The Alchemist on the Stove is Burning

Dear Readers,

Writer here!  Today I am sharing with you a short story I wrote about two years ago.  It is an experimental piece in which I do some fun things with the second person voice and a hostile narrative interjection throughout.  It is REALLY dense, because I chose for the style to use only two paragraphs as an arrangement.  I wrote this piece as a response to a particularly humiliating loss, as you can guess from the reading, at a writer’s conference.  The emotions are very raw, and while it is loosely based on my own experiences, I chose to write it in the second person because I think that anyone who has been a creative type can appreciate the idiosyncrasies of sharing your work.  I hope you enjoy it!



The Alchemist On The Stove Is Burning

A Requiem In Two Paragraphs

The pants have been stretched to the point of bursting by your straining fingers.  [Passive voice can indicate to the reader a lack of commitment; Passive Voice in line 1 can indicate a story with no direction]  You have grown an inch since the last time you were wearing these pants.  You wonder why you waited this long to get dressed.  Was it because you didn’t want to go; because the anxiety slithered around your throat, soft as a feather boa at first, now suddenly flesh and blood? [The 2nd person is rarely used.  The intrigue of this trick alone can draw a reader forward; We are vain creatures] Is that why the pants are an inch too short and the socks, one a faded blue and the other a dingy navy, will peek out of your pants subtle yet screaming of mixed monochromes, cackling in their mismatched mischief, hoping to be seen?  Sabotage.  [Unanswered questions coupled with vivid details give the reader a sense you know what you are doing, but leave enough ambiguity that they don’t]  You tell yourself to quit fussing.  No one sees outside themselves anyway.  Everyone else will be just as worried as you are.  “Is my dress too short?”  “Are my shoes tied right?”  “Do I look as fat now as I did in those Facebook photos Tiffany tagged me in last night?”  You put on your nice shoes.  They are your nice shoes not because they are particularly nice, but because they look so much like you, crinkled leather on the arch, formal brown with just enough heel, and a bitchin’ phoenix burned into the side.  [Italics can be used, judiciously, to indicate emphasis in context, but only where the author fails to accomplish it with content]  The shoes aren’t comfortable, but you don’t notice.  You suck in your gut to button the pants.  An inch too short and an inch too thin.  Remember when you were a kid?  You were so excited when clothes didn’t fit!  Change meant new experiences, new things, new trips to Wal-Mart in your Grandmother’s beige Cadillac with the hot leather in the hot Texas sun searing your thighs, trying not to notice her beige bra through the side of her “Seniorita Sunshine” blue dress, hoping that the new jeans she is buying you come with a new Power Ranger t-shirt; one with the Green Ranger this time because he is new and new is good.  New is fat now.  New is cost.  Change sucks.  [Long flowing sentences draw the reader into the world of the narrator, giving the illusion of depth to simple experiences.  Short sentences stick in your reader’s mind like thorns]  You look for the belt in your suitcase.  You don’t travel a lot but you live in two places.  It makes you feel important not to ever be truly unpacked, as though you can be called upon at any moment to rush off to Austin or Houston or Tanzania or Target.  Which is where you got the belt.  Target.  They have nice clothes, don’t they?  You latch the belt on the first notch.  Things don’t need to be any tighter than they already are.  You are a cow.  You are a heifer waddling down the stairs.  But cows can’t go down stairs.  Up stairs but not down stairs.  Cows aren’t like humans.  Cows can only go up.  But a human can do down and down and down.  We have medications to stop us from going down.  You think perhaps you should be on some.  Maybe you already are.  [Chains of associations, given in short succession can surprise and delight a reader, creating a sense of anticipation for what is to come]  You finally allow yourself to think about it as you climb into your late model Japanese mini auto.  The reason you are headed back to school, to the university, to that ponderous collection of crappy corridors and brilliant brains, is for a reception.  [Alliteration pleases the reader, it makes them feel the author is clever, and thus worth listening too]  This is not a reception for academic reasons.  It is a reception for writing.  Creative Writing.  You submitted: three pieces no less.  You remember the day you went into the advising office to submit the stories, the three thick manuscripts of your work in your hands, clasped together like ancient tomes, scrubbed of identity, and ready for judgment, just waiting for the final addition of those submission forms to be truly ready to give away like so many brides-to-be.  [Rambling is amusing at first; annoying next; finally it is death]  You felt as if you were giving them your own children, born in sweat and agony as real as any flesh, nurtured and cherished until the day you saw them off to their very first contest.  And sure, you know they are still with you, just a mouse click away, but they are out there too, mingling in the minds of men and women, maturing under officious eyes, and planting tiny bits of you in other people, to grow and merge with them.  Stories are idea sex, and you hope you are good in bed.  [Sex sells stupid]   But today is the day you get them back.  Today you are going to a reception, feeling fat and frumpy and fucking scared.  The secretary said it was for everyone, that silly snippy someone behind the desk in the advising office where you picked up the paper to sign your idea-children away.  Your writer friends assure you that if you are invited, it means something.  But deep down you remember the secretary said it was for everyone.  Yet you want to believe it means something.  You dare to hope, as you unlock your micro-mobile.  You get in quickly, more quickly than usual, so you can turn on the air conditioning and prevent that disgusting sweat stain, which has already formed in the time it took you to heft yourself down the stairs, from spreading up the back of your shirt, across your lower back, binding your shoulder blades to your butt in unholy stinking moisture.  [There are times when juvenile language like the word “butt” can humanize the narrator, drawing him down to the reader’s level or vice versa]  The air is not cold when the car turns on.  You turn off the radio, which is still blaring from last night’s Revenge of the 80s anthem hour.  This is not the time for songs.  You must manage your ego.  It hopes, and thrills, grasps at the threads of greatness dangling from hem of uncertainty and you tell it to be sane, to be realistic.  You talk to it in “too much” terms.  Your writing is too edgy, too erotic, too complicated, too real.  Never nots.  Nots are neverending.  Naughty knots of never good enough.  [Sometimes the author tries to amuse their own ego too]  The tiny car engine rumbles with the ferocity of a toddler playing motorboat.  You tell your ego to hold on for a minute as you back out of your driveway, careful not to hit any children who might be playing, lemming-like, behind you.  The ascent unto glory is hampered by manslaughter, and parents are notoriously litigious.  [It’s good to write with language that challenges the reader; nothing paces a story better than a quick trip to the dictionary]  You clear the dip without any unexpected speed bumps and stare at the stop sign which heralds the end of your cul-de-sac and the beginning of a rushing river of races and wrecks.  You wonder if it is a defensibly intelligent decision to step on the accelerator.  More people die in car accidents each year than in the entire Vietnam War.  Or is it the Iraq war now? What is the current exchange rate standard for unconscionable tragedy these days?  At any rate; driving is like a war.  [Clever tropes can be used to dramatize an otherwise boring setting, but not an otherwise boring author]  Maybe you should just pull back into the driveway, waddle back upstairs, and never endanger the lives of innocents again.  You’d be like a Samurai breaking his sword, or a hippy veteran throwing his medals of valor over the White House gates.  You would join a great history of individuals who understand what true strength means.  You can imagine your driver’s license fluttering down from your open window and into the gutter.  Local news would come and do a story on you.  Maybe your strange stand against the atrocity of modern transportation would land you a spot on the talk show circuit.  Tonight on The Daily Show with John Stewart!  [Pop culture references are a gamble; most have a short shelf life; nothing kills a story quicker than an out of date cultural reference; except for Shakespeare.  Nothing kills Shakespeare.  He is the cockroach of literature]  A small Asian girl chases a football across her yard, the treacherous oblong leather sac leading her directly into your driveway.  After thirty seconds of watching her scramble to pick it up, you accelerate out of your neighborhood.

***a writing reception occurs***

You smile.  [Short sentences are not very enthralling.  Try something more sweeping.]  You smile simply.  [Telling the reader the manner of an action is the mark of an unskilled writer.  ‘Said sadly’ are two words that should never appear in good writing]  You feel the corners of your mouth betray you, jerking upwards with the sudden velocity of a grasshopper avoiding the shoe of a child running through a golden field of autumn Kansas wheat on an unseasonably warm day in October.  [Readers despise literary masturbation]  Your smile is a mask.  It isn’t so much protecting you as them.  Without your smile the blazing laser beams of righteous indignation blasting from your eyes would sear the flesh clean off their skulls.  And you happen to like at least three of the thirty people in the room right now.  Besides, professional dignity demands that you be understanding.  Professional dignity is the only thing you have left.  You are standing in the crowd, waiting to be noticed by those who know you.  You wonder if any of them knows that three of the idea-children swimming around on those paper rafts in the woody table-ocean were yours.  No one likes to be the parent of an ugly child.  You, apparently, have three now.  You can’t even blame their looks on the other parent.  Birthing idea-babies is an asexual act.  [Comparing the experiences of the artist to the experiences of the parent is an attempt to make the content more visceral for the reader.  It insults the parents.]  Maybe one of your kids is retarded!  Can manuscripts be genuinely retarded?  Not lick-the-glass-on-the-bus retarded; more celebrities-raising-money-for-a-foundation-in-your-name retarded; unique-versions-of-major-events-held-in-your-honor-like-the-“Special Olympics” retarded.  [When writing a story it is best to avoid charged words like retarded.  Try “differently abled”.  Some of the readers may be retards, after all]   There was no award for differently-abled prose today.  There was no award for you today.  [Delaying what the reader suspects to be true artificially increases the drama of uninteresting circumstances]  You hear your name and you look up from the tiny dessert table, which you have been raiding with the avarice of vengeance, shoving stale brownies and cheese squares into your gullet with gluttonous glee.  It is the host of the gathering calling out to you.  You spent a summer in England with him, and you pretend it doesn’t sting that he recognizes you; you pretend it doesn’t sting he recognizes you without an award; you pretend it doesn’t sting that you are a loser.  [A self-correcting narrator can clue the readers into a richer subtext of content which may or may not exist]  You smile.   He smiles.  You shake his hand and cover your mouth as you finish choking down a brownie bit.  He asks you how school is.  Small talk eats your flesh like African ants.  The worst part about it is that you have to face the front of the room to engage in the loathsome little conversation, which brings that loathsome little woman into view.  You will always remember how ugly she is.  Not tragically ugly.  She is no Quasimodo, whose fatally fugly features inspired at least one Disney film, among other things.  Rather, she is merely alarmingly plain.  Her shallow sow-like eyes are radiant today.  It disgusts you.  Her meaty hands look like they may snap her twiggy wrists as she busily shakes hands with all her competitors.   You imagine Rocky Balboa’s face at the end of every Rocky film superimposed over hers and decide it might actually be an improvement.  [The perceptions of a narrator reveal more about the narrator than that which is perceived]  You realize you are staring when your conversation partner pats you on the shoulder by way of friendly exit and his touch startles you.  You wonder if he thinks your kids are ugly.  He didn’t console you.  He didn’t ask you about your manuscript.  He is digging a bottle of water out of the ice bucket.  You are just an obstacle in the eternal struggle for hydration.  You wonder how many other landmines he had to quietly diffuse to obtain his hard-won water.  As you hear the tiny plastic screams of the bottle being twisted open you imagine that he needs the water because the agony of having to repeatedly call her name to the podium has actually burned his esophagus.  Abrupt tears spill onto your cheeks, perhaps conjured forth by the tide of complex emotion rushing forward from the bottle as its mountain spring water breathes its first wisp of oxygen since being bottled from a tap in Detroit.  [Certain nouns have certain verbs attached to them.  Tears spill.  Jealousy burns.  Flames lick.  These are clichés.  Use them cautiously for they can reveal the dull wits of the author]  Abrupt tears rain onto your cheeks.  [Elemental associations are primal, but expected, and show a lack of ingenuity on the part of the wordsmith]  Tears burst on your cheeks like soggy zits, ugly pustules of shame squeezing their way out of your swelling eyelids to carve their ancient and accusatory symbols onto your face for the ocular amusement of everyone who sees them.  [Be cautious of sentences which read like set pieces.  If the reader is too impressed, they will miss the impact of any other emotion conveyed by the writing] You notice fresh air on your face when the breeze cools the snot on your upper lip.  You are outside, touching the rough bark of an oak tree while liberating your heel from the blistering leather backs of your bitchin’ shoes and ignoring the effects of your emotions.  The whole day is a farce.  It is ridiculous that you ever thought to submit your work to the popular judgment of academics.  No truly great author has ever been understood in their own time.  Except Shakespeare.  [Fucking Shakespeare]  What was her winning story even about?  Something tired and common, but twisted just enough to make it zing again; like a middle aged sex-life invigorated by the purchase of his and hers dildos.  You were groundbreaking.  In fact, you are absolutely sure that the judges couldn’t even finish your story.  Your brilliance crept over them like the hungry shadow of a dinosaur looking to devour their tiny minds.  [Dinosaurs are old.  The idea of brilliance is new.  The duplicity is either delicious or desperate]  Your brilliance stalked them through the pages of your manuscript like a hungry tiger. [Tigers are always hungry] Horny tiger.  [The suggestion of sexual violence can often pique the reader’s interest]  Tiger rape aside, you could write a winning story anytime you wanted to.  All it takes is a lack of vision and a willingness to savor your own intellectual vomit.  You could write a winning story based on the very next thing that happens to you.  The sharp stab of a dozen bicycle horns hits you between the shoulder blades like a switchblade knife.  You turn to see a disheveled man with a dirty beard and a greasy button down shirt astride a massive ten-speed bike grinning at you from an uncomfortably close distance.  In a whisper which seems to mock the intensity of the man’s ear-shattering entrance, he says, “Be careful.  The Alchemist on the stove is burning…”


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