Neil Gaiman's repeated warnings about the horror in his latest book, Trigger Warning, has me revisiting mine :D EL is pretty dark in places.
More full requests! Still waiting...
Meanwhile, I've been working on Savages in longhand, filling up notebooks. Aiming to have a sturdy full draft in hand for my residency at Martha's Vineyard this spring.
From Elizabeth Alexander's "Lottery Tickets," grieving for her husband.
"When we first became lovers, we entered a three-day, three-night vortex. Night One I slept Senghor's "deep Negro sleep" for what seemed like the first time ever, lifelong insomniac no more. Night Two I burned with high fever and dreamed of my grandmother and a cherry tree, the only fruit she ever ate to excess. The next morning, Ficre gave me small sips of cold blackcurrant juice and rosehip tea to make me well. Night Three my fever broke and so did my menses, more blood than I had ever let in all my life, all over the bed, a trail across the room, the bathroom floor, and in the tub. He cleaned it up; I did not feel abashed. Then he had to go to Washington... The last thing he put in his bag was my first book of poems..."
"....Death sits in the comfortable chair in the corner of my new bedroom, smoking a cigarette. It is a he, sinuous and sleek, wearing a felt-brimmed hat. He is there when I wake in the middle of the night, sitting quietly, his smoke a visible curl in the New York lights that come in between the venetian-blind slats.
At first, I am startled to see him. He sits so near, is so at home. But he doesn't move toward me, he simple cohabits. And so, eventually, I return to sleep. He isn't going anywhere, but he isn't going to take me, either. In the morning the chair is empty."
"....I dream we are moving, my family of four: Lizzy, Ficre, Solomon and Simon. It is light and easy... Now it is just the two of us walking a long, gently curved road, holding hands. At a fork in the road, Ficre lets me hand go and waves me on. You have to keep walking, Lizzy, he says. I know it is the only truth, so I walk.
I look back. I look back. I can still see him, smiling and waving me on.
..I walk. I can always see him. His size does not change as I move forward: he is five feet nine and a half, exactly right. I can still feel the feel of my hand in his hand as I walk.
I wake and the room is flooded with pale-yellow light."
Storyboarding my next novel, I remember a story I heard once, years ago, back in Kansas:
"So it was the 70s and this guy is thinking he'll buy up this gorgeous farm. Great little white farmhouse, good price. The people couldn't wait to get out of there.
It turned out that the trees were full of rat snakes."
"I'd never seen anything like it," the storyteller said- an antiques dealer; his small eyes wide behind thick, milk-bottle glasses. He spread his hands wide in the air, with an old man's relish at having been asked, of having listeners- he leaned back in his chair, its wheels creaking on the old wooden floor.
"We pulled up and you could hear them crawling over each other in the trees. Writhing over each other. We're in the kitchen talking, and the whole time you can hear them rubbing against the walls of the house: this slithering, their scales shining in the sun- man, after about two minutes, we ran the hell out of there, we're driving away, next thing we know they're coming out of the fields at us-"
Ah, but I can't remember the rest of his story.
Plagues of snakes. Fields of golden wheat, inky black snakes sliding out onto the hot asphalt- oh, blue skies and silos, cows are freaky when they look at you; hell yeah, Lawrence Fucking Kansas. <3
So, here's another short story. This one’s from 2009.
I was in a bad place and it shows. This one’s really not for everyone, and like a lot of my stuff, it’s NSFW. Getting whacked with the growing-up stick really sucks, that’s for sure.
Journal excerpt about it down below.
by Pauline West
Johnny was shirtless and white as stone.
“Do you always get dressed just to have a cigarette?” I said, rolling over. Watching him.
He was beautiful, standing there looking around his room for one of his black hoodies. Scraping back his long hair, cough drops falling out of his pants pockets.
I hadn’t had a cough drop in years. They were the cherry kind, so I unwrapped one and ate it. The taste was what it had always been. It was sweet, almost sharp: the taste of skipping school, of watching cartoons on the living room carpet with your friends instead. The red candy you only got when the school nurse thought you were sick. The taste that maybe you could get away with something after all.
“I guess it’s a habit,” Johnny said.
“I wish I had habits,” I said, stupidly.
I didn’t want him to leave. I didn’t want to be alone in his room, alone with his smell everywhere all around me. Because it hadn’t been long since you left me. Some mornings I woke up still thinking it was you beside me. But your hair was lighter than his.
That line you used to feed me about not knowing where you ended and I began. When all the time you must have known we were never going to end up together. You knew, and I didn’t. There’s a thing I was the last to figure out, me who was always so proud of being smart.
Suppose when the guy hands the girl back her heart—suppose she doesn’t want it back, what then?
You gave me back my heart and I had nowhere to put it. And then you got up and left, because they said I am not the kind of girl you take to Hollywood.
Johnny was dressed, standing there watching me.
“You don’t have habits?” he said, finally.
He couldn’t figure out if it was okay for him to leave. He just wanted to go outside and smoke his cigarette. He liked sweet things. He liked his coffee milky-sweet and his women milky-soft. Red candy cough drops, black clove cigarettes.
“What are you thinking?” he said.
“That I love the sound of my fucking voice in my head.”
“That’s a good thing,” he said.
His teeth were sharp and yellowed. Sexy in his demi-rock star sort of way, and I loved the way he used to bite me, fuck me so hard that I went out of my head. He knelt back on the mattress and had my breasts in his hands. Knocked bottles onto the floor, and it all started over again. “Obsessed with you,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t know if I love you, or if I just want to, so much.”
“But how do we know?”
“Love isn’t—the more you try to touch it the less real it will be.”
“I do love you. Because I’m afraid of when you leave.” Between my thighs he made a fist. He turned it against me. “I need you so much.”
“I’m tired,” I said, and he went outside, away somewhere, to smoke his cigarette and probably wonder why on earth he’d thrown over a perfectly good girl to take up with me.
There were always wasps in his house. You had to watch not to step on them when you went to the kitchen for water. Wasps crawling all over the floor. Their waists so fragile how could you know how long their daggers.
Now it was late. The sky was wet, people were throwing beer over the apartment ledge and someone was crying in the bushes; end of a night. He’d driven me home.
I was high, babbling. “You know, people looking at me—at any woman—they’re looking at more than just sex. They’re looking at the shape, the idea. And maybe that’s what seduction is. The suggestion of something…a symbol, an ideal…”
“No, men want to fuck women. They want to come all over your face and your tits. Release. That’s it. Throw away. That’s it. Like a fucking rag. Strangers looking at girls—you want it to be this beautiful thing, but you’re just stoned, baby.”
“You know what? I don’t care. I just wanted to make you feel better about it. This dumb goddamn insecurity you have, which doesn’t matter anyway. Because I don’t give a fuck how you feel.”
A cop pulled into the parking lot. Then people were yelling and slamming doors.
“I have to go,” I said.
Johnny grabbed my hand. And I didn’t care. It had become an unclean habit, my not wanting to be alone.
“I mean, the difference is, I love you,” Johnny said. I slipped free.
“Wait,” he said. “I want to say—its not the kind of jealousy you think it is. If I was a woman, I would want to be you. That’s all.”
I paced in my room looking out my window. Was this how it would be now? The part of me that had flown away, would it ever come back? I tried to think about years from now. If I stayed with him. We’d take long walks in the country. In his country of love and cigarettes, chickens, dogs, wildflowers. It could be like that.
Maybe there was something wrong with me, wrong with the way that I loved.
Oh, my love. Why couldn’t you figure out who you were without needing to hear strangers say it? While you went sneaking around, feeding me lies. But I ate them. I loved your lies, I made them my body. So maybe I was the monster.
Monsters love their labyrinths. And yes, I stayed and stayed.
I stood there with my window, aching for Johnny. I loved the way he fucked. I thought he probably told lots of girls that if he were a woman he would want to be them. It was a good line. Who wouldn’t say it again? I would say it again.
Suddenly there was his voice on the phone. I couldn’t remember it ringing. Everything that year was one unending string of sex and candy and talking, crying drunk kissing the clove sweetness of his lips and neck-
“Were you sleeping?” he said. From the way his voice sounded I could tell how close he held the phone to his ear.
“Can I come over? Just to lie next to you. I can’t sleep.”
“Aren’t you back out in the country?”
“I’m not going to do anything. I’ll just lie next to you. I’ll be quiet and you sleep.”
So he drove back, he came into my room and lay beside me, but there wasn’t enough blanket.
“It’s okay,” he said. Pushing his face into my breast, arms around me, he lay there whispering until he fell asleep. He smelled like Christmas and I slept with his beautiful long hair in my fingers. We fitted together. He thought it was all going to mean something.
Later that summer we were fighting. He knew I didn’t love him, that I couldn’t and that he couldn’t make me, but he loved me so much anyway it was eating his heart alive. Couldn’t I listen? Couldn’t I just listen for one second?
I stepped on one of the wasps. It stung me, but didn’t hurt me. I stood there, in the center of all Johnny’s throwing and screaming, staring at the bubbling red mark on my skin.
“It doesn’t hurt!” I said. “I can’t feel a fucking thing.”
The wasp was still alive, too, but Johnny stomped over and killed it. He said so many things to me but I couldn’t listen. I watched the dead wasp lay there untwisting on the rug.
Then I left, and I never came back. It was useless hanging around town trying to understand. You were never coming back and I would never understand. You were my place on earth. You were my everything. But now there is nothing to belong to. All there was to do is move, wash away. I let go. I went out with the tide.
N--, you are free. Your mind will never speak to me again.
Say it again, like someone in a bad movie. You want to be famous. You want to be famous. You want to be famous. Fine: a big house and a reality show and everybody watching. That will make it better. You believe that.
I have my labyrinth.
Excerpt from my journal, written after I pulled up 'Monster' and read it for the first time since-
man, maybe since I wrote the thing-
January 30th, 2015.
I do feel different about what happened then. I feel different about it now. I tell myself that it was my fault, and sometimes I believe this.
It was my first time for everything. I did not know how to be in a relationship, how to compromise. I often had crippling anxiety.
Today, I don't think anyone would describe me as shy. Although at parties I still prefer the intense one-on-ones in the corner.
Anyway. N was the kind of person who, when he told me there was another, took pictures of my reaction.
It was early in the morning. Winter morning? I was making us breakfast. He told me, and my first impulse was to leave our apartment, immediately, still naked and barefoot under my pale, fluffy blue bathrobe. (Where did it go, that robe? I must have thrown it away. The blood of my soul on it.)
But he insisted that I stay, “No, no, I’m telling you because I want to work it out-”
and inside I began to slide end over end as his explanations sank through me- the cliches- and I wanted to die, and I wept, and he pulled out his camera and started taking pictures of me crying. (An artist, after all, and we are cold-blooded things, sometimes.) He sang Under My Thumb.
But he was also the kind of person who, after we’d fight, he'd come over to my parents where I’d holed up, and he’d read to me, or he’d clean out my bathtub- giving himself a barcode- shaped scar on his back-
(and incidentally Andrew has the same-shaped scar, made in the exact same place; this is a story I’ve never mentioned to him)-
N scrubbed it out and climbed into bed and then it was the two of us again, against everything, like always. He was the kind of person who delighted in the smell of cut limes, in afternoons side by side in the bookstore, holding hands. I mean, we were kids.
Young artists, equally abusive to one another.
(Me: controlling, tyrannically shy. And him- well. Well. We all make mistakes.)
“An artist should never date another artist,” I said, afterwards, stricken, to another friend.
And my friend- an artist himself- looked at me as if I’d slapped him. "oh-"
Ahh- who was that girl who used to do things like that? Flirt outrageously with a friend and then grin and say, “Ah, but I’d never date you?” Haha, what a crazy bitch.
And yet, don't we all love those stories?
I think of O: how she waited to dump this one dude until he’d dropped her off at the airport, because she'd needed a ride there; how she dropped another right after he’d flown cross country to see her- she’d met someone else, more interesting, the day before-
’nah man, shoo-shoo, just go on back to where you came from’, I love those stories, honestly I do.
There’s something inside me thats a bit Miss Havisham. (Oh Dickens, how did you know?)
Anyway. N. This is not to say that I forgive you- but I do- I still talk to you in my head almost every day-
And when my brother died, you were the one I almost wrote to, except-
the words, the words, I just couldn't write the words. I wrote to G instead.
But it did seem to me that you should know. You always loved James. Remember? Remember how you always used to ruff his hair. Remember that time you were so angry at him for throwing rocks at cars? Ah, because we all grew up together- seven years-you were a part of my family.
And you'd wanted to cast him in Pyramid. Everything would have been so different. Our world would have been different. Or maybe not.
Maybe, in another world, we did cast him, and we made him feel special, and there, he is still alive. Oh, I don't know.
In this world, you and my dead brother are the two people I screwed up with the most, in uncountable and irredeemable ways.
Life is all too brief, and when it slips from your grasp, you want to know you always did the best you could.
Not that it matters. I’m kidding myself to think any of this matters. In that last moment, when our minds snap closed and fade to black: at the death of this dream we’re having, of each having been a person-
Ah... and then again, who are you now, anyway?
Maybe you've grown up to become something flat and fake and LA and vicious, a living joke from a Brett Easton Ellis novel, and not the boy I remember at all.
Its funny what in us ultimately devours the child we once were.
I was a wild, willful, angry young thing: now I'm a willful scribbly old thing.
A while back, reading the journals of Anais Nin, I noted how she was piqued when Henry Miller calmed down and began to focus so much, rather than living, as she put it.
But in the end, as an artist, you do the work.
Heh, and I have a full time job besides- without discipline I would be too tired to write at all. More often than not, I work late into night to get it all done. The gigs that pay, and the ones that don’t- but I've been bred for this, to eat, breathe and sleep the work.
My father is happiest in his work. When we were growing up, I knew he loved being with us, but at the same time I could always tell he was still slightly at odds, half-preferring instead to be making rounds at the hospital.
I believe he must think of his work the way a seal thinks of the sea. Wanting always to dissolve into it, to return, even as he knows unfathomable hunters wait in it, to exploit him from below.
Stress, the silent predator slipping through us.
What must it be like for him, to have had a stroke? Ah, my gentle father. When I am home, we go to the Nelson Atkins together, we walk around slowly (his bad leg) and nod at the paintings, smiling at the old friends we know, exclaiming over new acquisitions.
Ah, jesus, how will I go on when you aren't here on the earth with me any longer? Here on our earth,
lost in our separate seas- your medical world, and mine-
I need to call home more often.
Because my father and I, we are kindred souls. There’s a lovely quote somewhere about how maybe the best of friends are made from the same stardust, from way back, and when we find one another it is the sweetest recognition.
This summer I was telling that quote to Christopher- back when I could remember it- he’d made us kumquat martinis, he was showing me around his backyard pointing where he wanted to put in a fountain.
(“Oh, my Christopher!”
“Oh, my lady!”)
So last week I ordered Andrew and I two sets of juggling balls. (After listening to a great conversation about how striving for ambidexterity improves the brain, reduces stress, is fun, etc- )
I give Andrew the box from Amazon. I’d been babbling about my mysterious gift for a week now, managing somehow not to spill the beans on what, exactly, it was- which is rare for me, possibly a first-ever-
He opens the cardboard, and then the cannister, shakes the colorful balls out into his hand.
He laughs, surprised and pleased.
He tries them out- drops them- instantly catches the bug- now we’re throwing the balls around, probably going to break something any minute- grinning, jumping around. Definitely not juggling, by any stretch of the word, but its fun trying.
He stops and watches me flail around like a gleeful idiot.
“Baby, if you can juggle gracefully for two minutes…” He grins harder and laughs, can’t finish his sentence. “...I'll give you a surprise!” he says, smiling hugely, laughing and laughing. We keep throwing the balls around the kitchen, giggling. Catching each others eyes. Ah, my dear honey.
Ah, my man's smile. One of the best I’ve ever given him. It's inward and stunned at itself. Love.
Love is a river at night, love is a rising sun. Always coming back around.
“All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
"The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed. For luck, you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket."
4. Fill your senses. ("The five senses are the ministers of the soul"- Leonardo da Vinci)
"I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret."
(Hemingway wanted the structure of "Big Two-Hearted River" to resemble a Cézanne—with a detailed foreground set against a vaguely described background. In a letter to Stein from August 1924, he wrote, "I have finished two long stories ... and finished the long one I worked on before I went to Spain where I am doing the country like Cézanne and having a hell of a time and sometimes getting it a little bit. It is about 100 pages long and nothing happens and the country is swell. I made it all up") - Wikipedia, Big Two-Hearted River
“There is no literature and art without paranoia. Probably there would be even civilization. Paranoia is the world. It is the attempt to make sense of what has not.”
― Thomas Pynchon
"It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again."
7. Read in the evenings.
"When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day."
"You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad."
- Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway
“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
“The first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.”
― Martin Amis
“Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.... To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.”
- Vladimir Nabokov
12. The strength of an ommission:
"It was a very simple story called “Out of Season” and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood."
13. Don't ever hold back your good stuff:
[F. Scott Fitzgerald] had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring…. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best he could write without destroying his talent.
"It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass."
16. “Ink, a Drug.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister
Ah, Nabokov.... one of my favorites, but you know, I haven't read him in years. I remember reading and re-reading a book of his collected short stories the summer I first moved out. My little studio apartment, with the sunshine and its furry orange carpet! My mutt-dog, leaping in and out through the broken screen door! I was 17...
And then all that first year of college, following him down...
But I don't think any thrill Nabokov gave me ever quite matched the year I first read Lolita.
I was in eighth grade, and I loved my English teacher in a way I hadn't loved a teacher in years. She was smart and subversive and I was silent in her class, sitting in the back with big eyes. Usually I got in trouble for passing notes, for flirting, but never in hers. I wanted to memorize what she had to say.
But here's the deal. At that school, a lot of the teachers were preoccupied with the popular kids, and by that I mean, they'd invite those kids over in the evenings for 'hot tub nights", they'd pull those kids aside in the hallways to give them advice about who they were dating, who wasn't quite in their league, etc. Which blows my mind now, that everyone knew about it then, and yet somehow...
...although a couple years later, there was a big scandal about a sweet girl who rode my bus and a teacher who took things too far with her. But I think they ended up together, at least for a little while.
Anyway, I was an outsider. Not on the 'list.' I was already a skipping-school kind of girl, with my long hair knotted up into two messy buns, and a backpack stuffed full of books to read in the bushes.
But for Mrs. R, I killed myself on every assignment- and all she ever wrote on my papers would be an indifferent A+.
I was too weird, I guess- in class she preferred the cheerleaders and jocks. (I'm pretty sure this is around the time I really checked out of public education- two years later, I'd drop out and self-school.)
Anyway, one day Mrs. R was babbling about wonderful books, and she mentioned Lolita, which I'd never heard of.
"But you're all much too young for that one," she said, trying to take it back- but the title had seared into my brain.
That night I was at the public library- oh, our public library!! Cross-legged in the aisles because I was too absorbed to even make it to a reading table!
and I devoured Lolita: yes, I read it with my spine.
Electric with something unnameable, desperate to talk to someone else who had read it, I went up to her desk after class. She was grading papers.
"Remember you were talking about that book, Lolita? It's incredible. I've never read anyone that writes so-"
"You're too young to read books like that," she said.
Well. Fuck you, lady-
Y'all can finish that thought :)
And on that note... this interesting article: The Outside Game.
"Among sociologists, he’s most famous for having made sociology’s previous theories of “deviance” look deviant: studying obscure or out groups, he has shown that the way their members act together follows the same kinds of rules that everyone else follows. Some people may march to a different drummer—but, when they do, they’re usually all marching in rhythm, too"
- Adam Gopnik, "The Outside Game," New Yorker, January 2015.
Now, I imagine you can call up a few qualities that typify the drumbeats certain subsetss march to: engineers, salesmen and CEOs, for example.
You know what typifies writers?
We're a whimsical, grudge-y, neurotic, rabidly competitive, solipsistic, charming and tyrannical bunch. We're hard to live with when we're not writing; we're hard to live with when we're writing. Also, we remember isolated incidents from our pasts and call them up with great detail, we ramble on and on about them for pages. In short, we're high-maintenance, difficult little fucks.
And you're sweet for sticking with me. Maybe you're a difficult little fuck as well, yeah? I'm sure we'd get along, competitive or no.
On that note, maybe all along Mrs. R. knew what she was doing.
Angst, confusion, a hurt-butthole and an answering rage are vital ingredients in a nestling. Otherwise why would you fly away?
And so- I find myself wondering about all these bouncy, frosted-cupcake facades so many writers bake up for their readers these days.
When readers, we know, are as equally fucked up as we are, as everyone is? Sometimes it seems like everybody's a fake chickenshit, you know. I know I've got some chirpy posts on here- when I'm bubbling over with caffeine and sunshine, yes, but I'm honest about the bad depths as well.
Edna O'Brien recalls when writers were drunk, brawling, and fabulous... Is the bohemian dead?
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
Candlemoth: A Holy City Romance
ratings: 27 (avg rating 4.04)
ratings: 24 (avg rating 3.46)
Candlemoth Volume 2: How To Spend It
ratings: 10 (avg rating 4.40)
Candlemoth Book 3: A Twist of Fate
ratings: 6 (avg rating 4.17)
Stalker: A Gothic Thriller
ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.25)