Maniac Miniseries Becomes my Mashup Muse

Maniac_Image2This week, I got the idea to watch Netflix as part of my ongoing work on creativity.  I chose Maniac, a futuristic 10-part series about the attempt by a team of (flawed) doctors to create a computer-pharmaceutical treatment for mental health issues of various types — and the people they treat.  As I watched the show unfold, inspiration flowed into me.  From a seemingly cracked, broken and disordered beginning, the character arcs tie up remarkably. The lonely borderline-personality disordered beauty was going to see that she had the option of making other choices and was going to make them, I just knew. The young man with scizophrenia was going to transcend the mentally-unhealthy label and free himself from his pathological family.  And the sicko scientists who were creating much of the drama in the movie were going to get their just deserts, along with their human-empathy-enhanced psychologist computer.

Maniac functions on a kind of supercharged genre mashup. An incomplete map of the genres and their conflicts follows:

fiction type character(s) conflict
Recovery fiction Owen, Annie Both must overcome mental illness.

Owen: scizophrenia Annie:  substance abuse.

Family drama Owen, his father, and his brother Father seeks to force Owen to lie under oath to protect evil brother
Science fiction all A new type of mental health therapy combines pharmaceuticals and computer tracking of dreams
Psychological fiction Owen, Annie narrators are unreliable and tell incomplete stories
dystopian fiction all Strange and alienating fictional world includes technological advances such as ad buddies, humans whose job is following people reading them ads, robot dog pooper scoopers, and x-rated, whole-body virtual reality devices.

(Not charted:  mobster fiction; fantasy, and probably others) So what happened after I watched it?  I started writing my own genre mashup:  horror meets mythology meets nature writing.  A longer short story, this one will be about a man who goes into the woods and meets a dangerous cannibal hiker guy. It’s based loosely on the ancient Greek story of the cyclops, Polyphemus.

Thus, here I  introduce you to the mashup muse.

An interesting coda:  I watched this with Leo.  At the end, I asked him which character he identified with.  He said Dr. James Mantleray … I was like “What, the mad scientist?” He said, yes, well, when you have a PhD but are not a professor, yes, it feels a little similar, like you have the knowledge but the world doesn’t want you to do the work you’ve been trained for.  I guess I could see that.

As for me, identifying with both the mentally ill characters is a little unsettling.  But hey, I have to own it.  I do.

Submissions Challenge Month Three: Accepting the hard work of writing; rejection statistics of the month

Submission Tracker 3It is now that I begin to see the real hard work of writing.  I mean, in order to get 22 submissions in 30 days, I had to pretty much work on the submissions challenge every weekend day and some nights.  Kindof like grad school.

Actually, it was grad school which made me believe I could do this.  It was clear from finishing grad school that if I was disciplined, I could carve a good 15 to 20 hours of writing/reading/thinking time out of the average work week, with short bursts of up to 40 to 50 hours in seven days.  Deciding to apply that kind of work load to writing was just the next step.

This month I have made 22 submissions.  I received two “warmer” rejections, each with an invitation to resubmit, from literary magazines.  I received five “stone cold” rejections, with one flash fiction piece getting a quick rejection twice.  I wrote “what’s wrong with this story” on its line on the submission tracker and stopped submitting it for the moment.

I did not get a request of any type from any of the four #pitchwars mentors I queried.  Although I’m sure I’m not alone, it was a disappointment.  Made me feel like back when I was in 7th grade, and I wasn’t one of the popular girls. Perhaps I will try again next year.  To the organization’s credit, they didn’t charge me or any other contestant anything, which given some of the other contest fees could be seen as quite generous.

Last month I wrote that I was willing to pay to make submissions and enter contests.  I spent $73 submitting stories this month, mostly for three contests.  In addition, I paid $8.50 for the Literistic List of the Month, which was pretty helpful.  During the second half of the month, I saw several more contests I might have entered. But it just cost too much. By the end of the month, I had run through my budget for submitting and was only submitting to free markets.  We get paid on the first of the month around here.  I had to cut back.

So, to sum up the stats:  9/22 to 10/22

Submissions:  22

Personal or warmer rejections: 2

Stone Cold rejections: 9, including the four from #pitchwars

Still in submission:  23, including six emailed and website-form submissions and 17 with Submittable.

Next month’s goal will be the original first month goal again:  30 submissions in 30 days.

And no, I am not doing NaNoWriMo.   I’m doing my submissions challenge until I get an agent or enough street cred that I’ve got editors who’ll just look at my work.

I admit this may take a while.


The Great Debate: Do Typos Stop You From Continuing to Read a Novel?

Here’s a question: do you stop believing in a book because it’s got a typo in the first chapter? I’m sorry to admit that I do. If a book has been published, it should be free of errors. Sometimes, one or two typos can get in a first-rate publication. But … a typo per chapter? Cheap production, not showing concern for readers. I mean we paid money for this book.

I lost my fountain pen over a week ago …

No, I haven’t stopped writing, of course, I just switched to a purple gel pen.  But having

The purple gel pen with which I replaced the Waterman, my daily driver

just read a pretty good essay reflection on the writing implement and its connection to writing as such, I had to admit, there is something about your own personal pen that a writer can get attached to.  My pen, a Waterman, has a thick sliver barrel and writes a fine line. I fill it from a bottle of blue or purple ink. I’m pretty sure the lost pen is somewhere around here on the main floor of the house.  Probably under something.

Yeah, I can write without it.

But it’s not the same.

My affection for fountain pens goes way, way back.  I found out about them at the El Patio University Book Store, where I bought my first Schaeffer Scrip fountain pens. These came with a chrome nib, a plastic barrel, two refill cartridges, and a cheap pot metal lid, all for about $6.00.  They became known around the house as “cartridge pens.” I used them for years until they became impossible to find at any store.

The Silver Waterman

Enter Waterman and the Schaeffer brand refillable fountain pens.  They cost about $100 each. I tried other brands but had problems of leaking, skipping nibs, blotting ink.  Or quickly wearing out, the “feed” of ink running dry.

I journal about 500 pages of longhand script per year. My daily driver pen is, metaphorically speaking, a long-haul vehicle.

I used to order the pens from the now-defunct Joon Pen of New York City, but these days, I just get them from Amazon or Ebay.

Fountain pen nibs wear out after a couple years.  On some occasions I buy new nibs. But ultimately, the pen itself always seems to get lost, including the gold-plated Shaeffer which Leo had engraved with my name.  Which is why I’m a little worried about the one that’s currently missing.  Not that I won’t buy another pen. It’s just that I’ve had this one for three or four years and it’s special.

When you order another pen, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. It’s like sending off for a mail order bride.  It’s a serious relationship, not one you want to take a chance on, but you do what you have to do.

I will have to get searching the lists of options. The decision is always a fraught one. Once a new pen arrives, there’s the feel of the effortless flow of ink onto a page as I immerse myself in the remarkable spiritual consolation that only writing with a fountain pen can provide.





Shopping to buy jeans on snowy evening

“I like big butts and I cannot lie,” I think to myself as I sort through the rack, although I don’t, I just know what size mine is. I can tell whether the jeans will fit by looking at them.

As I run through the multitudinous rack at Goodwill Industries store, the reasons for my damnations of individual pairs of jeans are manifold. Wrong fabric. Wrong make. Gloria Vanderbilt makes my stomach look round.

What I’m looking for is the three L’s, Levi’s, Lee’s and Liz, but even among these makes, there can be problems. I know I’m in the Goodwill but I don’t want something that looks worn out.

I find a couple of prospects but when I get to the dressing room I am tripped up by another problem. It’s the hem. One hem is too wide … Boot cut, no … Another is too short.

What I want more than anything is actually the jeans of my youth, the 501s that you took from your boyfriend. They looked so great. Yeah but here’s the thing. To get the effect you wouldn’t just have to be living with a guy with a 29 inch waist. You’d need your own relatively minuscule rear end of those days. Which like Lido, of Bo Skagg’s Lido Shuffle, “is gone and ain’t coming back.”

Ultimately I find the proverbial needle in the haystack: a pair of size 12-Long Levi’s. They’re a little worn but I know this is as good as it gets. I take them to the checkout. Regularly they’re $7 but today it’s 50 percent off everything. Three-fifty.

Now that’s what I call shopping. No matter what size hiney you’ve got.

A muse over my muses

Who or what could be my muse? A real person whom I love? A saint? A creature I believe exists in the spirit realm?

Could a type of event be a muse? Hemingway was inspired by war and by bullfighting. Zelda was Fitzgerald’s muse. Sylvia Plath had her father and Ted, and even her college boyfriend was used to fuel her art. That brings us to Ezra Pound, whose true Penelope was, he said, Gustave Flaubert.

Could your muse be a crime? I’m reading a true crime book, “I’ll be gone in the night” about the East Area Rapist, and it seems that tracking down a killer is author Michelle McNamara’s muse.

How about place? I’ve been inspired by place more than once, writing about California and about Rome.

Now, in the distance, I hear a train whistle moaning, crying. I imagine it rocking past the prairie dog town. Fort Collins is a place with much placeness. One could write about Fort Collins, with its bearded men, many looking marginally educated but then doing complicated paperwork correctly, like the guy at the U-Haul place. The men of Colorado are a study. I get the impression there’s a lot going on underneath the surface.

In Texas I learned how to find other writers. Texas has an active and well-developed literature and writing community but but I never found I wanted to write about Texas. But Colorado is something else entirely.

Yesterday I was driving home from work and as I came across the very last miles of the Great Plains, driving west up to the Front Range of the Rockies. The haze of September had been rained down earlier in the week. And I saw, for the first time, the real mountains themselves. Not the rolling hills I’ve seen before, but mountains, far into the sky, higher than what seemed possible, their peaks unreachable, their slopes laid out in silver granite ridges and saddles filled with snow.

This must be what my grandfather felt when he became a mountain climber, when he with ropes and clampons went climbing the Matterhorn and the Grand Teton and I can’t remember what else.

Half of Colorado is wilderness and mountains. And mountains speak to me of the ineffable, the truth beyond what we know and see …

I wonder if the mountains could be someone’s muse.

Submissions challenge: I hit the wall about how many simultaneous subs you can make with one manuscript

Submission Tracker 2I have gotten 11 submissions done so far this month, entered three contests, and I can’t seem to decide what to do next.  My novel is almost ready to submit, I could just start sending query letters to agents, but if I did, I would have to really rush through its final read-through if it got requested.  And if it’s not ready to go out, why would I start submitting just to fly into a panicked editing rush if someone wants to see it?

Then there’s my short submissions.  I can’t seem to simultaneously submit them without feeling this strange anxiety.  I know that this is what lots of successful writers do.  So why can’t I just do it?

Meanwhile, the ‘full’ of my memoir is still out with an agent in New York.  It’s time for a response but I am afraid to write and ask about it, because I know that the answer is overwhelmingly likely to be “yeah, sorry, but we’re going to pass.”

I wonder if this happens to anyone else, unable to move forward because they’re unable to check on a manuscript?

So I have just the short fiction and memoir pieces.  I read somewhere that you should not do simultaneous submissions that are not evenly matched — where if the less exclusive magazine accepts, you’ll be disappointed to take the manuscript out from the more-prestigious.

Meanwhile, yeah, that image is my submission tracker.  The colors stand for such things as completed/not complete ms., submitted (green) accepted, rejected, rejected with note, and suggested submission that I haven’t done yet (that’s yellow).


Mini Memoir: In which Leo and I don’t agree what “right away” means

img_20181009_2009341895993173.jpgSo Leo wanted to know if I would hem his cricket sweats.

“Yeah sure.  But do you need it done right away?”

“No, no, by first thing tomorrow morning will do.”  It’s 6:00 o’clock p.m. It’s a work night.



“By bedtime tonight is right away.”

“Oh.  Well, then, yes right away.”

A very abbreviated sigh. “Okay.  I’ll do it while I rewatch Maniac on Netflix.”

I fought the Muse and the Muse Won …

Nine Muses card by Emily Balivet

I’m building on a blog post from Unbolt Me here in which Tony Single is discussing the question of what the writer’s muse really looks like, and whether you can create your own, and whether you should trust the @#$%^&** muse anyway. I claimed in the comments thread that in the past I never got past the idea of the nine muses of classical myth. I claimed that the idea that I might have my own muse, a sort of personal creative guardian angel, hadn’t yet formed. Actually, that’s inaccurate. My muse was forming years and years ago and I throttled it for personal reasons.

Yet this week, again, it is re-forming.

To understand why I tried to kill the muse, you have to go with me back to college. I am reading Adrienne Rich’s poem “Snapshots of a Daughter in Law,” the lines of which have echoed in my head ever since, in which the young writer hears the ‘angels (her muse) chiding’ her:

“Only a week since They said: Have no patience.

The next time it was: Be insatiable.
Then: Save yourself; others you cannot save.”

In my mind, as an undergraduate reading Rich’s work, I thought ‘yes, yes, the poetry is good, but Rich’s husband killed himself after she left him. Her liberation killed him, Her muse killed him.’

The muse was telling her to destroy her family. But maybe I misunderstood.

Rich wrote of the struggle to be a woman of letters while caring for small children, one of the great paradoxes of our age, since there’s no reason these days you can’t be a woman of letters and a mother, it’s just the hour-to-hour process of doing it is so damn difficult and intimidating, it feels like sitting in the landing craft the night before D Day waiting to land on Omaha Beach. From the same poem, Rich encapsulates:

“Reading while waiting
for the iron to heat,
writing, My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–
in that Amherst pantry while the jellies boil and scum …”

Back then, Adrienne Rich was telling me my life and it terrified me. Right away, in seconds, I rejected Rich’s rejection of domesticity. I asked, ‘how can we abandon the men and children to get time to ‘actualize’ ourselves; men and children do horrible things and become horrible things in our absence?’

Details on that will have to wait for another blog post.

Her muse was too close to my own, with whom, back then, I had written a novel about adultery which I then foolishly showed to my family, who luckily misinterpreted it as being about my parents’ divorce. But my mother-in-law saw through the hoax.

“This book isn’t very good,” she told me, giving me the eye of accusation. In her view it was worse than not good. It was subversive.

“That’s it,” I thought, terrified of what family and others might do to me if the rest of them realized what the muse and I were cooking up. “Now I will stuff my muse and all the impulses that led to the adultery novel in the secret bag, which I will hide under the dresser.” For decades. I did get away from the marriage and among other things my original mother in law, ultimately. But that muse was never allowed back out again. I had conflated her voice with all the disasters of those years.

But now, the idea comes to me: If I let the muse out again, now that I am (I hope) a stronger, different person, what would the muse tell me to do say or do this time? What would he or she look like?

More on the muse to follow. I’m wondering: how many other writers think about the muse?

Premise: All fiction really comes from somewhere called “The Mystery Box”

It’s a TED talk.

In order to explain I need to back up.  This discovery started with the idea that one has to read literary magazines in order to get ideas of who or what might publish one’s writing.  I was reading the submissions page of a journal called Bourbon Penn, trying to find out if a surreal story I’d written concerning some women who were attending a 12-step group for SUV addicts might be a fit. As I read the description of what they were looking for, I was intrigued.

“We are looking for highly imaginative stories with a healthy dose of the odd.,” the page stated.  Yeah, me too, but what would that look like? I mused.

That’s where I found they had helpfully included a link to The Mystery Box TED talk.  In it, J.J. Abrams tells us simply:  “It’s as if the blank page is a magic box.”  And it’s a writer’s job to put a mystery inside for the reader to find.

I wrote the following notes on how to put a worthwhile mystery box on the blank page:

1. The big question that animates the story is the mystery box.  Why would the reader keep reading?  To find out the answer to the mystery.

2. Abrams notes the practice of withholding information intentionally; referring to Jaws and Alien.  This corresponds, of course, to Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  The goal is to increase the sense of mystery.

3. Abrams then points out that often, in a story, what you think you’re getting is not exactly what you’re really getting.  E.T. is not really about aliens, he claims, it’s about a family going through a divorce.  More mystery:  what you see is not what you get.

4. And finally, he tells us:  we may still be thinking of plot, but really, character is what’s inside the box.  The mystery is answered when we find out about the hero’s character.

Here’s the TED talk itself: