A Bus Ride to Say “I’m Alive”

I got on a bus at the corner of 33d and 7th. It was a big bus; red and black, with a white lightning bolt emblazoned on it. The message was clear: this bus was express, fast, and going places.

The driver, Miss King, was a black woman with frizzy hair and a wide smile. She was big, and as she walked down the aisle to use the bathroom before we started out, she asked people to excuse her. I guess she felt that squeezing her bulk through required an apology. It didn’t, really. She looked happy and comfortable the way she was. She shouldn’t have been apologizing to anybody. A man in his twenties wearing a red-and-black baseball cap (did he wear it to match the bus?) eyed her lasciviously when she passed by. They bantered for a bit, flirting casually.

The bus ride was long. Four hours and fifteen minutes. Not as long as a lot of the flights I’ve been on, but long enough. I slept for about forty minutes, but that’s it. Sleep and I aren’t the best of friends these days. I don’t know what happened between us. Maybe sleep was offended by me somehow? Personally, I feel hurt that sleep comes to visit so reluctantly and leaves so quickly after he arrives. Maybe we’re just playing a pride game now, neither one of us willing to apologize and make it up with the other because we each think that we’re not the ones to blame for this estrangement.

I thought that we saw Baltimore twice, but it was actually only once. The first time wasn’t really Baltimore. When we actually saw it, I was surprised because it looked exactly like I imagined it. There was a port that seemed to cover half the city with boxes and shipping-yard type stuff. The rest of the city was smoggy but beautiful.

Spring Break sounds like the name of a movie with drunk teenagers and naked blondes. Or maybe it’s a safety video about how to take care of trampolines. What spring break really is right now is a piece of family in Virginia, a road-trip, and a lot of homework.

I’m writing. I’m writing almost every day. When I don’t, I feel odd. A red Moleskine has become a new journal. It’s too conspicuous to be one, of course – it fairly screams “Open me!” – but I’m using it anyway. It’s important that I keep using pens. I never want to get to a point where I don’t love pen and paper anymore.

 

Story? Novel? Book?

So here’s a question for all my fellow writers out there: what do you call the projects you work on? I mean, if you’re writing something that’s novel length, do you call it a novel? Or a book? Do you label it?

My current project, the main one I’ve been working on for the past two months, is now way over 100,000 words, and is over 280 pages. know the point to which I want to get with my characters progress before I stop and begin the strenuous and, I assume, long process of editing, fact checking and making sure that everything makes sense and isn’t total crap. I accept the fact that it might well not be worth a damn once I’m finished and that maybe I’ll put it aside and begin something new. The idea doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. It’s okay to write things that stay in the closet and never leave, because they’re practice for those things that are good enough to show the world and be proud of.

Anyway, the point is that my story is in advance stages, more than halfway through – maybe even three-quarters of the way. I know that if I choose to keep it, there will be a sequel or a part two or something of the sort, because I’ve simply discovered so many things that my characters need to go through that I didn’t realize before. But I still call the whole thing, all 285 pages that I have so far,  a “story” because it is. It’s a story, there’s no doubt about that, but I feel that calling it a novel or a book is… well, somehow it’s as if I don’t deserve those titles for it yet.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve actually gotten to the point where I actually do consider myself a writer, because, well, I write! I write two hours a day, and I enjoy it. I love the feeling the words coming out of my mind and suddenly finding themselves on paper or screen, the little sounds that they keys make as my fingers fly across them on my tiny little laptop, my sturdy companion. I love the way the pen feels in my hand when I write in my journal. I love the feeling of knowing that I write every day, and I even love the frustration and anger and hate that I sometimes feel when I try to write and don’t manage to. It’s all part and parcel of being a writer (not yet an author, of course, but a writer) and I love it.

But how about you? Do you put labels on your work? Are you scared to do so like me, or are you bold and courageous and agree to say that your project is a novel or book-in-progress?

Faced with an Empty Page

Opening a new, white and pristine page can be one of two things. It’s either exciting, pulse-raising and inviting, or terrifying, threatening and off-putting.

It doesn’t matter what sort of page this is – it can be a new page in a much used notebook, the first page of an unopened one, or the electronic, virtual one that comes up in a writing program.

No matter what emotion arises when faced with a blank page, the demand that it throws is undeniable. A blank page craves to be filled, to be written upon with ink or to be full of coded letters.

There’s nothing worse than opening a new page and feeling the terror bubbling in your throat, the pressure building up behind your eyes, in the crevices of your very mind. The emptiness seems to call to the very soul, demanding in loud and certain tones what it needs. Sometimes, fear can lead the way into the second, better emotion. Once a page starts to fill up, the demand lessens, the pressure recedes, and bit by bit, the terror evaporates.

There’s nothing better than opening a new page and feeling the excitement bubbling in your stomach, the itch in your fingers as they long to start writing and the images that jump around your mind, urging you onward, ever onward, so that you can’t resist putting down your pen to the paper or your fingers to the keyboard and beginning to write. When the page fills up, bit by bit, a sense of pride in your own words filling up such a space is added to the other emotions, and it too spurs you onward.

Sometimes, when a page is full, it demands another page to be opened. It’s not finished yet, the emptiness of the next page tells you, you must continue.

Sometimes, when the page is full, it’s enough. The urge, the need and the drive all quiet in you, and you can look at the full page and know that you’ve completed something, even if it’s not finished, you’ve put something down on the page, and there it will stay.

Being faced with an empty page is an adventure, whether dream or nightmare.

A Leroy Excerpt

Leroy remembered only two things from his early childhood. Tony Boss-man has asked him about it once, to see how good his memory was. So he’d told him those two memories, like pearls in the rough and dirty shell he’d become, and he’d felt he was giving part of himself away. But then, the Boss-man always made everyone feel as if they were giving themselves away. That was part of the Boss-man’s power.

The first thing he remembered was eating cereal when he was about two years old. It had been a shabby house then, shabbier even than the next ones would be, but he had a corner that his mother had painted yellow, and his little mattress was there with his few toys. Inevitably, night after night, he’d sit in that corner and watch as his mom fought with his dad. It happened every day, as far as he could tell, and only years later did he figure out what his mom was doing and why his dad objected. The particular memory that he could see so clearly in his brain was different. It didn’t have drunken-dad and floozie-mama in it. It had been an afternoon alone, and he’d climbed up onto the counter in the kitchen with the aid of a stool, a chair and then a big heave with his puny arms. If nothing else, being inside had strengthened those skinny arms of his. No one can stay weak inside. If you do, you’ll get in trouble. But on that afternoon, he’d felt it was the biggest accomplishment of mankind that he’d gotten all the way on the counter. He’d opened the cupboards because his belly was rumbling – and there was something else, he was always hungry then, but of course he would be, why should his parents give a hoot over a two year old’s nutrition? He’d found a box of cornflakes in the cupboard, and he sat triumphantly on the counter with his small legs dangling daringly. He dug his tiny fist into the box and heaved out a handful of the dry little flakes. He put them in his lap and ate them slowly, one by one. One by one. That’s what the Boss-man always told him, too. Take ’em one by one, Leroy, taken ’em on one at a time and it won’t feel so big. As if the Boss-man, sitting in his office with his piggy little eyes knew anything about the streets.

The second memory Leroy had was from around the same age, he thought, and was just as vivid, although it had a more surreal quality to it. It was a night when Momma and Pop were settled, not fighting. They’d gone to their room for a while, and both came out smiling. Leroy remembered smiling, too, and reaching out with his arms to latch onto Pop’s leg. Momma lit a cigarette and gave it to Pop. The smell wasn’t the same as the one that already permeated the house. It was different. He’d gone over to his corner and taken a pen and stuck it into his mouth, pretending to pull something in and then blow something out. Momma and Pop laughed, so he did it again, and stood very straight with his arm bent sideways, the way Momma held her cigarettes. They laughed again, and this time Pop stooped down to him and gave him the burning roll-up in his hand. Leroy’d been afraid, but he wanted Pop to keep smiling so he took it but didn’t know what to do. Pop took it back and whispered to him that this wasn’t just that green stuff or brown stuff that your Momma has all the time. No, this was some fine quality heroine right here. So smoke up, boy, never too early to have some fun. Leroy, panicking, tried to bend his face away from the smoke that was so close, making his eyes tear up. Pop put it in his mouth and pinched his nose closed, so he’d had to inhale a bit of whatever it was Pop had. He went limp, and the last thought he remembered having before he passed out was that maybe Pop was making him a hero, he gave him hero smoke, maybe he’d be like Superman.

Leroy’d thought a lot about those memories when he was inside. When he worked out, he thought again and again about getting rid of his tiny arms, of those little things that had hauled him onto the counter. When he sat and muttered and made people think he was crazy, he wondered if that toke of heroine smoke – hero smoke, as if – had really made his wiring go wrong. Those memories had proved to Boss-man that he could do what was needed. That’s all that mattered in the end, really – Tony Boss-man approving you or not. He’d been approved and he was damn proud of it at the time. But the man – the gaping hole – the smell of gunpowder – and Tony, letting him take the fall. No, that didn’t sit well with Leroy, not one bit.

Going Soft and True

Leroy glanced down at his watch for what felt like the hundredth time. They were late. Very late. And he was out on a limb here, risking his ass for Mr. Tony Boss-man. As if the Boss-man ever did a day’s work in his life, sitting there on his throne of black leather on wheels, computer screen hiding half his face, playing at being all modern. Sure, he was modern. If modern was looking at dirty videos all day.

Patting his pockets, Leroy searched for his lighter. Realizing it was already in his hand, he drew his pack of Marlboro cigarettes from his jeans, shook one out, and lit it. He glanced at his watch again, breathing in the smoke as if it was much needed oxygen. They were so late, he thought again. He could feel the prickles on the nape of his neck; he was sweating so badly that his hair seemed to be leaking. There was no reason for them to be late. Not unless… But he wouldn’t go there. Not yet, not consciously.

Glancing at his watch yet again, he realized that this was the first time in a long damn while that he’d been up in the small hours of the night. He remembered the last time vividly now, as if it had been yesterday instead of eight years ago. He could almost smell the smoke from the barrel of the gun – but no, that’s the cig, he reminded himself – and could almost see the hole in that man’s chest. That was a long time ago now, and Leroy tried to forget it more often than not. Only right now, with them being late and all, it was getting hard to separate his quickened heartbeats from that other night when he’d felt them so strongly too.

He realized he was muttering under his breath and shut up quickly. It was a habit he’d picked up at the pen. Some banker who’d offed his business partner had told him that muttering made people stay away from you. Leroy’d started doing it one evening when one of the thugs seemed willing to come beat on him for some sport, and he’d found that the thug turned away pretty quick when Leroy didn’t respond to his taunting but just kept on muttering. The thug had made his dumb friends laugh by making fun of the crazy dude talking to himself, and that had been it. The habit of muttering had stuck. The Boss-man told him to cut it out, that it was freak-show quality stuff that would scare away his clients. Didn’t need the muttering, though, to scare them away. Since they were so late that Leroy just assumed that they weren’t coming.

Just as he took his last puff and was flicking the butt into the road, he caught sight of headlights coming towards him. That moment seemed to stretch into forever. Leroy saw the headlights, saw the flare of his cigarette hitting the ground, saw the man’s chest torn open eight years ago, saw the bars of his solitary confinement when he’d raged at first, saw the eight wasted years. He saw it all in that one instant, and instinctively turned and jumped over the railing of the highway into the adjacent field. He ran through it, the dew making the ground slippery and the plants moist. He slipped, fell, hands covered with mud where he caught himself in the wet earth. He stayed down, heart beating, and listened.

He heard the idling car. He heard voices, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. The blood was pumping so loudly in his ears that he felt that they must have turned into beacons of sound, broadcasting to all the crooks he’d ever known, telling them all that Leroy’d turned soft. That jail had reformed him. That Leroy wanted to clean up his act and never think of how another deal gone bad could turn into a gaping hole in a man’s chest.

He stayed down for a long time, long after the car had gone with the dealers in it. He lay in the damp earth until the sun rose, until the plants and ground around him seemed to start steaming. When the sun warmed the back of his still sweating neck, the warmth gave him goosebumps and shivered. The involuntary movement jarred him, and he finally managed to make his stiff limbs listen to his brain. He sat up, and stared around him. The field he was in looked nice, tended, except for the long path he’d made from the highway where all the plants were trampled, bent and broken. Like him, like Leroy the ex-crook, the ex-brave, the ex-badass.

There was a house a few hundreds yards away, at the end of the field. Leroy got to his feet, shaking, and took a good long look at it. He’d go there, ask about making amends for the ruined crops. Ask if he could work to pay for some food. Maybe if he’d prove he was strong and just as able as any man to work a long day in the sun, they’d let him stay for a while. Rent a room for his labor. That is, if there was anyone in there. With his luck, it’d be some old bag who hired illegals to work her fields, or some senile man with fifteen sons who did everything that needed to be done. But then again, maybe it’d be a husband and wife and a little boy who needed some extra hands to help get the harvest in proper. Leroy started towards the house, thinking that soon enough he’d find out.

Journaling?

My mom recently bought me a set of navy-blue Moleskine notebooks that I just couldn’t resist. They’re beautiful, and that’s exactly where the problem lies. I always feel my handwriting is inferior, and as I have an intense stationary/notebook/pen fetish, I’m always scared of ruining my pretty notebooks with my handwriting.

So here’s my plan. I’ll use one of the notebooks to write some favorite quotations in. I always find certain phrases in books that I absolutely love and then I never write them down as I should. So I’ll use a notebook to finally do this properly.

One notebook will be put aside for some other idea if I have one.

The third and final notebook is destined (maybe) to become a journal. Not a “Dear Diary” journal in which I write about my day, but rather a journal in which I answer a certain prompt or question and explore my memories or opinions about things. I was thinking of then posting photographs of the pages on here and expose you all to my handwriting! This is where I need advice, though. Do any of you know any journaling project where you get a prompt once a week or once a day or something? Does anyone want to start a journaling group? Or should I just take prompts from one of the various journaling websites and commit to writing one or two prompts a week?

Hmm.

Now

Right now. A moment that doesn’t mean much at all. There aren’t many moments that mean something specific or momentous. But right now I’m feeling. Just feeling something. Listening to the newest album of my very favorite band and savoring every note that goes through the headphones and into my ears. Looking at the little brown and black cardboard notebook in front of me and looking forward to picking up my perfectly-pointed black pen and writing in it, because it says the word “journal” on the front. Feeling the perfect and perfectly strange warm and cold winds flowing through the one open window in my dorm room and feeling that I’m perfectly dressed for both – tank top and long pajama-bottoms.

The music pierces my very core, feels like it’s flowing right into my brain. There is an atmosphere that surrounds me, an unclear one that simply points at a new type of normalcy that I’m not yet used to. The space is still too new for me to feel utterly at home in, but still, my bed in its new sheets and with the new duvet spread on it lies behind me, inviting and warm, a place that feels like my own little den.

There’s absolutely nothing special about this moment. But that’s the point. It’s just now.

Ho Hum Pen

‘Ho hum, ho hum,’
Went the little pen.
‘What shall I write for my mistress today?’
Went the little pen.

‘Shall I write a romantic ballad,
To break the hearts of all?
Or maybe a clever haiku,
That speaks of spring and fall?
Then again, mayhap an epic poem,
Of battle and love and loss,
And a little princess who waits in a tower,
With nothing to do but floss.

Perhaps a novel with chapters aplenty,
Should be my next project today!
Or instead, a political satire of those
Who promise, but then go out and play.’

So the pen mused for hours on end,
And could not make up his mind,
For he knew he would KNOW it
Whenever at last the perfect idea he’d find.

But just like every other day,
The pen gave up so soon,
Because a hand was now upon him,
And a voice too, begging a boon.
‘Oh write with me, please,
My dearest of pens.
We’ll create and muse,
And let us be friends!’

So just like every day,
The poor pen – he gave in,
And in the hand of his mistress,
He wrote, and he grinned.

Can you say ‘lack of structure’? I know it doesn’t flow all that well, but it’s late, and I’m tired, and darn it, I wanted to write a poem about a pen!