits there, tiny arms drooping over his huge hands. “She’s been nonstop since dinnertime. I can’t do it anymore, I can’t make her stop.”

For a moment the tiny thing is confused. Then it regains its motivation, starts screaming again, its entire face contorted into the wrinkles around one huge gaping void of a mouth. There aren’t even teeth. No creature in G-d’s great Earth has ever screamed so mightily, so forcefully, and yet still produced such an insignificant squeak.

The door shuts hard. From the other room he can hear a rustle in the closet, a shuffle, a sigh, the welcome sound that the Netflix makes. She is such a special woman, and so selfless. He is unworthy of her.

But what he’s really unworthy of is this baby. This tiny beautiful creature who he has somehow contributed to the existence of. Even as she cries he wants to hug her, to squeeze her tight and protect her from the world, to find anything in the exile of our lives that could possibly be good enough for her.

He rocks her. He jiggles her. He puts a lullaby on the tape player; he tries reciting to her from Psalms, which always seemed like a good idea. He tries everything. From the other room, a fresh theme song. The episode has ended. Another is starting.

“Ba, ba, baba,” he coos softly in her ear. “Ba, ba, baba. I wanna be sedated.”

The tickle of his voice on her earlobe only protracts the worldly anxiety. Her scream becomes an uproar. Her entire body shudders with every blow.

He has no choice but to match it.

“When we have nothing left to give,” he sings, “there’ll be no reason for us to live.” The music screeches with urgency, the backing music in his mind, and he sings, louder now, “We owe you nothing,” again, “We owe you nothing,” and now he’s really screaming out, “We owe you nothing, you have no control,” and “You are not what you own,” and all the lyrics are tumbling out of him now, all the words to all the songs, and he is roaring them at the walls, roaring them against the night, against the world of exile, against his entire life, and remarkably, miraculously, the louder he goes he is like an all-encompassing tsunami, he is nature sounds, he is every white noise at once, and her eyes flutter, maybe taken by surprise or maybe just amused, and her mouth exercises into shapes, an O, an O, a horizontal I, and he is consumed by everything and she snuggles contentedly into the warmth of his exploding chest and settles into a perfect sleep.

Image by Jon Pack, who was very amenable about my waking him up in the middle of the night and asking if I could use it. Find more of his stuff here, or you can acquire some of his work for yourself right here. Lyrics sampled from Fugazi and the Ramones. 

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