Category Archives: Notes from the coffee shop

Coen-Esque, You Betcha!

“A little less Fargo and a little more Raising Arizona,” an editor wrote to me once about a story in which I’d killed off one of the characters.

The old church I used as a model for the "old Lutheran Church" in the story "Dearest" was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies.

The old church I used as a model for the “old Lutheran Church” in the story “Dearest” was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau, Idaho, I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies. It was fun to conceive this story in Bruneau and then pick it up and move it to Moorhead, Minnesota. I moved it back and forth a couple times and finally decided that Moorhead in Clay County worked the best for the story purpose.

First the editor buttered me up by saying that my story reminded him a bit of the Coen Brothers.

I was ready to put on hot pink lipstick just at the thought of my work reminding anyone of those guys, whose work I highly admire.

The film analogy was an especially apt one in this case, where I’d veered the story in too dark a direction for its overall tone. That comment stuck with me and has been a reminder of my tendency to write dark endings, whether or not they’re the right one for the story. The dead character was brought back to life in the aforementioned story, and the story was better for it.

But I keep having to learn the lesson over and over again with each new story. Recently, the Dogpatch reviewed a story of mine, which is due out this month in Clover: A Literary Rag, the gorgeous letterpress magazine published by the Independent Writers’ Studio.

In the small town in which I grew up, there was a guy we kids were afraid of for no justifiable reason I’ve ever known. My friend Cynda and I would ride our bikes really fast past his house on the way to school. That became the seed of the story “Dearest,” which started as my way to understand why we kids needed a monster to be afraid of, and why it was also fun to be afraid.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story would walk. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose her money in the wind.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story “Dearest” would walk singing a tune about two cowboys who meet the devil. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose something she couldn’t retrieve by jumping into the water. It was hard to lose the Bruneau Canal, since I grew up playing alongside it and swimming in it, but the expanse of water needed to be wider and faster moving for the scene to work.

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O Magnus, Where Art Thou Clothes?

NAKED MEN ON THE ROAD TO ATHENSI love an actor who’s willing to disrobe in the name of art.

Which means I love Swedish television.

First off, the Swedes are just so damn gorgeous. Even if they’re not gorgeous, they’re gorgeous. Take The Bridge, for example. A show I started watching because it’s set in Malmö, which is headquarters for a couple companies I’ve done work for (and whose names I’m still not sure how to pronounce). Plus, I like bridges. And IKEA. I got my writing desk at IKEA and it has a glass top with “Love” etched all over it in different languages. It’s gorgeous, too. Those Swedes just know how to do it up.

Or take it off. Continue reading

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The Back(hoe) Story

kobelcoYou will write a story.

The character will have some really physical job—banging nails or pouring concrete.

Driving a backhoe. For weeks, all you will see are backhoes.

You will ask your writing mates to read the story. They are seasoned writers and editors, familiar with your work, and you trust them to give you great input.

Meanwhile, you will sell the story to a lit magazine. When your friends show up with pages of notes, you will say, “Thanks, but I already sold that story. Would you like a beer?”

backhoeBeer, because the character in the story you just sold drinks beer after he punches out. And because you owe your friends several beers for screwing them over, even if not on purpose.

They will drink all of your beer and also have their sweet revenge.

Because no short story is perfect (unless Dagoberto Gilb wrote it).

Your friends will drink your beer and eat the kiss-up pizza you got for them, while they tactfully point out all the things that are still wrong with your story that’s going to get published.

You will go to bed but not sleep a wink over that tired phrase you used in the third paragraph. You’ll get up and write a long e-mail to the magazine editor asking if you can change a line or two, and how about that part where instead of going to the library the character goes to see the Dakota who runs the junkyard? What if tension isn’t building quickly enough in the front of the story, so can you cut some lines to get to the dramatics quicker? And the epiphany is implied but not obvious. Is that okay or should you add a line at the end to clarify?

You will not send the e-mail for fear that the editor will agree to the point of changing her mind about publishing the story.

You will instead e-mail your friends and apologize profusely for not waiting to receive their advice before sending off your story. Your flawed little story.

Your friends will forgive you, because they are classy and wonderful and truly your friends.

You will feel alternately joyful and embarrassed that your flawed little story will soon be in print.

You will vow to never, ever make that mistake again or to treat your friends so poorly.

And you will keep writing, because that is all you know to do, and now all you see are girls with suitcases.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

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My Taxing Tale

Hello from the Dogpatch!

My excuse for everything has become: Please not now, I’m doing my TAXES.

No need to act smug. I know, it’s August.

One word: Extension.

As much as we all might gripe about the IRS, what high school teacher ever gave you an extra six months to finish a term paper? I mean, the IRS is patient. That’s a good quality in anyone.

A writer, for example.

Woodpecker pic

See the woodpecker at the lower end of the sign hammering away at an unmoving object. I could say that about a lot of things.

I used to have a bona fide CPA who did my taxes; he is now my ex. So I do taxes myself using box software with which I have a love/hate relationship.

I’ll leave it to the reader to draw any comparisons.

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Too Much In the Sun

Dear Writers:

The behavior of couples in coffee shops is endlessly fascinating to me. There’s the match/e-harmony/zoosk/cupid.com-type coffee dates, all pressed and dressed and cute and eager, one of them hoping for 25 years of loving matrimony, the other angling for 25 minutes in the sack; the omg-we’re-soooo-in-love-and-haA_small_cup_of_coffee[1]ve-pet-names-for-each-other-that-seriously-annoy-everyone-else-as-if-we-all-haven’t-had-our-own-schmoopie-at-one-time-or-another cuddly pair; the “study” dates, where he’s clearly enamored with her and she thinks of him as her practically-a-girlfriend-who-happens-to-be-really-good-at-chemistry or vice versa; the been-together-too-long-and-could-barely-stand-each-other to-begin-with ones, and my personal faves, the too-quirky-for-a-category couple. Of course, I eavesdrop on them all, because you can pick up really good dialogue to use in stories, plus I’m nosy as hell.

The last pair I observed had difficulty agreeing on where to sit. She unloaded her coat, ample purse, phone, bagle, napkins, and latte at a table by the window, but her mate protested:

Him: Not that table.

Her: But I already put my stuff down.

Him: But do you remember, how we were sitting there and the sun got in my eyes?

Her: Yes, but the sun isn’t shining.

Him: But do you remember how it was?

Her: Uh-huh.

[Repeat the “Do you remember” “Uh-huh” bit a few times with increasing plaintiveness on his part and increasing annoyance on hers.]

Her: Okay, but like I said, the sun isn’t shining.

Him: But it will be eventually.

Gotta love a guy who can efficiently anticipate peril, get being upset done with in advance, and get his gal to sigh loudly, scoop up her coat, purse, phone, bagel, napkins, and latte and relocate to another table four feet away to avoid a problem that hasn’t actually happened and by the look of the sky ain’t gonna. Continue reading

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Coffee Shop Writer

 Dear Writers,

Why do we write in coffee shops?

We come, us collective writers, expending time, probably gas, cash for high-priced drinks. We set up our tools of trade at little tables with uncomfortable chairs. We cringe when other patrons talk too loudly, laugh too loudly, or, god forbid!, talk to us. We peck away at our tablets under the too-dim/too-bright lights in the too-hot/too-cold room. I don’t really think I write better to “Pink Moon.” Continue reading

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Spotted Writing Stunts

Dear Friends,

The other day I walked into a coffee shop wearing a T-shirt I bought a in Port Townsend on a self-designed writing retreat. The barista read my shirt, said, “I don’t get it.”

“Instead of hiring someone to do it for me,” I said.

“Okay, but is that bad?” she wanted to know. Continue reading

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Filed under Howling at the moon, Notes from the coffee shop