The Critical Mass

My inner Bukowski

Charles Bukowski.

Charles Bukowski.

I finished off a 131,000-word manuscript Thursday evening – I use the word “finish” loosely; these things are never really done – and asked myself: “Now what?”

More writing. Bathed in self-flagellating angst, writers love to act as if they’re making personal sacrifices on behalf of mankind. Monks and Joan of Allegories with keyboards, uncovering universal truths one keystroke at a time. The only space available for this kind of work is inside the writer’s own head, as the process itself seems astonishingly boring and often self-contratulatory to normal people who are inadvertently exposed to it. I’ve been trapped inside that echo chamber for quite a while now, and “Writing Aerobics” seemed like well-needed airing out. Hobnobbing with my fellow scribes Saturday morning at Writers & Books, my hometown center for local literary types who have actually been published, and housewives who dream.

There were five of us, plus the instructor for this session. Louise Wareham Leonard has a charming New Zealand accent, which she apparently comes by honestly, and has published two novels, with a third close to hitting the press. These books appear to be far more self-revelatory than any place I’ve personally visited. She says she’s done these Writing Aerobics sessions for as many as 12 people, but prefers these more-intimate groups. I prefer 12, where I can get lost in the crowd. I was the kid who never wanted to be called on by the teacher.

So now you’re gonna get an exclusive look at writers at play.

Wareham’s first exercise starts with asking each of the writers to create a dialogue between two people; I chose the option of a secret being revealed. Next, she instructs us to add dialogue tags. As in “he said….” Then, one element at a time, we insert the characters’ appearance, gestures, setting, a memory, relevant back story, action, imagery and how the narrator feels when it is all over. And there we have it. Instant literature. When I put all of my elements in place, this is my story:

She looks out the front window. It’s a man standing in her front yard, wearing dark blue work clothes and an orange and lime-green reflective vest. For his safety. “Meter reader,” he says, waving his electric meter-reading wand as proof, while not looking up from his clipboard.

“Oh. you’re here to read the meter?” she says.

“Yes. I’m the meter reader.”

“Does this mean you have to go into my basement?”

“Is that where your water meter is?”


“Yes, I have to go into your basement.”

 “Fine.” She sighs, pushing the screen door open and holding it to allow the meter reader into the house.

The next-door neighbor is mowing his lawn, glancing over in time to see the meter reader disappear inside. He thinks: She always has those window shades partially drawn, so that the house looks like a man half asleep. He pauses behind the angry mower, wiping the sweat from his brow, and looks at this dead-end street crowded with old houses, paint peeling, many of the driveways with cars that haven’t moved in years, their tires flat, registrations expired. Houses this old, you figure a few people have died in them over the years. Hell, a guy could have a heart attack while sitting in his chair in front of the TV and they wouldn’t find him for a week.

And a house that old, the next-door neighbor thinks, has to be full of spiders.

The meter reader follows her to the basement door. She’s in good shape for a middle-aged broad, he thinks. That green cocktail dress is kind of odd for this early in the morning. And her hair is tied up in some kind of net, like diner waitresses wear. This woman reminds him of his Aunt Roberta. Yeah, he needs to visit Aunt Roberta at the hospital one of these days.

“Careful,” the woman in the green cocktail dress says, pointing to the basement door. “It’s dark, and there are some old shoes sitting on the steps.” This meter reader reminds her of her ex-husband. “To hell with him,” she mutters.

“Yes ma’am. Oh, you don’t see many basements like this anymore. Dirt floor. Did you have some plumbing done here? Coupla mounds of dirt…. three. Oh jeez, I nearly stepped in that hole! Big as a grave.

“Hey, did you just shut the door?”

She locks the door behind him. A heavy, solid-wood door. If he starts yelling too much, she’ll just have to go down there and shoot him. Just like she did that husband of hers. And those damn Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And there you have it. A Hitchcockian short story.

“That’s a small notebook you’re writing in,” Wareham says to me. It is. “But it has a lot of pages,” a say.

Now Wareham has us responding to writer’s prompts. She offers a fragment of a thought and the eager scribes respond with complete thoughts. Her prompts are “It could have been you,” “The secret is,” “There was no going back,” “There was no going on,” “If only the rain would stop,” “If only” and “Because I never.” Then she reads random lines and titles from books in the room. “The view from here,” “But you cannot argue with hungry spirits,” “Birds of the USSR” and “One type of anger can be positive.”

Two of these prompts sound to me like a poem:

The view from here is kinda worrisome

the fall would be precipitous

perhaps leading to serious injury

perhaps the death of the poet.

But it’s a narrow ledge

He’d probably fall anyway.

There’s no arguing with hungry spirits.

A second prompt results in good, handy advice for the amateur home repairman:

The secret is, you can’t tighten the bolts too much, or you’ll crack the porcelain. The nuts have to be finger tightened to the point that the toilet doesn’t rock when you sit on it.

The rest of the prompts bring forth similar non-sequitur inspiration. I step back and look the pages of my undisciplined scrawl, each prompt leading off a new thought. They read like another little story:

It could have been you. But it was her. I can live with that. She, apparently, has decided that’s not enough. She thinks it should have been him. That’s why they’re both in the trunk of my car.

There was no going back. That’s what happens when you set off 40 pounds of dynamite at the foot of a suspension bridge like that.

There was no going on. The gas gauge was on E. The carrion birds were gathering along the roadside. The road signs were riddled with buckshot, to the point that the directions were useless.

If only the rain would stop. Then I could walk a half-mile into those woods over there and shoot myself in the head without getting all wet.

If only I had packed a lunch. That would be a sign that I had some hope of making it to the end of the day, end up on some bar stool with a bunch of other guys who forgot their lunches.

Because I never want to see the sun again. It reveals too much. Age. Decay. Illness. Inadequacies. The light of a neon Corona beer sign shows nothing of the men and women sitting on these bar stools. Their secrets are safe.

Birds of the USSR. What is that? It’s a web site for meeting Russian women. Guys like us, sometimes we need a little help getting past our social awkwardness.

One type of anger can be positive. It’s motivational anger. The gas that prompts you to break that beer bottle – after it’s empty – over the head of the guy next to you, instead of worrying after you get home about why you didn’t do it.

See how that works? It pulled the Bukowski right outta me.

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