Evolution of a Writing Style: Quotation Marks

Quotation marks

Quotation marks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy (Photo credit: alessio.sartore)

Sometimes on Xanga people would comment on how I don’t use quotation marks.  That is intentional.  It wasn’t until I read Cormac McCarthy that I realized how superfluous quotation marks are and that anyone who has mastered the basics of writing dialog can do without them.  McCarthy always writes in 3rd person, and it’s easier to do without them in 3rd.  It’s a little harder in 1st, which is what I use almost exclusively but in 1st it can be done.  As far as the reader is concerned it’s usually just a matter of getting used to it.

McCarthy doesnt stop there.  He omits apostrophes in common contractions that everyone knows such as dont, cant, wasnt, and so on.  He said he doesn’t like those little marks cluttering up the page.  I dont know about that but I do know it makes for a cleaner, more stark style of writing, which is nice if your style is minimalist like mine.

I took it even further.  In deciding to invent a style of writing for the internet I started using common internet acronyms such as IDK, WTF, IRL, TMI, and so on.  I used email style as a model for taking it further, the kind of careless writing people use when they’re in a hurry.  I used convenient misspellings such as “thru” for through, although I know how to spell.  And for another iconoclastic touch I dont capitalize “I” unless it comes at the start of the sentence.   In addition to writing in first person I wrote in the present tense, which gives an immediacy to writing that holds suspense very well.  I’d get comments such as, “I felt like I was right in that room.”

Sometimes after years of writing fiction you figure out how to do it right in a flash of inspiration.  The author of Bridges of Madison County had such a Eureka experience and went on to write more.  I’m not comparing myself to him but I understand what happens.  That summer I went on to finish an autobiographical novel and then the Dana series as well as Since Yesterday, Axel’s Travels, some others.  Suddenly, liberated from stylistic conventions I became prolific and wrote more than i’d have thought possible.

Not everyone likes this style of writing but it grows on you until you feel like why doesn’t everyone do it this way.  And any fiction writer who wants to try it will find it easier than it looks.  


The Beach 8

We have been driving for days.  This day we have been driving for hours.  And we’re nowhere near a beach.  In fact we’re about as far from one as you can get.

On I-70 going west thru Kansas.  We have been thru Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, and the eastern part of Kansas, all of which look alike.  But now we’re on the Great Plains, and IDK of anything else that looks like the Great Plains.  Big sky, grasslands.  A tree about every 10 miles that was brought in and planted next to a farmhouse to break up up the incessant, demon wind that never stops blowing.  The sky over the road ahead is clean and pagan blue but there is a thunderstorm on our right and you can see the lightning leap from the black thunderheads to the ground.  On our other side you can see snow falling miles away.  Here it is sunny and hot as hell.  You have no idea how overpowering this is to someone who grew up in a place that is heavily forested like Georgia.  I’ve seen it before but Tonya hasnt and she is spellbound, which is good.  It’s shut her up for a while anyway.

There hasnt been anything on the radio for hours.  Just white noise.  For almost an hour i got a station in Nebraska somewhere but all it played were polkas.  Now there’s nothing.  I havent seen a vehicle for at least two hours.  Windmill spinning like a chinese toy by a house every few miles.  Once in a while something that looks like an oil derrick in the fields.  Or an oil something, hammering relentlessly against the ground.  I think of those apparently empty farmhouses we pass once in a while and wonder if there are strange, fucked up people in there watching the road, waiting.  Maybe they’re cannibals who eat people they hunt for outside.  Or eat each other.  I shake my head.  Sometimes i give myself the creeps.

Suddenly Tonya sticks her entire body out of the car and looks around and i grab her by the shirt and yank her back in.

Hey!  She says.

You’re like a bratty 18 year old, i say.  Or a little older but still a brat.

She opens her mouth to say something but thinks better of it and says nothing.  I smile tightly at her and say, It’s really something, isnt it?

You werent kidding, she says, shaking her head.  You’ve been out this way before?

Yes, i say.  I was 27 years old.

Did you come out here to work?

No.  Well, yes but i was looking for work.  Right out of graduate school.

Were you alone?


Were you with a girl?


Who was she?

My first wife.

Tell me about her?

I shake my head.

Come on!  Dont make me fence with you.  What was she like?

Well…she had a monkey on her back.

What?  Smack?  Meth?  Or…

I start laughing.  When i stop i say, Not that kind of monkey.  One you wouldnt ordinarily think of.

Well, RU going to tell me what it was?

If you’ll shut up and let me talk i’ll tell you.


When i met Hannah she was a little overweight, i say uncomfortably.  Not enough to matter.  She was that way when we got married.  A few years later that bitch weighed 305.

We are both silent for a moment.  I havent been watching the road behind me and a motorcycle, a chopper shrieks by and seems to disappear in the heat.  Tonya screams and shuts up.  I look down at the speedometer and i see i’m going 85.  That chopper must have been doing 120.  After a minute or two she opens her mouth to say something but i beat her to it.

She couldnt stop eating, i say.  One day in Brunswick she told me she was an addict and she was addicted to food.  I laughed in her face.  But time told the story.  She was right.  She reacted to any kind of sugar like a junkie on smack.  I looked back on things she’d done that never made sense and it all made perfect sense.  One day years before we had a bunch of errands to do that were infuriating and unpleasant and we had to do them together and by near the end of the day she was nuts.  There was one errand left to do but i could do it by myself so i dropped her off at home and did it by myself.  Forty five minutes later when i got home she was in front of the TV and was like a different person.  Have you ever been around a heroin user right after they shoot up?

Oh, sure.

You know how they are?  Kind of not there at all but everything is completely okay with them?  Dopey but not like a drunk?


Well that’s what she was like when i got back.  If she hadnt been such a little miss perfect i wouldve thought she was on something but she was too much of a pussy about things like that to ever even try such a thing.  The most she ever did was smoke some weed with me once in a while.  But in the kitchen garbage can there was some kind of wrapper that wasnt there that morning.  It had held some kind of pastry that was pure sugar, or pure fructose corn syrup.  They havent used sugar for a long time.  Anyway, it made perfect sense.  In her own way she had shot up.  She finally got off that habit and went to a Twelve Step group for compulsive eaters.

Well, i’m glad she…

wasnt, i say, glaring at her.  She got rid of that habit by herself.  Those groups are like cults, and all cults are dangerous.  All she had to do was change her diet.  I’m glad she did that but all she had to do was change her diet..

You dont know anything about that, she snaps at me.  Those groups are the only things that….

dont know anything about it?  dont know anything about it?  You dont know a fuckin thing about it!  I’m the one that lived with her.  When she was clean she was sane but mean and resentful.  When she was using she was just like a goddamn heroin junkie.  But those groups never made sense to me.  Replace one dependency with another.  One obsession with another.  Things she said that werent her words.  Somebody else’s words.  That was scary.  But it just meant somebody was filling her head with bullshit.  Sorry, i’m going to have to pull over..

I pull onto the shoulder of the road and stop the car and turn the engine off and pocket the keys. 

Stay in the car, i say and start walking off into the head-high grass and when i am sure i am not visible i take a long, satisfying piss.  When i am empty i go back to the car and start it.  She looks hurt and i feel guilty.

Sorry i yelled and hurt your feelings, i say.

That wasnt what hurt me, she says.

Then what?

You didnt leave the engine on.  You turned it off and took the keys.  Like you were afraid i’d drive off and leave you.

Oh, shit, i’m sorry, i say.  That was automatic.  I didnt think, i just…well, i’ll have to get you a set of keys.  We need another set anyway.  I’m really sorry.

It’s okay, she says, sighing like a martyr.  At your age i guess you have to…

Have to what?

You know, you suddenly have to…

Have to what?  You mean old-age urinary urgency?  No, i just didnt see the point of waiting for a an exit with a gas station, since they’re only about every twenty miles.  I just got out and leaked and came back and drove off.  Dont start trying to provoke me with that old man shit.

I’m not.

If you’re trying to get inside my head and fuck with it find something else because that wont work.

Allright, she snaps at me.  What about her?  The rest of it?

The rest of what?

About your wife..

I could spend months doing that.  We were married ten years.

Did you leave her because she was so big?

NO!  You think i’m that big a son of a bitch?  No, i’d never do that.  Toward the end of that marriage she’d gotten up to three fifty.  She’d lost 100 pounds and hit a plateau and couldnt handle being stuck there so she went to eatin’ and gained it back and then some.  She wouldnt tell me what she weighed the last six months but at the very end i swear i think she weighed about 400.

But you…

No.  When i left her it had nothing to do with her weight.  Even if she’d weighed 700 pounds.  It was because she was such a Passive-Aggressive bitch.  Actually, when i left it was because she’d manipulated me into having to leave.  That’s a long story.  And that’s all i have to say about it except for one thing.  One thing to show you how she could hurt me and give you an idea why i finally left.

I force back tears and take a deep breath, trying to see the road as we move right into a western sun that will be a torment for hours until it sets.  I’m almost at the point where i need to let her drive. 

When she was in that 12 step group for overeaters she was working the fifth step.  The one about ‘taking a fearless moral inventory,’ whatever that means.  The healthier groups interpret that to mean to ask yourself if you are honestly doing everything you can to stay straight.  If the answer is yes, that’s all there is to it.  Unfortunately the group she was in was one of those that thought you needed to make lists of everything you ever did to hurt the people you were close to.  A list for the people that were closest and most important to you.

She did that?

Yes, Tonya, she did that.  She was sitting, writing something one day and i asked her what.  She told me she was listing everything she’d done to the people she loved to hurt them, yak,yak, yak.  It was one of the worst things she could have done because it fed right into her obsessive, pathological guilt.  It was sick.


But get this.  She was making two lists.  One for her mother, one for her sister.  I asked her where my list was.  Of the things she’d done to hurt me.  Surely she didnt think she’d never done anything to hurt me.  Her face got really red and she stammered and i left.  I just walked out and didnt come back for hours.  I would not let that fuckin bitch see me cry.  And i cried.  For hours.  I couldnt stop.  After that i dont know if we ever talked about it.  But we both knew she didnt do a list for me was because i wasnt important enough to deserve one.  Get it?

Yeah, she sighs.

I’m pulling over, i say.  Your turn to drive.

Near sunset we get off the interstate at a little town in western Kansas caled Oakley and find a motel for the night.  Tomorrow afternoon we should reach Denver.  

The Beach 7: Death and Catechism

What’s it like to be old?  Tonya asks me.

I give her a dry, poisonous look but say nothing.

She puts a hand to her mouth and says, Oh, I’m sorry.  I didnt mean…

Restate your question, I say.  Something like ‘What’s it like to be sixty-eight?’

Okay, what’s it like to be sixty-eight?

Specify, I say.

Well, uh…

Maybe a good question would be about how your attitude toward death changes throughout life, I say.  At your age death is something that will happen to you someday and is pretty abstract.  When you hit forty it suddenly seems much closer, more concrete, and scarier. At sixty it affects everything.  You may not expect to die right away but you’re forty years closer than when you were at twenty.  And that means death affects your decisions and perceptions about everything.

That gives her pause and we both look down the escarpment where we’re sitting to the Dog River and at the half-dozen or so old men fishing there while she thinks of what to say next.

Were you ever married?  She finally asks.

Yes, I say.

What’s it like?  What happened?

Next question, I say.

How many times?  How long?  U have any kids?

Twice.  Many times I wondered what happened but I dont really know because it was never clear.  No kids.  Never wanted any.  Since this is turning into Twenty Questions, How about U, Tonya?

Never married, she says.  Just boyfriends.  You ever go to college?

College, yes, I say.  Why do you ask that in particular?

You know a lot of big words.  Speaking of death, do you ever wish you were dead?

No, because as long as I’m alive there’s that ahead of me and I’ll take it, even if it’s only another five minutes.

Do you ever wish you’d never been born?

Many times, I say.

She turns thoughtful again and I say, Tonya, what do you do for a living?

What do you do for a living?  She says defensively.

You first, I say.

Trust fund money, she says and her face colors.

Okay.  But why be defensive about that?

I’m not being defensive, she says, raising her voice.

You get the money from your folks in Marietta?

Yes but it’s not that they care.  It’s to keep me from asking them for money all the time.  And the checks arent generous, just enough to live a middle class life.  They know I couldnt even hold down a minimum wage job.  Your turn.  RU retired?

Yes, I say.

Since when?

Thirty years.

You have a trust fund too?

No, I say.  I do odd jobs.  You can always make money doing things nobody wants to do.

I guess I really dont want to know what kind of odd jobs?

No.  You really dont.

A vagrant zephyr redolent of trash cans winnows itself around us.  It makes me sneeze and sets the old men that are fishing to cursing. 

I’ll bet a hundred years ago this part of the river drew a lot more people to sit over there and fish, mainly because there were more people, I say.


So it begs a question, Tonya.  Down where I came from…

From Brunswick?

Yeah, I say.  Did I tell you I lived there?

When we were high the other day, she says.

I think it’s odd that when the world was seriously overpopulated a few centuries ago everybody always seemed to be outside and in each others’ faces because there wasnt much room.  Now there’s a lot fewer people and a lot more room and a lot more food but everyone seems to be in hiding.  Brunswick’s creepy because any time I went outside I could feel that I was being watched.  Several times in this planet’s modern history people have suddenly moved underground into the steel and concrete caves their ancestors built.  But there was no apparent reason for it.  No plague or war or zombies or anything.  People just went underground for a while and later a few ‘heroes’ would brave their agoraphobia and move back into the abandoned cities and the cycle would repeat.  Even the big depopulation didnt seem to affect it.  People got suddenly afraid and no one knows what of.  People are weird.

You think too much, she says.

I know it.  Further on out that way is Cascade Heights, I say as I point west.  And Destiny Road.  It was a WASP version of Eldorado.  Everybody out there was rich. Now it’s a ghost town.

Did you grow up around here?  She says.

This and a few other places.

I always wondered why they named it Destiny Road.  Seems an odd name.

Maybe somebody had a dog named Destiny.

Or a wife, she says.

Or a daughter.

What did you say your name was? She says.

I didnt say, I say.



The Beach 6

I come out of sleep slowly and when I am awake IDK where i am.  Then I remember.  Tonya is sound asleep and snoring lightly.  Not like a chain saw but just enough to call it a snore.  Not something you tell anybody unless they ask and maybe not even then.

Of course we had fucked.  It wasnt what I had in mind when I went home with her but we got just stoned enough that it seemed natural but now seems merely inevitable.  I have spent the night with someone young enough to be my granddaughter and I am still half asleep and do not know how to handle this.  That makes me a dirty old man but it makes her…IDK.  Something worse than just a dirty old man.  Depends on her.

I hate sexual politics.

I get up and dress quietly in the kitchen.  I had asked her to talk to me for a while and I would pay her.  Since I dont remember whether i gave her money I assume I didnt and put more than I owe her on the kitchen table.  This feels awkward.  I want to leave before she’s awake but I dont want her to feel like a whore.

I decide to leave her a note.  But what do I say?

I write, ‘Thank you for everything.’

But that seems stupid.  I dont want to tell her my name.  So I sign it ‘Me.’

Maybe a smiley face?

You’re an idiot, I tell myself.  I just leave her the note and the money.  I am about to leave when I see her at the kitchen door.

Hey, she says.  Were you about to leave?

Yes, I say.

Do you have to go?

No, I say.  I’d rather be with you.

Then stay, she says.  What’s that?

The money I owe you and a love letter.

Let’s see, she says, stumbling across the floor in bare feet.

I hate people who walk anywhere barefooted.

This is too much, she says, handing some of the money back.  What kind of a note is this?

I didnt know just what to say.  Do you eat breakfast?

Yeah, she says.  But I’m not cooking it.

I’ll cook it, I say.

Then here, she says, giving me back some of the money.

The Beach 5

Heading north on I-75 toward Macon.  The steep, rugged hills and the preponderance of heavy forest with its riot of green makes you think you’re in the north woods and the red clay soil makes the ground look like it’s bleeding.  My destination is not Macon; too many mean rednecks and rusty memories of the Allmans.there.  Not Atlanta either.  Just a satellite little city I’ll call X City.  It’s like Atlanta used to be.

Off the interstate at the Destiny Road exit.  But why name it that?  Maybe somebody had a dog named Destiny.  Or a wife with a face like a dog.  Down Avon Street to Lee street.  There are a lot of people here for this day and age.  Lee Street goes downtown where things always get interesting but not always pleasant.  I park the car in a secure lot, leaving my luggage in the car.  Then I start walking.

This neighborhood used to be a WASP El Dorado where the rich and privileged lived.  But I am appalled at how the place has deteriorated and become a  high crime and street drug and infected needles place that isnt safe to walk around in even in daylight.  Homeless people and pimps and pushers and I should go back to the garage and drive someplace else.  But I cant quite make myself do it.

I stop and wait for a bus.  There are street people here and a girl who is not so skuzzy that  belongs somewhere else.  I wonder if her parents kicked her out or her boyfriend kicked her out and she doesnt know how to live on the street.  I decide to talk to her.

Hi, I say.

Hi yourself, she says.  What do you want?

The pleasure of your company.

I’m not a prostitute, she says.

I didnt think so.  Where you from?

I used to live with my folks in Marietta but that place is…Shaking her head.

It isnt safe here, I say.

Yeah, I noticed.

Look, i’m lonely and just want some company, that’s all.  I’ll pay you to spend the afternoon with me.  That’s all.  We can do whatever you want.  Do you have a place to live or…

I have a hole in the wall apartment but it’s home to me.  Just me.  What did you say your name was?

I didnt, I say.

After a pause she says, Okay.  I’m Tonya.

Pleased to meet you.

How old RU anyway? She says.

Old enough to be your grandfather.  Does that bother you?

You’re not serious, she says.  You’re in your thirties or early forties and I have no problem with that.

I’m sixty-eight years old, I say.  Word.

Show me an ID, she says.

I hand her my driver’s license and she looks at it, then at me and at the license again before she hands it back to me.

It must be you have great genes, she says.

I must have something.  Will you spend the afternoon with me?  Your bus is coming.

To hell with the bus, she says, yawning and stretching.  I dont feel like going anywhere. Can we just go to my place?

Sounds good to me, I say.



The Beach 4

When I reach a point where I can safely move away from the sea and the dunes I slow down until i am walking and catch my breath.  I dont know how safe I am or whether that little incident will ever amount to anything.  But it’s too much at one time.  This place isnt safe anymore.  I need to get away for a while, maybe quite a while.  My breathing slows to normal as i reach a stone bridge that spans a little pewter colored  inlet.  I hear they’re really muddy on the bottom so it’s not a place to scuba dive.  I see gulls for the first time in months.  I was beginning to think they’d gone extinct too.

A sour wind stirs in the palm fronds and scrub pines and I recognize the smell of garbage.  Someone dumped a full garbage bag in the street and the sea birds are fighting over it.  It makes me uneasy because it’s not something I’ve seen for a while.  I get the impression that as deserted as this town seems there are all kinds of people in hiding.  It’s scary.  I do my share of hiding and being low profile but maybe not enough.  I guess with fewer people there are plenty of ways to hide.

When I get home it doesnt seem like it’s been disturbed.  I always put the car inside the garage because if I didnt it might end up on blocks when I got back to it.  The touch pad is a pain in this ass and my password is uninspired but it serves well enough.  I type my kung fu is good and hit enter and the sliding door opens and yawns politely.  I go inside and close and lock the door and go into the house thru the kitchen.

Everything looks okay but I’m too skittish to risk staying.  I wonder whether to eat something but am afraid to stick around.  I have a go bag in the closet and I take it and an already packed suitcase and a frame backpack and schlep them into the car.  Then I open the garage door and lock it from the outside and drive off.  I have to force myself to slow down so I dont attract attention until I am out of town.  I’m heading north but not to Savannah.  Farther north than that.

It occurs to me that I didnt even say goodbye to the house.  I know it’s eccentric to say goodbye to an inanimate object but I am nothing if not eccentric.  It happens when you live alone for as long as I have.  But that’s a bad thought that opens up a blast furnace door over a seething, writhing pit of memories that I am just able to close before I start crying.

The coastal plain of Georgia is flat as a pancake and depressing looking.  I head inland and as I am driving thru Swainsboro I see a hill.  A gorgeous little hill made all the more beautiful by the fact that i have not seen one in years.  There will be lots of them where I’m headed but they will be nothing like this one.  A cop behind me turns on his flashers and noise and I panic and slam on the brakes and pull over but it’s not me he’s after.  Looks like he’s pulled an old lady over for driving too slow but as i pass them i see he’s stopped an old man for Driving While Black.

And I am glad to see the city limits of this foul little town, hill or no hill.

The Beach 3

After I get back from Savannah I decide to take another beach walk, this time with ID in case the cops harass me again.  I am walking past the spot where the man had swum out to sea to commit suicide when I realize I’m being watched.

Maybe when i filter out the noise of the surf there’s too much left over.  But I know!  I look anxiously at the empty houses a couple of hundred feet away.  I’ve never liked those things.  For decades there have been more empty houses than homeless people even now with the population at only one billion.  I look casually around me but see nothing.

I’ve almost written it off to paranoia as I am approaching a sand dune.  That’s when somebody steps out from behind the high weeds growing sideways from the dune and stands in my path about twenty feet away.  When I look behind me I see another figure running toward me and another from the side.  This is a way of doing a mugging called canyoning.  The one in front is to distract you and is usually the weakest.  I run right at him and knock him down and stomp on his face and stomach.  That leaves the other two.

The one on the side reaches me and I throw a handful of sand in his face and lay him out.  That leaves the one who was behind me.  He stops ten feet away and I look at him.  He starts running away toward the empty houses and I do not run after him.  I am glad I have shoes on.  I break into a jog and then a slow run.  I have got to get out of here before a cop sees me.  It was self-defense but it wouldnt come out that way in court.



The Devil, Jesus and Me

There’s voices in my head

That will never get out

Just when i think they’re dead

Is when they begin to shout


I see things all the time

That arent even there

They’re worse in the nighttime

Like a Satanic prayer


In the room is Jesus

But he wont look at me

His passion never seized us

But the devil’s the key


The more pills they give me

The crazier i get

They dont hear that you see

But i’m not dead just yet


They’re putting thoughts in my head

And i need a tin foil hat

I’m restrained in a bed

And here comes Jesus with a baseball bat