Why even bother? (Creative crisis)

2-broke-girls-s1-poster-2

The life of anyone practicing an art form—whatever you do with passion is your art—is a continual balancing act between impassioned self-expression and self-questioning despair. For me, this duality revolves around my efforts in fiction writing (i.e., screen, novel, poetry, short stories, etc.).

Earlier today, I learned that the television series 2 Broke Girls ended its six-season run on CBS, and the news briefly shifted my balance toward despair.

On a couple of occasions, I tried to watch the sitcom about two broke girls plying their trade as diner waitresses while targeting a dream of opening a cupcake shop. But each time, I had to turn the show off after a few minutes because I found the comedy so excruciating.

Every 15 seconds, there was yet another wink-wink nudge-nudge one-liner that I felt lacked any art whatsoever, dialogue that but for an incessant laugh-track would likely have been met with complete silence in front of a live audience.

And yet, the series aired for six seasons. It had enough of an audience for CBS to keep it on the air.

I like broad comedy; truthfully, I do. I even write it on occasion.

I live for Mel Brooks’ comedies, for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for Blackadder, for The Muppet Show, for SCTV, In Living Color and Kids in the Hall.

Anyone who has followed me for any period of time—especially on Twitter—knows I am up for any joke-opalyse.

But the appeal of 2 Broke Girls and its ilk—looking at you, Two-and-a-Half Men—simply eludes me. It feels like one-liners in search of a higher purpose.

But here’s the thing I constantly need to remind myself:

This difficulty rests entirely within me, and has nothing to do with the creators or writers of any of these shows.

 

Celebrate, don’t negate

Getting ANY television show to air, getting any screenplay turned into a movie is difficult, even in this era of seemingly limitless venues and diminishing equipment costs.

That any show manages more than a pilot episode is amazing. So, six seasons of broadcast should be celebrated from every mountain top.

As an artist, I applaud 2 Broke Girls creators Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings for getting their show on the air. I congratulate the people behind the Sharknado series for continuing to produce films.

To denigrate these efforts simply because they do not suit my tastes is not only unfair, it is also blatant hubris.

Who the hell am I—a writer who has one television special to his credit (thank you, SomeTV!)—to say that these efforts are unworthy of attention?

For that matter, even if I were more routinely lauded and vastly more accomplished, it would not be my place to dictate what should be valued as Art.

And as an artist, as someone exploring my passions:

Dwelling on this topic is useless. More importantly, it is detrimental to me and the craft as I exercise it.

 

Remembering why

It would be naïve to suggest that trends in comedy and writing have no influence on my career as a writer, but honestly, my career is secondary to my writing; a beneficial side effect, if you will.

Comparing my efforts to those of others is therefore unimportant.

My only true comparator is what I wrote yesterday and any internal sense of whether I am getting better at making the points I wish to make, telling the stories I want to tell.

I write because I have something to say.

I write because I don’t know how not to.

I write because it brings me joy.

Certainly, part of understanding my craft is seeing how others approach the same challenges and opportunities I face.

Just as I must choose my path forward, so too must they theirs. Although I may not see the merits in their choices, they are doing what is right for them and I must honour that.

There is room enough for all of us.

 

Disclosure:

I own complete series collections of Get Smart and Hogan’s Heroes, which I appreciate others might consider as insipid as I do 2 Broke Girls.

 

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

The Last Word – a short story

library

(A writing exercise in which the first word was “shelf”.)

 

“Shelf seven.”

The words struck David’s ear drums like so many flies on a glue strip, their significance dying almost on contact.

“Did you want the catalogue code, too?”

The glue strips over-burdened, David’s head tilted to one side, involuntarily signalling his very real lack of comprehension.

“Sir?”

David’s irises shrank to pin points, his brain doing its best to pull focus back to the moment at hand. Emerald green flecks glinted in the near spotlight that bathed the librarian.

David fought not to shake his head in the hope of releasing the cob webs that had yet again taken hold of his brain. He wet his tongue, a dry mouth crusting his silence.

“Perhaps you could write that down for me,” he smiled at the eternally patient woman behind the counter.

Despite David’s complete lack of social graces, he was an easy patron for the woman. He knew exactly what book he was looking for, rather than simply presenting her with a laundry list of random words that only may have appeared in the book title or subject matter.

Slowly drawing a scrap of paper from a tidy stack, the woman dragged her pencil in tight arcs and lines. With each stroke, David was certain that he could hear the graphite crack and flake from the pencil’s tip until finally, the room went silent again.

Looking up, he caught the librarian’s eye, which crinkled as she slid the paper across the counter.

David smiled as he swiped the sheet and dissolved into the stacks, leaving behind a rapidly dissipating vapour trail of Old Spice and anxiety.

Moving swiftly down row after row, David had the sensation of being swept along by a rainbow-glittered tornado, the multicoloured book spines flashing by, muted here and there by cellophane wrappers designed to keep fingerprints and legibility at bay.

Despite his knowledge of perspective—a Grade 8 art class quickly coming to mind—the stacks seemed to narrow the further he journeyed into the bowels of the bibliographic beast. And all the air was drowned in the musty thoughts of insistent authors in cacophonic sensory overload.

David’s chameleon-like eyes worked in solitude, taking turns glancing from the dampening destiny sheet clutched between his fingers and the digital tattoos that graced the spines.

His left eye was first to light upon the congruence, a match that was shortly confirmed by his right eye. Binocular certitude.

This was the book.

Taking a deep calming breath that did little more than trigger a coughing spasm, David rubbed his hands against his trouser legs, only to realize he was smearing pulped paper onto his leg. The librarian’s note had given up the fight to remain whole under persistent perspiring assault.

Without being aware of his actions, David flipped the book’s pages through trembling fingers, eyes scanning for familiar references.

The red wagon on Bakersfield Hill.

The mustard-stained tuxedo on prom night.

The tow motor accident at the soda factory.

The surreal night at the library looking for a book available nowhere else.

It was all here, written in black sans-serif letters on egg-shell pages. So alien to see it captured on vellum and yet so familiar to a constantly refreshing memory.

Clearing his throat, David flipped ahead in the book, trying not to glance at the intervening pages, instead saving his energies for whatever he found on the last pages before the Appendix.

David smiled as he struck the back cover and realized there was no Appendix. He’d had emergency surgery shortly after his 21st birthday.

But the smile faded just as quickly as the memory as he peripherally espied the final words of the book to his left.

As though resisting a coiled spring, David turned his gaze upon the final paragraph, his temples literally throbbing with the rush of blood to his brain.

His eyes all but excised the first word. Then the second. Then the third.

Words became phrases. Phrases became sentences. Sentences revealed thoughts. That’s how writing worked.

The stacks rang with raucous laughter. Library patrons became meercats at the disturbing intrusive sound, unable to identify its source or direction.

They remained unaware that in the darkest corner of the library, a man had just learned how his life would end.

An ending, it turns out, that was pretty fucking funny.

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Standoff (a short story)

The Inquisitor

Too much a creature of urban comforts to ever be called a Nature lover, Henry nonetheless considered himself a Nature liker. And yet, as his eyeballs threatened to dry into powdery husks, he also recognized that Nature had a dark side. And today, that dark side came with bright red epaulets.

In an exchange that may only have been minutes, but felt like hours, Henry held the gaze of his ebon Inquisitor, afraid to look away lest the wraith take wing again, strafing him in violent indignation.

Moments earlier, Henry was taking a lovely stroll along the waterfront, leaving the breezes of the beach for the verdant comfort of the giant reeds and a secluded pond.

His soft-soled shoes barely whispered as he wound his way along the wooden deck that cut a swath across the still, algae-laden waters. Instead, his silent steps were accompanied by the cheerful chirrup of so many sparrows and the steady whine of cicadas complaining about the damp heat.

Merging waters

But as he reached the half-way point, he sensed a change even if he couldn’t yet identify it. The breeze died, the sparrows silenced and the cicadas stilled until all that remained was the low throb of his heart.

And as subtly as the stillness formed, it was macheted by an agonized screech that seemed to quite literally part Henry’s hair.

No sooner had Henry arced through his ducking motion than the demon struck again, piercing eardrum and scalp with equal vigour.

Terror’s impulse to flee was tempered by uncertainty’s steely grip as Henry found himself rooted in place. That something wanted to kill him, he was certain; but the complete absence of movement around him suggested it was all in his mind. His tingling scalp, however, said that whatever was happening was on his head, not in it.

Despite the glaring sunlight that baked the path, trickling tangy sweat into Henry’s fresh wounds, his pupils stretched to their anime widest, searching the chaotic tangle for the slightest signs of movement. He had no reason to believe his tormentor had given up, but all he saw was blue sky, brown tree limbs, green reeds and black water.

Yes, these had all taken on an ominous mantel, but nothing looked capable of launching an attack.

Even as Henry contemplated giving up his search, though, the air was pierced once more with an irritated cry. It was everything he had in him not to turtle.

And that’s when he saw it, the beast with the black eyes of death concealed behind a shroud of serrated alder leaves.

Hunkered down

The expressionless face bobbed lower and turned slightly to its left, determined to take in its quarry. Its oil-drop eye blended almost seamlessly with the void its plumage left in the sky, a puncture of midnight in the midday light. The only break in the evil blackness was a splash of blood red atop its shoulder.

“A bird?” Henry questioned silently, a blush threatening to overwhelm his budding sunburn.

Sloughing his tension like a skin, Henry rolled his shoulders to massage them. That was all the demon needed.

With blinding speed, the creature was upon him again. The flapping wings were matched by flailing arms as Henry swung at his attacker to no avail, his body instinctively twisting as the assailant passed.

It didn’t take Henry nearly as long to find the bird now, the monster standing proudly on an exposed limb, cackling his disdain upon his hapless victim.

“What is your problem?” Henry cried to the skies, briefly silencing the bird, which cocked its head a little further as though contemplating the question.

Henry unconsciously mirrored the action when it squawked back.

Annoyed, Henry turned to walk away but his motion was stopped by a shrill pierce. Spreading its wings, the bird quadrupled in size, a Rorschach nightmare.

As Henry relaxed his muscles, the bird drew in its wings. The stare down began.

Redwing on a reed

Unblinking, Henry met the bird’s gaze with his own, his every emotion reflected in that dead pool of emptiness, that glistening eye. A psychic vacuum, the bird seemed to reach into Henry’s body, threatening to engulf his soul.

Mired in a personal La Brea, Henry could feel his will slowly sink into the sulfurous malevolence. Only ego and will kept him from bowing to the inevitable.

“Look, momma,” a child’s voice squeaked through the tension. “Issa red-wing bla’ bird.”

Out of the corner of his eye, which otherwise remained glued to the bird, Henry could see a small boy trundle down the path, pointing wildly with one hand while waving a camera with the other.

More importantly, Henry saw that the bird caught the arrival as well.

Glimpse

Synchronized swimmers of the air, man and bird vaulted for the boy, whose mother remained several yards away, blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting her budding family.

Every wing beat was matched with a stride, every fluttered feather with airfoiled arm hair. And Henry knew his job was twice as difficult as the bird’s.

Not only did he have to stop the bird from harming the child, but he had to do it without knocking the kid into next Tuesday himself. But one thing at a time.

It is said that when the conditions are just right, you can stop the flight of one bullet with a perfectly timed second bullet.

Henry didn’t know if that was true. Nor did he really have the time to contemplate what conditions such a thing might require.

Pond

All Henry could tell you for certain was that once airborne, a red-winged blackbird is a thousand times more agile than a middle-aged man. That, and it takes about eight days to get the stench of stagnant pond water out of your nostrils.

He has no idea what happened to the kid.

Tuesday troubles

Passengers crowd the Brown Line train in the Loop at evening rush hour, Wednesday, July 16, 2008. The CTA plans to eliminate seats in some train cars to alleviate crowding. (Chicago Tribune photo by Alex Garcia) ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS,  NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT.. 00296065A TrainSeats

Edward didn’t expect much from his day as he rode the subway into work.

It was Tuesday. And as any actuary will tell you, Tuesdays are the least eventful work day in any given week. Edward would know. He too was an actuary.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Edward was not dissatisfied with Tuesdays, or any day of the week for that matter. He just didn’t expect much from it, and definitely less than from say a Monday or a Thursday.

Unbeknownst to Edward, however, today was unlike a typical Tuesday. Today, in fact, was a Tuesday that actuaries dread. The outlier. The anomaly. Today was the Tuesday that lurks in the dark crevices of an actuary’s heart.

Jessica hadn’t expected to leave the house so late this morning. But with Maria’s daycare shut down and Todd’s absence at a business conference, nothing was moving particularly smoothly for the young lawyer and suburban mother.

Vomiting herself from the commuter train as the doors inched open, Jessica practically crowd-surfed to get across the chaotic platform and into the stairwell to the subway system. Today was the Witkenstein proposal and although she herself was not presenting it, the command had been all-hands-on-deck in a show of force. Rare is the law firm that doesn’t like to demonstrate its cannon-fodder for clients.

Catching the smallest of slivers through the human maelstrom on the subway platform—her rail-thin form finally offering her some advantage in life—Jessica slid to the rail-side edge just as the string of cars came to a halt. Unfortunately, that same eel-like body structure meant that she was no match for the human surge that blew her through the subway doors and wedged her against a man of middling height, middling complexion and middling posture.

With a middling acknowledgement of her existence, Edward shifted his elbow slightly so that Jessica could grab the same pole to which he clutched for support in the shifting ebb and flow of transit.

Now, if pressed, Jessica would swear an oath that the box in which her travel mug arrived the previous Christmas promised that it was designed with the latest in anti-spill technology. She had even tested it at home several times, marveling at the results.

But as any actuary will tell you, the chances of a scalding burn from the spilling of hot beverages rises 342% when that beverage is being consumed on mass transit. Edward would know. He too was an actuary.

Now, whether the next event fulfilled that statistic or the numbers were slightly off, the simple reality was that the precise moment the subway took a turn in the tunnel was the same moment that Jessica had tried to reposition herself to lessen the strain on her crooked elbow.

This moment was followed shortly thereafter by another moment in which the incorrectly positioned lid of her travel mug became even more incorrectly positioned and her coffee evacuated itself onto Edward’s shirt.

mug stain

Jessica was horrified as she helplessly watched the taupe liquid spread across the stranger’s chest and cascade as a beige waterfall into his trousers.

As surprised as Edward was by the turn of events, a small part of his brain was also relieved that Jessica liked to use non-dairy creamer, which slightly helped to temper the scalding liquid.

“Bloody hell,” Edward bellowed, his pain sensors over-riding his public decorum filters.

“Oh my god, I am so sorry,” Jessica cried as she struggled through her bag to find that pocket Kleenex pack she had purchased just the day before.

As Edward fought to literally calm his nerves, Jessica did what she could to blot his formerly white shirt, unaware of her increased range of motion as a halo of space had formed around the two of them, everyone retreating from the mess.

“Are you okay?” she asked, genuinely concerned that he might need medical treatment.

Edward was too engrossed in the sensation of slightly sticky dampness that was now encasing his genitalia to answer right away.

Coming back to the moment and realizing that skin grafts were unnecessary, Edward simply raised a placating hand.

“No worries,” he offered with a smile. “Accidents happen.”

Edward would know. He was an actuary.

Jessica did her best to return his smile, but her embarrassment was still too great for her to be comfortable. She had little time to worry, however, as the subway pulled into her stop.

“Here’s my card,” she blurted, pressing her card and the remaining Kleenex into his hand. “Please send me your dry cleaning bill.”

Before Edward could tell her that her offer was kind but unnecessary, Jessica slipped out of the car with the crowd. His thoughts then shifted to making a quick stop at the department store between his subway stop and the office.

Jessica would have had a funny if embarrassing story to share with her husband later that night had the first of the meteors striking off Japan’s coast not started the cataclysm.

Regardless, the nuclear winter that started later that day taught Edward a valuable lesson.

Actuarial science gets it wrong some times. Tuesdays can be eventful.

meteor

The Drive (a short story)

grouchy

“Are we there, yet?”

The phrase that irritated me for the thousand times a week it bore into the back of my head now haunts me.

It had taken forever for me to convince the boys to leave their seat belts alone, to keep their hands from compressing the buttons that stood between confinement and filial battle. And more than once, I found myself wishing that rather than cross their laps, the belts crossed their mouths, stilling the staccato tarantella that skipped across my brain.

Silently, I would curse my husband for wanting children so close in age; built-in playmates, he would argue as though siblings were naturally adept at civility and sharing. Never marry someone who was an only child, I would remind myself; too many delusions of a happy peaceful family to dispel.

“Are we there, yet?”

The words and whine a cattle prod to my ear drums, my head involuntarily snapping to one side, threatening to glance off the door frame, the open window insufficient to drown the drone from the back seat.

“Are we—“

“Has the car stopped moving?” I’d shout at the rear-view mirror as though it was the source of my agony rather than simply a reflection of what I’d left behind.

For a second—a glorious second—the car would go silent, but the silence was an illusion, a prelude to crises yet to come. Inquisitive urges not quelled so much as turned aside, as unsatisfied attention-seeking demanded to be slaked.

“Mo-o-om!” came the high-pitched cry.

“I’m not doing anything,” its wounded echo, pre-emptorially defending actions yet unchallenged.

“Enough,” I charged, confronting the miniature offenders with turned head.

The light was green, or at least that’s what the report said, as though the colour protected me from my guilt any better than it protected my car from the panel van approaching from the left; as though an absence of fault even approximates an absence of self-loathing anguish.

The car was a write-off, and after six months of my husband’s words telling me it wasn’t my fault while his eyes told another story, so was my marriage.

And now, sitting here in my wheelchair, all I can think of is “Are we there, yet?”

woman-in-wheelchair

Snow drifting

(Image property of Duncan Rawlinson; http://duncan.co/tag/snowing/)

(Image property of Duncan Rawlinson; http://duncan.co/tag/snowing/)

From thousands of feet, the snowflake made its way from its misty nursery to a gentle caress of Henry’s cheek, slowly melting where ice meets the dampened skin to puddle with its fallen brethren.

Henry faces the sky, his back firmly planted in the snow bank, the drift slowly cocooning him as the crystalline waters descend, tears of boreal gods.

Flakes weave with the hairs of his beard, completing the whitening that age has yet left undone, his thinning scalp protected by the few remaining threads of a toque too old to be merely ancient.

Pedestrians trundle by, eyes held askew, muttering their disapproval as they bow their heads against the wind and cold. But he remains oblivious to their stares and sneers, in a world of his own, one with the thickening storm that swaddles him.

Henry doesn’t feel the cold they feel. He doesn’t feel the wind they fight. Nor does he feel the latex-gloved hands that lift him to the gurney as an unusually cold winter claims another life.

Sights unseen (a short story)

Invisible_1

The waitress strode by Jerome for the third time in less than 20 minutes, giving him nary a glance as she shifted another tray of plates and a pot of decaf coffee. Jerome watched her swoosh by, hoping to make eye contact but without any luck. It’s not even like the restaurant was busy.

But then, this is the way it was for Jerome, who was still getting used to being invisible.

Being invisible didn’t come naturally to Jerome. In fact, it was fair to say that he was struggling with the idea. There was a disconnect, you see, between how he saw the world and how the world saw him.

When he looked at his hands, he saw five fingers on each. His feet both had five toes. He had legs and arms, hips and shoulders, pretty much everything that every other person on the planet had. And yet, when other people looked at him…

Well, there it was.

Nobody ever looked at him. They didn’t know he was there. He was invisible.

Although the revelation had only come to him recently—partly the reason he had yet to wrap his head around the idea—it did begin to explain a lot of things.

Why people bumped into him on the Metro. Why teachers never called on him in school. Why his parents always ignored his questions. Why women never returned his smiles.

All of these things bothered him, even made him angry. Now, at least, he understood that it wasn’t personal. They simply didn’t know he was there.

Unconsciously, he raised his arm as the waitress blew past him before disappearing into the kitchen.

Personal or not, being unseeable could be irritating.

Jerome had wondered briefly if he wasn’t perhaps dead, a ghost wandering the streets. He’d seen a movie once about a guy who only ever spoke to a young boy and slowly realized that…

Outside the window at Jerome’s left elbow, a young woman appeared to be having a stroke. Well, in truth, she was staring right at him while applying lipstick, but her mouth movements were so exaggerated that he wouldn’t be surprised to learn her left side was completely frozen and her speech was slurred.

He pressed his nose to the glass. But for the glass, she could easily apply lipstick to his mouth, one way or another. But no.

He had dismissed the idea of death because the guy in the movie had a wife and a medical practice, neither of which he had. And besides, he didn’t know any young children, boys or girls.

“I’m not saying I want a relationship,” the woman at the next table said to her male companion. “But I don’t think we can ignore the fact that we slept together after the party.”

Jerome shook his head. You heard a lot of stories like this when you were invisible. People simply had no sense of privacy.

“And we had a great time,” the guy responded, gingerly placing his hand on hers, his body tensed to flee at the first sign of reciprocation. “But the fact that we work together complicates things.”

No matter how closely Jerome sat to the next table, no matter how obviously he ping-ponged between the speakers, the conversation never became more hushed. He heard every morbid detail, and no one seemed to care.

His attention to the burgeoning telenovela was distracted, however, by a furtive motion at another table. Several feet away, an old man in torn trousers and stained t-shirt palmed a tip left on an adjacent table.

That’s not kosher at any time, Jerome thought, but especially not a couple of weeks before Christmas.

Jerome wanted to say something but then the man used the funds to pay for his own coffee before snatching a ratty knapsack from the floor.

Was he homeless?

The waitress scooped the coins as she vaulted past Jerome with someone’s bill.

Grabbing his unopened book from the corner of the table, Jerome rose from his seat and fished through his pockets.

I don’t know why I even come here, he thought. Still, it didn’t seem right that the waitress should lose out simply so a homeless guy could keep warm.

From the far side of the restaurant, Tula watched Jerome drop a few coins on the table where the old man had stolen the tip. She smiled as she bookmarked the page she was reading, the melodrama at the next table making it too hard to concentrate.

She would have liked to have complimented the man on his beautiful gesture, but there wasn’t much point in even trying.

Tula, you see, had recently determined that she was invisible.