Category Archives: Dogfight

The Bobbie Story

Have you ever met someone who completely changed our world view? You might not have realized at the moment how importantly they would factor in your life. It might not have been someone you were even that close to, but they affected you on some deep level, and afterward you were never the same. That’s the type of encounter that Jil writes about in what our group has informally dubbed “the Bobbie story.” Jil began writing this story years ago and to our intense delight, she’s pulled Bobbie out of the drawer and is working to finish the book. We got an early peek and are excited to share it!

Here’s an excerpt from a scene we talked about at our latest Dogpatch gathering:

When Jerod came home after his graveyard shift, he knew something was wrong. The crusted, empty pot of mac n cheese on the stove, an upturned carton of orange juice in the sink, an open and empty tuna can on the kitchen floor, and the lid to the bottle of tequila on the counter.

“Babe?” He called into what appeared to be an empty house. “Hello?”

There was no answer.

“Hello?” He called again, peering into the living room.

Bobbie and Desiree lay curled up on their sides on the floor like two bookends, enclosing the space in front of the empty bookshelf. All of the books that had been shelved now lay scattered between them, the empty bottle of tequila still clutched in Desiree’s hand. Punkin skittered from behind the pulled curtain.

“What the hell?!” Jerod said.

Bobbie woke with a cough and wiped the drool off the side of her mouth.

“What the hell?” Jerod said again. He nudged one of Desiree’s bare feet with the toe of his shoe.

“Hi, officer,” Bobbie said, “Did you come to arrest us? We haven’t been disturbing the peace, I promise.” She giggled and coughed again.

Desiree groaned, rolled on her side and pushed herself up into a sitting position. She looked up at Jerod, a tall, tall man, looking at her like she was a bad, bad girl.

At the Dogpatch, we share and discuss the stories we’re working on. Here’s our comments to Jil about the full segment of the Bobbie story she shared with us. Feel free to jump into the fray!

Dear Jil: I’ve said it already, and I’ll say again how delighted I am to read more of your Bobbie scenes. This story and these characters stick in the reader’s head, certainly mine. I think I first read the poker party scene nearly two decades ago, and when I opened the file it was like meeting up with an old friend I really wanted to see again. I don’t take it lightly when a story sticks with me for that long. As your reader, I think it means that you’ve spoken to something deep in me, and I’m responding by saving a special spot in my brain for your story. About that story: Bobbie is fascinating, but to me it’s ultimately Desiree’s experience of her world and of Bobbie that we’re talking about. There’s a great universalizing effect: Desiree’s experiences echo the reality of being trapped by the expectations of others and having to grapple with your own fears as you climb out of someone else’s world and into your own. I really want Desiree to win, and knowing her creator, I know that she will and, in fact, will live to tell the story. It’s the particular how she survives that is even more compelling.

Since Wes and I now have read the longer Bobbie “poetry scene” alongside a cluster of shorter scenes, including the troubling waitress-in-a-pizza-joint escapade, the unforgettable and equally troubling wedding scene, and the infamous poker party scene, it’s difficult not to comment on all of them at once. So, these comments hop around a bit, as I’ve been pondering the scenes as a set that will become part of the larger book.

Maybe we should tell Dogpatch readers that Desire is newly married to an undercover cop who seems to have a built-in set of expectations for how she should behave. He’s not a bad guy, in fact, he has a big heart, but he’s rigid. When Bobbie arrives in the midst of this young marriage, we get a love triangle of sorts, only instead of romance or physical attraction, the love is about what other person makes the deepest impression on someone’s psyche, in this case on Desiree’s.

For the scene that ensues when Bobbie first shows up—the “poetry scene” to give it a quick name, I thought that hindsight might enter the chapter a little too much. Does Desiree love her man? He’s presented as a hunky alpha male, but we seem to go right to her feeling of not belonging in the marriage without any sense of whether there is a good side to the relationship or whether there was any honeymoon phase. I kept wondering if it made sense to flip the balance, so we get great, great, great on the surface with the not-so-great feelings only starting to poke out while she’s getting drunk with Bobbie.

You are such an awesome writer, and the scene is definitely compelling. If being super hard on it, in a few spots, the skilled writing might mask cases where details and dialogue seem hyper-written, as if trying to get the reader to grasp exactly what’s wrong versus letting the dilemma unfold more gradually. But then we seem to skip over what might be a crucial transition in Desiree and Bobbie’s relationship; they go straight from total strangers to an hour later being drunk on alcohol and emotion, and they decide they’re sisters. I really want to see those missing hours unfold in the scene before we get down to the crucial disclosures. And then I wondered if Desiree would think versus say some of the key disclosures she makes. Is the point for her to tell Bobbie or to tell herself?

When we do get to the personal disclosures about family and self, they tend to sound like they come from more mature women. Desiree and Bobbie tend to speak in pretty complete sentences and with pretty standard syntax and diction. Would Bobbie’s diction be a little tangled or juvenile? Young people often know the self-talk terms and the emotional honesty catch words, but they sometimes cutely mess up words or the diction: I’ve heard things like “confide myself in her,” “he lacks genuinity,” “I don’t want to be disingenue.” And they’re often physical, moving all the time while talking. It’s like aerobic and cheerleading moves pepper any conversation while their metabolisms burn high.

That’s all a long way of saying that the action of the poetry scene, its arc and dramatic intention are all in order, but maybe you know that intention so well that you get us there in too hurried and direct a path.

Turning to the string of shorter scenes—the wedding, poker night, waitressing, grocery shopping, the crank caller, and the friendship with the cat—there my main comment is Wow! There is so much to admire about this unfolding story, and I’m super excited for you to finish it. In this string of shorter scenes, we’ve talked about which one would make for a shocking opening. I won’t say that here, so that readers can be surprised when the book comes out, but my main comment about the scenes is that the shorter scenes as a set seem to arise from a sort of thesis that the writer wants to deliver to the reader, with each of the scenes on some level functioning as “evidence,” similar to the series of family anecdotes Desiree tells to Bobbie when trying to explain her family history. The thesis underlying the scenes seems to be something like: This is why Desiree is the way she is, and here’s the dramatic arguments to back up that contention.

We’ve said in our discussion that most or all of these scenes are really key scenes, and we probably should see the build to each scene vs. having them occur without transitions. I don’t know that the order matters as much as the dramatic build to each scene and the connecting scenes between the key scenes. In other words, we might have the outcomes but not all of the contextualizing material. Each of the scenes right now has its own thematic payoff in Desiree’s life and history, but we don’t yet have enough of the container story to identify its overall shape. Is this book going to be structured as a series of memories and encounters, or are we going to feel like we’re experiencing Desiree’s day-to-day life? We seem to get a potential subplot with the crank callers and Jerod and his fellow officers having to deal with that, but we haven’t yet seen where that goes. Another way to say this is that each of these scenes feels significant enough to be the impetus for the larger story, but they all seem important, so I think it will be critical to decide not only the order in which to deliver them but the framework in which to position them. Once you’re settled on that, this story will be un-put-downable.

Thanks for the chance to be one of your readers.

XO Laurel Leigh

 

 

 

Wes sez:

The newlywed wife of an undercover cop in a medium-sized Midwestern city in the late 1970s encounters a young runaway who changes her life forever. That, in a nutshell, is the ‘Bobbie story,’ which I have heard described for years now by other members of the Dogpatch who have read it, but which I’ve never seen myself until now. I’m glad finally to be able to see what all the talk was about.

The first of the two chapters you have shown us lays out the wedding and the early weeks of the main protagonist Desiree’s marriage; the second chapter shows us the first meeting between Desiree and the young runaway, Bobbie, who is brought home to Desiree late one night by her undercover cop husband, Jerod, who has a habit of bringing home strays, human and otherwise. You gave us two alternate openings for the book — a scene in which Desiree, prior to her wedding, is working as a waitress at a pizza parlor, and a scene from the wedding itself, where the groomsmen, all cops, fire their handguns in unison into the ground to toast (or is it roast?) the groom’s new bride.

I vote for opening with the wedding scene.

Much is made in your narrative of the gender and social politics of 1970s America, a surprisingly benighted time for one rumored to be so open-minded and carefree compared to our own cautious and judgmental times. (As for myself, I have no memory of the 1970s, being too young at the time for any of the Me Decade to make an impression on me, he said, head turned aside and eyes cast downward, one hand covering his face from view.)

While I think the Pizza Joint scene is powerful — poor Desiree is sexually humiliated by a roomful of drunken men out on a bachelor party — and gives us a sense of how her mind works, it is similar in many ways to a later scene where her husband has his cop buddies over to the house for poker night. Desiree is afraid to leave the bedroom, where she is hiding, when Nature calls because the men are making rude, suggestive comments about her, and she is feeling too threatened and exposed to walk past the dining room table where they are all playing cards.

I think the poker night scene carries more than enough water within the story, making the Pizza Joint scene unnecessary, even redundant.

There seems to be a tendency in the story as it’s written now to rush through some of the scenes. The wedding scene which opens the story is one I especially would like to see drawn out a bit more. The cop groomsmen all firing their guns into the ground is an indelible image, but I feel you miss many opportunities to flesh out some of the other peripheral, but still important, characters. For example, I would like to see Desiree’s mother in action to get a sense of the type of female role-model our hero had growing up. We hear her father speak, but we don’t hear Mom say anything.

 

One question that hangs over the first chapter, as well as the later chapter where Desiree and Bobbie first meet, is, Why doesn’t Desiree love her husband, Jerod? He seems like a nice guy, for a cop; the kind of person who habitually brings home strays. He’s a bit bossy, sure. But then Desiree is only 19 years old and doesn’t seem to know much about life, which to a seasoned cop like Jerod might be adorable — or annoying, even infuriating

Portions of the narrative as it currently stands read like a series of semi-connected flashbacks, the through-line being Desiree’s increasing disenchantment with her new life as wife and homemaker. Also, the notion of escape figures heavily in Desiree’s teenage view of marriage and setting up house with Jerod. She is trying to get away from a stifling childhood home, within an enormous farming family that includes dozens and dozens of aunts and cousins all silently passing judgment on a teenage girl — Desiree — who is just trying to figure things out for herself, a girl for whom ‘finding the right words’ is something she’s not very good at.

What I think Desiree really means by this is that she is no good at advocating for herself, and that she has no clear idea what she wants out of life.

And so then we come to the chapter where Bobbie and Desiree first meet. This is another scene, like the wedding, that I would like to see play out a bit more. When Bobbie and Desiree meet for that very first time, they manage in no time at all to get stinking drunk. And yet the narrative moves from the cracking open of the tequila bottle to flat-out drunkenness in the blink of an eye.

This is a huge opportunity missed, in my opinion. I feel like the character Bobbie lives more fully formed in the author’s imagination than she does on the page. I really can’t get a clear picture of her in my mind yet. I would like more of an idea how she looks, how she moves in space, and what interests her, other than flouting convention (like most any teenager), drinking (ditto), and getting it on with her dad (ouch…and yuck). And so a scene where she gets progressively drunker with Desiree would be a good opportunity to make her come more alive on the page and to learn more about her individual quirks.

The male gaze figures prominently in the daily lives of these two women. But more so for Desiree, who is willing to play the role of traditional stay-at-home wife. For Bobbie, who apparently thinks nothing of turning tricks to earn some traveling money, the male gaze is merely an opportunity to exercise the power of her desirability; while for Desiree, it is something that batters her down and keeps her compliant to what men want of her.

 

Finally, the narrative voice is pitched quite high emotionally from the start — outrage and self-disgust being the primary emotions coloring the action of the story. The hyperventilating tone — we see and hear an awful lot of how Desiree feels about the injustice of her life — sucks a lot of the air out of the room and leaves little space for the reader’s own emotional responses to play themselves out as she sees the horrors our young hero must encounter in a world of callous, dominating, possibly violent men. For a novel that seems to be about the abjectness of women and the violent idiocy of men, I think it might be necessary to drop the emotional pitch of the narrative tone a few notches so that the POV of your protagonist can build up to whatever outrage will be necessary to move her through whatever is coming next.

And whatever that is, I feel like it’s going to be wonderfully terrible. Or terribly wonderful. Awesome job, Hoffmann!

header photo credit: Tumblr

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There Are Many Kinds of Scars

Dogpatch writer Laurel Leigh’s essay explores how as a child she experienced the scars of her mother’s mastectomy and how those issues of image and identity carried into her adult life. Here’s an excerpt of “Scars” and our comments about this deeply honest piece of writing.

The author’s mother on her wedding day.

The wound in my chest was open and wide, and I could see the layers of my skin disappearing into the circular black hole. As a kid growing up in the country and later an acrobat, I’d had plenty of scrapes and bruises, but I’d never had a cut that deep. I was engrossed by how deep the hole was—about an inch.

The doc came back to the table and explained that the wound leakage had just been fluid, but it likely would re-occur if he used liquid anesthesia. If I was tough enough to look at it and not get grossed out, then, asked the doc, was I tough enough to let him stitch me up without anesthesia? The incision would heal more rapidly, if so, he told me. I said okay.

 

 

Hey Laurel,

In your essay you look back on your childhood and examine your feelings, both then and now, about your mother’s mastectomy scars and what they meant to your own physical and emotional development growing up. Over the course of this essay you, as the narrator, come to understand that there are many types of scars an individual can incur over the course of a life — physical scars, of course, but also mental and emotional ones as well.

In many ways this piece is about self-acceptance versus others accepting us, but beneath this it is really a rumination on intimacy and mortality. The narrator is given three privileged glimpses in the course of this work: at her mother’s mastectomy scars; at the hole in her own breast after surgery to remove a tumor; and, finally, a clear, unimpeded view of the sky as seen through a hole in the ceiling after the constant rain of western Washington state eats through the roof of her house. All three of these privileged glimpses lay bare a sense of intimacy with the world, as well as a marked vulnerability to that same outside world.

The scars that life leaves on all of us can lead us to want to hide them from others. It is only natural for people to want to hide or camouflage their scars, just as we all want to hide or camouflage the uglier parts of life. But the narrator, over the course of this piece, learns to embrace her scars, to see their beauty instead.

I like the symmetry, or poetic echoes, you achieve with the various ‘holes’ we glimpse in the essay — how the deep, scarred depression left behind after Mom’s mastectomy mirrors and reflects the hole in the narrator’s own breast, which itself mirrors and reflects the hole in the narrator’s ceiling. As she considers her own feelings about her mother’s mastectomy scars, the narrator reflects on the scars two previous surgeries have left on her own breasts. Continue reading

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Amnesty Goes to Mass

Dani culture, Catholic mass, and sex with a photojournalist in a seedy hotel all come together in this excerpt from Wes Pierce’s novel in progress. In the Dogpatch, we do what we do, which is talk about writing. We had a lot to say about this riveting chapter and can’t wait to read more. Here’s an excerpt to help you see why we’re riled up:

She was also witness to a burgeoning — well, maybe feminist movement wasn’t the right word for it; but with pacification, and a marked decrease in the need for protection from neighboring hostile tribes, the role of women in Dani society had greatly expanded. Of course women still did most of the work, farming and mending what little clothes they wore and watching after the children, as well as the pigs (which, along with sweet potatoes, were the staples of their diet). But the men’s lodges, the center of all important discussions of a political or economic or social nature, and formerly off-limits to all married women, were now a place where everyone in the village gathered to talk and eat and tend to everyday chores in the company of their family and friends. The division between the sexes was not as clearly demarcated as it had been in the past, and women were rushing in to fill the void left by the enforced cessation of (formerly incessant) tribal warfare. Social gatherings focused less on the planning of attacks and the mourning of the dead, and more on the communal tending of the fields and the improvement of the settlement. And Amnesty was a witness to all of it.

The Dani made her feel like one of them; every moment she was there she felt more alive than she had at any time before in her life. When she was there among the Dani, she didn’t have to try to live. Then one day, near the end of her first full year at the Dani settlement, a wave of concern swept through the small village. She had never seen anything like it in all her time there. Some of the men looked scared, and they were muttering names that were unfamiliar to Amnesty, as they grabbed spears and other weapons long disused and gathering dust as old war trophies in the men’s lodges. It appeared to her to be something right out of the literature, with the men of the village gathering to repel a surprise attack on a remote outpost.

Wow! That was my initial reaction to this chapter. I honestly had to read it a few times before I could stop being simply fascinated and try to look at it critically. Wes, I find it very fascinating that your initial question to the group was whether there was enough action content to sustain this chapter. I sometimes think you are completely unimpressed by your own ability to mesmerize the reader as well as your ability to weave unique and complex content into a character’s on-the-page experience. Somehow you make it completely reasonable that a character would go to church, call to mind her time spent in the highlands of New Guinea, and regale the reader with tales of the Dani people that somehow link to her own need for both action and atonement.

For someone just joining this discussion, I’ll say loosely what unfolds in this chapter. A character with the unlikely name of “Amnesty,” who is non-religious, goes to Catholic mass because it offers a place to think without the usual interruptions. That’s wildly ironic because the cacophony going on in her brain is deafening. Amnesty is a little Hamlet, in that she’s kind of stuck in her life and subsequently tortured. On a past anthropological visit to the wonderfully bizarre Dani villages, she pulled a Captain Kirk and got way too involved in the daily goings on of the isolated modern-primitive Dani. Her bosses kicked her to the curb, and now poor Amnesty spends more time planning her next move than actually making it. Of course, in church she can’t help but turn her anthropologist eye on the rituals of organized religion, and her opinions are not surprisingly damning. If we read what she thought in an academic paper, it would be fascinating. But putting the character in scene and having her dissect the religious ritual as it unfolds is beyond riveting. But then it gets better, because despite her brilliance, we see how stuck in place she is. She’s rooted in that pew and rooted in place in her life. We think it’s because of her screw-up on the field trip; but as the layers of her life are further implied, we realize her dilemma goes much deeper. Having read other chapters, I also know that her wacked-out upbringing further ups the stakes for poor Amnesty having any semblance of a peaceful inner life.

Much of the time reading, I forgot we were in church and felt completely transported to the Dani village. That is a strength of the writing, although I ultimately thought you could consider leaking out the Dani story en route while Amnesty observes the mass ritual and letting the climax of the village story (which, sorry readers, I’m not gonna tell ya until the book comes out) intertwine with that horrific (from Amnesty’s perspective and mine as well) moment when the chanting priest holds the wafer aloft and all of Amnesty’s missteps among the Dani and her interpretation of the mass collide. That wafer waving moment is important in this scene, and I think you could slow the writing down to highlight it even more. That’s really my main comment: that I’d love to see the church scene and the village scenes told more concurrently until we hit that ultra moment of tension and imagery in both.

As for the interpretation Amnesty herself needs to take away. I would like to know whether you agree with the reading that even while Amnesty doesn’t believe in the religion she observes, her time in church is nonetheless akin to religious action. I find it drastically ironic that your non-believing character nonetheless enacts a sort of religious interpretation of the mass service: a prayer, inward meditation, an account of her past sins, and, finally, seeking atonement. It’s completely masterful, and I’m dazzled by your skills.

Finally, about said photojournalist: That’s an awfully sexy career, and I’m all in favor of wild sex in a cheap hotel with a thrill-seeking photojournalist. But I think the hotel romp adds too much of an ending to this chapter and sends it in a different direction. Once mass is over, I really think the chapter should be too. Of course, don’t cut the sex scene. Pretty please. It’s wickedly great. But consider moving it to another chapter and possibly separated from the mass chapter. Let us all wait to find out the bedroom coda to the conclusion of Amnesty’s day in church.

The only other thing I have to say is please hurry up and finish writing this book so everyone can read the whole thing. It’s going to be a hit.

XO Laurel Leigh

Geez, Louise. Laurel got to say all the important stuff before I could jump in with my 2 cents. Your initial question, Wes, was “Is it OK if nothing HAPPENS in this chapter?” Hmmm, I say, hmmm. Well, the way I see it, it doesn’t matter whether something physically happens in this chapter, but something darn well better happen to launch Amnesty into the search for her brother. I mean, I enjoyed learning all these things about the Dani people, BUT I’m not reading a book written by Margaret Mead (although I have read her work and enjoyed it). I’m reading a book about murder and the messed-up lives being lived by “Love” children, with a little side helping of Margaret Mead. So, while it’s all well and good (don’t you hate clichés, but they’re so useful) for you to include this info about the Dani, I think some of it should either leak through in earlier chapters, with the final leak being the moment with the hatchet. That will then deepen our understanding of the moment where we see Amnesty conclude that she must take ACTION. Use this chapter as the launchpad for the search.

I want to understand the scene where she’s moved to kill but thwarted by cultural taboos. As it is, I knew something had terminated the interaction, but I wasn’t sure what. It’s a critical moment in the story, and I’m not there yet. I DO understand that her interference got her fired, but I don’t understand how her interference completely altered the events between the two warring factions. Give me more there.

As an aside, I think you need to weed out those authorial intrusions that distract, you know, the ones where you can’t help but pass judgment on the situation or add a little pointed but subtle commentary, thinking that reader won’t “get it” otherwise. Some may be in there to elicit chuckles. And some may be in there just because you find them entertaining (or maybe you’re too close to see them). Kill them!!

Oh, and get rid of that sexy scene in the humid hotel room. It distracts and sends us off in a different direction, as Laurel said. OK, I agree with Laurel: put it elsewhere. It’s entertaining. But when I’m in church, I want to be in church or with the Dani. When the church scene ends, we should be following Amnesty into the heart of darkness, so to speak.

Nuff said. Now finish this sucker! I want to read the whole thing!

Cheers! Jilanne

 

Photo of cathedral interior: Pixabay.

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Section 13

Hello from the Dogpatch! Since 2000, our group has been reading and commenting on each other’s work. Those of you in writing groups well know the rewards of watching your friends’ work flourish over time. A few years ago we started posting parts of our critiques on this blog and have appreciated everyone who joins our ongoing conversation about writing and revising. Many thanks for reading!

Today we bring you “Section 13,” a chapter from Wes Pierce’s novel in progress. In this chapter, the book’s protag, Amnesty, is searching for her missing brother, Tracy, a suspected felon. En route Amnesty visits the home of a childhood friend, Lynette, who’s still living in the 1980s and in alcoholic squalor. She unknowingly helps Amnesty begin to unravel the mystery surrounding her missing brother. Here’s a short excerpt with our comments following. We don’t post the entire piece since these are often submitted later, but you can read another excerpt and more discussion about Wes’s novel here. Feel free to jump into the fray! Your comments are always welcome and much appreciated!

 

[from “Section 13”]

The room was quite dark with the door closed. Amnesty stood squinting for a moment in the cave-like gloom, waiting for her eyes to adjust, making out shapes by the scant light the television provided. She could see now they were showing an old Disney movie.

‘Give me the secret, mancub. Clue me what to do,’ sang King Louie. ‘Give me the power of man’s red flower, so I can be like you.’

‘So how are your folks holding up?’ Lynette said.

‘My dad’s locked himself in his room and won’t come out.’

‘I wanna talk like you. Walk like you, too,’ Louis Prima, a.k.a. King Louie, sang. ‘You’ll see it’s true. Someone like me can learn to be like someone like you.’

Lynette walked over and turned down the sound on the television.

‘Jesus, what a mess,’ she said. ‘But what’re you gonna do?’

For one wild, disorienting moment Amnesty thought her friend was talking about the state of her own house, but then she realized Lynette was talking about Tracy.

‘Do? I want to help my brother, of course,’ Amnesty said. ‘I mean, he’s on the run. He must be frightened and feeling all alone. But I don’t even know where to start.’

‘Aiding a suspected felon can get you in a shitload of trouble, you know.’

‘You sound like you’re talking from experience.’ Her friend said nothing. Then Amnesty said, ‘Well, I’ll worry about that later. Right now all I want is to get my brother to turn himself in before he gets himself gunned down in the street like some kind of mad-dog criminal.’

‘Well, you’re not going to be able to help your brother right this minute,’ Lynette said. ‘So why don’t you sit down and take a load off?’ Continue reading

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The Mission

terri-shoeless

Terri McAllister posing “shoeless” in 1987, many years before the collection was thought about.

Hello from the Dogpatch! Today we’re talking about “The Mission,” a story from Laurel Leigh’s ongoing Shoeless collection. In this story, two sisters both define and defy their daily struggles to survive when they head to San Francisco’s Mission District, hoping to get days-old Roma tomatoes at a grocery giveaway so they can cook a special 4th of July meal. This story was inspired by Laurel’s experience volunteering at a food bank. You can find the full story in Volume 12 of Clover, A Literary Rag. Feel free to jump into the fray! Your comments are always welcome and much appreciated!

clover-12

Clover, A Literary Rag, Volume 12

If you’re in Whatcom County, Washington, on February 12, Laurel Leigh will be reading from “The Mission” as part of the biannual Clover reading event at Village Books. You can submit to Clover here.

[from”The Mission”]

Thursday morning, Celeste put on her good dress, her one pair of heels, and did up her hair. It was her day off and an outing, even if it was just going back to the Mission District, where she worked most days anyway, but on Thursdays it was for the grocery giveaway that only some people knew about – although more had been showing up each week – and sometimes the actual grocery store (not today though, on account of Mrs. J). She and Cel had talked about whether there would be enough gas for both the giveaway and Mrs. J’s house and decided not to risk it. It was sixteen miles round trip to get to the market where the owner gave away the didn’t-sell foods each week before his trucks came to restock the shelves. Adding on Mrs. J’s would mean two more miles each way – it wasn’t so much the distance but all the time in city traffic that burned up gas – and knowing Mrs. J, she’d find another reason not to pay until next week.They had set out two cans of green beans and one cream corn to bring along and trade with old Miss Florence, who didn’t eat fruit, so they would most likely have extra apples or soft bananas, which could usually be counted on, but it was tomatoes they wanted today – Roma tomatoes. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, and Celeste planned to make baked lasagna with ricotta cheese and Roma tomatoes layered over. It had been their grandmother’s specialty, every year on the Fourth and once for Celeste’s eighth birthday. Celeste had saved up the rest of the ingredients, including some McCormick’s Italian seasoning; all that was needed was the tomatoes. Canned could be used for the topping, but there was nothing like plum Roma tomatoes. Most would use a Roma for canning or a sauce, but Grandma had known the secret of bathing them in garlic and layering them over lasagna. Of course, it was a gamble that there would be any tomatoes today, even week-old Heirlooms, but Celeste couldn’t help but hope. The market sold Romas out the front door so they were always a possibility for giveaways. Only two were needed; if there were four, they could go in a salad. They planned to make the lasagna in the morning, then Celeste had two houses to clean but would be back by six,  in plenty of time to pack up the rest of the picnic and get down to the pier to watch the fireworks light up the bay.

 

Jilanne: The Writer's Shadow

Jilanne: The Writer’s Shadow

Sooooo, Laurel, dahling. This story is going to be a great addition to the Shoeless collection. It contains such quiet despair, despair that grips so many who struggle from paycheck to paycheck. I LOVE the quote: “Cel looked stricken, like she’d cry but didn’t want to spare the moisture…” Wow. These two women have nothing left. They can’t even waste their tears. The same with the imagery  of the juice from the tomatoes, bleeding through the fabric of Celeste’s skirt and onto the pavement. They are being bled dry. Watching these two women try to put together enough money to get across town for free food handouts, only to find their efforts thwarted at every turn, is so painful. Painful in a good way. Because it feels real. The scenes with the ice cream and the boyfriend who’s a GG bridge painter add so much to show their desperation. You have done your job well. For the opening paragraph, you may want to take a look at Alice Munro’s stellar work in the way she deals with brief flashback intrusions. She’s the master of giving the reader just enough background detail without losing our footing in the present. The vast majority of my comments are about location details. San Francisco’s size is contained to a few square miles, so I think you need to get a map from 1969 and decide exactly where these two women live and where they have to go to work and get food. Now, the SF of that time period was one dependent on buses since BART was just being constructed. So specific details such as bus schedules, daytime temps, etc. will finish out what is already a fine story. Oh, and I’m not sure that people would want their houses cleaned on the 4th of July. Wouldn’t they be busy having BBQs with lots of people hanging out? But that may just be me. Keep on keepin’ on! Well done!

 

mug shotWes sez:

‘The Mission’ is the story of two sisters struggling to make ends meet in 1960s San Francisco. Celeste, the older sister, wants to make lasagna for 4th of July, her grandmother’s recipe, but can only manage to assemble all the ingredients for the recipe by going to a weekly, charitable give-away at a grocery store on the other side of town in the Mission District.

I once heard it said that all it takes to make a good story is to chase your hero up a tree and throw rocks at her. You throw an awful lot of rocks at Celeste.

And while the stakes in the story might seem small — a few, fresh Roma tomatoes are all that Celeste desires — you do such an expert job raising the stakes, and the tension, that by the end this reader was so fully invested in whether these two sisters were ever going to manage to get their groceries home, I thought my head was going to explode.

You do a fine job laying out Celeste’s plans for getting to and from the market where they hold the food give-away. Her plans are sensible, no-nonsense, and highly detailed, which makes the world of the story feel lived-in and true. I can think of no higher compliment for a work of fiction.

But I would like to talk a little about the time and place in which you set your story. Near the end of the piece you tell us it’s 1969. I don’t need to tell you this was a time of incredible political instability and foment. None of this comes through in the story. Neither did I ever figure out, until you told me, that the two sisters in the story were African-American. Given that the piece is set in the Mission, I assumed they were Hispanic.

Two African-American sisters living in late-1960s San Francisco would have been awash in social instability and revolutionary sentiment. The two sisters seem a little too mature for that sort of thing, but it was everywhere in the air. I think they might drop at least a few asides about what it going on in the streets around them, since it would have been impossible to avoid.

As for your setting, San Francisco in July — I don’t think I need to quote you that apocryphal bit about how cold it is in S.F. in the summer, the one that’s usually attributed to Mark Twain. The heat of the day actually plays a small role in your story; you might need to rethink this.

And as a final note, having two sisters with names like Celeste and Celia seems almost cruel. The names sound much alike — not to mention their nicknames, Cel and C — that my head was all a-muddle by the end.

Otherwise, a terrific story. Simple and elegant and true. Good job!

 

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Upside Down

Hello from the Dogpatch! It’s dogfight time again, and this time we’re duking it out over an essay by Laurel Leigh, slated for a collection called Home Is a Handstand.

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His familiar voice on the phone takes me backward in time, and I want his speech to be the language of Coach, those reassuring tones that let me know I can jump and fly oh so high, only now he’s just this regular guy, sounding baffled and hurt at being snubbed by a gal, and as yet unused to the garb of the newly divorced. And looking to me as someone who’s been there (twice) and seems to have it all figured out, and asking me for advice on ways to cope. Advice I can and do give, from that adult part of myself, the older, wiser me whom the other versions grew into. — from Home Is a Handstand.

Wes PierceWes sez: Let me say, first off, I found this essay deeply moving. The manner in which you expose yourself and lay bare your deepest feelings for two of the most important men in your life — your father and your former gymnastics coach — is both brave and, in its way, awe-inspiring. I might even have cried while reading this piece; but, being a man, I cannot possibly admit to that. So I’m going to punt on this one and say I ‘might’ have cried.

The essay starts off with a terrific opening line about deciding to get fit again at the (comically specific) age of fifty-one and three quarters. This opening line establishes the tone of the piece from the outset: funny and self-deprecating and cutting-to-the-bone in its honesty. The notion of losing weight and getting fit again also serves as a nice framing device for the piece; but the real heart of your essay — for me — is about learning, through time and experience and pain-staking trial-and-error, to heal one’s self.

The narrator (or protagonist) of the essay has reached a point in her life where she yearns for the company of another person, specifically a man. More specifically, the old male friend with whom she shares long phone conversations about his recent divorce and his lurching attempts to get back into the dating game.

There is a nice informality to the tone of the essay, which serves to undercut (in a good way) the anguish and loneliness that permeates the entire piece. If the piece didn’t have this informal, self-deprecating tone it would be almost too painful to read. But as it is now, the essay is both funny and entertaining. The reader is not entertained at the expense of the narrator’s unhappiness; the reader is instead drawn in by the brave and funny voice of the narrator, and in this way the reader can both sympathize and empathize with her. We have all been there, longing for someone who can’t see our longing, even though it’s written all over our face.

There is also an overarching feeling of loss running throughout the essay; the sense of time passing, and the feeling that there’s nothing we can do to slow or stem the flow. We can only sit back, stunned, and marvel at how quickly the years have slipped by. But to leaven this sense of loss, in your essay there is also a buoyant sense of not giving up, of continuing the fight. There is the funny, uplifting sense of not going gentle into that good night, of raging — hilariously — against the dying of the light. Continue reading

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Sunshine Superman

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Image credit: 123RF / Marianne Oliva

Hello from the Dogpatch! This image would exemplify our new motto, assuming love still retains potential for sufficient rising dramatic tension. We’re pretty sure it does. Not that we’re battle happy, but it is time for another so-called dogfight. This time, it’s Dogpatcher Wes in the hot seat, with his novel-in-process Sunshine Superman getting scrutinized as he writes into the homestretch. Here’s an excerpt from this darkly hilarious story:

Shoes are not allowed inside the yurt. Gerda can see her mother’s white Keds set neatly beside the door. Next to them she sees Chad’s big black motorcycle boots leaning against each other like two drunks. There also appear to be at least two other pairs of men’s shoes that Gerda doesn’t recognize. She and her father stand outside the door a moment, listening. But they don’t hear any sounds coming from inside. Her father says, ‘Sweetie, why don’t you wait over there for a moment?’ pointing off toward the sunny side of the clearing.

Gerda is caught between the twin, dueling notions of wanting to see what is about to happen and not wanting to cause her father any more grief and humiliation, but she does as he asks. From the other side of the clearing she watches while her father knocks on the door, then she watches as he seems to prepare himself for whatever it is he is about to see inside the yurt. His hands drop to his sides, and his knees bend slightly like he is preparing to take a punch.

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Laurel Leigh

Hey, Wes: This might be one of the most complex stories of yours I’ve read, where we meet the characters in a present that is entirely collapsing around them and then also meet them in their past, where a bizarrely self-engineered world seems to put them at risk, emotional and physical, from the get go. Yet that earlier world speaks to a bygone era of yurt-dwelling free spirits that we can tend to look upon with some nostalgia. One of the things I appreciate about this story is that it reveals some of the grime in the underbelly of that seemingly idyllic society, such as the realities of nearly starving in the woods or the existence of un-pretty human relationships. And you manage it in a scene that motivates the reader to thoughtfulness without feeling as if the commentary has been delivered by the narrative in heavy-handed fashion. It’s like there’s a bee hidden in the flower waiting to come out and sting you, and I sort of want to get stung. I’m left with a sense of characters placed in continual risk—early in the book—so when the adult Gerda launches her quest, I feel that she’s not only risking material things, her job, her home, her belongings, but she’s also risking losing (or finding?) who she is at the core, a core in part defined by the childhood to which she was subjected by her parents whims. My only complaint about the backstory is that the narrator might riff too long on the later outcome of life in the commune, when perhaps the focus of the flashback should remain on the day Gerda and her father go to seek her wayward mother.

At times the child Gerda appears wise beyond her years, able to suss out the layered meanings in what the adults say. At times she appears relatively naive. Of course a youngster demonstrates both qualities, but in this case, compressed into a single chapter, it might be useful to aim for a slightly more consistent level of awareness in the character. That is, Gerda grasps the subtle reference to the shovel, but she seems clueless about sex. Those two levels of awareness residing in one character could certainly be true, but what is the intended takeaway for the reader in terms of how we are guided to perceive adult Gerda? Is adult Gerda equally inconsistent in her levels of development and perception? From what we see in this chapter excerpt, I can’t say, so am just asking the question. You’ve cast her as an anthropologist, which inclines me to want to see more of the child Gerda who is able to interpret subtext and might be equally precocious in other realms of human relations. In the excerpt above, we see what for me is the most compelling part of this character in her youth, one who witnesses adult interactions and interprets evidence, right down to the physical stance of her father. It’s a compelling and heartbreaking moment on the page, and that’s far more satisfying than a kid who wonders what “deep breathing” means. Mainly, we get the wiser child Gerda, and that’s the one I vote for in this scene. Gerda herself tells us that at times she feels like the oldest person in the commune, which, by the way, might be the spot to break this chapter and leave us in the past before reinstating the present in the next chapter. I know, I know, you have an overall structure in mind, but just saying . . .

In this version, I think there’s a little too much exposition woven into the dialogue between grown-up Gerda and her mom. It’s tempting to use the conversation to fill in the reader, but if you strip out the expository lines, you’ll be left with an incredibly fascinating conversation. Let them say what they authentically would say to each other, without restating history that they both fully know. If the reader truly needs a few more details, I think the narrative can just state it. Momma is a whopper of a momma, by the way. Hoo boy, she gives me delicious nightmares! Momma is a piece of work among pieces of work, although as I read through the scene again, I also wonder slightly how to reconcile present-day Momma, who seems awfully bent on justifying herself, with past-day Momma, who flitted around and did what she wanted to without seeming to have a need to justify. I don’t think we get a story on the transformation of the mother character, so perhaps compare her in the yurt scene to the later scene with Gerda and look for ways that we can recognize the woman from the past in the woman in the living room. I think she should be recognizable to the reader, especially when met right on the heels of the past scene.

Looking over the chapter again, I find myself really wanting dad to be onstage for the Gerda-Momma encounter. He seems deftly tucked away, and I wonder if bringing a third party into the room, even if he’s cast in the role of frozen, broken observer, will ratchet up the tension in the scene even further. The image of him readying himself to take a punch will stick with the reader—in the present-day scene, why not let us see what so many punches have turned this man into. I really want to see it rather than hear about it.

The writing itself is your usual gorgeous, image-laden lines that make me jealous and want to poke holes in your backyard yurt with my fishing knife that I carved from a bamboo branch. Seriously, the writing is beautiful and one thing that’s tricky about evaluating this scene is that the writing can tend to mask places where the focus of the scene or dialogue might not fully deliver. So in revision, work to set aside how well the lines flow and look closely at what is happening alongside that flow, for example, sneaking exposition into dialogue just because you can do it pretty gracefully. I’m excited for this story and since you told us a little more about where Gerda’s quest will read, I’m excited to find out whether she succeeds or fails, lives or dies—hurry up and finish so we can read the rest!

XO Laurel Leigh

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Jilanne Hoffmann

 

Well, now, Laurel said all the good stuff. That’s the last time I let her go first! Hmmmm, what to say? I love your boldly drawn characters and want to see the entire novel unfold. I’m thinking it’s going to be a doozy!

I love how you weave humor into drama. It’s a very effective and entertaining way of presenting the story. Like I said, Laurel gave you the kudos I was going to give you. If you had given us more than an excerpt, I would have kept reading and reading until long past my bedtime.

Now for the nitty gritty: Gerda’s mother is hilarious, but I don’t want her to be so hilarious that I don’t sympathize with her concerns. Don’t get so involved with entertaining yourself (and I am guilty of doing this every time I sit down to write) that you create a character that turns into someone so funny the reader has a hard time seeing them as something other than a character. I’m thinking that the exposition issue Laurel mentioned could be solved by letting the reader “hear” the television news that Gerda and her mother have both seen. That way, you can cut through the “reader needs to know” parts and give Gerda and her mother only juicy things to say. The way people tend to talk at or past one another.

Along those lines, I’ve marked instances where you’ve tended to over-explain, not trust the reader to get the crux of what’s going on without belaboring a point. Trust. Trust. We must trust the reader to “get it.”

A note about presenting characters as children/youthful and then as older adults: The seeds of the current character should be contained in the earlier version of the character—or if there is some type of dissonance, it should be there for a purpose that the reader will come to understand. Perhaps the passing years have provided an experience or two or ten that may have sent them in another direction. But in any case, those seeds should be there. And right now, I’m having trouble reconciling Gerda the “more adult” resourceful child who feeds the “tribe” with the seemingly less adult and less resourceful Gerda of the present. Similarly, Gerda’s father who appears to be the “resigned” type who searches for his wife in his younger years completely locks himself away in his older years. That’s too convenient. I want him to be present in some way, not just hiding in his bedroom offstage.

I’m also wondering about how the mother is presented. It appears that she’s slept with everyone in her youth, but only one of them (not her husband) was the love of her life. Right now, I’m having difficulty resolving this “love of her life” with the orgy-atmosphere of the commune. Maybe I could be persuaded of this if she hopped from bed to bed until she hopped into bed with Chad. Then she would sleep only with him—unless, she wasn’t the love of his life and he wanted to be with her AND others. And maybe those others were women in addition to men? Just a thought.

And finally, Gerda’s mother ends her diatribe by saying “no one ever has sympathy for the family of the killer.” I’m thinking the word “family” should be changed to “mother.” Because, yes, it’s all about her.

I’m thinking that I’ve forgotten to mention something else that we discussed during our Skype chat. Something at the heart of the story, but my memory is failing me…and I gave you my notes before I put this post into writing. Bad me. Bad brain….Laurel and Wes, please let me know if either of you recall what I’m talking about.

Cheers! Looking forward to reading more, Wes!!  Jilanne

 

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