Category Archives: Culture

So You Want to Work in a Bookstore: Lesson 7 | Sweatpants Guy

Sweatpants Ancient AliensNo longer resigned to lounging on the couch on Sundays for every football game ever, no longer for painting or yardwork or staring at that weight bench in your basement you keep intending to use. What? No, you will, I know.  Next week.  You’ll start your workout routine next week.

No!  No sir, not anymore are sweatpants marginalized and cast aside in favor of pants with their fancy zippers and buttons and measured waists.  Who the hell do those pants think they are?  No more!

Sweatpants.  Sweatpants are your going out pants now, because somewhere along the line we have devolved into a society where this is entirely acceptable.  With sweatpants you get a a full range of motion, the possibility of keeping one pair your entire life no matter how fat you end up with their revolutionary stretchable elastic waistband; and, of course,  the liberating knowledge that your balls are just bouncing free as you walk, unhindered by stiff, restrictive fabric that other “pants” fall victim to.  The ladies will love that last bit.  A man in sweatpants is DTF, you better believe that.  And for the record, real men wear their sweatpants pulled up an inch above their ankles to properly show off the white socks they’re wearing with sandles.

I was kneeling down, putting some books away on the bottom shelf when a husky, sweatpants clad customer who had a five-o’clock shadow on only half his face, stopped at the end of the aisle.

When I looked up he gave me a big, wide-eyed smile and snapped the waistband of his sweatpants.

“Yes sir!” he yelled and nodded at me, his eyebrows threatening to jump off his face, and continued on his way.

“Ok,” I said to the now empty space he had occupied (well, what else do you say?) and went back to what I’d been doing.

Until he came back.  He always come back, that’s an important point to remember.  You spoke while facing his general direction and that means you spoke to him.  That means, as far as Sweatpants Guy is concerned, you are the only person in the store.  You made the mistake of acknowledging his existence, something that apparently no one else has done in quite some time.

See, you’re the guy in the horror movie that opened the creepy nailed-shut door behind a shelf in his basement his first night in the new house that he bought for a surprisingly low price that the rest of the town avoids going near.  How many red flags do you need?  The house was wearing sweatpants, why did you even look at it?  Now you’re the guy that lets out the evil spirit that’s been trapped in there since the house was built over an old Indian burial ground.  Now, you gotta pay the piper, because that evil sweatpants-wearing spirit will now feast on what is left of your retail soul.

Anything else Sweatpants Guy needs to ask, that he needs to say, any other thought regarding his favorite snack foods or his opinion of the color green, anything at all that pops into his lumpy noggin that he inexplicably needs to speak aloud, he will find you, and he will tell you.  And only you.  Because you’re friends now.

Sweatpants Guy popped back around the corner of the aisle about 27-seconds later—-he didn’t come back into the aisle, make no mistake about that—-he only leaned around the corner.  And waited.  I saw him out of the corner of my eye and took a deep breath.  I’d been through this before.  There’s no point in trying to avoid it or pretend he isn’t there.  Sweatpants Guy has nowhere else to be.  He can do this all night.  He stared at me silently until I looked up.

“Do you still have—-you have paper applications, or I do it online now?”

“Online.”

“Excellent!” he yelled, and pumped his fist int he air, and with a sweatpanty swish and a cloud of the cheap potpourri he rubbed on himself before leaving the house to mask that man-stink of indeterminate origins, he disappeared again, leaving me with the realization that he would probably get hired and I would be the one to argue with him that sweatpants were not acceptable work attire.

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Breaking Hemingway’s Rule… Sort Of

I may have broken one of Hemingway’s rules of writing. It’s a pretty basic rule too, I should have known better. Write drunk, edit sober.

Seems simple enough.

Write Drunk, Edit Sober by Evan RobertsonAnd it looks great visually, as the original art print that illustrator Evan Robertson made (along with other author quotes) that got the ball rolling on this line’s popularity, or any of the other versions that have popped up on t-shirts and coffee mugs and whatever else.

It’s a perfect gift for any writer who’s still in love with the idea of being the angst-filled, drunken author character who writes in coffeehouses and bars, whose first draft is literary gold ready for immediate print, more than the reality of being an author who writes for a living in the same manner as anyone else who gets up and goes to work each day.

It validates the excuses we make so we can drink all day while plunking away at the keyboard. It’s ok, I’ll edit sober. Right, as if I need to edit. I’m sure some publisher is on his way right now to knock on my door and grab the latest bourbon fueled masterpiece I’ve come up with. Faulkner did it, Fitzgerald did it, look at Kerouac and Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Capote and Joyce. And Hemingway.

Well, except that it wasn’t really one of his rules.

People who have read more of Hemingway’s work then I have, and have read more about him, argue that he would write in the morning immediately after a good night’s sleep and before he had read anything that might cloud his own creative judgment. Sounds similar to advice I read recently warning people not to check their email early in the morning if they’d like to have a productive day.

In a quote from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway claimed not to drink after dinner or before writing, and on the subject of drinking while writing said, “Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner.”

The closest anyone can tell about that quote, is that it originated from Peter De Vries’ novel, “Reuben, Reuben” about a drunk poet based on Dylan Thomas.

“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

That doesn’t fit as cleanly on an art print. Even just quoting it here I considered hacking part of it off. Apollonian, Dionysian, the undecided nature of the character’s habit. The Hemingway version was sweet, simple and clear.

Regardless of the true ownership of the advice, I broke the rule.

I tried to edit drunk. Not a bad idea for the times I need to read something out loud to get a feel for how the words actually flow outside my own head where everything is perfect. Something on the rocks nearby relaxes the vocal cords, right? But stay away from the stuff if you actually intend on digging through your most recent convoluted, long-winded draft and the short but painfully fragmented draft you wrote four months ago (before you started dreaming of turning a short story into a novel) with the hope of marrying the two into something worth reading.

What I thought I was editing turned out to be a completely different draft that had snuck its way into the mix. It wasn’t until I’d finished tearing up the second half of it and went back to the beginning that I realized I’d been working on the wrong draft the entire time. Now there are three drafts to sift through and piece together. And each one has its moments, because they always do.

This might work out for the best. I could end up with a better draft because these three versions I have before me represent the various levels of development in style or theme, or the inclusion of details and research, that have led to their evolution with each reading.

Or I could be back at the start. It could all be crap. I should get back to work.  I need a drink…

A Too-Late List for Mr. Poetic Fiction

“Maybe you can help me,” my co-worker said after she waved me over, “That customer over there is looking for ‘poetically written contemporary fiction.’ Everything I’ve suggested he’s pooh-poohed already.”

I made a face. I made a face like I… well, like I had to pooh-pooh a little. What does that even mean? Poetically written contemporary fiction?

First of all, the definition of contemporary depends on the person. You might think contemporary and modern are synonymous. Sounds like it. Maybe. Nope. I made that mistake when I took a class once called “Modern Philosophy.” That branch of philosophical namby-pambying starts in the 17th century. In a big picture kind of way sure, that’s modern times, but not for a 19 years old college kid. Contemporary philosophy, while closer to the mark, is still old. It picks up towards the end of the 19th century.

The periods in literature are more confusing and more poorly defined because writers are artists, which means we’re all babies and can’t make up our minds about anything. Periods overlap and lack any clear start or end. Contemporary literature, I guess, starts in the 1930s, because that’s what Wikipedia said. More or less.

But is that what this guy meant by contemporary? Your typical bookstore browser might say contemporary but mean current, present-day. Does he want new releases? How new? And what does he really mean by ‘poetically written’? I can jot down some sentence fragments full of adjectives and no clear point, if that’s what he wants. Better yet, I’ll write a full page and just delete every third word, let’s call that poetry. I think someone may have written a poem on the wall in the men’s room, how’s that for contemporary?

I offered up Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but that’s more fantastical than poetic, even though I found the writing beautiful; a children’s book written for adults.  This reminded me I have yet to read Rushie’s sequel to Haroun, which aggravated me even more.  Giving up I said dismissively, “Just give him some Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Every death article I’ve read talks about how poetic his writing is. Or maybe I’m confusing that with magical realism. I don’t know. You’re on your own.”

Before I could complete my dramatic exit however, I suddenly thought of a book I’d read a few years ago, one I came across by chance walking down an aisle in the Fiction section. It was depressing, full of imagry and difficult to follow; if that isn’t the purest definition of poetry then—well, actually I think I’ve made it clear I have no understanding of poetry.  After handing this book off to my coworker a couple others came to mind, and for no particular reason, I’m going to share them with you.  I’ll start with the one the guy purchased…

Tinkers Paul HardingTinkers / Paul Harding

It was weird. It left me feeling as though I was looking up while being sucked down into a whirlpool. It’s been a couple years since I read it, so that could actually be something that happened in the book, I’m not sure. That’s the only way I can describe my memory of reading it. It centers on an man lying in a hospital bed in his dining room dying. In and out of consciousness, the world around him constantly breaks down as he moves through his memories and those of his father. What’s real, what is hallucination, what is the point of… all of it?

The cover of the paperback is absolutely appropriate: a snow-covered field, a solitary figure. Imagine being that—no, imagine being in that field and seeing that figure.  Walking across the field in the snow, the cold reaching through your coat and the fog of your breath pouring out of you, but never getting any closer to that figure, and that figure never turning around to see you.

the Solitude of Prime Numbers Paolo Giordanothe Solitude of Prime Numbers / Paolo Giordano —

A few years ago, when this book first came into the store, a coworker and I instantly hated the author. Italian, good looking, twenty-seven and working on a doctorate in particle physics who, you know, in his spare time, wrote a novel. He’s probably one of those guys who makes riding a scooter look badass.  His author photo only rubs it in that I don’t have an awesome corduroy sport coat.  Yet.

The book makes you uncomfortable. There’s no point in trying to hide that from you. You care about the characters, you want things to happen, but you’re entirely sure if they deserve to be happy. You want them to be, you want things to work out. But you also give up and push them away. You’re rooting for and against them the entire time. It’s painful and beautiful in the same moment. Its infuriating. Paulo, you need to stop being awesome.

the End of the Alphabet Richardsonthe End of the Alphabet / C.S. Richardson —

I saw this book on the shelf but forgot the title and the author. Three years later I finally tracked it down after countless internet searches with the incredibly limited information I had. This book is beautiful, inside and out; it is a tragedy of literature that it is out of print. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the book broke my heart. Go find a used copy of it, buy it, it’s worth it. Be dramatic and read it on the porch during an afternoon rainstorm. Have either a glass of bourbon or a cup of tea within reach. It’s a short book. You can read it in one sitting, but it will be a book that on days when you are feeling alone or lost, when nothing can hold your attention, you will want to find it on your shelf and read again.

The main character, Ambrose Zephyr is going to die. He has one month, so he and his wife pack their bags to travel the world in alphabetical order. This is about loss, it’s about dreams, about love. It’s the shortest book ever written to cover everything that makes a life beautiful.

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