Novels Made on Butcher Paper


Why, my girlfriend asked, do you need butcher paper?

I looked at her with what I thought the prescribed measure of disdain.

I have big ideas, I explained.  I need to draw them out.

I showed her, and explained, the arc of my plot, how it was planned out  to masterfully ebb and flow in a rhythm within a rhythm, building toward a crescendo of ever-increasing conflict.  Just like I had read about.

I could not write my novel now, I explained, because I had not acquired butcher paper.  How could she be such an idiot?

She said nothing more about it.  I brought home a huge roll of butcher paper Thursday, enough for a lifetime of novels. Then Sunday morning she took her things and left behind a letter.  It read:

Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.


When I found out she was gone, I got out my knife.  I carefully butchered the remains of my feelings for her.  I wrapped each piece carefully in the white butcher paper.  Then I drove them in reverent silence to her place, where I laid them on the doorstep.

The whole thing made quite a mess.  I cleaned the bloody footprints in my apartment.  I hosed out and returned the rental car.  I cut my hair short.  I filed a retroactive police report about my phone being stolen and I bought a new one.

I forgot to cancel the appointment with the priest, however.  I decided to go, anyway.

You’re alone, the priest asked, that won’t really work will it.

He smiled.  He always smiled, even when he was explaining to people how they were going to hell.  I liked him anyway.

It’s not going to happen, I explained.  I killed it.

I’m sorry, the priest said, do you need to confess?

I did, and so I did.

Say 3 Hail Maries, he instructed.  God has a plan for you.

Does he, I asked,  truly wondering, does he have it all plotted out?

The priest smiled again, and said more pacifying words.  They never reached my ears.

Somewhere, I thought, God may have it all planned out in an enormously complex diagram, on butcher paper the size of the universe.

I tried to imagine God plotting our lives with a pencil and an enormous roll of butcher paper.  Instead, what I saw him doing was wrapping up still beating hearts.  He puts them in the freezer, away from the warmth and light.

A Writer Needs an Ego

I stood at the edge of my desk staring at the gleaming white bones laid upon it.  I took another look at the edge of the empty box on the floor, and read words that told me it had contained one complete skeleton.

My god, I thought, maybe I should have studied Anatomy in college, instead of Art History.  Art History had taught me many things, like the origin of key nuances that color our culture.  It had not taught me how to create art, history, or people.

The papers, mostly blank, sat on the table next to the bones.  Pencil outlines of figures, towns and worlds seemed to stare up at me from the pages, expectant.  As if they wanted to know who they were, where they had been, and what was going to happen next.

I sat down in the chair and I fumbled with the hard white bones.

I can do this, I told myself, others have done this.

Does not God do this a million times a day?  He plops people upon the Earth complete.  He hides within each person a story complete and ready to unfold.

If God can do this, certainly I can do it  –

If I am a writer.

Maybe a Writer Should Not Read


I hate my favorite author.

He writes, of course, the kind of story I like best, and in a superior style.  His prose, at times, unfolds the most sublime metaphor – the kind which can blur the line between prose and poetry.

I’ve read a paragraph, alone in some corner of the world, and felt compelled to exclaim aloud the fucking brilliance of his fucking words.  And then I’ll read that paragraph a second time for the sheer joy of the tickling in my skull it produces.

I don’t hate my favorite author because he shows me what could be, but that I can never bring to a page.  Now that I think about it – maybe I do – or should – hate him for that.  Just a little.

No, the reason I hate my particular favorite author is because he does all this, and keeps me glued to every word, with an outsized use of the passive tense.

It does not bother me when I am reading it.  In fact, it is perfect.

But as soon as it is my turn to write, all I’ve got is “the sea was stormy” and “the plan is rotten” and “the sex will be gray”.  The intruder never storms the castle, the hero never forsakes good advice, and she never takes him by force – he is just taken.

We all know the trite saying that you are what you eat.  I keep waiting to wake up and find that I am a bowl of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, with an extra cheese packet added.  Maybe that saying is not quite true.  I live on that hope.

What we read, however, can affect what we write.  We pick up more of the form than the brilliance, it seems.

The logical conclusion is that you, if you’re a writer, should read mediocre authors who follow Strunk and White’s rules.



P.S.  Thou doth best avoideth Shakespeare and the Bible when thou art writing.




The Fire Carl Saw in the Principal’s Office

Principal Harwood’s face froze the night I walked into his office to tell him about the fire.

Who was going to save his ass? Me, the kid voted most likely to be a gas station attendant; the kid they were too incompetent to know was dyslexic; the butt of every mean Senior Class prank.

The Principal looked in shock. I didn’t miss a beat. I told Harwood about the Seniors’ out of control bonfire, now a raging brush fire behind the stadium. That fire threatened his career. Until I walked in to tell him, that fire threatened his career more than any other thing.

Fire burned in Principal Harwood’s helpless, dying eyes, as I named names: Ralph Samson, Senior Class President; Bonnie Walters, Greg Harlan, and all those popular monsters who had made my life hell. I had them now.

I looked that excuse of a Principal in his weak eyes, and I looked at the scene behind him. I knew we had an understanding. He picked up the phone. He called the Fire Department, and then the Police as I stood there. I walked to his desk and grabbed a memento.

Things went easier for me at school after that. No one mocked me any more. Tardies were excused, hall passes given. Harwood greeted me with respect – as Mr. Williams – until the day I graduated.

I had left Harwood’s office that fiery night with a new sense of who I was. I had also left the Principal’s office with Mrs. Henderson’s bra. It smelled of their shame, and my new, victorious self.

Leprechauns in the KGB

The leprechaun sat down next to him, but Angel ordered his beer anyway.  Angel knew to take things in stride when he was drinking, and this was the third bar tonight where the leprechaun had showed up silently at his elbow.

Angel took a good look at him when the leprechaun was calling out his order to the bartender down at the other end.  The leprechaun wore a plaid green jacket over a green shirt, no tie, nice slacks and shoes.  He had short red hair, and a red face and nose that showed signs of drink.  He probably stood less than 5 feet tall.

This leprechaun, whom Angel imagined was 50 years old, looked more like he would have some nasty tricks than a pot of gold.

If Angel was a little unnerved, it might be because the leprechaun kept showing up, every night, wherever Angel went to drink.

Still, leprechauns were the least of Angel’s worries.  These bars around the Aerospace companies, Angel knew, were the battlefield of the Cold War.  The KGB, in skirts and suits, spent more money at these bars than anyone.  Recruiting efforts.  One inadvertent slip of a code word, and you became a traitor.

One should feel a bit twitchy, he thought.

Angel drank most nights at one bar or another, or several.  He drank so that he could not think about why he drank.  He smothered his unspeakable, insane wish for magic. Now his unconscious mind heaped that fantasy on the leprechaun, whom might be a Defense Industry spook, a good guy, with a secret message for him.

Your father is alive, the leprechaun would say, We’ve taken him deep underground for security reasons.

He’s alive.  He’s safe.  He wants to see you.

We had to put the KGB off the scent.  Sorry about the death-by-cancer ruse, but this is war.

What was real?

Angel stared a little at the leprechaun.  The leprechaun half-smiled at Angel, without ever looking directly at him, as if they had an unspoken connection.

Angel took a deep draw on his third, at this bar, pint.  The girls, oh so young and cute, paid him no attention.  He figured the leprechaun was some sort of pedophile, hanging out at these bars where the staff was lax on checking the young girls’ drinking age.

Angel never noticed the second man; the man in the back of the room watching Angel, the man made invisible by the attention the leprechaun drew.  The second man watched Angel constantly, looking for signs of weakness.

Angel drained his beer glass.  He stumbled out to his car, but he found his pocket empty where his keys should have been.  He stumbled back into the bar to look for them.

Angel saw the leprechaun standing close to the second man, whispering.

Angel lowered his face and squeezed through the crowd with a laser focus on his lost keys, which he saw gleaming on the floor.  He scooped them up and whirled smoothly around, not quite toppling a bar stool.

Slipping by in the crowd, he overheard the leprechaun speak to the second man in a low tone, in Russian.

“On tot, Sammy.”

A patrol car followed Angel for a block, then turned down a side street, lights flashing and siren wailing.

Angel kept an eye on the rear view mirror all the way home.  He swore to himself that tomorrow – tomorrow – he would quit drinking forever.

Tomorrow he would steel himself for this Cold War, where nothing was as it seemed and no one could be trusted.  Tomorrow Angel would enter the boxing ring of the 80s, with eyes of stone.

The world had grown cold.  His father was dead, and tomorrow he would stop drinking.

But not all these things were true.