Simon Barth is not a writer, he just wandered in here one day and started typing. Sometimes he is published when there’s space to fill. He has a Bachelor’s in Unreasonable Debt and enjoys riding the DC metrorail system. If he belongs to you, please come pick him up.
“Retching. Retch. What a perfect fit. Retch. Retch.” As the boy reflected silently on onomatopoeia from the driver’s seat, his mother sat next to him, reflecting on the word in her own, more vocal way into her late husband’s treasured Big Gulp. “Traveled a million miles, and it’s gonna travel a million more,” he used to brag, the weathered, reusable container a small monument to his ability to stretch a dollar, to work hard, to make each drop of sweat count, to make much for his family out of the little he provided. He’d picked it up on his way out of town on his first trucking gig, seven years ago, and had carried it on every trip ever since, filling up for cents on the dollar at 7-11s in every state. Seven years. Seven years, a million miles. 42 weeks a year on the road. The boy tried to do the math, but thinking of his father made him think of the shallow grave he and his mother had left behind them and made him want to vomit. But there was only one Big Gulp, and his mother had sort of staked her claim already. She had spent more years swallowing words and pain than he had, anyway, so it made sense that she deserved to get hers out first, now that they finally had the chance.
A cop car on the side of the road brought the boy back out of his head. “Don’t stiffen up like that, just take a look and turn back to the road,” his mother said. “If you stare straight ahead and pretend not to notice, they’ll know you’re nervous. Sometimes that’s all the reason they need to start following somebody.” The boy turned to her and saw she was already wiping the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief, ready to act like nothing had happened. The Big Gulp sat in the cupholder between them, out of peripheral vision but still stinking up the cabin. She produced a small mirror and began to re-apply her makeup. “If we’re going to make it home before we leave, you’re going to have to be more careful shifting gears. Otherwise we won’t make it another mile. Here, pull over at Betty’s up ahead and dump this out,” she said, gesturing vaguely towards the cupholder without looking away from her mirror. “Betty’s?” the boy asked, still struggling to think. “She doesn’t live up ahead, she lives by-” “Not Betty Whitmore, Betty’s Diner! Jesus, Joshua, where is your head? I can’t do everything for you, you know.” “Yes, mom.” Joshua breathed out the familiar words as he downshifted; turning into the diner’s parking lot. Some things, it seemed, were not yet ready to change.
Describe your creative process generally–is there a certain way you normally set about writing something? (e.g., a series of questions you ask yourself, steps you go through, etc? Do you start from the beginning, middle, or end, or a mix? Any interesting rituals or habits you engage in?)
I usually start by putting on “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates on repeat and lighting some incense. As the incense burns, I get comfortable in my favorite chair or on my bed with my laptop on my lap. Then I drink a cup of chamomile tea made from Italian chamomile flowers with orange blossom honey as I think of soothing childhood memories that reaffirm my belief that the world provides well for the good and the innocent. I usually run out of memories by the time the incense is done, which means it’s time for a cigarette and cheap whiskey (whatever’s on sale), consumed while cleaning my grandfather’s shotgun with a calm earnestness you might describe as “meditative.” Depending on the piece I’m writing, this can make me a little too aware of my own mortality to be creative, so at this point I may elect to turn off “Rich Girl” and listen to “I Can’t Go for That” by Hall and Oates. It never cheers me up, but I can’t stop. “Private Eyes” is next, then “She’s Gone;” for some reason all of these songs sink me deeper and deeper into a state of hopelessness and despair. I mean, really, despair. It’s not pretty. I’ll spend the next few hours clinging on to the phone for dear life, calling friends and therapists for support, a branch to grab on to, anything to stop me from falling down this terrible pit I’ve found myself in. Then it’s a nice long drive to the nearest beach, where I’ll watch the sea until the sun comes up and the lack of sleep compounds my emotional vulnerability and I experience the overwhelming reaffirmation of hope and positivity that the universe usually reserves for upper-middle-class Baby Boomers on their first trip to the Outer Banks or teenagers on acid. I’ll go home and sleep after that, and a few days later when I remember that I was supposed to be writing something I’ll drink a glass or two of wine and bang something out really quick before bed.
How do you go about revising a piece, and how do you know when a piece is finished?
“How do you know when a piece is finished” is one of my favorite questions to ask creative types, too! For me, the answer is usually when I’ve satisfied my need to produce well enough that I can pay attention to my need to not do anything and lie down on soft things in a quiet, dark room. It’s all about striking a balance; write until one voice shuts up enough, stop doing things until the other voice quiets down, repeat. The problem comes when I have to upset this balance by doing things like “work” and “contribute to society” and “cultivate meaningful relationships with other people.” Ugh. Not a fan.
Describe the inspiration or process of creating the particular piece you wrote from the prompts you used. Did it turn out pretty much as planned, the result of the initial inspiration, or take on a life of its own?
Well, it was sort of mechanical, honestly. I got an initial impression from the prompt, then just followed it to what seemed like the most obvious conclusion. The assignment was to explain a snapshot of a scene, after all, so all I tried to do was explain. I latched on to a few details right away, like the presence of the father not being immediate, but indirect through his vehicle. Putting Mother and Son in the Father’s big rig without Father demands a reason as to why Father wouldn’t be there, especially because truck drivers have a reputation for being attached to their vehicles. Then you’ve got the more obvious, the unspecified waste in the Big Gulp; I attached this to the Mother touching up her make-up and, as I said in my notes when I submitted my piece, “the Big Gulp coming from a small room containing two people can only contain so many types of waste that would make a person hold it as far away from them as possible.” Assuming the Big Gulp belonged to the truck’s driver aka Father, bam, you’ve got the story right there. Mother’s focused on reestablishing her appearance, Son is disposing of something terrible that came from one or both of them, Father’s not there but he should be; Father did bad things to the family, Mother’s used to putting on a good face for the neighbors, Son’s learned to do what he has to do (“for the family,” is usually the reasoning), Mother and Son got rid of Father but that doesn’t change the impact he’s had on them, not immediately, and right now they’re at the end of the first step of purging him from the lives. Straight up formulaic. So I’d say it was entirely the result of “initial inspiration” (your words, not mine).
Where is the strangest place you’ve ever been struck by an idea? What is the oddest source of inspiration for a piece you’ve ever drawn from?
Once, I thought of a few lines for a song mid-breakup. I’d been working on the song with no progress for a while, and it wasn’t very good (never turned out well either). When she went to the bathroom I jotted some notes down on a bar napkin. I lost the napkin, but the girl and I stayed together for a while longer after that night. I remember thinking that the lines I’d thought of would add a lot to the song, but then again, the girl added a lot to my life and the song was always going to be terrible.
Suggest some interesting words, phrases, or sentences to be used as prompts!
Don’t tell me what to do! Besides, your prompts are fine. You need more interview questions, though, and I’d rather think of a few of those. Just off the top of my head…
What’s the best lie you’ve ever come up with? How drunk are you right now? When was the last time you felt undeserving of something good you’d received? How do you feel about Americans who can’t name all 50 states? What is a source of inspiration for you that you feel doesn’t make sense to most people? Do you have a sister? Is she cute? Where’d you get those shoes? How many times has this piece been rejected by other publishers and why are they so much worse than P&C? Does your mother know what you’re doing right now? Does she approve? Is she cute? What’s the worst advice or guidance anyone’s ever given you about writing? Why? How old were you? Do you ever feel the need to give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer? Me neither, but I suppose that’s what makes it such a good interview question. What’s the biggest obstacle to your creative process? Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States? Have you ever lost a really good idea? Does this look infected to you? Where are you going? Hey wait! Ok, I guess this interview is over.
“Author Spotlight” highlights the work that talented writers have been creating based off our monthly prompts and submitting to us. These pieces of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction are all in the running for our Spring 2014 contest and publication in Issue 3 of Promptly! To learn more about submitting your own work, check out our Submissions page.