The Writer… Free short story

The Writer
He flowed onto the bar, elbows perched upon the hard edge with his shoulders slumped, a cigarette in one hand while the other aimlessly caressed a shot of whiskey, neat. The smell of stale beer and smoke mingled with decades of accumulated broken dreams and lingering hope. He regarded his reflection in the bar room mirror, and his face, gray-bearded and worn, stared back at him, half obscured behind rows of liquor in the dimly lit dive.

“Hey, John, you want another one?” Mickey said. Like he didn’t know. 
“Yeah. Thanks.” 
John fell back into the foggy trance he’d wandered in for the last hour, meeting his own gaze, a certain kind of defiance in it. He remembered the first time he came in here, how he sat in front of this same dammed mirror, perhaps even on the same padded stool, back when he was shiny and new and his eyes burned with that fire which comes with youth and certainty. It was empty that first afternoon, just him and Diane, who still owned the place, and old Billy, who was sitting at a battered piano playing a hit song he’d written back in the seventies, three chords and the truth. It was magical; John was hooked.
That was why he’d moved to Music City, to be around people like that, places like this. To write songs and play music until all hours of the night and grasp the thrum of creative energy that hummed in the air all around this place and inside him. He yearned to find a way to unleash it, to tap into a force greater than he, to channel those ideas and create something great.
In those early years, ideas danced all around him in the way of magic, swirling threads of many colors, each one a line, a melody, an emotion, a truth. He figured that all he had to do was reach out and grasp those threads, weave them together, and sit down with his guitar, and something beautiful would eventually emerge, a song never heard before. Nashville, and then the world, would recognize this rare talent, of course, and reward him with the praise and cash commensurate with his ability.
It had only taken John a few weeks to figure out that he’d overestimated his unique skill set, which proved far less rare than he’d initially believed. There were folks writing poetry and lyrics that would have made Kirstofferson proud, singing their asses off in front of empty bars and tip-jars. Yet, he kept believing, working to get better, honing his craft. His fingertips were calloused from long hours playing his guitar, and his skin grew thick with rejection. Sometimes he wanted to quit, but he didn’t because he believed. Really, he didn’t have a choice, for writing was in him.
The years slid by while John wrote and played songs and networked and drank on Music Row. He lost his wife, who grew to despise him in spite of her kind nature, and he lost himself, too, somewhere right in the vicinity of where he now sat. She couldn’t forgive the wasted potential, and neither could he. She had a great job, while he was a mere “aspiring writer.” That’s how she introduced him at cocktail parties, and it made him grind his teeth then. Ten years of marriage down the drain. He wanted to think he was better than he was, and that label was something he chaffed at. Either you were a writer or you weren’t. 
“John, do you want another one?”
“What do you think?”
“You’re too ugly to be an ass, and not old enough to get away with it,” Mickey quipped, sliding another one across the bar.
“Thanks,” John said.
“Written any songs lately?” Mickey said.
“A few. You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Mickey used to write songs, too. But last night he sang the same four songs he’d played relentlessly ten and twenty years ago, though now his voice was shot to hell. Back when John first heard the man sing, he sounded like Garth Brooks. Now it was like Garth on gravel with bad pitch. Back then, writers would pass around a beat-up guitar at the bar until five in the morning, after the bar was supposed to be closed, and Mikey would play harmonica while Billy made the piano sing and someone was always there on the fiddle, and there’d be mandolins and upright base-guitars, and girls singing harmony. All the while, the beer flowed and people laughed and wrote and played and created. It was joyous. That’s how he remembered it, anyway.
“What happened to this place, man?” John said.
“Progress. We’re busier than we’ve ever been. Nightly live shows, tourists come in and out every day. Business has never been better.”
“It’s dead, though.”
“The hell it is! Look at that table over there, a tour bus from Tampa. They just tipped me a hundred bucks. This place is hopping now. You’ve been gone a while.”
“The whole Row has changed. It makes me sad. Don’t you wonder what the hell happened? The publishers all moving away, high-rises taking over. There’s no heart here anymore. It used to be…intimate. Now it’s all corporate, impersonal, worse than I remember it.”
“You sound just like the Doctor Doom I remember,” Mickey laughed. “I never liked you then. You were arrogant, always bitching about “politics.” Guess what? You don’t have what it takes. Never did. And this place is still here, while you’re just passing through.”
“Screw you, Mickey.”
“You deserve it.”
“Maybe. But I’m just trying to sit here and have a drink in my old watering-hole.”
“It’s not your watering hole any more. So, you don’t get to talk bad about it now. I saw your ex in the paper last week, by the way. She looks great. A real peach.”
“Good for her,” John said, meaning it. 
“So why’d you get divorced, anyway? I remember her coming in here to meet you, her all dolled up and professional in her business suit and you in your cut-up jeans and long hair. We all wondered when she’d leave your ass.”
John picked up his glass and gripped it tighter than he usually did, a slight nod of his head as he had a conversation with himself, the one where he reminded himself that he had much to lose and nothing to gain by coming across the bar.
“That’s not how it was. But you can go ahead and check yourself now, Mickey. Cause’ I never liked you either.”
“Just messing with you, Doctor Doom.” Mickey snickered and stuffed his rag down into the back of his jeans and turned away.
The juke-box which once wailed Haggard, Jones, and Cash now blasted pop-country-rap while a group of starry-eyed kids set up on stage with nervous energy and fervent belief, like this was their moment. They wore hats and cowboy boots, and John smiled. They launched into a predictable set of songs about trucks and beer and girls in cut-off jeans and the tourists from Oklahoma cheered.
A kid sat down next to John, after he’d left the guitar on his back next to the stack of them lining the stage. He grinned, his eyes full of wonder and glory, scruffy and earnest.
“Hey, man,” he said, “are you gonna get up on stage?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You new in town? I’m Lance, by the way.”
“John. Nice to meet ya. I’m just passing through.”
“Ah. Well, this place has a way of getting in your blood. Watch out, or you might just stay.” He laughed. “There’s a cool vibe here, you know? An energy in the air. It’s like nowhere I’ve ever been. What are you doing here, if you aren’t here to pick some songs?”
“Reconnecting. Remembering. I don’t know. I love this place. Or at least, I used to.”
Lance got a far away look in his eyes, something akin to pity and perhaps a bit of fear.
“Ah,” he said, “you’re a writer. Moved away. That’s a hard thing.”
“Not really,” John lied.
“If you didn’t miss it, you wouldn’t be here, though, would you?”
“I guess.”
“I worry about that, you know. Swinging for the fences and striking out. Failing in a spectacular way, because there are so many people more talented than me here trying to get through the same little door. And one day you wake up and you’re forty and wonder where your life went. No offense.”
“None taken. Trust me, I had that conversation with myself, right here, many times. Wondering why I what the hell I was doing. I moved away when I was thirty-five, no regrets.”
“So, what happened?”
“Life happened. And that’s a good thing, not something to be ashamed of. I used to think that there was nothing more important in the world than my music and my writing. I was a fool. By the time I figured that out, it was too late.”
Lance nodded his head, silent for a few minutes while the kids on stage wrapped up their set with an original song, a ballad about the death of a loved one. I noticed that the bar quieted down, and folks were listening, feeling it. 
“I think the same way,” Lance said, peeling the label on the longneck in front of him. “Maybe it’s the only way to make it, to be willing to give everything up. Art demands sacrifice. Somebody said that. I’m willing to go the distance, but I worry how I’ll feel in ten years if I still haven’t gotten a cut.”
“It’s different for everyone,” John said.
“I’m up,” Lance said, brightening. “Wish me luck.”
He marched up to the stage, unzipping his gig bag and removing a battered Martin. John grinned. The kid had taste in guitars, anyway. He played finger style, a unique arpeggio, and sang a song about whiskey and loss, and damn it if John didn’t find some rain in his eyes. Lance was good, really good.
The crowd clapped after the song, though not with the same enthusiasm they’d displayed for the trucks and girls in Daisy-Duke’s. He spoke into the microphone, his voice a deep baritone, and said “I’d like to get my new friend John up on the stage. What do y’all think?” More tepid applause.
What the hell, John thought. That’s why I came here, maybe. He stepped up to the stage, and one of the other writers offered him a nice Taylor to play. Lance grinned at him, one hand shielding the mike, and said “I hope you don’t mind me puttin’ you on the spot. Let’s see what you got.”
“It’ll be fun,” John said. “Back me up.”
“Right on.”
John played “Rainy Night in Nashville,” a song he’d written just before he left town, a sad song about broken dreams, and Lance sang harmony and laid down some cool licks. John lost himself in the melody, embracing the moment, weaving the threads dancing in the air around him.
After they left the stage, the two sat back down at the bar, and Lance slapped John on the back. “You’re pretty good, man.”
“Thanks. You’ve got it, Lance. That rare thing. You’re gonna make it, so don’t listen to old fools like me.”
“That song you played is still on the juke box here,” Lance said. “I dig it.”
John felt a warm hand on his neck, and he turned. His wife smiled at him, appearing from nowhere, long dark hair tumbling over her shoulders, her dress cut low enough for a hint of cleavage. She smelled like flowers and hope and sunshine. She kissed him on the lips and squeezed his thigh.
“How’s memory lane?” She said.
“Good. This is Lance, by the way. Really talented writer.”
“Hi, Lance, I’m Kelli. Did John invite you to the book signing?”
“Hi, uh, no.”
“Well, you should come. We’re going for drinks afterwards with some friends. You should join us. Always fun to hang out with a bunch of songwriters.”
“What signing?”
“He didn’t tell you? A book signing at the Vanderbilt Barnes & Noble for his new novel.”
Lance arched his eyebrows, an almost relieved smile spreading across his face. “You write books? My faith is restored. You had me worried, there, for a minute.”
“Writers write,” John said, with a laugh.
Mickey sidled up to us, leering at Kelli. “So,” Mickey said. “It’s starting to make sense now.”
“Yep,” Lance said. “When you said life happened, I didn’t quite understand. But I do now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kelli said. 
“Well, you’re beautiful.”
“Isn’t she, though?” John said, running his hand over her backside, savoring the curves in all the right places. “Gave me two boys and thirteen years. Now we’re getting to the really good part, I think.”
“It’s hell being married to a writer sometimes,” she said. “We had to learn to quit worrying about what might happen, and live in those times between the folds. Once we did that, it got easier. You writer-types spend so much time pining away for a dream, you miss the good stuff happening all around you every day. Do that enough, and it all starts going to hell in a hand basket.”
John and Kelli said goodbye to their new friend, and strode into the pale afternoon light hand in hand and the old homes cast friendly shadows down Sixteenth Avenue, while the new offices and condos looked on with disdain and music from the last bar on the row poured out onto the street and life was good.

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A Few Good Sentences

Readers often ask me about my creative process, so here’s a general snapshot of how I write.

I’m a slow writer compared to most of my peers. I’m not sure I could crank out a book in three months, and if I did that it would be unreadable. I know authors who crank out four good books a year. I’ll never have that sort of output.

It all begins with an idea

I tend to marinate on several ideas at once, before deciding what I’m going to write. I’ll make notes on legal pads, bar napkins, and the back of company notebooks. Once I’ve got a general idea of the topic, then I move onto characters. With Objects of Wrath,
I began with the idea of a family struggling to survive the next world war.

I sketch the main character first, and then surround him with the surrounding cast. Often at this point, I don’t know enough about the story to fill in the details, but I like to have a general idea.

Next comes the broad outline. This is only a few pages long, with enough space in there to add things. I use a legal pad, and I draw a diagram of a suspension bridge. The high points are the big scenes in the middle and the climax, and the lines in between are the rising action, the building tension. Sometimes I’ll actually use one full page for this diagram, and divide the rising action into specific chapter ideas. The point of this diagram is that I want to have a general idea of what I’m writing towards. It sounds simplistic because it is. But it is very helpful to me in terms of pacing.

The next thing I do is write a first chapter, just to get a feel for the characters. So far, a surprisingly big chunk of my first chapters have made it to the final manuscript. I go back later on and move things around, and work especially hard on the first fifty pages, but the bones are there.

Storytelling

I tend to plot out a few chapters ahead of time as I’m writing. For me this is the best part of writing books. I have notebooks crammed with ideas, where I just let things rip. “What if…” and then I’ll try that idea out, often in paragraph form.  One idea leads to another, and I’ll end up with various branching plot lines.

When I’m in this mode, I can write unfettered, and it is where I probably do my best work. It’s here that characters start to misbehave in good ways. A minor character becomes important, while a character that I’d planned on keeping alive has to die. I’ll stumble upon an idea that lights me up, and spend a few hours writing one paragraph working to get it right.

I alternate back and forth when I’m writing a novel, between storytelling mode, and the actual pounding out the words at the keyboard.

Here are a few random examples of paragraphs or sentences I worked very hard on.

From Objects of Wrath: http://www.amazon.com/Objects-Wrath-Volume-Sean-Smith/dp/1618682245

“I had seen Gunny in action, had been trained by him, and knew how quick and deadly he was, but Chilli was an artist in his prime form, painting death with deft strokes. With perfect economy of motion he dispatched a seemingly unending supply of enemies in an unrivaled masterpiece of destruction. I hacked and shot behind him through the smoke, and despite the chaos, I marveled at Chilli’s artwork. His canvas was the battlefield, and he was the Rembrandt of the knife, painting darkness, not light. He was the Picasso of the blade, leaving twisted corpses in his wake, his hands and feet brushes that flicked out almost delicately, precisely, colorfully”

From Children of Wrath http://www.amazon.com/Children-Wrath-Book-Volume/dp/1618683411/ref=pd_bxgy_14_img_y

“Most of us are blessed with a moment when sunlight is gold dust, warm and glittering, and the air is clean and tastes like hope. Sometimes we pay attention, savor the sweetness and are glad of it. Too often, we realize the rareness of it too late to revel in the glory of it. Looking back, though, we know the moment. That’s the yearning and the hurt later, because the memory is not the time, it is an echo. There is no way to feel exactly that way again, you can only recall the wholeness of it, remember the preciousness. My moment was long and my soul sings with the echoes I hear, but by the time we began our assault on Dugway, my moment had already passed.”

From Tears of Abraham, coming in March 2016

abraham cover final

“Stand up for yourself,” his father had said when Henry walked home with a bloody nose again. Henry’s old man, Tim Wilkins peered down at Henry. A tall, rangy man with a straight back, pale blue eyes, and a face worn out by life, Tim Wilkins was not prone to overt displays of affection or sympathy. But he was the center of Henry’s universe.
In Henry’s eyes then, his father was granite, solid rock, unbreakable, unchangeable, and strong in the way of a proud mountain. The lens of hope and faith filtered out the cracks and fissures, the broken blood vessels on Papa’s wind burned face, and the hurting eyes of a man eroded, but not yet completely worn smooth. Blasted by hard years, bad luck, and the love for the wrong woman, Papa remained undefeated.”

From Fate of the Fallen, my work in progress:

“Religion, Malak reasoned, would be at the heart of it. Money and power led to war between men. Religion could destroy mankind. Sometimes money and power were the religion, the worship of those things, by men who held armies on a leash. The worst of it was when money, power, and religion all combined. At the end of the day, it was always some kind of religion.”

Savoring the process

I love writing, whether it’s a song or a novel. I relish the entire process, and enjoy lingering over a passage, turning the words over, shifting things around to find a cadence and melody to the words. Some readers find this aspect of my writing a hinderence, and I understand that many folks want to read an adrenaline-driven book that’s primarily plot-driven. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I enjoy books like that  sometimes. The older I get, though, the more I want some real substance to the things I read and the things I write. I love Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dickens, McCarthy, Irving and O’brien. I’ve got a long way to go before I can attain that level, but that’s what I shoot for when I sit down to tell a story.

That’s my process, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

So you want to be a writer…

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If you want to be a writer, my advice is: don’t want to be a writer.

Seriously.

The overwhelming majority of us are destitute, conflicted, outcast, and inhabit a general state of unhappiness because dreams and reality aren’t the same thing. The idea of being a writer looks nothing like the reality. Only for an anointed few is this not the case.

I’m not going to bore you with sad  number-crunching; suffice it to say that there are about three million people trying to enter gates that will only allow a few hundred to enter at any given time. If you’ve ever been in a big city, then the idea of a traffic jam of these proportions should make you think twice, and then ten more times, about wanting to be a writer. Because we’re all trying to enter the same gate, and there’s not enough room for everyone. There’s bickering and thirst and sometimes murder in the long hot wait.

If you want to be a writer, then write poems and love songs for your partner, write short stories and epic novels that take decades to compose, infused with joy and hope and thousands of hours of research and plotting and honing. Rewrite everything as many times as you can until you have stomped the love out of each line and eroded the originality and voice which made them true in the first place.

Chase trends and listen to talking heads and bow down to the powers that seem to be, attend seminars and workshops while other people who want to be writers, and people who thought they wanted to be authors but who decided that being a critic is a better path, destroy your dream.

That’s the wanting to be a writer part. Don’t do it.

If you are a writer, though, then you have no choice. I applaud your belief and audacity and will cheer you on when things are glorious and your work is praised by the wise and mocked by fools. Writers write because they must; the money is the grand prize, but the reward for a writer comes also in the joy of the writing itself.  Mostly, that’s likely not going to happen, and at some point, writers must come to grips with that. Cold, hard, truth. Many iconic writers died in obscurity and poverty.

If you are a writer, then this truth doesn’t matter; you remain undaunted.  You will put your butt in a chair and crank out stories. You will research and you will write. You will rewrite. And rewrite again and again.. You cut the things that you were certain were brilliant. Slash pages and paragraphs. Of course, you have to write them before you can cut them.

I’m a writer, and I wouldn’t recommend being one. For those who can’t help themselves, take heed. It’s a long, brutal road.

There’s glory though, in being a writer, an artist, and that’s what keeps us writing and painting and playing music, in the face of the odds and in spite of the facts. That sensation of creating something which is true and makes another human being smile or laugh or cry or throw something at the wall… that’s writing. And for writers, that’s a beautiful reward.

That reward may not be what we yearned for, yet it is beautiful in its own right. Writers know that, and people who want to be writers learn by doing.

http://www.amazon.com/Children-Wrath-Book-2-ebook/dp/B00MW8AZHG/ref=sr_1_sc_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1435638461&sr=8-2-spell&keywords=objets+of+wrath

That Hard Creative Road

“Son, it’s not too late. You can still go back to college…Well tonight, you’re just gonna have to settle for rock and roll.” Bruce Springsteen, from the introduction to “Growing Up”

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An artist’s life is hard, joyous, depressing, daunting, rewarding, poverty stricken, and often all of these things at once. We’ve heard it doesn’t have to be that way from self-help gurus and feel-good books. sometimes, when things get close and mean, when the sacrifices we have made hurt the most, we wonder whether it was all worthwhile. But I believe true art is born from this struggle.

 

Now, I don’t think the only way to be a great painter is to cut your ear off, that melody must arrive from pain, that literature only flows from broken, bearded, drunken angst. There are better ways that aren’t cliches. But it’s hard work. There is no way around that part. There will be sacrifice and tears, and hopefully we learn from the experience and get better at what we do. Maybe that’s part of the refining process, the purification of our creative souls.

It’s hard. But we choose to pursue the life of the artist, and we can only hope that what we love chooses us. The legendary songwriter Harlan Howard, whom I had the privilege of knowing, told a writer who was whining about the music business “Well, nobody asked you to move to Nashville.” Those words sting me when I realize I’m slipping into complaint mode. That’s right, Harlan. Nobody asked me to become a writer. I may feel called to do it, but in the end, it’s my choice, and the time, loves, and brain cells I’ve squandered along the way are a consequence.

 

I do not understand the writer who does not read, the painter who does not see, the musician who will not listen, or the artist who does not live. There is glory in it, earned joy which is the process and the product, but not the recognition or fame. We writer types often equate the glory with adulation and miss out on the glory of life. Like a hiker so fixated upon reaching the summit, he walks  through the golden October woods, missing the grandeur of the low clouds blanketing the slopes and ridges, ignores the green smell of hope and mountain, and the trail itself, undulating, rocky, muddy, and wonderful. If we are focused on the peak, we miss the path. I’ve climbed many mountains, but the best views are usually from the ridges and valleys. The peak is often shrouded in the mist, and it’s really just another rock.

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It’s hard. It’s beautiful. I’m still not going back to college.