thomasibenton

Fictionish tales of hillbillies and stuff.

New Blog Location!

I now have a NEW and IMPROVED and still TOTALLY FREE bloggy thing at thomasibenton.com.

I will cross post here for a while, but eventually I’ll be posting at the the new location exclusively.

That said, WordPress.com has been an awesome place to try this stuff out for free.

 

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(Un)Clothed by Words–Fiction

One of the great ironies of my bloggy thing is that I go on and on about fiction that I write, and even about how important it is to get over the nervousness of sharing that fiction with the world, all while never actually, you know, posting any of that fiction here.

Most of my current work is in a queue of some kind, a queue that keeps me from being ably to post it on my blog. Some of my stories are in a submission queue awaiting consideration from one journal or another. At least one piece of mine is (happily) in a line awaiting publication. A lot of stories are waiting for me to edit them and decide which journal’s submission queue to send them off to. Generally speaking, once I put a story up here I can’t submit it to a journal–hence, I haven’t put any stories up here.

I think that should change, though, if only because I despise hypocrisy.

Here’s a story that I first wrote for a competition over at WritingForums last spring. The prompt for the contest was “unexpectedly nude.” I have expanded this piece ever so slightly since then–the competition had a strict 650 word limit, which was just a tad too short for this story–but this is still a quick read.

One word of warning: while the sexual content here is a little oblique and extremely metaphorical, if sexual references aren’t your cup of tea, please skip this one and come back again soon. If you are still here, I hope you enjoy the story.

 


 

(Un)Clothed by Words

She began the same as always: “The girl sat in the coffee shop. Don’t worry about what she looks like. She’s just a girl.”

The girl considered her next words as a blast of cool spring air blew a group of tittering young women into the shop to order froo-froo drinks with foamed cream. The girl didn’t care what they drank, but she didn’t like how they dressed. They were such tawdry exhibitionists.

The girl thought that the guys who came in next must have seen the tramps through the big windows behind her. The bushes between the sidewalk and the windows were just beginning to leaf out. The girl knew that a person could surreptitiously peer into the shop from the sidewalk. She liked that in a writing spot.

None of the guys noticed the girl with the notebook at the table by the door. Maybe they were distracted by the female flesh on display elsewhere, she thought. If they were that easily distracted, those boys had no place in her story.

She kept writing, writing things the Internet was invented to contain, things the Internet would gladly deliver on a glowing screen in a darkened room. She wrote those things in her new notebook because putting them on the Internet to be read by just anyone wasn’t as good as putting them into a disposable notebook she could discretely abandon.

All of the seats in the little shop were filled with loudly flirting locals. Perfect, she thought, so long as it happens soon. Then she began to worry that the right one would not come along at all. That happened sometimes. It was fun to write and drink coffee anyway, she consoled herself.

Then he came in the door. He was a little older than the girl, with a short beard, or maybe just scruff. The weathered leather attache with a strap over his left shoulder might mark him as a businessman going to a meeting, but she decided that he was a writer looking for a cheap spot to work. Watching discretely, she saw his eyes flit over the trashy girls as they laughed and flirted. His eyes passed over the girl, too, as she hid behind her notebook. She rushed to fill in her story with this new protagonist.

He ordered an espresso. His voice was friendly, but . . . it was something else, too, she thought, she hoped.

The girl shivered and wrote furiously. As steam whooshed, she wrote about the strap from the attache whistling through the air. She gasped a little bit when it came down in her story. Did the man look over at her then? She blushed a little, but a flush was already on her cheeks.

The girl hurried to finish her work before the espresso was done. She got up just as the man was thanking the barista. She left the notebook casually on the table.

The girl felt hot outside in the cold air. She took a few steps toward the train station, but then stopped and watched through the tender leaves of the bushes and the big window looking in on the seat she had abandoned. The man looked around before he sat down in the seat she had warmed for him. After a moment, he opened the notebook she had left behind and read. No one ever opened it right away; she knew patience was required to receive this particular violation. She squirmed beyond the bushes, both voyeur and exhibitionist.

Then he stood up, notebook in hand, and flung open the door. She wanted to flee, but she was trapped alongside the bushes, unexpectedly nude before the hero of her own story.

“I think that you left this.” He held out the notebook.

She flushed even more and stammered, “Th-thanks. I . . . that is . . . embarrassing.”

“In a fun way, I hope.” He smiled. Did his left eyebrow cock up ever so slightly?

The girl nodded at the man as she took the notebook from his hand. She clutched the book across her chest and turned without another word. She ran to the train station, the cold air in her lungs as rough as a lover’s hands.

She shielded herself with the notebook for the entire train ride home.

50 Shades of Inspiration

Everything I write is inspired by the first chapter of 50 Shades of Grey.

Let me explain what I mean there. Back when I was just a dude writing things in my spare time, things that I figured no one would much like, E L James made a big splash with her “provocative romance” series. I thought to myself, “here is an author who went from obscurity to spectacular success. I’ve got to read her book and see what I can learn.” In the back of my head, I think I kind of figured that I could write me up some erotica and hit the big time. [spoiler: I most definitely cannot]

I downloaded the free first chapter from Amazon. I read the first chapter eagerly.

Did I like the first chapter? No, I did not.

Did I buy the book? Nope.

Did I read a free copy? Not at all.

Was I inspired anyway? Yep.

Look, I can’t speak for the entire book, but the first chapter of 50 Shades is not exactly, in the parlance of my high school English teachers, “good.” Beyond not being the prose I was taught to appreciate and craft, there was nothing in the opening that resonated with me, nothing at all.

Yet there it was, out there in the world being read and read. Snicker all you want, you Guardians of Decency and you Protectors of Literature, but that book connected with people. I’m pretty sure it has changed lives, and for the better.

If a previously unknown person could write a book that first went unnoticed by the fancy writing people of the world, and then when the fancy writing people noticed the book it was promptly derided as only marginally literate tripe, but then that book could could become positively beloved by a small army of readers– well, I figured I should at least be willing to give my own work a chance.

A few years on, here I am, blogging but officially unpublished as I work through the processes of writing and editing and submitting work. I’m even having some success there, so I should be able to shed the “unpublished” moniker soon. Thanks to E L James, really.

I don’t mean to bag on an author who has sold (according to Wikipedia, the Repository of All Knowledge and Wisdom) over 100 million books. Compared to me, she has sold . . . wait, let me do the calculations . . . carry the one . . . over 100 million more books than I have. She clearly has done something right. I suspect that the most important thing she has done right was to put her work out there, to let snobs and even people like my decidedly non-snobby self dislike it. Only by risking the bad reviews could she connect with readers, readers she couldn’t know about until she shared her work.

The stories living on my hard drive could never find success if I kept them away from derision. I started to share my work.

50 Shades of Grey has made all the difference.

PS: I owe a special thanks to my friend TKent for helping me sort out my thoughts on this topic. She’s an up and coming romance writer working on a serial novel called Last Chapter Rewrite. She’s also a real fun follow on Twitter under the handle @TKentWrites.

Ineffable Americanism

Today is Election Day here in the U.S. At times like this where we solemnly–or, perhaps more typically, cynically–observe the rituals of democracy, I am reminded of the privileges I was born into.

I have come to realize over my years that something difficult to name but easy to identify animates America and Americans. Ours is a country not defined by outward appearance or religion or even language, yet there is something about this land of mine that also makes it a land of ours. That something throughly permeates immigrants, making them wholly American, even if they still honor their family’s history and culture.

Earlier in my professional life, I repeatedly travelled to factories in Asia, especially South Korea, to meet with engineers and businessmen there. On my very first visit, one of the serious faced engineers who filed into the room and sat across the table from me looked . . . different, somehow. I couldn’t explain how he was different from his colleagues, maybe he held my eyes a bit longer, perhaps he carried himself with a slight swagger, but he was not the same as the other men (and they were all men that day) who filed in to meet with this visiting American.

At our first break I discovered why I spotted a difference. I had not previously known that companies in Korea had taken to hiring the American children of Korean immigrants help interface with colleagues and clients in the US; my new friend was the son of a couple who left South Korea for a better life in the US. He was fluent in both Korean and English, and earning a good living while learning first hand about his family’s cultural roots. He told me that he was enjoying his time.

But he was still homesick. He still felt out of place. He was happy to see a lanky hillbilly in Busan.

After that first meeting, I made a private game of “spot the American” at each factory I visited. I imposed upon myself the requirement that I make my guess before anyone spoke. I never missed.

Something about America clings to our skins, no matter the color of that skin. An essence of the U.S. shoots through us, permeating our being. We are a big, messy extended family.

We are Americans. Go vote.

This is the best time in the history of written language to be a writer

I am neither a historian nor a linguist, but I suspect that soon after the invention of written language there were writers complaining about the next inventions that changed the business of writing.

I mean, that papyrus stuff was made from swamp weeds. Having something that cheap and easy to to write on opened the doors for just any yahoo to call himself a writer if he thought he could string a few hieroglyphs together. No doubt someone argued that the lowered cost of admission seriously undermined the quality of writing in Egypt.

Perhaps lowered barriers to writing have indeed lowered the quality of the writing available, but I still think the printing press was a pretty nifty invention. Paperbacks and pulp paper were pretty good ideas, too. Ultimately, changes to the technology of writing put the dime novel and the penny dreadful and pulp fiction into the hands of ordinary people. Maybe those new works placed into the hands and hearts of ordinary people were of low quality, but I find it hard to consider more people reading to be anything other than an unmitigated good.

This Internet thing is pretty awesome.

I know, I know, I’m not even close to the first person to make this observation, but the fact remains that I am just kind of a guy who likes writing things. I have non-writing work that pays the bills, but thanks to the Internet I am still a writer–and I know from website analytics that I even have readers, which is the dream of anyone who wants to write.

Thanks to the Internet, I was able to set up a simple WordPress.com site for free–as in, $0.00–to start blogging. Thanks to the Internet, I have been able to send out submissions to journals, both online and in print and in various combinations of online and print (stay tuned there if you are interested in reading fiction from yours truly featuring both hillbillies and space aliens). Thanks to the Internet I have been able to discuss the nuances of writing with new friends around the globe. For me, this is a Golden Age of Writing.

Yeah, the Internet has lowered the bar on who can be a writer. There’s horrible trolls who don’t deserve a platform filling the Internet with their vileness. There’s semi-illiterate txt spk all over. There’s an ocean of inanity, you might argue.

You would be correct to argue that the Internet has lowered to bar a person has to clear to be a writer. Personally, I think that lower bar is a feature instead of a bug, because now the bar is low enough for me to step over it. You can step over it, too. That sounds like a good thing to me.

So far my writing has earned back the $0.00 I spent to create that first blog, but I haven’t made any profit beyond that. Still, my writing progress has been sufficient to encourage me to spend the small amount needed to set up my very own site with my very own domain name (it’s really clever: ThomasIBention.com). I may not ever make a dime off of my writing, but who knows what the future may hold? The important thing is that I am writing and being read. A writer could not ask for more than that. This is the best time in history to be a writer.

Monday morning procrastination

I write this on a Monday morning, a Monday morning with a to-do list longer than my arm and truly urgent deadlines to meet.

For reasons that are a mystery to me, these are the circumstances that cause my brain to brim with ideas for fiction and essays and blog posts and poems. Maybe my subconscious simply finds writing more engaging than my day job and latches onto the possibilities other than work. Maybe the need to focus elsewhere de-centers my creative self enough to work around the inevitable blocks to the creative process.

Maybe I am just a classic procrastinator.

Regardless, I will have to keep slogging away on the parts of life that actually pay my bills, at least until I get the big payday for the movie rights to my blog. [Aside to any Hollywood executives who may be reading this: I’m sure that we can work something out for Thomas I. Benton–On Screen! Please get in touch.]

Off to the workaday world.

Most of life is waiting

The good stuff in life tends to happen in brief moments. You meet someone special for the first time in a single moment (at least for that person!). Your child is born, you get hired, or you win the game, or your story submission gets accepted–all of these are brief moments in your life. They happen, and then they are mere remembrances. These brief moments cast a cheery glow over the rest of your days, but they are more the flame of a candle flickering in an instant of life more than a conflagration over the years.

I’m not complaining about the intermittent nature of joy. Give any human, certainly the human writing this, constant joy and the happiness will cease, the pleasure simply dropping into the background din of life. I have to remind myself sometimes that most of life is waiting. When I am toiling away at my day job, when I am dropping a kid off at school for the 435th time, when I am crafting the 19,137th word of a novel–hopefully at all of these times I can find happiness in the rhythm of my work and the little things around me and be patient for the precious moments to come in their own time.

If I take care of the day-to-day while I am waiting, the good stuff is more likely to happen. The unsubmitted story cannot be accepted, work never performed cannot succeed, the novel not finished won’t be published. A family neglected brings no one joy. So I sit here, actively waiting for the good stuff by enjoying the rhythm of my life and work, that I might again find great joy when the time comes. And it will arrive, inevitably.

Filling the cup

Back in high school, I learned the proper answer to, “How is life like this cup?”

I heard that question more than you would expect, certainly more than makes sense to me looking back on it. It would always be posed by someone interviewing me for some award or position or scholarship. The asker usually sat across a desk or table from me, and they would hold out a cheap paper cup as they watched my reaction.

The proper reaction, I soon learned, was to take the cup into my hands delicately, as if it were a prehistoric figurine of brittle clay. Then I would scrunch my eyes together for a bare second and scrutinize the cup, before responding slowly, “This cup is like life, because you can only get out of it what you put into it . . .”

Treating life like a cup–because you only get out of it what you put into it!–shouldn’t be taken as some sophisticated or deep life philosophy. The analogy, at least as I learned it, was juvenile in more ways than my age; I deployed the comparison more to convince authority figures to give me things than as a sincere expression of my approach to life.

It’s still true, though.

Decades later, when I put in sincerity, effort, and thoughtfulness, I get paid in turn. When I put in bitterness, discontent, and disregard, the results I drink are not as sweet. Trite or not, I prefer to fill my cup with what I want to get out of life.

Disaggregated

I am not the first, or the smartest, or the most thorough to observe the massive disaggregation happening to all media in a cadence with technology. As technology builds upon itself exponentially, so does the disaggregation, albeit as a lagging indicator.

If you wanted to distribute a book, you used to need monks to laboriously copy the words by hand–up until printing presses made monasteries unnecessary in the literary business. Eventually printing presses became sufficiently cheap and common to permit firebrands like Thomas Paine (nice name on that fellow, btw) to rouse the rabble with pamphlets. Add in the telegraph, and even seeming limitations of space and time no longer stood as barriers to near immediate knowledge.

The same story applied to “new” media. Used to be, you had three television channels and a few radio stations, the one’s within broadcast distance from your antenna. Then you could get dozens, and then hundreds of television channels on cable. Soon, satellite offered those channels to even those who lived beyond the reach of coax. Radio went satellite, too. The few slots for talking heads and perky voices opened up to permit a few more in. But now you can download more podcasts than any person could listen to in a lifetime, and YouTube has an unwatchable amount of video. There are seemingly more slots for media members than there are media consumers.

When the means of production becomes cheap enough, there really remains nothing for us proletariate to seize. I am blogging on a free account, no seizing required–just registration and a tolerance for the occasional ad. I can publish as many books as I want, should I lower my standards sufficiently, and I can podcast and even shoot video of myself for everyone to watch if I harbored sufficient narcissism.

I am not even close to being the first to observe any of this. The monks no longer stand between me and readers, the television executive no longer blocks the viewers from your show idea, and we all get to be artists if we have the courage. Now the only gatekeepers we need to please are, well, you.

90%

I have heard it said that ninety percent of life is showing up. More than one person has told me that, so I assume that someone famous said it first.

[brief break for internet searching . . .The Google Machine suggests to me that the famous person in question might be Woody Allen, which makes me feel a little dirty. The Google Machine also tells me that he may have assigned a different percentage of life to showing up than ninety, but no matter. To steal a line: I’ll take wisdom wherever I can find it. Now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post.]

I have found plenty of success in my Real Life, the life not documented in blog posts and tweets, and as much as I would like to attribute that success to my personal brilliance and work ethic, the overwhelming majority of that success came from simply showing up. Whatever personal brilliance and a strong work ethic I may have doesn’t go very far if I don’t report for duty regularly, ready to work hard at being brilliant on a task at hand.

I see no reason why writing is any different. In fact, I see lots of reasons why writing should be the same.

Depending upon when I draw the line between wanting to write and actually trying to write, I have been seriously writing around my day job for somewhere between one and five years. I have met some success with my writing endeavor–you’re reading this, aren’t you?–and I now have a sufficient sample size to observe that I have been vastly more successful when I actually show up at a keyboard or pad or at least a slab of touch sensitive glass and write something. I have had more success of late, and that increased success corresponds with (brace yourself for this) actually showing up more.

Brilliance and work ethic certainly matter, as do less virtuous things like luck and timing. But those are the remaining ten percent; none of those can even come into play if you don’t show up.

I’ve made an appointment with myself.