THE WRITER’S CAVE – Final Part

 

JOHN:   QUESTION: Can writers fly?

     Despite being able to leap effortlessly from one subject to another, writers are not bats, but if they are on some kind of flying device like a plane or a helicopter, yes writers can fly.

What I’m suggesting is there are eight stages of the creative process:

 1. In the first stage we absorb the world and its experiences through our senses and intuition.

2. In the second our unconscious dreams and fantasies put these in a form we can handle.

3. As we take ownership of the subject our empathy grows for the characters or people who are part of the story and we further invest our feelings in their conflict.

4. Next we make this tangible as a short story, poem, article, play or book, giving it dramatic structure that heightens those emotions.

5. Fifth, we test its effectiveness on others through classes, readings, and critique groups—clarifying, refocusing, reinterpreting.

6. In the sixth stage we incorporate that feedback into our project often mirroring a larger theme beyond our original scope.

7. We find an audience through being published or performing the piece.

8. And finally, encouraged by success we return to the initial stages and do more of the same at an even deeper level. 

John grabs a sheaf of papers. He begins to read

Or to put it more simply, you are what you dream.  “You Are What You Dream” is the name of my short story I wrote last year.

You Are What You Dream

     When the twice-divorced John Larkin introduced himself at a downtown business card exchange to an attractive woman easily fifteen years younger than he was, he surprised himself by saying his name was “Jack.”

     She had a million dollars worth of tortoiseshell-colored hair, a soft, serious face and teeth that were even and strong and very white. She wore a faux fur jacket and skin-tight leather slacks. But her most unusual feature was one he could not see.   

     John Larkin suddenly remembered twenty-five years earlier, on the first day of boot camp.  A man waiting in line, Skip, had introduced himself to John and John had given his name, “John Larkin.” Moments later when they were joined by two other new soldiers, Skip had told them John’s name was “Jack.” He probably had had a friend, John, who went by “Jack” or perhaps—this was only a few years after the presidency of John F. Kennedy—he thought that this nickname was universal. It wasn’t. But instead of correcting him, John thought, “Why not be Jack.” It had a tough, aggressive ring he liked. Rash.  And so for the month and a half of crawling under barbed wire, breaking-down and re-assembling weapons and binge drinking every Friday night he was “Jack.” He could have been sent to combat in Vietnam. He even hoped he would be. But when reporting to his subsequent hospital administration position in Kansas, “Lieutenant John Larkin,” was the name written on his assignment orders. It once again seemed right.

     That’s why, so many years later it was strange he would say his name was “Jack.” But then he thought, as he had before, “Why not?” He knew the consequences of being “John”—the nothing person everyone dumped on. For once he wanted to be the guy who grabbed what he wanted. This was his first mistake.

     Perhaps she was hearing impaired or had been born with deficient vocal chords, but the volume and tone of her voice was like she was holding her nose when she talked, or pronouncing words she’d never heard anyone else say. It was the voice of a cat that had somehow learned to speak

     Cats are my business, she said. “Cass aaaa maaa bizzzz-nesss.”

     “I’m a dog person myself…” Jack was self-conscious. At first he had been embarrassed by the unexpected peculiarity of this woman’s speech, now he was trying to show he wasn’t. As he looked over the business card she had offered him, this was the best he could come up with. “Though it’s not that I don’t like cats. I do. But I’ve never had one myself. And I’ve never heard of a cat spa.”

     Then a strange thing happened. It was as if she were a silent-screen actress and the ballroom was flickering in black and white. Words, sound, didn’t seem to matter. It was the look in her large eyes. It was seduction.

     In his movie version it would have meant getting a room here at the hotel, ordering a bottle of champagne, peeling apart the crisp sheets and getting cozy under the covers of a king-sized bed. But Jack found himself in her feature, pulling out of the Sheraton’s parking lot as they headed to the address of the Meow Spa and Cat Salon off of East Washington Avenue.

     He smiled, remembering the old Steve Martin joke about how his cat enjoyed being bathed…though the hard part was getting the hair off your tongue afterwards. Maybe there was something kinky going on, but Jack was too horny to care. He wanted to press this little prize into the corner of a leather couch in the spa waiting room and pump the hell out of her while from cages in the other room cats in heat yowled.

     The Meow Spa and Cat Salon was located in the old Humane Society building. Jack had been there once when his Norwegian Elk Hound wandering in the park had been picked up by the police. They had not called him and Jack had been frantic. Then the next day, to release the dog, the Humane Society was demanding he pay for its overnight stay. Jack had argued, “You never phoned me he was here. In fact I called and no one knew anything about Orson, my dog.”

     “The dog was riding in the back of the squad car most of the afternoon,” the suddenly attentive woman behind the desk had tried to placate him.

     “Humane Society, hah. What a joke. You people aren’t good for anything except killing animals!” he’d screamed, and they had dropped the overnight charges.

     But that rage was still there, Jack realized, as they pulled in front of the out-of-way building along the railroad tracks. All parking spaces for the Meow Spa and Cat Salon were empty.

     She unlocked the front door and ushered him in. There was a small lamp lit on the ultramodern reception desk, the rest of the room was resplendent in art-deco shadows. There was no couch.

     Here’s what they teach you in the army, it’s called “An Estimate of the Situation.” Take stock of your surroundings, assess your existing resources, set priorities, act decisively, evaluate results. OK, Jack thought, there is no couch but the building seems to be empty of other people. Bang her and leave. Don’t even think about this after it’s over. However, one question did gnaw at Jack: How had she gotten to the business card exchange without a car?

     The woman stepped over to a large metal door. She let her faux-fur jacket dangle and fall to the floor. Then she began to unbutton her blouse. Jack felt like he was again watching a black and white movie—but now it had become one of those ancient porn booths where you inserted a nickel and a pulsating Parisian beauty stripped off her clothes. In that moment this woman seemed to unleash all the wild desire he’d ever felt. She kicked off her shoes and was stepping out of her black-leather pants. There was a skulking, feline quality to her movements as she pulled one leg then the other free. She caressed herself and looked directly at Jack. He was staring at her breasts and at that inviting patch of fur between her legs.

     That’s when he did something stupid—his second mistake. He hurried out of his own clothes as if he and she were two animals preparing to mate in the woods. And when he saw that Mary Pickford-look of slight alarm cross her face, he felt himself grow hard as a dog’s bone. But before he could reach over to touch her, she had opened the steel door to the back.

     Beckoning to him with her outstretched finger she slowly slipped out of view.

     Jack, completely nude, followed her. Mistake number three.

     When the door shut behind him, he felt a moment of panic. He was in some kind of hallway and it was completely dark. But he could hear footfalls of the little tease ahead of him and he had already seen all of her body he needed to.   

     The end of the corridor. Then there was a ninety-degree turn right. Down this hallway he became aware of metal bars on either side of him. He heard breathing.

     “Uuuuu arrrr  wha yrrrrrrr dreeeeam,” her strange cat-like whisper seemed to summon him. He sensed he was standing in the entrance to some kind of enclosure. As he stepped forward he heard its door clang shut behind him.

     War, to those who have never experienced it first hand, seems to be about noble causes. They imagine the soldiers who participate as exhibiting valor. But only people at a distance have the luxury of such sentiments. For men going into battle it is something else. Something less noble. Less rational.  Something more real.

     The fluorescent lights blinked on. Jack saw he was in a barrack of naked men, like dogs in cages, smelling death.

JOHN:  So what happened?  It’s over. You’ve arrived.  Where?  THE WRITER’S CAVE.  The Writer’s Cave, now we’re ready to begin.

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THE WRITER’S CAVE – Part 6

WRITER AS REDEEMER. 

Music

JOHN:  QUESTION: Can a writer be killed if one drives a stake through the writer’s heart or chops off his or her head?

     Yes, but that would also kill regular humans if one does the same to them. By the way, killing a writer is murder and murderers are arrested and put in jail.

     Each year I teach at a kind of back-to-nature folk school in Door County called “The Clearing.” Last summer in the short story workshop we read a story by Joyce Carol Oates called Images and I thought it might be interesting for all of us to write some scenes like she did:

He stands up as if addressing a class.

     “So you see the problem in creating a scene between two people in a piece of fiction or creative nonfiction is getting into the mind of the second character—the one who is not a stand-in for you and your sensibilities,” I tell the class.

John in an aside to the audience.

     Blank faces of the workshop participants stare at me.

John, as if to the workshop.

     “I mean,” I continue straight-faced, “you have to become schizophrenic.”

John in another aside to the audience.

     No response.

John, as if to the workshop.

     “Crazy,” I bellow.

John directly to the audience.

     They laugh.

     The exercise I am giving them is to write a dialogue between two people in which one person—an unlikely candidate for the job—is trying to seduce another.

John to the students.

     “You need to look at the motivation of each,” I insist.

John, back to the audience.

     Blank stares.

John (to the students).

     “For example, in the Joyce Carol Oates story we just read, the adolescent

girl—a surrogate for the author—wants to break loose from her family and the small town where she is going to school.

John explains to the audience.

     Heads nod in agreement. Who doesn’t want to break out of their environment? Start a new life, not as someone else but as the real you who you never got a chance to be?

As if at the workshop again.

     “But what about the pedophile teacher she is smoking cigarettes with?” Garret asks—an intentional or unintentional jab at instructors.

     “Yes, what about him?” I repeat the question, using a teacher trick of responding to a question with a question in order to gain time to think of an answer.

     “He should be reported to the authorities,” Hugh pipes in. Hugh is a former grade-school principal.

     “Well, yes,” I say. “But that’s why we have fiction, so we don’t all wind up in jail. But in the context of the story what is his motivation?”

     “He’s just a loser,” Heidi answers. She could play the story’s strong female lead in a movie version.

John stands at the podium, lost in thought. Finally to the audience, and himself.

     Am I the loser? What the hell am I doing? Where am I going with this?

 John, getting a grip, plows forward.       

     Plato wrote about a cave in which the philosopher sees only shadows from a fire. He moves outside to discover truth in the blinding glare of the sun.          

     Freud gave this a literal twist—bringing our neuroses from their unconscious depths to the rational surface.

     But wait. We may want to bring the truth out into the open but initially we need to go inward…into the writer’s cave. It’s there we will discover truth. When we do emerge it is the audience who keeps us from being self-indulgent and merely projecting our feelings onto other people and events.

     Am I saying that when I change the encounter with Orson Welles or when Lorine Niedecker writes about one thing when she may have other things in mind and when Bergman’s art searches below the surface to address subjects he needs to bring out into the light…that this is some kind of terrifying journey?

     Well, you are what you dream.