A while ago I decided to that I wanted to become proficient in the sport of 40ish dads everywhere: triathlon.

Unfortunately, this means I need to learn how to swim. I’ve been going to the local community center for swimming lessons for the past month, which I think is ample experience to give a completely unbiased review of the noble sport that is swimming.

I’ve broken the review down into multiple categories in order to critique the moist art from as many avenues as possible during my half-hour lunch break.

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Obviously I’ve fallen behind on my blogging.

The past few weeks have been a time warp of holiday cheer. Not to mention that Stonecoast is starting up another residency, and even though I’ve graduated I am still becoming sick, as is tradition.

But I’m persevering. A late post is better than no post, right? Hopefully my fanbase (Hi, Rachel!) will understand.

As I traveled across New England this holiday season, I downloaded a few chess apps to keep myself entertained. I never play chess. At all. But every few years I entertain the notion and download a few apps on my phone, somehow thinking that the intervening time has given me the discipline necessary to become a formidable chess player.

Of course that never happens because chess is impossible.

I keep trying to play games, usually setting the difficulty to whichever level seems most like my speed, usually depicted by a cartoon of an eager boy in a baseball cap with the caption “This level is great for beginners, children, and certain types of livestock!”

And I’m always presented with some puzzle that looks like this garbage here:

diagram
White to mate in 1

And usually I jab at the phone screen, emitting a few apelike grunts, before blind luck guides me to the solution, and the app gives me an uneasy advertisement for the Chess 4 Kidz! app.

The theory is that the practice of chess hones skills that can carry over into other spheres of my life. Chess is a game of exploring possibilities, of testing forms as pieces cooperate to achieve a unified end, much the same way stories are constructed from the individual elements of plot, characterization, and prose. The problem is chess requires two things that I think I’m incapable of.

  1. Keeping track of multiple priorities at once.
  2. Fully understanding the consequences of your actions.

So of course, I’m terrible at chess. I’ve gotten to the point where I can solve some endgame puzzle pretty easily, but actual gameplay far exceeds my ability. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before my chess app uninstalls itself, convinced that it was downloaded by an exuberant toddler rather than a functioning adult.

I would fare much better at chess if it relied more on emotional intelligence, or perhaps trivia. If, for example, the app asked me to name all the bosses in Mega Man X and then made the best move possible if I get all the answers correct, I feel like I would have an advantage.

There is a mysticism which surrounds this game. Chess has long been associated with intelligence, reasoning, and wisdom. And I want to think I’m intelligent. I have opinions on contemporary art, damn it.

Of course how intelligent can I be, if I just noticed that in my joke puzzle above there isn’t even a black king to put in check?

Oh God I can’t even play fake chess correctly.

All right, time to uninstall again.

I’m in a gym for the first time in my life.

It was inevitable. I need to keep up the running regimen I began last year, but living in the north makes it difficult to run long distances with any regularity, since the sun is long gone both before and after work, and all the sidewalks are slicked over with ice, and the roads are clogged with panicked drivers zig-zagging around, over, and through each other in an attempt to slide their way home without too many head-on collisions.

So I’m in the local branch of a national gym chain, about to go on an eight-mile run on a treadmill.

My immediate impression is that it is the same kind of habitat aliens would give humans in their down time between probes. The colors are bright yet inviting. There are no corners–only rounded edges. The air is dank with a fleshy kind of smell reminiscent of the bottom of a Chuck E. Cheese ball pit.

I pick a treadmill that’s far away from the rest of the runners, feeling a cosmic shame, as if running in the comfort of the indoors, without the promise of prey or conquest, is a disappointment to a distant ancestor, most likely named Gorbo, looking down on me from the caveman afterlife.

I begin to run, and something amazing happens.

Nothing.

I’ve never understood the implicit association between writing and exercise. I feel like the trope is that the runner’s high clears the mind and make it fertile for inspiration. I’ve never felt such an experience. I’ve put about 400 miles on these running shoes and I’ve gotten, what, maybe two lines of prose out of it, both of which I’m sure were poetic descriptions of pain that I could use in horror stories.

No, when I run, all of my mental energy is dedicated toward maintaining my internal monologue of oh God oh man this hurts so much why did I ever decide to stop being fat. I’m still waiting for that moment when I achieve a sudden clarity and solve my narrative problems while on the trail, instead of cursing the high cholesterol that has led me to this activity.

I sort of assumed that in this brightly-colored, motivational space (THIS IS THE NO JUDGEMENT ZONE!) my mind would feel more at ease and thus more creative. Instead, the monologue is louder now as I run and run and run without going anywhere, staring straight ahead at a metal pole because I don’t want to watch television, partially because I don’t want to fumble with the controls and partially because the sense of cosmic shame would then become insurmountable. It’s as if Gorbo would be particularly offended to learn that not only am I running for hours in one place without any immediate reward, but I cannot do so without the reassuring cackles of the E! Network guiding my every step.

The treadmill keeps trying to shut itself down, suicide a better solution than to weather my meaty clomps for miles on end. I hunch over, still running, and wrestle with the buttons. It puts up a fights for several minutes, slowing down and speeding back up, as I trip over the inconsistent belt, whispering no no no, my internal monologue externalizing. I’m a shambling mess. If anyone needed a healthy does of judgment in the No-Judgement Zone, it would be me right now.

Generally, when I finish a difficult run, my teeth and nose and thumbs go numb. This isn’t related to any part of this blog post. I’m just putting it out there because I think it may be a medical issue. Please send help.

When my watch hits eight miles I hop of the treadmill and limp to the locker room, the stabbing pain in my knee a constant reminder of Gorbo’s displeasure. A ghostly spear wound from the beyond.

Only four more months to go.

 

The latest installment of my new frantic tradition brings me into uncharted territory.

You may recall from last week’s lunch post that I established a goal of writing a blog post every Tuesday during my thirty-minute lunch break, posting exactly whatever I was able to eject in that time period–no more, no less. Unfortunately, this Tuesday I have no such break, instead being swept up in the holiday activities of the office. Rather than retreating to the safety of the company computer lab, today I find myself in our largest conference room as I prepare for the annual Yankee Swap, anxiously munching on pizza and wringing my hands at the prospect of opening a Bedazzler in front of 40 coworkers.

It would be just about the worst thing possible for my lunchtime tradition to fail after one post, which means this comes to you via my mobile phone, as I semi-subtly fumble with the WordPress app under the table. It’s fine, I’m sure. Everyone is too busy fuming at each other over minor betrayals and shattered hopes. This year hopes are limited to a $10 maximum.

I’m accepting this as a lesson in tenacity. In order to improve my craft I have to be willing to meet the goals I set for myself, regardless of the anarchy around me, completing posts even as the Finance department collectively seethes about losing the bottle of Fireball for a Stranger Things Funko Pop (Barb, specifically).

My contribution: a copy of Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape, a last-minute pluck from my bookshelf, currently in the hands of our befuddled SysAdmin.

I, uh, don’t really understand Yankee Swaps very well.

This past week I wrapped up the first draft of a commissioned project (more on that soon). I took the day off work to do my rewrites. While my morning was a productive, optimistic, inspiring process, by the time late afternoon came around I was ready to disavow not only my fiction ambitions but the entirety of the English language, save for a few essential profanities. But that is, of course, the basis of professionalism: the ability to press forward and write and deliver despite bleary eyes, pounding head, and crippling despair at the realization that you’ve been using the word flanged wrong your entire life.

I got a Minion Funko Pop in the swap. What are these? Who buys them? Is this a kind of code? Am I going to die?

This is the closest I’ve ever come to being in a riot.

The point being, this post is representative of my professional ambition. As my thumbs smear nervous sweat across the screen, the bellows of my corporate kinsmen give me the strength tap out my lunchtime screed. If I can complete a post here, I can complete any story, anywhere, anytime.

No more excuses. Today, I am a professional.

Oh, thank God. Someone took the Minion.

So obviously my grand ambition of maintaining a blog with regularity has failed to launch, if you could not tell by the vast stretch of time between this post and my last one. And, in honesty, I’m not at all surprised. The ultimate goal of the blog was to establish a cyber identity for myself—something that I could point to when publications came knocking, to say, See, I’m a real writer! I have a web presence! Just like Neil Gaiman and Taco Bell!

But it’s difficult to maintain a blog solely for the purpose of establishing a web presence, especially when every word you type is time and energy purloined from competing projects. Too many times I’ve started a blog post only to see my list of half-finished projects and fast-approaching deadlines beckon me from my desktop, and summarily abandoned whatever lengthy rant I was crafting about the dearth of fart jokes in contemporary Weird fiction.

The other factor contributing to the lack of content is, of course, the fear of putting out subpar work. What few posts I have thrown up here are the end result of endless rechecking, re-writing, nail-biting, and halfhearted rollovers of the “Post” button before cowering away and rereading.

This is unproductive. Moreover, it’s a wasted opportunity to practice the craft.

So, an idea:

I’m on my lunch break right now, typing this at the computer lab on the second floor of my office building. This is free time during the day. Free time with a hard limit.

I want to use this time to experiment.

30 minutes. One blog post. Whatever happens in that time is posted.

No hemming, and even less hawing, about inelegant sentences, awkward phrasing, incorrect word usage, or verdant ideas. I don’t have time for that. As I sit here typing this, I can see the time slowly counting down the seconds until I need to return to my desk. I only have the time to put words on page—not stress about my use of the word “widdershins.”

I remember once attending a lecture during my MFA program in which I learned that the secret to a good blog is “being okay with B+ writing.” Speed and, dare I say, recklessness are essential to the healthy growth of a blog. The willingness to put fingers to keyboard and just keep typing regardless of what nonsense spills out haddock haddock haddock.

I’d like to continue this experiment, pushing myself within this afternoon time slot to come up with something—anything—that can be hoisted onto my blog for the world to see.

Stay tuned for some of the B-plussiest writing you’ve ever seen.

 

Please include with your submission brief biographical notes.

Perfect. Just a brief line or two about myself. Should be easy.

Hm.

I know almost nothing about myself. Isn’t the whole point of writing to avoid self-reflection by outsourcing your insecurities to fictional wizards? I’ll take a line from the bio currently sitting on my website.

George Edwards Murray lives on the coast of Maine with his fiancée.

But if the market publishes my story, there is a good chance that by the time it goes to print 1) my fiancée will be my wife and 2) we may no longer live on the coast of Maine, so already I’m living a lie.

George Edwards Murray lives a lie.

This is the ultimate test of self-promotion. Condense my essence into 50-75 words such that readers of this story will flock to my other work. Surely, if I can write a story worthy of publication, then I should have no problem crafting a bio that is succinct, clever, and serves as a suitable endnote for the reader curious about the mind behind the work. This is a coda, an epilogue. The hard work is already done!

George Edwards Murray lives in a fetal position under his desk.

This is tough. After the reader’s eyes savor the pity and heartbreaking final line of the story, they will inevitably look for information about the writer. A poor bio will cast doubt on the quality of the story, making a reader question their enjoyment of the piece knowing it came from a shambling wad of incompetence haunting a dark corner of New England.

George Edwards Murray is a shambling wad of incompetence from New England. He apologizes for this misguided foray into the world of literature.

Good, good. Honesty is the best policy.

The other problem is the matter of my other publications.

George also retroactively apologizes for any other contributions he has made to the field of literature which the reader may accidentally happen upon.

I see other writers out there with witty, clever, charming biographies. They seem like fun people. Their pictures usually show them smiling near plants or coffee cups. They wear tasteful sweaters. They talk about their hobbies and their pets. My hobby is surviving the work week. Also my cat hates me. So what can I say?

George Edwards Murray…egggghhhh, you know what? Never mind. Forget I said anything.

Am I even a writer? Who even wants to know? The issue of writing my biography has slowly morphed into a complete dissolution of my sense of self.

George Edwards Murray wonders if he has earned the right to use his middle name or if it’s just too pretentious.

No.

NO.

This has gone on long enough. I’m done being awkward about my bio notes. I won’t apologize for using my middle name. I won’t be to ashamed to talk about myself.

George Edwards Cathcart O’Houlihan George William Chester Murray will use as many names as he damn well pleases. And why do you even need to know so much about him? Huh?

And who’s to say I won’t have more credits by the time publication rolls around? I make some assumptions.

New York Times best-selling author George Edwards Murray published over 200 short stories and 17 novels.

Seems reasonable. Needs a little more, though.

He is one of the founders of the letter ‘⊕’. He receives five cents any time anyone uses the word “akimbo.” He once saved an orphanage from foreclosure through the strategic use of an umlaut.

Perfect.

I send off the submission. Three weeks later, the response comes back:

Please include a brief description of the process of writing the story.

George Edwards Murray lives in a fetal position under his desk.

Rating: Highly Recommended

A small town in Japan is beset by spirals. What starts as strange vortexes in the clouds and wood soon evolves into something much more sinister, as the townspeople become obsessed with the shape, transforming their society and even their bodies in worship of the spiral. Flesh and soul is twisted in horrific ways as the spiral ingratiates itself in all aspects of village life. People are transformed, mutilated, and driven insane by the shape. In the end, the town is completely destroyed, the populace is monstrous, and nothing remains beyond a promise that the spiral will endure. Such is the plot of Uzumaki, a comic series penned by Junji Ito.

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Below is a transcript of the speech I gave as the Popular Fiction representative of the Stonecoast MFA graduating class of Summer 2017.

Thank you Justin, Robin, Matt, Dean Tuchinsky, and all the family and friends who have come out here tonight.

I’d like to take a moment to talk about Hell.

I have this theory about Hell, I believe that Hell exists on Earth, not in one location, but as a collection of bounded areas that flit in and out of existence, little bubbles of ultimate suffering popping up all over the world in locations and designs of our own making. The BMV. Improv sketch comedy shows. And certain social events, where people find out that I write, because it means I get asked the absolute worst question in the world. (more…)