Don’t Tell, Don’t Show

I did something weird this week. (Yes, folks are thinking. You started to blog again.) I was on Facebook and I saw, not for the first time, this advertisement that advises me I could be a licensed social worker within a year. Now, I haven’t provided Facebook with very much personal information, but this is kinda dead-on. As are the ads about wrinkles and weight loss, but I digress. What’s weird about this ad, which appears again and again, is that the babies in the accompanying photographs are creepy. Nightmare creepy. There’s one with enormous cheeks; I called him Dizzy Gillespie at first, but decided he looks more like Augustus Gloop. And then there is the mummy, a sleeping infant wrapped in bandages, one small hand sticking out. But because of the photo’s perspective (I’m hoping), it appears that the baby is all torso and head. Then there was the iguana baby. I think the child is simply dressed in a fanciful knitted monkey’s outfit, but it looks more like a mutant, half-baby, half-lizard. I couldn’t stop staring at it. So after a bit of nattering on Facebook, I opened a Word file and began to write. In about five minutes, I had written 313 words, which I then posted to the FB notes section. I will post them in the comments here. Maybe. Now, as a sometimes teacher of writing, I’m a big believer in external prompts. They’re very freeing. They remind fiction writers that what would do is a form of play and that the imagination has muscle-like qualities. The more you work it, the stronger it will get. And almost every published short story I’ve written has begun with someone else’s thematic imperative: Cocaine, love, golf, various locations, poker, jazz, age, the “Twilight Zone.” But, as a sometimes teacher of writing, I’m also a big believer in never showing work unless it’s ready for critique. Now there’s a lot of room in that standard. This can be true from first draft all the way to galleys. (Once my book is published, I accept that people will review it, but prefer that friends and family pretend it’s perfect. Because, to paraphrase Berger, the wisest character ever to show up in Sex and the City*, “What am I supposed to do? Jump into my time machine and fix it?”) But if you ever find yourself showing your work simply to garner praise — don’t do it. I broke my own rule. I was showing off and that’s never a good thing. Nothing bad happened; quite the opposite. Facebook friends cheered me on. But writing wasn’t meant to be done in public, despite my fantasy about renting one of the stalls in the Cross Street Market and setting up there daily, with a tip jar and a sign that says: “Writer at Work.” And this has led me to think about fan-fic, the nature of which has been inalterably changed by the Internet, in part because it takes a once somewhat private past-time and allows it to become instantly accessible worldwide. Bear in mind, I wrote fan-fic, albeit back in the Bronze Age, when we just stabbed our words into stone tables. Now even pros are rushing their words to print at times, eager for . . . I’m not sure. Attention? Affirmation? Moolah? Some kind of instant gratification. The conversation about publishing has been framed (by some) as a battle between entrenched corporations and freewheeling individuals. As someone who is perceived as a “winner” in the status quo — and therefore presumably not open-minded about the changes afoot  – I’ve thought about this a lot. A lot. I think about the phrases people use — “Legacy publishing,” “indie writers,” “New York publishing.” I think about the now-established genre of the digital success stories, which are shaped like romances. The writer is a good person spurned by the cold, cruel wastrel known as Leg Pub, who can’t recognize the writer’s value until others do. In some stories, the writer then falls into the embrace of Leg Pub, who turns out to have a good heart. In others, the writer spurns Leg Pub and goes off into the sunset with the less-glamorous but steadfast lover. It’s sort of like Pretty in Pink, if Molly Ringwald ended up with Jon Cryer. (Which I think was the original ending.) Yay, she’s with Ducky! Wait — Yay, she’s with Ducky? The creative nature of what writers do makes it hard to keep feelings out of it. Is traditional publishing perfect? No. Is digital publishing the antidote? Only for some. Others are simply throwing in the towel too quickly, choosing instant gratification without stopping to wonder if the work is truly ready to be read. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I think instantaneous publication has more risks than rewards. When I was very young, I told my father I wanted to write a novel. He asked me what it was about and I told him, at great length. He then advised me never to “talk out” a novel again. I thought the lesson a little cruel — he set me up! — but it had its merits. “Talking out” a novel does deflate it, does undercut the discoveries made in writing it. Rushing words into a public forum does the same thing. Um, unless it’s blogging? Yes, exceptions for blogging and Twitter and Facebook and Television Without Pity. (Not that I’ve ever posted at the latter.) But keep the real writing under wraps until it’s ready. Later, I may come back to this post and get linky-linky. But I think part of what has kept this blog moribund is that I lost the running-and-gunning glee of the original Memory Project when it migrated to the website. I’m going to try to get that energy back. For now, I’ll post what I wrote yesterday in the comments section, but I won’t post the additional four hundred words I wrote last night, or any of the flashes of insight I had into the story yesterday, which I think I might pursue one day. (OK, I’ll tell you one thing: The main character’s name is Jena Cadiz, although that’s not her real name.) *Berger is the wisest person ever on SATC because a) he ran away from Carrie Bradshaw in the middle of the night and b) he then moved to Austin, ran through another toxic relationship, stole from his employer, gave the money back and got a job in construction.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Tell, Don’t Show

  1. Bathing was the first challenge. It would seem to be a fairly simple thing, not much different from learning to wash the genitals of a baby boy. After all, she did not have those parts, either, and had very little experience with them. But the tail was surprisingly sensitive and slippery, recoiling instinctively from water, the sponge. It was at bath time, in fact, that the oddness of the tail asserted itself. It was almost as if the tail wanted to separate from the boy, and not the other way around.

    “We used to remove them,” the doctor had told her when she was hired. “We assumed that if the tail was amputated early on, the child could be raised with no memory of it. That it was just a matter of nurture. The doctors who advocated gender re-assignment in the 20th century thought the same thing, so perhaps we should have known better.”

    “What happened?”

    The doctor paused as if judging her, deciding whether she could be trusted with certain information. But she had been subjected to a battery of tests before she was hired, tests that included brain wave scans as she was shown the most horrific images available, and she had been given the job.

    “They grew back and they were much more . . . problematic. They – they tried to strangle the children, in their sleep. It was as if the amputation convinced them that they were in an adversarial situation, that only one could survive. And it was a while before we understood what was happening. Some people said crib death at first. Then they thought it was a woman on the ward, trying to make it look like crib death. It was only after we installed the video monitors that we saw and – well, then we decided to try different approaches.”

    “Different approaches?”

    “It’s not important.”

  2. This is wonderfully helpful to me as a writer and as a writing teacher for framing my parallel thoughts about publishing, showing work in progress, the gratifications and risks of being published/being “published,” and the current endless conversation about traditional publishing and the migration to bits from atoms, all that.

    The story fragment is provocative and certainly makes me want to keep turning the page.

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