Tonight’s Reading Plan: Lawrence and Lebowski

I’m reading Lawrence, Hemingway and Anderson.

Tonight, I will read a few chapters in the Sun Also Rises and perhaps a little more of St. Mawr. 

I’m also reading The Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance of Two Gentlemen of Lebowski.

You’re going to want to check that out.  Full disclosure:  I get a small percentage if you buy it through the link. 

I hadn’t heard of this work by Adam Bertocci until my wife bought me a copy as a surprise earlier this week.  The opening scene alone is worth the cover price.

Story: A Winter Ascetic

A Winter Ascetic

The house is cold at 60 and January lies. Outside everything’s washed bold under bright sun and heavy light but the air’s still cold like New Year’s. The shadows are crisp, too, I can see without my glasses, but the lines of my hardwood floor run together at the door. I won’t go outside today.

The dog got walked twice on Tuesday and yesterday the same. He’ll be fine for now with the city paper in the basement. I don’t give him the free paper, though – that I save that for kindling. It’s not as good a grade and burns much cleaner than our subscription rags.

I teach here in the Valley, English at the county’s liberal arts college, and we’re still on what my editor and the administration insist on calling Break, but I don’t get much done. They brought me here after my dissertation because of the exciting work I was doing on cognizance and the nonnegotiable particulars of a working Kantian regime in British Lit. I scrawl it out in pencil or pen on blue lined sheets of paper with thin red ledger lines. They’re curling on my curio and they blur together, too.

The dog comes in with my fedora. The fedora is for Thursday walks, he knows, with the beret and scarf for Sundays. I scratch behind his ears and tell him not today. “I’m working on the ending, Scout, and then I will be finished. Once more through the ending and then the intro after that.” No one reads the middles so I don’t even bother. Better authors put their real points there, buried in a paragraph or single sentence, buried in the middle where no one reads. To me it’s just a vehicle, an excuse for clever starts and pithy, pithy ends and I think maybe I should have been a poet.


Publication notes:  This is another of those pieces that is so old that it was published at one of the early online microfiction journals, in this case, a venue called Thieves Jargon. Like elimae and Tuesday Shorts and others from those days, the Jargon is no longer.  “A Winter Ascetic” was published there in December of 2007.  Copyright Chris Cocca 2007 – 2018 and in perpetuity.

Story: The Insult

This was originally published years ago at Six Sentences.  I have slightly revised it since then, but I think the revision makes it more of story and less of a prose poem. 

The Insult

There are no bakeries outside San Marco in 1968, no fish markets or butchers, only tobacco fields and salted meats between Carmine’s and the piazza.  Dirt roads spread like long brown leaves from my cousin’s to the church-square and we ride to town on ox carts and warping wooden wheels.
      I give my aunt a big roast in the cool dirt kitchen where summer meats are hanging. At dinner there’s a small cut roasted and I ask about the rest. Three quarters of my trophy, cured, turns above the table. Flies land on the slivers Zizi portions, oblivious and greedy.  Li mericani! she says, forgiving my abuse.


All rights Chris Cocca, but do feel free to share, and, please, do comment.

100-Word Story: The Good Thief

This 100-word story/prose poem was written probably 10 years ago and published around that time at Tuesday Shorts.  Tuesday Shorts was such an early journal of micro-fiction that it was actually hosted on MySpace.  Before closing up shop, it moved to blogspot.  The editors had been planning a print anthology, and this piece was to be included.  The anthology ended up not happening, and the blogspot version of the journal carries this 100-word epitaph:

Tuesday Shorts placed writers we know alongside those we don’t to communicate that quality writers are everywhere, and make one community. Writing—no matter how frustrating an endeavor it can sometimes become—should always be a challenging game we can all play.

Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose Deep End of the Ocean was the first Oprah’s Book Club selection, not only recommended making Tuesday Shorts a MySpace blog, but also contributed the first piece. More excellent work followed by writers known and unknown, and pieces continue to draw readers who want a good story but only have a minute to read it.

Here’s The Good Thief:

My grandfather cannot walk now but his arms and back are strong. He wears a v-neck work shirt and a gold and diamond Christ-head and he’s kneeling on the den floor looking for his pills. His forearms are Italian-dark with latent bulldog power, still big from turning Navy mounts and tagging Mitsubishi Zeros by blood-red dots behind their wings. Now he’s moving the recliner and sweating from his nose and steel wool shadow. His chair crashes heavy and Jesus weeps the nose sweat while my daughter crawls behind him and he doesn’t know I see. Find the red dots, Pop.


A note here about 100-word stories and the impact they seem to still have on my writing. 

100 Words at a Time

I have always loved to write.  I first started writing creatively as an adult sometime during Divinity School, in my early 20s.  I wrote stories and poems in high school of course, but most of what I wrote in college was more academic. 

Between finishing my Master of Divinity and starting my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I wrote many small pieces of fiction and prose poems.  I grew fond of writing things that were exactly 100 words.  It was a good practice in rhythm, word choice, and brevity.

This piece, which I rewrote yesterday from an older draft that didn’t go where I had hoped, is 98 words:

There’s nothing to say now to Eugene Victor Debs or William Jennings Bryan.  No spring under iron wheels and no thaw in the concrete borders of compassion.  No dispersing from the lock-step forms of ill-formed fear, fear of self, of other, fear of washing rain, revealing living oneness, fear of drowning in it.  There’s no green in our window-boxes, no stray cats in alleys and nothing left to feed them. Only fat birds always eating and the statues of our past, the ideal likeness of forgotten shapes and forms, fat birds always eating, bleaching white our skin-toned stories.

I have also found that I inevitably tend to write paragraphs of about 100 words in my fiction, especially why I’m attempting a birds-eye view seeking to balance external and internal settings, or when I’m doing an extremely close third-person read. 

After quite of bit of struggle with one story yesterday, I read and took a break.  Later, I revised the poem above.  Then I went about the other things I had to do. Later still, I wrote a post about DH Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson (both very good at the external/internal balance and the shift from mundane to sublime) and Ernest Hemingway (ever a muse for brevity).  Then I returned to another story, one I had been avoiding for personal reasons, and wrote this, which is, not surprisingly, about a hundred words:

On his ten-speed, the new present from his father, Riley arced and waved, his course unfettered and unhinged, free from the attraction of large bodies, the fundamental laws of physics. The nurses crossed the Fairgrounds. Birds roosted in the trees. The Sisters of St. Catherine were called to daily office, everywhere the brides of Christ were moving to the music of the set-in-motion world. In the Market lot, where the families sold their wares, where the men had trained to serve in war, where the Milltown Fair lit August sky with fireworks and neon, on that swath of pavement bordered by the hospital and graveyard, a boy, still small, still boyish, rode his brand-new bike.

I’m sure I’ll revise and refine that, but for now I rather like it.  In the context of the story, it’s a sort of capstone.

For whatever reason, I tend to write more or less 100 words at a time.  There are days when these bursts add up, 1000 or 2000 words.  There are days like yesterday, where I revised 98 and wrote 120 more.

Dialogue is like the 12-point Courier New of daily word goals.  Even in the piece I struggled with yesterday, I managed 300 words of decent dialogue in service of the story. 

Some days net a ton of words you cut down later.  Some days net a ton of words you keep.  Some days are more about the planting, some days about the harvest.

If you’re writing and/or reading today (and I hope you are), happy sewing, watering, reaping.

Heroes and Villains: Brian Wilson, Donald Trump

I just watched the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors for Brian Wilson. For reasons that are easy to guess — his life story, his genius, his music — I am sobbing.  For other things, too: for him, for us; in gratitude, in fear.

A decade later, neither the country nor the world look anything like they did even in the nadir of the Bush administration. 

Honoring Brian, Art Garfunkel said: “I love rock and roll.  It’s just so joyous and life affirming.  And this is a great moment for me to honor my colleague, a fountainhead of that joy, Brian Wilson. To me, rock and roll is our great American invention.  And the fact that you, Brian, are one of its architects makes me proud of who we are as a country.”  Garfunkel talked about Brian’s “California roots, which to me, always represented the kindness and sweetness of America.”  He called Brian Wilson “rock music’s gentlest revolutionary.”

A few days ago, I read a brilliant piece by writer Gerald Weaver about Donald Trump and the failure of language.

Our innocence, our sweetness, the basic goodness of the premise for this country is the promise of a nation held together not by blood or iron but by consensus on revolutionary claims about the dignity of all people.

I’m not stupid.  I know we have never actually lived up to those ideals.  For centuries, we have systemically disenfranchised our own people.  For decades, we have instigated proxy wars.  For decades, we have have encouraged every kind of inequality.

But we’ve also held onto hope.  We’ve also given a damn about what America is supposed to be and mean. 

Condemning the tear gassing of assylum-seaking migrants at the southern border this week, Beto O’Rourke said, “It should tell us something about her home country that a mother is willing to travel 2,000 miles with her 4-month-old son to come here. It should tell us something about our country that we only respond to this desperate need once she is at our border. So far, in this administration, that response has included taking kids from their parents, locking them up in cages, and now tear gassing them at the border.”

Now the news that Donald Trump is authorizing lethal force.

I think I was four when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault.  He opened something else on Fox News’ The Five (I do not watch it). 

“This tear gas choked me. We treat these people — these economic refugees — as if they’re zombies from ‘The Walking Dead.’ We arrested 42 people; eight of them were women with children. We have to deal with this problem humanely and with compassion. These are not invaders. Stop using these military analogies. This is absolutely painful to watch…We are a nation of immigrants. These are desperate people. They walked 2,000 miles. Why? Because they want to rape your daughter or steal your lunch? No. Because they want a job! . . . We suspend our humanity when it comes to this issue. And I fear that it is because they look different than the mainstream.”

Of course Greg Gutfeld cut him off when he pointed out that economic refugees are in many cases fleeing situations our own policies have helped create.  Of course Jesse Waters, Fox’s Chief of Smarm, looked exasperated.

Of course, tonight, I’m crying over Art Garfunkel and Brian Wilson and America.