When you first find out you’re adopted, everything changes. Your parents,
Saul and Judy Schwartz, aren’t really your parents. Your bratty sister Rachel isn’t
really your sister. And, you’re told, you aren’t really Jewish after all. Still, you go to
college, despite your natural gentile instincts to be a carpenter, and you take some
time off before law school to go to church and ask a few plastic surgeons about
reacquiring foreskin. After college, you find an apartment with a fireplace in the
Irish part of town. You get a tattoo. You buy The Bible and only read the end. And,
most importantly, you buy a Christmas tree, decorating it with crucifixes, and strips
of bacon wrapped around blocks of cheese.
On Christmas Eve, you leave cookies and milk on a table by the tree. You fall
asleep, dreaming about the bare knees of Catholic school girls in plaid skirts and
the peppermint scent of a thousand candy canes overflowing from your stocking.
You are startled awake by a rustling sound. You creep into the kitchen with a
baseball bat. And, there he is. The fat man. Jolly Rodger himself. Saint Fucking Nick.
“Ho, Ho, Ho?” he says, eyeing the bat in your hand, his guilty beard covered in
cookie crumbs. He has a familiar look about him, you think, and not just because his
is the face of Christmas. It’s like you have seen his eyes before. His smile. You
wonder if maybe this is the guy who cuts your corned beef at Stein’s Deli. Then, it
hits you. The truth. And you say, “Dad?” And, he says, “Son?” You drop the bat. A
sensation rushes to your head, like you just drank a Cherry Slurpee too fast, and you
stare into the gaze of your biological father, Santa Claus, for the very first time.
You had wished that yours was the stock of movie stars or race car drivers-
not some fat fairy tale. But, you have never seen anyone with your DNA before, so
when he opens up his arms to you, you fold in for a hug. And, hugging your long-lost
father feels like falling in love. He is soft like a marshmallow and he smells like a
smore from all of the chimney smoke. While hugging him, you think about some
happy moments from your childhood, like getting dressed for Halloween and
birthday parties and recess. And, all of those memories include your “other” Dad, Dr.
Schwartz, and you think about HIS hugs, which are more manly, more muscular, and
you think about how he always smells like band-aids and mouthwash.
It occurs to you that you are cheating on him with Santa, and it feels terrible,
like when you cheated on your ex, Danielle. So, you loosen your side of the hug and
you gather your thoughts. Then, you look at your Bio-Dad, the myth in red and white
and flesh before you, and you ask him what you’ve always wanted to know.
“Why did you give me away?”
Santa releases from the embrace as his fabled jolliness leaves his eyes.
“Look, kid, I’m sorry. I really am,” he says.
“I had a lot on my plate back then. The naughty and nice list was really long
and Rudolph was going through a very serious bout of depression.”
He shoves an oatmeal cookie into his mouth. You both listen to him chew.
“I’m not perfect,” he says. “Is that what you need to hear? Santa’s not perfect.
Ok? Some people want me to be Jesus Christ because of the whole Christmas thing,
but I’m not. I don’t have any answers. I’m just the guy who flies around with
presents and hangs around with elves.”
He shrugs his shoulders, then looks into your eyes as he shouts- “Merry
Christmas”- into your face like a nervous tick.
You close your eyes and take a deep breath. This is not going how you always
wanted it to. But, your disappointment does not deter your curiosity, so you change
“Who is my mother?” you ask. “Can you tell me anything? Anything at all?”
“Your mother is the most beautiful woman in the world,” he says, and you
feel relief because for a moment he is being more real.
“Did you love her?” you ask.
“More than Christmas,“ he says. “But, in those days, I couldn’t keep it in my
pants. And, when she found out I was married, it was all over.”
Your stomach drops as the taste of bile and eggnog rushes to the back of your
throat. You gulp.
“But, you know where everyone lives, right? If you wanted to, you
could get in touch with her?”
“Oh, we know how to find each other,” he says. “And, I know Amelia kept
tabs on you too, every time you lost a tooth.”
You feel stiffness in your jaw and neck, like you just received a shot of
Novocaine. You want to know why, after all of those nights of coming to your room,
why not once did she ever wake you, hold you and say, I’m sorry, baby, I really wish
I could have kept you?
But, those are questions for her. You ask him a barrage of other questions:
“Does she speak with an accent?”
“What does she do with all of those teeth? Does she turn them into
jewelry? Are they currency in some enchanted realm?”
“Does she have wings? Why don’t I have wings?”
“How did you meet? Are there underground parties for magical people?”
“Why didn’t she keep me?”
Santa Claus doesn’t answer any of your questions. He looks down at the
table, empty, but for a dirty glass and a plate full of crumbs.
You invite him to stay the night. You offer him the pullout couch. You have so
many more questions. Should you be worried about prostate cancer or male pattern
baldness? Do you have any magical half siblings, like a mer-sister or an elf-brother?
When did he find out he had special powers? And, when are you going to get yours?
You tell him that sometimes you have psychic dreams and that once you fell off of a
pretty big cliff and you didn’t break any bones. You tell him about the time you
scored four goals in a JV soccer game, and about staying up for three days straight,
then getting an A on your Calc midterm. But, he just smiles at you like you’re some
kid on his lap at the mall. He looks at his wrist.
“Well, what do you know,” he says. “Time to get back to work. It is Christmas
Eve after all, and millions of good little girls and boys around the world are
waiting for their presents.”
“You’re such a fake,” you say. “You’ve got the whole world thinking that
you’re God’s gift to children, but you don’t even have time for your own.”
And then you add, “It’s because I’m Jewish isn’t it?”
But, guilt does not ground Santa’s sleigh that night.
You stay up until the sunrise, drinking away your confusion. You try pulling
out one of your teeth, using dental floss and a can of chicken noodle soup. You watch
“A Christmas Story” and you drunk dial your ex-girlfriend, confessing what you did,
and telling her that you still love her. The following morning, you awaken to the
spins and a mouth full of blood.
You crawl towards the bathroom past a tree that smells like rotten meat and
moldy cheese. While you puke, you think about the millions of Christian children
around the world, waking up to presents, and you realize that he didn’t leave you
shit. You imagine all of the quarters under all of the pillows out there, and you puke
You take some aspirin with your coffee. You brush your teeth three times,
and take a long, hot shower, trying to relive the events from last night in your
mind. You check your phone, looking for more clues. You have a text from your ex:
DONT CALL ME. You also have a voicemail. It’s from your Dad:
“Hey Pal, it’s your father. Well, you said that you were going to be exploring
your Christian roots this year, and I wanted to support your soul searching by
wishing you a Merry Christmas. (you can hear your Mom nagging in the
background) Oh, and, remember that Rachel’s birthday is in two weeks. (more
nagging) Ok, Ok, I’ll tell him…and call your grandparents. All right. Be good. Love ya.
Call me back.”
And, it occurs to you who was there when you scored four goals for the JV.
And, who was there when you were in the hospital after you fell off of the cliff. And,
who changed your diapers, and who pays your rent, while you’re “soul searching.”
And, it occurs to you who is there for you right now, together, probably eating
bagels with cream cheese and lox and whitefish salad, treating Christmas like it’s
just another day off. And, you call your parents to wish them a Happy
Perhaps you have a great concept for a trilogy regarding an intergalactic mole that burrows through black holes ever in search of the most fertile planet of the Universe. Your amygdala swarms with images of bad guys flying jet-fueled weed-whackers and a love interest- the beautiful princess Beaver. Alas, your masterpiece cannot be completed, your movie deal cannot be inked, your new life as a famous author slash wealthy person slash sex-god cannot begin, because you have yet to create a memorable title.
In this book, I will teach you the 12 Steps of Title Creation to send you on your way to becoming a famous author slash wealthy person slash sex-god. I have done thousands of studies including hundreds of people in order to create this scientific formula designed to guarantee your title writing success.
Step 1: Start with the word “The.”
My studies show that people love buying books and going to see movies whose titles begin with the word “The.” One study participant explained, “Seeing “The” points me towards the book like a lighthouse.”
The Mole Holes
The Space Digger
The Lighthouse Book
Step 2: Use words like “Diaries”,“Chronicles” or “Experiment”
Another in depth study shows that most people are impressed with the word “Experiment.” One study indicates that using the word “Experiment” in your title increases book sales, as study participants felt more likely to trust the author as an expert who has conducted an “Experiment,” whether or not the book is actually based upon an Experiment. Many exhaustive and accurate studies indicate that “Chronicle” has a similar effect, and that “Diaries” tends to attract the coveted Young Adult Audience. Hook them and you will have a loyal fan base for the next seventy to seventy-five years.
The Mole Hole Experiment
The Diaries of Princess Beaver
The Chronicles of a Space Mole
At this point, I pause to give away the entire book. You must have something to look forward to...
Below are two appendices to further titilate your appetite for titular mastery:
Appendix A: The Twelve Steps of Title Creation
Step 1: Start with the word “The.”
Step 2: Use words like Diaries, Chronicles, or Experiment.
Step 3: Create Titles that sound a lot like other really famous ones.
Step 4: Don’t rhyme (unless it’s a children’s book).
Step 5: Sex Sells! But, the words penis and vagina don’t.
Step 6: If you come up with a really, really good title, disregard all other steps.
Step 7: Title writing is fun, but don’t put the F and the U in F-U-N. (Never insult your audience).
Step 8: The power of “of.”
Step 9: When totally stuck, go with one happy-sounding word like, “Sunshine” or “Ocean” or “Nickel.”
Step 10: Buy my other book, Book Titles Two: The Chronicles of Sex.
Step 11: Consult appendix B.
Step 12: It doesn’t really matter. Your editor will change the name of your title.
Appendix B. A List of Suggested Book Titles. (See Step 11)
Note: Many of the titles on this list are in accordance with Step 6: If you come up with a really, really good title, disregard all other steps.
Love/Sex Advice Books:
Love is a four Letter Word, just like Puke
Tickle, Tickle, Oops
Pregnant Teens Still Deserve to Explore
Kissing Cousins, Eskimo Brothers and other tales of Incest
Ted and Fred Don’t Wet Their Beds
Smashy, the lazy Tomato
Jesus was a Nice Jewish Boy
We were just talking about you. We were just musing on the possibilities of providing you with affordable healthcare, and absolving you of debt, or in the least not charging you so much interest on your loans. But, working hard builds backbone, right? Keep trudging, and someday you, too, can call yourselves self-made millionaires.
We would like to address those of you who die for us in warzones. Do you realize how low the price of oil is today? You have done your duty to your country, by keeping us safe from the threat of Jihadist terrorists as well as stabilizing the economy. We appreciate the high cost of your sacrifice. Consider your debt to society paid. As for the students, the bright young stars of the future, consider your debt like a fraternity hazing, an initiation into the working world. Until you are ready to take the reins, we will guide this great nation towards greater global domination. Do not believe the detractors who claim that we are building our own wealth at the expense of your future. It is precisely your future that we are securing. Keep fighting. Keep learning. Keep eating chips and candy. Keep drinking soda and beer. You earned it. By the way, there’s only so much corn byproduct we can feed to chickens and cows. Honestly if it weren’t for you, we’d have so much corn. Thank you for buying in.
Remember: every vote only gets counted once, just like every dollar. And, don’t think that just because we don’t pay as many taxes as you think we should, that we don’t contribute. Who do you think finances the media, the news, and all of those movies and TV shows that you love? Some day, you’ll learn about tax loopholes and overseas accounts, too, and then you’ll understand what makes this country great. Speaking of which, thank you not even noticing when we removed Glass-Steagall. Too big to fail applies to all of us. Remember, If the banks fail, so do you.
We would especially like to acknowledge those working for minimum wages: the people who clean our toilets, work in the sewers and in meat lockers, oh and those of you who handle medical waste. You are all doing jobs that none of us would ever do. Hold tight. Someday we’ll raise your wages. In the meanwhile, your lack of greed allows us to keep labor costs low, so that we can use that money to invest in higher risk bets against future inabilities to pay mortgages, and other invisible things like bitcoins. We are securing all of your futures. Trust us. Oh, and in regards to all of those evictions in 2008. Sorry. We were just trying to make more money. We weren’t trying to make you homeless. Keep praying. Your sacrifices for your country are astonishing. Seriously, everything you do benefits us. Thank you for all of your hard work. You will be rewarded in heaven.
Your Masters, The 1%
I was working behind the cash register at the Bookshop. George Saunders was next in line. I waved him over. We had met several times previously, so he said hello, in a natural way, knowing that I knew him, and that I was a fan. He and his wife had recently purchased a house in the area, and he was rumored to be writing his first novel (Lincoln in the Bardo- which BTW I loved and will be posting my review here soon). He had a stack of books, mostly Tolstoy.
“I put War and Peace down at 1,200 pages,” I said.
“Something something something cool about Tolstoy,” he said, as I gazed into his eyeballs, hoping to download some genius, though way too nervous to be fully present with one of my heroes.
“I’m reading Tenth of December for school right now,” I said. “It wasn’t assigned. I chose it from a list of short story blah blah from a list of fiction for my blah blah advanced fiction blah,” I said. "I'm writing an essay on "Victory Lap."
“You can say that I agree with whatever it is you say about it,” he said with an impish grin, while holding out his credit card, hoping to pay. “Do you have any questions for me?”
Instead of asking a good question, I continued to talk about me and my thoughts. A practicing Buddhist, he surely noted the self is strong with this one. I managed to point out the way "Victory Lap" shifts the POV regularly while keeping the narrative moving in a straight timeline. Then, I mumbled something like, "is it vocabulary?" To which he said something like (seriously I needed to turn down the self-centered fanboy reaction, so I could actually listen to the man): “Each character's vocabulary needs to sound totally different, yes.”
I held him hostage at the counter for a time longer than what was appropriate.
Questions I could have asked, “Why a stack of Russian epics? Planning on teaching a class or writing a massive war narrative? Do you live with a gnome, and you need these large tomes to prop him up at the dinner table? He paid and left, and I stood there at the counter, dreaming he had said, "I'm looking for an up and coming writer to teach one on one. Would you be available to meet once or twice a week for coffee, to discuss your work? Or, maybe we could meditate together?"
Then, a nice old lady came up to the register to purchase a stack of board books for her grandkids, and I fake smiled.
“Victory Lap" begins with the POV (they are all over-the-shoulder 3rd person) of a 15 year old girl who wonders if she is special: (example: “Helen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing; Mrs. Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped, which, in addition, she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual…”). Several pages later, the reader is still awaiting the major plot twist to occur, and Saunders has given us a new POV, this time a young boy who lives across the street from her, with a very different vocal (example: “Mom and Dad would be heartsick if they could hear the swearing he sometimes did in his head, such as crap-cunt shit-turd dick-in-the-ear butt-creamery…”). Until, finally 16 pages into the tale, the creepy kidnapper is revealed, and the narrator takes on a new vocabulary (example: “If fuckwise it went bad, she didn’t properly arouse him, he’d abort the activity, truncate the subject, heave the thing out, clean van as necessary, go buy corn, return van to Kenny, say, Hey, bro, here’s shitload of corn, thanks for the van, I never could’ve bought a suitable quantity of corn in my car…”).
But, the very best thing this story does, which I am learning, through a very slow, and very tedious climb, is to finish the story with twisted hope. By this newly coined phrase, I mean that when the story ends, it leaves its reader with a sense of “justice has been served” while simultaneously, it would be totally appropriate to take a long cold shower while crying.
In summary, one of the keys to shifting the POV, in order to give a more well-rounded narrative with more nuanced characters, is to give each voice its own vocabulary. Stories "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December" by George Saunders do this really well. I also recommend the novels Beloved by Toni Morrison and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I pray that this blog post has left all of you fictionistas with a splattering of Twisted Hope.
Watch this awesome puppet video with George Saunders discussing how to write a Story!!!
Last night while Michelle met with her women's group in the living room, I hid in the bedroom and read a bunch of Aimee Bender. After every story, I wondered, "How does she do that?" So, I tried to do what she (Aimee Bender, not my wife) does. This little baby story was the best thing I came up with:
My wife sleeps on the roof. She used to sleep besides me, in our bed, inside the house, but that was before our argument. I told her that her story just did not hold up, due to issues of translation, etc., but she swore that she had met an alien who came from a galaxy countless light years away, and that this alien convinced her an invasion was imminent. This alien, who conveniently had no name, even though it somehow was able to communicate with my wife (despite the fact that she only spoke English, a little bit of Spanish and just enough Portuguese to get us to the hotel and order us both caipirinhas at the bar in the lobby), told her to watch the sky for warning signs. The sky will look pink, and then purple, not the blue of the daytime or the blackness of night. That sounds like the sunrise or the sunset, I had told her. But, that’s not all, she had said. Small, frozen particles will fall from outer space. Snow? I said. No. She said. Debris from giant interstellar battleships that are hovering over planet Earth. They will have travelled here from a frozen planet and when they finally make it to ours, their ships will thaw from the heat at the core of our planet. Why would an alien race from a frozen planet invade us? I asked. It just didn’t add up. You’re not listening to me. She had said. You never do.