The Reluctant Artiste: Plot Twist!


Writers don’t get depressed. We get material. 
(Thanks anyway Dr. Seligman)
Happiness is making the rounds on the chat-o-sphere this week. After a few decades of natural source, high fibre irony, the pursuit of happiness may well be this year’s urban chicken-keeping. The message is, seek out things to be grateful for, reflect on what went right each day, and above all, challenge your notions of helplessness in unhappy situations—because it’s lack of agency that’s making ya’ feel crazy. 
I have another approach. I don’t seek out things to be grateful for—I horde them— along with the stuff I am so NOT grateful for, and the stuff that went TOTALLY WRONG—and I challenge my notions of helplessness and agency the way a dominatrix challenges a submissive’s backside—because I am a writer, my friends—and happiness and sorrow are not states of mind. They’re the pantry of my literary kitchen. 
(I realize that I’ve just put a cooking metaphor in the same paragraph as an S&M metaphor, and this puts us into some slightly yucky territory, but so does writing.) 
Have you ever seen a play by Colleen Murphy? Erin Shields? I know both of them, and I must say that they are each perfectly capable of happiness of the glowy sun filtered through the geometrically so-perfect- there-must-be-some-kind-of-intelligence-behind-creation tree branches sort of way. But their plays? They are freakin’ furious. Raging sad. Screaming for some kind of redress…so they’re like…really good. 
I honest to god don’t think I have much to say unless I can get to the coal-hot tar stuff at the bottom of my well and at least mix it in—not because I write a lot of melodrama. I almost never do—would be ashamed to serve the subjects of my rage so tritely—with easy tears and howling. No, pilgrims--I write comedy. So—like almost every other comic you’ve heard lob a well-shaped zinger into a crowd and watched the laughter shrapnel scatter—I am such a dark and angry person, that if I weren’t a writer, I’d be Number 1 with a bullet on the Neighborhood Watch list (“if you see the angry lady who talks to herself, Brianna, just cross to the other side of the street and find an adult you trust”).
Well maybe not that bad. But lord, it wouldn’t be good. 
Like I said, I don’t just run on brimstone and bile. I have a hybrid battery of grateful and good that I switch over to—and if, when those bits of happy mix with the fuming tar, they survive—they don’t instantly burn off in a puff of toasted Tinkerbell smoke—then they're worth something. They're material. 
So c’mon—hit me with your best plot twist. I need something new for the second act….  



Portrait of a young Reluctant Artiste in love: Exact. Oh. 

It wasn’t what I wanted.

We’d only been together a few months. And I was in love—capital L-O-V-E—and I wasn’t sure he was.

At least there’d been no words to that effect. Not one. Despite all the silences I had placed strategically in his path, wide and waiting.

And it was Valentine’s Day and I thought maybe he might take the opportunity to demonstrate what he had not yet said.

The box he held out was rectangular. Bracelet-shaped—which I thought was promising. I would have preferred ring-shaped, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I unwrapped it, heart a pitter patter, and saw, not a blue velvet jewelry box, but a blister pack.

An Exacto knife.

Narrow and matte silver chrome. The sort used for slicing the waxed sheets of copy that we both worked with, in the dusty days before computers replaced the sweat and smoke tinged lay-out tables of the newspaper print shop. I would be the envy of the slicers, I realized, much later.

At that moment, all I could think was a) he doesn’t love me b) he wants me to be more employable so he can dump me in good conscience and c) what the hell do I do with my face, in case I am wrong about a) and b).

“It reminded me of you.”

What did that mean? He saw me as cold, hard-edged, the kind of woman who cut things? Very particular things? The kind of woman who you certainly did not envision a life with, because you don’t spend your life with retractable razors—not if you have any sense at all.

“What? Don’t you like it?”

“Of course I do. It’s great. It’s just—“


“Well. It’s an unusual gift for Valentine’s Day.”

“You said Valentine’s Day was a corporate plot.”

“I didn’t mean it!”


“What’s the matter?”

“I love you. Do you love me at all?”

“Of course I love you. I’d kill for a knife this cool. It’s got a rubberized grip—“



“Go back.”


“To the part where you love me. “

“Of course I love you. What did you think we were doing all this time?”

I didn’t know. Because there’d been no words. He didn’t know that I didn’t know—‘cause every gesture he’d made since the day he’d met me, was him telling me.

He had yet to learn the language of silence yearning for words. And I had yet to learn the language of Exacto knives.


 Happy Valentine's Day.



The Reluctant Artiste and Creative Non-Fiction: A Sort of Contract With the Reader


There are all kinds of liars. There is only one kind of deceiver.
There's a story I've always loved about two sisters, one favoured by her mother,  though she was lazy, mean-mouthed and shiftless, and the other hated for being pretty much the opposite and making everybody look bad. That's a story in itself, but the focus here is on when the second girl gets sent on some kind of very hard dirty errand and meets up with an old woman or man or rabbit, I don't know, something weak and seemingly without any capacity to reward kindness with anything but a craggy or buck-toothed grin--depending on which guess is right back there--anyway the girl is asked to do something twice as hard and nasty for this unfortunate and she does it, just cause, if she were in the same spot she'd like someone to do the same for her; not that anyone ever has, in her memory, but such is the reputation of empathy, it is looked for where it has never even stopped by for tea. 
The task completed, the girl is rewarded for her kindness. Every time she speaks, a flower or a jewel tumbles from her mouth--just one--and I like to think she was also given the ability to repress this talent at will--as love-making, attending sports matches and other things would be, I think,  unpleasant if the talent couldn't just go into idle a bit. Anyway, it's a great gift and stupe that she is, she goes home and tells her mom about her fabulous luck.
Mom is torn between greater hatred of the girl and intense pleasure at all the things she's going to be able to buy with the take from one dinnertime conversation alone. She orders her favoured child off to wherever the first went--it was a well, I now recall, water had to be hauled over a great and rocky distance--of course the chosen one doesn't even know the way there-- she's never had to haul water, couldn't be cheerfully helpful to anyone, least of all an unfortunate, if her life depended on it. When asked for same, she instead angrily demands her gift. The old whatever-it-is gleefully lays a whammy on her--and toads and snakes start falling from her mouth--especially, I like to think,  during love-making and sports matches.
As I recall, Blossom and Gem Girl gets married to some fellah who is taken with her gifts. This part worries me a bit. Where was he when she was hauling buckets of water over stony miles for the two bitches? So I'm going to tell you that she leaves on her own, and meets someone during a sports match who loves her before anything gorgeous tumbles out. 
Things tumble out of me. They're not jewels and roses very often. But  I can tell you that rubies do have a very slight cherry Lifesaver aftertaste. That if a flower has to find it's way across a ticklish palate, better a nasturtium than a sunflower--though there is a greater sense of achievement with the latter. 
But mostly it is the most ordinary things I cough up--buttons, hairpins, screws for wall-mounting something I gave away in the late eighties. Dog hair.  Little boys' socks. Toads. And snakes. But I tell you this--when it is a toad or a snake, I never make anyone hold out their hands in anticipation of a gem or a blossom. I never let it out at all. I feel the hysterical push and flutter. Warm silk-leather pushing between my bulging lips. Panicked piss on my tongue. Feel the bile's burn as I swallow it wriggling down. 
Because I'm a liar. Several kinds of liars. But not the other. 



January 25th

January 25th.
 I almost forgot it again today. For the first few years I got sick every January 25th, or just a little insane. I lost my temper easily and occasionally frightened people who had a reason to trust me. But now I seem to just block it out. I know that the number means something. I have a sense when I look at it that it's weightier then the other numbers on the calendar. But honestly don't remember why.
And then the messages start coming from other people. Nice messages. Lovely ones. Thinking of your brother. Hope you're okay. I know this is a hard time for you. And I remember what Jan 25th means . This is the day that my brother died, and everything changed.
Now everybody who has lost somebody says that. They say that everything changed the day so and so died . And you hear the convention of the phrase. The ubiquity. And it slides past your ear, like the ghost of meaning. But when I say everything changed, I am being specific. I'm the only one who sees my version of the universe. And in my universe my brother is alive. That is as much a part of my reality as gravity or air. On this day the universe flexed. Shook off my control.  I lost my brother. And the capacity to ever completely trust air or gravity. 
The first time I forgot I was horrified. I thought it meant that I had become calloused. I thought my admittedly extreme self-centeredness was giving me the gift of selective amnesia . But now I think if I was calloused , I probably would remember the date.  I would put some kind of sticker on the calendar to mark it. Some not happy emoticon. I would make it into event. Cook his favorite foods. Tell stories, lift a jar, sing a song, celebrate the life. But no calluses have formed. Part of me  is still right there, experiencing for the first time the entire world changing. Face down where I had fallen, on the carpeted stair, as I tried to go up and tell the children what the phone call from their grandmother had been about. I see the carpet. I see how badly it needs vacuuming . I realize that my face is against purple dirty nap, and wonder why. And then I remember. And stay down.
I think I forget because it is still so raw. Because I still have almost nothing to say except No. Not. Didn't. Couldn't. And.... I miss you Steve. I miss you everyday. I think I can't remember January 25th, because every day is January 25th.

TRA: Off to St. Peter's College (Muenster) to teach Creative Non-fiction


One of the ways I avoid writing is teaching it. Or possibly I avoid teaching by writing. Hard to say.

Nice problem to have though--since to be honest I love doing both. 

For those who wonder what Creative Non-fiction really is, here's a helpful video: