When We Were Jung

When We Were Jung

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Bud Webster

 

“Good Taste?’” The woman at the table was well-dressed, if a bit perky for my liking.

“Yes, that’s right, and this is my wife, Sophisticated Wit.”

She gave us our name tags with a bright smile and waved at the double doors behind her. “Go on in, and I hope you have a wonderful evening.”

“Thanks,” I said, peeling the paper backing off the tag and sticking it carefully to the lapel of my tailored tuxedo jacket. My wife shook her head ruefully and put hers in her evening bag; nobody really needed the damn tags, but most of us at least made the gesture.

We pushed through the doors and into the ballroom. It was full: we were, of course, fashionably late—tastefully so, you might say. There was a string quartet in one corner, sawing their way through something unutterably poppish. I’d hoped for Mozart, or perhaps even Beethoven, but no one else seemed to be bothered.

I felt a touch at my sleeve. “What-ho, my lad. Damned good to see you.” It was Insincere Joviality, whom I detested, not that it mattered to him. He grabbed my hand and pumped it three times, then said loudly, “Can’t stay and chat, I see someone over there I really must speak to. See you later on, perhaps?” And then he was gone, much to my relief.

I looked around for my wife, but she’d been spirited away by the Humor twins, Droll and Dry. They were standing with their heads together talking in low voices, then all three leaned back and laughed airily. Well, she’d be happy for the rest of the evening.

I moved through the crowd, heading for the bar. I passed Conspicuous Consumption in her Dior original and insanely flashy jewelry, and smiled at the sure knowledge that she would never wear any of it again. If I knew her at all (and I did, we’d dated in college), she’d have been driven to this do in a gold-plated Rolls. She was so predictable. But then, weren’t we all? Wasn’t that our single defining characteristic?

“Wine cooler, sir?” It was the bartender. I blinked at him and then moved so that my name tag was visible. He had the… well, the good taste, I suppose… to look abashed. “Sorry, sir. Would you care to see the wine list?”

“Thank you.” I took it and glanced at the glossy pages. “I’ll have the Pinot Blanc 1974, please.”

He smiled. “An excellent choice, sir.”

“Yes,” I said, a bit more tersely than I’d intended. “It is.”

While he opened and poured the wine, I nodded to the man next to me, whose name tag bore the name Recovering Alcoholic. He was sipping a glass of club soda morosely. “Will this bother you?” I asked, holding my wine glass up.

“Not in the least,” he said. “Don’t give it another thought.” He waved his glass towards the dance floor. “Look at him. That’s my older brother, you know. Ancient as hell and still going at it.” I looked where he was pointing.

There was a line of dancers, moving noisily and awkwardly against the beat of the quartet, led by the oldest of us, Drunken Sot. He’d been around forever, it seemed, showing up at all the parties and meetings; plump, red-faced and jolly, with the remains of an ancient laurel wreath still caught in his hair.

At least, I thought to myself, he has the good taste not to pick fights like his younger nephew, Drunk and Disorderly. We’d finally had to simply stop telling him where and when the Gatherings were. Of course, he still showed up as often as not, and whenever he did, there was trouble.

“Yes, he always seems to have a good time,” I said, a bit inanely. “Doesn’t he ever get tired?”

Recovering Alcoholic just looked at me. “Do any of us?” I didn’t answer him; it was, after all, a rhetorical question. I smiled at him and made my way through the crowd.

Off by herself in a corner—as usual—was Paranoia. She sat and watched, sat and watched. She’d been around a long time, too, but not as long as Sot. Used to be she would come with her sister, Wisdom; as a pair they were mainstays of almost any Gathering they came to, bringing an engaging perspective to conversations about current events or art. Paranoia had even managed to be sociable when Wisdom was with her, but no one had seen her sister for years. Without her, the younger of the two never danced, never spoke, never did anything but sit and watch. But she always came, afraid of missing something, no matter what. I bowed slightly to her and raised my glass, but she just looked alarmed, so I didn’t press it.

I thought back to my first Gathering, when I was just out of school. At first, I was daunted by the sheer magnitude of power and majesty the other, older ones represented. I remember how impressive War was, larger than life and so graceful; and how struck I was by Seduction’s beauty, even if I could never quite tell if it was a man or a woman. It was overwhelming, and I felt quite lucky to be part of it all.

But over the years, it became painfully obvious that all that they were, down to the last and least of them, was what was written on their tags, neither more nor less. I include myself in that, of course.

It may seem that I’ve been listening to my cousin, Wry Cynic, far more than is probably best, but that’s not the case. Why else would Wisdom leave us? Or Prudence? Or so many of the older ones? Foolishness, I remember, took me aside a few years ago and said quietly, “Taste, this is no place for me. There’s plenty of foolishness here already. You, you belong here, and you’re welcome to it.” He grinned at my expression. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish you well. But it’s time I was going.” And I never saw him again. The next time the rest of us gathered, there were three new faces present; the Humor twins and Sophy, my soon-to-be-wife.

I felt a hand on my arm and knew without looking that it was her. “So many new faces,” she said quietly. “I hardly know who to speak to these days.” She smiled tightly, and I noticed for the first time the lines at the corners of her mouth. She sipped her drink. “Earnest Zealot was holding forth on literature a moment ago, and I mentioned Oscar Wilde’s comment about the wallpaper as he lay dying.” She shook her head. “Do you know, he’d never heard of Wilde? What are we coming to?”

What, indeed? Patience, Trust, Intelligence—all gone now, or seen so rarely that their presence was like a walk-on in an old film; something to be marveled at, but of no real importance. I missed Wonder most of all, I think. He told the most breathtaking stories, made up right on the spot. They were… well, wonderful. War had gone, as well (although I suspected he was simply busy elsewhere), and no one at all knew what had become of Seduction.

I picked at a bit of lint on my lapel. We had to be here, I supposed, just so that our presence would be felt, but I sometimes wondered why? What exactly was the point? In the old days, we were clearly influential. We were there because people needed us to be, because they couldn’t navigate the treacherous reefs of their lives without us. Was that true anymore? Did we have an influence over anyone but ourselves, if we even had that? The idea was discomfiting at best.

I looked around the room, trying to enjoy the bouquet of the Pinot. When had the trivialities snuck in? When had Joy and Honor been replaced by Instant Gratification and Situational Ethics? War was off somewhere, his place taken, bizarrely, by Right-Wing Gun Nut; and most degrading of all, perhaps, Teenage Prostitute stood across the room surrounded by men, a sorry substitute for Seduction. It was a cruel, surreal jest—or so my wife and her friends would think. I had a disturbing thought: how soon might my wife be replaced by E-Mail Joke?

It was undignified, to say the least. I drained my glass, unwilling to dwell on the idea for too long. Instead, I headed back to the bar.

There was a small crowd there, most of whom I knew. A man I didn’t recognize stood to my left, wearing what might have been an exaggerated knock-off of my own formal jacket, deliberately frayed at the seams and worn over a black T-shirt bearing the logo of a rock band. Instead of dress trousers, he wore jeans. I knew without asking that they were pre-washed, pre-stained, pre-aged. Pants without an honest past, only a present. His hair was spiky, thick with some kind of preparation, and there was some kind of tribal-looking tattoo on his wrist. His name tag read “Post-Modern Chic.” I turned away, suddenly cold.

“Yes sir, Mr. Taste,” the bartender said with a smile. “Another glass of the Pinot Blanc?”

“No,” I answered wearily. “Not this time. Just a wine cooler, please.”

 

How to Run a Writers’ Group

writing(or Learning to Cope With Frustration, Embarrassment, and Pride All at the Same Time)
by Bud Webster

 

A year or so ago I was invited to participate in a day-long seminar for writers and writers’ groups in a town not far from here. It was held at the branch of the county library, and was well-attended both by group members and those individuals who wanted to know what the hell a “writers’ group” did, anyhow.

It was pleasant, for the most part; there were plenty of people there I knew (including a few from my own group, which is called “Writers’ Endeavor”) and it was interesting to see how many different ideas and perspectives there were. I drank some water, ate a couple of cookies, and put in my time on a panel devoted to how different groups operated.

When the panel was over, the seminar organizer thanked me effusively for participating, and added that it was nice to see a group which was led by a professional writer.

I was… well, something between “floored” and “flustered”. Call it “floorstered,” I guess. Weren’t there pros in all the groups?

Turns out there weren’t, not in all of them, and in most only one or two who had even made semi-pro sales. There was the usual gang of self-published eager-beavers, and at least one who had seen hardcover publication and was selling ex-library copies of his novels, but as far as street-cred was concerned, I was just about top of the heap. Doesn’t that just suck?

Let me start from the beginning, with your kind indulgence. In the fall of 2005 (geeze Louise, has it been eight years already?), a rag-tag group of would-be writers gathered together at a local Richmond bookshop, Creatures & Crooks, now unfortunately out of business. We didn’t know each other, and I was the only one of the bunch who had published professionally. We introduced ourselves, traded aspirations, and elected a group leader after deciding that each leader would organize and run the group for a period of four months, when we’d elect yet another poor bastard to herd the writerly cats.

Before we broke up, the owner of the bookshop gave us an assignment for the next meeting—the phrase “good taste.” We would all write something on that theme, read our pieces out loud to the rest of the group, who would then give their responses. Then we all went our separate ways.

It continued in that fashion for the first year. I wasn’t the first leader chosen, but after having been “elected” a few times in a row, the group simply thrust leadership upon me, and so it currently stands.

We did assignments for a year or so, some better than others. My personal favorite was when I gave them a list of six words and asked them to weave them into a story. I got a pretty good yarn out of it and titled it “The Shed.” In fact, you can read it in Nth Degree #20 if you care to do so. Other assignments followed: creating opening hooks, writing the same scene from three different viewpoints, and so on. Once I gave them a choice of four openers, among them the first line of my own “Bubba Pritchert and the Space Aliens” (Analog, July 1994).

Eventually, though, exercises fell by the wayside, as they should. Exercises are fine for, well, exercise, but eventually a writers’ group has to get down to the business of actually writing. As most of the members were already working on stories or novels, we decided to upload individual chapters (I had already created a Yahoo Groups page for us) for each member to download, print out, and critique. As these chapters were frequently longer than the assignment pieces, we no longer read them out loud; by then, we had enough members that reading just took too long.

Here’s the way Writers’ Endeavor works (I didn’t name it, but as a group name it’s adequate; it ain’t the Inklings, of course, but none of us are C. S. Lewis or that Tolkien d00d): members upload their chapter/essay/story/whatever (no more that 3k words, hopefully) to the Yahoo files page. Other members download, print out and write in their comments. Come meeting night, we go in turns to slam… sorry, gently critique… the piece. I’m serious about that “gently,” by the way, so let’s talk about it.

One of the things that floorstered me at that seminar was the pride so many of the participants in other groups took in savaging their colleagues’ work, apparently on the theory that this is what happens in the world of publishing. Editors writing vicious rejections, I mean, or calling the authors at home and brutally tearing them a new one of whatever it is that editors tear.

I have no idea why they think that. In my experience over the past 20+ years of submitting work to professional editors (and being rejected plenty of times) editors do not sadistically rip apart the stories they’re sent and spill bile all over their rejection letters. It is so rare that anything of the sort occurs, in fact, that the single editor (now deceased) I can recall who was know for occasionally doing so was considered remarkable. Critics are another thing entirely, but they perform their malicious surgery after the fact.

I require the writers in my group to be civil, polite, and articulate. We aren’t there to make each other cry, or to prepare each other for some mythical editorial venom, but to help each other become better writers. By the same token, I don’t expect them to (in effect) pat the others on the head, pin their stories to the fridge with a magnet and send them out to play; I require more than patronization.

I want from my members their absolute best work as a writer. I want correct spelling, syntax and grammar; I want a beginning, middle and end (experimentation can come later after they’ve mastered their tools); I want standard manuscript format. What I want to see is what they would send to an editor, as clean and correct a ’script as any editor would expect to see from a professional-level writer.

When it comes to their critiques, I want their absolute best work as readers. It isn’t enough for them to know that a passage or phrase doesn’t work; they have to know why it doesn’t work. However, I don’t want them to tell the writer what they would do to fix the problem, because that’s not always helpful. Making suggestions is fine, but it has to be up to the writer to make any changes in a way that’s consistent with what comes before.

As a result, the members of Writers’ Endeavor have become friends, trusting each others’ motives and viewpoints. Yes, we’re a support group on those occasions when that’s needed, but we’re more than that. We can be honest without being cruel, we can give “bad news” where necessary without being mean about it (or having it taken as such), and that is far more useful and important than preparing each other for the sort of editorial ferocity other groups seem to think exists.

Now, I readily admit that there are other legitimate ways for writers’ groups to operate. In at least one case, the group assembles in a coffee shop with their laptops and spends their time writing; not together, as in a collaboration, but in the same place. At the same time. Not having visited their group, I can’t say that there isn’t some talk between them once in a while, but frankly I can’t imagine a more solitary process than writing, so I wonder what they get from it. Okay, so that’s not for me.

There are also plenty of groups run by working, professional writers. The members already have credits, but use the hard-nosed (if still courteous) advice of their colleagues to further sharpen their skills. I know, I know; I just said something up there about how solitary writing is, but believe me, the counsel of your peers can be invaluable, especially if they’ve already breeched the markets you’re aiming at.

“But, wait,” I hear you say. “Wouldn’t they be competing?” Yes. What’s your point? Do you really believe those silly rumors that publishers are reluctant to look at material by new writers? If so, let me disabuse you of that base canard: publishers actively seek out new writers, if only because the old ones keep quitting, slowing down, or keeling over from the strain of having to deal with silly rumors. This means that there is plenty of competition out there, but that’s nothing new—there always has been. Competition—healthy competition, anyway—doesn’t preclude cooperation.

So here’s what you do: forget all this crap about making your manuscript stand out from all the others by using colored paper, weird fonts, pictures, and all the rest of those gimmicks that wannabees are certain will be necessary to get the attention of editors, agents and/or publishers. Believe me, stuff like that will get their full attention right up to the second they feed your ’script into the shredder and turn their attention to the other 200 books/stories that came in that day.

If you want your work to stand out, make sure that your presentation is professional, even if you haven’t actually, like, been paid yet. After all, that’s just a technicality, albeit a very important one. That means using your tools—words, spelling, syntax, grammar, all that stuff you learned in third grade—as they were intended to be used. That means presenting your manuscript in the form the editor wants it to be in, something you can check out easily on their webpage under “Guidelines” or, if you’re a book-geek like me, by checking the copy of this year’s edition of Writers’ Market which resides comfortably (if a little lonely) on your library’s reference shelf.

That’s one of the things that make you a pro, not just getting a check, and a good writers’ group (hopefully one run by a pro, or made up of pros) will teach you all this and more. It will also give you ample opportunities to practice your craft. There really isn’t a whole lot you can learn from a group made up entirely of non-professionals that you won’t have to un-learn down the line, so it’s worth your while to find one with at least one or two pros, and probably worth driving an hour or so to join in.

A word of advice, if you’ll indulge me. Be careful, and find a group with which you’re a good fit. In my group, there have been a few who just didn’t work out. In one case, it was a woman who saw nothing wrong with ending sentences with three exclamation points!!! She came for one session and never returned. Another man stayed for several months, but adamantly refused to listen to the members’ advice and his work never changed, never improved. He also refused to use software which formatted his submissions as anything easily readable, but that was the least of his problems.

Figure out what you want from a group, and look for one that fits your needs, but remember this—the whole purpose of a writers’ group should be to aid you in becoming a reliable, consistent, and professional writer, not make you feel good or rip you to shreds. Look for good personality matches, a process that suits your working habits (or improves them), and whatever level of intensity you find most energizing, whether it’s full speed ahead or laid back and chatty. Finding a group that will help you sharpen your skills and lead you to professional publication may be hard, but it’s well worth it. That’s what we work hard to make Writers’ Endeavor, and I am proud of each and every member we have.

 

The Shed

The Shed

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bud Webster

 

Martin had always hated the shed. As far back as he could remember, he’d hated it. It was dark, musty, dank; the walls were lined with peg-board and rusted tools hung here and there on hooks like broken teeth. There were spiders and ancient wasp nests, filth in every corner, and there was an evil smell, like time gone bad.

What glass had once been in the windows had long ago been lost to rocks thrown by anonymous boys goaded on by their equally anonymous friends. The shed stared at him, sightless and terrible, beckoning.

Worse were the memories. The shed was full to bursting with them, razor-sharp in his mind even after thirty years. They came at him now, like sand whipped by a hot desert wind; his mother, face drawn and gaunt, meeting him at the door as he came in from school and saying, “Your father’s waiting for you in the shed.” The hopelessness of her voice—she’d had her turns in the shed, too—the long walk through the back yard, grass hissing against his feet; the shadow inside the door waiting, waiting. “Your father is waiting in the shed.” Are there any more dreadful words in a child’s experience?

Then the beatings, usually with a belt, but sometimes (if the sin had been grievous enough) with a stick of firewood that left him bruised and not infrequently bloody. The shame was part of it, too, and the heat and the grit of dirt under his shoes as he stood crying in the aftermath, his father’s breath washing over him in waves of rage and whiskey. A bad report card. A chore undone. Farting in church. The reasons didn’t matter; there was always a reason. It was the thing itself, the agony of humiliation, sharp as a carpet-tack hammered into the center of his soul.

Last night was the first time he’d been in the shed since leaving home at seventeen. Tonight would be the final time. Looking at it now, he knew that going in there again would be like pissing on a live wire, but he had no choice if he was ever to be whole again.

He’d run from home as soon as he’d graduated from high school, desperate to leave it all behind, knowing deep inside himself that it would never be far from him. He’d gone alone, with his mother’s blessing. “One of us should get away,” she’d said as she pressed $134 in dingy, tattered bills into his hand. She’d hoarded it, hiding it from his father under a loose window sill. “I can’t. Not no more. Go to Roanoke, or Richmond and find work. Try to get some college.” Then she smiled, and it almost broke him to remember it. “I’ll be fine, boy. Just go before he wakes up.” He had, and a part of him still bled that he hadn’t found a way to take her with him.

The wind blew an empty soda can across the top of the driveway where he stood. He looked at the label as it rolled: Black Cat Cherry Cola. He smiled a little at the irony. After last night, bad luck was the least of his worries.

His mother had simply given up when he was twenty-three, stealing pills from a co-worker’s purse and swallowing them methodically, one at a time. She’d passed out at the table in the break room and just never woke up. At her funeral, his father had been drunk in the chapel, drunk at the gravesite, loudly proclaiming his grief and her worthlessness. Few others were there to mourn her.

It was a month now since they’d buried his father, dead after years of solitary drunkenness in his cheap trailer up in the Amherst woods. There were no mourners; Martin saw his father into the ground alone. The service had been short and perfunctory, led by a minister supplied by the mortuary who kept mispronouncing his father’s name. Martin didn’t bother to correct him. It didn’t matter, not even the Pope could keep his father out of Hell.

It had taken Martin that entire month to work up the courage to come back, to do what he had to do. There was no estate to pay for maintenance, so the grave was already becoming overgrown and weedy. The staff of the little boneyard had better things to do with their time than to look after a plot stuck off in a corner.

The house was gone, gutted by fire a year after his mother’s passing. The fire department came, but only because a neighbor spotted the smoke and called. His father had stopped paying his phone bills long before.

The land was his as the only surviving heir. There was no nostalgia here, though, no attachment, no sense of ownership. What value the land might have was far outweighed by the vileness that saturated it like blood in dirt.

He would be done with it soon enough, in any case.

He closed his eyes against another memory, flinching at the intensity of it. He was eleven, already in a perpetual state of terror. The three of them sat at the dinner table: his father with bottle at hand, sly and furtive, staring at his wife and son through piggish eyes as the two of them ate slowly and warily. Suddenly he lashed out, slapping her across the side of her head and knocking her glasses into a bowl of potatoes. She slowly turned her head back around, not looking at anything but the table in front of her, and fumbled her glasses out of the bowl. With trembling hands she wiped them on her apron, then put them back on, her face already swollen and red. “That’s what you get,” his father had said. “Just you don’t forget it, neither of you.” There had been too many other meals like that one.

The light was beginning to turn now, deepening towards dusk, and it was time. He stretched his back, still sore from the night before. It had been hard work, and foul, and he was certain that at some point he’d crossed the line into madness because of it, but it was done. Now he would put paid to all.

Tomorrow, he’d burn the shed and all the hateful poison it held. There was still work to do tonight, though, and he was as ready as he’d ever be. He took the baseball bat from where it leaned against his car in hands that were still raw and blistered from digging, glorying in the pain, letting it flash through him and carry him on. He began the long walk, the grass hissing against his feet for the last time.

His father was waiting for him in the shed.