Greetings, Story366! Over the course of the year, I don’t think I’ve ever written about writer’s block on this blog. In general, it’s my belief that writer’s block doesn’t exist, that what people call writer’s block is actually I don’t feel like doing this right now. Maybe there’s a bit of I’m distracted thrown in there, but really, I don’t subscribe to some phenomenon that blocks creative processes. Students tell me they have writer’s block all the time—comes with the job—and I have a list of suggestions for how they can get around this, get words on the page: Take a break. Get up and walk around. Call your mom. Eat and/or drink something. Exercise (had to look this on up in the dictionary). Write something else, be it another creative project, something for another class, or an email. Whatever you have to do, remove your mind from the task at hand, then from there, see if you can reenter the atmosphere, put yourself in the right frame of mind, jog your creativity. I’ve said these things to students for over twenty years. I stick by them.
That said, this is about the fifth try I’ve made on today’s post. Because I’m in the midst of a super-busy week, I’ve been trying to get ahead on Story366, having written yesterday’s post the day before, meaning I had almost two whole days to write today’s. I even read from today’s book yesterday morning, planning to write the essay right away, maybe even get started on tomorrow’s post two days early. I had a Microsoft Word file opened at least four previous times, typing “Greetings, Story366!” and then stopping dead. What’s going on in the world? What’s interesting about me this week? Is this a holiday? Do I have some zany story about Debra Marquart to share? I kept staring at the screen, at that stupid “Greetings, Story366!” over and over. Then it hit me: I was having writer’s block. Noooooooooooooooooo!
Anyway, on the fifth try, here we are, and I’ve perhaps broken my writer’s block in the most cliché way possible: I’m writing about writer’s block. I’m not quite as cool or interesting—not nearly so—as Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, nor am I going to turn Marquart’s analysis into an investigation of my psyche, let alone the very nature of writer’s block. The only thing worse, the only thing more cliché, is if I would have started this post by quoting the Webster’s definition of short story in the first line. I’ll take solace in that fact (and am saving the Webster’s definition of story for another day).
And here we are at the point of the post where I start to discuss the story, so here goes: Today I read from Debra Marquart’s collection The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories, out from New Rivers Press as part of its Headwaters Series. Marquart had published some nonfiction in Mid-American Review when I was editor and had come to read at our Winter Wheat conference, and I remember her talking about this book, reading from it, a collection inspired by her other life as a singer in various rock bands (including one called The Bone People). The book alternates between short short stories and longer pieces, in an every-other pattern, and I was happy to read a few stories of each length. In the end, I’m picking the title story to write about today, the piece that best represents what Marquart is going for.
“The Hunger Bone” is about Sal, a musician-turned salesman, and the journey/transition he makes from one to the other (and perhaps back again). Sal has been in bands his whole adult life, trying to make it big, often getting to the point when he had what he describes as “cupboard-was-bare hunger,” that poor, that desperate for a gig. At one point—which we find out in a backstory scene, later in the story—Sal’s band takes a job playing 50s-type songs for rich people at a yacht club, a gig that their agent sells them on by explaining how nobody will recognize them and they’ll never have to see any of this people again. Hungry as he is, Sal takes the job, only the band doesn’t actually know any fifties staples. They fake it, playing those early-rock &-roll melodies, everyone in the crowd having a blast. One of the attendees likes Sal’s enthusiasm and presence so much, he offers him a job with his company: selling tombstones to the families of the recently deceased.
As the story begins, Sal is on the road with his band, piggybacking off his sales job. They are travelling the Midwest, Sal doing sales calls during the day, the band playing in dives at night. Sal had been surprised that morning, though, when Jack Kelly knocked on his door, telling Sal that he’d be accompanying him on calls that day. Sal’s no dummy—Jack is the company’s top salesman and Sal knows that Jack is there for one purpose: A last-ditch effort to turn Sal around. Has Sal done all that badly? As of the morning of Jack’s intervention, Sal had still not sold a single tombstone.
Most of the story, then, is this call that Sal goes on with Jack Kelly, to visit a Mr. Brecker, whose wife has recently passed, tragically, unexpectedly, and very young (in her thirties). Apparently, there is an actual law that says a salesperson can’t approach a grieving family for two weeks, so it’s exactly two weeks after Mrs. Brecker’s death that this pair comes a-callin’. From there, we get some of the ins and outs of tombstone sales, of sales in general, Sal watching a maestro at work. It’s not quite Glengarry Glen Ross, but there’s still some slick maneuvering by Jack, hoping to take advantage of the grieving widower; as legend tells it, Jack once sold an entire mausoleum to a woman simply by playing to her vulnerability. It’s this kind of business these men have entered into, the kind that needs for people to die and for people to be saddened by it for them to make money.
As it turns out, Sal’s not been a huge success as sales of this kind because he doesn’t have the stomach for it. I won’t reveal any more of the plot—you can read more for yourself—but in the end, Sal’s a musician, an artist, and a poet, not someone who manipulates people for personal gain. He’s an interesting character, for sure, this tortured soul, a guy who sadly fails at something he loves and something he doesn’t all the same—depending on how you (or Webster’s) defines failure. Good thing for Sal his heart’s in at least one of them.
I liked the stories I read in The Hunger Bone, Debra Marquart taking her readers to the world of hard playing and hard living, the loneliness and excitement of a musician’s life on the road. It’s one of the more intriguing themed collections I’ve read all year, a book in which the characters all start off as interesting—they’re musicians—Marquart taking them in all different directions. A solid, solid read.