Cardboard Cutouts- how to build an empty world with exhaustion and caffeine

1 08 2011

First, I want to thank writer and secret editor Sue Bursztynski, one of the unsung slush heroes of the world. She knows why!

Some of you that have followed me for awhile will know that I have had many careers and that for a time I worked with signs. Not the cool signs as in “…of the Apocalypse,” but the more mundane “exit 66” and “Speed Limit 55” type. If you have ever driven through Tennessee or Georgia on an interstate for more than an hour the odds are good, better than even, that you have read my work. (I suppose in some ways I am actually read by millions, hmmm). It was very difficult work. An extruded panel aluminum sign of the type that hangs over multi-lane highways weighs about 8 pounds a square foot and many of them are 400 even 600 square feet. Large cranes, fast moving traffic, wind-my god the wind- and all of it performed at night with little or no sleep. You can’t shut the interstate down to hang a sign and I have spent many sleepless nights dangling from a tether waiting for the gusts to die down as semi-trucks roared a yard beneath my feet. I’ve tied myself to steel cross struts and taken cat naps only to awaken from a dream that I am falling to discover I am falling. Terrible, mind numbing labor- steel, concrete, structures, signs, repeat.

There was a project once, right out of the heart of Knoxville, a spur of I-275 and I-640 that had to be widened for increased traffic flow when the main I-40 bridge was to be torn down and rebuilt the following year. I was on that project for a year, living with cretins and ex-cons in a tumble down trailer less than two miles from Y-12 the place that purified the uranium 238 for the Manhattan Project.  It was a 60 million dollar job and tight against the deadline with a 30k a day penalty for missing the finish. Signs go up last, so if you hold the job up the general contractor is usually quite happy to share in the damages. My boss, god bless his tired ass, turned the job over to me to bring it home. I was given a man of my choice and sent back to Knoxville with two weeks to complete the punch list, the details- you know, that’s where the Devil lives. The list was 24 items when I arrived with 14 days until we began liquidated damages. The engineers and inspectors had my list up to 117 items with 7 days to go. I had put in over 125 hours the first week, more the second. We called the cavalry in- every available man. There was  moment- about three in the morning- when I was sitting on a concrete barrier wall on a hill overlooking a Knoxville slum and a hot dog factory that filled the valley with the smell of, well, hot dogs, and above it all was a tall black hill with a seven hundred foot cell tower perched on top. I imagined that the world before me was some sort of tiny asteroid, domed and self contained and that the tower was the leading array of some vast starship that was cresting the edge of our little confinement. Then, with a trick of exhaustion, caffeine and over the counter speed, the world around me turned into cardboard. I lost all sense of perspective. Tiny row houses half a mile away seemed to be little paper cutouts sandwiched onto the black cardboard hill, all close at hand, all small and cunning with forced perspective. I had spent a year on that hill and in that valley without ever stepping off of the elevated highway that ran through them. To me, all the places around it were nothing more than two dimensional props. They were not places where lives took place, where dramas and tragedy, and rare comedy occurred all in the sloshing mix of life. These were set pieces. I had spent a year in a place and I knew less about it than the bathroom of the gas station we always refueled at on the way back to Nashville.

One night, while hanging these, I looked up and thought it read "don't fall."

I told a long story to make a simple point. The mind can fill in a lot of information for setting. You can leave a lot of blank spaces and your readers will do you many favors if you are careful with your details, but don’t ever think that you can pass off a cardboard cutout for a real place. The first one hundred pages of “Moby Dick” is nothing but description of ship and harbor with hardly a move toward the plot line and I’ve heard complaints about that, but as someone once told me, “ever heard of atmosphere?”

Even in the world you- we- live in, it is easy to gloss over the details, to fill in the blank, cardboard spaces between the places our lives actually happen with pantomime and mannequins, but there is life there and it is inextricably linked to you, even if it is just a valley you pass through. Take your time to imagine the details, the other three sides to the house. Even if you never put a word of it in your work, the gravity of its existence will help guide you.

I’m done feeling philosophical for today, but I remembered it and what’s the point of writing this thing if I can’t indulge myself?

Next Up: Some news from the markets and further down the line (not much further) an interview with one of my favorite authors- Elizabeth Bear!

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