An American Failure: Confronting Urban Homelessness

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Nashville alley. Copyright 2018 Jonny Eberle.

Last week, while attending a conference in Nashville, Tennessee, I had a chance to walk around the downtown area. Traveling alone has always been something I’ve enjoyed. I can give myself permission to wander without any destination in mind — it’s a great way to get immersed in a new city. Without anyone else to distract my attention, I was also freed up to observe the details I might otherwise gloss over.

Nashville is a beautiful city with amazing music on display seemingly everywhere, a thriving food scene and fascinating history. But like so many urban cores in America, it also has something else — a homelessness problem. In the span of four blocks, I passed two people panhandling, one person sleeping on the steps of a church (appropriately named St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows), and one person loudly talking to himself.

It was overwhelming. My first instinct was to ignore it, as most of us do, as I typically do on any given day. But then I changed my mind. I decided that instead of pretending that a homeless person wasn’t there, that I was going to notice them. I was going to make eye contact and acknowledge their existence.

That night, on my way to an event after the conference, I heard someone say, “Please, sir, will you stop a moment?” I stopped. A woman was sitting in the doorway of a closed office building. There were tears in her eyes.

“Please,” she said. “I am thirty-eight dollars away from making rent this month. I have three kids and five grandbabies at home. Can you spare anything?”

I asked what her name was. It was Antoinette. She told me that she was selling newspapers to raise money — one dollar per copy. I told her that I would gladly buy a copy. I told her that I would be happy to buy one from her. I gave her a dollar and let her know that I hoped her luck turned around. She thanked me and I continued on my way.

The newspaper was a short tabloid filled with short articles by homeless people in Nashville, telling their stories. Side note: For my readers in the Tacoma area, please check out One Person’s Trash, a similar publication that is written by the homeless and sold around the city. It’s an amazing concept that helps a lot of people. Please support them when you can.

Today, I find myself thinking about Antoinette and wondering if she was able to get enough money to pay her rent or if she and her family were going to end up on the street. And I’m thinking about how many of us — myself included — blissfully ignore the tragedies playing out on our streets every day and every night.

Maybe she was putting on act. I have no idea. We tell ourselves that people begging on the street are scamming us; it makes it easier to pass by without engaging them because we believe that we’re wise to the scheme. But what worries me is the possibility that some percentage (and I suspect it’s high, though I have no data to support it) of the people asking us for money really are at the lowest point in their life and have no other choice. That’s been eating at me all week.

It easy for those of us with the luxury of a roof over our heads and enough money in the bank to cover our basic needs to pretend that there isn’t a problem, but there is. Our cities are blighted. Poverty is all around us, but it appears to be most concentrated in our urban cores. This will only get worse as we react to suburbanization and downtown areas are subject to the forces of gentrification (and the increased cost of living that comes with it).

Giving a dollar to every person you see on the street will not solve this epidemic. Corralling the homeless into a tent city or another central space away from view will not solve this epidemic.

As a society, we have failed. The problem isn’t confined to Nashville. In every city in America, people are sleeping in doorways tonight. That should not be normal. We have failed to provide a safety net for our neighbors when they hit hard times. We have failed to prioritize affordable housing, accessible physical and mental healthcare, job placement and training, livable wages, good public education, veteran support, and strong communities that don’t let their residents fall through the cracks.

We are all at fault and it will take a concerted effort by all of us to create solutions to this vast array of problems. We are all one stroke of bad luck from finding ourselves without a job, without enough money to pay our bills, without a safe place to sleep. We owe it to each other to do better.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his monthly newsletter for exclusive content and recommended reads.

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The First Ten Thousand Words

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Lean-to on the beach. Astoria, OR. Photo copyright Jonny Eberle.

This year, I committed to writing a novel. This week, I crossed the ten thousand word mark. After months of working on my premise, dreaming about the plot, and writing dialogue in my head, it’s starting to feel real. So, I thought I would share how I’m feeling at various stages of the process.

The first ten thousand words of a novel are a wild thing. You don’t know if it’s friendly or dangerous, predator or prey, but you can feel it breathing and you know that’s alive and beautiful. No one else has ever seen it before — you are the first to lay eyes on it. It is yours and yet still untamed, belonging to no one but itself. You find yourself drawn to it. You need to understand it.

The first ten thousand words are the unwrapping of a package that’s secured with glue and tape and twine and layers of sturdy paper. Each layer reveals another layer you didn’t know existed and only slowly do you start to get glimpses beneath the brown paper at the glistening thing within. You want nothing more than to unwrap the whole thing now, but you know that it will be more rewarding to take your time and inspect each facet as it comes into view.

The first ten thousand words are the planting of a flag on a desolate shore. Passersby scoff at you, but they can only see the sand. They cannot see the possibilities. They cannot see the city that you will build here. They cannot imagine how something so great can start out so humbly. You build a home on the desolate shore. Someday, it will seem small, but not today. Today, it is a palace.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. His latest short story, The Disappeared, appears in Creative Colloquy Vol. 4, which you can find at King’s Books in Tacoma. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his monthly newsletter for exclusive content and recommended reads.

The Birthday Resolutions Ride Again

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Approaching another year with caution, as one does. Photo by the incomparable Stephanie Eberle. Copyright 2017.

Resolutions are funny things. Every year, I make myself a series of promises and every year, I break most of those promises. And yet, I keep making resolutions on my birthday, because while I’m not good at fulfilling them, I still find value in the tradition — in aspiring to do better and be better each year.

This year, as I dive headlong into my late-20s, I’m making three resolutions and if I’m lucky, I may even keep them this time. Hope springs eternal.

1. Complete the first draft of my novel

Astute readers of this blog will probably recognize this one. Last year, I laid out an ambitious goal to write a novel by my 30th birthday. In my original plan, I was going to finish the first draft last year and, well, it didn’t quite work out that way. So, this year I’m going to attempt a new first draft, this time based on a different premise that I’ve been cooking up. With my self-imposed deadline looming, I’m giving myself until November to complete the draft (around 100,000 words). This is a monumental undertaking, but I’m excited about this idea and I’m determined to get it finished.

2. Learn to Accept My Limitations

As I get older, I like to think that I also get a little wiser and a little more humble. I used to think that I could do it all. It turns out I don’t have unlimited time, boundless energy and barrels of talent that I used to believe I possessed — and that’s okay. I have obligations that I must keep; relationships that I must nourish. I can’t follow every harebrained idea that pops into my head. This year, I want to continue to learn how to reel myself back in. Limitations are necessary and by respecting my own limits, I’ll have to be more discerning in my endeavors. From now on, I want to devote my resources to doing a few things exceptionally well, rather than taking on multitudes poorly.

3. Enjoy the Process

In writing and in life, I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to either dwell on the past or start imagining the future. I like spending time reflecting and dreaming, but I don’t want to be so distracted from where I am in the present. I’m writing a novel. I’m young and living in a vibrant, interesting city. These are the years to soak in my experiences and savor the details so that I can draw on them later. I cannot write about fictional lives without living my own life. I want to remember that this year and enjoy the process of accumulating stories.

What are your resolutions for this year? Let me know in the comments!

— 30 —

Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. Today is his birthday. His latest short story, The Disappeared, appears in Creative Colloquy Vol. 4, which you can find at King’s Books in Tacoma. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his monthly newsletter for exclusive content and recommended reads.

Full Circle: 2017 Year in Review

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Fulton Orrery, Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Earlier this year, we were in Glasgow, Scotland at the Kelvingrove Museum. In one of the upstairs rooms, I remember being captivated by an antique orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system. Built by a Scottish cobbler in 1833, the orrery has 200 moving parts and simulates the movement of the planets as they were known in the 19th century. I lingered near the exhibit for a long time, taking photos of it before moving on.

Now, seven months later, on the very last night of the year, I find myself thinking about the orrery again. Like the brass gears moving miniature planets in neat, circular orbits, the year 2017 has taken me full circle — both physically and mentally.

Some things haven’t changed. I’m still struggling to find the time and motivation to write. Blog topics come infrequently. The novel manuscript I planned to complete this year stalled out. My stage play was rejected from every festival I submitted to.

And yet, some things are radically different. I took a chance and applied for a new job where I work. I stood on the sacred Isle of Iona and sat among ruins a thousand years old. I watched the Moon nearly blot out the Sun. I rode a cable car in San Francisco and hiked to an emerald green pool in Zion Canyon. I finished a short story that’s plagued me for five years and got it published in Creative Colloquy Volume 4. I’ve spent lazy summer afternoons reading with my soulmate, baked a blackberry pie from scratch and seen many of my closest friends — even those living four states away.

Our lives are made up of these little cycles. Days. Weeks. Months. Seasons. Orbits around the Sun. Much of it is repetition. We wake, we eat, we go to work, we sleep and we repeat the process. It’s not all bad. Habits help ground us. And without the mundane, how could we recognize the extraordinary? If it wasn’t for all of the overcast days, I probably wouldn’t take so much pleasure in a beautiful, sunny day.

Here, on the cusp of the new year, I look forward to coming full circle in 2018 and seeing the brilliance among the ordinary. I hope you see it, too.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and traveler based in Tacoma, WA. His latest short story, The Disappeared, appears in Creative Colloquy Vol. 4 and can be found at King’s Books in Tacoma. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his monthly newsletter for exclusive content and recommended reads.

Wired for Story

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Brain

I don’t know about you, but I’m always writing stories in my head. A snippet of interesting conversation, an observation on the street, a song on the radio — my brain will wheel off on a creative tangent. I hear dialogue in restaurants. I imagine plot twists on my drive to and from the office. I don’t know what causes it, but I have always been wired for story.

I’ve heard that sculptors can see the finished piece in a hunk of raw marble and that composers can hear melodies that don’t yet exist. I think a writer’s brain must work the same way, because whether I have time to address the thought or not (more often not), these stories ricochet around in the echo chamber of my mind all day, every day. I can’t help it and even if I could turn it off, I wouldn’t want to.

It’s like having second sight. For everything that crosses my path, I can invent a backstory, a character or an entire fictional world from out of nowhere. I carry around a  notebook in a vain attempt to capture it, but 99% of the stories that flicker, unbidden, into existence escape me a moment later. Those that I do manage to hold onto for any length of time are often difficult to transcribe without losing some of their organic sheen. When I’m lucky, a story that I thought I’d lost will return and stay long enough to become tangible words on a page. Those are the ones worth waiting for.

I don’t tell you this to make myself seem like I have a special ability. I don’t. I might pay more attention to it, but I think we’re all wired this way. It’s what sets humanity apart — our imagination. We all have the power to see or hear things that never were and make them real. But you do have to slow down to give it time to work. What are the moments that cause you to ask, “What if?” What would happen if you allowed yourself room to answer that question? That’s all that writers do differently. Anyone can do it.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA who has more stories whirling around his head than he knows what to do with. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his monthly newsletter for exclusive content and recommended reads.

Permission to Write Something That Sucks

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Screenshot-2017-10-25 Bethany ( heartforhugs) • Instagram photos and videos

Photo by Bethany Popkes. She’s a good friend and an excellent portrait photographer. Find her on Instagram.

It’s been one month since I’ve looked at my novel draft. Despite setting myself a lofty goal of completing a first draft by the end of the year, I stalled out. As much as I would like (and have tried) to blame my characters or my word count goals or the ergonomics of my keyboard, I can’t.

I’ve been purposely avoiding it, worried that I’ll mess it up if I write another word. Several times this year, I considered throwing it all out and starting over. Starting is easy. But soon after those well thought-out, well-polished early chapters, the novel started to morph into something else and it wasn’t pretty. It was clunky.

This is hard for me. I’m a perfectionist. I don’t want to commit to paper words that I may have to scrap later. My instinct is to edit as I go — and it’s killing my novel. I can’t go on expecting amazing words to flow from my brain to my fingers. That expectation is suffocating my inspiration and strangling my productivity. Perfection requires iteration; it doesn’t happen on the first try and anyone who thinks so isn’t likely to be a success at writing novels.

So, I’m giving myself permission to write something that sucks.

I’m giving myself the go-ahead to write cheesy dialogue when necessary and sloppy exposition for the sake of continuing the story. Now is not the time to fuss over the language or to worry about continuity. Now is the time to write wildly. I’m going to completely alter my protagonist’s backstory and motivation mid-draft, and that’s okay. Logic is for second drafts.

For the next nine weeks, I’m giving myself carte blanche to do what it takes to finish this draft of my novel, because the alternative is not writing at all and that’s just not who I am. If you’re like me and stuck in perfectionism paralysis, I give you permission to write something that sucks, too.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker who is trying to be better about taking Anne Lamott’s tried and true advice. Follow me on the Twitter machine and subscribe to my monthly newsletter for exclusive content and recommended reads.

Lies, Damn Lies and Fiction

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Based on a True Story 10_01_17

Photo adapted from original by docentjoyce. Used under Creative Common license.

Two years ago, I read a short story I had written called “The Cannibals of Kitsap.” The story follows a boy who develops an eating disorder after his father loses his job. After the reading, a woman walked up to ask me how the story ended. “Did your father find another job after that,” she asked. I was thrown off. She thought the plot was autobiographical, that this had actually happened to me. I had to admit that everything was fabricated, based on an idea I’d had rather than reality.

As writers, one of the first pieces of advice many of us receives is to “write what you know.” Some people take that advice literally and only write about their own experience. Many readers have caught on and expect that the all fiction is thinly veiled personal recollection. That may work for some writers, but my life isn’t all that interesting. Fiction should be grounded in reality, but I don’t like limiting myself to my own life. My imagination is not that small, nor are those of most writers I know.

This week, I’ll be playing with the idea of truth and lies in fiction as part of the third annual Creative Colloquy Crawl. I’ll be hosting a reading at on Tuesday, October 3 at 8pm at Doyle’s Public House called “Lies, Damn Lies and Fiction.” Local writers Jenni Prange Boran, Sam Snoek-Brown and Jonah Barrett will share stories and then we’ll have a Q&A style discussion about what in their work is based on true events and what is made-up. The Creative Colloquy Crawl is a literary pub crawl in downtown Tacoma that brings together lovers of the written word together for an evening of great storytelling. I hope to see you there!

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA. His fiction has appeared in Creative Colloquy.

Follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter to receive exclusive content.

New Short Story: “How to Steal Copper Wire”

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A few years ago, a news article caught my attention. An epidemic was sweeping the nation — copper wire theft. People were stealing wire from streetlights and utilities and many of them were getting killed by electrocution in the process. I remember thinking it was a strange kind of crime. Not long after, I saw another article. Copper thieves were popping up in Tacoma and were ripping wire from streetlights all over the city, causing 56 outages and raking in a few thousand dollars. The problem was so widespread, that the city was undertaking a huge effort to replace the copper in its streetlights with less valuable aluminum. There was a story there, so I wrote it down in the my notebook.

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Four years later, as I thought about writing a crime story from a criminal’s perspective, I remembered this curious bit of news. And I thought it might be interesting to frame is as a second-person how-to article, like one of the millions of lists all over the Internet, but a guide for criminals just starting out. “How to Steal Copper Wire” was born.

Now, despite the title, I’m not actually going to tell you how to commit this crime. That would be wrong and probably get me into trouble. I’m also not going to spoil it by telling you what it’s actually about. For that, you’ll just have to check it out for yourself:

Read “How to Steal Copper Wire” on Creative Colloquy

Let me know what you think!

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and fictional criminal mastermind in Tacoma, WA. His fiction has appeared in Creative Colloquy.

Follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter to receive exclusive content.

Wiseguys with Fedoras in the Shadows: Why I Love Telling Noir Stories

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I’ve always loved a good crime drama. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with the film noir classics — Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, D.O.A., Dark Passage. There is something about the tense atmosphere and moral ambiguity of the genre that fascinates me. A sense of doom permeated those films, especially the ones made during the years of the Hays Code, when the studios would not allow depictions of murderers and thieves getting away with their crimes. You knew that eventually, the protagonist was going to run out of time and be caught or killed, but didn’t know when or how they would meet their end.

I was so enamored with the genre that during my freshman year of college, I set out to make a film noir movie of my own. I never quite managed to finish the script (sadly, I cannot even remember what the story was supposed to be about), but I was in love with playing with the tropes of film noir; the black and white; the shadows; and fedoras. Obscure Studios wound up only making a 52-second trailer for The Third Degree. It’s amateurish and embarrassing to the point of causing me pain to rewatch, but it also captures some of the dark mood, gritty style, over-the-top drinking, and corny dialogue of my favorite crime thrillers of the 1940s. Maybe someday, I’ll come back to it and give it a face-lift.

It’s been a while since I’ve ventured into the seedy underbelly of the city in my storytelling and as summer gives way to fall, my thoughts have turned to heists, foul play, and the desperate acts of self preservation that push a person to commit crime.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who starts thinking about whodunits when September rolls around. This month’s Creative Colloquy is themed around crime fiction, so if you’re in the mood for mystery, you can come hear me read my latest short story at our next gathering. In “How to Steal Copper Wire,” I put a modern twist on classic noir staples and do a little digging into what motivates people to turn to illegal acts.

If you’re in Tacoma, you should stop by to hear it. The reading is at Black Kettle Bites and Brew this Monday, September 18 at 7pm. I’ll be spinning my yarn alongside awesome local writers Jack Cameron, Leah Mueller, and James A. Gilletti. Hope to see you there for a night of murder, mayhem, and intrigue.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, filmmaker (though mostly of poorly lit trailers for unmade movies) in the City of Destiny.

Follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter to receive exclusive content.