Where Have All The Commas Gone? by Chris Wright

You walk into an overpriced café; the sort of place where you ask for milk and they look at you like you’ve requested the blood of their first born child in a cup with two sugars. You order a flat white because it’s trendy and comes with milk in it so they can’t say anything. They don’t say anything. Frothing the milk is transubstantiation, ̶a̶p̶p̶a̶r̶e̶n̶t̶l̶y̶.

You sit with your back against a wall and lift a laptop from your record bag—the one with the carefully curated exhibition of stickers on it that sum up who you want them to think you are—setting it down with intent. You also take out an anthology of short stories and plop it down on top.

You look around. You check your phone. Facebook, then Twitter. Vegetables before dessert. You read an insecure tweet from another writer. You tweet out advice. You think they’re behind you. Then you check the publications listed on their profile. They’re better than yours. You’ll spend the rest of the day wondering who ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶f̶u̶c̶k̶ you are to give anyone advice.

You read a short story by a respected author G̶r̶a̶n̶t̶a̶ The New Yorker have published more than once. You hate it. You find it pretentious and boring. It insists upon itself. It breaks every rule you were told never to break.

You’ll tell people you loved it because the fear that you didn’t ‘get it’ is overwhelming.

You open the laptop and push the on button harder than necessary. It’s old and virus laden and takes ages to boot up. You double-click the writing software you spent a fortune on, only to use the same functions as any number of free applications.

You ponder. Look pensive. Chew a pen that never writes. That’s what a real writer does. You saw it in a movie and it was written by a writer.

You stare at the whiteness of the page, take a deep breath and start at the beginning. It probably won’t be the beginning for long. Your fingers clack away at the keyboard and it gives the impression you know what you’re doing.

Of course, he’s a writer, this character. What else could he be?

You take him out for a test drive to see what he does. He describes himself in front of the mirror.

He’s an asshole and he’s mocking you.

What if it’s not a mirror? What if it’s his reflection in his phone screen? It’s Meta. It’s a veiled take on social media. You’re subverting the trope. An editor will totally get it but, just in case, you’ll make it really f̶u̶c̶k̶i̶n̶g̶ obvious.

You ponder some more; drain the dregs of your cup. The last mouthful of coffee tastes like chocolate or caramel or tree bark; anything but coffee. Sure everyone knows what coffee tastes like.

You delete.

You order another flat white. You’re a writer. You turn coffee into books. You drink writer’s tears. You ̶f̶u̶c̶k̶i̶n̶g̶ hate yourself.

Bam! Inspiration strikes. So much so it requires an exclamation mark.

He’s not a writer. He’s not even a He. She works in a coffee shop and looks very much like the barista currently foaming the milk.

She might open with dialogue, not giving the reader a chance to form an impression of her. It’s inviting. It’s inciting. It’s mysterious.

She’s cynical. She’s fatalistic. She’s morally ambiguous. It’s all gone noir. You hate noir.

She might start the scene with action; doing something that sums up her character entirely. The thing you’re not supposed to do anymore. It’s quick. It’s crystallizing. It’s dangerous. It’s…it’s… f̶u̶c̶k̶i̶n̶g̶ noir again.

Genre fiction. Eugh.

You start again. You slap ideas like fridge magnets on the whiteboard of your mind while you wait for your coffee; little puzzle pieces you’ll connect together later.

She’ll live. She’ll journey. She’ll make mistakes. She’ll learn. She’ll grow. She’ll transform.

You’ll call her Shell.

Shell’ll eat something designed to make the reader’s mouth water, drink something with a familiar, potent taste to engage the reader’s senses. She’ll smell and see and hear and touch and you’ll translate it all into lazy metaphors. The sky is the sea; the sea is the sky; her hair is coffee or caramel or coca-cola, her skin the colour of…other food products beginning with C.

A pareidolic face glares at you from the frothy milk that skims the surface of the coffee the barista slides c̶a̶r̶ef̶u̶l̶l̶y̶ across the counter. You smile. You say thank you because you are a nice person. A relatable person.

You return to your seat and spend fifteen minutes looking at a colour chart on your phone, trying to find a match for her eyes. You catch yourself on.

The waitress carries a sparse looking breakfast past your table. Hunger distracts. Inspiration evaporates like the steamed milk. Words fail. Shell stands still like a game character with no one at the controls. The grumble of conversation and the clink of cups on saucers and the cackling laughter of the woman in the corner and the generic music pumping through crackling speakers and the toddler wailing because they didn’t have the right flavour of juice all swim together into a tidal wave of sound you hadn’t noticed until now and once heard it cannot be unheard.

Your thoughts fracture, turn competitive.

You close over the laptop and try to read another short story in the collection; the collection you bought because your literary hero tweeted about it. He tweeted about it because his story is in it. He fawned over all the other writers and their stories even though he had only read his own. It is his story you read now.

You read it with your face screwed up. You finish your second coffee. You leave. You walk to the bus stop sure you ‘got’ it. You didn’t. You weren’t even close.

*

The next morning you sleep in. You get up. You go for a walk and you make notes because someone told you Stephen King said to. Stephen King ̶a̶c̶t̶u̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶o̶n̶l̶y̶ said one, the opposite of the other.

You go home. You eat an early lunch. You watch an episode of Bob’s Burgers. Then another. You lick your finger, hold it in the air, decide to watch one more.

You should be reading. Sure that’s work too. Infinite Jest taunts you from the bookshelf. You contemplate having one more crack at it. You’re a cis white male after all. You can’t mansplain a book you haven’t read.

It never stopped you before.

You rewatch ‘The End of the Tour’ on Amazon Prime instead.

Back to the laptop, late afternoon. Perfect writing time, like the morning, early afternoon, and night. You sit down. You wrestle with the computer. It loads. It freezes. You ctrl-alt-del. Bring up the Task Manager. Even it’s not responding. Typical. You really wanted to be writing. Honest.

You hold down the off button until the whine—the one you didn’t realise was there until it’s gone—disappears.

You give up for the day and declare writing to be hard on social media. You attach an amusing GIF so you don’t look too whiney.

*

The next morning the laptop starts first time. You give off at its inconsistency and it just stares at you, shrugs its shoulders.

You set down the giant cup full of coffee—the one you bought in the pound shop, the one with the books on it. You adjust your chair. You ̶r̶e̶l̶u̶c̶t̶a̶n̶t̶l̶y̶ turn off your phone.

You write freely.

You write what you know. You write what you don’t know.

You show, you tell.

You don’t burst into flames.

It flows like a river. It’s cathartic. It’s the reason you write.

You read what you’ve written and there’s something there. You like it. Then you feel bad about liking your own work.

No, it’s good. It’s okay to think it’s good.

You break for a cup of tea and a Jaffa Cake (half a packet).

You return later. You reread what you’ve written. The light is different and the chemicals in your brain have tipped their balance. Your once beautiful flower turns to mulch in your hand.

Where is your line, your thread? Where is your monomyth, your hero’s journey? You forgot to save the f̶u̶c̶k̶i̶n̶g̶ cat or take it into the woods or something.

You rewrite but the spark has dimmed. A deep feeling of dejection grows in your stomach like an ulcer.

You rewrite some more. You worry that you will rewrite the story out of existence.

You read it again. You have…a thing. An amorphous blob of narrative. It just needs something.

You try cosmetic surgery. You do the comma Hokey Cokey. Em dash, dash, em dash, dash, like morse code, as if millimetres matter. You  with the font. You embolden, italic but never underline. That would be crazy.

Speech marks or not? Maybe em dashes. Em dash. There’s that word again. So damn indecisive. Sounds like a band from the 80s or a song from the 90s.

Maybe nothing to indicate speech. All speech is narrative. All speech is reported. Even non-fiction is fiction.

You try CPR.

Maybe it’s stream of consciousness. You remove all punctuation. It reads like the thought process of a three year old. Is the narrator three years old?

No. It doesn’t work. You put them back where you found them.

Maybe it’s Post-post-postmodernism. A whole new genre you’ve created somewhere between lunchtime ham and cheese sandwiches—pink, crumbly ham paired with sour-sweet cheese, slices thick and lavacious, buttery doorstops like your granny would hand you with a mug of hot sweet tea and an orange club biscuit and a crescent of crisps (too middle class, no one’s interested in a middle class writer)—and your 3 o’clock brew.

It’s fine. It’ll do. It’s abstract. It’s Meta. It’s…something. Future you can worry about what it is. Future you can also do the dishes.

You walk away. You come back. You check it one last time.

There’s a heartbeat. It’s weak but it’s there.

You put your story in a metaphorical drawer because the only drawers you have contain pants and socks and all the detritus you can’t bear to throw away. Maybe there is a place for the story among(st?) the depleted batteries and white goods manuals and elastic bands and long-dead phones without chargers or chargers without phones.

*

You return to it a week later because you’ve nothing else to work on. Your novel is still gestating or ruminating or some other placeholder word you’ll look up in a thesaurus later or you’ll forget to and that word will piss you off no-end if it’s ever published.

You check its pulse. It’s stronger than you remember.

You take its temperature, give it a sponge bath. You wonder when you went from Doctor to Nurse in this hackneyed metaphor.

You read it for sensitivity issues, triggers, offence, but you have no idea what these things are because your insides are rotten and they didn’t teach you at school how to fake it but instead, how to let it out all over everyone. Now you have to pretend your prejudices don’t exist. You edit them like adverbs. Just like Stephen King does.

The road to Hell is paved with adverbs, prejudices, and torn out pages of ‘On Writing’.

Sure it’s all just metaphor for the artistic process anyway. Like Misery—the book not the adaptation. Or Adaptation—the movie about the adaptation of a book. Some of the things you used to disguise procrastination as research.

Eventually, it’s done. It…is.

You want to send it out into the world to make its fortune but first you need half a day to research suitable destinations.

You pick a journal. The most respected one. The lottery win publication.

You a̶r̶t̶i̶f̶i̶c̶i̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ alter the word count to meet the hostage-taker demands of the editor, like flaying the skin from a boxer to make weight. It makes the innards sag and spill but as long as it hits those arbitrary numbers, all will be well.

Sent.

You look up your (literary hero’s) favourite journal. It’s up a weight class and you saved over the heavier fighter with the featherweight. How do you get the skin back on? How do you give a man more skin than he had to begin with?

Sent.

You formatted for the last one, now reformat for the next one. This editor doesn’t like Calibri, wants your name and address and shoe size off the manuscript and in the email or off the email and in the manuscript. You check the submission page again. He wants Font Size 12, in Arial or Times New Roman, with 2 cm margins on A4 page(s), 1.5 or double-spacing, title of entry and page number(s) on all pages. He wants a map to the Ark of the Covenant in the Header and an easy recipe for potato salad in the footer. You oblige his every whim.

Sent.

You twist and turn your product to suit each and every recipient. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

Sent.

Sent.

Sent.

Sent.

Your product travels far and wide. You hope somewhere it will bind to the zona pellucida, travel to the point of contact and attach, become, because writing and childbirth are the same to someone who has never experienced childbirth.

You wait. You read. You write. You drink coffee. You finish every episode of Bob’s Burgers. You go back to the start of The Office before they remove it from Netflix despite the fact you’ve seen it so many times you could act in it.

*

Three to six months later an email pings into your inbox.

It’s a generic rejection email.

A few days later, another nonspecific rejection. They don’t even bother to type your name or the title of your story into the gaps on their template.

You feel about as worthless as an <insert joke here>.

Another arrives. It looks good. They read it with interest. They still don’t want it. You’d hate to see if they’d read it with disinterest.

Then another. It’s great, it’s wonderful, it ticks all the boxes. It just doesn’t fit our needs right now.

Do you want it later when your needs have changed?

No.

Another.

And another, this time on the same day, just to kick you when you’re down

You realise you’ve wasted thousands of words explaining to a human being what it is to be a human being. The funny thing is, they already know. They just want to know if you know.

You contemplate throwing your laptop out the window and applying for a job in a fast food restaurant.

̶F̶u̶c̶k̶ Forget that.

To rewrite or not to rewrite, that is the question.

You decide to rewrite. You dissect it, take it apart, put it back together.

Ding. A different email arrives.

Thank you. We loved it. Accepted. Will be published soon. Click to see your submission. It’s turned green in Submittable. It must be true.

̶S̶u̶d̶d̶e̶n̶l̶y̶, the story solidifies, like cooling lava. It is now corporeal, unchangeable. You delete the rewrite. The original is obviously, undoubtedly, incontestably (pick one or delete altogether) a masterpiece.

You do a dance. You look at the mansion you’ll buy when you sell the movie rights.

Which journal was that again?

You check. It’s the non-print journal, the online journal, the one that doesn’t pay.

Of course it is. It’s all about the art. That’s why they strangled your creativity with their rules.

Sure, it’s exposure. Work begets work. You’re positive their 187 twitter followers will love it. Maybe Stephen King’s one of them. You never know.

You post your success on Facebook and Twitter because, no matter what they say, your baby has been accepted and so have you.

Then you remember your Ma’s going to read it. You scream into a pillow.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat.


Chris Wright is from Bangor, Northern Ireland. His stories have featured in The Honest Ulsterman, The Cormorant, Parentheses, The Wellington Street Review, and more. His work was long-listed for Reflex Fiction’s International Flash Fiction Competition and has been performed at the St Patrick’s Festival in Armagh, and on National Radio. Follow him on Twitter here and Facebook here.

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