Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

Category: Writing

Free Box #5: Old Testament Beard, Where Have You Been All My Life?

“Old Testament Beard, Where Have You Been All My Life?” is the title of my undergraduate thesis in creative writing. I’m alarmed to find it’s more than 10 years old.

It was doing absolutely nothing, hanging out in a filing cabinet, so since I have a scanner and a website, I thought I’d post it. It’s quite a bit of writing, especially for an undergrad: 60 pages comprising two stories, three poems, one essay, and a tough-to-define thing that I guess you could call a story. (It’s text that was screen-printed onto a t-shirt as part of a group art project; see the very last page of the document and decide for yourself.) I’ve improved as a writer since then, certainly, but I remain fairly proud of a lot of this writing

Anyway, here’s Old Testament Beard Where Have You Been All My Life?.

 

The unceasing wonder of the internet (and Reason to Love Pittsburgh #11)

. . . exists, among other places, in the fact that sometimes your blog subjects write back. And are completely kind and nice about it.

In the comments of that piece today, I found Billie Nardozzi had written in! Just go to the above link, scroll down to the comments, and experience my unfolding wonder as it happened.

This brings me to my Reason to Love Pittsburgh #11: people here are really, really nice. Like continue-to-surprise-you-with-their-niceness nice. (I had the idea recently for a mural (or a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, or whatever), in the vein of Austin, Tx.’s “Keep Austin Weird,” that would read “Keep Pittsburgh Polite.” I still think it’s not a bad idea.)

Free Box, Installment #2: Novel Appendix

Part of what I want to use this feature, Free Box, for is to post old stuff that’s moldering in my filing cabinets and on various disks and computer drives, that will never be published and would be more fun to share now than when someone is going through my papers after my death. (Free Box #1, with an explanation, is here.)

To that end, here’s a blog entry that I posted about two years ago. Here’s the piece of writing I’m putting in the free box (with a warning that there is some strong language and content in this piece). The blog entry gives fuller context, although I’m not sure anything could properly explain where this came from, in the sense of what I was thinking at the time.

Found Poetry from the Chicago Manual of Style

At my previous position, as a copy editor, I had a fair bit of downtime and access to the Chicago Manual of Style (15th or 16th edition for you grammarphiles who might be wondering). To pass the time and to make myself a better editor, I’d read through it until I started dozing off. Along the way I wrote down some of the more notable example phrases and sentences the Manual used to illustrate various grammatical principles. These are from all over the book, representing any number of grammatical rules.

I’ve given the poem my own title, but if you’ve got a better one, suggest it in the comments.

“The Onslaught of the Word”

We the voters will decide
Children, stop misbehaving
A limo carried the band
I hoped to see many deer, but I saw only one deer

The governor delivered a speech
The shops are crowded because the holiday season has begun
The troops retreated in winter
High in the tree sat a leopard

My show dogs are Australian shepherds
The balloon carried a pilot and a passenger
Place the slide under the microscope
The queen consulted the prime minister

Everything else was returned; the medicine the villain withheld
An assembly of strangers was outside
George Washington, our first president, was born in Virginia
Robert Burns, the poet, wrote many songs about women named Mary

The husband has worked hard to produce this crop
You must husband your land thoughtfully
More school districts are mainstreaming pupils with special needs
The poor are always with us

We cannot avoid the here and now

Swimming in that lake can be dangerous

To discover the truth is our goal

What the people want is justice

The father told the father’s daughter that the father wanted the father’s daughter to do some chores
The father told his daughter that he wanted her to do some chores

Keats and Yeats Are on Your Side

I’ve got great news that is great news only to me: cleaning up my work area this afternoon, I found an index card I’d long thought lost. The card had appeared in a book (I don’t remember which book) I’d bought at a yard sale or a library book sale or in a used book store. On the index card was taped a passage cut from a photocopied page of something—a newspaper story, a magazine article, an academic paper; something. It was a note on the life of the poet John Keats. He’s one of those poets I’m sure I read in AP English, but don’t remember particularly, and so having an index card fall into my lap that told of his view on life did not at first mean much to me beyond the distinct small thrill of encountering something left by a previous reader of this book.

But the more I read the passage, the more wonderful it seemed. I thought it would make for a great blog item, something others might enjoy, and then I lost it. I hadn’t memorized the text, and so I couldn’t really Google it.

Anyway, today I found it, and here it is:

Keats

If the type is too small for you, here’s what it says:

Keats believed that life was given for him to find the right use of it, that it was a kind of continuous magical confrontation requiring to be met with the right answer. He believed that this answer was to be derived from intuition, courage, and the accumulation of experience. It was not, of course, to be a formula of any kind, not a piece of rationality, but rather a way of being and of acting. And yet it could in part be derived from taking thought, and it could be put, if not into a formula, then at least into many formulations. Keats was nothing if not a man of ideas. [Emphasis added — I.H.]

And here I’ve found the passage online. It’s from Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, edited by John Rodden, and the passage is from a Lionel Trilling essay on Keats. The “I.H.” who adds emphasis in this passage is Irving Howe, in a New Republic piece “On Lionel Trilling: ‘Continuous Magical Confrontation,'” published in 1976.

What to say, really, about the content of the passage? You don’t need to know or like Keats, I don’t think, to find something beautiful and inspiring in Trilling’s description of how Keats lived his life.

Anyway, that’s my story. I’ll be putting the card somewhere safe this time.

New Favorite Paragraph (a Facebook Note, Rescued from Facebook)

From You Can’t Win by Jack Black. (No, not that Jack Black.) If you’re interested in hobo hygiene, read on. If you like liberal use of quotation marks, friend, read on:

“The ‘Johnson family’ became so numerous that a ‘convention’ must be held. In any well-ordered convention all persons of suspicious or doubtful intentions are thrown out at the start. When a bums’ ‘convention’ is to be held, the jungle is first cleared of all outsiders such as ‘gay cats,’ ‘dingbats,’ ‘whangs,’ ‘bindle stiffs,’ ‘jungle buzzards,’ and ‘scissors bills.’ Conventions are not so popular in these droughty days. Formerly kegs of beer were rolled into the jungle and the ‘punks,’ young bums, were sent for ‘mickies,’ bottles of alcohol. ‘Mulligans’ of chicken or beef were put to cooking on big fires. There was a general boiling up of clothes and there was shaving and sometimes haircutting.”

(This is part two in a series of items posted in the little-loved “Note” feature within Facebook, now rescued for posterity and, hopefully, a larger audience.)

Morning Fog

It is a foggy morning in Pittsburgh. As is always the case when fog is general across the city, I am reminded of one of my favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff’s “Our Story Begins.” The story’s setting is San Francisco, and the fog is a bit more aggressive than it is here this morning, but what lovely descriptions:

“The fog blew in early again. This was the tenth straight day of it. The waiters and waitresses gathered along the window to watch, and Charlie pushed his cart across the dining room so that he could watch with them as he filled the water glasses. Boats were beating in ahead of the fog, which loomed behind them like a tall, rolling breaker. Gulls glided from the sky to the pylons along the wharf, where they shook out their feathers and rocked from side to side and glared at the tourists passing by.

“The fog covered the stanchions of the bridge. The bridge appeared to be floating free as the fog billowed into the harbor and began to overtake the boats. One by one they were swallowed up in it.”

. . .

“Charlie started home the long way, up Columbus Avenue, because Columbus Avenue had the brightest streetlights. But in this fog the lights were only a presence, a milky blotch here and there in the vapor above. Charlie walked slowly and kept to the walls. He met no one on his way; but once, as he paused to wipe the dampness from his face, he heard strange ticking steps behind him and turned to see a three-legged dog appear out of the mist. It moved past in a series of lurches and was gone. ‘Christ,’ Charlie said. Then he laughed to himself, but the sound was unconvincing and he decided to get off the street for a while.”

Copying out these passages, I was struck first that these aren’t actually flamboyantly beautiful descriptions of fog; second, that they’re sneakier and more effective than that, because what they conjure up is the sensation you get when you’re trapped or enveloped in fog: in the first two paragraphs, Wolff describes a bus boy inside a tourist-trap restaurant as the fog closes in, strangling business for the evening; in the last, the bus boy walks home alone, late, through the fog and the empty streets. The three-legged dog is not Wolff’s usual thing—he’s a more realistic, generally unsentimental writer, not given to quirks or humor other than the dry sort—but here it makes sense: strange things come out of the fog, and everything looks a bit stranger when its context is wiped away. You can read metaphorical significance into the fog, isolating the main character, Charlie, forcing him to confront his own life—but you don’t really need to; it’s fog, it’s San Francisco.

I can remember reading “Our Story Begins” for the first time and getting chills. It was the summer and I was sitting in a laundromat in Philadelphia, waiting for my load of wash to be done. Walking around the city I had picked up a book called Graywolf Annual for some year, maybe 1989 or ’90, in a box of books put out on the curb with a placard reading “Free Books!” There were a number of fantastic stories in that collection—Andre Dubus and Richard Ford were represented, along with Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer”—but “Our Story Begins” was the one that made me put the book down, look around, and feel obscurely that I had been taught something important and at just the right time. I was older than the main character—23 or 24 at that time—but in not so different a place in terms of life and career. In the story, Charlie is revealed to be an aspiring writer who has moved to San Francisco with thoughts of Kerouac, of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso popping into the cafe where he goes to escape the fog; his novel, we’re told, has been returned without comment by all the publishers he’s sent it to—except for one, who’s written “Are you kidding?” across the title page. Without encouragement, friendless, with San Francisco’s long, cold summer wearing him down, Charlie is just on the point of giving up. His encounter in the cafe, listening in on an ambiguous conversation between a married couple and the choir director the wife is having an affair with, sustains Charlie, convincing him to push on a little further by conveying a sense of possibility, of wonder at what the world will turn up next. It was an immensely encouraging idea to read in a story; whether or not any of this happened to Tobias Wolff, it seemed impossible he hadn’t lived some version of this pivotal moment, deciding whether to go on.

I’ve already sort of spoiled the story for you, but below the jump is its conclusion—a big part of why I’ve remembered this story so fondly for so long: Read the rest of this entry »

Grammar Heroics

Apologies in advance for the bragging nature of this post. Sometimes, though, we surprise ourselves, and we have something of an obligation to let the world know about it.

Two grammar-related exploits to relate:

First, several weeks ago, I was meeting with two writers about a comedy project. It was our very first meeting and we were laying out plans for how things would work, how often we’d meet, etc. One writer proposed “bi-weekly meetings”; i.e., twice a week. The second writer frowned and said that he thought bi-weekly meant every other week. The first writer chuckled mirthlessly and said no, he was quite sure bi-weekly was twice a week. The second writer was coiled up and ready to strike when I intervened.

“Boys, boys,” I said. “Stop this quarreling. ‘Bi-weekly’ is an auto-antonym. It means one thing and its opposite.* You’re both right.”

They were thunderstruck and looked at me with perfect awe evident in their countenances. I nodded solemnly, as if to say, Yes, it’s true in answer to their unspoken question. “I’m a copyeditor,” I said to the second writer, by way of explanation for my pharisee-like authority on this matter. (I had already discussed that with the first writer, the organizer of this project. We were at a coffee shop and while waiting to order drinks I’d spotted a typo on the shop’s menu and remarked drolly, “You can’t turn off the gift.” (That he did not laugh at all was, in retrospect, probably a sign that our partnership was destined to go nowhere.))

The second feat of grammatical derring-do is more typographical in nature. I’ll make the point by simply reproducing a bit of text I wrote recently (in a fiction project):

Jessup touched his elbow. The contrast between Jessup’s fervent eyes and the rest of his face, blotted out by gauze and medical tape, was both funny and unsettling. “I told those people, ‘Whenever you make a mistake, when you pull a real doozy and you’re feeling low, that’s God tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Listen up. I’ve got work for you.”’”

Relevant/exceptional part bolded. Did you get that? Can you handle it, America? A quote within a quote within a quote. Triple-nested quotations, resulting in this grammatically sound line of five (almost) identical characters: “‘”! I’m sure someone somewhere has gone bigger, but that’s not what it’s about for me. It’s got to be organic, you know?

Anyway, a couple of feats I needed to crow about. Please forgive me for wasting your time with these.

*It occurs to me now that “bi-weekly” might not qualify as a strict auto-antonym (list of examples here) because “occurring twice a week” and “occurring every other week” are not actually opposites, just different frequencies. But those guys don’t need to know that, and hopefully they’ll never find out.

Bukowski Hoggle, A Few Years Late (Including Reason #7 to Love Pittsburgh)

I just saw Labyrinth at the wonderful Hollywood Theater in Dormont. It occurred to me during the screening that the character Hoggle, Sarah’s (Jennifer Connelly’s) self-professedly cowardly muppet guide through the labyrinth, has the same elaborately craggy face as late poet/novelist/barfly Charles Bukowski. I just did all the work (“work”) of finding images of both and was preparing to blow the internet’s mind with this comparison when I thought I might as well quickly google “Bukowski Hoggle.”

I did, and found this and this. Oh well. Now I know it’s an apt comparison.

By the way, if you are in the Pittsburgh area, the Hollywood is well worth the short trip through the Liberty Tubes. (So is Dormont in general.) They’re the only game in town if you’d like to see a live showing of cult classic The Room, and have screened stuff I wouldn’t have been able to see elsewhere in town (Tim and Eric’s Billion-Dollar Movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow). I’m pumped because in a week or so they’re showing one of my favorite films of all time, Pee-Wee’s Big AdventureThey’ve re-opened the theater—a big, old-timey movie house with a giant balcony—a couple times and this time it seems to be sticking, as they’ve done it as a civic organization rather than a for-profit endeavor. So, consider this “Reason to Love Pittsburgh #7,” the latest in that sadly neglected series. (Seriously, there are thousands of reasons to love Pittsburgh. I’ve only got around to writing about seven of them.)

Another Great Writing Opportunity

Following up on this earlier post about a great (read: terrible) “ghostwriting” opportunity, here’s an ad I came across on Pittsburgh’s Craig’s List for fiction writing assistants.

As you’ll see, this sweet opportunity involves taking the ad-poster’s outline and . . . well, writing his/her novel, it appears. The successful candidate will have excellent grammatical skills, write quickly, and be able to make revisions quickly.

Okay, so it’s a ghostwriting gig. The person who posted this ad has an idea but isn’t good with words and just wants to pay someone to write it up. So let’s scroll down to the bottom where it mentions pay and see how much . . . Oh. Oh my. “Compensation: no pay.”

I won’t go on, because you probably get the picture. This crumb doesn’t mention anything about the successful applicant getting course credit, because he/she either doesn’t care or hasn’t thought that far ahead. What may be most audacious, though, is that applicants are asked to submit not only 1,000 words of writing but to spend additional time writing a 500-word statement asking for this person’s consideration. Does the poster think this is an attractive offer? Maybe he/she should mention literally any benefit the writing assistant(s) will derive from this arrangement.

My post about the ghostwriting gig was rather light-hearted, but this ad irked me so much I actually posted a response on CL. Was I too harsh? I don’t think so. It never fails to annoy me when I peruse CL or elance and see the rates people consider fair for writing (or editing or proofreading). I’m inclined to say that writing is not day labor, but that’s a faulty comparison because people have a better sense of the effort and skill involved in day labor. And I doubt you’d ever see someone get day laborers to build a patio or spread gravel around a driveway for no money by calling it an “internship.”

Update: Some time after I posted this, the person who posted the original, offending CL ad must have come to his/her senses (or, maybe, was adequately shamed by my response) and yanked the ad. So, you’ll have no luck following the link above. I imagine I’ve given a decent enough impression of the gist of the ad from the above takedown, however.