The Lonely Calculus

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On Thanksgiving Day, I fantasized about calling the suicide prevention hotline. I didn’t really want to kill myself; I just wanted someone to talk to. I thought about that: someone you can just call. I imagined their voice on the other side of the line, a friendly woman’s. Someone robust, grounded, like the mother of a clan of rowdy kids, overweight and earthy. “Hello?” I would say kind of cautiously.

“What’s your name?” the voice would ask, opening up with indestructible, caring warmth.

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Like A Boss

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It took me a minute to find him because of all the loud music and the angry hostility with which both men and women glared at me as I pushed through the dance floor to reach the table.

“Casper here is a flight instructor,” Dom introduced me, standing up as I walked over. He looked awkward getting up from the stool, his belly hanging over his dark pants, protruding against the buttons of his suit. It looked like there was sweat gathering at the spindly junctures of his mustache and goatee from the effort. I shook his hand concernedly.

“Ah, another protege?” asked the man sitting with him. “Looking to consistently pull more beautiful women? A new master for our method?” Continue reading

An Unworn Pair

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Franklin was intent on dating someone who offered him no conveniences. He looked down on his friends who dated women that cut their hair very stylishly for free, or cooked gourmet meals. Likewise, he looked down on his friends who dated men that did their oil changes or helped pay their student loans. He wanted no pragmatic advantages. He saw them as sellout compromises, reminiscent of the comforts that keep older unhappy couples from divorcing – once they thought of all the hassle, the little bits of laziness they would surrender. He wanted no ignoble and petty considerations like that in his calculations of freedom or commitment. Continue reading

Keeps No Record of Wrongs: A Valentine’s Day Story

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When Callista started dating Colin Raffaeli, I had to break them up.

You have to understand how terrible Colin Raffaeli is. Imagine Colin Raffaeli pulling up with his friends in his gigantic off-roading pickup with those monster truck tires I’ve never even seen at a dealership (where do you get monster truck tires?), Lil Wayne blaring at that bass level that’s so distorted you hear the car vibrating more than any music.

I didn’t have to imagine because I was watching the driveway from behind the French blinds in the front sitting room by the foyer, under our track lighting. Colin Raffaeli was wearing a big white Abercrombie polo and big khaki cargo shorts and big brown flapping flip-flops. You could almost smell the body-spray on him.

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All the Small Things

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Some people like to start conversations with “What would happen if.” What would happen if there was a black-ops team that hired out to help you get actual closure after a relationship by erasing all traces of the ex’s existence? What would happen if the guy who invented that “A train leaves Chicago at” math problem was upset that he never received adequate compensation? What would happen if you secretly won a big cash prize in a box of Frosted Flakes when you were 10 but your parents were staunchly opposed to sugar cereal– you get the idea. 

For most people, these become a running gag of conversation with the kind of friends who tolerate that sort of thing. For author B.J. Novak, famous from his work as actor and producer on The Office, they became a book of stories: One More Thing. The question is, is it any good?
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The People You Meet

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“That’s so true,” she said.

I looked up from my Maki roll. “What is?”

She showed to me her phone, on which was a picture of fuzzy stock-art of two hands clasping over a candle with a quotation in intricate white Gothic-font text on top: “Life Truth #754: When The People Most Important In Your Life Are The Ones You Didn’t Expect.”

I said, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”

She looked surprised. “No, it’s not,” she said.

“You’re implying there’s something unusual or special about people you care about – I assume you’re thinking a best friend or a boyfriend – that it’s somehow a unique magical thing that you didn’t expect to meet them or expect them to become important to you?”

“It’s true for me.”

“No, it’s categorically true. That’s why it’s stupid to say. Like if you say, ‘Isn’t it crazy that when I lose something it’s always in the last place I look?’ Because then you didn’t look anymore.”

She had this wide-eyed expression. “Ohhhh-kayyyy,” she said, drawing it out like you would for an accosting hobo. Continue reading

Rigid Rules for Writer Originality

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The one valuable part of the Northwestern Summer Writers Conference I went to last year was a class on creative writing structure. The instructor brought to us forms and techniques from screenwriting, well-known building blocks of stories like Three-Act Structure, and The Hero’s Journey, which underlie great tales from Homer’s Odyssey to Pulp Fiction. Learning these structures was like the day someone finally tells you how sex works: you’ve seen all the parts before, and you’ve seen the results, but oh, so that’s how it works.

Since then, I’ve read my way through Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler and the essays of literary critics from Mythological / Jungian schools and Reader-Response schools and if you want to write stories, you should too. 

A few months ago, I re-read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and again I was fascinated by how the way the story is written sucks you in and keeps you reading. Ender’s Game is a great book but it’s not a Great Book, and I don’t mean that in the snooty or academic sense: Slaughterhouse Five and Fahrenheit 451 are Great Books, and they have time travel and aliens and robot dogs, in different degrees. Continue reading