The results are in! Congratulations to the authors of the winning stories:
First place: “Deus ex Machina” by Jordan Eash
Second place: “How to Avoid Writing” by David A. Cory, M.D.
Both winning stories will be published here on the blog. The second place story is up: scroll down to read it!
You Write Funny One Day:
Write a Funny Essay and Win Tickets to See David Sedaris
Now is your chance to see David Sedaris live at the Morris Performing Arts Center on Monday, April 19. Just write a funny, humorous, poignant essay and submit your entry to IU South Bend’s Creative Writing Program: firstname.lastname@example.org
The creative writing faculty will read through all entries and choose two lucky winners who will both receive two tickets to the show. Here are the details:
1. Write your essay in they style of David Sedaris or just in your own funny and insightful voice.
2. Keep essays to 1500 words or less. (One entry per person please.)
3. Submit your entry to email@example.com
4. All entries must be submitted NO LATER THAN MONDAY, APRIL 12.
5. Winners will be notified via email by April 16 and winning essays will be published on this blog.
6. This contest is open to anyone in the Michiana area. You do not need to be an IUSB student to submit.
You may email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.
Deus Ex Machina
Jordan Eash (Learn more about Jordan here.)
My god died last week. My half-ton, four-wheel drive, 140,000-mile god. And by god, I mean truck.
My truck, Santiago (my deity’s earthly name, because everyone knows an automobile isn’t a car until you’ve given it a name), broke down last Friday. It wasn’t anything sudden, like a terrible tragedy that shatters a well-nurtured cosmology, but a slow, agonizing demise, like a Catholic becoming agnostic becoming an atheist.
It started with the usual winter truck problems (ours are fickle gods, our favor with them turns with the seasons): the trembling exhaust structures, the sluggish engine. Then, even as the weather improved, Santiago worsened. At every stoplight the engine stalled. Then came the vibrations, a crashing shudder, like the engine was trying to leap through the hood of the car. The “check engine” light flashed like an unheeded prophet, and black brimstone poured from the tailpipe. I continued to drive. I wouldn’t look under the hood; the fear was too great. What if it was the transmission again? I would become a pillar of salt.
And then it happened. Good Friday. My truck suffered, died and was buried. And by buried, I mean broke down on the side of the road a block down from the fire station. A lone firefighter stood in the drive, hosing down Engine No. 7. He smiled, waved.
My initiation into the Church of the Carburetor was innocent enough. I was sixteen, ready for a job and the freedom of the open highway. Simple. My parents, saints as they are, and Acolytes of the Accelerator themselves, offered to buy a car for me – provided I pay them in small, monthly installments.
It was wonderful. Cruising down U.S. 20, the engine roaring, the radio singing a canticle for the road. I had accepted the automobile into my heart as my own personal savior, and I was reveling in its glory.
It was too good to be true.
Slowly, problems began to appear. It was like finding the loopholes in your parochial school catechism. First went the starter. Then, the muffler. The tires. The brakes. And the transmission. The transmission cost more to fix than the entire truck. I would need a loan. The bank would give me one, $2,500 at $99.64 a month. My tithe.
The transmission was repaired (the shop’s jingle was “If your tranny’s dead, just call Fred,” which conjured images of a blue-collar man with a beer gut and a knack for disposing of deceased cross-dressers), a brand-new gearbox. I was on the road again, a grateful pilgrim returning to the holy land. Sure, I needed my job more than ever now – my truck’s fuel and payments took up most of my income, and still does – but so what? No cost is too great for the Faithful.
But, as they say, the Lord giveth and taketh away, and there my truck sat, a lifeless hulk on a Main Street curb.
I turned the key and prayed. Whether it was to the dying god before me or to someone else, I don’t know. Either way, my pleas went unanswered. The engine grunted, shook, and fell silent. I beat my head against the steering wheel. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Forgive me! My penance didn’t help, either.
Greater deities than mine flew by, Tauruses and Impalas, moving in like the god of Constantine to sweep away my pagan lord, and I envied those followers of the New Order. My mind turned to possibilities of reformation, or conversion. Maybe a new Honda would be nice. Or a Beetle. Are Scions any good? They sure look cool. But no. It was impossible: I could never sell my truck for enough to pay back the bank or make a down payment on a new car. Besides, new cars have problems, too. No dogma is perfect.
So, I was stuck. A buggy drifted past. I imagined the Amish man at the reigns. He was probably laughing.
“The poor fool!” he would say, “Does he not see the error of his faith? See how his god tortures him!”
Go ahead and laugh, I thought. If I get a flat tire, I put on the spare. If your horse breaks a leg, you have to shoot it.
Cars really are the American curse, as well as the American god. My friend Simon, from Germany, has never driven a car. Barely ever rode in one. He doesn’t have to. America, unlike Germany – or anywhere else in Europe – is built on wide, open land. It’s almost a federal law that your neighbors can’t live any closer than a half-mile. Besides, we’re lazy. Any distance is too great to walk.
Oh, to live in Europe! I thought, watching another SUV roar past. To be free of this, my accursed god! I’ll take the national guilt of the Holocaust, Inquisition, or Margaret Thatcher over this. Hell, I’d take all three.
So, for the next couple days, my truck sat near the fire station. On the third day, my uncle Greg and I towed it back to his shop to have a look at it. It was Easter Sunday, but Uncle Greg is a bachelor and spends the day alone, and I have no gods before Santiago.
The check engine light flashed its secret code. My uncle, the reverend augur of autos, flipped the pages of the Chilton, that holiest of scriptures, for the arcane wisdom needed to interpret the signs.
“It’s the oxygen sensor,” he says. “It’s running rich, and it’s probably corroded your spark plugs.”
The oxygen sensor. My god has drowned in his own gasoline.
We put it on the lift. My truck ascended toward the heavens, and we got to work. After an hour or so, with the sensor replaced and the plugs changed, I turned the key. I held my breath.
The glory of Santiago’s engine roaring back to life was like the trumpets of Armageddon. My truck rose from the dead. Still, I wasn’t convinced. I was too used to my truck being broken.
“Let me put my hand into his side,” I said.
“What?” my uncle asked.
“Let’s drive it. To make sure it works.”
Uncle Greg did the honors. With him behind the wheel the engine burned like tongues of flame.
“What do you think?” he asked.
I looked at the speedometer. We were going over ninety.
“I didn’t know it could go this fast!”
Cruising then, watching the southern Michigan landscape flash by, I smiled.
My faith was restored.
How to Avoid Writing
David A. Cory, M.D. (Learn more about David here.)
Those of us who are compelled by temperament, neurosis, or outright madness to put pen to paper or bang away at a keyboard often suffer from a stronger urge, which is the compulsion to avoid writing. Why should this be? If I don’t want to write, why don’t I just do something else with my time? I could polish my spoon collection, shampoo my pet wombat, or water my okra seedlings. But I feel I must write. As inadequate as I feel when writing, I may feel even worse if I don’t write. How can I call myself a writer if I am not writing? So, then why do I avoid it? Perfectionism is a factor. If I am not able to produce verbiage on a par with John Updike, with flawless use of simile, metaphor, gerunds, and undangling participles, why bother? The blank page reflects my anxiety, guilt and self-doubt. I am reminded of the brilliant humorist Robert Benchley, who one day rolled a fresh piece of paper into his typewriter and typed “The.” Different versions of the story have him staring at the paper for a prolonged period of time, then smoking his pipe, going for a walk, joining a poker game, meeting up with friends, drinking, or some combination of these activities. When he returned to the typewriter, he stared for a while at the solitary word “The,” finally added “hell with it,” and quit for the day.
Numerous impediments may get in the way of writing. You need to be prepared. If you chose to scribble your thoughts on paper, you need to remember where you left your favorite pen. If you use a computer, you need to know which of those little sliding things at the top of the computer screen produces a hanging indent. Indeed, you should know what a hanging indent is, and how it should be used. Research such as this takes time. Should I just launch into an essay or short story without knowing how to turn off that cartoon paper clip that thinks it knows what kind of document I am typing and cloyingly offers to help me write it? I think not, and wading through help menus takes time.
Beyond the pure mechanics of writing, it is necessary to have in mind something to write about, and to have in-depth knowledge of the subject. Aye, there’s the rub. Cable news pundits may pontificate on any topic at will without rigorous study of the issues, but as for me, knowledge is power. As Albert Einstein once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind. Don’t be caught with your intellectual knickers down!” Or was it his cousin Manny Einstein who said that? No matter. The point is, before fanning the fires of creativity, the writer must make sure his mental tinder box is full of wood shavings and gently-used toothpick. The writer must be always prepared, ready at a moment’s notice to produce a paragraph by rubbing two Boy Scouts together. He must be ready to spend as much time as necessary to hone his craft—not by writing, but by doing other things that seem dreadfully important at the time.
For instance, take the time I sat down to write about a letter that was handed down to me from my grandmother. Her brother had written to her while he was working away from home, early in the twentieth century. He mentioned in the letter that his scalp was itching because he had rabbits, and that my grandmother should be careful because there may be rabbits in the letter. Holding the envelope in my hand, I was fairly certain even a baby bunny couldn’t fit in there. I was absolutely sure that a fine upstanding young man like Great Uncle Charles would not have been in the grip of delirium tremens, longing for a drink of rotgut whiskey while imagining small furry mammals crawling over his head. My best guess was that “rabbit” was a slang term for head lice. Is this common knowledge? It wasn’t to me–what a wonderful opportunity to dive into research and avoid writing!
In days of yore, research involved going to the library to riffle through the card catalogue and pore over The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Those quaint practices have been rendered obsolete by the internet. It is interesting that as I type this essay on a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the internet through my home network, squiggly red lines appear under the words internet, wirelessly, and even squiggly, indicating these words are unrecognized by the word-processing software. I can understand how squiggly may be suspect, as it is a lame word, but perhaps it is time for internet and wirelessly to become accepted parts of the lexicon. Or perhaps I just need to upgrade from Word 97.
But I digress. Being connected to the World Wide Web, I go to the modern equivalent of the card catalog and The Reader’s Guide—Google (another red squiggly line appears). I type in “rabbits” and “lice.” References to scientific experiments involving the two species appear, but not too far down the list is a link to an article by P.J. O’Rourke published in The Atlantic in 2003. The essay is an account of his daughter’s infestation by head lice and includes facts he had gathered by researching the topic in the New England Journal of Medicine and other sources. One of his sources was The American Thesaurus of Slang, published in the 1940s, which gave the following synonyms for lice: seam squirrels, shimmy lizards, and pants rabbits. I believe these sobriquets apply to pubic lice, more commonly known today by the trans-species appellation crabs.
Ah, now, armed with knowledge, I am ready to write. Or am I? Should I not go to the primary source myself? Of course. Perhaps The American Thesaurus of Slang is in the public domain and available online. I Google the title. Alas, no electronic version is available, but there appears a link to Worldcat.com, which tells me that a tangible copy sits on a shelf at the local campus of Indiana University, a tantalizing 13 miles away. Should I go? No, wait. In the endless list of links produced by Google is a review from a librarians’ journal. I must read it to know if it’s worth the effort to go on a quest for the book. The reviewer is gaga over the book. I must have it. Alas, I don’t have checkout privileges at the university. I go to the public library catalog online. The library doesn’t have The American Thesaurus of Slang, but does have a copy of the more recently published Thesaurus of American Slang. Maybe that’s close enough. Another blessed respite from writing calls to me. I could drive to the library, find the book, perhaps browse the CDs in the Sights and Sounds section, and maybe read a magazine. No, I tell myself sternly, I must write.
But first, I’ll see if a copy of the older book is for sale. After all, any writer worth his salt should have his own copy of this invaluable reference material. A search at Amazon.com reveals that the book is out of print, but a few used copies are available, ranging in price from less than eight dollars to more than a hundred, depending on condition. Thirty to fifty dollars would buy a copy in good condition. Hmmm…have to think about it.
And so, I push back from the keyboard with a sense of deep satisfaction. Mission accomplished! I have avoided writing—sort of.
The author is grateful for the editorial assistance of Daniel P. Cory, J.D.