Saturday, January 24, 2015


Photo: Bus depot in, I assume, Clifton, Arizona, considering this article where I filched the image.

I've been trying different things to get back in the writing groove again, and nothing's been working.  I slipped off the rails when I got sick about ten days ago, and though I'm much improved--I can breathe, and I can somewhat function--I'm still not up to par.  This at a bad time in the job, too, when I especially need energy and focus.  So I laid off the allergy pills for a few days--they dry me out, like they're supposed to, but I have a serious sinus infection, probably from being too dried out for too long.  Anyway, I've been very foggy-headed, and the pillow has been too comfy and too cool.  I'm sleeping like I haven't in years, but it's not a good sleep.  Long and dream-filled, which is good--but too long, too heavy, too dreamy, and all of it caused by allergies and exhaustion.  I'm yawning all the time, feeling exhausted and drained, blowing my nose, which I don't normally do because I'm so congested all the time, and everything's clear because I need an antihistamine--but to get one, I'll get congested, and around we go.  I've also been on strike against the antibiotics I got four days ago, but I'm taking them now...

Anyway, all this to say that I'm in a fairly confused place, with my novel's unwritten Chapter 41 staring me in the face, so I reverted finally to a tactic that spurred some writing a few years ago: read a short story, then write a chapter, then read another short story, then write something besides my main book--maybe another book's chapter, or a short story, or one of my very many nonfiction things...or even a blog entry.  Lots of writing to do for a guy who hasn't done any in awhile.

So I remembered a little snippet in this week's Entertainment Weekly (a friend of mine lets me read hers) that said that a show, or a movie, or something, was being made of Stephen King's short story, "The Things They Left Behind."  And I remember thinking, What the hell was that?  King has written literally hundreds of short stories, so nobody--including King himself, I'll bet--can remember them all.  But even if I've forgotten about something, I usually remember that I used to remember it, if you know what I mean.  My memory is good enough so that some kind of bell rings.  But not this time.

(What did I do--buy the book and never read it?  You know, two things go when you get older: the first thing's your memory, and I can't remember what the second thing is.)

I picked up the book collection--Just After Sunset--and read the story, which is in the middle of the book.  (It'll be reviewed in another post.  Suffice it to say it's a quick little story about the nightmare and guilt of 9/11.)  Then I remembered that reading short stories used to jumpstart my writing, so I read the first story, and--yeah, it worked again, thank God.  Chapter 41 is done, for those who care, and I like it.  (I don't always.  No writer likes his work all the time.)

Now I'll do this every day until it doesn't work anymore and I've been derailed again.  And while I'm at it, I figured I'd write a post about any of the short stories it jives me to do so.  And so...

Speaking of being derailed--

"Willa" is the first story in the book, and it's very good.  It involves a group of people who are dead (this is Stephen King, remember) from a train derailment.  Most of them know it, though just one allows herself to fully let it sink in.  Her fiancée lets it sink into him, too, finally.

But this story is more than just that.  In this genre, there are thousands of stories where the characters are dead--so much so that editors openly say they don't want any more stories where the characters find out in the end that they're dead.  (See that list of Please No More of These Plots in this entry.)  Stephen King can do what he wants, of course, and he'll get published, but he gives us more because he knows his readers have seen that before.  And maybe because he has, too.

This story is more about being different.  About walking your own road.  The Amtrak train derails and they all die, but everyone stands around in an old train depot while Willa walks away and enters a honkytonk dive in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming.  She wants people, and music.  She wants to live.  David, her fiancée, wants to find her, but everyone tells him not to go.  He'll get lost.  He'll get eaten by wolves.  He'll miss the recovery train...One even says his fiancée doesn't give a damn about him--if she did, she wouldn't have just walked off, right?

But Willa sees what's in front of her face, even if everyone hates her for it.  He finds her, accepts that he's dead, and they both go back to tell everyone else.  (Various things happen in the story to prove they're dead.)  But nobody believes them, and after many insults they start walking back to the bar.

The story ends with a lot of nice, wistful images.  Everyone's standing in that bus depot, that now we know really isn't in operation (it's about 30 years after their train accident, but time's elastic in death) and they're all wasting their time, not doing anything, not moving on, not living--even in death.  Get it?  All stories of all genres have themes and points.  This one: You can't move on if you can't accept harsh truths.  The story ends with the knowledge that the depot will be demolished soon...and what will happen to those unknowing ghosts then?  Will they just wisp away in the desert wind?

Very good story.  Makes me think of a few to write myself.

Check it out if you haven't already.  Or, even if you have.

P.S.--I often wonder how authors come up with their characters' names.  I try to come up with a name (I have one tried and true--and...different...method) and I see if it matches the character's traits in any way.  If it's too obvious--well, that might be okay.  So I'll guess Willa's origin:

1.  The story takes place in the desert prairie of Wyoming.  Willa Cather (or, how many other Willas are there?) wrote novels and stories that took place on the open prairie, though usually in Nebraska.  (Though she lived mostly in NYC and, before that, in Pittsburgh.  And she was born in Virginia.  But, whatever.)  Stephen King--a former English teacher and a very literate (if not literary) writer--would know this.

2.  Willa Cather's stories were often about headstrong women, a century ahead of their time.  Willa Cather herself was a headstrong woman well ahead of her time, for many reasons.  The Willa in King's story is a very headstrong woman, different from everyone else derailed in the train.

3.  They both had a very strong will.  I mean, c'mon.

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