Inherent Imprecision

I’m in the throes of revising a first-draft screenplay, and my buzz is officially harshed.

The first draft process had me in love with the world for months. I was not only on Cloud 9, but I had my head placed firmly in the clouds  above  Cloud 9.

While writing my first draft, I ate, slept, and drank creative catharsis. Every chunk of passive-voiced, clunky, on-the-nose verbiage was a respectable part of the process. 250 words was a small success, even at its worst output.

Times have changed.

I’m cringing on a regular basis these days, warm-cheeked as I read through dialogue worthy of a child’s puppet show. I’m regularly overwhelmed by the fixes I hope to implement, even as I tick them off my to-do list one by one. I progress through this second-draft rewrite with full rational knowledge that perfection is elusive. But let me tell you something: emotional idiocy often reigns supreme around here. Still I reach and reach for perfection, riding the waves of frustration and imposter-syndrome panic as if I didn’t know better.

It’s a new twist on linguistic philosophy regarding language’s inherent imprecision. I know what I want to say, what effect I want my words to have—and I think I know what I’m seeing on the screen of my imagination. But in execution, my words often fail to communicate precisely what is inside my head.

Well, it’s messy in there anyway. Perhaps it’s for the best.

With this second draft, I descended a cloud or two lower to the ground, and regained some sanity in the process. The more work I complete, the closer I get to the “as perfect as it will be” outcome. While first-draft-me was empowered by the euphoria of creative anarchy, rewrite-me gains power from obsessive persistence, unable to let something go until I’m happy… at least, happy enough to finally get some sleep.

As each fix gets ticked and the to-do list shrinks, I’m now beginning to believe it’s possible: a final polished spec script. As I near my revision’s completion, I anticipate this ultimate end product—as imperfect as it still may be—with growing excitement.

One might dare call it a buzz.


Story Excerpt No. 2

A massive bird sculpture hangs over the Sea-Tac food court, looming over Starbucks like an abstract buzzard. The outstretched wings span half the length of the glass wall overlooking the runways. I walk slowly, gazing up, adjusting the backpack strap with my Sbarro-free hand. Is it supposed to be a goose? An eagle? I stop beneath the thing, and my inner art critic’s what-the-hell snarkiness resolves to a less cynical Ah, I guess that’s kinda cool….  It’s a gestalt Pacific Northwest theme. Get it? The large-scale bird consists of a thousand tiny objects suspended from the ceiling on thin wires, each perfectly positioned to create the bigger shape. Tiny Seattle umbrellas, teeny Duwamish fish, wee Pike Place pigs, all coming together as a massive Washington-native seabird.  And check out that itsy-bitsy microbrew bottle.

I bet Eddie would like this. Maybe he’d say it reminds him of fractals in nature, calling to mind the appearance of self-similar patterns across scales of existence. I’d tell him to shut up. But secretly I’d think what he said was pretty cool.

Eddie. Suddenly I crave a life-sized beer. I sit on a bench and try to eat my pizza, try to recall tenets of chaos theory, try to recite Subhumans lyrics to myself (left the iPod on Mom’s kitchen counter, dammit). Something. But nothing’s working. That singular and unbidden thought of my recently ex-factored boyfriend has rattled my nerves and struck me stupid. I mouth the regrettable pizza slice sans enthusiasm. It’s too easy to get cynical,  I think, in imaginary rhythm. And make the problem clinical.

Big hangy bird, I wonder: what if your many wires were to be crossed, tangled, torn? Tragic. How would it happen? Who would dare? Could someone just jump up and grab that tiny beer bottle? Would it come down alone, or bring the whole sculpture with it? Or, would it hold fast—would the jumper just dangle over the food court, clinging to the mini-beer until placed in TSA custody? A more extreme scenario: a wayward jet rolls right through the airport windows and crashes into the lobby, just like in some cheesy ’70s disaster films. People are pointing, running, screaming. Tiny Pacific Northwest figurines on wires part along the plane’s nose as it enters. The large-scale bird disintegrates, destroyed, identifiable only as the small-scale pieces swinging wildly in the throes of total disruption.

A panic wave tilts my brain. Ugh. I rein in the train of thought, fighting against the onslaught of aviophobic anxiety. I understand nothing about airplane engineering or aviation or aerodynamics. Maybe if I did, I wouldn’t be so freaked out. But meanwhile, I and my fellow ticket-holders trudge the length of SeaTac terminals like cattle through a chute, our arrogant faith placed in technology that carries our asses through the sky. This is the very hubris of Greek drama, the prideful mistake we should see coming—but the one we recognize only from the audience rows, or from behind the pages of a classroom textbook.

I pat my hoodie pocket, confirming the presence of lorazepam. Ah, there you are: soon, not yet. Only five tabs left, none to waste. Distraction time. I rummage in my backpack for the People I’d bought at Hudson News earlier. Yeah, much better: Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Clay Aiken, idiotic bliss. Never mind fractals and airplane physics and post-Eddie depression. Who’s hot, who’s not. Who’s out, who’s in… ah.

Who’s out indeed.

My usurper. I wonder what she’s like. Hot? Not? I know nothing about her. Is she popular, bubbly, fashionable? Is she charismatic and articulate? Is it possible she chose Eddie, of all people, from among an array of rugged and handsome suitors, each vying for her affection? Is she my enemy? Or is she a kindred spirit, fellow victim of Eddie’s mysterious angry-geek allure?

Here’s a bad habit in serious need of breaking: peeking at my cell phone instead of my watch for the time. Seriously, Will? Checking the phone again? I simply can’t get away with this surreptitious bullshit—not when my telltale gut sinks each time, when I realize there’s no missed call from Eddie, no voicemail apology, not even a random text.

Whatever. I’ve got bigger emotions to manage in the immediate future. I stuff People into my backpack, spill the pizza slice into the trash, and pull the vial from my pocket. I down a single pill, just to dull panic’s edge. No more until we’re off the ground, just in case the schedule changes at the last minute. Flying in an airplane isn’t the only phobia preying upon me now, thanks to Southwest’s open seating policy. I’m terrified of being trapped in an airplane seat next to someone talkative. Four hours of chitchat. The very thought brings dampness to my palms. I hoist backpack to shoulder, grapple with the expandable handle of my rolling case, and walk numbly through the food court toward the departure gates.

Not a moment too soon, the lorazepam’s maternal warmth eases subtly into my fingertips. I’ve just taken my place in the line-shaped herd of Southwest passengers when a petite old lady in a dramatic straw hat inquires whether I’m in Line A or B. Neither yet, I innocently divulge. With such formalities dispensed, she proceeds to tell me in a single sentence that she lives in Dodge City, has been visiting her brother in Tacoma, her son is a pilot, and she gets to travel wherever she likes thanks to him, what a good son. Subsequent and expectant silence indicates my turn.

My chatty antagonist has arrived.

“So… have you spent much time in Kansas City?” I say. Please just leave me alone, pleasepleaseplease. A girl in a Johnny Cash T-shirt and cartoon-hamburger-patterned miniskirt stands behind us, her backpack the size of a body bag. “Kansas City?” she exclaims. “This isn’t Southwest to San Francisco? Holy shit!” At this, the old lady winces and mutters to herself. As the girl takes off, my antagonist speaks to me confidentially: “That harsh language from a young person, I’ll never like the sound of it.” She presses her lips together and pats my arm, unaware of my own atrocious mouth. “But she can’t change who she is. I can’t change who I am. What can you do?”

I fight the urge to argue rhetoric with her. Eddie used to say the same thing. People don’t change, can’t change. Nature trumps nurture at every turn.

I disagree. A change, no matter how small, no matter what it is, is still a change. Whether you change your religious views, your healthcare provider, your gratuitous use of swear words, or your girlfriend—you are then no longer the same as you were. And if change is possible on such a minute scale of self, it should be possible on a even grander scale.

But I say to my old-lady antagonist: “Exactly.” And I say, “What can you do?”

She nods and smiles ruefully. “You’re a good girl, I can tell.” Dammit. I think she thinks we’re buddies now. She might try to sit by me. Four hours to Kansas, and I forgot my iPod.

Listen. It’s hard for me to deal with change. I’m not saying I would have married Eddie. I’m definitely not saying all my hopes were tied to our shared future. But he and I seemed to click with regard to so many inane issues. And inane issues make up daily life, know what I mean? I’d gotten used to the idea of certain things being this way or that way, based on the added influence of a second human factor. And then, suddenly, that factor was no longer part of the equation.

“Are you from Kansas?” a huge straw hat asks in an old lady’s voice.

“Excuse me?”

“Are you from Kansas? Are you going home?” The little old lady looks up and blinks at me sweetly, pausing mid-rummage with both hands in her massive boho bag.

“Oh, no. I’m from Seattle.” I create a smile shape with my mouth.

“Are you visiting family, dear? Oh, here they are. Toffee?” She proffers a Werther’s package from the depths of the purse. I want to refuse on principle, but I’m hungry again now that my anxiety has lessened. I select one reticently, and next survive the ruckus of unwrapping it.

She eats one too. I feel friendlier for the food. “My cousin,” I say around the candy in my cheek. “I’m staying at her place for a few weeks. Taking a summer writing class at KU.”

“Goodness me! Are you a budding young writer?” she asks a tad coyly.

Surely she’s too old for jaded Gen Y irony. But even the genuine-hearted inquiry is tough to answer. I do write. In fact, I’ve been writing a lot lately, desperate to work my way through this Eddie stuff. Lots of cathartic, wrist-slitty emo crap. You know. The kinda thing that really scares your mom if she accidentally finds it? Nothing Steve Ignorant or Lydia Lunch would respect.

So, am I allowed to self-identify with impunity? Shall I claim “writer” for the mere act of writing alone? Is that enough? What if my writing just—sucks? And what if I don’t find that out until after I’ve gone around saying, “Yeah, I’m a writer” to every straw-hatted old gossip from here to the Mississippi? What’s the karmic repercussion of such audacity?

“I don’t know,” I say. “I guess I’ll find out soon.”

Stasis Interrupted

Rush hour traffic invokes a unique brand of cynicism. Human interaction is depersonalized on the road as each vehicle becomes a protective shell. Entitlement, aggression, and self-righteousness all find expression in traffic, insulated from shame. As a result, cynicism finds its fuel and takes on form—at best, a mildly antagonistic urban ennui; at worst, a twice-daily dark night of the soul.

Sometimes it’s hard to maintain an evolved perception of humanity when adrift in its commuter sea. But once in while, an irregularity pierces the monotony. My traffic snark has been soothed by the smallest things.  Happy lady sings along with the radio, max volume, windows down. Hippy bus sports a Charlotte’s Web-themed paint job collage. In stopped traffic, a Chihuahua speeds along on a blur of tiny legs, passing between lanes of trapped cars; its longer-legged owner follows suit.

My first technical writing job, nine years ago. I had a brutal daily commute from the city into the suburbs. There was this random car on the highway with an obscure bumper sticker: “Ask Me About Punctuated Equilibria.”

Oh, I dearly wanted to.

I tried to follow it long as I could, intrigued. I yearned to pull over and discuss. Or maybe sidle up alongside at a stoplight, strike up an open-window conversation. Sadly, I lost the car and its bumper sticker to the whims of random traffic.

Not to time, however. I still remember it, nearly a decade later. I forget names, places, birthdays, even my current age—but hit me with oblique esoterica, I’ll transform it into personal poetry. At best, a far-flung metaphor lending light in the darkness of existential meaninglessness. At worst, a rambling analogy to be posted online.

Now, I’m no evolutionary biologist. Mention isolated episodes of rapid speciation between long periods of stasis, and I’ll say “Grog no understand” with minimal irony. But I am an enthusiast of cryptic geekery. I cultivate awareness of all kinds of disconnected discourse (mainly surface-level scratches, not enough to be dangerous). And I adore the poetic notion of punctuated equilibria, which is why it stuck with me all these years.

The notion came bubbling back to the surface of my mind about a month ago when I was bitten by a dog. I mean, I was just minding my own business. It was a nice day, I was outside. A little old lady with a massive shepherd dog let me know how sweet he was. A gentle soul. Would I like to pet him? Yes, Grog do.

Ask me about my punctuated equilibria.

This was a growling chomp, right on the arm. Being bitten by a dog was a shock to my routine stasis, perforating both my arm and my sense of normalcy. Beloved by all animals? Self-perception shattered. Old ladies know what they’re talking about? Long-held faith destroyed.

Such a punctuation event ushers in a new norm. A revision. Personal stasis, version 2.0. It’s a natural tendency, to overgeneralize based on anecdotal experience. A fear of dogs was already taking root in my mind, threatening a dog-phobic new norm. I’m trying to dig those roots out early, to beware of the tendency. Not all dogs are the same. Don’t give up on dogs. Could’ve just been a good dog on a bad day. A nervous breed. A protective beast who mistakenly expected danger based on early puppyhood experience.

However, at the same time, I can learn from my experience. I don’t have to pet every dog offered up.

Grog extrapolate. Not all people are the same. Growled at by a good human on a bad day? Bitten by a nervous breed? Don’t give up on people. “And why not?” you might ask, if only we could pull over together on the side of the road and discuss.

Human interaction will always pose some level of risk. Interaction can be painful – even a simple negative encounter, cold or angry, can hurt like a random dog bite. Hell, humanity as a species serves up violence, deceit, and death every day.

But then again… In the same moment with you, in the same small space with you: it could be someone good. It could be someone doing something amazing. Or maybe it’s just someone doing something small, but it’s just the right something. Just the right jumpstart for your personal evolution into the next new norm.

My new norm, for the record: loving strange dogs from a consistent distance, and keeping cynicism muzzled on a tight leash.

Story Excerpt No. 1

When we’re young, when we’ve done exciting things in life just a few spare times, when most stuff in life is still new, back in those days: anticipation’s neat little body-electric tingle is a familiar experience. It’s a granted and reliable part of most plans and projects. It zips through from core to limbs, a giddy release of nerves and adrenal glands. This special breed  of excitement is a kindred of hope but more adventurous in nature. It is more open than hope to the possibilities of danger and fear. It is more stoked than hope dare be by the prospect of the sheer unknown. Its nature is reckless and innocent at once. From naiveté’s essence rises this electric desire to shed naiveté itself, to go forward, to know, to purely experience.

Less so, as we gain our years. Still shy of such descriptions as “jaded” or “cynical,” we one day recognize in hindsight the decreased frequency of this flare of anticipation. As we adopt routines, select paths, and choose and deny aspects of identity – as we pay consequences and experience pain and learn secondhand of dangers and downfalls – we gradually insulate ourselves against that giddy spark. The occasion of its appearance becomes rare. Special. Perhaps very specific: a new and unbidden crush, a job offer, your favorite band finally plays your town. Over time, the intensity of the spark may become comparatively diminished: you know the anticlimactic fate of most crushes, jobs lose their shine once you’ve had them long enough, you hate crowds and you’re always broke.

So it’s a wonder that I feel it tonight, an old familiar feeling both innocent and seeking, one I haven’t experienced in some time.

As we approach the slatted backyard fence of the Ohio Street house, our Dantean escort Janet leading the way, a tingle of excitement is stoked at my center. It lends a quiver to my stomach and sends a shiver up my spine. We push past the gate and meander through a jagged crowd characterized by multiple conversations, cigarette smoke, plastic cups, and sundry faces and voices. For the most part, this is a low-key rocker crowd. Lots of metal and punk T-shirts, jeans, tattoos, a few hoodies despite the warm weather. The white-belts-and-tight-pants getup demonstrate more fashionable efforts. A couple girls sport oversized dreadlock buns pinned up high. I note representatives of both genders with emo coifs of sticking-up-in-back hair, which mimics Janet’s crazy post-nap look from earlier this evening.

I’m impressed. Janet recognizes half the people back here, and displays a born bartender’s uncanny social aptitude. As she leads us past the deck toward the side porch steps, she waves and says “hey” and flips people off jokingly and pats people on shoulders and backs. As the rest of us follow, her myriad acquaintances gaze at us curiously. Many residual expressions of welcome remain suspended, as if to provide us with the benefit of a doubt. Some fade quickly in acknowledgement of our unfamiliarity, eyes turning away to continued conversations or text messages.

For my part, I’m surprised at my own relaxed state, especially considering I haven’t had anything to drink yet. A smile has developed on my face without my realizing it until now. I’m unable to suppress it despite its affront to the atmosphere of scenester-keg-party-cool. I don’t typically fare well among large groups. Something about being part of a mass of people negates my already dubious charisma. Devoid of stimulating banter skills as well as the ability to sustain interest in surface discourse, I all but disappear at parties. But wallflower lot notwithstanding, I’m excited about tonight. I feel socially safe among my housemates. I feel geographically safe in this strange land far away from my ex. And as we gather in the beer line on the side porch, my psychological safety is about to be ensured: one by one, we each pay for a red plastic cup and a moment alone with the kegs at the corner of the porch.

I unfurl five dollar bills and hand them to the beer-keeper, a tall drunk guy in a Neurosis shirt. He hands me a cup and slices across my wrist with a blue Sharpie. “Drink while ye may,” he slurs cornily.

“Will do,” I say.

His words resonate deeper than their intended meaning. I fill my cup with beer, letting the foam stream over the brim.


We Are Not Evicting Time

David Bowie’s death lent a surreal start to the year 2016. As a young teen, I was an obsessed Bowie superfan: 1986 through ’88, his discography to date was a constant in my Walkman. I still have a copy of the Rolling Stone 1987 cover issue, tattered but intact. The Glass Spider Tour at Kemper Arena in Kansas City was my first live concert (my dad was my date). I watched and re-watched Labyrinth and The Hunger until every snippet of dialogue was etched in my skull.

Though my music interests diverged long ago, when I learned of Bowie’s death in January, it felt like losing an old close friend.

Recently I had some time to reminisce upon my Bowie years as I’d archived them. I found the glossy concert programs, several carefully-clipped NME articles, that old Rolling Stone issue. I’m happy I had a few artifacts like this to prompt memories. I found the nostalgia trip refreshing. My fangirlism back then, as silly as it seems, was absolutely earnest, unabashed. And as it spanned such formative years, Bowie fandom was a joyful state that mitigated difficult experiences. The pubescent hell of junior high. A wholesale move across the country with my family.

Reaching back over three decades, connecting with this younger self through paper records brought to mind the meaning of a personal archive. I’m a record-keeper by profession. Perhaps archiving is in my blood? I’ve kept a private journal in some form since 4th grade. I have a stash of favorite letters from the pre-email olden days. Band flyers. Friendship books. Newspaper clippings. Zines and more zines. Maybe I’m just a hoarder with narcissistic tendencies.

Either way, the library of my youth’s remnants remains a powerful source of introspection. I visit it rarely these days, during this busy phase of life. But as with this recent Bowie-motivated sojourn, I always feel renewed after spending some time among these historical records. I enjoy gazing backward upon life – not for long, just a little while. Even when I stumble across mementos of the more discomforting or sorrowful events of the past, I’m reminded that time’s passage allows perspective. Given time, mere survival of one’s darkest moments may prove the brightest proof of perseverance.

My personal archive reminds me where I’ve been, who I’ve been, and the strength of my own resilience.

I consider these helpful notes-to-self in a brutal post-Bowie era.

Red Herring in the Hot Tub

I had a long, sleepless night during my kid’s recent bout with a nasty mystery illness. Late-night DIY diagnosis effort: I googled “rash,” “fever,” “children.” Try it yourself some time for an authentic sense of this paranoia-piquing experience. I lay awake for hours next to my itchy son, thinking.

I mentally backtracked through his every known experience over the past week, reverse-engineering recognition of symptom onset and contagion opportunity. Was this a virus passed on from that sick kid at the grocery store? An allergy to the new mattress? An eczema reaction to the kiddie hot tub at our neighborhood public pool? I scrabbled through my memory for signs, symbols, dire foreshadowing. There’s a story here somewhere.

Hindsight apophenia: finding all possible past incidents of should-have-seen-the-signs that one’s memory can produce. When put to its most evil purpose, hindsight apophenia is a boundless source of regret, blame, and self-doubt. This seemed especially true at 1:00 AM, in bed next to a feverish toddler.

But at its most beneficent, hindsight apophenia makes for great stories.

Artistic conventions of storytelling invoke an apopheniac mindset. Foreshadowing, symbolism, poetic language echoing a theme – all these devices play on the reader’s self-induced superstition, the viewer’s sense of foreboding. A writer weaves a story beyond mere linearity by reverse-engineering a path to the big reveal. By crafting parallels with plot clues, symbols, and semiotics. By putting to use the mind’s natural propensity for apophenia.

A storyteller assigns meaning to the seemingly random, and then enforces the semantic weight of this crafted pattern through the story’s outcome.

Readers and viewers appreciate – and expect – a pattern of meaning to lead us to the finale of a novel or film. Random stimulus like that found in real life is called a red herring in a story’s universe. No red herrings, we futilely ask of life. We ask this in vain, and we know it, and yet our best stories unabashedly reinforce the apopheniac mindset. Keep looking for those signs, our minds concede upon finishing a particularly satisfying tale.

There’s a story here somewhere, we think as we venture out into the chaos.

Profane Space

By necessity, I’ve had to dispense with all former notions of writing’s preciousness. During this busy phase of life, I don’t have the luxury of fretting about sacred space or grand expanses of uninterrupted time. I must swiftly, flexibly invoke a writing mind-frame when the opportunity arises. Waiting room at the doctor’s office. Park bench over lunch hour. Dark living room, pre-dawn insomnia.

I like it.

There’s no time for overthinking, because this – the lunch hour, the early hour, the office wait – is it. In this stage of my life, this is genuinely the kind of time I have to write.

Mad skills are required to take advantage of these pockets of time: colloquially, literally mad. I keep hypergraphic notebooks with me, and I leave them around my home. They’re in the car, at bedside, sitting on the kitchen countertop. I write down bits and pieces of story-thoughts whenever they arise. In my head, I troubleshoot plot holes during my commute to work and run through dialogue out loud. Regularly,  before I fall asleep at night, I visualize entire scenes.

When I finally get that open lunch hour or bout of insomnia, I gather notes and thoughts. I try assembling them into some sort of piece. A scene. A beat. A chapter. Maybe just a paragraph.

Hypergraphia. Obsession. Cathexis. Compulsion. Creating this story has invoked insanity, with no sacred space to keep it confined.

I like it.