Monthly Archives: March 2010
When I was four, we spent every Sunday afternoon in West Haven. Quite frankly, every week was torture; I was bored out of my mind and would rather have been home playing. Until one spring day, when Auntie Ree loaded me into her giant Cadillac and took me to the automated car wash. She rolled up the windows and pumped the Sinatra, and the ride-through was magical. After that, I looked forward to Sundays as much as I would a trip to Disney World.
I’d forgotten this until recently. It was a rare beautiful day and my friend Mo and I were going to get our nails done—but apparently, so was everybody else in Danbury; the place didn’t have an opening. “Oh well,” she said. “I wanted to get my car washed anyway.”
My heartbeat quickened as the car cuffed up on the conveyor belt and Mo pegged the stereo, which she’d cued to Train’s “Save Me San Francisco.” Water and soap shrouded the windows, brushes thrummed on the windshield, the car shimmied—all as we slowly advanced toward the glowing portal of the exit.
Just about everyone I know—including me—seems to be undergoing transformation. There is moving, breaking up, starting over, career change, new direction. These changes, while ultimately positive, are often fraught with complicated issues and feel as though they take forever to get through. Going through the car wash was a reminder that there’s not much we can do to eliminate all the bumps along the way or speed up the process—we’ll get doused with water, beaten with brushes, and pulled on a slow-moving conveyor belt until the process is complete. The thing that’s important to remember is that eventually, we’ll reach the exit—and we’ll be a lot cleaner.
Might as well just turn up the music and enjoy the ride.
Here are a few songs I hold dear as “Car Wash Favorites” and the links to where you can purchase them as MP3’s from Amazon.com in case you’re interested. Feel free to put some of your own suggestions in the comments area!
If you’re a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, you’ll definitely want to head out to Read Short Fiction and check out Cynthia Wilson’s short story, “Sunshine and Stones.” This tale of teenage mischief on the day of the plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zandt, Steve and Cassie Gaines, Dean Kilpatrick, and two pilots beautifully renders a moment in an era gone by–and serves as a reminder that nothing is the same once you have an awareness of your own mortality.
Read “Sunshine and Stones” here.
Recently, a colleague went to India on business. She loves to read, and she asked if she could take several of my short stories with her. I was thrilled and promptly loaded two manila envelopes, thinking that she probably wouldn’t really enjoy them, that perhaps she was just asking to be polite.
Yesterday she came up to me and told me that my stories had saved her life.
Before she goes on any trip, her husband buys her a book to read. For this trip, he’d given her the latest novel by her favorite author, one he was sure she hadn’t read. Ecstatic, she decided to read the novel on the long flight and stowed my envelopes in her checked luggage.
After the plane was in the air, she eagerly cracked the new book—then got to the end of page one and realized she had read it. She could have read it a second time, she said, but frankly, she hadn’t really enjoyed it that much the first time.
When she finally arrived at her hotel, she was wired. “I thought, ‘what the hell am I going to do with myself?’ and then I remembered your stories and I was so excited!” She had her favorites—for those of you who are curious, she loved “Red Circle,” “Crossing Guards,” “Paisley Surprise,” and “Doors” the most—and went into detail about how they affected her, or what they made her think. “Every night at the hotel, I had them all spread out on the bed, and I’d pick one to read. Sometimes I read two, and some of them, I even read twice. I would have gone nuts over there if I didn’t have them.”
Although I was, of course, flattered by all these compliments, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because during the course of the conversation I was struck by how many times I’ve doubted my career choice: as in, ‘why am I a writer? What’s the point of all this?’ I know other writers feel this way sometimes, too, although from sharing with my friends, most of us agree that it’s because we can’t not write—it’s born in us, something we have to do or we go crazy. This is usually followed by shop talk: what good writing is or is not, whether or not something we wrote is technically perfect, the minutiae of submissions, the state of the publishing industry or academia. We get all tangled up in the business, where we fit in it, and how it will judge us.
I had an epiphany when I was talking with Karen. That sometimes we forget the other reason we’re writing: our readers. Part of the job is providing them with an experience: we can allow escape, entertain, spark laughter, encourage thought, inspire change. It’s not all about us. It’s about others. Any piece of work we write—even if it’s not perfect—could heal someone, change his outlook, teach him something. That—not selling millions of copies at the bookstore or getting tenure in an English department—is the true measure of success.
Before we parted ways, Karen said she was going to pass the pile on to one of her colleagues.
I wonder what my stories will do next.
 “Red Circle” was first published as “The Red Circle” in The Adirondack Review’s Fall 2002 issue and is still available online for free here. It was reprinted in Mudrock: Stories & Tales’ Winter 2005 issue.
 “Doors” was just written while I was in Ptown in January and still has some minor clean-up to undergo before it gets submitted. If you’d like to read what inspired it, however, you can visit here.
A favorite short story is Jack Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets.” Plot: ambitious employee climbs out an eleventh-floor window to retrieve his career-boosting project notes.
It’s a fine study in story structure—character, conflict, crisis, change—and an even better examination of that second element, conflict. Specifically, inner conflict. Conflict that so often happens when, just as in a good short story, we are trying to make a crucial decision. When we are torn asunder and asking ourselves, ‘should I do this, or not?’
A couple of weekends ago I went to Newport, Rhode Island. I went to visit friends and to reconnect with a very special place: the famous Cliff Walk, which lately I’d been pining to see. I walked with Mark and Melissa and beheld the cerulean sky, the peacock ocean, the swirling aquamarine eddies, the jagged cliff sides composed mostly of metamorphic rock.
We stopped at the head of Newport’s famous Forty Steps, which have been around for a couple of hundred years (although restored now—the originals were wood) and was where servants from the Mansions met to hang out. The steps cut between Ellison’s Rocks and Conrad’s Cave—places which, although a bit scary to reach, are navigable, and I’ve ventured to both in the past. It was high tide, though, so I couldn’t go to the cave (you can really only go to at low tide; during high, it’s like the pirate’s hole in Disney’s The Rescuers). So I instead descended the steps and shimmied through a chasm in the outcropping to stand on Ellison’s Rocks. When I got to the bottom, I looked straight up.
There were the steps, and the sheer cliff right beside it. The contrast struck me. I have some experience with rock climbing, and I remembered that when you’re going to rappel, it’s pretty intimidating to stand on that ledge and look down—it’ll be over quickly, but it induces vertigo. Even though the stairs take longer, the descent is less traumatic.
But either one will get a person to the same spot.
I put inner conflict over making a critical decision in this context. When we face that giant leap and contemplate a net-free plunge, it can be a long way down, baby. When we, however, break that conflict into smaller formations and conquer each one at a time, it may take longer, but it’s less overwhelming. And the outcome is the same.
One of the most interesting lines in “Contents” comes at a moment just after Tom has set his feet on the window ledge, when he’s “eleven stories above the street, staring into his own lighted apartment, odd and different-seeming now.” It occurred to me that after the conflict has been resolved and we’ve lived with the decision for a little while, we often look back on it and realize we’ve made the right choice. That the alternate life we could have led somehow looks odd.
And we may even forget why we thought the decision was so difficult to make in the first place.
 You can read Jack Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” here–it does have a couple of MINOR typos–nothing significant enough to mess up the piece (yes, I did a line-by-line check)–but it’s free : http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissani/20302005/Deadman.htm
 This reference is from the Newport Comprehensive Land Use Plan, published by the City of Newport in–I’m making an assumption from the link–2005. Unfortunately, although there is a link to the PDF online, there really isn’t any publishing information. If you’d like to read the report—which is excellent in terms of wanting to know everything about Newport’s history, cultural, ecological, and geological resources—you can either click here (the PDF is posted directly on my site): comp_landuse_05 or visit this link: http://www.cityofnewport.com/departments/planning-zoning/maps-plans/pdf/comp_landuse_05.pdf
The information I’ve cited appears on page 1.
 Linda S. Manning, “An Amazing Stroll through Time…Walking the Walk…The Cliff Walk,” Rhode Island Roads: The Online Magazine of Travel, Life, Dining, and Entertainment for People Who Love Rhode Island, http://riroads.com/outdoors/cliff_walk.htm
 Jack Finney, “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets,” in Adventures in Appreciation Annotated Teacher’s Edition, ed. Judy Allen-Newberry, Anthony J. Buckley and Richard Tuerk (Orlando, San Diego, Chicago and Dallas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 102.
Melissa Martin-Ellis is an illustrator, writer and photographer, and Vice President and Creative Director of Millennial Publications. Her artwork and writing have been featured in numerous New England exhibits and galleries, as well as in print media such as the Redwood Review, Newport This Week, Newport Life Magazine, The Boston Globe, Horseman’s Yankee Peddler, The Newport Round Table Anthology and Balancing The Tides.
She is the author of three nonfiction books, The Everything Guide to Writing Graphic Novels, The Everything Photography Book and The Everything Ghost Hunting Book for Adams Media. She the co-moderator of the Newport Round Table Writers’ Group in Newport, Rhode Island. She is currently working on a graphic novel project about the disappearance of the honeybee and collaborating with her husband, author Mark Ellis, on a paranormal thriller novel.
You can check out her stunning photos of Newport at http://www.mellissart.com/.
My short story “Smoke Brake”—basically, it’s about girls, cars, and cigarettes—has been accepted for publication in the April issue of The Legendary. I’ll let you know when it’s available.
A dear friend and excellent poet, Chris Emmerson-Pace, pointed out that fire is a recurring element in much of my fiction. I hadn’t recognized that until he said it—it was 2004, and at the time, I’d written several stories that utilized fire: “Burning Origami,” “The Bitching Bench,” and an unpublished novella, Bad Apple, among them. He noted that my subconscious obsession with fire was probably symbolic of something I was trying to work out in my head; that, more than likely, whenever I had resolved whatever it was, fire would take a back seat.
Fast forward to 2010, and this hasn’t happened. In fact, fire has shown up in several more stories over the years: “Candle Garden,” “Matchbox,” “Confetti,” “Synecdoche,” “Jingle Shells,” and “Screams of Autumn.” While, yes, I’ve explored other motifs and featured other things (ants comes to mind), I still consider this significant. So what is it about fire that’s so damn compelling?
The answer would come on Halloween in 2009, but I didn’t figure it out until recently.
I’d gone to Newport, Rhode Island, for a signing of The Everything Ghost Hunting Book, and to hang out with some friends from college, which is a once-a-month thing. They lit the usual bonfire in the back yard and we settled in for the stimulating hours of conversation about all things interesting.
Heather and John had just finished divesting themselves of junk: at least a dumpster’s worth, as I recall. Somewhere between the second and third bottle of red wine, John brought out a wrinkled garbage bag. He opened it up and took out a wooden horse and a wooden unicorn, both on wheels. They had belonged to their daughter (who was in bed), and their fates had been sealed.
“I’m sick of those friggin’ things being around,” Heather said.
“Why didn’t you just chuck ’em?” I asked, which was a stupid question, considering I know John never throws away anything that he can burn.
John lit up a cigarette. “I know you like to burn shit, so I saved ’em ’til you got here. I figured this’d be a cool activity on a Friday night.”
I didn’t take offense to him commenting on my own pyromaniacal tendencies (I have a party every winter at which my friends and I burn our rejection slips). And I wasn’t shocked we were going to burn children’s toys. In fact, it was going to be a thrill to burn something other than empty pizza boxes and beer pods. We actually did a small ritual, took some photos, and torched the things.
But they took a long time to burn.
“They’re like symbols. It’s kinda freaky, because they represent the past,” John said, watching as the horse’s yarn mane burst into flame.
I’ve heard that “the definition of insanity is repeating the same negative behavior or pattern of the past, expecting better results each time it’s tried.” With that in mind, I’ve spent my life identifying patterns and behaviors that lead to disastrous situations and making sure I never repeated them—I’m hyper-aware of my past. But what happens when something feels like it’s the start of the same old pattern, but it takes an unexpected shift? Or we want to once again attempt something we previously failed, but we’ve certainly got more resources now than we did then—we’re older and wiser, so to speak? Conversely, what happens when every nerve in our bodies screams for something and it’s the right time to do it, but because it looks suspiciously similar to something that singed us in the past, we don’t? What opportunities might we miss?
As we watched the horse, and then the unicorn, ignite and send a hail of sparks into the night sky, it occurred to me that sometimes, the danger is in not taking the plunge out of fear the past will repeat itself. That sometimes we have to trust our instincts and let it go.
It’s also interesting to note that my latest story doesn’t have any fire in it at all.
It features water instead.
I’m honored to be a guest on writer Tamara Linse’s Blog, and my post is now up! The top tips I learned at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony for pulverizing pressure and plussing productivity. Check it out now at http://02e9d7b.netsolhost.com/Blog/archives/408.
Anyone who knows me well knows I’m passionate about theme parks—the ones in Orlando in particular. In the past nine months, two of my favorite places have been backdrops for shocking tragedy: in July, Disney World Monorail Pilot Austin Wuennenberg, 21, was killed when Monorails Pink and Purple crashed into each other; in the last week of February, Sea World Whale Trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, died when an orca named Tilikum…well, flipped out.
Heartbreaking. Just heartbreaking. But I did take small comfort in two things. According to a July 6, 2009 article on the WESH-2 News Orlando website, “Austin Wuennenberg died doing what he loved. People who knew Wuennenberg said being a driver for Disney’s monorail was his dream job.” I wasn’t surprised to hear this—mostly because, believe it or not, I have always fantasized about what job I’d like best at WDW, and the answer has always been ‘Monorail Pilot.’
Dawn Brancheau, the whale trainer who was killed at Sea World, was no different. In 2000, WESH-2 News Orlando’s Amanda Ober did a piece on Dawn. According to a February 25, 2010 article on the station’s site, “Brancheau identified her dream at the age of 9 and went on to realize it, becoming SeaWorld’s leading whale trainer…‘What I remember most is that Dawn was someone truly living her dream,’ Ober said.”
In Dawn’s case, I didn’t need a news article to confirm this. I know from having many friends in the husbandry business that you don’t become an animal trainer unless you love it more than life itself. It’s never just a job; you live and breathe to go to work.
I have several passions, but the two that mean most are writing and marine biology. When I was a kid—starting at the age of, oh, around seven, I guess—I’d write stories that usually featured a grown-up me working at some aquarium someplace. But life passed and I was only dabbling in both: since the mid-1980s, I’d been writing stories on and off. Since 2001, I’d been working as a volunteer at two different aquariums and writing short stories inspired by my experiences.
But in 2003, I was at a crossroads. It was time to make a decision, since I’d never pursued either passion completely. I could go back to school to be a writer or an aquarist. But I couldn’t do both. Obviously, I chose writing, and here I am. So far, it’s gotten me all the way to the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
On my last day at the Colony, I went next door to Apartment 1 to say goodbye to the other Fellow, Merissa Nathan Gerson, who’s an Aquarian and dream chaser like me and pours her heart and soul into the very helpful, wise website www.askyouryenta.com. She gave me a big hug and said, “Just remember that we all die someday. People get all tangled up in their bills and responsibilities and guilt and they sometimes choose to just hang out, but they forget that everybody dies.”
This struck me. Yes, it is terribly sad about Austin and Dawn. But their dedication and service to their passions should be a reminder to all of us. They both died doing what they loved.
If all of us will only be so lucky.
In honor of each of their memories, I’m posting two previously published stories which are no longer available anywhere, and one thing I wrote up when I was nine which isn’t really a story, but evidence of just how big my dreams were at that age.
This Flash piece was Admit One Literary Theme Park’s Issue #3 in July, 2008. AOLTP was a project of mine connected with my MFA thesis: Disney fan fiction delivered monthly to subscribers’ e-mails. While successful, it was a bit overwhelming with only me doing the writing. For more info on Admit One, you can visit my “Projects” tab. What’s posted here is the original issue that went out to subscribers. Oh, yeah…and if you like what you read, stay tuned. Pandora Ink Books is publishing an illustrated collection of the Admit One pieces later this year.
Note: for the following pieces, you can click on each picture and it will open in a separate frame for easier reading/printing.
“Done for Glory”
This is another short piece called “Done for Glory,” which I wrote in April of 1986 (I was 15). I entered it into the short story contest for The Piper, our high school’s literary magazine, and it won second place. What’s interesting is that this is definitely the root of the story “Wailing Station,” which I wrote in 2006 and placed 2nd in Toasted Cheese‘s 2007 Dead of Winter Contest. Apparently, I had whales and desolate climates on the brain for many years.
“Daytona Beach News”
Okay, here’s that thing that’s not really a story. This was written in 1980, and the names you see in there are the names of some of my third grade classmates (who are all going to kiss me or kill me when they see this, since I’m still in touch with all of them). Notice all the lovely misspellings (well, I DID lose the Spelling Bee that year). Kristina Hals, Tina Mowrey, Greg Grenier, and Joe Strickland, this one’s for you. Betcha guys didn’t even know I was writing this stuff, did you? Well, at least you know you were along for the ride early on!
 “Interview Recalled With Late Trainer,” WESH.COM, February 25, 2010, http://www.wesh.com/news/22665827/detail.html (accessed February 28, 2010).