Walking the Dog is a Good Thing For a Writer To Do

One complaint I frequently hear in writing critique groups is that the writer is “walking the dog.” This describes the writer who leads the reader step by step through a scene sequence, often subjecting the reader to tedious monotony. Many times, this is a fair critique. Beginning writers often struggle with ending scenes and transitioning to new ones, so they drag the reader through a play-by-play of minuscule events to tie scenes together.

While this error can easily be fixed, I find the remedy offered by many critics to be just as harmful. Many people will advise the writer to “get to the action” or to “stop walking the dog.” For example, they might say, “We don’t need to know that Jane got out of bed, got a glass of water, took a shower, dried her hair, painted her toenails, got dressed, and made herself a cup of coffee before jumping in the car and going on her way to uncover a terrorist cell in Boston.”

This laundry list of actions is not effective writing, but I would resist the advice to avoid walking the dog, because walking the dog is so fundamental to composing a good scene. That’s not to say as a writer, you should list everything that happened like a diary entry. Rather, be mindful of the things that happen while walking the dog. What does this particular character see on the walk? What important things do they fail to see? Walking the dog allows the characters to interact with their world in a meaningful way.

Perhaps Jane woke up an hour late, her bedsheets stained with fluorescent ink because she fell asleep with an open highlighter and her notebook on her lap. Perhaps when Jane goes to the bathroom, she sees her husband’s clothes strewn over the floor, a quarter-filled coffee mug balancing on the edge of the bathtub, a pile of books and notepads on the bathroom counter. Perhaps as she paints her toenails, she winces at the sight of her ugly, misaligned pinky-toe that she broke while cliff-diving off the coast of Spain the previous year. In the kitchen, she sees the cereal bowl her husband left on the table, the sugary remnants of the cereal flakes caked onto the ceramic. Frustrated, she puts the bowl in the sink to soak it, but at least her husband has made a pot of coffee. Perhaps when she gets to the car, she realizes her husband has filled the gas tank for her.

By filling in these details, the writer is offering setting and characterization in an efficient, elegant way. We get the sense that Jane is adventurous and that her husband is a slob. But we also see that he’s not purposefully inconsiderate, since he’s filled her car with gas. Of course, this example is paired down to its bare bones, but you can see how the reader can learn a lot about characters and their personalities without the writer having to waste a paragraph telling us that Jane’s husband is a slob or that she likes to seek out adventure.

Write a lot of these scenes, or at least go through them slowly in your head, imagining the world though your character’s eyes. I would argue, the subtle emotional responses a character has in the small scenes are more meaningful than the obvious and predictable emotional responses in the big scenes. We know a character will be angry when they’re betrayed by a friend, or sad when their beloved father dies, or afraid when a menacing stranger pulls a knife on them. Beginning writers often reserve detailed description of emotions for these scenes and fall back on clichés. His blood boiled. Tears welled up in his eyes. Her heart thumped. What has happened, is the writer has failed to build up an emotional cache with the character. However, if the reader is already intimate with the character, in the momentous scenes, they’ll already feel what the character is feeling without the writer having to tell them.

The secret to good writing is to be acutely aware of everything. Go out and walk the dog! Stretch yourself to see the world in a different way and have an empathic response for all of your characters, no matter how good or evil they may be. Get it all down on paper. The redundant details can later be excised from the manuscript, but it’s so important to go through the process. This isn’t just advice for writers of literary or upmarket fiction. This is true for all writers. It’s the basis of great storytelling.

walkingdog

 

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The Point

Trey’s head is hot and his feet hurt. His toes are wet and mushed together in his shoe, stinging where the blister has ripped loose on his left big toe. He’s afraid of changing out of his socks, soaked with three hours of sweat, because if he removes them he might rip away the puffy shell of blistered skin that’s delicately hanging on, the last line of defense protecting the raw skin beneath. Trey bounces the tennis ball three times. He catches it and holds it against his racket for a moment before he serves. He’s one point away from winning the Boys 18 and Under division at the Southern Open. He wants it to be over.

He considers going for a big serve and ending the match with an ace. Nagging voices inside his head persuade him to reconsider. Coach: Why go for the lowest percentage serve on the biggest point of your life? Mom: This is what we’ve been talking about. You can’t lose your focus on big points. Dad: What was going on inside your head? Mom: At least you learned something from your mistake. Dad: He never seems to learn. Coach: Eliminate thinking errors. Mom: Why do you complicate things, Trey? Coach: Keep your thoughts simple.

Standing just outside the fence with his arms folded across his chest, his coach hides his facial expressions in the shadow cast by the large straw hat atop his head. Trey’s parents are seated on a Carnival Cruise beach towel draped over a row of the aluminum bleachers on the side of the court. Trey didn’t go on that cruise. He was training for this tournament, for this moment, a moment that has left him confounded.

It’s his right quadriceps, which has been twitching, ready to seize up on him with a painful cramp, that convinces him to hit a safe, energy efficient spin serve to his opponent’s backhand. Just get the point started.

His opponent blocks the return back to Trey’s side of the court. Trey jerks his racket back and scrambles into position. His swing is no longer fluid but is now a disjointed abbreviation of the looping stroke he and his coach have been working on for the past four months in their weekly lessons. At least he strikes the ball cleanly, sending it safely across the net to the middle of the court.

Every point has been like this for the last thirty minutes. Neither player aggressive. Both terrified of making a mistake because an error would mean precious energy had been wasted, and after three hours of slugging balls back and forth, neither of them has energy to spare. Trey is aware of the obvious paradox. Because he and his opponent are playing safe, the points have become much longer and more grueling, but both still refuse to take a chance with an aggressive shot. It has become more of a demonstration of will power than skill. Trey hopes his opponent will take a rip at the ball and put an end to this torture. In the meantime, they continue lofting heavy topspin forehands, each shot comfortably clearing the net by several feet.

Trey has never made it this far in the tournament. The finals. His parents and coaches have long insisted that his game is there, telling him that he should be making it to the finals and winning tournaments. He’s not sure if this assertion is meant to be an encouragement of his abilities or an indictment on his failures. His mom has told him it’s just a mental thing. You have to want it. He doesn’t want it. He just doesn’t want to lose. He doesn’t want to come close, tease his parents with success only to fall short yet again. All the money they’ve spent. Lessons, clinics, hotels, rackets, strings, shoes…

All that he wants, all that he deep down really wants, is for this third set tiebreaker to be over so he can retreat to the bench and hide his burning face in the little rectangle of shade from the lamp head hanging high over the court. But right now he’s fighting harder than he’s ever fought for something he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want to lose.

In the humidity the ball has become shaggy and heavy, its black print nearly worn off. He watches it spinning at him through the air, a giant, yellow furball. He considers the color and texture of this ball so carefully that it becomes a blur. His next shot shanks off the frame of his racket, sending a painful jolt through his tired arm. He hears his mom gasp in disgust, or at least he senses it.

The ball zig-zags in the air like a knuckleball. It’s headed beyond the baseline. The score will be even again. All this effort will have been wasted and instead of walking away the champion, now he’ll have to win two more points in a row to win. He’s not sure if he wants to go through this again.

Somehow—maybe a gust of wind—the ball changes trajectory and falls straight down, clipping the baseline. Trey can tell his opponent wants to call the ball out, but the shot is too slow. All six people standing outside the court have a clear view of the line and  know the ball landed in. It’s not a good opportunity to cheat. Still, Trey expects his opponent’s index finger to shoot up in the air, indicating a call of out. A shot that ugly should have gone out. As his opponent stumbles backward to make a last second recovery, his left hand rises into the air ambiguously. Instead of extending his finger, he launches a high, defensive forehand back towards Trey.

In a way, Trey actually regrets that his opponent had not called the ball out. It would have released all the tension, relieved all the pressure. Sure, he would have dropped his racket on the ground, clasped the top of his skull in disbelief, and charged the net yelling, “No way! That was so in.” Because there are no line judges on the court, there wouldn’t be anything he could do to reverse the call, and Trey would look back to the sidelines at his parents who would share in his anger, his dad probably muttering something about what a big cheater the other boy was. But it would have been a relief, this outcome. A win-win. If he had ended up losing, he’d have an excuse, an asterisk next to his opponent’s victory. Trey would have the moral high ground. His opponent only won because he had cheated, he’d tell people. And he would believe it and sleep easier at night knowing this. But the bastard called it in. The point continues.

Trey is even more careful now, his shots landing shorter in the court while his opponent has gone on the attack. He senses his opponent is frustrated, anxious. Trey would be too if he were him. The point should have been over after that horrible mishit. Perhaps pressure has been relieved on the other side of the court. Now, if his opponent should lose the match, he could claim that Trey had only won because he’d been lucky. That’s one thing Trey has learned. Rarely are there both winners and losers in tennis. Mostly, it seems, there are those who won and those who claim they should have won. Defeat is difficult to accept and those who do toil at the bottom of the rankings until they’re so discouraged by their lack of achievement they eventually give up.

Out of the corner of his eye, Trey sees his opponent’s parents shaking their heads, gesturing with their hands, and mouthing over and over, “That was out.” They actually want to believe that Trey’s ball had been out. They had wanted their son to cheat, and they would have accepted it. Wow.

Trey is now sprinting from corner to corner, chasing down balls, trying to hit at least one defensive shot good enough so that the attack stops. He finally hits his first decent shot in the last thirty minutes, a sharp crosscourt forehand that sends his opponent scurrying towards the sideline. The shot has taken just about everything out of Trey. If his opponent hits it back, he’s done.

His opponent does get it back, a slow, loopy shot down the line to Trey’s backhand, just enough within reach that Trey has to waddle over to it. This is it. He attempts an ill-advised, poorly executed drop shot that lands barely over the net but bounces too high, giving his opponent ample time to retrieve it. His opponent races to the net and drives a backhand into the opposite corner. Trey doesn’t make a move towards it. The ball lands squarely on the sideline. In. Trey puts up his left finger and says, “out.” It’s over. He’s won.

The Death of An Artist (part II)

An Interview with Chance Casper

II

 casper

            It’s 2:30 a.m. and the diner is so packed we have to wait to be seated.  A large painting hangs in the foyer.  I know it well because it was the cover of Chance’s first album, Arcade Plush.  The subject seems innocent enough, though quirky—stuffed animals jammed inside an arcade plush machine—but something about the scene is disturbing.   Maybe it’s the slightly askew perspective that seems to suggest it’s worth no more than a passing glance.  But I think it’s the dire situation of the stuffed animals that makes me feel queasy.  I didn’t notice it in the glossy, diluted form that I’m more familiar with, but in this one, I can see the bulging eyes of the animals are pleading, not so much with a “pick me, pick me!” anticipation but more of a sullen, please-get-me-the-hell-out-of-here look you’d find on a crusted-lipped, starving child in some far-off, impoverished area of the world.  And then the bodies of the animals aren’t light and fluffy but instead seem weighty and imposing as if they share a common purpose to crush and disfigure each other—a giraffe’s neck in the stranglehold of a purple elephant’s tusk; a unicorn’s head positioned between a monkey’s legs, putting an unsuspecting velveteen bunny in the immediate foreground in a precarious position.  The overhead grappling, grab-o-matic prongs seem so spindly and useless that they don’t even earn a glance from the animals, as if they know better than to expect help from above.

Chance turns down the first two available tables to get the booth he wants.  He recognizes a waitress.  He points her out to me and says, “Those eyes are like a bass groove that you can’t get out of your head and will creep up on you in some pretty random moments.”  And then I realize why he came here.

Those eyes belong to Mazie Allen, and when she sees him, she quickly approaches.  “Stanley Goldstein!”

He doesn’t stand, forcing her to stoop to hug him.  “I’m still Chance Casper until I leave this place,” he says.

“I heard you were in town.  I would’ve come to the show if I could’ve gotten off work.  It’s our busy time.  Four days till Christmas.  How was it?”

“Same.  Automatic for the last five years.  You know, this was our last—”

“Hold that thought.  We’ll catch up when things die down in here a bit,” she says.

She rushes away to check on other customers.

“She used to come to all of our gigs,” Chance tells me.  “She bought into the myth of rock ‘n’ roll glory, thinking that just a taste of that counter-culture elixir might free her to some kind of deeper illumination.  Imagination freed is illumination achieved, I’d tell her.  Girls will believe anything you tell them as long as it’s blended with the right mix of poetry and booze.  She was a good lay.”

I’ve never known Chance to talk this way.  This isn’t how he was back when he was Stanley and we were a couple of college students with crazy perspectives of the world.  There’s some bitterness and resentment built up inside of him.  He won’t stop talking about Mazie; I realize she was something more.

“You know, she did the art to our first album cover.  That one out front.  That got her art more exposure to the world than she would have ever gotten doing anything on her own.  She was an artist, self-taught, but a total hack.  The problem with her was that she was blind to original perspectives.  She spent all of her time going over the masters trying to copy their techniques and producing half-witted composites always a shade off.  Guess it’s no surprise she’s waitressing now.”

“So she was more than just your average groupie.”

“The ultimate road warrior, you know.  She had the enthusiasm of a religious disciple.  My parents hated her.”

I ask him how he felt about her.  Really.

He responds with several minutes of silence.  “I loved her.  And then she left—hitched a ride and came home to Fargo.  My mom knew about it before I did.  How the hell does that happen?  They hated each other.  Women don’t get it, but they bond in their confusion.  They have this notion of how things should be, and if things don’t fall between those two narrow lines, shit, everything falls apart.  Everyone gets bored traveling down the same highway, and women, they just freak out if you detour for some sightseeing.  And most people have to create this illusion that even though we’re bouncing off the walls, we’re somehow staying within the lines.  Not me.  I put it out there like it is.  I am about truth.  If people can’t handle it, they don’t belong in my life.”

Out of the original band, only Simon (the drummer passed out with his head on a bongo) and Chance remain.  I ask him about the rest of the original band.  He knows I’m asking specifically about Sal, the guitarist who many considered the life of the band, the one with the flare and million-dollar smile.

“After nine years of jamming with us he got amped on the fantasy that if you got married and went to school to get a business degree and had a life where you work inside an accounting office punching numbers into a computer and pressing compute and then turning it into your boss with a big juvenile grin on your face like you want a gold star or something but really you’re just begging for money like any guy on the street, that somehow that would make you happy.  And he took that route.  You know what happened to him?  He got married.  He got his job.  He got a promotion.  He got fired.  He got divorced.  Now he’s living in a shack up in Portland and working in a bookstore.  And the only reason I know this is because he randomly Facebooked me and sent a message that said, ‘Hey man, you still playing in a band?  I wanna get back.’  Fuck that.  We’d moved on.”

“So how do you really feel about him?” I ask.

He laughs.  “He’s probably happier than me.”

The crowd finally thins.  As cars back out, their lights cast a diffused glow through the snowfall.  Mazie returns and chooses my side of the booth, forcing me to scoot over.

“So how long ya’ in Fargo?” she asks him.

“Plane leaves tomorrow night.”

“Headed?”

“I dunno.  Boston.”

“That’s nice.  Visit the folks for the Christmas holidays.  How are they?”

“Hey listen,” I say.  “You think I could crash at your place?  I left the keys to the van with Simon.”

“Ah, Simon.  How is the little drummer boy?”

“Still a sucker for love but keeps a steady beat.”

“That guy.  He hardly says a word but gets any girl he wants.”

Chance puts his hand on the table and his fingers do the same unconscious crawl across the surface that I’ve seen many other musicians do—the body never relenting in its desire to make music—but here I feel like his fingers are doing a courtly dance, hoping that she might make contact with them.  “He didn’t get you,” he points out.

“He didn’t want me.”

“So listen, about the place to stay.  You think I could crash at your place?  I don’t mind waiting until you get off.”

The smile she gives him in response looks motherly.  “Stanley, I’m married.”

“What?”

“I’ve been married for five years now.”

“But online you’re listed as Mazie Allen.”

“The miracle of Facebook.  Is that how you found out I’m working here?”

Chance takes a slow sip of coffee in response.  “I’m not stalking you.  You can turn around and walk away, and I won’t follow.”

“I kept my name because I had a following…with my artwork.”

“You still doin’ that stuff?  Why are you working here then?”

“Aw, come on.  You know how it is with art, never knowing when the paychecks will come.  This gives me a steady income and it gets me out of the studio to draw on some real-life inspiration.”

“What does he do?”

“Who?”

“The guy.  The one you married.”

“Well, he’s in music, too.”

“In a band?”

“Kinda.”

“What band?”

“Actually, he’s the band director at the high school.”

He bellows out in laughter.  “What a pathetic, pointless job.”

She clenches her teeth.  “He’s spreading the joy of music to ordinary people.”

“Band students are not ordinary people.  They’re just pimpled kids too awkward to do sports, too dull to do theater, and too tone deaf to sing.  So you give these kids a hunk of metal to blow into and just pray to God they don’t bop someone on the head and hurt ‘em.”

“He’s—“

He covers his ears.  “You don’t have to say anymore.  I’m already insulted.  You have kids?”

“No.”

He sighs in satisfaction.  “I miss you,” he says.

“Ok,” she says before disappearing into the kitchen.  There are only a few customers in the diner now, but we don’t see her for another twenty minutes before Chance waves down the manager and asks him to track down our waitress.  She comes back to our table with her notepad covering her eyes.

“Look Mazie, I’m sorry.  Sometimes I come across as brash and tactless.  That’s Chance Casper talking.”

“You can’t hide behind a name.  You weren’t suddenly reborn as Chance Casper.  The same old Stanley Goldstein lies behind those eyes.  A new name and a fresh shave don’t give you a clean slate.”

“Look, I haven’t slept well in days, and I’m feeling emotional now, thinking this might be my last time in Fargo.  You know, this was our last show tonight.”

“And you picked Fargo of all places.”  She places her hand over her heart.  “On behalf of the citizens of Fargo, I’m honored you chose our city to be your final resting spot.”

He makes no secret that he’s livid, and I feel caught between an ex-lovers’ quarrel, a witness to his self-annihilation.

She lays her notepad on the table.  “I’m sorry I missed it.  Really.  How was it?  Did you play The Well?

“No.”

“Really?  That was my favorite.”

“Mazie, it was pretentious crap.”

“Oh my God, how can you say that!  ‘Your perception is in the angle of the reflection that meets your eye.’   I love that line.”

For Once then Something.  Robert Frost.  You showed me that poem.  All I did was twist his language around a bit.”

“Under the surface is a glimpse of something—maybe nothing—but it bends your mind.”

            “Stop!” he snaps.

“What do you have against your early stuff?” she asks.

“Because it wasn’t me.  And you should have been able to tell that the chord progression of The Well followed the one in the old tango we used to listen toYou remember the one, Por Eso Me Siento Mal, from our Buenos Aires days?”

The Well basically consists of a bass hook and a whiney keyboard that repeat endlessly until the chorus that is nothing but “Ohs.”  It was his only commercial hit, but it came at a price.  People wanted more of that hooky pop.  Chance didn’t want any part of it.

She stares back towards the kitchen as if searching for some impending crisis.  “I didn’t know any better.  But I still love those songs from your first album.”

“I could’ve written a thousand tunes like that and retired with a mansion in The Hills.”

“Why didn’t you?  Nobody needs to know how you came up with the songs, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care.”

“I care.  And I didn’t do this just for the money.  That first album was to get us in the mix.  Mindless ear candy for the masses and the musically ignorant.  All artists have to sell out a little to pay the bills.  After that, it was all about the music.  I had to break free from the template of the past.  You’ll never understand.  Most people don’t get my music, and I can’t help that.  It’s the price you pay for originality and freedom.  I had no fear.  I could write rockin’ rhythms, stilted rhythms, 5/4, 7/8 time, tk-a-boom-boom-chahh.  I could layer melodic lines with slowly diverging contrapuntal phrases and make atonal beauty.  Pure originality is hard to appreciate.”

She drops her head and speaks mostly to her Adidas.  “There’s no such thing as pure originality.  You can’t escape the past.  It hangs on.”

“I broke free.”

“It hangs on to us.  Being interesting to yourself doesn’t make you anything.  Art doesn’t exist without people to share it with.  All that matters is how you affect people.”

“My music will be important.  If no one clears the table and starts over, how does anything change?  We’ll go on recycling old tunes until creativity is sucked right out of our consciousness.  That’s why I threw it all out there.  Each song contains a little bit of everything.  If you could just understand—”

“I don’t, Chance.  You can’t suddenly decide to redefine music.”

“Why not?  Sounds have no inherent meanings.  Music needs no bounds because it recreates life, and life is not contained within an octave, and it doesn’t follow a particular scale or stay within a dynamic range, so why should music?”  He’s almost out of breath.  “I know you’ll argue—”

“I’m not—”

“—each song is just a moment, like one of your little paintings, but within one moment can’t a man be helplessly in love, stricken with jealousy, mad with rage, slightly wistful…soundly defeated?”

“I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“I was speaking hypothetically.”  He gathers his breath.  “Look, I’m only here for a short time.  My plane leaves late tomorrow night. You wanna go do something?”

“Again.  Married.”

“He won’t let you have friends?”

“He’d be fine with it.  I’m the one who’d have the problem.”

Chance looks like he’s about to choke.  “You really hate me that much, don’t you.”

She glares at him.

Several inebriated Santas stagger into the diner and slump into a corner booth.  They’re all too young and too hardened to be convincing.  They each have their Santa hats on, but they’ve unstuffed their bellies and pulled their beards under their chins making them look a little Amish except for their obvious disdain for their seasonal job.  It’s a short-term gig, the Santa thing—two weeks tops—but their caffeine-craved faces are more than a pair of rosy cheeks from being jolly.  One of them passes by us on the way to the bathroom and glances in our direction, which I’m sure Chance will misinterpret as recognition.

“I don’t hate you,” Mazie says.

“Maybe the three of us could do something,” he says.  “I’ve gotta meet the guy.”

“And what?  You and I would reminisce about the past?”

“I thought you’re the one who loves the past.”

She picks up her notepad and jots something down.

He tries get a look at what she’s writing but she conceals it against her chest.  “What did you write?” he asks.

“Don’t want to forget what you said, so I wrote it down.”

He grabs her arm, but she pulls away fiercely.  “Read me what you wrote.”

She runs her fingers over the words a few times before she reads them aloud.  “Eggs.  Toast.  Bacon.  Make you fat.  Anything else?”

“More time with you.”

She shakes her head in disgust.  “What world do you live in?”

“Well, you and I are talking here.  How does that fit with your enlightened morality?”

“You’re my customer.”

“In that case, have you ever thought about investing in gold?  It’s the safest investment in these financially uncertain times.  Come be a customer of Goldstein and I’ll tell you all about it.  Lunch at noon?”

“No.”

“Two?”

“No.”

“Four?”

She turns to walk away.  “Do-I-take-that-chance,” she repeats like a mantra as she laughs and shakes her head.

He finally acknowledges my existence again and asks me, “What did she mean by that?  ‘Do I take that chance?’  Or did she mean ‘Do I take that Chance?’  Or ‘Do I take that, Chance?’  I swear to God, I really need a middle man to explain her little riddle that’s probably nothing more than just a joke, but it makes me feel small.”

The santa passes us on his way back to his table and laughs.  He’s caught the tail end of Mazie’s performance.  Chance threaten him with a spoon as the santa joins his friends.  “Do you know who I am!” he calls out.  Every head turns to look at Chance, but the one he’s concerned with doesn’t flinch. She continues on her path and disappears again into the kitchen.   She doesn’t return.

III

 

            We’re stuck at the airport the next night since all the evening flights have been delayed until morning.  I’m accompanying Chance back to Boston.  I have family I need to see there, too.  The sun eventually rises and we’re allowed on the plane along with other weary-eyed passengers bundled up in scarves and coats.  My first attempt at doing an interview was a complete failure.  A wasted flight for an unpublishable piece.  I find my seat and immediately check out the on-flight music selection.  There he is.  At least one of his albums made it—his first one, Arcade Plush.  As we ascend into the white sky, I can see the virginal snow expanding across the land until it merges at the horizon with the stratus clouds.  There is so much beauty on that vast, frosty canvass.  Whiteness closes in until I can no longer see the wings.  When exactly that happened, I’m not really sure.  It’s a thousand miles to where we’re going, but I won’t be sleeping anytime soon.


The Death of an Artist

An Interview with Chance Casper (Part One)

“Your perceptions are in the angle of reflection that meets your eye.” – Chance Casper

chance guitar

Closing time.  Fargo’s arctic chill blasts through the bar’s propped doors.  Bright lights flood the room alerting the remaining stragglers that it’s time to go.  They trudge out into the snow.  I’ve come to Fargo to see an old friend play his last show. It is a different crowd and a different time here at The Cauldron, the hottest live music venue in Fargo if you believe their radio ads, but there aren’t any flashing cameras, or backstage groupies, or even a real backstage at this venue.  The only noise comes from a trickle of beer seeping out of a toppled bottle and falling from the table to the concrete floor with a sigh.  There’s a stench of alcohol and smoke advancing toward the stage, but it’s not going to arouse the drummer who’s passed out at his set, his head planted on a bongo.  Seated on a wobbly stool in front of the drummer, too sore to stir, is the man I’ve come to see.  Chance Casper.

Dried blood coats his leathery fingers.  His angel of pain lies facedown, unplugged at his feet, the snapped E-string wrapped around the neck.  He looks up and recognizes me.  His expression is both of embarrassment and relief that I held true to my promise to interview him after his last show.  I counted thirty-two people in attendance tonight, and I know this isn’t how he wanted to go out.

His last song of the night, appropriately titled This is Goodbye, would seem to be a fitting farewell between an artist and his followers at his final show, but it is unmistakably clear the lyrics are directed inward, the singer saying goodbye to the artist.

Musicians (and writers) talk frequently of writing only for themselves as if writing for an audience would be a massive sellout.  While it’s true that people can write simply for themselves as some sort of cathartic experience, art itself does not exist in a vacuum.  The whole point of art is to communicate something that can affect an audience in such a way that can be achieved only by the medium the artist has chosen.

Great art is religious in the way that it touches truth or achieves a sensation that resides a level below conscious awareness.  It doesn’t matter how much effort and craft went into the production of the art; if it doesn’t communicate its message, how can it be appreciated?  Was it even a worthwhile effort?  Art that gathers an audience of thirty-two might be interesting, but it will never be important.

This is Goodbye, despite its stubbornly simplistic groove and arrangement, is a complex yet forgettable song where the melody and lyrics have this very discussion about art.  Lyrically, the song is about looking back and reflecting on the journey that sacrificed happiness for a greater goal.  Melodically, the song is interesting because while it is in the key of G, the melody never touches that root note.  In the verse, which is patient and plodding, the phrase feels like it’s building to the G but gets hung up on F# before falling back down to the B.  In the chorus, the music intensifies, the intervals become more bold, and the melody once again battles all the way up to the F# before retreating once again without tasting the tonic G.  Finally, when the melody climbs and reaches the G in the dissonant bridge, it hits it not with a bang but with a whimper.  The payoff is anticlimactic, like an artist toiling for years before calling it an end in front of an audience of thirty-two.  This is Goodbye.

“A glorious plane crash ten years ago would have been a better end,” he tells me.

I laugh until I realize he’s actually serious.

Instrument cables slither across the stage under Chance’s gaze as Paul, the young bartender/stagehand, loops the cords around his shoulder.  “You think you can move?” Paul asks him.  “I need to get the barstool off the stage.  We’re closing.”

“Did you know this was my last show?” Chance asks the kid.

Paul shrugs.

“Well, can I have my paycheck?”

Paul pulls it out of his pocket and hands it over unceremoniously.

Chance unfolds it, sees the total and hands it back.  “No.  This isn’t right.  This is only two hundred.  The deal was for five.”

“We only had thirty-two tonight.  You promised you’d fill the place. We’re taking a loss as it is.”

“I can’t help it that the blizzard kept people away!”  Chance stands and confronts the tired kid.  “Don’t you know who I am?”

Paul takes the opportunity to snatch the stool and disappears quickly into the back.

“Look at me.  Fighting for pennies!”  He then offers to buy me dinner at a diner down the road.

We step outside and are hit with a choke-the-life-out-of-you cold that makes me feel like I’ve been face-planted into a snow cone.  It’s my first time in Fargo since the 90s and can’t say I really miss it.  But this is where Chance wanted to end it.  Concertgoers in Fargo are pretty savvy, and they depend on music in the worst way, since the wet chill can make life pretty harsh.  Maybe it’s this seasonal brutality that keeps people trapped here in this valley, but then again, even on those odd days when the weather clears and the wind forgets to blow, people just can’t tear themselves away from Fargo and its grid-ordered streets, stubbornly symmetrical buildings, and imported elms that line the curbs like obedient school kids.

The generic sign for the Woods’ End Diner burns its neon glow into the darkness.  I’m prepared for a long night.  Every night with Chance Casper is a long night.

“Why is it that genius is never recognized until we’re dead and the Mozarts of the world have to lie in pauper’s graves?” he wonders aloud.

I can never tell if his unabashed conceit is just part of his Chance Casper persona or if he’s just testing my reaction.

“The reward for greatness is never prompt,” I answer to placate his ego.  “But maybe someday they’ll have good things to say.”

He stops suddenly.  I try to do the same but I slide on the icy pavement and have to grab his arm to keep from falling.  I’m losing control of the interview.

He holds my arm to his chest like it’s a guitar and says, “They’ll say I could make rain with my voice and thunder with my guitar.  That my music dripped with an awareness of all that is pure and true, baptizing chaos.”  His voice is lyrical but raspy, like a radio song fighting through static.

I try to take back my arm, but he holds it tighter.

“You know, they have computers now that tell you what songs are good, what people will listen to.  I’m not shittin’ you.  They take stats of every hit and computers track the characteristics of these songs so they can tell you ahead of time whether your work is crap.”

It’s true.  The first company to do this successfully was Spain-based Polyphonic HMI and was followed by Music Xray.  Both use sophisticated algorithms that use data of past hits and analyzes beat, melody, and chord progressions to determine what songs will be hits and to allow record company execs decide which songs they’re really going to push.  It predicted the success of Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me when music critics had already written it off.  This is scary.  Computers are better at telling us what is good than we are.  I think of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and wonder if art, like athletic potential, will be assessed by complex algorithms before it ever reaches human consideration.

“If you only look at the past to shape future behavior, you never go anywhere.  Just wait until this software is available to young musicians on their home computers.  They’ll just be writing songs that achieve the highest scores in the program as if artistic expression were some game.”  He winks at me.  “Maybe computers will decide whether your writing is worth a shit before letting people see it.”

As we arrive to the diner, he studies his reflection in the window.  His face has gotten a little chubby and he’s shaved the mane of hair before his receding hairline could conquer it first.

“I’m not so sure about this late night snack,” he says.  “Last thing I need is to look like I’ve got a taiko drum stuffed under my t-shirt.  Besides, who knows what kind of people are gonna be there.”  He gathers courage and pushes open the door.

(continued)

Superheroes

oak

“Whatever you do, no climbing any trees while I’m gone,” my mother had said before she left the house to go shopping.  The simple warning had slipped out of her mouth, fallen to the floor, wiggled through the carpet, squeezed behind the TV set, crawled up the wall, wafted over my head out the window, and caught up with me thirty minutes later as I was shimmying up the largest oak tree in my neighborhood.

Dressed in my Spiderman suit—which were really pajamas with sleeves that no longer reached my wrists and tattered bottoms that extended just beyond my knees—I stopped just as I reached a broad, upwardly expanding limb.  I watched in wonderment as Steven carefully eased himself away from the trunk, avoiding prickly branches as he neared the end of the limb.  His Superman suit fit him perfectly, and the falling sun cast a phosphorescent glow on the red cape tied neatly around his neck.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be climbing trees,” I called out as I made the critical mistake of looking down.

Steven remained focused on the branch supporting his broad chest.  “You don’t have to.  I just want to see how high I can get.  I’m Superman, remember?”

I looked up.  We weren’t even halfway to the top, but we were higher than I had ever climbed.  I timidly followed my friend out onto the limb, hugging it securely and ignoring the pricks on my forearms and ankles.

I had a sinking feeling.  With our combined weight the branch bent until it was nearly horizontal.  But it didn’t break.  Steven sat upright and flung his cape proudly over his shoulder.  He watched with compassionate concern as my fragile frame inched closer to him.  A semi-circle grin rounded out my elated face, and I was beginning to maneuver myself upright, to sit beside greatness, when I heard the crack.  The geometry on my face reversed itself as I whipped my head around to see what had happened.  The limb remained securely attached to its trunk, but my reaction had been too abrupt, and I lost my balance.  The world flipped as I swung around the limb, my arms flailing but catching nothing but empty air.  My legs, though quivering, held strong, and I hung upside down staring at the hard ground that awaited my head.  I cried out in fear.

“Grab my hand,” said Steven.  I strained my neck to find his silhouette framed in a flare of sunlight.  Reaching out my arm, I swung it until I found his hand.  My fingers wrapped around his, and I sighed in relief as I began to be pulled upright.

What happened next was one of those rare unexplainables, like biting into a salad fork or poking an eye while putting on a t-shirt.  My feet suddenly lost their grip, and though I tried to hang on to Steven’s hand, I flew—miraculously feet first—toward the ground.  Impact sent a violent shock throughout my entire body.  Pain had no identity, but it overtook me.  I squeezed my eyes and rolled on the ground in anguish.  I needed my mother to absorb my pitiful groans.  Burying my head in the ground, I let the tears puddle beneath the bridge of my nose.  It was my own fault.  I couldn’t let Steven see this—my defeat.

Even as I suppressed my barking breaths, they lingered, orbiting around my head.  After what must have been almost a minute, I took a deep breath and held it, but the gasps continued.  I realized they weren’t my own.  I cautiously lifted my head, and my eyes climbed the tree and followed the limb to the red cape firmly in the grasp of prickly branches.  Dangling several feet below, his head in the noose of the cape, was Steven.  His strong fingers struggled to untie the knot around his neck.  His legs thrashed the air as raspy whimpers escaped his throat.  My tears hardened as I watched in horror.  I was going be in trouble if my mom found out where I’d been.


Months later, standing on the stage in front of my classmates, I accepted the wooden, shield-shaped plaque amidst the chorus of cheers.  My mom had taken off work to be there for that day, and my eyes teared when I saw her smiling proudly at me from the back of the auditorium.

I stood uncomfortably beside the principal of our school as he gave my little hand a firm shake.  He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke into the microphone.  “Steven Keller wanted to fly like Superman, and for a brief time he did.  He was a model student and this award, in his memory, is given to a student who best exhibits exemplary behavior.  You should be very proud, son.”  He handed me the award and pushed me forward to the front of the stage to accept the applause.

I didn’t know what “exemplary” meant at the time, but in my mind it was something horrid.  My refusal to speak since Steven’s accident had been mistaken for good behavior.  Exemplary behavior.

But to this day, every time I hear the word, I remember the scared little kid who ran home and cowered in his bedroom while his friend dangled from a tree.

Mr. Lin’s Family

Also made it in the latest issue of the Sagebrush Review.

MR. LIN’S FAMILY

Mr. Lin awoke before sunrise, jabbed his arms through the sleeves of his stitched-up winter coat, slung his burlap rice sack over his shoulder, and opened his front door to the cold rush of air and the sound of cars whisking over the Manhattan bridge.  A spark of moonlight lingered in the sky basking in the urban glow.  Fall had been unseasonably temperate, but luckily, on this day the wind was from the north, blowing the stench of rotten garbage and excrement back towards the East River.  When Mr. Lin arrived to New York City a few years before from the humid climate of Guandong, China, he found the winds irritating and more nimble than even the rats at burrowing through unseen openings and interrupting sleep, but now he welcomed the fresh air with open arms and smiled at his good fortune.

His home was the marvel of the Canal Street shantytown.  He had built it without the traditional tools of nails, hammers, hinges, and saws.  Mr. Lin’s specialty was knots.  Discarded packing cords held together the mattresses and bedsprings that made up his walls while dusty rugs and sheets of canvas tied over wooden pallets formed his roof.  On the outer walls, hanging along streamers of bright florist ribbon were fresh oranges elegantly secured in yellow plastic bows labeled “CAUTION.” 

Read the rest in the latest issue!

http://www.amazon.com/Sagebrush-Review-Volume-Brooke-Wallace/dp/098234533X