the judging in podcastle’s flash fiction contest

so I submitted a story to podcastle’s flash fiction contest. Despite my penchant for fantasying about acknowledgement and success, I knew going in that competition was steep. What I didn’t realize was how much I wouldn’t agree with other judges.

What sets podcastle’s competition apart from others is that anyone who creates an escape artist forum account can be a part of the judging. With 196 stories submitted, you can imagine, then, that all of the writers, some of their friends, and a handful of enthusiasts are voting on the stories.

But from the get-go, I haven’t agreed with the comments. The structure of the contest allows that people voting can comment on the stories. Because I am pressed for time, I’ve only read some of the stories. But I can already say that the stories which interested me were the ones that were not well liked. And people seemed to rave about stories that seemed a bit dull and standard.

And yes, my story was totally panned.

I mean, really, really panned. There one comment which was at least slightly encouraging of the theme, but generally people did not care for it. It’s a good process, because like submitting stuff to critters critique or the thorough feedback I got from a group of editors earlier this year, I need an outside perspective on my stories and where they aren’t working for people.

But on the other hand, ¬†I become super reactive and defensive. I’m all snarly and want to stomp around complaining bitterly that no one understands me. And it is true that maybe my aesthetic lies to the left of other people. But a good story is a good story. I may think there are some hidden gems out there, but I want to be careful not to imagine that I am one. In other words, to not get all frustrated and mad, but rather open myself to the truth of comments.

You know … while also retaining/defining a unique vision.

 

 

Mom and Cassandra

Like my most of knowlege of Greek and Roman mythology, my understanding of ¬†Cassanda comes from my mom who went to college when my brothers and I were kids. Her excitement with new information was transmitted to us. So, too, unfortunately was a certain class snobbery. What I wouldn’t realize until much, much later was that I would spend most of my time occupying spaces with people who were themselves, as well as their parents, far better educated than myself or my family. My family was late in coming to the education that I felt certain distinguished us from others. I am sure some people feel money, especially old money, sets them apart from those without, and that these same people might reach a day, when, having lost it all, they realize money is only ever just money, not the conveyance of any greater invisible thing. So to with knowledge and information.

But even in understanding that my family did not belong to some invisible, but greatly meaningful “middle” class, I still clung to those rusty, snobbish ideas. But that’s not what I wanted to think about this morning.

I recall my mom saying that Cassandra, who was given the gift of prophecy by Zeus, went mad. I remember, although these are conflicting, (1) that she went mad because along with the gift came a curse, (2) that she went mad because the gift of prophecy itself somehow drove her mad, and (3) that she went mad because no one believed her.

I only did a slim, required Classics course in college (and read Bulfinch on my own somewhere along the way) so I don’t know which, if any, of these is closest to how the story of Cassandra actually plays out.

I was thinking about Cassandra in the context of my mom, and what I think could be the great concept for a story: the sensitive that is so wholly downtrodden by life and the unbelief of those around her that she is nuts. In other words, yes, the character does has legitimate extrasensory perception, but it’s hard for her and others to distinguish what portion of her visions are real because they are clouded by her insecurity and neurosis. It’s a variation on two themes I see in literature: (a) the character that may or may not be telling the truth, who may or may not be paranoid, but also legitimately being stalked by unseen forces, and (b) the crazy person who also has insight to give to others. This second theme frequently annoys me, because my experience with neurotic people is that they really have nothing, no brilliant insights to deliver. It’s one of those literary themes that appears to have no base in lived life except that we like to use it in stories.

Unsmiling

I wish I had the ability to write today as a short story that could effectively communicate the pathos of a hundred little actions culminating in an unsmiling face of the man behind me at the Walmart checkout.

Because I can’t write the story or essay I would like, I’ll put down the day in notes so that at least i can look back on this.

I volunteered for Refugee Services of Texas. I had initially signed up to volunteer with them almost two years ago, and then was too wrapped up in pregnancy and depression to do anything more than was required of me. Then I went to the orientation in a fury after the inauguration of the man most likely to start WWIII. And again did nothing. So feeling sick about the state of our country this Fourth of July, I signed up for a mission: apartment setup for a family. Essentially, this means shopping for them and getting all the items to their apartment before they arrive.

It took about 7 hours, 3 trips to walmart, 9-10 trips with groceries and house supplies in the Texas July sun around an apartment building and up a flight of broken concrete stairs. The apartment was about as bad as landlords can get away with in the US, M’s knees and hands were black from crawling over the floor and dead bugs with scattered liberally around, almost as if left with care.

M, 11 months, was strapped to my chest through walmart and then the trips back and forth to the car for the bags.

It was awful.

I was not filled with a deep sense of joy at helping my fellow man. I was depressed and sad and very, very tired.

And this sorrow culminated in man at the checkout that wouldn’t smile or engage. I tried apologizing once; he had three items and it was absurd that he was behind me, because checking out must have taken nearly three quarters of an hour. I thought he might have not heard my first apology or my second. But the third left no doubt: he had heard me, he had seen, and was resolutely not going to smile or nod or in any way acknowledge me.

And here I should probably mention that I am white, he is black, and I had moved my purse to my shoulder during the process of checkout.

I can’t know, of course, what was going on inside his head. I can’t know if he is deaf, and simply wears a grouchy face as part of his normal expression. I can’t know if his stomach hurt or if he doesn’t like women.

I can’t know, in short, whether he held an opinion on my skin tone or the position of my purse.

But that’s where my mind went, and where it remained for the rest of the day: on the unaccountability of privilege. Because none of my actions thus far, or any after this, matter. No opinions I hold, on race, on black life matters, on police brutality, matter. At that moment, I was just a white woman moving her purse away from a black man.

He’s right. He’s right not to smile.

It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t the reason I moved the purse. …although now I have to ask myself if he was. Did he see something in my face at that I didn’t even realize was there?

I have to stop now, because the laundry is done and I have to go pick it up.

And I don’t have an answer to this. I wanted to sit down and write about inequality, about not making nice or pretending everything is ok, when in face we live in a broken country. Instead I am left wondering about my own head. Because up until this writing, I was certain I moved my bag in order to have enough room in the cart. And now I don’t know. I’ve seen my mother suddenly retract after an action or statement that wounds, suddenly and fiercely claiming all deniability. How do you walk yourself back from that self knowledge?

 

On Lessing and Wanting More

In reading Lessing, I realize I will have to write literary fiction. I feel a little sick at the prospect, knowing the failure waiting for me in the effort. And I must start now; when I was younger I kept thinking I could wait until, suddenly, magically, I would be a better writer. And I never was, so I could keep waiting.

What I’d like to write about is the grand and petty illusions we live in, madness, and children. Quite a few people have taken on illusions–it’s part of the American story is failing at the American Dream: I will not be able to match their abilities. Many have written on madness, but mostly I find the accounts wanting. And with children there seems a giant silence, like we are all unable to get to close. Perhaps because it’s been women’s work, which mean the stories are only ever rendered in saccharine and shame.

illuminate this

if i could I would for others illuminate what i have found in the world. because I came from a place of deep cynicism about institutions and traditional structures and values, I repudiated, rejected, discredited nearly EVERYTHING. So focused was I on a narrow stretch where I thought truth would be, that I ignored the world, shuttered myself away. I don’t want to linger any longer on this mistake–it’s too unfortunate, it’s passed, and my mind is too easily calibrated for depression.

but if i could I would show others why things I thought were dead ends turned out to be where life was.

limited time

each day I have a limited amount of time to write. I find more time than many people do, so I don’t mean this a complaint. Rather, what I find is that I feel full of ideas early in the morning (we wake anywhere from 4am to 6am) but by the time that I am free to sit down (9:30am-11am) my brain feels wasted on work, on children, on my mother, my anxieties and depressions. Even so, I’ve thought through several ideas in the course of a morning that I want to put down. And there is simply not enough time. What is more, per my post on Doris Lessing, I’ve been thinking about two things:

  1. what’s worthwhile to write about
  2. writing better in the time I have

These are troubling ideas. On the second point, it’s [obviously] much easier to sit down and crank out a mash of my angers and depressions or incoherently rant about something or other that happened. And generally my thought has been: if it’s worth editing, then I’ll come back to it. There’s still something to be said for just getting started: the longer I stare at a screen without typing, the more likely I am to get distracted and start googling something or emailing of whatever. On the other hand, how much harder would it be to push myself, not just in editing, but in the initial writing, to say what i mean as clearly as possible?

On the first point, it’s easy to sit and write like crazy about my mom or whatever aspect of myself I’m currently feeling depressed about. But is this really what I should spend my time on? Yes, of course there is a place for getting out how I feel, and it’s necessary, sometimes, just to exorcise bad ideas and feelings. But I also think: what will the record show? When I look back at my scribblings, how depressing would it be to see endless whiny slush?
Better would be to put time and attention into stories, or if journal entries, to push myself to think/write new subjects. The next post will elaborate a little further.