I am published.

“They cannot scare me with their empty spaces; between stars – on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home to scare myself with my own desert places.” – Robert Frost

It has been more than two months since I last wrote here. Why the delay?

I could claim that school has kept me busy, the full load of credit hours weighing heavy upon my back as I make the final crawl towards completing my degree, but you wouldn’t buy it. How busy does one have to be that they no longer have time to put together a few paragraphs?

I could blame the lack of posts here on the lack of sleep, or lack of free time, that I have had since my primary task became keeping my child (six months old!) healthy and breathing, but that would be a half-lie. I sleep fine. True, every thirty minutes, or every fifteen seconds, or every hour – we never really know, do we? – my son needs something from me, a bottle or a diaper change. Sometimes though, just as much, I need something from him. The little giggles that he makes when I tickle his ribs. The serious look he gets when I wiggle my fingers in front of him, his smaller fingers wrapping around my larger ones as he tries to understand this large world and how it all works. The weight of him, breathing deeply against my chest as he sleeps.

Really, I haven’t posted because I have been waiting for the publication of a story that I sent in to a literary magazine, a magazine that I can now share the name of because the latest issue is on the stands and my writing is in the pages.

Earlier this year, I wrote a short story about an experience that I had in Afghanistan, where I was deployed for most of 2011 with the Marine Corps. Terrified, I submitted the story to a literary journal called O-Dark-Thirty. After months of waiting – did they hate it, was it that bad, why haven’t they sent me a rejection of some sort? – they sent me an email. They liked it.

And now, I am pleased to announce that you can find my short story, titled “Shadows in the Night”, in the Fall 2014 issue of O-Dark-Thirty.

Check it out here and, if you are so inclined, please support the journal by subscribing or donating.

My view of the road that is described in "Shadows in the Night".

My view, in the daytime, of the road in Afghanistan that serves as the setting of “Shadows in the Night”.

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Validation.

“After you find out all the things that can go wrong, your life becomes less about living and more about waiting.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

Waiting for rejection. For the let-down, the “we regret to inform you” form letter.

Waiting to be told that your friends and family have been telling you lies; as it turns out, you are not much of a writer after all.

This is what I had been waiting for since the end of March, when I submitted a non-fiction piece to a literary journal. It remains the only piece that I have ever submitted for publication as of this writing (not counting some online sports articles, I’m talking about a legitimate publication). I submitted it, fully aware that everyone gets rejected their first (and second, and third…) time out.

Well, the waiting is over.

The journal that I submitted to posts most of their accepted pieces on their website, a blog of sorts to display works that they like. Most accepted submissions find a home there, and are read only in digital form. Other pieces that, as the journal itself states, “really knock our socks off”, are considered for a quarterly print run.

The editor of this particular journal contacted me last week, after four long months of waiting – less about living and more about waiting – and they want my piece for their next quarter’s print run!

At this time, the editors are still compiling stories and preparing for the actual printing, so I am going to keep the details to a minimum. Once the journal is out, I will surely disclose the name of the journal and where you might be able to find it.

The rejections will come, surely they will, but it’s exciting to have someone other than a family member or my small group of friends confirm that I am capable.

Capable of organizing these letters into words, these words into sentences. Capable of being published.

Capable of writing.

“Riding the Doghouse” by Randy DeVita

“When you close your eyes, what do you see? Nothing, yet. But the dark stares back. Every time you close your eyes, it sees you.” – Randy DeVita, Riding the Doghouse

Though this story is narrated by a grown man, much of the action takes place in the man’s memory as he recounts summer days spent with his truck-driving father, out on the road.

The man, then just a boy, tells us of the time that he broke his father’s only rule: Don’t touch anything in the truck. While messing around with the CB while his father was inside the gas station at a fuel stop, the boy learns that the road can be more dangerous than it might seem at first glance. What happens during the minutes that the boy’s father is inside is enough to leave the boy haunted long into his adult years.

The story begins with the man being woken by a storm, and then checking on his own twelve-year-old boy in the middle of the night, and as the lightning continues to strike erratically and the growl of thunder stretches across the sky, the man is faced with his own mortality as memories of his now-gone father resurface.

While reading this story, I was impressed with the pacing that DeVita maintains. As he, through the eyes of the boy, takes us down the road in a Kenworth semi, it is incredibly easy to get lulled into the enclosed world that is the cab of the truck. Much like the truckers themselves could easily feel as though they are isolated in that cab, despite being surrounded by other vehicles, DeVita makes us feel the loneliness that the boy felt during his encounter on the CB. As if that were not enough, DeVita then ties the story back to the beginning, with the boy as a grown man, and shows us that sometimes the loneliness never leaves us.

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“Riding the Doghouse” was originally published in West Branch. I read the story in the pages of The Best American Short Stories 2007, which was edited by Stephen King.

“Referential” by Lorrie Moore

“Do you think of me when you look at the black capillaries of the trees at night?” – Lorrie Moore, Referential

With that line, Lorrie Moore’s story of a woman and her troubled son found that place inside of me where lingering thoughts live.

The line, especially the “black capillaries of the trees”, is both lonely and suffocating; equally empty and overwhelming. We have all driven a back road somewhere, on the kind of evening that has no moon and the only way to make it home is by following the lead of the headlights as they reach deeper into the darkness. On these kind of nights, I often find that my mind wanders to those who are no longer here. The people and places that I can no longer visit, unless I am traveling my own thoughts.

“Do you think of me…” By itself, the phrase could be anything. A desperate woman wanting to know if her love is reciprocated, or a child asking a here-today, gone-tomorrow father if he is thought about while they are not together.

But the rest of it, the “black capillaries of the trees at night“, defines the phrase, and makes me think of death.

In Moore’s story, we are given a mother who has a child that spends time in the confines of some sort of mental ward. A place that troubled teens can be protected, not from the dangers outside but from the demons that fester within. The mother has a boyfriend, a man who has been around long enough for the boy to regard him as stepdad, but the recent strain of caring for – and about – the boy and his mother has caused the boyfriend to question his desire to stay.

Black capillaries.

Though nobody dies in this story, there is still death to be found. The death of a possible future in which the colder evenings, the darker evenings, are shared with someone who understands, and cares.

The death of dreams.

And sometimes, that kind of death is the most lonely of them all.

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“Referential” was originally published in The New Yorker. I read the story in the pages of The Best American Short Stories 2013, which was edited by Elizabeth Strout.

The waiting can drive you mad.

“Patience, he thought. So much of this was patience – waiting, and thinking and doing things right. So much of all this, so much of all living was patience and thinking.” – Gary Paulsen, Hatchet

A few months back, I made my first story submission.

That day, I felt a rush of exhilaration, as thought it was my time, my arrival moment. This is it, I thought. The moment where it will all begin, the story that I will refer to when they ask me how I got my start.

The confidence didn’t last long. A few days later, my mind went the other direction. Why haven’t I heard back yet? The statistical feedback on this particular journal that Duotrope (an excellent resource, writers) provided me was very clear – this publication averaged three months before responding to submitted stories. But even armed with that information, I wanted my answer. 

Am I published or not?

I have written sports articles that were published and read by a wide audience, but this was the first (and so far, only) actual story that I had ever submitted. The story details a particular evening that I had while in Afghanistan, sitting in the turret of an MRAP in the middle of the night. For once, I had peeled apart my metal robotic chest, reached inside, and watched my heart bleed all over this story.

Now, after three months, I just want an answer. Good or bad, let me have it. Worrying about this one story is definitely bad practice; I am aware that the proper course of action is to keep grinding away with more stories and submitting them, but this is my first submission.

The writing of stories can be fun. The finishing of stories can be empowering.

Nobody tells you how nerve-wracking the waiting can be.

“Gentleman’s Agreement” by Mark Richard

“It was a cheap gunshot noise the child made when he tossed the stone up on the tin-roofed shed, not artillery or anything apocalyptic yet, just a nice, good, gunfight-starting shot, and immediately the common rocks in the rock pile the child was standing on were jealous, he could feel them jealous under his feet.” – Mark Richard, Gentlemen’s Agreement

This story is about a boy who throws rocks. His father is a firefighter, and when he comes home to a broken windshield in the family car, the boy is punished. The father is a rough man, tough and seasoned from years fighting fires, and the boy has the sort of fearful respect for his father that most little boys are born with.

He swears to never throw another rock, so long as he lives. Except, of course, this is a story about a boy who throws rocks.

Mark Richard writes a very entertaining piece, taking us through the thought process of a little boy as he justifies his actions. As the tale unfolds, and the boy gets into a situation that requires some urgent assistance while throwing rocks behind the shed, we feel the stress of not knowing how the father will react once he finds out what the boy has done.

Eventually, the boy and his father find themselves behind the shed. The boy awaits his punishment, the same punishment that is promised to him in the earlier stages of the story. Yet, while this story is about a boy who throws rocks, it is also about a father and his only son.

As the story concludes, Mark Richard subtly peels away the layers of a strict, no-nonsense father and perfectly depicts the unspoken understandings that happen between a growing boy and his father.

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“Gentleman’s Agreement” was published in the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, edited by Ben Marcus.

These dreams that won’t die.

“Hearts may break, but hearts are the toughest of muscles, able to pump for a lifetime, seventy times a minute, and scarcely falter along the way. Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, can prove remarkably difficult to kill.” – Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders

And I guess that’s what this is all about. The dreams, those fascinations that will not die.

Sure, they might leave us from time to time. They might remain quiet for years, even. But the dreams always return, and we are either pleased to encounter them once again or haunted by the nightmares of what might have been.

I used to write every day. In school, at home, anywhere. I would treat each essay as a challenge, every blank page as an opponent. With no real understanding of how to write, I would work the letters into words, then the words into sentences, until I thought everything sounded right.

More often than not, it was.

Then school ended, and “growing up” happened. College, off and on. The Marine Corps, boot camps and schools and deployment. Jobs, in the wood mills and other places, but always blue-collar work.

Somewhere along the way, I put down the pen. The blank paper had won.

Now, years later, the dream has returned. Whether the dream is friend or foe remains to be seen. The weight of wasted years lies heavy upon my heart. Can I make up for lost time? Is there still a writer living within me?

Stay with me, and we’ll soon find out.

 

“Horned Men” by Karl Taro Greenfeld

“He pulled his eye away from the gap. This wasn’t really spying, he reasoned; he was up here working, trying to solve a problem, lay some cable.” – Karl Taro Greenfeld, Horned Men

A small brown box arrived on my doorstep yesterday. Inside was a single book, The Best American Short Stories 2013, which is my required textbook for an upcoming fiction writing course that I am taking at Oregon State University. How great is that? Not a giant hardcover book that weighs seven pounds, or a tattered used copy that is always sold back to the bookstore because nobody is inspired enough by the words within to actually keep the book, but an actual collection that I might have purchased on my own anyway. Opening the box, and looking at the brand new book, I felt as though I had cheated the system. My required reading was a book that I would normally read for fun.

New books excite me, and with the term still weeks away, I decided to read a story or two from the collection. Who knows, maybe already having read some of the book will give me a head start once the assignments begin rolling in.

I am a simple man, and when I saw the title of Karl Taro Greenfeld’s story, “Horned Men”, I was hooked. It would be the first one I would read from the book. Now that I am finished with the tale, I am hoping that the rest of the stories in the collection are as good as “Horned Men”.

Greenfeld’s story begins with a father who is crawling in the attic of a house that his family has recently moved into. The father, as he explores the attic space for the correct spot to drop his television cable into the wall, makes a discovery that is both intriguing and unsettling. Through a seam in the attic, the father is able to look into his teenage daughter’s bedroom – completely without her knowing that she is being watched.

The circumstances in which the family, who owns the house, has moved in involve kicking out their renters, and so when the father finds a disturbing carving in the attic, accompanied by an ominous “curse”, he doesn’t think much of it.

Yet, as he crawls around in the tight space, misfortune finds him as he suffers a painful wound (I won’t say how, you need to read the story to find that out). He finds items in the attic that don’t belong, and make little sense to be up there. His daughter makes a creepy discovery of her own, and the family is struggling to regain the happiness that they shared prior to the economic crash.

Greenfeld paces this story perfectly, moving the reader along without ever rushing them. As the story wraps up, the ending is just unsettling enough to force the reader to come to their own conclusions about the father before being able to close the book. This is not a tidy ending, where the author tells you what to think. Greenfeld concludes the story in such a way that we are not quite sure how the father acts moving forward, but we can guess that things will never again be as good as they once were.

Was there a curse, or was the family just another set of victims during tough economic times? Has the father changed, as his daughter has grown into something that he is not entirely proud of? When the father goes into the attic for the final time, does he complete what he set out to do?

You tell me.

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“Horned Men” was originally published in ZYZZYVA. I read the story in the pages of The Best American Short Stories 2013, which was edited by Elizabeth Strout.

“The Art of Being Born” by Marcia Aldrich

“Mothers know the story and tell it like a favorite fairy tale to the child, who rests her head on her pillow, on her way to sleep. But sometimes the stories of origin are troubled, riven with complexity and unanswered questions, and bespeak a cloudy future.” – Marcia Aldrich, The Art of Being Born

Marcia Aldrich, in her essay “The Art of Being Born”, writes about the confusion – her own – that surrounded her birth as a little girl. She never truly understood the birth process as a child, but in the times that she would question her mother about the “story of her”, it became apparent that the topic was not something that evoked pleasant memories. This essay, written from a now-adult Marcia to her newly born child, is her effort to not only tell the birth story but to make it clear that she knows the story. It will not be something that the child will have to wonder about years later, in the ways that a young Aldrich was forced to.

This story initially caught my eye because of its title, but as a new parent myself I found that much of Aldrich’s essay was relevant to me as well. The panic of the hospital visit, the point during labor where there is no turning back, and the sheer helplessness that accompanies much of the adventure of giving birth are all portrayed nicely as the essay progresses. Aldrich seems to desire a different path for her children, one that is not as consumed with questioning and doubt, and through the telling of her child’s arrival we feel the emptiness that she has lived with as she attempted to make sense of her own childhood.

Aldrich writes this essay in a casual tone, as though it were a letter to her child. Her ability to clearly state the events of both her childhood and her experience at the hospital (as well as the fact that the essay is only 10 pages) make for an easy read. Even so, the quiet longing for a warmer childhood than she was offered, coupled with her determination to provide a more pleasant experience for her child, give the essay a power that resonates long after the book is closed and put away.

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“The Art of Being Born” was originally published in Hotel Amerika. I read the essay in the pages of The Best American Essays 2013, which was edited by Cheryl Strayed.

I am ordinary; I am a GIANT

“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings…Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.” – John Updike

I am ordinary.

There are days that I feel like a GIANT, days where the lights are all green and I cruise through the hours uninterrupted. There are days where the gym is empty, save for me, and the weights fly from the ground and my muscles never tire. There are days where every stranger smiles, and my 6 foot 2 inch frame is just big enough to carry both my own weight and the gravity of the dreams and fascinations coursing through my head.

Still, even during the days in which I feel like a GIANT, I am ordinary.

I work, and enjoy it – most of the time.

I am in the military, one of the few places that can make one feel both ordinary and like a GIANT at the exact same time.

I go to school at Oregon State, even though I am into my third decade of life, because I always wanted to be able to impart upon my children the importance of an education. I hope that I am right, that the knowledge gained through a college experience will help me to no longer be ordinary, but instead become a GIANT.

I care for my family. A wife that supports me and understands (or at least tolerates) my eccentricities, and an infant that, without being able to crawl or speak, has me desperately searching for life’s answers so that once he can move and talk I will be able to steer him down the path that a GIANT – even if an ordinary one – should walk.

I cheer for my favorite teams, and become entirely too attached to them, considering that I am not a GIANT at all; I am just another ordinary man, another ordinary fan.

Like all of you, I lead a busy, dull, hectic, uneventful life that is dotted with enough significant moments to make me forget that a thousand years from now, nobody will know that I existed.

And because the days of hero kings are over, and because we need interesting in our ordinary lives, I write.

Somehow, if I knew that my words could live beyond me, I would forever feel like a GIANT.