Over Christmas break, I wanted to increase my knowledge about the nature and philosophy of composition, especially in fiction, so I could apply that knowledge to my writing, blogging, corresponding, and to my studies. To acquire books on that subject, I visited the FSU library, and also ordered a couple off Amazon. On top of that haul, I brought the three texts I'm teaching in Freshman Composition this semester home to Orlando where I spent three weeks, hoping to familiarize myself with the material before beginning the semester. I also brought a couple odd selections of general interest. Not to mention a few Golf Digests.
Here, in no particular order, are the books I brought with me to Orlando, but didn't get around to reading:
--Writing the Short-Story, by J. Berg Esenwein—an ancient, crumbling instructional from 1908.
--Varieties of Transcendental Experience: A Study in Constructive Postmodernism, by Donald L. Gelpi—I checked this book out for a chapter about theism, a concept I used in a critical essay about theology in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and I thought I might read further on this interesting and often ambiguous subject.
--Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass—a paperback instructional that I’ve heard isn’t so bad, from 2001.
--Introduction to the Short Story, 4th edition, edited by Robert W. Boynton and Maynard Mack. A collection of short stories with editorial “Considerations” to cogitate on.
--The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing the Research Paper, by Bruce Ballenger, the hyper-personal but comprehensive authority on Freshman research essays.
--Beyond Words: Cultural Texts for Reading and Writing, Ruszkiewicz, Anderson, and Friend. Glossy and operating in the obvious, this Freshman reader at least contains articles and chapters from Steinbeck, Kerouac, David Brooks, and Paul Theroux.
--Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, by Ray Bradbury. A book by Ray Bradbury about zen and composition? Count me in.
These are the books I read partially:
--The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins—the notorious call to atheism by the world’s most truculent philosopher. I got about 70 pages in before having to move on. It's still on my 'need to read' list, though.
--Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott is an influential writer on the process method of composition promoted by the First Year Composition program at FSU. The first third of this essay collection details Lamott's struggles with alcoholism and drug use in the 70's. It's funny and profound, written in Lamott's funny, biting voice. But the second third turned too religious and familial for me, so I put 'er down.
--The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardener. I had some time to kill in the Tires Plus waiting room, and one night sitting in my car waiting for a friend to get out of work. Gardener makes heady, high-minded assertions about the craft that will surely be edifying one day when I can concentrate on the text.
In short, I brought home a bunch of books and didn't get all that much reading done. There's one last book, however, which I managed to finish:
--On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King, 2000. The cover looks as old as the Esenwein book, but the contents bring writers up to date with the conventions adhered to by Stephen King which helped him become one of America's most prolific authors. Truth be told, I've never read a novel by Stephen King. I was at first a bit turned off by his simple, unadorned writing style (King proclaims his style "Proletariat"). But King makes it work with straightforwardness and simplicity. After 40 or 50 pages, he had sucked me in, especially after recounting how the first novel he sold garnered him $200,000, in the 70's, and how he collapsed to the floor when his agent told him how much it had sold for. That recounting is enough to put stars and dollar signs in any writer's eyes. King also offers an interesting exposition of 'ly' adverbs (thankfully, especially, shittily), dialogue tags (he prescribes the use of 'he said,' 'she said,' only if necessary, and nothing more), his own voracious reading habits, and the fact that he blares Metallica while he writes.
As a personal aside--I don't get writers who compose while listening to music. I don't understand them, I don't trust them, and I don't feel safe around them. I work best in total silence. If music's on, those lyrics might just squeeze their way into my work, and the train of my thought gets constantly derailed.
I got a lot out of the King instructional. In it, he includes one exercise where he instructs his readers to envision a divorced couple with the woman stalking the man, in five to six pages. If I remember correctly, King intends to demonstrate how character and conflict allow plot to form and unfold without purposeful construction from the writer. This is what I came up with:
Charles lagged his long par attempt to two and a half feet.
“Nice putt,” Mitch replied. “Mark it please.” Mitch stepped up to his five footer for par and rattled it into the hole. “Buried it,” he said with a small fist pump. Picking his ball out of the cup, he said to his competitor, “Knock it in there.”
“It’s inside the leather,” Charles replied. “I’d give the putt to you.”
“If it’s so good, go ahead and make it.”
Charles stepped over the ball and stubbed the putt, moaning as the ball missed to the right. “Shit. You’re three up.”
The two men walked off the seventh green toward the eighth tee box. Mitch considered himself a halfway decent golfer and didn’t hesitate when Charles, a novice, proposed a fifty-dollar match that afternoon. At Merrymount Golf and Country Club outside of Santa Rosa, California, members were wealthy, and cash matches were the norm. Even though Charles had fallen three down through seven, and already with a shank, a blade, and a stubbed putt didn’t look poised to mount a comeback, he continued on cheerfully as if unconcerned with the bet.
“It’s nice having you back out here, Mitch. Merrymount missed you.”
“You know, Charles, it’s good to be back.” The two men set their bags down on the side of the eighth tee. Mitch took in his surroundings: the April sky with its languid cloudscape, the hazel mountains nesting low on the horizon, the green expanse of the pristine golf course he had played on since a child, the decorative pond and fountain fronting the eighth green, the dark woods bordering the course and their mysterious animal noises: the hoots, the snarls, the rustling of ground cover. As his eyes scanned over those shadows of the woods, he caught in his periphery the flash of metal, and a human face. He focused his eyes and saw nothing. His warmness faded, and he shivered.
“Yeah. Maybe. Probably nothing.” Mitch pulled out his 8-iron for the par 3 and teed up his ball. “I'm three up, right?”
“Not for long,” Charles said.
Mitch made a smooth swing and sent the ball whooshing toward the green. Starting low off the clubface, the ball rose as it carried toward the target, plopping down behind the hole, and spinning back to about fifteen feet. As he watched the ball fall out of the air, he saw the tinny flash again in the woods behind the hole.
“What is that?”
“You’re fifteen feet away and complaining?”
“No. Not the shot. That--” Mitch stopped himself. “Nevermind.”
Charles stepped up to the tee. “I think I'm due,” he said, then stepped back and took a few gangly practice swings. He stepped over the ball, jerked the club over his head, and, on the downswing, slammed the club into and through the ground. The turf beneath his tee sailed through the air and splashed into the water. The ball rocketed flat off the clubface toward the hole, screamed over the pin, bounced off the cart path behind the green, and sailed into the woods. As the ball entered, Mitch, watching in amazement, heard a strange sound like the squawk of a fettered seagull together with the cry of a snared raccoon. The hair on his arms and neck stood.
Charles slammed his club, displacing more turf on the teebox. He flashed anger, his face glowing red. A gob of mud stuck to his clubhead. He marched down to the pond and plunged the clubhead below the surface. After jabbing it in a few times, his club coming out clean, Charles seemed pacified. The two slung their bags over their shoulders and walked around the hazard toward the green.
“So where you been all these months anyway, Mitch?” No trace of Charles's irritation from the previous moment remained
“You didn’t hear?” Mitch raised a suspicious eyebrow. “It was all over the news.” They stepped onto the decorative bridge and walked over the feeder canal.
“I don’t watch much news. Heard some talk around the club, though. Some legal troubles?”
“You could say that. My wife went missing. Went out for cigarettes and never came home. That was eight months ago.” Mitch stepped off the bridge. Glancing at the shadowy woods to his right, his breath shortened and his pace quickened.
On hearing this, Charles stopped at the bridge's edge. “God Mitch. I’m so sorry.”
Mitch glared back. “Come on. More golf to play.” As Mitch walked up to the green, set down his bag, marked his ball, and repaired his divot, Charles continued around the back of the green to look for his overshot ball. Mitch walked to the side of the green and waited. He gazed out over the pond and fountain, silently cursing Charles’s ignorance in the matter of his wife's disappearance. Doesn’t watch much news, he thought. He must’ve seen the paparazzi camped outside my gate, right down the road. What a dope.
The authorities had interrogated Mitch for weeks about the disappearance. They dug up the couple’s financial history and interviewed their friends, coworkers, and family members for details about the couple’s relationship. Though the body was never found, the detectives accused Mitch of murdering his wife and discarding the evidence. The District Attorney built his case: the DNA in the trunk of Mitch's car, the affairs committed by both husband and wife, the couple's struggling finances, the insurance policy. The state was out to make Mitch an example, to condemn him as a rich elite with the hubris and connections to think he could get away with murder. After a quick but expensive and public trial that had ended just a week prior, Mitch was acquitted thanks to his crack team of lawyers. Throughout the process, Mitch only longed to get back out on the course.
“I can’t find it,” Charles hollered from within the dark woods. As per the etiquette, Mitch started over to help his partner look for the missing ball. Mitch walked down the slope over the back of the green and, looking up, caught again the flash of a metal blade, and a face, pale and hollow. He froze. Charles emerged. “I think it came in on this line,” Charles yelled out, motioning with his arms the line the ball came in on.
“Just concede the hole,” Mitch said through locked teeth, voice quavering.
“Nonsense! With the way I scramble—if I can find it, I can get it close. Mind giving me a hand?”
Mitch hesitated. That flash of a face had the adumbration of his wife’s features. He moved toward the woods, his steps measured and deliberate. It’s all in my head, he told himself. A blur of white moved by and Mitch jumped. Only Charles stomping around. Mitch called out, “Okay then. I’ll concede.”
Charles poked his head out from the tree line, dense and tangled. “Come on--you're putting for birdie. Give me a hand in here!”
All in my head, Mitch repeated. I buried her 50 miles from here. Watched her die. Watched the bitch bleed to death dug a hole and buried her. No such thing as ghosts. No such thing as spirits. No such thing as soul. My wife is not in those woods.
With new resolve, Mitch reached the tree line and used his hands to spread open the branches. A current of cold air swept over him. Peering in, he saw only trees, thicket, and underbrush. He stepped high with his right leg, found stable footing, entered with his body, and followed with his left. Inside, he became disorientated, eyes not used to the half-light, feet on shaky footing. From beside him came that same squawking cry he heard on the teebox. He looked but saw nothing. His vision hadn't recovered. The cry continued, louder. It echoed in his head, was was all he could hear. A piercing, heinous, inhuman howl. “Charles!” he cried out. “Charles!” But Mitch couldn’t hear his own cries over the resounding bestial din. Falling to the forest floor, he balled himself up like a fetus and screamed.
The squawking cry cut out with a final slam—-the slam of a car trunk. Fumbling for his bearings, Mitch felt the metal roof over his head, the tarp beneath him crinkling as he moved, the rough fabric lining the walls of the trunk, the spare tire under the tarp whose valve stem grated against his shoulder, the tire iron jutting painfully into his thigh as the car gained speed and the trunk began to jostle. When the car hit smooth pavement, Mitch knew she was driving down the highway. He grappled in the blackness, pounding with his fists and pleading for his life, knowing what woods she was taking him to. Golf balls and golf tees spilled from his pockets. After a while he found a position where the tire iron wouldn’t jab him, but his head banged against the roof of the trunk with each turbulence of the road.
The ride lasted about an hour. The car pulled off the highway, slowing as the road turned to dirt and gravel. “No!” he called out to his cramped confines. “Not me! Not like this! Oh god—save me please!” The latch of the trunk lock clicked. “Please no!” The lid flew open. “God help me!” Light flooded the trunk, blinding him as he held his hands up over his eyes. “Please no. Please! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he recognized the vague outline of his wife’s face hovering over him. He saw the flash of the blade as it came down sharp with a strike and a slice.
Charles’s ball bounded out from the woods, bounced off the cart path, ran up the bank behind the green, and settled inside a foot. Charles emerged exultant from the woods. “I told you I’d get it close!”