13 November 2008

Looking Up

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:47 am

About two weeks ago I got myself invited to participate in a public reading organized by a nearby bookstore. At first I planned to read an excerpt from something I’d already written, but while taking a walk I thought of a story that would fit the occasion. I get ten minutes just like everybody else, and timing myself I find that read aloud about 200 words a minute. That gives me 2,000 words to work with: long for a blog post, but short for a story, forcing me to get to the point quickly. My first draft came in at 3,000 words, so I had to do some severe pruning. Here’s what I’ve ended up with, as of this morning. The reading is tonight, Thursday, so if you think anything isn’t clear or could be eliminated I hope you’ll leave a comment to that effect. Also, is it just me, or does this story sound like it’s already been written by a thousand other writers? Tomorrow I’ll report on how the public reading went.



I glance over my shoulder at the big-screen image of my own slouching profile and I know it’s over. The faceless throng jamming the arena has remained silent and attentive during my first two hours, but I’m certain that by the end of this evening everything will be different. The arena might be reduced to rubble by air strikes, or maybe gravity will stop working and we’ll all wind up crushed together inside the concavity of the domed roof. Or I’ll turn the page and there will be nothing there.

* * *

I’ve always felt uncomfortable looking up from the page. Even on that first night – was it really only two months ago, or has the structure of time changed in some fundamental way? – even then I knew I ought to look up, make eye contact. Certainly I was familiar enough with my material to lift my eyes off the page now and then, try to coax my audience a little farther into the world I was showing them. I had assured myself that the novel isn’t me after all, isn’t even about me really: it’s just something I wrote, as separate from myself as any other book I might pull off the shelf. Still, there I was, making what amounted to a flagrant pass at two dozen strangers, and I was terribly afraid they weren’t looking back.

I enunciate clearly and with inflection. I rarely stumble over even the most convoluted syntax, probably because I’ve had plenty of experience reading bedtime stories to my daughter. Sometimes for fun I would look up theatrically from what I was reading to her, my face painted with ersatz emotion, my eyebrows arched, eyes and mouth opened wide. My daughter would laugh and tell me to stop it. That’s when I understood: I don’t need to master the arts of locutionary seduction in order to lure someone into another world; I just need to hold the door open and the world itself does the work.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d never heard about the public readings at the bookstore, never made inquiry. Even after I’d been given a slot on the roster for that Thursday night I almost didn’t make it. People were gathering their things and putting on their coats when Karl Schroeder spotted me standing just inside the doorway and beckoned me forward, asked everyone to please give their attention to the last scheduled reader of the night.

I glanced at my watch as I’d neared the end of my text that first time: right on schedule; no need to hurry getting through the last page before my ten minutes were up. But anxiety had begun to creep over me. I stumbled over a word, then I repeated a line, and still the end came rushing toward me. Two paragraphs, one. Imbued with a strange dread I forced my way through the last sentence of Chapter One.

My finger hovered over the text for a moment longer, then abruptly I raised my head and gazed into the void. I discerned the faces, dispassionate and expressionless. They did not move; they made no sound – as if they were waiting for something. I detected motion in the periphery: a neon light near the door was flickering on and off. I picked up the manuscript, tapped it a few times on the lectern, and replaced it in the accordion folder. I nodded unsmiling toward the silent motionless audience and left.

I was surprised to find a phone message waiting for me at home. “Mr. Molina, this is Karl Shroeder, from the library? I wanted you to know that we really enjoyed, really appreciated, your reading this evening. I wondered, we wondered, if you might come back tomorrow night. You can just keep going where you left off.”

Again the reading went smoothly. I managed to look up a few times and again found myself confronted by attentive but expresssionless faces. After I’d finished my ten minutes I took an empty seat in the second row. The audience members began chatting among one another, preparing to leave – apparently I was the only reader scheduled for that evening. Two young women approached. “We looked for your book on the shelves but we couldn’t find it,” the black-haired one informed me. I acknowledged that it wasn’t published. To me surprise they seemed thrilled. “Then we’re the first ones to hear it?” I nodded. “Well that makes sense then,” the taller one remarked. “See you tomorrow.”

Reading aloud is slow going, but you do get to the end of the book eventually, and since my nightly readings had been extended to half an hour things were moving right along. By the end of the second week I had begun to feel a little relieved knowing that soon I’d be finished. It saddened me too, of course. Anticipation often exceeds fulfillment, but the reality of reading my own work every night to what had grown into a roomful of people – it had changed my life. I actually started thinking again about quitting my job and devoting myself to writing – the craft of it, the art, the truth, the paradoxically diffuse intensity of it. That first night I’d felt like I was on trial; now it seemed as though everyone in the store, reader and listeners alike, were entering together into another world, a world conjured out of nothing but words and imagination.

Soon enough there came that inevitable night, raw and blustery, when I drove to the bookstore with only five unread pages left to go. I’d framed the narrative according the traditional third-person-singular, past-tense convention, but then in the last chapter, Chapter 42, the story shifted abruptly to first person – as if the teller of the tale had suddenly become the main character, stepping out from behind the veil of anonymity. At the same time the story itself took a sharp turn toward the surreal. The previous evening, as I’d begun reading this final chapter, I experienced a momentary visual distortion, or perhaps it was a lapse of attention: the letters arrayed before me wouldn’t congeal themselves into meaningful units. I blinked hard two or three times, and when I looked up every person in the room seemed to have moved a little closer to me, gotten incrementally larger. Their wide-open eyes were locked onto my own, as if by the power of their gaze they could make my eyes see the words as they’d always been meant to be seen…

As I had done for the past 26 nights I extracted the loose-leaf manuscript from the accordion file and set it in front of me on the lectern. With a singular gravity I transposed the written words into sound. I was speaking no louder than usual, but somehow my voice sounded larger to my own ears. Whenever I finish reading a page I place it face-up at the bottom of the stack, so that the top sheet is always the next one to be read. One after another I read those top five pages, delivering them flawlessly; carefully and deliberately I slipped them one by one to the bottom of the stack. I grasped the entire sheaf in both hands and tapped the bottom edge on the lectern, just as I always do at the end of a night’s reading. I was sliding the manuscript back into the accordion file when I noticed that the title page, which should have risen again to the top of the sheaf, seemed to be missing. I scrutinized the top sheet more closely: “Chapter 43,” the heading read. Silently I scanned the opening lines: familiar yet disconcerting. How could I have forgotten? I still had about 15 minutes left. Sweeping a glance across my expectant audience, I read on.

And on. The hallucinatory tone of the narrative intensified as past tense turned the corner into the present. The story, which for its first 42 claustrophobic chapters had taken place almost exclusively inside one room, was chapter by chapter exploding outward: the rest of the house, the neighborhood, the town, the nation, the world. The narrator, who in first revealing himself had born only a generic resemblance to the author, gradually emerged as a distinct character. Sex, age, stature, back story, day job, literary aspirations: more and more the narrator was becoming Edgar Molina, was becoming me. To this fictional Edgar remarkable things were happening. From benumbed obscurity he had risen rapidly to prominence; his voice, so long unheard, struck resonant chords in the people’s hearts; the worlds he conjured from imagination began taking on shape and substance. Obscure adventurers crisscrossed the globe; wars ended while others began; world leaders in every sphere of endeavor sought his counsel. If, reading from his magnificent book, the words this fictional Edgar intoned said let there be light, then light there was.

In the narrator’s book the crowds swelled to enormous proportions – and it was so. Soon I was reading 3, 4, 5 hours a day. My job faded away; reading is what I do now. And yet every night, every time I finish a page and slip it to the bottom of the stack, I have to master the same dread again: what happens now, after the end? Every time another new page awaits me, familiar, expected, predestined. The world into which I speak these words is changing dramatically, but the book seems to keep pace with the changes, even to anticipate them, as if I had known the future when I’d written these astounding pages. And just when had I written them? The book itself explained that Edgar had written it, was writing it, would continue to write it, until the time came when he would not.

And now that time has arrived. As the page draws my eyes to itself I read it to the people, and reading it to them I read it to myself: the time is at hand. Desperation has seized certain pockets of resistance to the grand trajectory laid out by my, Edgar’s, book. Even now forces are arraying themselves against him, me: not just the will of determined and dangerous men, but the very fabric of nature being rent asunder. As I glance over my shoulder to the gigantic image of my profile, my attention is drawn to a figure leaning toward that profile from one of the exit ramps.

* * *

Centering his target in the crosshairs, the sniper watched Edgar Molina return his attention to the large stack of paper in front of him. Edgar’s mouth stopped moving; half a second later his amplified voice cut off mid-sentence. The vast auditorium fell silent. Edgar’s shoulders shrugged; his features seemed to melt down his face. The sniper had been concentrating his full attention on that face, but now his mission was completed and Edgar’s face had fallen from view. The sniper shifted his left wrist ever so slightly so that the top sheet was framed by the telescopic lens. He couldn’t read the words from there; he would have to go down to the arena floor, stand at the lectern, pick up where Edgar had left off.


  1. Nice pacing, detail, self-reference. I like it.

    As for 2000 words being too short for a short story (I understand this), might I recommend an extraordinary book, written by an extraordinary writer, Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, by Kawabata:


    He is one of the finest writers I have ever read, and here he writes whole stories sometimes in a single paragraph.


    Comment by kvond — 13 November 2008 @ 4:22 pm

  2. Thanks Kvond, I’ll check it out. I also have to get back to you about your intriguing and enigmatic story.

    Someone who read my story recommended that I drop the last paragraph and let the story end still ensconced in self-reflexivity. I think that’s a good idea. He further suggested that I end the prior paragraph with something about how the book is ended now. I think maybe a more ambiguous ending would work better. So now the ends with the prior paragraph amended thusly:

    …As I glance over my shoulder to the gigantic image of my profile, my attention is drawn by a ripple in the crowd toward a hooded figure crouching in one of the exit ramps. I feel the air shudder around me as the page falls from my hands.


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 November 2008 @ 5:17 pm

  3. I made one or two additional tweaks to the story late yesterday afternoon before the library reading session. Since I got rid of explicit reference to a sniper at the end I added a bit to the beginning paragraph: “The arena might be reduced to rubble by air strikes, or a sniper in the cheap seats could drop me where I stand, or maybe gravity…”

    Anne went with me to this thing. We got there about 15 minutes early to scope it out: 4 rows of metal framed, plastic seated chairs arrayed semicircularly, that would accommodate maybe 40 people max. At the focus, left to right, were arrayed a comfy chair, a low table, and a microphone on a stand. Practically everyone who drifted into this area were either readers or their spouses. All were old — i.e., my age or older — and they all seemed to know each other (not surprisingly, I knew none of them). This event was organized by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, which I guess organizes workshops and such for writers. Dave, the guy who said I could come, was the MC. When I introduced myself he asked some stuff he could use in introducing me. I told him the name of my story. “PG?” he asked — I guess “Looking Up” could be double-entendre material. Wanted to know my pen name — it seems most of the writers in this writers’ group have one, including Dave himself. The audience stabilized at about two dozen people (just like in my story).

    The show got off to what I regarded as an inauspicious beginning when Dave picked up a guitar and started playing/singing Neil Diamond’s Cracklin’ Rosie. Then Dave’s brother, a burly long-bearded fellow who looked like a ZZTop Roadie, joined Dave at the microphone for On the Road Again. The first reader, a woman, sat in the comfy chair and presented a story set among the ancient Greek pantheon. The language was rather wispily poetic, though the author read way too fast. I had a hard time following the story. I thought maybe it was just because I was preoccupied by my own story, but Anne told me later she had the same problem. Next came a woman who’d just had her tenth novel published in the “epic fantasy” genre. She stood at the mike (as did all who followed her) and read the first chapter, which concerned a magical wayfarer’s encounter with a prankster-thief. It seemed well-told. Then a woman came up to sing. She’d brought a small boom box for accompaniment, which I thought didn’t bode well, especially since the device had a short, adding an air of precariousness. But her performance was excellent: musical-theater style, pure strong voice, effortlessly and cheerfully presented. Her writing colleagues were astounded at the revelation of this other talent she possessed. Then another woman read the first chapter of her epic fantasy, unpublished. It needed some editing, and it would have helped if she’d pronounced a couple of technical musical terms properly, but a pretty good story.

    Next came a short break, during which Dave entertained with his rendering of Brown Eyed Girl. Then me. Dave announced that I’d written a story particularly for the event, which seemed to please the others. I began with an impromptu joke of sorts, saying I should have taken advantage of the break to find a real story on the bookstore’s shelves, say my pen name is Fyodor Dostoevski. Got a chuckle. Then my story. I read competently and with good inflection, looking up from time to time. My mouth got a little dry and toward the end I realized I was a bit nervous, but all in all it went very well. The listeners seemed engaged. They even chuckled at the authorial fantasy bits: when the librarian tells Edgar how much everyone appreciated his reading, when he’s invited back a second night, then a third, etc. When I finished I thanked the people, they applauded, I sat down. Dave thanked me, said the story was a little too deep for him, but I think he didn’t really mean it. Next and last came a woman who’d just had her fourth novel published, a series about a vampire policeman. She said she thought I was a hard act to follow, then read the first chapter of her latest book. It was sort of hard-boiled and coarse in style, unusual for a vampire story I thought, and fairly engaging. Dave announced plans for another public reading session in early January, we all applauded Dave for his efforts, and that was it.

    Anne and I hung around for a couple of minutes afterward. Dave’s burly brother came up to me right away and said he liked my story, liked that kind of story, and I thanked him. The people who already knew one another mostly chatted among themselves. As I was hanging around they expressed surprise that I could have come up with this story in such a short time, which I took as a compliment. The woman who read the Greek mythology story told me I should send mine in to be included in the next anthology published by the Writers’ Group. I thanked her and we left.

    So I’d say it was a success. I’d never done a public fiction reading before, and I found it sort of gratifying. Anne and I agreed: the other writers’ stuff was competent, but mine was the best (lol). I’m not persuaded that oral reading before a group is as good as reading silently to oneself, unless maybe the piece was written specifically to be delivered vocally. I didn’t get to know any of the other writers afterward, no networking, etc. But I do think the other writers liked my story, which is gratifying.


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 November 2008 @ 9:20 am

  4. Ktismatics: “Someone who read my story recommended that I drop the last paragraph and let the story end still ensconced in self-reflexivity.”

    kvond: Actually, given that the story is a “piece”, small and meant to be sculpted (and not a journal entry), I liked the effect of the last paragraph. Surely it was an artiface, but it worked to bracket the self-reflection, to put parentheses, and create the contrast. Its not a big deal, one way or another though, just to offer another opinion.


    Comment by kvond — 14 November 2008 @ 9:35 am

  5. As a participant in the audience, I would definitely agree that it was a successful evening. I was happy to hear all of the works–especially yours Ktis–and to reflect on the possibilities of discussion following performance reading. It wouldn’t be fun to talk about the vocabulary, grammar, syntax, like at a writer’s group and there isn’t quite enough text to discuss theme, context, style, like at a book group. So how could the audience engage with the writer? And, why do I feel that would be a good idea? I mean, the audience doesn’t generally engage with other performers, like comedians, musicians, singers or dancers, do they?

    Perhaps it is because I write a bit as well, that I feel like there might be some interesting exchanges…but after last night, I’m not quite sure what they would be. I mean would “How did you come up with that?” or “What did you mean by xxyyzz?” or “What literary genre would you consider that to be?” or “What authors influenced your work?” be relevant?

    What do you think?

    All good wishes–


    Comment by attentiontolife — 14 November 2008 @ 11:35 am

  6. Now, now. This is just getting sappy.


    Comment by Seyfried — 14 November 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  7. Alas, I love sappy. Insofar as the last scene in All that Heaven Allows, which just has to be the type of (Brechtian) irony Lynch had in mind when he shot Blue Velvet’s final shots.

    I echo the Kawabata nod, and would add that I just got through reading a collection of little stories of Arthur Schnitzler, many of which are epic within the scope of little over a couple thousand words.

    (Edit: Just noticed that you summarized this in the addendum to your previous coment)


    Comment by Seyfried — 14 November 2008 @ 2:45 pm

  8. Thanks for your support of ending 1, Kvond. I think the story is still stabilizing, so I might change it back. It’s certainly more cinematic with the sniper, and it makes the book more of a posthuman force of creation, as if the book itself has decided that Edgar’s reign as reader/writer is over and now it’s someone else’s turn. By ending it ambiguously the novel and its reality are more directly tied to Edgar, which gives the story more of a P. Dick flavor. When the idea originally came to me it was framed in Borgesian terms, and there was to be a sniper at the end who kills Edgar. But the act of writing changes the story some. I’d written the whole thing in third person, but then as I got to the end I wrote how the fictional novel had suddenly shifted from third to first. But then I thought the whole story ought to be regarded as being part of the fictional novel itself, so the day before yesterday I changed the whole story from third to first person to conform to the fictional novel’s structure in its last pages. Originally I’d written the sniper in 1st person, as if he’d been the real narrator of the story. But now I switched the sniper also, from 1st to 3rd, which also works. So all these narrative changes were happening within a couple of days of the reading, and then the idea of dropping the sniper altogether came into play and I thought, well maybe so. My sense currently is that both endings are okay, and that I’d like to let the story sit around for a week or two to see where it settles before picking one. If any of that makes sense… Anyhow, I appreciate your argument for keeping the sniper bit at the end, Kvond — a couple of others have told me they like that ending as well.


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 November 2008 @ 6:17 pm

  9. Very cool. I liked the story. Fun. Thoughtful.

    I’m also glad that you were happy with the reading. It would have been fun to be there.

    So, here’s some of my reflections on alternative endings…..

    Upon reflecting on the story, it seems to me that the story is a clear metaphor that directly references the process of writing and inspiration. It is a commentary on the source of inspiration. The writer finds stories, words, and narrative flowing through. From where? It doesn’t matter. The point is that it comes. And with inspiration comes an audiance.

    Inspiration and audiance are now joined together.

    But as we have discussed, with an audiance comes the pressure to maintain one’s audiance, to continue the output. So, market economics comes into play. Then it isn’t purely about inspiration; writing is part of an economy. We don’t write for writings sake, anymore. We write for people. Art for art’s sake? Or art for the sake of applause? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but your short story seems to begin to explore this question in a very creative way.

    I’m wondering if it’s possible to use the ending as an opportunity to explore what happens if the author feels trapped by his writing. Or what happens if the author is basking in the glory of a reading and suddenly finds that there are no more pages; but the audiance demands more. And he can’t produce anything. There is no more inspiration. So, maybe he just starts making up shit on the spot. And everybody applauds because, after all, he is a great artist. So, everything he does is great, even when it sucks.

    In any event. I applaude your story!


    Comment by Erdman — 14 November 2008 @ 7:39 pm

  10. If you look at the confused ramblings in my last comment, Atl, you’ll get a preview of what an interview with the author might be like. The discussion we’ve opened up here, about alternative endings, is a good one for me, and others might find it interesting as well. You’d get the sense that a story as written isn’t inevitable and could well have been something different, that there are decisions and/or alternative paths through the fictional terrain. But I’m not sure how you’d get to a topic like that unless either the writer brings it up or the participants in the discussion are already pretty attuned to writing/criticism. I’m not sure how it would have gone last night, and I can’t quite say why. Part of it has to do with actually looking at the words on the page and thinking about them, rather than just hearing them once.

    Additionally, if I might say so Atl, the thought of listening to one particular writer from last night probably seems tedious, since he tells you about this crap ad tedium already (winky smiley).


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 November 2008 @ 9:11 pm

  11. Okay, two votes for Kawabata, so I’ve gotten the library to hold it for me, as well as a Schnitzler short story collection. I don’t usually read a lot of short fiction, but now after writing this story I’m more attuned to its potential and its challenges.

    I’m glad you liked the story, Erdman. I’m interested in your interpretation in part because, while I agree with the themes you identify, I wasn’t consciously thinking of them when I thought of the story or when I made a written version of it. Prominent in the story from the first was the danger of getting what you wish for; i.e., you might want an audience, but eventually the audience will kill you. Is the book writing itself, or is the audience writing it? The book claims that Edgar is writing it, but it’s a fictional Edgar who may or may not be identical to the “real” Edgar. But the audience must be pulling the book forward from Edgar. The first ending, where the sniper kills Edgar and takes over the task of reading the book, suggests that the audience is both the inspiration for and the destruction of the author. Also, the audience will always bring forward another writer: just as it brought forth Edgar, so it brings forth the assassin/replacement.

    Your alternative ending of Edgar making it up as he goes along: it’s possible he’s already doing that, since only he sees what is or is not written on the pages of this ever-expanding manuscript. Another ending would be that the novel continues forever, with Edgar permanently trapped in this paradoxical role of both shaping the world and being shaped by the words that he speaks into the world. It’s a fairly robust premise: a guy writes a book that after awhile seems to start writing itself — what might bring it to an end?


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 November 2008 @ 11:22 pm

  12. I’d also like to point out that there’s something uncannily apt about the readers advising the writer about how the story should end…


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 November 2008 @ 8:49 am

  13. Yes, it is quite amusing, eh?

    Upon reflection, I am now more fond of the sniper ending….but I think your story lends itself to many different endings, many of which explore various aspects of the relationship of a writer to text and audiance. A mark of a good story, I think!


    Comment by Erdman — 15 November 2008 @ 12:15 pm

  14. This piece has changed since I read it at the weekend.

    Shoot him in the head! Keep the sniper. Fucking artists! They go on, and on, with their art.

    Good work. I enjoyed it.


    Comment by NB — 18 November 2008 @ 7:38 am

  15. Thanks for weighing in, NB. I think I’ll accede to the demand of Audience and keep the sniper, 3rd person for the full turn of the Mobius. As someone else pointed out, since the sniper is part of the text it’s also possible that the writer has written his own demise. In final edit I’ll probably retain all or part of the slight modifications to the penultimate paragraph, with the hooded figure and the shuddering of the air, mostly because I liked the sound of it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 November 2008 @ 8:41 am

  16. “since the sniper is part of the text it’s also possible that the writer has written his own demise”

    Yeah, the pen is mightier. And how quickly the audience shows its bloodlust.


    Comment by NB — 18 November 2008 @ 11:04 am

  17. […] the audience shoot him dead and take his place at the dais? Danny thought ending A was better. I posted the story on my blog: most of the commenters preferred ending B. I went with ending A for the Open Mic reading, but in […]


    Pingback by Reruns – Ficticities — 25 November 2018 @ 3:30 pm

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