Respect for Books

by Stephen Parrish

’ll call him “Marvin,” the kid in my high school literature class who Mr. Stoekl caught defacing a book. Marvin was a loner, a pimply-faced introvert who probably suffered from attention deficit. During lectures he often scribbled in his textbooks, which were on loan from the school.

Teachers are obviously trained in stealth tactics, because misbehaving students never see them coming. Marvin was unaware Mr. Stoekl was onto him until the big guy’s shadow crossed his desk. By which time it was pointless to slam the book shut, tuck the pen away, and conceal all evidence that he had written “STOEKL BITES” in the margin of his poetry anthology.

“Son,” Mr. Stoekl said, occupying the empty desk next to Marvin, “please don’t do that.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it, Mr. Stoekl. I didn’t mean any offense.”

“Offend me all you want. Just don’t offend the book.”

Mr. Stoekl was unlike any of our other teachers. He grew up in eastern Europe, immigrated to the States in his early twenties, and went to work in a factory. A son he put through college became a high school teacher and spoke so fondly of his career that Mr. Stoekl got hooked. At 65 he retired from the factory and enrolled in a teacher certification program. At 70 he graduated and was hired by my high school. At 75, one year after catching Marvin writing “STOEKL BITES” in his poetry anthology, he retired again. Our town honored him as “Man of the Year.”

“You think it’s just a stack of pages glued together,” Mr. Stoekl said to Marvin. “Abstract ink smudges. Something that used to be a tree.”

“Sir, I—”

“Most of those writers are dead. What they wrote has survived them, and may likely live forever. What you wrote on their distinguished pages won’t survive the school year.”

Mr. Stoekl went back to his desk at the front of the class, and Marvin sat staring down at the book still open in his hands. After a few minutes he drew two neat lines through “STOEKL BITES” and put the book away. He never marked in one again.

Mr. Stoekl didn’t live long after retiring from my high school. But the lessons he taught will one way or another live forever. As for Marvin, he and I lost touch shortly after this incident, although I hear he has since authored a few books of his own, runs a literary review, and writes in his blog about having respect for books.


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Listen to the Rain

by Stephen Parrish

he day my first-ever rejection arrived, for the first-ever novel I wrote, it rained.

I didn’t know much about agents—I still thought only established writers had them—so I sent my manuscript directly to a publisher. Just one, because I thought it only fair. It’s how I apply for jobs, too.

I don’t want to say which publisher. Call it Rinky Dink Press. I gave them the best I had, and I presented it the best way I knew how.

At the time I was an Army contractor with an office off-base. I had to drive about fifteen minutes each day to check my personal mail. One day, a few weeks after submitting my manuscript (the best I had) to Rinky Dink Press (the best way I knew how) I found a form rejection slip in my mailbox:

Dear Author: After giving your manuscript careful consideration…

I wasn’t surprised. I figured I’d be rejected a few times. Still, that first one hurt. I drove back to my office, and as I parked in my parking space a thunderstorm suddenly struck. The rain came down hard, pounding the roof of my car. I didn’t have an umbrella with me so I decided to wait until the storm subsided.

There’s no better opportunity to reflect on things than when you’re trapped in your car in a thunderstorm and your first rejection slip is on the passenger seat next to you.

My Mom introduced me to books. She started me on Dr. Seuss and the rest, then progressively notched up the sophistication as I grew older. I wish I could remember all the books she bought for me, and recommended to me (she belonged to both Literary Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club). Some of my favorites are still on my shelf. Some authors are famous, like Robert Louis Stevenson, some less so, like Meindert DeJong. I can’t recall disliking a single title I read as I was growing up. Maybe that says something about me, maybe it says something about my Mom.

I remember the moment I wanted to become a writer, specifically a novelist. I was twelve or thirteen and reading Exodus, by Leon Uris, that my Mom had lent to me. I told her, wouldn’t it be great to be able to write such books? She answered that doing so was merely a choice one made. The answer jolted me, because until then I’d always thought writing was something only writers did. I went for a walk to my favorite place—a bridge over Covel Creek in north-central Illinois, and made a choice. I’ve never looked back.

The storm finally eased up. I snatched the rejection slip from the passenger seat and dashed across the parking lot to the office door. When I reached my desk I found a message from my Dad. My secretary was hovering nearby. “Call him right now,” she said. I did. He told me my Mom had just died.

She won’t read my books, or even hear of them. Oh, I’ll leave a copy of the first one on her grave. It will get rained on, and the pages will stick together, and the cover will fade under a Kentucky sun. But she won’t get to enjoy the product of all her book purchases, her subtle prodding, her inspiration.

On the other hand, she was there for my first rejection, speaking to me in a rain shower. And that’s when my determination truly began.


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A Tangible Vision

by Stephen Parrish

here isn’t an aspiring writer within the sound of my voice who hasn’t envisioned his or her book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Or making an appearance on a nationally broadcast talk show. Or autographing copies for fans waiting in line. For my part, I’ve always entertained a fantasy about being an extra in a major Hollywood production of my novel; my daughter pointing at the screen, saying, “Look, there’s dad!”

I think all such visions are normal and healthy, if unrealistic. There is one vision, however, that is not only realistic, it has magical powers: holding your published book in your hands.

That was the vision I kept before me as I wrote my first novel. It was the vision I burnished in my mind as I faced rejections, first from agents, then from publishers. It was the vision that helped me break through. Because I knew all along that it alone, among all my other visions and fantasies, was achievable.

All aspiring authors are naturally book lovers. They enjoy the feel of books in their hands, the smell of open pages. The content of the book is, of course, the point of it all, nevertheless a book can’t help being a tangible entity independent of the words that comprise it, however important or enlightening those words may be. A book is a tactile object, a physical incarnation of the author’s imagination. An artifact.

You’ll pick yours up, over and over, just to hold it in your hands.

Envisioning that will change the way you approach your goal. On a conscious level, you’ll turn the computer on when you don’t feel like it, you’ll eek out one more paragraph before shutting down. But the real magic happens in the subconscious mind.

A vision is nothing more than an image of something that doesn’t yet exist. For reasons that aren’t clear, the subconscious mind continues working on problems even after the conscious mind has given up on them. Mathematicians are well acquainted with the phenomenon: they often wake up in the morning with a solution that eluded them the night before.

Keep a realistic vision before you, one that you consciously know to be attainable, and your behavior will adjust in ways too subtle to notice. Your focus will sharpen automatically. Maybe eventually you’ll climb atop a bestseller list, autograph a thousand copies of your book in one afternoon, and buy Johnny Depp a beer “after work.” Until then, those fantasies aren’t likely to help much; the subconscious mind is hard to fool.

Picture your book in your hands when you sit down to write. Picture it in your hands when you go to bed at night. Picture it in your hands during every idle moment of the day.

If you’re anything like me, your hands will shake as you open the Fedex package from your publisher. The artifact inside will be solid and dense. It will smell that wonderful smell of having just come off the press. You’ll sit quietly for a few minutes, staring at your name on the cover, running your fingers along the edges and surfaces. Holding it.


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Communication is Everything

by Stephen Parrish

relative studied communication disorders at a big state university to become a speech pathologist. I’m hard pressed to think of a better way to spend one’s life (outside of writing). But I had an uncomfortable reaction when she first told me.

In my fifth grade class were two boys who had trouble speaking. One stuttered, the other had a lisp. A speech therapist made the rounds from grade school to grade school in our district, stopping by our school about once a week. She didn’t have time to work with students individually, so out of necessity the needy kids were bunched together for group therapy. It wasn’t the best system, but resources were limited.

When it was time to cull the students in my class who would benefit from such therapy, three names were called out: the stutterer’s, the lisper’s, and mine.

Fifth graders are not, in general, mature enough to respect a psychological or physiological disorder, instead they treat students with speech impediments as though they’re mentally disabled. I was no exception; only vegetables needed help talking. So when I was asked to join the group, at first I thought they just wanted my assistance. Discovering you’re some kind of dunce, and being branded as such in public—in front of the girls—is humbling.

I don’t know anything about speech therapy, so I can’t judge how well the speech therapist performed. Somehow, though, I suspect she could have done better. Or maybe the technology available to her was lacking. At any rate, all she did was hold up cards with pictures on them and ask us to state what the pictures represented. If we pronounced a word incorrectly, she told us so.

The picture on the first card she flashed to me was of a building with a steeple, so I said, “Church.”

“No,” she corrected: “Church.”

“Church,” I repeated.

She shook her head. “Church.”


She sighed audibly and looked out the window. “Church.”


“Let’s try another one.” The card she held up had a picture of a small insect with large wings.

“Butterfly,” I said.

“No, dammit, moth.”

I didn’t know then, and don’t know today, what was wrong with the way I talked. I’ve since written the experience off as one of those times when you think you’re surrounded by idiots, and in fact, as it turns out, you are. The two other boys later attended high school with me, by which time they were able to speak without any noticeable deficiencies. I think they just grew out of their problems, rather than were cured by time spent as lab rats. On the other hand, maybe it takes an elocutionist to know an elocutionist, and we three Algernons were blissfully and mutually unaware we were mislabeling Lepidoptera species and blaspheming God.

Speech pathology is a serious discipline, and I’m sure my relative received a state-of-the-art education. My brother earned a Ph.D. doing research related to speech production. I’m just sorry my own therapist was so ineffective that she might have been more successful using Tarot cards instead of pictures.

Okay, one more story, then I’m done with articulation stuff. A former colleague I’ll call Jim had an odd habit of saying “Smanks!” (instead of “Thanks!”) when expressing his gratitude for a favor. We worked together in a jewelry store, and in all the months I knew him I never heard him pronounce the word correctly. The idiosyncrasy was a trademark, one he milked.

When a customer bought a piece of jewelry: “Smanks!”

When you ran for a coke, and brought one back for him: “Smanks!”

When he was sick, and you covered for him, even though it meant you wouldn’t get a day off that week: “Smanks!” None of the rest of us knew how to respond, except to say things like, “Right. Whatever. Dude.”

Along came a new employee I’ll call Mandy, who was shy and stuck pretty much to herself during her first few days on the job. Presently an opportunity arose for her to do Jim a favor—she replaced a watch battery for one of his customers—and Jim expressed his gratitude in a way you can now guess: “Smanks!”

“Smelcome!” Mandy replied, without missing a beat.

Jim and Mandy married six months later. Communication is everything.


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The Art of Language

by Stephen Parrish

grew up among artists who encouraged me to draw and paint. My room always smelled of turpentine, and my pants were often streaked with charcoal dust. Since I write visually—I first see the scenes in my head and attempt to record them faithfully—it was only natural that I come up with an approach to writing that paid tribute to the canvases I sacrificed.

First I scribble the scene by brainstorming, by slapping words and expressions down and trying to empty the vision from my head:

start with where she lived
then the train station at the end of her street
it was where you last saw her alive
something about the dirtiness of the place, for contrast
cigarette butts, old newspapers
the train emerging from the fog
after a pregnant pause, you’re in each other’s arms…

An advantage of scribbling is that I ensure my purposes are comprehensively addressed; I vent everything that comes to mind. Another is that I get to fill up blank paper at little creative cost. After scribbling I sketch the scene, placing elements in the right order, fleshing out, filling gaps:

you start with the street she lived on, how it wound around obstacles long since removed, how the remaining buildings seemed tired, seemed to lean over the sidewalk. at the end of the street was the train station where you last saw her alive. the floor of the platform was covered with cigarette butts, old newspapers, and grime.

as the train approached the station you saw only its distant headlamp through the fog. when she stepped onto the platform the two of you paused as though waiting for enough joy to fill your eyes. finally the joy overflowed and you were in each other’s arms. one last time, you felt her skin beneath your hands.

only time is inaccessible, never place. you can always go back to the place. you write to preserve moments in time.

I write only in lower case, and I use no indentations or quotation marks. Consequently the piece feels like a draft and I don’t have to worry about how it sounds. If you’re a perfectionist like me, this will spare you obsessive tooling. Finally I draw the scene; I go final.

I keep a journal. I think everyone should: a journal is to language what a sketchbook is to art. The scribble-sketch-draw analogy has helped me fill many blank sheets of paper.

But that’s not what this essay is really about.

A painting is a window to a world the artist has created. Likewise when we write a scene we attempt to describe a world in a way readers can grasp. The writer needs to provide just enough detail for readers to connect lines and fill in colors. Some details the writer will insist on: the scar was on the left side of the bad guy’s face; it was rain rather than crickets the lovers heard, or rather didn’t hear.

Most of the details, however, the readers must decide for themselves. I have little patience with writers who want to show me exactly what a character looks like, by inventorying traits and dimensions, by scanning figures from head to toe. If you tell me the bad guy has a scar, I’ll fill in the rest. If you tell me the lovers don’t even know it’s raining, don’t even notice they’re getting wet, I can figure out what they’re doing. A visual artist who skimps on detail risks failing to achieve his or her goal. A writer who is heavy on detail stands little chance of achieving it; the reader might not even make an attempt to engage.

When I paint, I fill my canvas with color. I leave no spot untouched. When I write, I provide as little information as I can get away with; less is more.

Still, that’s not what this essay is about, either.

Anyone who has been moved by a great poem knows the art of language has as much to do with sound and rhythm as visual detail. With rhyme and alliteration. With contrast and other elements traditionally associated with graphic design. When it comes time to draw, after you’ve scribbled and sketched, there should be only one thought in mind: to push your work beyond what you’ve visualized.

You start with the street she lived on, how it wound narrowly around obstacles long since leveled by bankruptcy and wood saw. How it shouldered buildings that retained most of their dignity, except now they seemed to cant forward, like opposing rows of aging chess players.

You describe the train station where you last saw her alive. The paint was yellow with age and smoke and the sour smell of unclean men. It peeled in the damp air and fell to join the cigarette butts, the empty bottles, and the foot-trodden newspapers, litter that clothed the cement floor like the rags on the men who drank and dreamed there.

The first you saw of the train was its headlamp, floating ghost-like over the fog. Then the engine broke from the mist and rumbled into the station where, here, the sun had burned the valley clean and the trunks of the birch trees were amber columns of light. When she stepped onto the platform the two of you stood apart at first and let the smile fill your eyes. Like spring-fed wells. Until the wells overflowed and you were in each other’s arms.

The first time was outdoors, as all first times should be. You felt her flesh beneath your hands, soft, pliable, giving, welcoming. Her voice, its sibilant resonance a tonic, an elixir. An ointment to wash the day of its drabness. The pungent odor of cut grass, of burning leaves. Of moss and humus and primeval soil. A visceral sense of early and distant rain.

You were vaguely aware of the bare ground beneath your back, pine needles pricking innocuously, a jet passing silently overhead. Until she let her hair down and it fell to either side of your face, creating a miniature cathedral, with room enough for a pair of travelers who had beaten staggering odds to share one ephemeral coordinate in space and time.

All these years later you can still taste her lips. You can still feel her skin beneath your hands.

The Ontological argument is valid after all. The universe has architecture. Consciousness is no more than a projection, a glorious illusion, a tribe of shadows dancing on the wall of Plato’s Cave.

And it’s only the time that’s inaccessible, not the place, not even the person. You write to preserve moments in time. That’s what art is for. You write to capture the love you felt before it broke something inside of you. The volume set too high, yet never quite high enough. A timeline, a Cartesian grid, curved space, stars churning like balls of molten lava, and an abacus in the hands of a god gone mad.

That’s what this essay is about.


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Some Writers are Late Bloomers: a Heartrending Tale From my Bitter Youth

by Stephen Parrish

y friend Peter and I signed up for Advanced Composition our senior year in high school. The teacher, Mr. Adana, was a charismatic cherub who greeted boys with direct eye contact, a firm handshake, and the words, “Hello there, handsome!” Wisely, he did not greet the girls with any reference to their looks, and equipped with such survival instincts, he was able to log more than four decades as a high school teacher.

The more you admire a teacher, the more devastated you become when you learn how little he thinks of you. I admired Mr. Adana very much.

One day Mr. Adana called six or seven students to the front of the class, and while the rest of us waited idly in our seats, he spoke to them in a low voice. Peter, one of the select, listened raptly, wearing an uncharacteristically humble expression.

Following the meeting the students returned to their seats with new-found swagger. Peter sat down heavily next to me and waited, with obvious aloofness, for the inevitable question.

“Well?” I asked.

“He just, um, wanted us to know that, um, we were, you know, the ones in the class … most likely to publish.”

Most likely to publish?

“And he encouraged us to begin submitting our work as soon as possible.”

I gulped. I wasn’t even out of high school, and already I had become chopped liver.

A few months later, after we’d graduated, Peter and I paid a visit to our old high school. We were college freshmen then, and acted as though we were on furlough from the French Foreign Legion. Soldiers of fortune. Big men on campus. There and back again. Return with your shield or upon it!

Our former teachers smiled indulgently. It somehow never occurred to us that they’d been to college too.

Mr. Adana’s classroom was the last stop on the itinerary. “What grade are you getting in composition?” he asked Peter.

“It’s only midterm,” Peter replied, bracing himself. “But it looks like I’m headed for a B.”

Mr. Adana laid into him. Lectured him on the need to prove himself early, to make his mark, to send a trumpeting shout across the land that he, Peter, a writer, had arrived. Warned him that professional writers were “called” from those who earned As. That many who earned As were not “called.” That those who earned Bs ate dust.

“They eat dust,” he repeated. “I expect more from you, Peter. I expect a lot more.”

Catching his breath, Mr. Adana then turned to me and asked, “What grade are you getting in composition?”

I bowed my head, braced myself, and confessed, “I’m also en route to a B.”

He was going to lay into me. Lecture me on the need to prove myself. Make my mark, trumpet my presence, etc. Warn me that since I was already behind Peter, and Peter was already behind the eight ball, I had all that much more distance to make up. I needed to work even harder than Peter. Give it some elbow grease. The old college try. Catch up. For God’s sake, boy, reach.

He patted me on the shoulder. “Well done, handsome,” he said. “Good work. I’m proud of you.”


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They Threw Tomatoes at Jackie Gleason

by Stephen Parrish

can’t find any mention of this when I google the interwebs. But I heard about it on the show. That’s right, I’m old enough to have watched Jackie Gleason broadcast “live from Miami Beach.” During one poignant episode of The Jackie Gleason Show a close personal friend of Jackie’s narrated The Great One’s early career.

Jackie Gleason originally tried to break into the entertainment business as a singer. During his debut appearance in a vaudeville act, his performance was so poor that members of the audience threw tomatoes at him. Apparently theater-goers of the time routinely equipped themselves with such projectiles for just such a contingency.

At home that night, wiping tears and tomato juice from his face, Jackie learned his mother had died.

He went on, of course, to make his mark in comedy and drama, staring in the hit TV series The Honeymooners and several films including The Hustler. What few people seem to know is that he also sold millions of “mood music” albums in the 1950s and 60s. The guy whose singing voice launched rotten tomatoes became, for a time, a force in the music industry.

Some writer friends of mine have walked away after a few rejections, and in my opinion, too few. For some reason, a pair of manuscripts seem to be a common limit; the quitting writers don’t think there’s any point in writing a third. Yet my fourth novel was the first to be published, and according to one survey (, only about 2% of authors debut with their first novel. 14% debut with their fifth.

Hemingway reportedly rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty times. You only fail when you quit.

The road will almost certainly be rocky, because rejection rates are high. In the more prestigious journals, the rejection rates are stratospheric. Theodore Ross recalls his time as a reader at Harper’s Magazine:

“The great majority of stories that crossed my desk were, of course, terrible. A smaller subset were mediocre; a tiny fraction were good; one was excellent; I rejected it, too. (It ended up in the Paris Review.) Graduate students, retirees, lunatics, published authors, and untold residents of this country’s federal and state prison systems sent me their work, as did one of the stars from the television show, Scrubs. To all I said no. The literary editor at the publication once told me that in his many years only one story had emerged from the slush pile and into print.”

A former intern at The Paris Review once wrote anonymously in a forum that in two years of reading for the review not one piece was taken from the slush. I asked a couple of Paris Review staff members about this at an AWP conference. They looked at each other, thought for a moment, then one said to the other, “Didn’t we take something from the slush a year or so ago?” The other frowned, shook her head, and said, “Not that I recall.”

You have to acknowledge all this, but you can’t let any of it defeat you. First, because there’s no shame in getting rejected. Just look at Jackie Gleason. Author Joe Konrath keeps a spiral notebook filled with more than 500 rejections he received before landing his first publication. The only thing Joe counts nowadays is his money.

Second, because there are reasons for submitting your work even if you suspect it isn’t quite good enough, or you believe your chances of placing it are slim. Writers tend to improve their games when showing their writing to others, especially to editors. And they tend to improve their games even more when they imagine their work being read by hundreds or thousands of journal readers. Merely sending your stuff out makes your stuff better, makes you a better writer.

If you’re getting your writing workshopped you’re already taking the most important step toward publication, after the writing itself. Demand that your crit partners be harsh. In my experience many if not most writers who show their work to friends and colleagues are seeking validation, not criticism. I tell my crit partners that if they say even one nice thing about my piece I’ll track them down and sit on them.

When submitting, follow the guidelines to the letter. Be polite and authentic in your query, not boastful, condescending, or affected. Save the details about your pets for your annual Christmas letter. Editors are prospecting for gems in the gravel. If you won’t follow the instructions, or you cop an attitude, or your cat’s name, “Admiral Snuggles,” is the one that sticks in the editor’s mind, you look like gravel.

After your piece is rejected, take another look at it, and send it out again. Keep sending it out. I can’t count how many times a piece I’ve rejected, or would have rejected, was accepted by another journal. More often than you might guess, it’s just a matter of finding the right home for your work. Having said that, keep writing new work, too. Experienced editors recognize tired submissions, the ones that have an over-polished feel about them, the feel of having been around the block.

Never give up. Ever. I’ve noticed a funny thing about this business. Every one of my friends who has quit writing, because he or she felt like a failure, was, in my evaluation of their writing, on the cusp of breaking through. The day you quit is the day before the following would have arrived in your inbox:

Dear You: I love your story, “Admiral Snuggles Defends the Patio from Chirpy Flying Beasts.” If it’s still available, I’d like to take it for the Review…

Remember, they threw tomatoes at Jackie Gleason.


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Cut Me a Story

by Stephen Parrish

he first novel I queried was 180,000 words long. I got nothing but form rejections in response.

Go figure.

I’ve always had confidence in my writing, in my ability to place one word in front of another. But cutting is an art that has taken me a long time to master. In fact, my learning curve is still pretty steep. I’m past the hard part, though, the denial phase, the self-delusional insistence that all 180,000 words in a 180,000 word manuscript are critical to the story.

The ability to erase words is every bit as important as the ability to compose them. I think writing programs ought to have at least one course in cutting. Rather than give students a blank piece of paper and say, “Write me something,” give them a page full of text and say, “Cut me something.” Otherwise it’s like a driving instructor teaching use of the accelerator but not the brake.

Of course the reason cutting is hard is because we fall in love with our words. Like parents with 180,000 children, we convince ourselves they’re all equal and should be enrolled in the best schools.

My rude awakening came when a veteran author offered to look at the first chapter of my novel. I happily emailed it to him; I was particularly proud of how my story opened, even though beta readers were telling me it opened too slowly (what the hell did they know?). Veteran Author took scissors to the chapter and returned it to me 40% of its former length.

The gall. The impertinence! As I read the shortened version I thought of visiting a church, not to light a candle for Veteran Author, rather to blow one out. That’ll show him! But when I’d finished kicking furniture I realized the chapter was better, a lot better. Less was more. Later, when an editor asked me to make cuts throughout the manuscript, he said, “Do the whole thing like you did chapter one.”

The question writers must ask themselves, as they go over each scene, is this: Is it absolutely necessary to the story? Absolutely? Thankfully I didn’t open my story with the weather*.

That novel was eventually pitched to editors at 145,000 words. It was published at about 90,000, half of the original length. Ninety thousand of my little darlings gave their lives so that others might carry on. I hope to sacrifice fewer victims in the future, and one day I might write efficiently enough to avoid bloodshed altogether.

*Are you kidding? Of course I did.


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The Writer’s Trap

by Stephen Parrish

‘d be happy if only my book were finished.

My book is finished, and I’d be happy if only I had an agent.

I have an agent, and I’d be happy if only I had a publisher.

I have a publisher, and I’d be happy if only my book were a bestseller.

My book is a bestseller, and I’d be happy if only it won a Pulitzer.

It won a Pulitzer, and I’d be happy if only they awarded me a Nobel.

They awarded me a Nobel, and I’d be happy if only I were young again, writing my first book.


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by Stephen Parrish

worked in four different jewelry stores. In each store were pieces so expensive, they’d sat in their cases for years. They’re probably still on display, touched only when moved to the safe at night, or when someone dusts their facets.

Also in each store were pieces so ugly, they’d sat in their cases for years. They’re probably still on display, touched … well, never, since they don’t go into the safe at night, and no one bothers to dust them.

I wondered why a store would stock pieces that never sold, why the owner would buy such jewelry in the first place. Turns out, one of the most effective ways to sell a commodity is to sandwich it between something expensive and something ugly. Next to the expensive thing it will look affordable, and next to the ugly thing it will look beautiful. We judge stuff by contrasting it with other stuff.

In fact we define stuff that way too: a peak only exists in the presence of valleys. There’d be no such thing as happy if we were never sad.

Visual contrast is the province of the art kingdom, where students learn that a hue is most visible and vibrant when placed adjacent to its complement, for example orange next to blue. But value, saturation, size, shape, orientation, and other compositional elements can also be contrasted.

The following is Ingres’s portrait of the violinist Niccolo Paganini:

It’s one of my favorite works of art, one I think deserves more attention that it has received. In the debate between Ingres (form) and Delacroix (color), I’m an Ingres man all the way. Notice how the face is drawn in detail, and how the rest of the figure, including the violin, is sketched in rough outline. Ingres contrasted detail to make the face appear more real, more alive.

As far as you know, I don’t draw or paint, I write. And I write very much with contrast in mind. The following is the first paragraph of a flash piece called “The Draftsman” I wrote for Boston Literary Magazine:

Dinner was almost ready, so she peeked into his shop. He was leaning over the work bench, as usual. Toying with compass and protractor. Doodling. She looked over his shoulder and saw geometric figures he had sketched, objects with faces, edges, and terminating points.

I received a surprise compliment when the story appeared. The reader pointed out the varying sentence lengths, and suggested the habit came naturally to me. In truth I write as crappily as the next guy when facing blank sheets of paper. Varying sentence lengths is something I do down the road, and quite consciously.

There’s so much more than sentence length to contrast when you write. There are sensations, like the smell of an apple when you bite into it, the smell of fungus in the woods, just as night falls. The smell of burning leaves in the fall.

The feel of tree bark, of wet sand beneath your feet. Of naked flesh gliding under the palm of your hand.

I like writing about storms, because they serve well as metaphors, and because getting caught in one contrasts so greatly with my ordinary routine. I know one’s coming when I see the restless clouds rolling in. But I needn’t even look up; my primeval ancestors had to know it was going to rain before they saw the clouds, and they’ve passed their genes to me. I smell the storm coming. I feel it on my skin. By the time thunder warns of its approach, the storm is old news.

But the experience isn’t. My string of dry days, of desk-bound days, of ordinary, to-do-list, pay-the-bills, brush-my-teeth, change-the-lightbulb days, is broken by jagged lightning scratching an irritated sky. Sizzle. Crack. I’m drenched, and my clothes cling cold and wet to my skin.

I lift my face to the bruised vault above me, and laugh. Belly laugh. From deep down, from where defiance and audacity spring, I laugh. Gimme-everything-you’ve-got laugh. The contrast is too beautiful not to celebrate. I stomp through puddles, and laugh. Because of all the things to experience in life, getting caught in a storm, one that pelts you mercilessly, refracts the scenery into a swimming blur, and reminds you never to take the simple and the natural for granted, ranks high, real high, right up there, near the top of all glorious adventure, and to think I started this piece with “I worked in four different jewelry stores.”


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