A short story of mine


Life from a Distance

Life from a Distance

© Sperry Hunt 2011

As with most men, Luther and I spent nearly an hour talking about half a dozen things that didn’t matter just to avoid the one thing that did.

It was a sunny morning last July. We sat in our rockers on the deck outside the Menagerie with our feet on the rails. The Menagerie was the rickety lodge he and I built on top of the White Cliffs. The grain silos, the schools and the houses of Beeville spilled out across the prairie a thousand feet below. The old drive-in movie screen listed toward the rim of the world where nearly every evening the sun sets into a pot of gold.

During the first half-hour of our conversation, we peeped around town through Luther’s telescope speculating on what we observed: Sam Black was late to work for the third day in a row. Coach Jacobs and Father Dupree drove out under the willow grove where the river bends. And, judging from the consistent vacancy in her driveway, Lucy Malloy hadn’t taken up with anyone a year after Roy ran off on her.

When Luther was too sore to put his eye to the telescope, he leaned back and spoke in short breaths for a while about the virtues of tying flies and coffee can stew. In the middle of his stew story, he turned away and said something I didn’t catch. When I asked him to repeat it, he wiped his eyes with the crook of his arm and turned toward a silver drape of rain sweeping across the highway to the east. “Back when this state was a territory, know what its motto was?” he said.

“Can’t say I do,” I said even though he’d often told me.

“I long to see what is beyond.”

“Is that so?”

“Yep, and that’s just the way I feel today.”

I squeezed his shoulder. The bones slid around like they were in one of those over-roasted chickens you sometimes get at the market.

Luther snatched up the shot glass of smoky, green juice he’d set beside himself earlier. He raised the glass once toward me and again toward the horizon before downing the contents.

A shiver of disgust roiled through him. Then he grabbed my hand, hauled himself to his feet and threw the jigger with all he had into a long arc. The glass sparkled past a wheeling hawk then tumbled down into the hay field waving like the ocean on Karl Schuster’s back forty.

Luther fell back into the rocker and winked at me.

“See you, Jake.”

I stared at him feeling that low-voltage, bilious sensation you get when your car spins on the ice.

“See you, Luther,” I said into his eyes.

He groaned once then slumped back against the slats peacefully, like he’d done a hundred times listening to a ball game.

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The Trunk in the Attic

The Trunk in the Attic

I struggle with the complexity of the stories and the accessibility of language in my two novels. Will a young reader stumble on a word more common in the books of my own childhood than in hers? Will she finish a book with so many characters and twists?

The point I’ve come to is that while I certainly do not wish to confuse, bore or frustrate readers, I do hope to pass on some of the richness of detail I was fortunate enough to be exposed to not only in my early readings, but in my own childhood. My father, a character himself, devoured sea stories, and could quote Shakespeare and Walter Scott at the drop of the hat. My mother, a painter and poet, quoted the Romantic poets almost daily. My big sister Lalu is a marvelous storyteller herself and read me Thurber with a wicked giggle. My late sister Robin McCorquodale published several acclaimed books and sang mezzo soprano in New York. My brother Grainger Hunt sang rock-and-roll and played Henry IV on stage. My own literary influences were Shakespeare, Homer, Twain, Verne, Stevenson, Doyle, Wells, Hammett, Hellman, O’Brian, Chandler and McMurtry. I read them still.

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Good Stories

Ginevra de' Benci c. 1474

Everybody has an interesting story, but it’s generally not the one they’ll tell you first. How Bob kicked the winning field goal in the last high school game is interesting to Bob. It’s the story that makes Bob feel giddy as he anticipates excitement rising in your expression. To get a grand sense of this, read William Shatner’s or Donald Trump’s autobiographies. They’re stuffed with vignettes that portray them as brave, smart and very cool. (I actually enjoyed Shatner’s.) They’re the same stories you’ve been button-holed in the corner at a cocktail party to hear. There are one or two in this blog to be honest.

The good stories are the ones you pull out of yourself like arrowheads. They make you squirm. They’re embarrassing or shameful – so much so they’re likely to be embedded in fiction, or told as though they happened to someone else.

Those are the ones I want to hear, and write. Most of us, I suspect, have several. But, like I say, they’re hard to tell.

*The painting is Leonardo DaVinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474.


Maurice de Vlaminck Painting

I’m at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, OR this weekend pitching my new book. I must say the more editors I know, the more I like them. Publishers, bless them all, love numbers. Editors love words. They are the gardeners of books.

*Painting by Maurice de Vlaminck.



Songs, like antiques, are more valuable with a bit of provenance. Document your music with a piece of background.

What happens between songs on stage is important. As you check your tuning, tell a story about the next number. Draw the listener in. Be clear. Don’t rush into it. Allow the moment of the last song to fade gracefully. Then set the stage for the next one with a little bit of story.

“I wrote this about my wife during a trial separation.”
“I derived the next song from my great-great-grandmother’s diary written when she was a teenager in Northern Virginia during the Civil War.”
“This is about a certain day in the life of Sir Isaac Newton.”

Prefacing your songs in this way will help guide your audience into the moment you’ve prepared for them.

friendships and wormholes

Ordinary life is linear.  

Walk into an old workplace, and you are struck by the ocean of time and experience that separates your old life from your new. 

Seeing a dear friend again, however, is like entering a portal – a wormhole if you will – directly into the past bypassing the distraction of other memories.

The integrity of the work

A writer – any artist or craftsman, really – has a relationship with his work.   The work is dependent on that relationship.  If the artist foresakes the integrity of that bond, the work suffers.  For this reason, never take your criticism out on the work, but on your own efforts to create it.  Never think to youself, This statement is inferior, but I can fix it.  Instead, think, I can show the truth of this more truly.

Eighth-graders on Eighties Day

Eighth graders

Eighth-grade Critique Group

This was the second round of criticism for these students.  They read a very early version of The Inventors’ Daughter – so early, in fact, that it was called Erin Isabelle and the Wicked Uncle.  All of those who read the first draft were invited by their teacher Brian to read the second.  I don’t know if one can draw a strong conclusion from this, but only girls volunteered to critique the rewrite. 

As you can tell from the photograph, they are a wonderful and spirited group, and they were very generous in their opinions and support.   Though their comments were somewhat more detailed, they agreed with the assessment of the fifth-grade group entirely.  (See next post above.)  Those points were exactly what I was looking for.  I tend to ignore a single person’s comments, unless they resonate with my own feelings.  But I take the unanimous enthusiasm for the work and the pinpoint critiques of sixteen middle-grade readers very seriously indeed.

One thing that inspired me about this group is how close they are.  Obviously they know one another well after at least three years together, but there is something else.  The very fact that they volunteered to re-read a manuscript demonstrates a shared intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for exchanging ideas that is a credit to their school, their teacher and most especially to themselves.

Outline complete

Outline Complete
I finished my outline for the new story today.  It took me a couple of weeks, but I’m satisfied that writing it was a good idea.

I have mixed feelings, not about the outline itself, but about knowing so much about the plot.  The less you know about your journey the more exciting it is. But, as any veteran traveller can tell you, there is a danger in not knowing what’s ahead. 

There are two good things about this outline:

Firstly, I won’t end up retreating from blind alleys having forgotten important aspects that must be brought forward.  No stranger to this behavior, I’ve spent many days reworking the messes I’ve gotten myself into.

Secondly, with plot in hand, I can concentrate on the richer characters that a solid story can support.   Hopefully I will be able delve deeper into the circumstance, behavior and dialog of each.    Laborious and difficult as a writing an outline can be, these three-thousand words may save this writer the frustration and indignation of the dreaded page-one rewrite.

Names: What’s the big deal?

Name GraphicTo name someone or something in literature is to give it breath.  To write “The woman in the white suit” is one thing. To write “Emily Johnston, the woman in the white suit” is quite another. A woman is a part of the plot.   Emily is part of the story.  Both may have lines, but only Emily is likely to have a history, even if it’s a brief one.

The names themselves are often important.   A name is the first gift a person receives.  They are intentional labels that speak of the culture and the temperament and aspirations of the family.   Emily is tender.    Paul is strong.   Elizabeth is nobel.  Names evoke the spirit of another.  Nicknames are given to and usually accepted by people whose qualities are representative of their qualities – unless they are ironic, like a “Shorty” for a tall man.

For writers thought should be given before awards a name.   The named person plumps a story and adds complexity.   Emily has importance.   A character too richly drawn may turn the reader’s eye from the main story.  Too few characters can make the tale thinly drawn.  

Success comes down to the writer’s craft.   Hemingway did quite well with one character in “The Old Man and the Sea.”   Dickens and Tolstoy used dozens with clear success.    There is no right number.   Just remember, writers, that a character is a guest in your work who must be provided for and attended to.

Clarity and patience

princessandtheburl I’ve learned a great deal about writing from reading.  You are what you read.  Everyone says it.  Stephen King in his On Writing, for one.   John Lennon became the songwriter he was by listening to stacks and stacks of pop 45’s.

And yet, good writing doesn’t just come from reading, nor education by itself.  Satisfactory writing, for me at least, comes through quite a lot of unsatisfactory writing.  It’s easy to beat yourself up about it.  Indeed, I’ve gone to the school of self-flagellation wearing my sack cloth and ashes.  By in large, that time was wasted.  Vanity and modesty are both illusory.

Good writing comes in the effort of making your imagination clear.  Clarity informs everything.  It tells you what is overstated, ommited and overdramatized.   To be clear is to tell a tale or sing a song without deviation, and isn’t that what we all look for in art?

And patience can’t be underestimated, for it implies two qualities one brings to a piece:  First, the dignity of labor.  To be patient means you will show up on time with a willingness to work for as long as it takes.  Patience further suggests that you will leave your negative nature behind and not infect the words with it.

The photograph, by the way, is of my granddaughter Erin who at three-years-old exhibits a remarkable degree of clarity and patience in so much that she does – especially her storytelling. As an example when she was barely two, she created an imaginary sister named Wall. Her hands and feet are mermaids and such.  Each has a name and a set of traits. She has stories about them all, and talks to them regularly. The remarkable thing is how clearly she remembers each vignette and how consistent are the properties of each character. I know this because when I confuse them, she corrects me with an all but imperciptible show of exasperation.  She is my inspiration.

Linearity in writing

Story writing is both linear and non-linear in nature.

The basic nature of a scenario is to relate things as they happen: A man steps on the twig. A dog barks. The man stops mid-stride.

How the story is laid out, however, need not be linear. Often it’s artfully not. My favorite example of this technique is Pulp Fiction. Early in the script we see Vincent Vega (played by John Travolta) as an accomodating fellow who has a romantic scene with Mia Wallace (Uma Therman), his boss’ girl. Later in the story we discover in a flashback that Vega is also a churlish and cold blooded killer. Had we known that in the beginning, the scene between him and Mia would have seemed creepy instead of romantic.

The nature of literary composition itself can be very completely non-linear. For, though the concept of a story may burst almost fully formed, the details will likely emerge in fits and starts triggered by events in the writers life seemingly disconnected from his/her work on the page.