Posts Tagged writing about writing

The Old Dopamine Peddler

This is inspired by what Hank Green said about picking the right addiction just after singing about Tetris on JoCo Cruise Crazy 4. Appropriately, it can be sung to the Tetris tune (a.k.a. Korobeiniki, meaning Peddlers) though it is modeled more closely on Kobi LaCroix’s ‘The Peddler: A Half-Assed Translation’ than on any other version.

Open your mind and I know you will find that its system’s designed for times of rest.
You must know there are places you go when the throes of adulthood get you stressed.

Tics of our mental relief, incrementally pouring cement in between life’s bricks.
Kicks you spurn, they protect you from burnout, without them we’d turn out lunatics.

Drugs, TV or Tetris fun.
Learn, create, or get this done.

When willpower fails you, addiction assails you, and sometimes it ails you but there’s a way
to decide which addiction will guide you; when will won’t provide, you have a say.

Low-power moments with something to show for them, that’s how a grown-up can function well.
Something easy that won’t just delete, so it slowly accretes your world’s oyster shell.

Flappy Bird will do you wrong.
Add more words to parody song.

Not films of Fluffy, watch How To Make Stuff, and make making the puff you’re addicted to.
When at rest, read of skills that impressed, and you will find the best are afflicted too.

New bricks are falling; you can’t fit it all in; you may drop the ball into yawning gaps.
Do it too much, you won’t get to do much, but don’t over-rue such a paltry lapse.

Climb this twelve-step staircase to
time that will no longer waste you.

Post a creation of procrastination,  you’ll find validation to keep you keen.
Reinforce, don’t forget to be awesome, endorse with the force of dopamine.


(Reinforce, don’t forget to be awesome, of course that’s endorsed by the brothers Green.)

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Ten Minutes A Day (Live on JoCo Cruise Crazy)

I recited a revised version of Ten Minutes a Day at the JoCo Cruise Crazy 4 open mic, because it’s about how to start doing the things you’re passionate about when you’re not in a position to literally quit your job like all these JoCo cruisers did. I introduced it with some quotes from John Hodgman from this video, which can be seen with more context in the JoCo Cruise Crazy 2 Q&A.

Here are the words I intended to say:

Ten minutes a day:
that’s all you need
to realise your dreams —
not as hard as it seems!
Ten minutes can always be freed.

Ten minutes a day,
a sixth of a clock,
to keep up your writing,
the forced march providing
the force to march through writers’ block.

Ten minutes a day
can’t be denied,
to read through your bookshelf
and castle your rook self,
with culture of kings by your side.

Ten minutes a day,
one day at a time.
To inch past the worst of it,
combat inertia that
nothing excuses, must try if it uses just

ten minutes a day.
Don’t you forget
to learn a new language:
word spread, grammar sandwich.
Ten minutes to keep your tongue wet.

Ten minutes a day,
not big amounts,
to work on your fitness;
don’t tire yourself witless,
but even a small workout counts.

Ten minutes a day,
on or offline
to maintain your friendships;
accept rain, and send drips,
as long as it’s something, it’s fine.

Ten minutes a day —
find it somehow!
Deny social network fun;
finally get work done.
You’ve got all these things to make, it’s really not hard to take

ten minutes a day.
That’s all you do.
To try meditation —
it’s self-re-creation!
You have to take some time for you!

Ten minutes a day;
it doesn’t take long
to tidy a tight space,
put junk in the right place,
and live with things where they belong.

Ten minutes a day;
put down those chores
to teach well your baby;
remember that maybe
its life will be bigger than yours.

Ten minutes a day?
I can do that!
Grab life while I’m alive!
Did all the things, and I’ve
got what I’m leaping for now,
and I’m sleeping for

ten minutes a day.
That’s all I need. [yawn]
Night dreams are boring,
my real dreams are [sound of snoring]

The main change since the last version of this poem is that I replaced ‘if you’ve spread spores’ with ‘put down those chores’ and moved that stanza nearer the conflicting advice to tidy up, because in the end it’s all about conflicting advice. The ‘spores’ line always seemed like grhyme scraped off the bottom of a barrel anyway. Also, people might take offense at my likening parents to fungi (not that there’s anything wrong with fungi), and if they’re going to take offense at my views on reproduction, I’d rather they react to The Family Tradition.

I’d recited an earlier version of this at an open mic in Geneva, which went well: my stated goal for that performance was to make the audience yawn, and I succeeded. But I was nervous that people would think it was over when it wasn’t, so I started the last few lines while people were still laughing too loudly about the previous ones to hear me. It’s a good problem to have, I guess. So my goal on the cruise, aside from getting all the words right (I got six words wrong, but they weren’t the most important ones, and I don’t remember whether ‘sleep dreams’ instead of ‘night dreams’ was a mistake or a premeditated improvement) not hesitating or rushing too much, and not dropping entire lines or displaying as much high rising terminal as I did at the last JCCC open mic, was to wait until the laughter died down before continuing with the last few lines. I succeeded! Achievement unlocked: elementary stagecraft.

My dictionary says that ‘stagecraft’ doesn’t mean what I thought it meant, but I’m sticking with it because ‘stagecraft’ is only two letters away from ‘spacecraft’. It’s a pretty cool thing to have. On the subject of spacecraft, I highly recommend seeing Atlantis on display at Kennedy Space Center; the way they show it to you is great. I’ll put up my video of it later.

While practising the poem, I got pretty self-conscious about the corny/overwrought rhymes, and wondered whether it was worth wading through them to get to the laugh line. Oh well: stagecraft! Jack Conte from Pomplamoose was hosting the open mic, and I think he is made of stagecraft. Hank Green was also hosting, but he made it pretty clear that he is made mostly of quarks. Hank Green, we’re not so different, you and I.

A few people who heard this poem at open mic have told me they were inspired by it, and are making progress on various projects because of it, and that’s great. But when I wrote this it was out of frustration with the idea. It always takes more than ten minutes, and there are always other things to do in the day, and if I try to do more than a few of these ‘ten minute’ things there isn’t enough time for sleep. Maybe I need to be stricter about stopping when the time’s up no matter whether I feel like doing more or am still waiting for my nearly-five-year-old Mac Ayu to let me start. I put in the ‘teach well your baby’ stanza almost as a joke, because I’m amazed that people with children have time and energy to do anything else at all, and yet they are told to spend just that wafer-thin amount of extra time doing each of several conflicting things to raise their children better, as well as all the other things. If you really only have ten minutes a day for a child, consider spending them on contraception.

The spontaneous Mr. Creosote reference in the last paragraph made me think of this extra stanza:

Ten minutes a day:
it’s just wafer-thin!
To add to your total,
create, Creosotal!
Conserve it, but don’t hold it in.

Which is kind of gross and kind of negative, but if you have something you want to create, and you just spew out whatever you can in ten minutes, it’s better than forgetting about it or using up mental energy fretting about forgetting it. If time is your nemesis, fight it with emesis.

I’ll leave you with the much prettier words of Jonathan Coulton and Hank Green: There isn’t time and space to do it all, so pick the right addiction.

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Eight of Hearts: Ten Minutes a Day

Ten minutes a day,At the wake-up bell in the morning you must get out of bed and put on your clothes.
that’s all you need
to realise your dreams —
not as hard as it seems.
Ten minutes can always be freed.

Ten minutes a day,
a sixth of a clock,
to keep up your writing,
its forced march providing
a force to march through writer’s block.

Ten minutes a day
can’t be denied,
to read through your bookshelf
and castle your rook self
with culture of kings by your side.

Ten minutes a day,
one day at a time,
to inch past the worst of it,
combat inertia that
nothing excuses; must try if it uses just

ten minutes a day,
don’t you forget,
to learn a new language:
word spread, grammar sandwich.
Ten minutes to keep your tongue wet.

Ten minutes a day
(if you’ve spread spores)
to teach well your baby;
remember that maybe
its life will be bigger than yours.

Ten minutes a day,
on- or offline,
to maintain your friendships,
accept rain and send drips;
as long as it’s something it’s fine.

Ten minutes a day —
find it somehow.
Forego social network fun,
finally get work done.
You’ve got all these things to make, it’s really not hard to take

ten minutes a day.
That’s all you do
to try meditation
and self re-creation;
you have to take some time for you.

Ten minutes a day —
it doesn’t take long
to tidy a tight space,
put junk in the right place;
and live with things where they belong.

Ten minutes a day,
not big amounts
to work on your fitness;
don’t tire yourself witless,
but even a small workout counts.

Ten minutes a day?
I can do that!
Grab life while I’m alive,
did all the things and I’ve
got what I’m leaping for now, and I’m sleeping for

ten minutes a day.
That’s all I need. [yawn]
Night dreams are boring;
my real dreams are [sound of snoring]
[snoring continues]

This is another one of those poems which has a tune in my head, and I had a hard time reading it without the tune to see if there were any lapses in rhythm the tune was forgiving. I fear I this may have caused me to write a terrible song and mediocre poem instead of a good poem. But I like it anyway. I might have to make a robot choir recording of it. It even has guitar bits after the second line of each stanza, which will be a fun challenge to record using only my MIDI keyboard and my vague suspicion that things called chords are involved.

I’ve been thinking about this one for several weeks, every so often adding something to the list of things that people say we should spend some negligible and underestimated amount of time on every day. It wasn’t really inspired by that card, and I still haven’t even tidied up my cards since the cruise. On the subject of the cruise, and people telling us to write every day, here’s my video recording of the live episode of the Nerdist Writers Panel recorded on JoCo Cruise Crazy 3.

It might be nice if I changed ‘ten minutes’ to either ‘five minutes’ or ‘one hour’ (‘hour’ pronounced as two syllables) so that I could arrange the first twelve stanzas around a clock and put the last one somewhere where there isn’t time for it, but I prefer the sound of ‘ten minutes’. I was thinking of making it zigzag across the page, three stanzas wide, but that would be pretty gratuitous.

I can consistently introduce and read this one in under three minutes, so I might read or recite it at the poetry open mic at ICV Arcade on the 31st. Let’s see if I can memorise it. My goal will be to make the audience yawn, and with that as a goal I don’t think it’s possible to fail. I bet you’re yawning already, so I’ll stop this now.


I changed some of the words. It originally went:

to try social network fun,
or you could get work done.

but who ever advises people to use social networks more? Apart from to maintain your friendships, of course, but conflicting interests is what this poem is about. Also, I used to have ‘for’ instead of ‘but’ about the small workout counting. I’m thinking about ‘a’ to ‘the’ in the fourth line of the second stanza.

Further Addendum: I recited this at open mic, and lots of people said they liked it, and I wish I could have said the same to the other poets there but I am not good enough at absorbing poetry and memorising faces and attaching the two all at the same time. I have some ideas for illustrations which could turn this poem into a small picture book or large comic strip for people who are told they’re too old for Dr. Seuss, and maybe aren’t yet old enough to realise they’re not. It would also be used for a halfhearted slide-show-style music video when I eventually teach my robot choir to sing this. I’m not sure whether I should attempt to draw it myself using stick figures, or commission someone else to do it. I’m starting to think it would be fun to have merch to shill, even if it the profit would be inevitably approaching zero from one side or the other. I have a day job so I can do that if I want. I enjoyed the ego boost when the occasional person would buy my shareware in the late 90s, and I still have the T-shirts and most of the cheques (the payments were processed by a US company, so they actually used cheques, even though it was almost the 21st Century.) But I won’t start on any of that until I’ve finished the King of Hearts.

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Nine of Diamonds: Willpower Zero (based on a true story)

Bladder: Go to the toilet.

Can’t. Sleepy.

Bladder: Go to the toilet.

Can’t. Sleepy.

Free will: Well sleep then.

Can’t. Bladder full.

Free will: Well you may as well check the internet on your iPad then.

Can’t. Sleepy.

Free will: Come on. It’s the internet. You like that.


Bladder: Go to the toilet.

Can’t. Internet.

Free will: You should think about the thing you were going to write.

Can’t. Bladder full.

iPad: Shall we play a game?


Bladder: Go to the toilet.

Can’t. Game.

Bladder: Go to the toilet. Seriously.


iPad: Play again?


Bladder: Go to the toilet!

Can’t. Game.

Free will: You really have to get cracking on that writing, and the laundry…

Can’t. Game.

Bladder: Are you listening to me? It’s been an hour already! Go to the toilet!


iPad: Play again?


Bladder: If you don’t go to the toilet soon I’m going to wet the bed and blame it on you.


Free will: So about that writing…

Can’t. Toilet.

Free will: Just go to the computer when you’re done, alright?


Free will: So how about a first line?

Can’t. Internet.

Legs: We’re cold. Can haz pants?

Can’t. Internet.

Free Will: So we were thinking about maybe writing about encoding and decoding of emotion in poetry…

Can’t. Cold legs.

Stomach: I don’t want to be rude or anything, but once you’ve got Legs sorted out, could we maybe eat breakfast?

Can’t. Internet.

Clock: Hey, it’s almost time to publish some writing.

Can’t. Not enough time.

Free will: But you could start…

Can’t. Cold legs.

Internet: Hey! You have a Kiva repayment. Let’s make a loan with it!


Free will: Well, at least we got something good done. But seriously, you’d rather sit there cold, hungry and pantsless than write?

Can’t write. Cold and hungry.

Legs: If pants are not your thing, how about a nice warm shower?

Can’t. Internet.

Legs: Please?


Internet: Hey, your friend says hi!

Tell her I have to take a shower.

Internet: She says she’s being lazy too! Oh, and she wanted to talk to you about that trip to the UK…


Legs: Uh… you can’t feel us any more, but we’re still here.

Free will: When you’re done with that, could we get back to the computer and actually write something?


Legs: Thanks for the shower! Now let’s get some pants on before we get cold again.

Can’t. Internet.

Stomach: Hey, I’m being patient and all, but have you finished with Legs yet? We could have lunch.

Can’t. Naked.

Legs: I think the pants are in the bedroom. We’ll take you there if you like.


iPad: Play again?


Free will: Uh… could you at least open the notepad on the iPad?

Can’t. Game.

Legs: We’re getting cold. How about those pants?

Can’t. Game.

Free will: You know, there’s a shiny new encyclopedia of poetics on the floor just there…

Can’t. Legs cold.

Free will: And while Legs are going on about pants, you know you need to do laundry before going to the UK, right?

Can’t. Game.

Legs: We’re getting really cold here! They don’t have to be clean pants. We won’t tell.


iPad: Play again?


Stomach: Hey, can you just do as Legs says so we can have afternoon tea? I don’t ask for much; just an apple will do.

Can’t. Game.

Stomach: Come on. An apple. You like apples. They’re like iPads but edible.


Legs: Us first!


Free will: Okay, now that you’ve eaten something, how about you gather up the dirty laundry and you can write something while it’s in the machine.

Can’t. Internet.

Stomach: Hey, thanks for the apple. Can I have another?

Can’t. Free will wants me for something.

Free will: Okay, so you’re going to gather up the laundry?


Free will: Great! Now we just need to take the laundry downstairs and put it in the machine.


Internet: Hey! Your other friend says hi.

Tell him I said hi.

Free will: You’re still going to take the laundry downstairs, right?

Can’t. Chatting.

Stomach: I was lying before. An apple isn’t really enough. Can I have another?


Free will: This guy’s not saying anything important. How about we do the laundry?

Can’t. Eating.

Free will: How about now?


Free will: Great! Now let’s start writing.

Can’t. Internet.

Internet: Hey, remember how you said you’d go vegan for a day for that guy’s wife’s birthday? This could be the day.


Stomach: You know that means cooking something, not just stopping at two apples, right?


Free will: You could find a nice vegan restaurant after the laundry’s finished, and write something while you’re eating. You know you like writing in restaurants.


Stomach: But I’m hungry now! Cook something!

Can’t. Internet.

Stomach: Really? Look, just stick some stuff in a pot and you can look at the internet while you’re waiting.


Clock: Hey, it’s time to get the laundry out of the machine.

Can’t. Cooking.

Clock: Hey, it’s time to get the laundry out of the machine.


Free Will: Okay, so now hurry up and hang the laundry up so we can get on with this writing thing.

Can’t. Hungry. Cooking.

Stomach: Is it dinner time yet?
Clock: No
Stomach: How about now?
Clock: Yes
Stomach: Hey, dinner’s ready! Give me some dinner!

Can’t. Internet.

Stomach: But it’s ready! I’ve been talking with Legs and they’re okay with walking over to the stove to get it.

Okay. No need to growl at me.

Free will: Okay, so now can we write?

Can’t. Eating.

Free will: Well could we watch the videos of that concert so you can upload them?


Internet: Hey, look at me!


Free will: What about those videos, just while you’re eating?

Can’t. Finished eating.

Free will: Okay, so you’re going to write now? Or hang up the laundry?

Can’t. Internet.

Free will: Can you at least do some research on the internet so you’ll know more about the topics you’re going to write about?

Can’t. Stupid topics.

Free will: If we don’t get this done soon you’ll end up having to write about writing or something, and there’s no worse topic than that. You know, you could listen to things from the internet while you hang up the laundry. You could even jot down writing ideas on your iPad as you go.


iPad: Play again?


Free will: Hey, uh… laundry?


Stomach: I’m still hungry. Can I have another spoonful, and you can finish this later?


Internet: Hey, look at me!


Free will: Oh, the computer, eh? You’re going to write something?

Can’t. Not enough time.

Free will: Giving up already? Then you may as well go to bed.

Can’t. Internet.

Free Will: But you said there wasn’t enough time! If you’re going to waste time, you may as well go to bed.


Internet: Hey, another friend wants to talk to you about that trip to the UK!


Clock: Hey, it’s time to go to bed.

Can’t. Chatting.

Free will: Seriously, you should go to bed. Just end the conversation.


Free will: Now go to bed.

Can’t. Laundry.

Free will: Fine. Finish hanging the laundry.


Free will: Now go to bed?


Clock: Hey, it’s way past bedtime.

Can’t sleep. Computer clock too loud.

Free will: Go turn the sound off then.

Can’t. Sleepy.

Free will: Come on, you know you won’t be able to sleep if you leave it on anyway.


Internet: Hey, look at me!


Free will: No! Don’t look at that! Didn’t you hear the clock? Go back to bed.

Can’t. Internet.

Free will: Just stop looking at it.

Can’t. Sleepy.

Free will: Go to bed then!

Can’t. Internet.

Free will: That’s it. Go to bed or I’m leaving you.


The deadline elves were out in force this Sunday. It’s not usually quite this bad, and I did get a lot of things (other than writing) done on Saturday. In case you’re wondering why I’d planned to write about the encoding of emotion, ‘encoding’ and ’emotion’ were the entries closest to ‘Emmental’ in my Princeton Companion to Mathematics and newly-acquired Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. Neither had an entry for Emmental itself.

I got this pack of cards in Bern last week, where I filmed the videos I mentioned uploading. They are of a Susie Asado concert. I did upload a few of them (that’s why I left my computer awake and able to tell me the time late at night, instead of putting it to sleep) but haven’t written my usual overly-verbose video descriptions yet, so the videos are still private. I’ll put a link here soon. In the mean time, here is a video of the Bern bears.

The trip to the UK I mention is to follow Jonathan Coulton and Paul and Storm around on tour again. I probably won’t publish anything next Sunday, since I’ll be busy getting from one show to the next, but I will get the three of them to each pick a card, so I can write about all three of them when I get back, like I did last time.

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Ace of Diamonds: Swan Song (or: The Listeners)

singschwan“I need to relax,” said Bob to the boy behind the counter. He couldn’t have been older than than eighteen, but Bob was almost taken in by his efforts to appear more world-weary than Bob was. Spiked black hair, pale face, make-up embellishing a permanent scowl. He removed one of his earphones.


“I need some music to help me relax. Can you recommend anything?”

“Nature sounds,” said the boy, twitching his scowl toward the back of the shop, and replacing the earphone.

“Thanks,” Bob replied, already heading in the direction indicated.

He flipped through the CDs. Whalesong, birdsong, swansong… that seemed interesting. He took the swansong CD back to the counter. The boy raised an eyebrow.

Not sure how to interpret the gesture, Bob asked, “It’s relaxing, isn’t it?”

“Given a lot of people peace, yeah.” The boy gave a chortle just short enough to avoid looking happy.

Bob completed the purchase and went home, glad to finally have a weekend off. He made a cup of tea and put the CD in his computer to rip.

The moment he heard the first chord, his fingers slackened and dropped his tea into his lap. He ignored his scalded scrotum and listened intently. The music was beautiful beyond all physical pleasure or pain. The end of the piece gave him a deeper understanding of the expression la petite mort.

While he was still recovering, the next track began. Some were songs, some were instrumental, some were spoken word, some were animal sounds. All were astounding.

One, ‘Call of the Baiji’ was at the same time so joyous and so sorrowful that the opposing emotions flattened his soul into a single thread, a single thread taking its place in the centre of the universe, searching vainly for another. And before he could tie it to anything, it shrank away with the music, only to be rebuilt by the next track.

When the playback finished, Bob felt the acute pain of loss; a pain not just emotional, but physical. The renewed awareness of his burns was at first a welcome distraction from the pain of losing the music, but soon became an excruciating addition to it. He took painkillers and attempted some first aid, but the whole time he knew that he was only treating the smallest of his injuries. He needed to hear more swan song. He yanked some dry pants on and went back to the shop.


Bob almost collided with the music counter in his panicked run. “Hi,” he said, breathlessly.

“You want more?” said the boy.

“Yeah. Do you know where I can get some?”

“Come with me. I think I have some in the back.”

They entered a storage room at the back of the shop. Shelves of CDs and music equipment lined the walls. The boy riffled through a disordered box of CDs, pulling out not an album of swan song but a digital audio recorder.

“Do you sing?” he asked.

“Are you kidding me? I sound like a strangled labrador.”

The boy looked puzzled. “No you don’t. So what do you do? Write, play, dance…”

“Oh, I’m a computer programmer. But I write in my spare time, and I can… sort of almost play the ukulele.”

The boy put down his recorder and pressed a button.

“Tell me a story,” he said.

“What, now?”

“Yeah. You know that CD? I record them myself. I think you could be on the next one.”

“Oh, I don’t know… my writing’s not that good. I mean that stuff was…” Bob searched for words to describe his experience.

“Everyone has it in them. You just need the right circumstances.”

“The right…”

Bob was interrupted by the boy’s sudden movement, in which he deftly unsheathed a knife from his pocket and cut a gash in Bob’s shirt.

“Tell me a story.”

“You don’t mean… you don’t want… what do…” Bob blubbered. But the soulless gaze of the boy told him there was no point in arguing. He tried to think of a story idea.

His mind went blank. Every time he tried to advance he would hit that familiar invisible wall which his ideas were not sharp enough to push through.

The boy came closer, and held the knife teasingly against Bob’s sweating skin. Bob tried as hard as he could to remember what triggered those late night spurts of insistent inspiration. He found nothing, but kept pushing anyway.

As the knife pierced his skin, the wall smashed and let escape a thousand ideas; the ideas which he had rejected almost subconsciously before they had properly formed. His subconscious mind had nurtured these ideas into a thousand polished gems; he needed only pick the brightest. The light of inspiration chased away his fear, and he began to recite the story in a loud, confident voice.

His excitement over the story took over, and almost made him forget his situation. Despite his impatience to relate the brilliant ending, he somehow found the strength to continue telling the story at an even pace, with just the right amount of emotion in his voice, just the right pauses to enhance the drama. This was surely his finest work.

The buzz of revealing the final plot twist was so intense that he barely felt the knife plunging into his heart.


Bob nonchalantly fingered the bloodless hole in his chest. “Am I dead?” he asked the boy, pushing his index finger into the hole and probing the smooth, motionless chambers of his heart.

“You’re a listener now. Go listen.”

Bob understood. A world of swan song was his to liberate.

The boy took a digital audio recorder from the shelf and handed it to him. “We can trade recordings,” he said. “No need to waste’em.”

With that, he led Bob back into the shop, and went through the charade of selling Bob the recorder.

Bob went by his ex-wife’s house on the way home. He couldn’t remember why they had decided to have children, why he had taught his seven-year-old son to play ukulele. But the reason seemed obvious enough.

“Heya, Tam,” he said as she answered the door.

“Oh, hi, Bob. I wasn’t expecting you,” she said, adding awkwardly, “Is everything okay? You look ill.”

“I thought I’d take Jason out.”

Jason ran to the door, excited, but stopped and clung to his mother’s leg when he saw his father’s face.

“Mum, what’s wrong with Dad?”

Bob tried to remember how to smile. “Nothing’s wrong, Jase! Wanna come have ice cream? I’ll teach you another song on the uke.”

Jason perked up at this, and fetched his ukulele. He followed Bob to the car, looking back questioningly at his mother a few times.

Bob drove home, and led Jason into the living room.

“How about you play something for me?” he asked his son.

“Already? You said we’d have ice cream!”

“Sit there,” Bob said, gesturing to an armchair. He headed into the kitchen.

He came back a few seconds later and set up his recorder on the coffee table. “Play something.”

“What should I play? Do I get ice cream afterwards?”

“Just make something up. Do your best.”

“I don’t feel like playing!” Jason whimpered.

Bob stood behind Jason and put a hand on his shoulder. With his other hand, he held a carving knife at his son’s neck.


Jason hesitantly began to play. He took a while to find the right notes, but eventually found something he liked. He played it louder, and began to sing. It was a song about unmet expectations, a song about desire, but most of all, it was a song about ice cream. Bob could not remember the taste of ice cream, but he lapped up the emotions in the song. The song’s end was unbearable; slitting his son’s throat wasn’t.

Jason’s head lolled forward when Bob dropped it. There was no lust for swan song to keep it moving.

Bob’s appetite was stronger than ever. He headed back to the music store to exchange his recording.


“What is this rubbish? This stuff is weak. He can barely play.”

“It sounded great to me.”

“Maybe if you’re still a little warm in the liver. Real listeners won’t get any nourishment from this. There must’ve been ninety years left in him, squeezed out in these two minutes, but it’s useless if he hasn’t learnt what to do with it. This is waste heat.”

Bob soon began to understand what the boy meant. As his body threatened to decay, mediocre swan song no longer filled him the way it had. He became an expert at picking performers. Old enough to have the technical skill to express their talents, but not so old that the execution was hampered by an ageing body. Old enough to appreciate life, but not so old that there was not much left of it to lose.

Humans had more appealing swan songs than animals, but there was nothing more satisfying than hearing the swan song of the last of a species. It was not easy to send a species to extinction by himself, but Bob soon came to recognise the listeners threaded throughout society, manipulating humans into destroying habitats or directly killing key animals. It was a silent teamwork; each working selfishly towards the same goal.

He experimented with more visual swan songs, but found that the buzz from a fine painting was too concentrated in the short time after the piece was completed; a sharp peak of pleasure painfully piercing him, and leaving him even more desperate. Listeners were better off listening.

Eventually he could not obtain fresh swan song often enough to satisfy his cravings. He listened to other listeners’ recordings almost constantly. They were not quite as fulfilling as live death; even on video, many subtleties could not be captured. But they kept him going.

His appetite gradually outgrew the steady stream of swan song fed into his ears. It became more and more difficult to concentrate on the steps needed to record new material. After one session, he realised that he had neglected to stock up on recordings to listen to. He sped to the music store with his recorder, not even stopping to listen to the pedestrians he hit on the way.


“There’s nothing on here,” said the boy. Bob heard the recording he was listening to come to an end. He had no more.

“I recorded a successful blues guitarist.”

“There’s nothing on here. Did you press record?”

If he had had any of his own emotions left to feel, Bob would have been dismayed by his oversight. Instead, he answered tonelessly, “I need more. Lend me some until I get you a proper recording.”

The boy stared at him while his need for swan song accumulated.

“I have something,” he said. He brought a single CD from the storeroom.

Bob took it without comment, and raced home.


Bob fumbled as he put the CD into the slot. It was getting harder to fight the postmortem spasms. Finally he managed to press play, and he lay back in his armchair to enjoy his fix.

His own voice tickled him through his earphones. Muscles galvanised by the shock, he sat up straight and quivered at the opening lines.

The story faded into the background. He remembered feeling his heart pounding in his intact chest. He remembered feeling the cold knife on the cool skin of his still-warm body. He remembered breathing, and how hard he had had to fight to breathe slowly enough to speak. He remembered the fear, not evaporated but transformed into an intense enjoyment of his remaining minutes. He remembered the moment the last of his heart went into the story, and the moment the knife went into his heart.

After that there were no more moments, just time, in steady, emotionless motion. Only borrowed moments distinguished it from complete stop. He had become nothing more than a leaking human-shaped balloon, inflated with the fading remains of others’ lives. As the CD finished playing, he punctured his hollow being and slumped forward. His story was over.

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Five of Diamonds: Countdown

5lavieI’m ninety eight years old, and I am dying.
I’ll do the things I still have time to do.
I’ll grab life and I’ll dance,
for I will not have the chance
to do the rest
before I rest
I knew that in advance.

I’m eighty eight years old, and I am dying.
I’ll do the things I never dared to do.
There’s still some room to grow,
so I won’t lie down below
scared to use,
afraid to lose
the things that soon will go.

I’m seventy eight years old, and I am dying.
I’ll be the me my elders never knew.
I’ll shatter expectations
of already dead relations
and they would die
to see that I
enjoy such deviations.

I’m sixty eight years old, and I am dying.
I’ll do the things I’ve learnt so well do to.
I’ll satisfy my hunger
to be a wisdom-monger;
refine the gold
of getting old
and glitter for the younger.

I’m fifty eight years old, and I am dying.
I’ll do the things I always wanted to.
Put the uniform away
and go outside and play
I’ve saved it up
Now giddy-up
It’s not a rainy day!

I’m forty eight years old, and I am dying.
I’ll do the things I came alive to do.
I won’t live in haste,
’cause there’s no time to waste
getting stressed
to be the best
to someone else’s taste.

I’m thirty eight years old, and I am dying.
I’ll do the things I really want to do.
My time will not be spent
to only pay the rent.
Find my groove
and make the move.
It’s time to reinvent.

I’m twenty eight years old, and I am dying.
I’ll do the things I don’t have time to do,
If I want to be a writer,
I’ll pull a near all-nighter
writing rot
of life’s garrotte,
the dead line pulling tighter.

I’m now eighteen years old, and I am dying.
I’ll do the things it interests me to do.
I’ve got some things to learn
and I will not miss a turn
bored to tears
by sev’ral years
of what they think will earn.

I’m only eight years old, and I am living.
I’ll do the things you show me how to do.
Show me what to do
so I can be like you,
so I’ll be free
to be like me.
Live long, live short, live true.

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Eight of Diamonds: The Village of Silver

Although many stories end up coming full circle, the first step is always finding a few good lines to lead into it. The steps are too steep for me to climb, I will wait and watch.

All the best pictures have canoes in them. As the boat left the wharf, they did not know that they would soon be the first victims of the biggest eruption in history. They used the clock tower to localise themselves in time and space. The people did not know that the tower would soon fall. It was big.

The butterfly said, “Some creatures are bigger than they have any right to be. The problem with rankings is that the first and second always crowd out the third. I am not going to react to that in the way you expect.”

The butterfly does not know what you have called him, he just lives.

The frog said, “I know a man who collects frogs. Hair brushed back to impress you, he has addled your brains, you no can no longer call yourselves human.

Why do you keep calling me a bull? I don’t wear armour and spikes to threaten you, but to protect myself. Standing on the stump of what was my home, I can’t help but wonder if there is any more of a future for those who destroyed it. After all their adventures, one diamond is still missing.”

A line of spikes separated the riches from the untamed sea. Many colours, reaching to the sky. Each stalk is topped with a permanent snowball. Scientists rushed to tend to the glowing backbone. The crowd rejoiced as they saw their work fall away.

Their neighbour was richer than they thought. A giant living diamond thrashed its way forward through the sea. A single female to perpetuate the genes of a thousand men.

And a gold-crazed fool said, “This is no more possible than a flower growing from another flower. I sent e-kisses over the internet before my first real kiss. I have two pillows, but there is no room for another in this bed.”

The trick in gathering treasure is to leave room for more. They got on like two flowers in a pod.

A village of silver, covered in white snow, one lasts and the other is precious.


Rearranging the components of your point does not make it any sharper.

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Two of Clubs: Pretender

This was inspired by my lack of time and Jeff MacDougall’s experiment with FourTrack.

Here‘s a recording of it sung by my Mac.

It’s getting far too close to the end,
I’ve got to write my weekly thing,
but I used up half the weekend
trying to teach my Mac to sing.

So I’ll do a Jeff MacDougall,
and I’ll write a hasty song.
I’ll get all my notes from Google,
and they’ll probably sound all wrong.

But there’s not a thing that I own
that could run FourTrack
’cause I don’t have an iPhone,
but I have a Mac


and I’ve got a MIDI keyboard
that I don’t know how to play.
I don’t know what on Earth’s a C chord,
But I can code C anyway.

I can’t even read a stave, man,
and I don’t know how to sing.
I’m a two of clubs, a caveman
who’s pretending to be king.

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Four of Clubs: The Devil’s Bedpost

devilsbedpostA cellphone vibrates ineffectually against unfeeling skin. One last rivulet of blood slowly oozes down the wall as it dries. The rest of the room is still.

The floor is littered with toiletries. Slivers of soap fissured by scratches. A quarter-full bottle of shampoo, open, ending a trail of shampoo drips. A toothpaste tube sliced open, with smears of blood over an almost invisibly thin layer of blue gel. A pool of cough syrup and blood surrounds a smashed bottle. A toothbrush tipped in blood lies next to the toilet.

A man lies back awkwardly on the toilet, head wedged between the cistern and the wall. His eyes do not see the gruesome manuscript scrawled over the white wall.

The writing starts in neat ridges of blue toothpaste:

I woke up in a winning mood. My birthday… and why not celebrate it? Getting old is a victory against death. I had no deadlines to meet, no reason to stay hunched over my keyboard, pouring my blood and sweat into a new story. I went for a walk by the lake to relax.

As I let my mind wander, pieces of a dream came back to me. The devil was at my bedside. Just a much darker shadow in the dark room. I knew it was him in the way you sometimes know things in dreams, a mixture of switching perspective and intuition. He told me that he would give me all the best cards. I remember thinking of all the movies I’d seen where people make deals with the devil. Somehow I knew before I asked that I would not have to give my soul in return… just sacrifice other souls somehow. That must have been when I woke up, or went into a deeper sleep.

It was just a dream, but it was a good enough excuse to ask some friends around for poker. I called Jack and we got together a posse. “Good to see you’ve decided to celebrate your birthday, you old bugger,” he said.

The evening started off badly, but soon I was wiping the floor with them. I knew they’d never let me win just because it was my birthday. It was all luck.

“Hey, you know it’s funny, I had a dream last night that the devil would give me good cards.”

“Well, you never had much of a soul to begin with,” Jack teased. “Speaking of souls, when are you going to write the world’s greatest horror novel?”

I smirked. “You know how I feel about horror.”

At this point, the narrative is obscured by soapy smudges, with smears of faeces. It continues in blood.

I felt suddenly very tired, so I took my winnings and went to bed, leaving my friends to finish their beers and let themselves out.

A loud thump woke me in the middle of the night, kick-starting a thumping headache. I was contemplating getting up to see what it was when I heard a voice.

“I hope you enjoyed your luck tonight,” it croaked.

“Who are you?” I demanded. “Is that you, Jack?”

“You know who I am.”

A chill went through me, followed by a wave of nausea. I thought I could see shadows shifting against the darkness.

“What do you want?”

“Do you remember the deeeeal?” said the voice in a permanent death rattle.

“There was no deal. That was a dream. I was just lu…”

I jumped as the voice interrupted me loudly. “I am not in the business of making dreams! We made a deal.”

“Okay, okay, whatever you want. You want my soul? I warn you, it’s not in tip-top shape.”

“Your pitiful soul already belongs to me, and I’m growing weary of keeping it alive. It’s time to put it to use.”

I tried to respond, but my mind and body were paralysed.

“You will win more souls over to the side of evil. Enough with your inspirational human interest stories,” He drew out human as though it were an insult. “You will write a horror story that will draw your readers to me through the one thing that truly interests them. Fear.”

“But th…” I cut off my own babbling when I found my mind had not caught up with my quivering lips. Far away, the church bells started to chime.

“It’s midnight,” said the voice, “You have until next midnight to write it, or else you die.” He was gone before the last chime was silent.

I lay still for a few minutes, unable to make my hand move to the light switch. Every slight noise made my body spasm with fear.

Eventually I managed to turn on the light. The shadows dispersed, and I was briefly reassured by the normality of my bedroom. I searched for evidence of the intruder. My relief was shattered when I saw his calling card. The four of clubs: the devil’s bedpost. Bad luck was in store.

I couldn’t sleep after that. But there was no use worrying. ‘I’m a professional writer,’ I told myself. ‘I can write whatever I’m assigned to write, for the right price.’ And this price was the ultimate. So I put my clothes back on, went to my desk and turned on my computer.

Nothing. No startup chime, no fidgeting hard disk. I riffled through my drawer for a pen. Found a red pen and scratched away at a scrap of paper, embossing without writing. I found five more pens; all were out of ink. A broken pencil and no sharpener. Finally, I found a marker which worked, and sat back down to begin writing.

The only ideas that came were more horribly clichéd than horrific. I’d not read much horror, but what I’d read was mostly a thick coating of gore over a flimsy excuse for a story… like pornography, but with gore instead of sex. I idly wondered whether I could replace one character in a porn film with a zombie and make a passable horror, but decided it would probably still be porn.

A sharp pain in my stomach brought back the real horror of the day. I dashed to the toilet, slammed the door shut and got to the toilet just in time to release a horrifying eruption of shit.

I felt a lot better after that. After waiting twenty minutes or so for aftershocks, I pulled my pants up and went to the door, realising what I’d done as I reached toward it. The inside handle had come off a few days before, and until I got around to replacing it, I had been leaving the door slightly ajar. Now it was firmly closed, and would not open without a handle. I poked around at the mechanism and managed to get a razor handle stuck in there.

There isn’t much room for a run-up in this bathroom, but I ran as fast as I could into the door. At the last moment I repositioned myself to avoid being jabbed by the razor, and my head smashed into the door instead.

I regained consciousness some time later, head and shoulders throbbing. It took me a few minutes to remember where I was, and another to gather the sense to observe that the door was still firmly closed. I sat there, dazed, for I don’t know how long, until I was roused by the sound of Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. I hate that song, and that’s why I configured my cellphone to wake me up to it. There was no way I’d stay comfortably in bed with it playing.

8:30 already. I had to get out of this bathroom and start writing this damned horror story. And the solution was in my hand. I’d call Jack. He had a key to the house, so he could just come in and open the toilet door.

I dialled his number and waited for the ringback tone. Click. “Your call can not be connected, because you have insufficient prepay credit. To recharge your…” I hung up and threw the phone at the floor in frustration, then stuffed it back in my pocket with a twinge of guilt. Surely Jack or somebody else would call me eventually. I sat there trying not to think about my predicament.

I almost dozed off, and the voice of the devil came back to menace me in my semi-lucid state. I may be trapped in a bathroom, but things would be much worse if I didn’t write a horror story by midnight.

It occurred to me that I was living as bad a horror as I could come up with, so I resolved to write the story of the last few days. Easy enough. But what with? I’d left the marker outside. I pillaged the medicine cabinet, and was close to giving up when I saw the half-full toothpaste tube by the sink. I swear I heard an angel’s chorus when I saw that toothpaste. I was saved. If I applied it carefully with a toothbrush handle, I could write fairly well on the wall.

All went well for a while. I even found myself giggling at the thought of my eventual rescuer seeing a wall covered in pasty horror. But the toothpaste ran out much sooner than I’d hoped. Why couldn’t I have written a shorter story?

Again I ransacked the cupboards. I tried to write with shampoo, but it was useless, too liquid and too transparent against the wall. I only managed to clean off some of what I’d already written. I threw it at the door, half hoping that it would miraculously punch a hole in it.

Next I tried scraping into the soap with a razor. It could barely stick to the wall, and didn’t show up against the white. I needed something darker. Suddenly I wished that I hadn’t flushed all that perfectly good shit down the drain. Fighting a sudden nausea, I dipped my toothbrush into the trails on the side of the bowl and tried writing on the wall with it. This was too much. I coughed up some very un-inklike bile and flushed it all down.

After some more contemplation, I turned my attention back to the toothpaste tube. There was surely still some toothpaste in there, wedged near the top where it couldn’t quite be pushed to the opening. I tried slicing it open with a razor, but sliced open my thumb instead.

The shock of the pain was soon followed by the thrill of seeing a dark liquid. I could write with this. Ridiculously macabre, but how else does one write for the devil? It’s not as if I’d have to bleed to death. The cut was already starting to heal. I cleaned the end of my toothbrush as well as I could and dipped it into the cut. It didn’t take much blood to write a few letters. I felt a strange delight in writing those first few words in blood. I was in the mind of a killer. I could write horror like this.

My phone bleeped midday. I still had twelve hours. Surely somebody would rescue me in that time, but I had to continue just in case. The devil is not to be played with… another reason why I don’t usually write horror.

Whenever I stopped too long to think, my thumb would heal over and I’d have to tear it apart again. Eventually I had done it so much that the pain was unbearable. I was feeling a little lightheaded, but I convinced myself it was from pain and lack of sleep rather than blood loss. It didn’t seem like any more blood than I gave to the blood bank every time there was a donation drive. I bandaged the poor thumb and rested a little before making a clean cut in my forearm. I continued like this for hours, periodically bandaging a wound and opening a new one.

It’s 11:30 now, and I’m afraid that this story is not horrific enough for its audience. I’m worried that nobody has called me all day. I’m afraid that even if I succeed, I’ll stay trapped staring at this ghoulish wallpaper until I die of hunger.

I’m afraid that my latest cut won’t stop bleeding.

FUCK… I have to fix my wrist up. THE END. Happy now, Luci

“Hi, this is Ned Stokes. I’m probably writing or taking a bath. Leave a message.”

“Hey, Ned, it’s Jack. Written any horror stories lately?” Laughter. “Guess you’ve figured out it was me by now. Hope it didn’t freak you out too much. Nah, who am I kidding? You have to be freaked out to write horror. Anyway, I know you hate horror, but I reckon you’d be good at it. If you wrote something, send it to me, I promise I won’t tease.”

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Six of Clubs: Hydrogen Gas

Just over twelve hours to write something. I should have started sooner. I’ll start by reading the section on short short stories in Susan Tiberghian’s book, because it’s about time I wrote some prose. She says, ‘A story, be it short or book length, creates a dream in the reader’s mind.’ Can I create a universe in your head in twelve hours? How much of the real universe had been created after twelve hours? It didn’t take much more than seventeen minutes for the newly created protons and neutrons to band together into light nuclei.

Things go a little slower now, but perhaps I can do something similar in the time I have. First, I need some protons to start from. That’s easy. Take three random cards from my pile of sixes of clubs. With any luck, they’ll be different enough that merely finding a link between them will give me an entire story, but not so different that I can’t find a link. Three quarks to form a proton or neutron, two the same, one different.

An ordinary six of clubs. Why do the boring cards always come up when I do this? A close-up of a black spotted cow in Holland. Well, cows eat clovers. Spreading phlox in Canada. Sounds like something made up by Dr. Seuss. Too similar. Do the phlox and clovers vie for the cow’s attention? Can I write an interesting story about a perfectly ordinary cow eating clovers? Susan quotes Eunice Scarfe as saying, ‘If we have lived, we each have a story.’ What is the cow’s story? Perhaps the letter of the week can help me. H, from the Semitic letter ח. According to wikipedia, the form of the letter probably stood for a fence or posts. There are none, in the field where this Dutch cow lived.

Green clovers and phlox

I do not like this spreading phlox,
I would not like it with an ox.
I’d rather risk a mad cowpox,
by joining all the other stocks
and munching on a tasty clover,
but alas I can’t get over,
Thank goodness I’ve a bale of stover,
some for me and some left over.

No, this isn’t going anywhere. I quite like the CERN card this week though: formation of nuclei, or nucleosynthesis: Temperature is low enough to allow protons and neutrons to combine to form nuclei (deuterium, helium, lithium) Conditions similar to interior of stars. It could be an analogy for so many things.

Nuclear Bonds

At first, I was friends with everyone. Any kid who would play with me for five minutes was my friend for five minutes, maybe six. Later on, they tired of bouncing between playmates, and formed more lasting friendships. I flew through them alone, at times kicked here and there by their repulsion, at times accepted temporarily into a more neutral group. Finally I collided with another lone spark, and we bonded.

Not bad, I guess. But I don’t know how long I could continue it. What’s the letter of the week again? Ah… H is for hydrogen, which has the lightest nucleus of all, a single proton, which would have existed even before nucleosynthesis started. What can I say about hydrogen? I may not have much of a story, but I have the best title ever.

Big Bang Nucleosynaesthesia

Hydrogen’s green,
Helium too.
I didn’t know how,
but somehow I knew.

I used to think hydrogen was green. The letter H was as green as they come, and I didn’t know where else I would have got that association from.

My family had several old cars, often referred to as ‘old bombs’. One was exactly the colour of H, and I was burning to make a joke about it being an H-bomb. I always stopped just short of saying anything, because I couldn’t figure out what made H green. Was hydrogen green? It ought to be. Eventually, the frustration of not being able to tell this joke got to me, and I asked my dad whether hydrogen was green. It wasn’t.

Some time later, I gathered the courage to ask him whether the letter H was green. I don’t remember what colour he said it was, but it was not green. He said that perhaps the colours we associated with numbers and letters came from fridge magnets or alphabet books we had as children. A is for apple, so maybe that’s why it was red. Only, it’s more of a pinkish red.

When I was a teenager, I heard about something called synaesthesia, where people could taste colours, see sounds, and all sorts of other weird and wonderful combinations. How strange it must be to see a red apple and taste
a steak and cheese pie. How amazing it must be to see an entire symphony laid out like an intricately knotted carpet. How enlightening it must be to feel a graph tingling on the back of the neck, and linking intuitively with other information like a massage from a well-trained masseuse.

Synaesthetes were real-world superheroes, until I found out I was one. A few years ago I read about something called grapheme-colour synaesthesia, which means that people automatically associate letters and numbers with colours. Like all kinds of synaesthesia, it runs in families. Different people have different colours for each letter and number, although ‘A’ is quite frequently reported to be red. It does not seem to depend on the fridge magnets the synaesthetes were exposed to. Nor does it reveal any deep truths about the universe outside my head. On the other hand, people are talking a lot about hydrogen as a green alternative to fossil fuels these days…

Perhaps this idea would just about cut it. Perhaps not. The H fridge magnet which I’ll have to use to illustrate it is an incongruous red. An H in disguise; it took me a while to find.

Sunset. The faintly fading photons remind me that it’s time to fuse all these proto-ideas into the nucleus of a story. Perhaps if I force myself to write them, a link will reveal itself. But they stubbornly stay separate, isolated and inadequate. Perhaps that’s how it should be. Most of the universe today is made of hydrogen, those lone protons which slipped through the nucleosynthesis stage unaffected. I just need to embellish them with electrons, and send them electronically across the globe.

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