Mother! (Reviewed, light spoilers, no ending spoilers)

Movies like Mother! are a mirror, so your interpretation reflects you. The couple living in the house represented two facets of one person, an artist. She represented the desire to protect what was created, maintaining the elation that comes with creating art, but he represented the desire to share the creation with other people. All artists, to varying degrees, roam around in their subconscious and when you share something from there other people are invited to roam around in your subconscious, too.

This was represented by a pair of metaphors, the house, in the first half of the movie, and adding the baby in the second. To varying degrees, the other people who showed up at the house respected the owners’ wishes, but they roamed around anyway. They entered rooms they weren’t supposed to enter. They broke shit. Because they felt like the house was theirs too, because it was. A writing teacher once told our class, once something’s published it’s not yours anymore. She meant it’s not just yours anymore.

I’ve grown more like the woman character in the movie. I tend to hold onto pieces ready for submission because I want them just mine a little longer. It’s unfair to the story, but once something’s been rejected, even if I start by sending it to a top tier magazine, it doesn’t feel like just mine anymore. It feels like someone came into my house and roamed around and broke shit. Rejection isn’t the only way to feel like someone’s been in your house roaming around, though. A story published gets read but it also gets not read by many more. A bestseller gets one-star reviews on Amazon. Only art put away in a drawer or attic and never mentioned gets to belong solely to the artist. I don’t want my baby forever swaddled against my breast just breathing and staring into my eyes. That’s a nice feeling but it fades. You have to find a way to merge these two characters, to put your work out there but maintain at least some of the elation from creating something, even if people think it isn’t good, or if people think it’s derivative (of course it is, everything is derivative), or if people decide it was something other than what you think it is or what you wanted them to think it is.

The reason I thought the movie was good but not great is not because the two halves didn’t work together but because they both had the same thing to say. The second half was bonkers, which was cool, but I wanted another level, not just a more extreme version of the same level. A friend told me the director said the movie was actually about climate change. Cool, I see that, now, but I didn’t while I was watching it. I got invested in my own metaphor. I was invited into the writer/director’s subconscious and I roamed around. I broke shit. I’m allowed.


So Many Tracers and Bursts…from Letters Home

I’m not sure what level people were on when they read Letters Home, the book of my grandfather’s letters to my grandmother while he was serving in the Pacific during WWII as a bomber pilot. Most people probably read the book as one man’s account of his war experience, which I think it would be a worthwhile read at that level. But if he was writing them for posterity, which he might have been, he wasn’t primarily. He was writing primarily to an audience of one: my grandmother (except for one he wrote to my mother shortly after her birth).

He wrote to entertain her, to connect with her, to reassure her, all these things, but he also, at some point, began writing for him. Writing sustained him through the war. Writing kept him together. Maybe I’m projecting because without writing I have trouble imagining who I would be, but the one piece of evidence I use to trust there’s something to my theory is that after his emergency landing in the water, he got picked up by a destroyer. The doc offered him a pint bottle of whiskey, which he drank in one gulp (I guess we’re not judging the doctor’s technique, it was a different time), and then he insisted on writing a letter. He tore the letter up later. (I wish he hadn’t. He said he couldn’t read it himself but I would have liked a try at deciphering it.) Out of habit, he probably addressed that letter to my grandma but he was writing that letter for himself.

There are times he writes straightforward letters just to meet his self-imposed requirement of getting a letter out to her every day. I included some of these to give the book an accurate feel of his letters to her but cut many to eliminate repetition. Other times he sits down to intentionally write her a real beauty, which could feel forced but doesn’t because he has good writing instincts and knows how to avoid writing that feels like it’s trying too hard (this is my opinion, obviously) but also because his aim isn’t to impress you or me or anyone else reading this book he had no idea would one day come to exist, his only aim is to impress his wife.

But other times he’s so accidentally good that is what confirmed to me his writing instincts. This is most clear in his letter from August 16, 1945 when he writes about getting shot down; before censorship wouldn’t allow him to describe the incident that occurred over Kure, Japan. He gives such a clean, ordered account of exactly what happened, without any flourishes. Ends with how he missed one hop but got on the next one “for if I hadn’t I would have lost my nerve completely.”

Then he tacks on this bit that I still remember knocked my socks off when I found it:

I knew before I got hit that it was coming because there were so many tracers and bursts around me that I could have gotten out and walked on them. I jerked like a madman but they got me.

Those lines create such intense imagery, not just of what it must have looked like to be surrounded by explosions so dense and close he could have stepped out of his plane and walked on them but also how it must have felt. The second part of that passage I also love because the “they” feels like not the enemy below firing but the tracers and bursts up there with him. Almost like they’re detached from the people firing them. The pair of lines feel like a man caught in a war aware everyone else was caught in that war, too. The bombers above and the men firing anti-aircraft weapons below are in identical situations, to him. This might seem like a reach, out of context, but the letters provide more context. He writes, elsewhere, “Is it bravery to fly though gun fire to bomb and kill others?”

After the war in a flyover, he writes, “Everything seemed to be under control except that I did see a couple kids throwing rocks at us. Some of the civilians even waved in a friendly manner and then some just waved fists. Most of them, however, just looked up casually. I imagine they are about as relieved as we are that it is all over.”

I had no idea I would find this level of empathy for the enemy when I decided to take on this project, but it’s one of the reasons why reading these letters and turning them into the book was one of the great experiences of my life.

Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific, available in print and as an Ebook from Amazon and as an Ebook through other online retailers. I also have paperback copies I’m glad to gift to interested readers. You can read it on kindle by following this link and purchasing for 2.99:

The paperback copy is available here for 9:

Greg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. All are available as paperbacks and as Ebooks at He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine, Metazen, and Toasted Cheese.

So, How Long?/Bitter and Sweet

I shared on facebook, the other day, a story acceptance with a print journal. I’ve never had one of my longer stories accepted by a literary journal, and I’ve been submitting for over fifteen years. I immediately thought, people who know me well or people who have lost a parent must have wondered how long after I got that acceptance it was before I thought of my mother. The answer is that it was no time at all. It was simultaneous.

I’m so used to getting those emails and opening them and finding a terse rejection that I’ve learned not to open them with any hope. So my emotions weren’t engaged. I opened it and when instead of the terse rejection I expected I found an almost-as-terse acceptance, her absence in my life immediately swept over me. I almost said, “Oh, Mom.”

(this won’t end sad, I promise.)

I should explain that my mom was very supportive of my choice to be a writer. (That makes me very lucky.) But as someone who loved someone who writes, she had much more experience with the disappointments involved than the joys. This is why writing is a lonely pursuit. Not because you’re alone while you write, because alone is the last thing you feel while you’re writing. Because the intrinsic joy you’re experiencing is difficult to share with anyone. The extrinsic disappointments, on the other hand, are difficult not to share and easily observable. There were times my mom was pretty clearly trying to move me off of writing being such a large part of my life. She never suggested I give it up but she wished I was more rounded, which might have been code for making writing a less obsessive hobby.

These last years she came around, though. When I was first looking at the house I have now, she always said how she loved the front porch. “I can just imagine you sitting there writing.” Last spring, she and her husband stopped off on one of their visits up to the Cleveland Clinic at six in the morning to drop something off and she found me there.

This publication, in some ways, would mean more to her even than it does to me. Over the last several years I’ve shifted my goals more and more to the intrinsic. Last fall, I made a push to submit a lot and, in part, that was because I hoped I’d be able to share I’d received an acceptance with her before she was gone. After seventeen years to come up a month shy could feel awfully bitter but it really hasn’t. The joy in it is still right there. The feeling that I’m able to share that joy with her is still right there.

((I haven’t heard back yet regarding the issue but the surest way to get a copy of the issue that will include my story is to purchase a subscription. I understand the amount of money is substantial and I wouldn’t want anyone to overstretch to buy one, but you can feel good about supporting a literary journal. Particularly this one because they are one of the few holdouts to the current trend in the industry of collecting payment from submitters, which means they need to find funding somewhere else and selling subscriptions is the way any literary journal would most want to be funded because sales means readers. The issue alone will be cheaper. I’ll have more details when I get them.))

This is the link to subscription information for REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters:

Any links below are from wordpress

The Weather Stopped the Day Temperatures Turned Uterine

In college, I worked at a day care center in a toddler room. One spring day, after a late winter run of windy cold, we took the kids outside on a day completely still and perfectly warm. This little girl, two-and-a-half, climbed on top of a slide, stopped at the top and looked around, and she said, “The weather stopped.”

Us warm-blooded folk have a wide range of temperatures we can exist in. Cold-blooded reptiles have to regulate their temperatures by alternately sunning and shading themselves. Beats eating. We have a much slimmer range of temperatures we’re exactly comfortable in. Depending on how hardy our temperament, we can enjoy cool autumn, sweater weather and hot June shorts weather. July and August are more challenging. Maybe people who claim to enjoy the cold of winter really do? However you spin it, there is a temperature that feels just right.

On July 9, 2001, the weather stopped on a day temperatures were uterine. I know this because I had just finished a shift at Red Robin in Seattle and I recognized that the temperature was right in my sweet spot. I bought a notebook, there at the mall, and sat outside and wrote. I probably also had a beer. “Dave” served me. I remember because he commented about the temperature. He said, “Nice weather. I don’t blame you for sitting out here.”

After a mild winter, here in NE Ohio, we’ve had a cold spring. I still haven’t written on my porch, this year. That’s my first day of spring. When my body tells me the still air is perfectly in tune with my internal temperature, where I’m not at all chilled and not at all warm. I wouldn’t be surprised if massive endorphins are released when the temperature hits that mark. When you notice your breathing for all the right reasons. I call it the air being like a bath. You just soak in it. David Foster Wallace captured it far better in an essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” with a line I jotted on a piece of scrap paper: “Temperatures were uterine.”

But I like “the weather stopped” best. It’s a small window of temperature on a still day, but it also ties in with mood; if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss it, and it’s coming any day now.

Advice for a Young Writer

I rarely give out writing advice unless asked and I’m rarely asked. Writers staying at it for approaching two decades with minimal extrinsic success (and by extrinsic success I mean an audience) are probably the best people to seek writing advice from, but to be fair, how would they find us? Last time I gave advice it was to a work friend who mentioned wanting, one day, to write but right then was content to read avidly. My advice was “follow your interest.” Follow your interest might not sound like much but you could do a lot worse for writing advice. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing advice was similar just a tick more harsh: “Read a lot and write a lot and figure it out yourself.” And he was a writing instructor. So it goes.

A friend at work mentioned that his thirteen-year-old daughter had been reading a lot of work uploaded to Watt Pad (? Not familiar with it but I’m guessing it’s a website where people upload work and get feedback) and had posted four chapters of a book she had started. She was discouraged by the response. This is infuriating to me. There is a stage where positive-only critiques are the only feedback a writer should be getting and a thirteen-year-old taking a stab at a first book is in that stage. So I wrote her a letter on break and gave it to her dad to give her. I basically told her she was the only person who could give value to the work she was doing and to let her own sense of having fun be her guide. She must have appreciated it because she sent a message through her dad thanking me but she told him she’d more just run out of ideas and that was why she got discouraged. Oh, ideas! That would have been a different letter.

What works best for the most people is to write on a schedule. Some might do well writing only when inspired but most of us would have pretty bleak writing lives to look back on if we always waited for inspiration. After I finished the first draft of Flowers on Concrete, I knew my prose needed improved. I set out to fill a notebook page every day. I walked to either my favorite coffee shop on Pike street in Seattle or to Charlie’s for a beer, almost panicky most nights, and wrote without ideas. I never expected anything but almost always surprised myself with the kernel of something or at least one line. In two years, I missed six or seven days. I still worry about ideas coming but that habit of sitting down and confronting the blank page was instilled. The earth doesn’t always move but I still always surprise myself with a line here or there. Of course, I wouldn’t tell a thirteen-year-old to write on a schedule. What I would tell her is, when she’s in the mood to write, to sit down with a pen and a blank page (or a laptop or her gizmo of choice), let go of her worry of coming up with something good or even of coming up with something, and just concentrate on enjoying the time and having fun. I would tell her to follow her interest.

A Family Named

I started my fourth “literary” or as I prefer non-genre novel in 2010 with an idea that served its purpose and then not only didn’t end up in the book but was never even written. This would be the first book or even story I wrote that featured primarily the dynamics within a family. So I knew that family would have to be named. Names, for me, have little importance. I find ones that feel right and then I stop thinking about them. Some writers would say names are important, which just means names are important to those writers. I generally hit on names that feel “right” right out of the gate and I’m onto thinking about what feels important to me, as a writer, because that’s the only gauge I have for feeling like I’m on the right path.

The last change I made to Flowers on Concrete was the main character’s name. I came out of the gate without one and substituted “Jimmy” because I thought that name posed no risk of attachment. Then I felt the risk of attachment pulling, so I changed it to Chris. Readers of the novel might recognize “Chris” as the name on Sean’s nametag when Trey first meets him while Sean’s working, because Sean would never wear a nametag with his name on it, but has no trouble wearing a nametag with a fake name everyone will read and think is his real name, because he’s Sean. Inside jokes of this sort, that only me and readers of early drafts would get, are dangerously tempting and should be avoided unless they’re harmless so when they’re harmless, indulge away! I thought of Trey as the main character’s name because “Trey” strikes me as a name that sounds short for something though often enough it’s not, which seemed fitting for a character who interfaces with his social circle without seeming to recognize his participation in that circle. But mostly as soon as I thought of it Trey felt “right” and I’ve never questioned it since.

So for this book I used underlines where the family’s last name would go and waited for a name to feel “right.” None did. And now, on the verge of having a readable draft ready to print, one needed to. I’ve taken multiple walks through the cemetery reading graves and pondering possible names. I felt like I was forcing it so I kept putting it off. Today I thought of one. If you’re reading this expecting this blog to end with what it is, I’m sorry. I’m not going to say because it wouldn’t mean anything. It’s just a name. It’s not like the dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski that ties the book together. It has perhaps a touch of meaning in the context of the novel but mostly it does its job of being the name of the family and drawing little to no attention to itself. I thought of it and it just felt “right” and I don’t expect to think about it again.

I desperately hope, one day, the novel is available for people to read and you’ll know the name then. If I’ve annoyed you with this post, please just ask and I can tell you the name privately but really, I promise, it wouldn’t be a highlight of your day. Flowers on Concrete, my first novel, is available at Amazon, in paperback and as an Ebook. Amazon has a convenient feature where you can read the opening few chapters to get a sense of whether or not the book appeals to you. If it does, you can purchase one there or purchase one from me. Thank you for reading.

15 Years, Waiting Still

I was in discussions for one of my stories to appear in print in a literary journal but they fell through. I won’t say which one, in case something I leave here is construed as negative. I’m grateful for the careful look and am encouraged by the positive feedback. Glad the story was liked.

I saw it coming a mile away. He liked the story but didn’t love it. He thought it needed something. He had trouble saying just what that something was. When I offered exclusive consideration, he agreed to take more time with it. I was more nervous than excited because he talked vaguely about making the story “better” but the word I heard was “different.” The story captured his imagination but it, for him, fell short of being just right. My suspicion was he would return to it with his vague idea of what it should be and want either to change it into that or pass. I half hoped for, I’m half relieved I got, the second.

I don’t think I’m a great writer, some days I don’t even think I’m a good one, but I like the balance I’ve struck between being willing to listen to feedback and implement it to get better but always falling back on my vision and ignoring feedback that doesn’t speak to me. Tough to be told a story will probably be a fit for an upcoming issue and have that turn into a pass, but I’m more encouraged than discouraged. This is a business of disappointment. They’re professionals who are used to that and assume you are too. Fortunately, I am. And he was kind enough to send a line edit, which I haven’t looked at yet but which is worth gold because it will do what, in my opinion, is the only value of feedback, it will help me see my story from a fresh perspective.

My Life Needs A Concordance

My friend showed me a concordance. His was on his phone and he showed me how he could tap words from the Bible and learn all about the origin word. He showed me how the same word in one specific passage had two different meanings, which significantly affected the meaning of the passage, but I’ll leave that story for him to tell. I immediately wondered if The Stranger had a concordance. The Stranger by Albert Camus is my favorite novel. Originally written in French, I’ve thought about learning French just to read that novel in the original language. (That thought is as far as that plan progressed.) What nuances are lost in translation?

In the book, the main character kills an Arab. If you don’t know killing an Arab in that time and place wasn’t considered as bad a crime as killing any other person, you’ll probably get that as the story progresses, but if you fail to let go of your sense that it is as bad, you won’t fully get the rest of the book.

Back when Obama was either trying to get the Affordable Care Act passed or shortly after when the Republicans were on their mission to hurry up and repeal it before Americans figured out how desperately we needed it (I’ve spent my adult life with a “pre-existing condition” due to a surgery I had when a minor, so I know firsthand how desperately America needed The Affordable Care Act. Insurance companies screening out sick people to boost profits is as repugnant as it should sound and never should have been allowed. All this becomes important for anyone who keeps reading.), an old man I worked with approached me wanting to celebrate the voting in of one of the obstructionist Republicans. He figured out quickly I was a proponent, and an informed one, of Obamacare. (Although at that time I was still trying to keep people calling it The Affordable Care Act.) At one point, appealing to the fear of socialized medicine he assumed everyone shared, he said, “Did you know in Canada, if you’re over the age of fifty and you have cancer, they just send you home to die?”

I said, “That’s an outright lie.” And it was. The discussion didn’t get ugly but it got heated. I don’t think we ever spoke again, though we’d never really spoken before then either. We both made a point of nodding to each other nearly every time we crossed paths, after that. Then he quit a few months later.

Here’s where a concordance might have come in handy. I could have tapped a speech bubble of what he’s said and discovered that wasn’t a lie, not from him. I could have dug into that man’s history and probably found someone who’d worked his whole life within a system. And now that he’d played by the rules, he had his “Cadillac Coverage” and felt he was at an age where any day now he might need it. So he was scared, which made him highly susceptible to manipulation. And there were people telling him lies he believed. A concordance would have told me all that.

During my friend and I’s talk, we concluded that there weren’t going to be many books where making a concordance for them would be practical. There will probably never be a concordance for The Stranger. There will certainly never be one for life, but like The Stranger, which if you open up and read without that assumption that the Arab was interchangeable with any other person, will show you what you need to know to get the book, if we open up in life and in our relationships with people, if we simply keep in mind they’re coming from some other set of experiences, if we listen, they’ll show us what we need to know to connect with them. It only occurs to me while writing this years later that man was married and that his wife might have had cancer. Knowing that wouldn’t have stopped me from defending Obamacare in that discussion but it would have changed my approach.

Whoever reads this blog must worry that I agonize over past events to an unhealthy extent. I would disagree. I consider it an occupational hazard or maybe reward. Usually these are moments I haven’t thought about in a while and writing gives me a chance to pull them back out and look at them from another perspective. Then ideally I can apply what I learned in future interactions with people, which is probably as close as I could get to utilizing a concordance in my life.

Lisa Meets the Bad Guy in Hibernation

Hibernation was a unique writing experience, for me, because from the initial idea through to the final scene I was figuring the story out page by page. Some writers just call that writing, but I usually work ahead. I have ideas for where I’m going and even have future portions sketched if not written. All I knew with Hibernation was that I had a Bad Guy, a looter my heroine and her dog would have some run in with, but my instinct was to hint at it and create a slow build of tension.

Then I recalled a night when my writing group met while we were critiquing each other’s novels. In Flowers on Concrete, tensions were rising between Trey and Sean, but I admittedly wasn’t hurrying to bring that tension to a head. And someone in the group pointed out that he was feeling impatient as a reader. I argued that our stories felt deceptively slow because we were reading short excerpts a week apart. The next week I turned in my next passage that contained the plot point I’d been building to, and he wrote something like—I still have the notes somewhere—“now I see the thinking that built to this.” But his was a valuable impression I kept in mind.

Cut to close to ten years later, writing Hibernation I had Lisa sledding in her yard with her for-now dog, Shaggy, intending to introduce her to the bad guy of the story. My instinct was to start with her finding his footprints, but I recognized that as the slow build approach. What if she finds his footprints and then he’s there?

So I had them meet. Here the excerpt picks up after their first talk. Lisa and Shaggy get caught following after him.

Shaggy sometimes left the path to sniff at unfamiliar bushes and trees. When he barked, Lisa came over and spoke to him in a soothing voice and patted him and soon he stopped barking. As if he picked up from Lisa that they were on a secret mission. The man appeared between the trees in the distance periodically, but Lisa focused on the shoe prints. She was lulled into plodding after them, her two steps for every one of his, and then they ended. They turned and vanished behind a shed in the back of someone’s yard. Lisa stopped and put a hand in Shaggy’s furry neck to hold him still. He was panting heavily, and Lisa’s heart was beating fast. Past the shed, the snow was a smooth blanket of white. The tracks didn’t go any farther.
The man swung out from behind the shed like a door opening, or like one closing, and faced them. “Taking your dog for a walk? Your dog who might bite but might not?”

Lisa had come almost to the edge of the shed, and the way the man swung out he was standing close enough that she could reach out and grab him. Well, she wasn’t planning that! But if she was close enough to grab him then he was close enough to grab her. “He especially might bite,” Lisa said. “He’s protective of me.”

Lisa didn’t expect this to scare the man. Shaggy’s friendly face and wagging tail weren’t very scary, but then Lisa felt the muscles under his fur where she had her hand tense and ripple and a low rumbling sound came from him. Lisa glanced down and saw something she had never seen: Shaggy’s teeth. His lips curled up over them and they looked scary.

The man didn’t move back, but he had tensed up, too. Shaggy definitely had his attention. Lisa squeezed Shaggy’s fur tight. The man took a step back. “You’re with your dad then? When you choose a side, you choose against a side. Remember to tell him what I told you.” The man backed away, keeping his eyes on Shaggy for a few more steps. Then he turned around but kept looking back as he walked on. Shaggy’s low growl continued to pulse. Lisa didn’t move until the man was a full yard away and then she pet her hand all the way through Shaggy’s fur, from his neck to above his tail, where he loved to be scratched. She scratched him there with her gloved fingers. Shaggy turned toward her, his mouth covering his teeth. The mysterious growl gone. His cute face looked up at her and he panted playfully. He didn’t even seem to remember he’d just saved Lisa.

Hibernation is available for purchase, please follow the link below for ordering information. Thank you for your interest.