Month: September 2020

Behind the Vignette: Her Tea

Check out the story before continuing.

We all have a tendency to imagine the worst, especially if the anxiety in our lives is heightened. I do this often, usually around how I’d feel if my wife exited my life for whatever reason.

What strikes me about these worries are the things around our house that would most remind me of her. We leave such strong impacts on the world just by interacting with it, and our relationships are no different. Aside from the obvious–the pictures from our wedding that hang out our walls, the clothes in her closet, the pages I’ve written about her–there are more subtle ways we leave breadcrumbs of ourselves in each others lives.

That’s the genesis of this piece. I wanted to capture the routines that break when something changes or ends within a relationship. A favorite book that might lay out on a coffee table. A forgotten dirty glass. The small things that remind us that, holy shit, we’re inextricably tied to someone else.

If my wife were to suddenly disappear from my life, I think those are the things I’d have the hardest time with. The things she does every day that impact me in almost imperceptible ways. And it’s because those nuances of her personality are the reason I love her to begin with. Their absence would be a devastating reminder of what I lost.

Thoughts on Impending Fatherhood

In January, God willing, my wife and I will be having our first child, a boy. We plan to name him Elijah.

I wonder a lot about who he might be, aware that we simultaneously have a lot and a little influence over it. We’ll prepare him for the world, teach him to interact with it in a healthy way, but no amount of teaching or preparation can really inoculate you against society. School may make him cynical. Other people’s beliefs may make him uncertain. There’s no controlling for the worst, just as there is no guaranteeing the best. All I can hope for, then, is that he can recognize one or the other for what they are and react accordingly.

The cliche is that when you have a kid, you develop all sorts of hopes and dreams for them. Sometimes unrelated to your interests, and sometimes so intertwined with your childhood dreams you risk living vicariously through your child. I don’t feel any of that. I honestly don’t care what Elijah wants to be. My only hope is that he’s a good person. I think everything else, any success or accomplishment (or lack thereof), will flow from that.

Lately I’ve found myself trying to picture the world through his eyes. Or, more accurately, remembering how I saw the world when I was a child. Colors were more vivid. The air a cleaner scent. I think about how Elijah will slowly develop nostalgia and wonder what it will be tied to. Sitting at our kitchen bar watching his mother and I cook and wash dishes? Watching the world from our front window, next to our cats, smelling the cold in the air as summer transitions to fall? Will he read with me in our basement study?

One thing that’s weird to me is that he won’t be a Buffalonian, as I am. He’ll grow up near Philadelphia. And he’ll be a suburbanite, no less! If I successfully indoctrinate him into my love of hockey, he’ll probably root for the Flyers and not the Sabres. His cultural understanding will be different than mine. He’ll say “soda” instead of “pop,” or “wooder” instead of “water,” or “creek” instead of “crik.”

Elijah won’t know the bitter cold that comes with the wind off of Lake Erie. He won’t smell Cheerios from the General Mills factory on his way to school. We won’t take him to our favorite spots–the Botanical Gardens, the Basilica, or the Albright Knox–instead, we’ll find new ones with him. And then he’ll find his own.

We’re privileged enough, now, that Elijah won’t grow up to want for much, as my wife and I did. He’ll have more than two pairs of jeans to wear to school. He won’t wear his sneakers until they’re falling apart and, even then, glue them together. He won’t have memories of his grandparents bringing bags of groceries to the house when the factory went on strike. My parents worked in that factory so I could eventually give this luxury to Elijah.

Unfortunately, Elijah also won’t know his grandparents well. He only has three to start with, and two are in Buffalo while the other is just outside of DC. Because of our location, extended family will be a foreign concept to him. But on the plus side, maybe that means he’ll get to choose who he considers family. And maybe he’ll do a good job of it.

I’m fascinated with the fact that he’s going to enter our home “tabula rasa.” It’s a huge responsibility to teach a child, to instill in them the values that will make them a good member of society. Not necessarily successful (although of course I want that), not necessarily respected (of course I want that, too), but good. Someone that cares for others. Someone that gives a fuck.

I keep telling my wife that I need to get my shit together. Build good habits. Because I need to model these things for him. I need to show him with my actions what it is to be curious, and healthy, and empathetic, and kind, and respectful, and charitable. When he’s young he’s going to watch me and copy the things I do, if only because there is no one else. That means picking up my flaws, too.

I used to be afraid of that. I don’t want to fail him. I probably will. But it’s also a challenge I’m excited to meet. I don’t fantasize about watching Elijah hit a home run or earn scholarships or anything like that. I fantasize about the conversations we might have. Listening to him figure out the world and helping him along where I can.

I feel most excited when I picture the small moments we’ll have together. When it’s quiet. When it’s still. When I can soak in who he is and feel awe at the potential of who he’ll become.

The Simple Complexity of a Writing Career

On its face, to build a career as an author is easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Write something good.
  2. Get an agent.
  3. Be published.

Fame and fortune comes shortly thereafter, obviously.

Seems straightforward, right? It’s some sort of natural law that anything seemingly simple is nothing of the sort. Any process, put under rigorous enough examination, can evolve into a complicated labyrinth of best practices and advice. Let’s explore.

Write something good

This is like starting off a career as a carpenter by building an entire house. Sure, most of us hone our skills by laying flooring, doing some drywall, maybe taking on a single room. But even those tasks, as complicated as they are, pale in comparison to the entire house.

That’s just covering the “write something” part. Writing something good is a carpenter building a house on the edge of a mountain.

It’s hard to know what’s good because art is subjective. I know what I think is good. But it’s not the same as what my sister thinks is good. I can’t know if it’s what the public at large thinks is good.

So we focus on the elements that, in the alchemy of storytelling, sometimes add up to a good story:

  • Develop deep, complex characters.
  • Drop them into an interesting situation.
  • Layer in conflict.
  • ???
  • Profit.

Assuming we nail those parts of it, what if we’re just not good writers? What if our grammar is a little weird, or we don’t vary our sentence length enough, or, gods forbid, our voice isn’t apparent? Then what?

Writing something good isn’t an easy ask. Say we succeed, though, and write something we’re damn proud of? Surely the hard part is over?

Get an agent

Now that we’ve written something good, the path is clear. Just gotta get an agent to help shepherd the work into the world, where it will be loved and appreciated. With a story as good as the one we have, shouldn’t take more than a few tries to find someone as passionate about the story as we are. First, though, the query.

How do we write a query? There are numerous ways, depending on the medium you’re writing in (prose, screenwriting, etc.) and sometimes down to genre or agent preference?

That’s fine. No problem. We just wrote something good, so a query letter can’t be hard.

Oh but it is.

And so this becomes a new struggle. Eventually, through much forum-diving, advice-seeking, and rage-crying, we write one we’re happy with.

Next, then, is researching agents. We’ll start by identifying agents that represent our genre. Do we know what specific genre our story is in? Gotta figure out which is best, science fiction or literary fiction with speculative elements? Did we write a psychological thriller or a mystery? Shit, there’s a lot of gore, maybe it’s horror?

Ok, we’ve got that all figured out and created a list of agents that will soon be fighting over our story.

Except for this first rejection. And the second. The first ten are flukes, surely. We’ll make some adjustments to the query letter. Send another ten queries…

… and that’s another ten rejections.

But it only takes one, right? Just one person to see what you see. We’ll keep going. The rejections hurt less after a while, anyway.

Be published

Here’s where I must say goodbye, for I have yet to reach this stage, and therefore cannot offer anything of substance. Hopefully one day soon I’ll be able to update this post with my experience being published.

Until then, best of luck.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY: The System Always Wins

Great film. One of my favorites. But…

DEAD POETS SOCIETY is famous for several things: Robin Williams’ Oscar nominated performance, the beautiful cinematography, and its uplifting message of nonconformity in the face of an overwhelming system designed to trample the individuality out of every single person within it.

The thing is, the system absolutely wins in the film. After all the speeches and the rebellions throughout the film, Neil is still dead, pushed to suicide under his father’s oppression, Mr. Keating is still fired, and the status quo is successfully protected. Through that lens the film doesn’t cry out “Carpe diem!”, but meekly whimpers “There is no true victory against the system.”

Yes, the students at the end of the film engage in one last act of protest, demonstrating the lasting effect Mr. Keating has had on them, but it’s largely performative. The students are still stuck at Wharton, having sold him out to keep their spots at their parent’s behest, and have actively made their situation worse in their brazenness. Now, instead of having Mr. Keating to engage their hearts, they are stuck with Mr. Nolan.

The system would allow for some rebellion, as it knows that’s how to keep people in line. Allow for small acts of individualism in controlled situations to give everyone a sense of freedom, without ever allowing true deviance from the norm. If the students had the maturity to realize that playing within the bounds of the status quo, slowly pushing against it until it expands without breaking, they would have gotten nearly everything they wanted.

Mr. Keating knows this, having 15 years of life experience over his students. That’s why, after Charlie Dalton gets in trouble for writing an editorial arguing that girls should be allowed at Wharton, only to follow it up with a disruptive “phone call from God,” Mr. Keating tells him, “Sucking all the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” In short, in order to live as freely as possible within the system you have to work with it, not against it. Otherwise bad things happen.

In that sense, if we accept that as the film’s true message, it hews much more closely to how we each experience life. In school we’re given standardized tests that don’t care what our individual experiences or inner lives are like. As an adult we work within organizations that need everyone to move toward a common goal as efficiently as possible, which necessarily limits the quirkiness with which we can approach our jobs. It is limiting by design, because conforming to a larger purpose than we can achieve on our own is the only way a company can pump out 10,000,000 plastic widgets per year.

The fabled system, the one that keeps society as it is, for better or worse, is more powerful than any of us. DEAD POETS SOCIETY, despite all of its inspirational lectures, sneaking around at night, and proclamations of love in the middle of classrooms, understands that. What’s amazing is that despite this clear understanding, the film still feels inspirational. We’re still left with the feeling that individualism matters.

But it’s a trick.

Just like the system designed.

© 2020 Craig Gusmann

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑