How to write a short story: A discourse on unethical creativity or, The One with the Bukowski Man, or The Bukowski Code, or Some Drugs You Can Take that Will Make Your Brain Explode and Permanently Destabilize Your Psyche

By Dan McCaffrey

This was during a period ( that period being the present) when I was on so many anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers and tranquilizers that my mind was a bit fogged and I shuffled around with my eyes dilated and my doctor’s orders to avoid the street drugs that I thought inspired me. I would stop people on the street and jabber at them incessantly and furiously about sobriety and the all-consuming moment of clarity. I experienced many of these moments of clarity, and it was during a longer episode last week that it occurred to me I could write the perfect short story, if I were capable of writing. It seemed to me that I could both ease my ubiquitous pain through the (imagined) catharsis of writing, and deconstruct various aspects of life which I find distressing (It didn’t work). 

Although I was already well aware that I was no longer capable of writing, I betrayed my intuition and set about to write the perfect short story, which was about a guy who loves Bukowski so much that he gets a tattoo of Bukowkis face over his own face because he is unable to write. Bukowski is dead and thus can no longer serve as a living example of the notion that one can will talent or have it forced upon him at any time. And as an added bonus, no one will write anything ever again. It was to be a cautionary tale about the nature of talent, the dangerous, pervasive and carnivorous slithering of that beast, and also a jaunty little tale about my fear of tattoos and craving to be Bukowski. I’m a whore and want to be other writers too, which has always been the source of my suffering: literary promiscuity

My period of emotional clarity dragged on annoyingly and, though I continued to shut up and take the pills the doctor ordered, it seemed that the moment of clarity wasn’t going anywhere and that I would be haunted by the specter of all these demons it seemed I believed I could exorcise simply by writing the perfect short story. Although I suffered psychomotor agitation and could not hold a pen, I set about the agonizing process of writing (themes: celibacy, mental illness, drug use, witchcraft, kaleidoscopic nightmares of being hanged from a tree outside a mental institution, Catholic Anarchism).  Which is to say I did not start writing the story, but rather set about the ridiculous and wastefully necessary process of pre writing rituals, namely the blessing of the paper, the prayer to various obscure druid gods, the compulsive reading and subsequent book burnings of works by Joan Didion, and the outlining process.

This all produced so much agitation that I became convinced only a masochist would want to be a writer, and I’m more of an obsessive narcissist than a masochist and thus could not be a writer. This satisfied my psyche temporarily and I set about to wash my hands of the whole matter. Unfortunately, it became physical rather than simply emotional. Not only did I experience the usual intestinal catastrophes and severe earwax buildup, I also suffered from warts, boils, and of course bizarre and terrifying rashes.

Note to self: The following fragment represents the six months before my attempt at composing the Bukowski story, and should possibly be excised due to having nothing to do with Bukowski, or the story, and “the whole emotional vulnerability thing,” etc.

Long after I had taken my vow of celibacy and soon after I shaved my sideburns, various shadowy figures and sinister authorities began looking at me with concern. (Fact to be omitted during editing: people at my job also began to give me strange looks). Soon came the purple pajamas and hospital socks. Highlights of this period include being tackled by eight security guards in cheap secret service costumes, complete with silly earpieces, during a harrowing emergency room escape attempt. Shots of Haldol in the ass. Ligature marks made by angry fingers and brutal restraints. Once I managed to wriggle out of the medieval leather straps, harmlessly proving my acumen, only to taunt the nurses and have them tightened in response. Other memories are less playful. I took a series of vacations, some voluntary, some not. The other vacationers agreed with me that the forced smoking cessation was the most stressful aspect of the retreat and generally ruined everyone’s good time. Once I was clandestinely slipped a joint, which I successfully smoked in a manner I will not describe in case I need to use it again. Once I was prescribed some strange drugs and during that particular stay had the best time of my life (Medication combination changed soon after).

Some writing advice and the fictional bit about love that the editor of Shape Shifter Monthly told me to add:

Ignore those who say to avoid the deus ex machina. The deus ex machina can be used as many times per composition as the actual term deus ex machina, which has to do with what you, my love, with tolerate aesthetically. Everything I have ever written, dreamed about writing, or written about writing has been for and about you; it has all been an act of worship and feverish admiration that faces no limits and knows no condition. That is why it was so lucky when that horse thief murdered your fiancé during your nuptials, leaving you free to marry me.

In addition to whatever writing advice is offered above, I must insist that you, the student, faithfully practice the following during the duration of the semester: Let your hygiene slip. Don’t brush your teeth too often because it’s bad for creativity. Your diet is restricted to candy and Little Debbie snacks and of course you must be celibate. I feel these are reasonable requests and obviously you would not have enrolled in my class if you lacked fascination with my personal habits and did not wish to emulate me. The head of the department, whom I once mistook for a giant de-veined prawn in an embarrassing social misstep, insisted that I cease encouraging my students to get tattoos of my face and distinctive mole, but we both know that it won’t hurt your grade, and the department head (who “just happens to be” a member of a radical Protestant separatist group that has been spying on me for several years), will never read this syllabus.

The part where I discuss my celibacy (Omitted).

The part where I discuss the origins of the high school sobriquet I gave myself: the Penetrator (Also omitted).

If you haven’t already inserted the promotional floppy disk that came with this text [Sal, don’t you think such promotional materials ought to raise the paltry sticker price of sixty Catholic Anarchist dollars? (By the way, I need that fifty bucks I asked for)], do so now. You are now experiencing vivid computer animations of the writer’s rash I got during that Bukowski story way back at the beginning of my career, before I started winning awards and attending dinners in my honor while disguised as Al Jolson. By Divine Providence the rash went away and so did my insane urge to be a writer. I decided to become a performance artist instead, which has garnered me accolades and several more hospitalizations.

I never did write that Bukowski story, could never figure the damn thing out, the technical details. I still won awards for it, including the very exclusive Fritz and Andy Award, crafted by Fritz and presented by Andy. It doesn’t matter if I wrote the story. I thought of it.  I recognize that I gave up many opportunities at platonic brain groupies and lucrative pet adoptions, but I also recognize that I saved myself the time, trouble and stress of writing the fucking thing. (And I never wrote again).

Surprise Twist ending:

This is all an episode of Frasier. 



Dan McCaffrey was born in Massachusetts. He lives in an attic somewhere.

Photo by Martin Battilana, used by permission. Visit the photographer’s website to see more of his work.

Filed under: Nonfiction

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