30 Stories, Day 17: The Standard of Living

After a political short and then two stories that were depressing as hell (“The Nightingale and the Rose” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)—beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but wretched—I decided Day 17 of my short-story reading would be one of the shrewd and humorous New York wit, Dorothy Parker, who is renowned for dropping maxims such as: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.”

May the comic relief lighten your heart.

“The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker

They tendered thanks, icily, to the doorman for ushering them into the shop. It was cool and quiet, a broad, gracious room with paneled walls and soft carpet. But the girls wore expressions of bitter disdain, as if they stood in a sty.

Synopsis

Annabel and Midge are beautiful young women that met in their company’s stenography department and became fast friends. They spend evenings together, and Saturdays, and Sundays, and frequently double date; they dress and move and act similarly, and each paints her nails and lips and wears all the sort of clothes one ought not to wear at the office.

One of Annabel and Midge’s favorite pastimes (apart from being whistled at in the city streets) is strolling along Fifth Avenue and playing an old game called “what-would-you-do-if-you-had-a-million-dollars?”

But the girls are modern, and as such invent new rules. Annabel’s versions supposes that somebody died and left you a round one million along with the stipulation, as it says in the will, that every cent must be spent on yourself, and yourself alone. Midge amended that the one who died was not to be somebody you loved, or even knew, but a total stranger; one who had simply seen you somewhere and thought, ‘That girl ought to have nice things,’ and wrote you into her will; and, only after living a long and fulfilling life, had slipped away peacefully in the night.

One day, shortly after arguing over the virtues of silver-fox vs. mink coats, the girls happen upon a gorgeous string of pearls with an emerald clasp in a shop window. Annabel dares Midge to go in and ask how much they cost. Midge accepts, with the caveat that Annabel join her.

The two enter the exquisite jeweler’s, all ice and disdain as a doorman ushers them in. They are then greeted by well-dressed clerk who bows and looks not in the least surprised to see them. Annabel and Midge continue their haughty charade as he asks if there is something he can help them with. Still haughtily, and attempting to be well-spoken, Midge coolly answers: “My friend and I merely happened to be passing,” and then adds, “My friend here and I merely happened to be wondering how much are those pearls you’ve got in your window.”

The clerk nods; the double rope, he says, (addressing her as Madam) is two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Would she care to look at it?

Here Annabel takes over: “No, thank you.” Midge, recovering, restates that they merely happened to be passing.

They exit the shop, heads still held high, but when they get to some distance the girls squawk in disbelief. A thing like that! Two hundred and fifty thousand? Why, that’s a quarter of a million in itself! Gone, just like that! The nerve.

Dejected, the friends slump and sulk on in silence a while. Then Midge straightens and makes a new proposal: suppose there’s this terribly rich person, and they want to do something for you, and they die in their sleep and leave you ten million dollars…

Favorite line

“Ah, yes,” the clerk said. “The double rope. That is two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Madam.”

“I see,” Midge said.

Observations

 A fun story: light, simple, and short. As it was so short and clean, I haven’t much to say about it, except this: the greatest part of the humor, for me, came in the content of the dialogue itself. Annabel and Midge’s pretentiousness (and the manner in which it is so quickly shattered) is funny precisely because it isn’t over-described, but because what they say conveys so much. There are no unnecessary adjectives to obstruct the scene—“she said, haughtily,” or “Midge said, arrogantly”—and yet we hear the effort Midge makes to sound sophisticated when she inquires for the price of the pearls, just as we hear her falter (or imagine the frozen expression on her face) as she rejoins, “I see,” when the clerk tells her.

Lesson learned (and it is one that comes up time and time again in writing): less is more!

Vocab

wont: (as a noun) one’s customary behavior in a particular situation

stenographer: one who transcribes speech, especially dictation (oh…I knew that. Like in courtrooms!)

dais: a throne, platform, or seat of honor

tumbrel: a farm dumpcart for carrying dung

carom: a shot in billiards where the cue ball strikes another two balls successively; strike and rebound

Tomorrow is another story.

Writing Challenge, Day 30: Reflections

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 30: What will you take away from this challenge?

This challenge has been a fantastic exercise in discipline. It’s helped me treat writing like a job: something I must show up for each day and see through, regardless of how energetic (lethargic), creative (stodgy), and enthusiastic (dead to the world) I am feeling.

Needless to say some entries turned out better than others, but in a world where deadlines and chip-away progress are very real and standard I come away with a sense of accomplishment at having simply completed them all. The progress and especially the unanticipated inspiration storms that result from butt-in-the-chair dedication are empowering, to say the least. If only I could apply the same tactics to writing my first book—incremental goals and regular deadlines, that is—I think it would go from dream to reality much faster.

One unexpected spoil I take from this challenge is an increased sense of writing community both online and off. I admit I often fall on the side of cynicism when it comes to social media, and yet—among all of the pontificating, photo-posting, status updates, and other time-suck frivolities—we get these rare gems like Writer’s Relief and WordPress actually, successfully used as platforms to facilitate exchange. Each day I enjoyed reading and relating with comments left by other writers in response to the facebook prompts put out by Writer’s Relief, and each day I was met by a flurry of likes and comments on WordPress after posting my extended responses. I really feel that, thanks to the challenge, I have been able to reach and connect with writers I might otherwise have never encountered.

Thirty days of consecutive posts have also, I should mention, done wonders for my readership 😀 They are modest milestones for my sapling blog, but since undertaking this 30 day challenge The Read Room has passed both 1,000 page views and 50 followers. Huzzah!

Oh, and did I mention I had fun??? I submit some of my favorite entries as evidence:

12 Reasons to Read Julie Israel. You’re Welcome. Here I get into one of my favorite writing forms—lists—and save polar bears as well as school children.

Good Idea, Bad Idea In which I play off the old Animaniacs’ game with a ridicu-list of Dos and Don’ts for facilitating productive writing.

Ghosts, Superhorses, and Sock Monsters The question for this prompt was “What did you write (when you first started writing)?”

Enter Peter McBunterbeans In this entry on my strongest genre (playful/humor) I include an excerpt from a recent short story. Check it out! 😀

Of Swords & Excuses In which I relate a humorous, but unfortunately very true, agenda of reasons for evading the hard work of sitting in the chair and making a start.

Revision, or: Hell & Hot Pockets Tell me you are not intrigued by this title. Um, it’s basically a ranting freewrite about all the things that go wrong in my revision “process”. Also know as Murphy’s Law.

Some of my less playful, but more informative entries:

Stealing Inspiration (#lifehacks) Why every artist should steal.

Fables & Folklore In which I babble excitedly about fables, folklore, and fairy tales as well as why, even as adults, we should read them. P.S. Magical Realism! Woooo!

The Myth of the Muse This post is on inspiration, imagination, and how to brainstorm and generally be a genius.

Of course I welcome reader feedback, too. For those of you who followed, joined, or simply stumbled helpless and unsuspectingly onto one of my 30-day posts, please feel free to enter questions, comments, and interpretive dance moves.

Writing Challenge, Day 29: Good Idea, Bad Idea

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 29: What do you do while you write? Do you listen to music, watch TV, eat snacks, etc.?

This is a dangerous question. Paraphrased it might read “With what sparkly trivialities do you busy yourself whilst pretending to write?”

I like to think I can multi-task, but hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me may—

Wait, what were we talking about?

Oh yeah. “Doing while writing.” It can be done, but must be done with care—namely, in a way that ensures creativity and productivity rather than detour, distraction, and bouncing about (the room) (the house) (the internet) like a feral kid in a candy store. Does anyone remember the 90s and that Warner Brothers cartoon “Animaniacs”? They had this great little segment called “Good Idea, Bad Idea”. Here’s a refresher:

Now then, I’m going to play myself a jaunty round of Good Idea, Bad Idea as relates to writing conditions.

Good Idea, Bad Idea: While You Write Edition

Good Idea: Putting on an ambient, chill, or instrumental playlist.

Bad Idea: Pumping up the danceable jams with LMFAO, Franz Ferdinand, Foster The People, or anything you’re ashamed to admit you know all the words to: Ke$ha, Glee, Backstreet Boys, High School Musical, the soundtrack to Lion King…

Good Idea: Listening to music with a mood or tone similar to what you need for your piece.

Bad Idea: Listening to your favorite comedians crack jokes about Hot Pockets, toilet books, and Sir Mittington Romney.

Good Idea: Preparing a snack before writing.

Bad Idea: Stumbling onto Punchfork, finding six or seven new recipes to try, saving them to your computer, spending ten minutes debating which one to try first and then moving your laptop to the kitchen so you can bake blackberry-peach cobbler and write.

Good Idea: Getting up to stretch and walk at regular intervals.

Bad Idea: Getting up to do the laundry, tend the garden, meet a friend, see a movie, or hit the pub at regular intervals.

Good Idea: Looking up synonyms and new words.

Bad Idea: Looking up the latest Facebook updates, epic fails, and LOLcatz.

Writing Challenge, Day 28: Stealing Inspiration

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 28: When you write, to what degree do real-life experiences serve as inspiration?

So, my favorite writing teacher ever taught our English class an important lesson on the first very day. She said, to a room of eager, innocent young faces:

“Boys and girls, if you want to be a writer, you must learn to steal.”

The class reacted thus:

“WHAAAAA?”

She went on to explain herself: as artists, we run into the inevitable problem of everything under the sun having already been done before. Yes, even the sentiment that it’s all been done is a hackneyed old cushion that’s lost its whoopee. The solution then, as this wise teacher relayed, is to steal.

“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” –Oscar Wilde

(The more I learn of Wilde, the more I love him.)

This is not to suggest plagiarism. As a writer, artist, or any other creative type one should never plagiarize. However, when we encounter something that is compelling, it is our writerly duty to capitalize upon it. Sometimes that thing is a plot. Sometimes a rhyme scheme. Sometimes an amalgamation of ideas, characters, and distasteful cultural trends. Then, when we have seized the object(s) of our affections, we must make it (them) our own. Some examples:

1. “Green Eggs & Hamlet” is a delightfully witty poem which combines the stolen soliloquy of Hamlet (Shakespeare’s most famous “To be or not to be” scene) and a rhyme scheme purloined of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham.

2. 10 Things I Hate About You is a modern (1999) film adaptation of Shakespeare’s rom-com play, The Taming of the Shrew. The film filches Shrew’s plot as well as its driving characters, remodeling them and most of their dialogue to fit the rockin’ sockin’ nineties. The poem that Julia Stiles reads, for which the film is named, also seems to be a spin off of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s poem Sonnet XLIII which begins “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

3. Vampires Suck is the god-awful result of combining all three of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books into a single cinema feature in a two-hour attempt at comedic parody. Characters are given slapstick makeovers (Bella Swan becomes Becca Crane; the Cullens become the Sullens; etc.) and there are references to pop culture icons such as the Kardashians, Buffy, and Lady Gaga that no one born after the year 2000 will give three beans about.

Says The All-Knowing Wiki: “Vampires Suck was given four nominations from the 31st Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay and Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel.”

All examples considered, some thieving endeavors turn out better than others.

But stealing from something already written (said, done, painted, filmed, etc.) is only one part of the equation. Stealing from real-life is the other. I keep running lists of anything that I think will feed good writing: textured words, visceral images, character flaws, social phenomenon, and things that make me laugh, cry, drop my jaw, or want to write an angry, angry letter.

I challenge you, in the next few days, to be aware of the things and moments that strike you. When you are amused, or disgusted, or elated, defeated, or furious, write about it.

Your friends have weird habits? WRITE THEM DOWN.

There’s that oooone awkward coworker who doesn’t understand what’s socially appropriate and makes everyone in the elevator uncomfortable each morning with his ludicrously offensive remarks? WRITE THEM DOWN.

Your HTC phone is a malfunctioning piece of shite that, in the moment your two-year contract is up, you will personally place in the middle of the street and back over in a Jeep before hailing a stampede of elephants to trample its faulty remains? WRITE ABOUT IT (I suggest an angry letter).

Used effectively, real-life details are the perfect creative fodder. They not only inform our work with an automatic sense of authenticity, but make our writing something readers can relate to.

12 Reasons To Read Julie Israel. You’re Welcome.

A delicious dozen reasons to read yours truly

 

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 22: Why should someone read your work?

To experience something I painstakingly unearthed from the sands of my mind like a buried civilization one fragment at a time and then translated into a cohesive sum for your verbal pleasure, entertainment, and intimate window into human experience? *Takes breath*

There’s also my list of fictional reasons, which is less realistic, but more fun.

12 Reasons Why You Should Read Julie Israel

  1.  Studies show that reading Julie Israel in the morning helps increase metabolism.
  2. Those that read Julie Israel are happier and laugh more than those that don’t.
  3. Reading Julie Israel has been shown to significantly improve IQ and SAT verbal scores.
  4. Julie Israel promotes universal understanding and world peace.
  5. Reading Julie Israel helps reduce crime and world hunger.
  6. Every time you read Julie Israel a unicorn is born.
  7. Reading Julie Israel can make snow fall on a school day.
  8. Those that read Julie Israel on a regular basis are 50% more likely to develop super human powers such as wit, ambidexterity, and the ability to reach something in the back of the fridge without taking anything out to get to it.
  9. Julie Israel repels vampires (especially those pesky glittery ones).
  10. Reading Julie Israel is a natural cure for allergies, migraines, flu, insomnia, chicken pox, restless leg syndrome, gamer’s thumb, and doughnut overdose.
  11. Julie Israel will help save the economy and prevent global warming.
  12. Julie Israel is a known aphrodisiac.

Oh, and all the cool kids are doing it.

Revision, Or: Hell & Hot Pockets

Warning: I use an uncharacteristic amount of expletives in this post. I guess I feel quite strongly about revision.

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge, Day 19: Describe your revision process.

Haaaahahaha…“process”. That implies organization.

My revisioning is rather haphazard, actually. It’s kind of like trying to put out a fire with gasoline, and then throwing firecrackers and Hot Pockets at it. You still get a Hot Pocket out of the deal, but that by no means guarantees satisfaction. In fact, it’s more likely to do the opposite.

Here’s how my revision typically goes down:

I start writing something.

I labor over the first few sentences; with any luck I have a few paragraphs down before the self-editing starts.

A sentence from the first paragraph spontaneously combusts.

I rush to the scene to quell the offending flame. But before I have the first offense under tabs another six spring up.

I turn my attention to the new problems and, just when I think I’ve thrown an adequate amount of water on them, TURNS OUT THEY’RE GREMLINS AND THE BASTARDS MULTIPLY

Then,

THE IN-LAWS ARE VISITING THE TOILET PAPER’S OUT I BOUGHT GRAPEFRUIT INSTEAD OF ORANGES AND I SWEAR I JUST SAW A MALICIOUS CLOWN

It’s cool bro, don’t matter, just keep writing. Even Hemingway said that the first draft of everything is shit. It doesn’t have to be good now, just get some words on the page and fix things later. Whew, okay, I can do this.

A few sentences later:

TARANTULA FUNKEYS IN PARTY HATS

And on it goes, with sentences exploding and whole sections being torched in favor of a new draft, until somehow, miraculously and against all odds, I crawl out of a chapter or short story some weeks later with one shoe, shredded clothing, hairy legs and a week’s supply of Cheetos Puffs wrappers. Oh yes: and in this rare, victorious moment I am clutching a complete first draft. Which is, theoretically, where revisions should actually begin.

*Inhales*

In summation, my revision “process” is a total nightmare and in desperate need of work. I particularly need to get comfortable with writing poorly so that it doesn’t take forever to complete a single draft.

For first-time readers, I’d like you to assure you that I’m actually a very mild-mannered person. My regular posts do not contain gratuitous strands of capital letters, weird swears, Hot Pockets or Cheetos. I don’t even like Hot Pockets. Please don’t run away. Watch the funny man rip on Hot Pockets instead.