Commonplace

Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good—good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places—by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.”

Wendell Berry, “On Being Asked for ‘A Narrative of the Future,’” Our Only World: Ten Essays (2015)

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“Gaytonia”

Author’s note: In August 2012, I went to Long Beach, CA, to attend the memorial service of an old friend. Ted F. was the father of a boy who, at one time, was my best friend. My friendship with the father outlived the one with his son. I admired him greatly, and miss him still. Anyway, this was my first time visiting the area in which he had grown up, during the 1950s and 1960s, and where he had returned upon his retirement in the early 2000s. In Southern California for five days with nothing to do but commemorate a good man, I wandered around his neighborhood, taking pictures and shooting videos with my iPod, grinning at the sun, and grieving over a lost friend. As I shot stuff, this story developed in my mind, especially once I saw “I LOVE YOU KORY” written on a sidewalk. “Gaytonia” came together pretty quickly—I had a first draft done in a week, though I would revise all through 2013. Real streets, houses, and locales made their way into the story. Yes, the Gaytonia is quite real and, no, I never found out exactly what it is. If it feels incomplete, that’s because I think young love is incomplete, just as young lovers are unfinished and unstable. Also, I had always imagined this story as a sort of teleplay, with a female narrator telling the story over the edited footage I had shot, so photography was intended to fill in some of the gaps. Like most dreams and, hey, like most love, the story remains undeveloped. Still, I like this thing, for its mysteries and ellipses most of all.

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“Soccer Moms”

Soccer Moms

Author’s note: This is the oldest story I’m showcasing here, originally dating from a college workshop taught by Ellen Douglas in Spring 1999. I always associate it with her, and it always makes me a little tearful to revisit it—as I’ve done many times over the years. Many scholars think of Eudora Welty as Jackson, Mississippi’s quintessential writer but I can’t tolerate her in more than small doses. For me, though, Douglas was it—scrappy where Welty was florid, unflinching in her violence but lacking Welty’s wearisome grotesquerie, with a straightforwardness about sex and race that made me think she’d actually had some of the former, and knew enough actual black folks to avoid making them in grand metaphors without first making them human. Anyway, Ms. Douglas was encouraging about “Soccer Moms” but appropriately hard-nosed, asking me rough (but right) questions about these characters and daring me to lampoon the male aggression even further than I had done originally. In 2002-2003, I got to return the favor—much more gently—while helping her assemble Witnessing, a collection of essays that would be her final work. She’s meant a lot of me, and so this story does, too, no matter how wobbly it stands today.

The story starts after the jump.

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“Tollywander”

Tollywander door

Author’s note: I discovered Stephen Dixon in 2002, and he’s become one of my favorite writers. For a while, I was deep in the grip of his prose style. This story is Exhibit A: Long paragraphs, domestic drama, staccato dialogue, characters and actions revealed mostly through their talk, constantly interrupted action, a general sense of escalating chaos. Wrote/revised this in 2004-2005, and just today I’ve changed the final paragraph, because I’m too embarrassed by the original one to let it stand. I still like how this one turns on a dime, switching subject, mood, and style with just a single word.

The story starts after the jump.

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“Big Black Bear”

big black bear 01

Author’s note: In early 2012, reeling from three D’s (divorce, depression, and debt), I tried to jumpstart my fiction by committing myself to writing three short pieces a week. It could be haiku or flash fiction or prose poem, but I had to start & finish three things a week. It didn’t last a month. This came out of that period. I still like the dreamlike little thing. It’s autobiographical, true, but I also like that I still don’t know completely what the story is doing.

As it happens, I’ve actually seen a black bear in the wild, way too closely for comfort.

The story starts after the jump.

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“Margarita Salt”

Margarita Salt 01

Author’s note: I wrote the first draft of this sometime in Spring 2002, predating the blog by three years. I shopped it around to seven or eight journals, and got encouraging feedback—declines, but still…—from two editors. I sat on it until 2005, while writing first drafts of two failed children’s novels. I tinkered some more, sent it out to four or five more little magazines; all turned it down. Looking at it now, the story’s more in thrall to the finely observed epiphanies of Alice Munro and Andrea Lee than I could admit at the time. I tried so hard to make this black woman universal—no name, few identifying details, no labels or brand names, an overly studious opacity to the prose—that I’m afraid no one thought of her as a particular character at all, much less a black one. Ah well.

The story starts after the jump.
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Digging for Yukon Gold: 10 Years of Quiet Bubble

I’m no good with anniversaries. I forget the birthdays of my friends, parents, siblings, relatives, acquaintances. I semi-dread my own. The first anniversary of my marriage went OK; the second anniversary was just after we had filed for divorce, and that day in particular was full of ugly correspondence on both sides. So, there’s that. Otherwise, I’ve not been in relationships for long enough to mark substantial anniversaries, whether to celebrate or lament. I can take or leave most religious holidays.

So, coming upon a decade of this blog, I wasn’t sure what to do. It’s been stressing me out. I thought that I would dig through my archives, and repost (with commentary) my favorite piece from each category. I dug beneath the soil for Yukon Gold but found only the potato variety.

Hell, I would settle for a velvety-skinned baked potato right now, steam curling out of the mouth I just cut into it, a butter tongue melting slowly in it, fork pressing its chunks into the salt, pepper, chives, garlic, diced tomatoes, and Vidalia onions around it. Every now and then, I dug up a moment like that. More often, though, I dusted off the nugget I had unearthed, and was unable to see anything but its flaws, its bumps and nubs, the caked mud, the parched taste. In my prose, I can find paragraphs and sentences that I’m proud of but rarely full pieces. Maybe I’m just down these days but, rereading these pieces, I can recall the ambition and pretension that went into writing these and not so much that this ambitious vision was fully achieved.

When I started this thing, back in March 29, 2005, Quiet Bubble was intended as a bus stop, a nonfiction waiting station for me while I launched my fiction and poetry into the world. Trouble is, I found it increasingly difficult to write fiction, and discovered my critical voice in the process. These two things are related. As I became more confident as a critic, and more fluent in modes of criticism, it became hard for me to turn off that inner editor when I sat down to write a short story. (Being a book editor for a living didn’t help things, either.) Plus, the blog’s readers seemed to prefer the memoir—a genre I had spurned, and still have misgivings about—stuff I posted over anything else. So, despite myself, I evolved into a writer of creative nonfiction.

I won’t say that the nonfiction has taken off, exactly, but my portfolio is respectable and varied. I can write essays and criticism much more quickly than I can a short story, much less a novel. That doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped trying. From the period of 2005 to 2010, in fact, if you had asked, I would have told you that I’m a novelist first, just marking time with my criticism until I strike it rich.

It wasn’t true then. It’s certainly not true now.

I hesitate to talk openly about my influences, because I think most artists don’t truly know who or what’s influenced them directly. We know who we’ve tried to emulate or imitate but those are different things. My favorite writers, filmmakers, artists, cartoonists, musicians, etc., tend not to show up directly in my work, at least not so far as I can tell. Rather, it’s a small detail that I half-glimpsed during the day—a shining bra strap on a woman’s shoulder, sneaking out from her blouse; the way a cat crouches and wiggles his butt while watching a robin in the yard; a funny turn of phrase about hangovers in an essay by a writer whom I otherwise dislike; the overlapping drum sound on a King Sunny Adé song. (I’ve written thousands of words propelled by King Sunny Adé.) Trying to capture those things in words is impossible, so I tend toward critics who attempt to etch the impossible while simultaneously knowing that it’s indeed impossible.

In this sense, I feel that literary critics have it too easy. There’s a one-to-one relationship between a critic’s words and what she’s trying to analyze—words about words. I think that few purely literary critics have influenced me, and I don’t read much straightforward lit crit now. For a long time, of course, I did—so they’ve shaped me, sure; I just don’t know how. But, if you learn anything from digging through Quiet Bubble’s archives, it will be the trajectory of how I lost faith in the primacy of written language. That’s a good thing. I needed to learn that text is an abstract representation of the world, and not the world itself. I needed to learn that, just as history gets written by the winners, the idea that writing is sacrosanct over other arts has become common because, um, writers were the ones writing that. Just because something can’t be fully described in written language—a dancer’s pirouette across the stage; the moonglow of Sarah Vaughan’s voice on a deep, dense night; the effect of Philip Guston’s thick, chunky brushstrokes on the canvas and on your mind—doesn’t mean it is less valuable than written language. We often criticize filmmakers and sculptors for not being verbally articulate about their work, forgetting that it was their nonverbal art that got us interested in them in the first place. Sometimes, when a culture dies, its written record is all that’s left of it. I spent the last decade learning to recognize how little that written record represents, and how many mysteries are left unrevealed by that record. Quiet Bubble is a record of a guy who started off encased in books, and ended up writing and thinking well beyond them. More bluntly, it’s a record of a man getting over himself.

Give me, instead, someone like Whitney Balliett, the guiding light of this blog from day one and a man who tried, for fifty years, to make sense in language of an art (jazz) that is beyond written language. Give me Lawrence Weschler, who fuses art criticism, cultural commentary, and on-the-ground reportage into a style and sensibility all his own, because he’s truly interdisciplinary—he gets that no one aesthetic language will do when trying to understand this world. Give me Rebecca Solnit, less genteel than Weschler, more political than him, and more willing to digress into the unknown. Give me Pauline Kael, whose conversational style, fiery wit, and incisive mind managed to describe cinema—an art mode that incorporates all manner of aesthetic languages—so fluently that I recall her prose more than some of the movies she wrote about. Give me Barbara Brown Taylor, struggling in her sensual, lusciously erotic, and deeply learned prose, to make sense of God.

These writers made sense of the unknowable to me, by at least acknowledging how unknowable the world is. As I’ve tried to write fiction, I attempt to make that unknowability visible, if that makes any sense. I write love letters to the world, as I’ve written before, but part of the purpose of that correspondence is letting go of the idea that I will ever understand that mystery or be able to capture it in words.

I still write fiction. I’m just fucking slow at it. And that side of me is a shadow world mostly unrevealed by this blog. So, to celebrate Quiet Bubble’s first decade, I’ve decided not to offer my greatest hits but instead to show you a previously uncovered side of the potato.

For the next five days, I will feature an unpublished short story I wrote during the period of this blog’s existence. I’ve given up on getting these particular fictions published, because I’m 1) tired of revising them; 2) they’re not always so good; and 3) I want to let go of them so I can concentrate on new fiction and new essays. I’ve cleaned them up a bit but have left them mostly untouched and unbuffed. I’ll offer a short explanatory note for each. Otherwise, that’s it. This is a grab-bag, b-side version of my writing life—which is hardly the only life I have—so don’t come to these expecting masterpieces. But they are mine, and a part of me likes bits of each of them.

Consider them small gifts to you, faithful readers. They ain’t perfect, they ain’t shiny, but there’s the best I could do at the time.

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