Swing Away, Merrill…Even If Every Editor Rejects Your Best Work

 

Swing away merrill

“Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” — Newt Gingrich

Recently, I chatted with a fellow writer in dire need of commiseration. She slaved over a story for nearly two years, rewriting draft after draft following feedback from writer friends and polishing and refining it until she was not only happy with it but considered it her best work to date. And she wasn’t wrong. It’s a pretty damn solid story.

When it was old enough, she released the story from the nest and let it fly to her targeted list of the publishing houses a story of this type was properly suited for. It wasn’t her first time at the rodeo, so she knew precisely what she was doing.

Skip ahead past the anxiety-filled months of the story crossing the desks of slush readers and editors to the point of contact, only to discover that her baby, the best story she’d ever produced, had been rejected by everyone on her list. Majors and minors alike. Which, of course, raised the question:

What does a writer do when they’ve put their all into a story and no one wants it?

The answer is obvious, and I’m sure you’re already thinking it before you’ve read it here:

You put your best, unwanted story away for later use, and you start writing again. Instead of moping and getting down on yourself and allowing them pesky writing demons to take up valuable real estate in your head, start your next project. And it doesn’t have to be some laboriously over-complicated piece. If you’ve got something easy-breezy on the back burner, something you can bang out relatively quickly, why not give it a go? A sort of cleansing of the palate before your next magnum opus—and there will be another magnum opus, trust me on this.

My old man was a fountain of homespun wisdom and one of his favorites was:

“Nothing beats failure like a try.”

And he was right. Perseverance trumps rejection. That’s the advice I gave my friend and that’s the advice I’m giving you. Since she’s a diehard Mets fan—a trait she shares with my mother—I tried delivering it with my best baseball analogy:

When you submit your work, you’re like a hitter crowding the plate in order to have a better swing at pitches on the outside half of the plate. Rejection slips are the brushback pitches, fastballs coming at you high and inside, designed to intimidate and force you away from the plate. If they make you quit the game, you didn’t really come to the stadium to play ball. And sometimes opportunity also comes at you high and tight, so—to quote M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, “Signs”—Swing away, Merrill. Merrill, swing away.

Of course, she laughed at this because she knows I don’t know squat about baseball and my analogy stunk, but it lifted her spirit, so despite looking like an idiot, job well done, I’d say.

Well, it’s half past wrap-up time, but you know me, as long as there are famous authors to quote, I never travel alone. They’ll take the mic in a second and talk to you a bit about rejection—sans the baseball references, I promise. Until next time…

Sally forth and be swinging-at-the-pitches-ly writeful, my friend.

charles-bukowski-hulton-getty

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” — Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” — Jennifer Salaiz

henri-j-m-nouwen

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” — Sylvia Plath

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

Related articles:

Taking It On The Chin: The Graceful Art Of Accepting Rejection

It Ain’t Impossible Once Somebody Gets It Done

Wanna Succeed as a Writer? Buddy Up to Failure, it’s the Best Friendship You’ll Ever Make

You’re Where You Are Because of Who You Are (but that ain’t necessarily a bad thing)

Tiny Stories: The Wooden Cup

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

For the want of a meal, I have committed heinous crimes.

No pride or shame attached to the deeds. Eating is a necessity and needs must when the devil drives and hunger calls. The irony? Now I am permitted to dine on any foodstuff my heart desires. I decline, of course. I have no need for reminders of the pleasures of existence. Starvation is the repast I will take to my grave.

I am urged to repent and give myself wholly to my maker. This will not happen by a long chalk. Religion is that ever-elusive thing that cannot find purchase upon the coral reef of my soul. Mine is a spirit unmoved by any deity, higher or lower. The only salvation made available to me when I confront my ultimate fate is to allow oblivion to enfold me within her inky embrace.

“I seek no holy counsel from a curate,” I inform my jailors. “I wish to spend my last hours in solitude.”

This request is ignored.

A female visitor, not a member of the clergy to my knowledge, is ushered into my cell. Her face—beautiful, though not for her features—is unfamiliar to me, but the light in her eyes and the gentle warmth radiating from her tell me all I need to know. She is no threat.

She says nothing as she sits on the far corner of my bedding, cradling a cup hewn from wood in her delicate hands. I do not profess to be a learned man but I know my letters and the shapes carved into the sides of the cup are of no language written today.

Smiling, she offers the cup and makes a motion suggesting that I drink. For the life of me—a peculiar turn of phrase considering my position—I cannot explain why I accept the cup or why at her urging I touch its brim to my lips but in my grasp, this simple wooden vessel is heavy with importance, rich with history, and my will, while I am in contact with it, is no longer my own.

The cup is filled with a liquid that after one sip I somehow know to be the tears belonging to the kin of my victims, shed from pain and loss, anger and grief. There are even tears of empathy, which I believe come from this woman, herself. And when those collected salted drops greet my lips the flavor is replete, not with revenge, but with the surprising splendor of the bittersweet serenity of a loving quiet purpose and a hint of forgiveness.

I drink and drink until there is no more and am momentarily reluctant to release the cup.

Purpose fulfilled, the silent woman, still proffering that unnaturally kind smile, is escorted from my chamber. Her simple and bizarre act of sharing those tears sparks an ember within me, a dormant faith I had no inkling existed, and now I know sorrow and regret for the things that I have done. I am also granted a glimpse of the path of amendment, redemption, and peace I shall not live to follow.

Unskilled in the workings of asking for and receiving mercy and forgiveness, am I and for this reason, I fear the gates of the reward which exist beyond this all too limited flesh will undoubtedly deny me entrance. But waste not your prayers on my unworthy soul, for by the time you come to read this missive, I shall no longer be.

Oblivion is to be my final destination after all.

Taking It On The Chin: The Graceful Art Of Accepting Rejection

“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” ― Jennifer Salaiz

Rejection is akin to getting sucker-punched in the gut and, as a writer, you know this because you’ve undoubtedly experienced it in one form or another. We all have. Even with this blog, as harmless as it is, I sometimes receive comments that take issue with or flat-out reject things I’ve posted (hey, it happens, and you can’t fault people for having opinions that differ from your own).

While it’s no big secret that we all seek acceptance, rejection—impossible to avoid once your work steps out of the For-Your-Eyes-Only comfort zone and into the hands of the reading public—is an important part of your journey if your intention is to develop as a person and grow as a writer.

After you’ve gone through your initial grieving period (don’t deny or bury your feelings because that’s just not healthy), try these suggestions on for size to help you cope during the initial rejection rough patch:

1. Take yourself out of the equation

Your written piece is your baby, forever tethered to you by an unseen and intangible umbilical cord, and although it will always be a part of you, when someone disapproves of your work, they’re not necessarily rejecting you, the person.

Yes, I’m well aware it’s impossible to completely divorce yourself from something you’ve created. Especially when that sly critter Self-Doubt sidles up beside you and makes you question if there’s something wrong with you or your talent. But instead of taking this to heart and allowing it to consume you, you need to adjust your thinking.

When your work is rejected it’s usually more a reflection of the viewpoint, needs, or requirements of the person making the decision. The thoughts in your work may not align themselves with the thoughts of the target audience, which doesn’t necessarily make it bad, it’s simply not a piece that fits into their jigsaw puzzle.

Of course, if they offer you a reason why your work was rejected, you shouldn’t rush to dismiss it. Take a step back, look at the critique objectively, and if it has merit, consider incorporating it into your next draft.

2. Anticipate rejection

It’s coming whether you like it or not, so why not bake yourself a big ole Bundt cake, put the kettle on, and have yourself a little nosh when it arrives.

When writing, if you expect rejection, what it should do is make you up your game by challenging you to raise the yardstick, push the envelope and send your best work out into the world. And before you mistake my meaning, I’m not asking you to get down on your work and take the negative view that your writing isn’t good enough and never will be. I just want you to adjust your mental outlook. It’s like the saying goes, “Hope for the best, expect the worst.” It cuts down on the disappointment that may come later on.

Also, don’t let a verbal or written rejection kill your drive and lead you down the path of procrastination. Use it to become a better, stronger writer.

3. Stay focused

You can’t control your peers, society, or the world at large, so why not concentrate on your own thoughts, feelings, actions, and behaviors? Just because you’re not gifted with the inhuman ability to alter reality, doesn’t mean you’re powerless to alter your personal reality. By turning your focus inward, you acknowledge what you want and realize you have the power to set events in motion to achieve your goals.

How does this apply to rejection? You may be able to avoid the downward spiral of self-doubt by accepting there will always be cynics who are entitled to their opinions, be they informed or otherwise, and said opinions do not—and I repeat do not—have power over you. Instead of focusing on their negativity, turn your attention to what you can control, apply what you’ve learned from their comments, and move forward to produce more powerful work.

4. Spot the merit in rejection

I know I’ve taken an “it’s them, not you” approach in this post but honestly, not all rejection is unfounded. We’ve all produced work that exists on different levels. Some writings strike the right chord with the majority of your audience and others miss the mark by scant inches and even a country mile. This is when you let slip your inner critic and examine your work for uninspiring ideas, a poor approach, confusing views, unclear writing, passive voice, etc.

It also helps to learn to self-question, which is far and away different from self-doubt. Turning detective and analyzing why the editor in question didn’t accept the story, what were they looking for and what you could have done differently to meet their needs, may help you decipher learning points of which you were previously unaware.

A word of caution: Unless you have a personal connection with an editor or publisher, I would advise against contacting them directly to ask why your work was rejected. While you may see it as a means to improve your craft, your intent may be misconstrued. You never want to gain the reputation of being that writer. Or, perhaps you do. In that case, have at it. Who am I to tell you what to do?

5. Understand that rejection is growth

You’ve heard the saying, “One step forward, two steps back,” and you might believe receiving a rejection is taking those two soul-crushing backward steps, but you, my friend, are absolutely 100% incorrect. It’s the one step forward to understanding what people are looking for in the real world and how you can progress your writing to accomplish your objectives.

And if you have a piece of writing that has received more than a few rejections, instead of chucking it in the drawer of misfit tales, why not give it the once-over one more time, taking all the constructive comments into account while you do it. You just might find that you can spot and understand the weak points in your story’s structure and fortify them with the experience you’ve gained from learning how to cope with, deconstruct and master the lessons within the criticism you’ve received.

As I said from the start, you’re not the only person who’s dealt with rejection. Click this link to view some of the rejection letters received by bestselling authors. If they can handle it and press on, so can you.

Sally forth and be brush-your-shoulders-offingly writeful, my friend.

Tiny Stories: One Last Thing Before I Go

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

They gather at my wake, my family and friends do, and I am surprised to find they are not alone. For in the crowd of mournful faces I spy the many acquaintances I have made along the way, long lost playmates from my childhood, as well as the beautiful women who I recognize immediately as the pretty girls I loved in my youth, each with children not much younger than we were when we courted.

Each of the assembled grievers tells a story, most of which I remember fondly and some I have forgotten with age, stories that make me laugh at how foolish I had been when I was at my most serious and some touching enough to make the eye water at the perceived kindnesses I bestowed upon others without even being aware.

And when the time for remembrances both affectionate and painful has passed, my loved ones—and yes, even the acquaintances are loved now—raise a parting glass to wish me safe passage on my unearthly travels to where I do not know and as I feel myself being gently pulled away from this realm, I swim against the current of my final destiny and pass through each body gathered in this place to leave a personalized vivid memory in an effort to ensure I am not forgotten.

It Ain’t Impossible Once Somebody Gets It Done

“To believe a thing impossible is to make it so.” – French Proverb

Everyone talks about the writer’s toolkit and all the utensils it should contain, but writers also need to have a storehouse equipped with a shelf that holds just one thing:

The belief that anything is possible.

I’m sure you’ve already figured out that if someone has already done a thing, you can do it, too, once you’ve set your mind to it. But have you ever stopped to consider that even if no one has done this writing task that’s swimming around in your brain, you still can do it? All you need to do is cut out the middleman. You really don’t need anyone else to prove that your project is possible. You can just go on out there and do it for yourself.

Don’t worry, I’m not gonna sell you a load of universal law nonsense like “everything in life is possible because you’ve been gifted with all the necessary tools, skills, drive, and connections you need to make it happen.” If your aim is to do the impossible, you’re gonna have to work at it. Hard. And that’s a fact, Jack.

Now, you’re no doubt saying. “Okay, I get that it takes drive, dedication, passion, and the right mindset, but let’s get to the meat of the nutshell. Just how do I do the impossible?”

Well, my friend, I’m glad you asked.

1. Find the cost of your impossible.

You know very well I’m not talking about money (you can cross that financial bridge when you come to it). Failure (as discussed in a previous post) is the coin of the realm if you don’t reach your seemingly impossible goal, and you pay by taking in the pitying glances from the mundanes that use you as an example of why the impossible must never be strived for. You pay by watching your dreams burn to ash before being scattered by the winds of harsh reality. You pay by having your creative center scooped out of you with a melon baller. Or, you might pay in some other way, but make no mistake about it…

You. Will. Pay.

As stated previously, very few things in this world are truly impossible. Most times the price is just too high. You need to take a moment and truthfully examine what the personal costs to you will be (time, relationships with friends, family, etc.) and if you’ll make the commitment to remit payment should the ferryman demand a toll for crossing impossible waters.

2. Take baby steps towards the impossible.

Once you’ve zeroed in on that impossible writing endeavor, start small. Slip on your water wings, dip your big toe in the shallow end of the pool and learn the basics. The impossible isn’t one gigantic thing, it’s a series of things that increase in difficulty or complexity. Splash around in the kiddie end of the pool and get yourself acclimated to the waters before you decide to breaststroke your way into the deep end.

3. Handcuff yourself to inspiration.

Some people create a vision board with images, inspirational sayings, and the like. I know, these received a bad rap after Rhonda Byrnes’ book, The Secret, came under critical fire, but having a visual reminder of your ultimate goal is akin to keeping your eyes on the prize.

Others surround themselves with like-minded people or people who have achieved some level of success in the same or similar fields. Buddy up to them, pick their brains—politely and tactfully, of course—and find out what motivated them. Learning from someone else’s experiences, though your own will undoubtedly be completely different, can help you avoid potential pitfalls up ahead.

4. Stop gabbing about it and start doing it.

It’s great having a goal to achieve and having done all your knowledge-gathering groundwork and psyching yourself up to the point where you become a one-person cheerleading squad, but a lot of people get stuck in that complacency gap between research and action. You’ll know you’re there if you spend more time talking about conquering your impossible task than you are acting on conquering your impossible task.

Making it happen is the point where your inspiration gets put to the test because it’s where you’ll begin running into obstacles and roadblocks, where excuses for why you can’t take action start springing up like daisies.

The workaround? Micro-goals. Remember when we talked about baby steps? Get used to them because you’ll be taking a lot of them. Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch. Set daily tasks, give yourself deadlines and milestones, and keep in mind that you will have bad days, encounter setbacks, and missteps along the way. It’s all part of the process when conquering the impossible.

And get out of the habit of beating yourself up when things don’t go your way. Things will change as you begin to work towards something new, but the great thing is that your plans are not set in stone. If something doesn’t work, switch things up until it does. You’re a shark from this point on, always moving forward.

5. Celebrate the completion of micro-goals.

Why shouldn’t you? You’ve just taken a chunk out of the impossible. You’ve pressed your nose to the grindstone, torn down mental barriers, plotted courses around obstacles. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back.

6. Do it again with the next plateau.

Sure, get into the habit of doling out self-attaboys (“boys” being gender-neutral) but don’t get too full of yourself because you’ve still got a long, long way to go. The good news is, you now know the impossible is possible, so Go get ’em, tiger!

Side Note: There is one circumstance in which I will advocate for the impossible. In your attempt to pull off your Herculean task, you will encounter people who will try to hold you back—strangers, acquaintances, friends, family members, and fellow writers—out of fear, envy, spitefulness, or even a misguided sense of love. They will make you doubt yourself, keep reminding you of your faults, constantly criticize your ideas, discount your strengths, and generally make you feel unimportant.

In order to see your way through to the finish line, you must make it impossible for these people, regardless of who the hell they are or what they mean to you, to stand in your way. Kick their obstacle-shaped backsides straight to the nearest curb. And if they happen to be a friend, family, or someone you really care about, have no fear, you can always swing back and pick them up upon your return from Successville (and allow them to gnaw on a slice of told-you-I-could-do-it pie).

I do have one request for you: After you’ve accomplished your mission, do me a favor and drop me a line to let me know about the sweet taste of breathing the rarified air atop your lofty perch. If I must live vicariously through your success, so be it! I accept my fate!

Sally forth and be impossibly writeful, my friend.

One Hell Of An Offer

Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that had been removed, and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.

The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy-saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, waiting as patient as the lamb she was in life.

She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain, or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that had been mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.

Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure—she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture—getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in Heaven.

While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.

Finally, an angel arrived. He was tall and thin, wearing black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he obviously no longer needed. It was a remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.

The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the unsundertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.

“Hi, I’m Modestine,” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.

Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.

Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you,” and she tried her best to match the noise he made…but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.

Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”

Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?”

“Heavens no, that’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”

“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”

“I’m here to take you to class,” Phil said and with a single flap of his wings, shot into the sky.

“Oh, okay.” Modestine imitated Phil’s action and was understandably a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.

Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.

“Here you are,” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.

“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”

“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh-look carried a sting.

“What? Why?”

“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”

Modestine nodded, “Underprivileged kids. Twelve years.”

“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.

“Oh, no…no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”

“The information will present itself as you need it. Heaven’s cool that way.”

“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”

“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”

“From Hell?”

“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.

The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned, and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”

Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.

“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”

The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.

The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell, and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several ice-breaking games before the class broke for recess.

As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.

“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.

“Just Modestine, and yes?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.

The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”

“You’re not? Then who…?”

“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”

Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch, what is it you want?”

Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”

“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”

“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”

“By whom?”

“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”

“And do my superiors know you’re here?”

“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”

Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.

“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”

“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may summon me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”

“Just Modestine, and why me?”

“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you,” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat, and read the agreement more thoroughly.

Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word No. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.

A Message to My Younger Self: Try Harder

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In an earlier post, I made mention of my Story Box Full of Regret that contained all the stories that had never been completed. My goal is to finish them all before I shuffle off this mortal coil, so every now and then I dip into the box and reread some of my earlier works. Most times I cringe at the contents, but on the rare occasion, I marvel at the workings of my younger mind. I only mention this because I came across a story written—judging by the handwriting and the browning pages of the composition notebook—in my late teen years. It was an H.G. Welles The Time Machine rip-off (*ahem* I mean homage) about a brilliant young man who somehow managed to make a jacket out of time, hence the story’s title, The Very Fabric of Time Itself.

Sometimes I record myself reading these stories and listen to them during my routine morning strolls and one passage stuck with me:

I have no doubt that my story will end in very much the same manner as it began, with a secret. And as I stand at the crossroads, caught at the precise moment where a lifetime of secrets left untold should either be revealed or die forever, I stare at the younger man, eyes full of dreams that have not yet been crushed ‘neath the heel of reality, and find it difficult to believe that I was once him.

As I let the weight of this passage settle in, I began wondering about sending a message to my younger self and how difficult a process it would be to write. The younger me, we’ll call him Li’l Madd for the sake of this post, was a card-carrying member of The Bronx Chapter of the International Skeptics Society who wouldn’t have believed:

  1. The letter came from the future, and more importantly,
  2. That his future self had written it.

Also, I’m sure if I flat out told him of the obstacles he would face, that information would be redacted by some faceless wage slave at the Temporal Post Office, so the message would have to be as succinct as possible. I’d have to offer Li’l Madd one simple, yet key, piece of advice.

The next problem was offering the exact piece of advice Li’l Madd would listen to. That’s a toughie, that one. Yup. Yessiree, Bob. Sigh. I guess it would all have to fall under the category of Try Harder, as in:

Love fiercely and try harder not to break hearts. Befriend the friendless and try harder not to burn bridges. Laugh more and try harder not to take life too seriously. Follow your bliss and try harder to stave off the darkness. Turn off the TV and try harder to think deeply. Take your time but try harder to avoid procrastination. Dream bigger and try harder to stop worrying about dreams not coming true. And stay away from Jane Hester. Sure, she’s pretty to look at but she’s nothing but trouble and It. Will. Not. End. Well.

I’m sure that last bit will get redacted, but here’s hoping!

Author’s Note: While Jane Hester most certainly exists, Jane Hester’s name is not Jane Hester. I wouldn’t out anyone like that, not even Jane Hester. But if you ran into Jane Hester in the real world, you’d know exactly who she was, without even checking her scalp for the Mark of the Beast.

Love’s Love Lost – A Valentine’s Day Tale (sort of)

Once upon a time, in New York’s gloomy and perpetually rainy Alphabet City, there was born a girl who was said to be the living embodiment of love.

From the doctor’s first slap, the girl giggled instead of crying and flushed the neighborhood of all its gray. Her smile was a bottomless thing, its roots branching up from her soul, and it beamed so brightly as to cause blindness if it caught you unawares. Her large jade eyes radiated an innocence so pure it momentarily took your breath away. Given her birthright, she was destined to have but one mate throughout her lifetime, and that person would live a charmed life ever after.

Or so the story went.

While an urban legend to most, Cadogan believed the girl existed and based on the age of the story’s telling, surely had to be an adult now. He also was convinced it was his mission to locate the girl and put an end to love, once and for all.

Cadogan worked fingers to the bone for years and all the wealth he amassed selling off his various successful startup companies was spent on all the matchmakers who claimed to have an in with the living embodiment of love. Most were scammers, of course, the rest were simply delusional and bestowed the honor upon the wrong women. Only one woman was genuine. She knew the embodiment’s true identity and so deep was her jealousy that she gladly agreed to arrange a match if it meant obliterating the anomaly from the face of the planet.

When Cadogan met the matchmaker in a single occupancy room off Delancey Street, he thought of all the people he had ever encountered, this woman was the flipside of the living embodiment of love’s coin. Emaciated with a rat’s nest for hair, her features were packed together tightly as if God had pinched her face when she was born and left it to set that way.

“Your fee’s been paid in full, so why haven’t you set up the introduction?” Cadogan asked.

“You’re not ready.” the matchmaker spat the words like a cawing crow. “As long as you wear your true intentions like armor, she’ll dismiss you outright.”

“If I pretend, she’ll spot the ruse instantly. I’m sure she’s developed the ability to detect friendly facades. I’ll approach her as a man scorned, which is the truth, and win her over from there.”

“Interesting. And how do you mean to kill her?”

“Those were not my words. I mean to put an end to love.”

“The difference being?”

“I intend to woo her, make her love me, and when she’s at her happiest moment, I’ll argue with her, break her heart with harsh words and hurtful actions. And I will not let her leave, and I will not stop, not until the shine dulls in her eyes and the smile becomes a rootless tree, and even then I will continue until she withdraws, from our relationship, from her happiness, from the world.”

“That will take years if it ever happens at all.”

“It will. I’m a patient and persistent man,” Cadogan said.

“But I doubt you’re strong enough.”

“Then refund my money and I’ll find her on my own.”

The matchmaker leaned in closer and eyed Cadogan head to toe. His nose was full of her scent, decaying food left to stew in its own rancid juices.

“A deal is a deal,” she said. “So we’re clear, when I make the introduction, my part will be done. Should you fail in your attempts, the fee won’t be returned, understood?”

Cadogan nodded and she led the way out of the Delancey room. Under the cloak of night, they dipped down into a subway station marked, Closed For Restoration. Past the turnstile and empty platform onto the train tracks. Cadogan masked his apprehension as he gave the third rail a wide berth and occasionally peered over his shoulder at the sound of distant train rumblings.

Between stations, they encountered a society of people, homeless and long abandoned by the surface society, who barred their path. Cadogan thought he would have to fight his way through, but the matchmaker had things well in hand. She mumbled something to the leader, a password perhaps, and pulled a tin of potted meat from her handbag and placed it in the man’s bony hand. When he stepped aside, the pair carefully waded through a field of displaced people’s bedding and cooking stations until they finally reached the service passageway that led to a room not much larger than the one the matchmaker used as an office.

In the room were two chairs that faced each other. The matchmaker sat in one and gestured for Cadogan to sit opposite her.

“If this is some sort of trick…”

The matchmaker waived off the comment before it could become a threat. “She will be here, I promise.”

“Why here?” Cadogan asked.

“There’s an interesting story behind that,” the matchmaker said, clearing her throat as she spat a gob of phlegm to the side. “It seems the gift of unconditional love that Everleigh was born withthat’s the name of the woman you seek, Everleigh—the gift that flowed freely from her, the gift that touched everyone within her sphere of influence and filled them with ecstasy, proved too much for most people to bear.”

“Are you telling me people fell too much in love?” Cadogan asked.

“To the point of delirium. It drove them mad. Imagine the feeling when you have loved someone or something in your life, more than anything else in the world, loved it so much that it hurt. Now multiply that by ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million, even. Never any hatred, or indifference, only a love for everything that increases exponentially the longer you remain in Everleigh’s presence.”

“I never considered that.”

“Most people don’t.”

“So what happened?” Cadogan leaned forward in his seat.

“Nothing like a good story, eh?” The corners of the matchmaker’s mouth curled slightly. “Everleigh’s parents, immune to her gift, fearing for their daughter’s safety as well as their own, moved in the small of the night to parts unknown, somewhere far removed from society at large, and remained in seclusion.”

The matchmaker stopped talking. Cadogan waited, thinking she paused for dramatic effect, but after nearly ten minutes of silence, asked, “Is that it?”

“All the true bits. The rest is apocrypha. I figured that wouldn’t interest you.”

Cadogan shrugged, his disinterest unconvincing, “Since we’re here…”

“Well, the way I heard it, the family managed to get along fine. True, they were isolated but they were also together and safe and Everleigh’s constant state of happiness helped the situation be less stressful. Their lives remained uneventful…until the day their daughter reached puberty.

“On the fourteenth day of the second month of her eleventh year, Everleigh began growing distant, her once innocent eyes darkened and the luster faded from her smile. The gift once thought to be good was slowly transforming from its former sham and ruse into the corrupt curse it truly was.”

Cadogan’s brow knotted. “So she’s not actually a child of love?”

“Why would you think that? Everleigh is the physical embodiment of love. At birth, she was the love that was new and innocent and when she entered womanhood, she became the other side of love, the dark side none of us admit to feeling or acting upon.”

“Well, whichever side she represents, when I make her mine, I will cause it to wilt away to nothingness.”

“Do you have an alternate plan?”

“A what?”

“Should she find out what you are attempting, is there a fallback?”

“The only way she would find out is if you tell her…”

“Oh, I won’t have to tell her anything…you already have.”

It took Cadogan a few moments to piece together her meaning. “You’re…?”

The matchmaker spread her arms wide. “The genuine article.”

“But you’re…”

“A hag? Not at all what you expected? It’s the only bit the urban legend got wrong. I was born an ugly child, but people viewed me through the eyes of unconditional love, so my looks didn’t matter.”

“You tricked me!”

“How? Hello, Cadogan, I am Everleigh, pleased to meet you. Consider yourself introduced. Now, live up to your word,” Everleigh said as she moved from her chair and sat on Cadogan’s lap. “Woo me and put an end to love. I dare you.”

Cadogan wanted to push her off…but perhaps he hadn’t really wanted that at all. Up close, Everleigh wasn’t that horrible to look at. Her mottled skin was actually clear and smooth. Her nose once bent and crooked, appeared aquiline now. Her lips, full and delicious. Her build, athletic.

“Something the matter?” Everleigh asked.

Cadogan’s heart beat in his throat. “What are you doing to me?”

“Giving you a taste. I can control the power now. Love, hate, passion, jealousy…to greater and lesser degrees.”

Cadogan tried to scowl but his face wouldn’t cooperate. “What are you going to do to me?”

“Offer you the opportunity to become my mate,” said Everleigh. She climbed off his lap and drew her power back into herself, allowing Cadogan to see her in her true form again. “If legend is to be believed, a charmed life awaits you.”

“And if I decline?”

“Then you join the loveless,” Everleigh gestured toward the door.

“You mean the people we passed…?”

“Men and women, not much different than yourself, unable to deal with heartbreak or rejection. Selfish people who, being denied love, sought to prevent others from experiencing it.”

“But why do they remain here living like rats in a sewer?” Cadogan asked.

“They were unable to fulfill their supposed heart’s desire of removing my influence from the world and refused my offer of companionship. Once you turn your back on love, what else is there?” Everleigh drained the dark room entirely of love and let him ponder the notion as he sank deep into loneliness and wallowed in abandon and despair.

After an eternity of brooding silence, Cadogan spoke up, “I…accept your offer. I will become your mate.”

“And will you woo me, make me love you, and when I am at my happiest, will you break my heart and make me withdraw from the world?”

“That I will indeed, even if it takes the rest of my life.”

“Challenge accepted,” Everleigh shook the man’s hand firmly.

The contract sealed, Cadogan put his plan into effect by telling the living embodiment of love his story. Of the woman he loved, that he did nothing to deserve but was blessed with nonetheless. Of their happiness together. Of the sharp knife of cruel fate that cut their time short. Of the anguish that swallowed him whole the instant her body was committed to the ground.

And when his tale was through, Cadogan pulled her into his embrace and kissed her with every ounce of his intent, and Everleigh was forced to admit she felt a slight tingle. They battled for years in this game of hearts, each giving as good as they got, and if he actually succeeded in putting an end to her, it was with kindness. Despite the competition that continued to their dying days, the couple wound up living happily ever after.

Oh, and they had one child, who was said to be the living embodiment of peace…but that’s a story for another day.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

You’re Where You Are Because of Who You Are (but that ain’t necessarily a bad thing)

Recently, a blog post caught my eye in which a writer was coming to terms with her station and progressor lack thereofin life, and not a day later two different writers contacted me (one via DM and the other email) expressing similar concerns.

It doesn’t take knowing me long to suss out that I’m not a believer in a great many things. I’m also not the most observant person when it comes to spotting signs, but Life isn’t exactly subtle when it gives you the old elbow to the ribs and suggests you write about a particular topic.

So, this post is dedicated to the older crowdage being relative, of coursewho aren’t quite sure they’re meant to be a writer, despite the deep-down sense that urges them to touch pen to page. Doubt is a bastard of a beast that silently creeps in and builds its nest in your confidence and only rears its ugly head when you look at your writing and whispers, “You aren’t where you should be for someone your age. Maybe you’re just not good at it because a great writerhell, even a competent onewould be further along by now, don’t you think?

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Writing doesn’t come with a sell-by date and it doesn’t give a damn how long in the tooth you are. Don’t believe me? Do your research. In your info gathering, you’ll no doubt discover that Laura Ingalls Wilder was 60 when she first published her “Little House” series, Raymond Chandler sold his first pulp crime short story at 45, Richard Adams was 50 when “Watership Down” went to press, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So, the question I put to you is, if they can do it, why can’t you as well?

The mere fact that you’re questioning yourself and your abilities probably means you’re meant to be a writer. And who knows, maybe the words you write will help change the world in some small way or impact the lives of your audience. And even if that isn’t the case, should you feel that something is missing and recognize that the world, in spite of its diversity and splendor, simply is not enough and that your dreams are so much bigger than the reality that surrounds you…why not write about it?

If the yearning is gnawing at your sanity, the onus is on you to hang your self-doubt on the coat rack (don’t worry, you can pick it up on your way out), stuff your excuses in an old cigar box, give perfectionism the night off, mine your soul for inspiration and when you hit a gold vein, start writing. And embrace what comes out. If it’s messy, let it be messy, chaotic, or terrifying, just turn the editor off and keep moving forward. You’ll have plenty of time to edit your piece after you’ve finished writing it.

One last thing before I sign off, whenever I got myself into trouble and grounded as a kid (which happened a lot but don’t judge me…sometimes you have to do a little wrong to know what’s right), my mother used to say, “You’re where you are, because of who you are” and maybe that applies to you when it comes to writing. Perhaps you’re meant to be the age you are at this very moment, filled with your own unique life experiences, to start writing that project that’s been pestering you for so long.

So, push the ages of the recent crop of bestselling authors out of your mind and follow your calling. Comparing the fruits of their labor to your current lack of same is ridiculous (and frankly, their success is none of your goddamned business). All you can do is your best, so get to writing, will ya?

I wish you nothing but the very best of luck in completing your piece (and enjoy the process while you’re at it).

This has been a public service announcement from The Old Geezer’s Unasked For Nickel’s Worth of Free Advise Dispensing Committee.

The Crush

Lolsy never believed in infatuation at first sight.

To her, attraction had always been a mental process. Physical beauty was a temporary thing, a pretty wrapping that often disguised an ugly package. Then she met Marleton, a new hire at work, who, at first glance, awakened an inner poet she never knew existed.

To her, this man was that magical type of handsome that seeped into the marrow of her bones, that drew her into the depth of his eyes, which would have been beautiful in any shade, with the siren song of his gentle voice.

When he spoke her name, her mask slipped, the one she wore to keep the world at bay, her heartbeat quickened, and she became lost in lurid fantasies of how she would please his body all over the conference room, on the floor, the chairs, on top off the table, all while her coworkers watched with envy.

She caught herself locking eyes with him constantly, where he would smile and patiently wait for her to initiate conversation, but her vapor-locked brain turned her mute, forcing her to turn away in embarrassment.

At night, she pondered how she could have fallen head over heels for an absolute stranger who was eight years her junior? She had never been interested in younger men before and sincerely doubted they would have had anything in common, so she made it her business to avoid him, but the office was too small for that to work effectively, and all it took was for him to laugh at her weak attempts at humor to be sucked into fantasies about having him on the copier machine, in the break room, in the elevator, and in the parking lot, on top of the cars, again, so all her coworkers could bubble over with jealousy.

And she knew the sex would be spectacular because she was an Aries and he was a Sagittarius, and everyone knew that Aries was ruled by Mars, that red hot passion planet, and Sagittarius was ruled by Jupiter, the planet of philosophy and luck. Their signs tended to look at the world in the same way, and his Sagittarius liked to take risks under Jupiter’s indulgent influence, and her Mars was all about initiative and taking aggressive action. So, why then was she stalling? If she simply took what belonged to her, she knew he would be ready and willing to go along for the ride.

And that was all it took. Lolsy made her mind up to pop the latches on her restraint, as she damned the torpedoes, and went full steam ahead. The following day at work, she marched up to Marleton and told, not asked, but told him that they were going out on a date, and as she suspected, he offered absolutely no resistance with anything she planned for their night together.

When they met at the restaurant, Marleton arrived in casual wear, while Lolsy dressed up sexier than sexy, because she wanted to make her intentions clear. You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. This man was going to have to step up his game. She was going to burst onto the scene like a crossfire hurricane, and run him through his paces, and make him feel the way he made her feel from the very start.

All that changed the moment he greeted her and pulled out her chair at the table. Her bravado evaporated, making way for sweet happiness, as they talked and flirted their way through the meal. The chemistry between them was undeniable, and they effortlessly progressed from laughter to kisses, to sweet whispered exchanges, to an Uber ride back to his apartment.

The time for pretense had long passed, so they went straight from the front door to the bedroom. In his presence, in this place, all Lolsy’s foolish notions of being in control melted away. The nearness of Marleton filled her nose with a scent that let her know instantly that he was her drug. His arms wrapped around her back and in one gentle pull, their lips touched and his tongue probed her mouth and she was intoxicated in an instant.

“Whatever you want, you can have,” Lolsy said, trying her damnedest to focus on getting the words out clearly through the heady trance he put her under. “There isn’t a thing I can do to stop you, and I don’t want to stop you.”

With a laugh, Marleton lifted Lolsy off her feet, carried her to the bed, and set her down gently onto the mattress. He stripped her expertly, gingerly, before disrobing himself, and climbing in the bed beside her. His fingers combed through the softness of her hair, before moving along her cheek, down to her neck, and every inch of skin he brushed, his lips blessed that area with a kiss that sent electricity through her body. He went down one side and came up the other, and when they were face to face, they locked eyes. He silently asked for consent and she granted it gladly with a nod. Then he was all business, moving atop her, slotting their bodies together as if they were missing pieces of a puzzle that had finally become whole.

They engaged in amorous congress for hours that seemed like days that seemed like years. When all was finally said and done, a weak and breathless Lolsy smiled and said, “I knew it would be like this.”

“You did?”

Lolsy nodded, “Of course. You’re a Sagittarius.”

“Far more than that, I’m afraid,” Marleton chuckled. “I’m also an incubus.”

Off her confused expression, Marleton explained that he was a demon, of sorts, who engaged in sexual activity with women in order to prolong his life. If she understood or objected, he could not be sure, for Lolsy was too feeble by this point to effectively communicate, but although a demon, he was not a monster. He made her as comfortable as he could manage, as he drained her of every iota of her life force.