All posts by Alex McGilvery

Writing and Pain

The idea of the suffering artist is embedded in our culture and literature. Everywhere you turn there is the notion the creative person goes through a process of pain and agony to put what they are doing, be it painting, poetry or music out there for the world. In some cases suffering is essential in the discipline, anyone beginning to play guitar knows the pain of practice. Yet I think when people talk of the suffering artist, I think they are meaning some kind of psychic suffering that must happen to enable creation.

I went to a workshop where we talked about the need to balance anxiety and creativity. That we can’t create unless we embrace the anxiety. There is some truth to it for me, but one of our people shared that she can’t write unless she is happy and free of care. She goes through a process to shed the world in order to write. She proves that we have to be careful with generalizations. The pain I experience on a daily basis does nothing for my art but get in the way. Like my companion at that workshop I need to shed any focus on pain in order to write.

Still even if writing doesn’t cause us pain, at some point we need to write about pain. How do we do that in an authentic way if we have never experienced agony of body or spirit? I don’t know the answer to that question. I also don’t know many people old enough to be serious writers who have never felt an earache or toothache. We, as writers, need to extrapolate that pain into our characters, because whether or not we need to suffer for our art, it is essential that our characters suffer.

There are no great books in which the characters coast through their days with nothing to get in the way of their desires. If there were such books, few people would read them. Conflict is the heart of the story. The characters have to deal with one thing after another that keeps them from the thing they desire most. In a great book even that thing is a lie and cheat and by the end they must turn away to find something worthy of them.

So writing isn’t created by pain, but rather is about pain. I think the other disciplines are similar. Pain is secondary to the passion to create. The guitar player doesn’t focus on the aching fingers, but the joy of losing herself in the music. Painters seek to put themselves onto the canvass, but when they paint, they are only conscious of the process of painting. Art is not about suffering, but about life. That there is pain in life is unarguable, but we put that into our art to transform it and transcend it – as in the end our characters must.


The following story is a combination of one person’s setting and another person’s character. I blended them into this story. It starts abruptly since it picks up on the other authors stories. You can read the setting here, and the character sketch here. Please take the time to read them, not just because the story will make more sense, but because they are worth reading in their own right.


The glacier didn’t stay thawed long.

The woman’s cheery “Lovely day. Makes one glad to be alive, doesn’t it?” only reminded me that I had failed to keep that old man alive. He couldn’t enjoy this life. Here I was shovelling snow and complaining and he couldn’t do that. Maybe if I was faster, if I had seen him earlier in the day? I shook the thoughts out of my head. It was a waste of energy. I started counting my blessings. I had this new home to share with my new wife and soon a baby. She loved me and even tried to understand this greyness that descended on my mind when I wasn’t paying attention.

I couldn’t blame the woman. She didn’t know that being alive was the source of my grief. My life was my failure.

I shovelled snow and counted blessings until I could go into the house and smile at the woman who was sure I loved her. I patted her growing belly and made all the right noises as inside I danced on the edge of despair. I held her all night and held the wall of blessing up between me and the darkness.

She didn’t know that I went for lunch to that same neighbourhood. I talked to the men and women on the street. I listened to their stories. They told me about Jeremiah. He was old, they said, and lucky that he found someone to care at the end. I heard stories about people who lain frozen for days before anyone missed them. It was strange, but the more we talked, the less they wanted my money. I knew from what I’d heard that there was nothing I could have done to save that old man. My problem was that I couldn’t find anyway to save myself.

I was shovelling snow again, and wondering if I wanted to spend the rest of my life shovelling snow. The old woman came by she still dressed in the old coat and scarf, but she’d added a pair of hockey socks over her pants.

“Great day to be alive!” she said.

“Why?” I said, before I could catch the words and keep their bitter taste within my mouth.

“I woke up this morning,” she said. She planted her feet firmly on the sidewalk. “I nearly didn’t one morning. My daughter just happened to call and next thing I was in the hospital with tubes coming out of everything.” She laughed. “I was never so surprised. Now every day is a new adventure. No matter the weather, it is a good to be alive.”

“What if your daughter hadn’t called? What if they couldn’t save you?” My words poured out. I almost put my hands over my mouth to stop them.

“If is a very powerful word for being so little,” the woman said. “If can create worlds or tear them apart. You have be careful with it.” She poked my chest with her finger. “Be glad to be alive, because it is so sad if you are not.” She started herself into motion again and I watched her walk down the street to her home.

I went inside and made supper for us. My wife was at a doctor’s appointment. I still had to shake my head in wonder. Four months ago a wild night was a few drinks then a TV show. If she’d caught the bus, we’d never have met, but we did and a ride became a supper to say thanks. Supper turned into two and then into breakfast. The baby was a shock, but also a delight. Suddenly I was a married father to be and all because of a missed bus.

Except it went back further. I was driving because of Jeremiah. I didn’t want to be without my car if someone needed me. Jeremiah was the reason I’d met Gracie. If it weren’t for the old man, I’d never have had a family. No, if it weren’t for Jeremiah dying. I scribbled a note and went out for a walk. Gracie had the car.

My feet took me to my old neighbourhood. It was getting dark. Even this late in the winter it was cold. I waved at a couple of my friends, but they were busy finding warm places to sleep. None of them wanted to die like Jeremiah, but all of them expected to. The store was still empty, so I sat in the doorway and wondered why life had to be so complicated. I couldn’t imagine life without Gracie, but I couldn’t imagine not wanting to save Jeremiah. Were the choices really so stark? An old man’s death to bring me such joy as I allowed myself to feel?

I felt someone sit down beside me.

“You sent me home,” Jeremiah said, “You cared enough to stay with me.”

“But you died,” I said.

“Of course I died,” Jeremiah said, “It was my time to die. You made sure I didn’t die alone.”

“Does that matter?”

“You tell me.”

I pushed the tears away from my face. How much of my grief was for me and how much for Jeremiah?

“I’m sorry I wasn’t enough to save that man,” I said to myself.

“I forgive you,” I said back.

A little while later my car pulled up.

“I thought I’d find you here,” Gracie said. She came and sat down beside me and snuggled up to me. “Have I ever told you how much I love you?” she said. “You care so much about people.”

“No one more than you,” I said and wrapped my arm around her shoulder. I started counting my blessings; I was alive to care about Gracie, I was alive to care about Jeremiah’s friends. I was alive.

“You know,” I said, “it really is a good day to be alive.”

Writing Live

Writing is not just something that is accomplished in a lonely (read isolated) room alone. While it is important to have a space to write and to do the work needed to seperate good writing from bad, it is just as important for me to interact with people. Whether it is a pleasant arguement over a beer, or a less than pleasant discussion in the snow with a young person who apparently understands law better than ethics, being with people is how stories are created. I, at least, write live at least part of the time.

Musicians have studio time in which they polish and record their music. Each track is laid down separately and the best is chosen to be blended together into the final song. It is long exhausting work. I have my studio time in writing where I edit and rewrork a story until it shines exactly the way that I want it to.

Musicians also have live performances. They show up on stage with a play list and let it happen. They don’t get there without a lot of practice and knowing their craft, but once they start, anything can happen. Writers need that equivalent kind of space. It isn’t an excuse to be sloppy, but rather a chance to have less distance between them and their audience. Blogs and quick stories posted on challenge web sites are the live performances for writers. It isn’t extemporaneous, but it is raw. There are more opportunities to make mistakes, or wonderful discoveries.

This web site will be a vehicle for you to access some of the final work that came from years of obsessing over a single story, but it will also be a chance to read work that was written quickly for a certain situation in response to a particular challege.

So, having made you read three hundred words to get here. I should show you what I mean by a piece that was written ‘live’. This story was written because the challenge was to write a story about a hole.


The Vacant Lot

The pit in the vacant lot was blocked off with steel fencing and yellow police tape. Frankie could just see a small patch of the bottom of the hole. It was muddy. Even with all the police and rescue people that had been down there there were no footprints. Just the mud that covered everything and everyone that had come out of the pit.

The vacant lot had been their playground. Sure, the grass was mostly weeds and anthills and the broken brick and concrete made their baseball games potentially lethal, but there was no other place for them to play. The sere grass and dust were the essence of summer for the gang.

Frankie had always lived on the street with the vacant lot. Ralph and Chrissy had moved in so long ago that he couldn’t remember them not being there, though he could remember the big truck parked in front of their house. Others in the gang came and went as their parents’ fortunes ebbed and flowed. They weren’t so much a gang as driftwood cast on the beach of lost jobs and messy divorces.

It started changing when Joseph moved in with his parents. They both had jobs, they were still in love with each other. Joseph stayed Joseph, not Joe. A contractor’s trailer pulled up in front of his house and workmen carried tools and lumber into the house. A few months later they carried their tools and paychecks out. Frankie’s ma was curious about what they’d done, but no one was ever invited in.

Chelsea’s parents had their house gutted and rebuilt before the moving trucks arrived with endless amounts of furniture and boxes. A couple of the neighbours went by with pies, but they weren’t let into the house.

Frankie thought of the little apartment he and his ma lived in. He could count all the furniture they owned on his two hands. The Feingardens upstairs didn’t have much more. He knew because Mr. Feingarden invited Frankie up to watch baseball on an ancient television. Frankie would much rather play baseball than watch, but Mrs. Feingarden made amazing cookies.

Once the changes started, they just kept coming faster. One by one members of the gang vanished as homes and apartment buildings were sold and made into fancy houses. By the time Fall came and school started it was only Frankie, Ralph and Chrissy.

School was OK, Frankie thought. His ma always kept on him about how he needed an education to get anywhere in life. Problem was that Frankie couldn’t think of anywhere else he’d want to go. He went to class and did his homework because it made his ma happy, and life was just easier when Ma was happy.

This year it was different, just like everything in the neighbourhood. There were a bunch of new kids, but they didn’t act like new kids. There was no shyness or wondering how to fit in. They wore new clothes and carried new pencils and books. They only talked to each other too. By the time the bell rang at the end of the day, Frankie was feeling like he was the new kid. He met Ralph at the doors and watched as shiny new cars came and collected the new kids.

“It ain’t right” Ralph said. “Chrissy went to talk to that girl who moved in next door and the girl laughed at her. Chrissy’s been sniffling all day.”

“We’re like new kids in our own school,” Frankie said, “Everything’s changed while we weren’t looking.”

“I never thought I’d live anywhere else,” Ralph said, “but there’s a ‘For Sale’ sign on our lawn.”

Frankie didn’t say anything. Chrissy came out as the last sleek vehicle glided away from the curb.

“I hate them,” she said, “I hope Dad sells the house soon and we can leave.”

“But then we’ll be new kids in a new school,” Ralph said.

“It won’t be any worse than this,” she said and ran down the steps and away toward her home. Ralph picked up her books and headed off after her.

“Get on home, Frankie,” Mr. Colomb said, “I’m locking up now.” He pulled a key from the huge bunch that he carried and twisted it in the lock.

Frankie shrugged and headed home. He walked on past his apartment to see if there really was a ‘For Sale’ sign on Ralph’s house. There was. He kicked at it until it fell down on the uncut grass.

“Hey there!” Ralph’s dad yelled from the porch. “You stop that.”

“Why do you have to move anyway?” Frankie said. “Isn’t this place good enough for you?”

“It’s gotten to be too good for the likes of us,” Ralph’s dad said. “I can get a good price for this dump and find a new home somewhere. It’s easier to be poor when you have money.”

That didn’t make any sense to Frankie, but he thought of Chrissy so he hoisted the sign up and stuck it back in the ground. It was crooked, but he didn’t care. Whoever bought the place wouldn’t care either. They would tear up the house and flatten the lawn. It would be one more step in making Frankie a stranger in his own neighbourhood.

He saw Ralph come up behind his dad, but Frankie didn’t want to talk to him. He didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. He ran down the street until he reached his home. The door was locked so he went up to the Feingarden’s.

“You look like you lost in the ninth,” Mr. Feingarden said. Frankie didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure that his voice wouldn’t betray him. He was in sixth grade. He was too old to cry over something like a stupid house being for sale. Fortunately Mr. Feingarden was quite happy to do the talking for the both of them.

School didn’t get any better. Frankie went to class and tried to learn, but even the teachers were changing. They wore shirts and ties or dresses instead of golf shirts and slacks. Frankie was moved from the front seat to the back. Mac the bully was his desk partner.

Last year Frankie would have been terrified. This year he just sat and listened as Mac complained how he had to work in the family store now. His mom wanted a new kitchen; so they fired the girl who worked for them and Mac did her job.

Frankie listened to Mac’s endless complaints all through September and into October. Ralph’s house sold and the moving van collected their furniture and drove away. There was no one to meet at the vacant lot, so Frankie hadn’t gone by it for a few weeks.

He didn’t know why he decided to go to the vacant lot. None of the new kids ever went there. He didn’t recognize the lot when he go there. All of the grass and rubble had been scraped away and a snow fence wound in a ragged circle around the deep hole in the middle of the lot. A ‘Sold’ sign stood at a tilt in front of the fence. Frankie kicked and pulled at the sign until he got it loose. Then he threw it over the fence into the hole.

At school the next day Frankie overheard some girls talking.

“This really rich guy has bought the vacant lot.”

“It’s about time, that place was an eyesore.”

“You sound just like your mom.”

“Well, my mom said the man who bought the lot plans to build a mansion there.”

“A mansion, on that dinky lot?”

“It will be the fanciest house on the street.”

“Oh great, Mom will want to redo the kitchen again.”

“Why? It’s isn’t like she cooks or anything.”

“Like your mom does?”

“No, the maid does the cooking.”

Frankie felt sick to his stomach. Maids? Mansions? He didn’t know the place he grew up anymore. He thought about the worn linoleum on their countertop and the kitchen table with the folded paper under one leg to keep it from wobbling. He tried to imagine a different kitchen, but he couldn’t do it. Even though the girls didn’t even care that he existed, he turned red with shame.

After school, he walked home dragging his feet. Mr. Feingarden was sitting on the step reading a letter. He looked like he did the time he had the heart attack and Frankie’s mom called the ambulance. He stared at Frankie like he didn’t recognize him then slowly climbed the stairs without saying a word.

Frankie found his ma sitting at the table looking at a letter. He could see the tracks of tears running down her face. When she saw him she folded up the letter and dried her face on her apron.

“What’s wrong?” Frankie asked.

His mother let out a long sigh and just looked at him.

“They sold the apartments, Frankie,” she said finally, “We have to move in a month.”


“I don’t know,” she said, “There’s nothing in the papers. Nothing we can afford anyway.”

Frankie felt like smashing something, but suddenly everything in his home looked incredibly precious. Instead he went to the stove and turned the heat on under the kettle.

“I’ll make you some tea,” he said.

His ma half laughed and half cried before she smothered him in a hug. He thought that he was too old to be hugged by his ma, but no one was watching so stood there and let her hug him. He even put his arms around her and hugged her back. Maybe he wasn’t so old after all.

He went downstairs later with the garbage to throw in the dumpster. It had started raining so he ran around the building and tossed the bag on top. When he turned to go back inside he saw a light by the vacant lot. Frankie turned up his collar and walked over to the lot.

A man in a suit had pulled the fence apart and was standing with an umbrella in one hand and a roll of papers in the other.

“Hey, kid,” The man shouted and waved at Frankie. Frankie slipped through the gap in the fence. “Here, hold the umbrella,” the man said and pushed it at Frankie. He held the umbrella over the man and his papers.

“You see this hole?” the man talked loudly like he thought Frankie was stupid. “I was going to build my house here, but the lot is too small.” He pointed back toward Frankie’s home. “So I bought up those old apartments. I’ll tear them down and build there.”

“What about the people who live there?” Frankie said.

“Not my problem,” The man shrugged. A gust of wind caught the papers and blew them toward the hole. The man tried to catch them but slipped on the edge and fell to the bottom. Frankie heard the splash then a shout of pain.

“Kid,” the man shouted, “Go get help, I think I broke my back. Hurry! The water’s getting deeper.”

“Not my problem,” Frankie shouted at him, then he let the umbrella go and watched the wind blow it away.

By the time he reached the road, he couldn’t hear the man’s shouts anymore.