couple of quail

Photo by Steve Wall

On Literary Relationships

It’s six a.m. in Savannah and the email I’ve been waiting for arrives, the subject simply “poem.” My husband is in Prague for five weeks at the Prague Summer Program, and by now he’s been up for hours, writing, going for a run along the Vltava River, now sitting down to a leisurely lunch. We talk daily, chatting for a moment here or there, but I look forward most to these emails that give me a window into what he’s thinking, what’s really going on.

I never thought a relationship with another writer would work, at least for me. The few men I dated who claimed the title seemed self-important, dabblers, and their approach to craft was not the same as mine. I was afraid to share my work, as much of it came from my personal life. (And in college—God! I bordered on confessional!) I was reluctant to reveal a side of myself I knew instinctively they would not understand.

What I see now is they were writers, not readers. My literary relationships now are based around one fact, and it isn’t publications. We read each other’s work with the respect it deserves. Sometimes that means confronting uncomfortable truths, or pushing someone out of a rut.

It’s competitive. Reading his lines awakens something in my brain, and by 10:30 a.m. I’ve fired one back at him. In Prague it will be late afternoon, and he’ll be finished writing for the day, enjoying a cold beer. The afternoon light will make him reflective. His poem earlier was about language, and touch, and that reminded me of a storm that passed through days before, bending the live oaks. But when I’ve finished the draft and come out of whatever trance I’ve entered, I see it’s about loss. The poem is sad. The poem misses someone. I hit send.

Our lives do not revolve around poetry. I, in particular, have a regular 9-5 job I enjoy. We go to dinner, work in the yard, talk about our friends and family. But when there is a week we are both writing, I’ll get an email. Subject: poem. Message: Drinks? Our date night is our workshop of two, and when we really go at it we spare no hurt feelings.

I know what lines he’ll like, what lines he won’t. I write them anyway. I tease him about his horrible titles. Sometimes he takes my advice, sometimes he doesn’t. I don’t edit myself, and neither does he. But talking about our work is another way of talking about ourselves, our partnership, negotiating our separate and shared paths. We push each other, in writing as in life, to grow. My husband loves me because he loves my work, the voice I only use on the page. He gets me. When we talk about a poem together I feel well and truly heard. And through his imagery I can see what he remembers, what’s important to him. Through his syntax I can understand his sense of order, and of time.

The poem he sends back is filled with such personal memories I blush reading it. Not for publication, that one. But he is saying he received my message, he understands, that we are in this limbo of separated lovers together. Later when we chat over Skype, I tell him about that summer storm, the ants that have invaded the azaleas, the weather in Savannah. I tell him I liked his poem, but the title needs work.

Laura Davenport’s poetry has appeared in Meridian, Crab Orchard Review, New South, and Best New Poets 2009, among others. She is the recipient of the Meridian Editors’ Prize and the Richmond Magazine/James River Writers’ Best Poem Award. She received an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010.

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Playing cards

Photo by Will Cheyney

On Bitterness

I’ll confess right away to being a hypocrite. I’ve written a lot about the unseemliness of bitterness in the past, of the very human petty envies that arise when we make the mistake of measuring our success (or lack thereof) by that of our writing peers. It’s best to be humble, we’re told by people like me, but here’s a crucial caveat I forgot to mention: there is nothing worse than fake humbleness—the culling of appearances for a crowd. So here I am to admit it: sometimes I get bitter, y’all. Sometimes I find I know absolutely nothing about what constitutes “good fiction” because what I’m told is great fiction just doesn’t appeal to me, and I get low. I get blue, and then I get red. I get all the colors. My weapon of choice has always been sarcasm of the self-depreciative variety (humor is almost always anger with its make-up on, quoth Stephen King). You can always tell I’m having a bad rejection day if my Facebook status is a joke about how much I suck, how much the publishing industry/literary world befuddles me, or some oblique crack about really successful authors. This is my way of self-wallowing, but also of attempting to reach out to fellow writers who, like me, are still very low on the literary totem pole. Every day I fight a war with cynicism, which comes naturally to me but I’m convinced is the most unproductive force there is. Maybe I’ve been grounding the lesser angels of my nature lately, stewing in my own bitter juices because I’m racking up an impressive streak of consecutive rejections of late. At times like this, when I am not unlike Arya – ritualistically repeating the name of everyone who has ever rejected me like a prayer at night, vowing my revenge, dreaming of the day I am some Big Shit, as if they will all cluck their lips in unison someday at having missed out on one of the great voices of the 21st century – I know, deep down, I truly am competitive. I once thought otherwise.

Even writers are human too, I suppose. A little bitterness is unavoidable, especially when you’re just starting out. And while it doesn’t make you a bad person, I’m still convinced it does more harm than good, and when we find ourselves getting bitter about this or that, maybe it’s best to remind ourselves, logically, why exactly it won’t get us the results we so greedily yearn for.

It’s not that bitterness can’t drive you to succeed. In psychology, overcompensation is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m certain some of history’s biggest success stories were written by individuals whose passion to succeed was at least fueled somewhat by pure bitterness: a chip on their shoulder, a humiliating moment that slow burned into something greater, an unjust scar, a healthy hunger for praise that had never come their way, in spite of their hard work, because it was all being stolen away by someone whose success was merely good luck or due to connections or some other excuse that mugs them of the rightful merit of their own creations and arduous labor.

No, it’s not that it can’t drive you to succeed (it certainly can) but how it drives you to succeed. At the moment we begin to lop the wings off the greater angels of our nature, we get stupid. We get sloppy. We get greedy to make a name for ourselves when the name isn’t what matters, or what should matter—it’s the stories. The writing. It’s always been the writing. Maybe we adopt trends that we see as shortcuts to publication, which cheats us out of the tales we should be telling—the ones only we can tell. Maybe we make a fool of ourselves in front of peers, which makes of us an ass, breeding a contemptuous community in an already incestuous environment. Maybe we discount the hard work of our peers, letting our ego eclipse the truth, that Yes, while luck is a great big variable in the writing world and sometimes it goes our way and sometimes it doesn’t, often the people who have success have been whittling sentences for years, developing their craft, and they are not without their own rejection streaks. (Who knows, once upon a time maybe even they were prone to bitterness?) But the worst is that it cheats us of our precious energies – the stuff we should be pouring into our work, we instead pour into secretly deriding others. That most rare ingredient to the cultivation of our talent: time, is squandered for the sake of whining about what we feel we’re owed, a rather entitled notion.

The default state of the writer is that of perpetual rejection for a reason, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am reminded of that Twilight Zone episode in which a dead gambler is welcomed into a glittering casino paradise with sumptuous foods where he proceeds to win time and time again, day after day, week after week, until the winning becomes tedious, meaningless. Finally, he turns to an angel: Heaven ain’t for me, he tells her. Oh, this isn’t heaven, the angel replies.

Rejection, denial, and invalidation all give meaning to our victories. Without them, we’d have nothing by which to measure our success. We’d have nothing to celebrate. Bitterness, while perfectly human and understandable, is the secret assumption we are owed something. When times get bitter, we’d benefit greatly from adopting a new mantra: We are owed nothing. We are owed nothing, because writing is a privilege. Creativity is a privilege. The opportunity to tell a story is a privilege, and praise is never automatic. Nor should it be.

Matthew Burnside is author of Escapologies (Red Bird Chapbooks), Infinity’s Jukebox (Passenger Side Books), Book of If&Ever, a chapbook of flash fables for charity (Red Bird), and the forthcoming Ritual Hauntings (Patasola Press). Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, PANK, Kill Author, Gargoyle, Hobart, NAP, OmniVerse, and others. He currently teaches creative writing for new media at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, keeps a list of his sins at, and occasionally makes fun of himself at

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abstract hand

Photo by geir tønnessen

The Autobiographical Trauma

There is a recent, though hardly new, trend in trauma writing. In particular, trauma is often the first and sometimes, only, aspect relayed in the writing – we as the readers know the manipulation, the abuse, the violence, the mental and physical breakdowns. And while it can be satisfying to know the trauma firsthand, I find that isn’t my compulsion as a reader. I’d rather know the experience of trauma, or at least have a chance at reading it; I’d rather write and read the constraints of the disturbing experience, the real and figurative room where I could be placed, and the heightened and muffled sensations of physical and emotional injuries. In other words, I don’t necessarily want to be told the trauma. I don’t think that name-dropping and fact-giving is as important as simply writing what it means to have been traumatized.

Of course, names and facts can be a part of the trauma writing; that isn’t what I question. I think “giving away the trauma” is an easy excuse to avoid writing what can be written. It’s what I did for a long time, writing narratives which gave away the trauma in the first line and never returned to them. I avoided confronting what I’ve been trying to write by giving it up to begin with.

I spent the latter half of the past spring editing and rearranging my poetry manuscript, an act I’ve tried to avoid. The idea of revising and revamping my thesis was daunting not so much because of the act, but because of the content. I couldn’t write the trauma. I couldn’t write in standard written English, “This is my trauma, and here is what it comprises.” I couldn’t even tell myself what I wanted to write, though I knew it. I thought the world knew about my writer’s block, and I started to avoid talking about my writing, which wasn’t the easiest feat while finishing up an MFA degree. Everybody talked about their writings, and if they didn’t, they asked about mine. This was a comforting sense of community, but also an enclosed one, seemingly heightened by the limited MFA writing days I had left.

Finally, Jane Miller called me into her office to give me a preview of my thesis defense, though the preview was precisely yet imprecisely not how my defense would play out. She asked about my use of trauma in my poetry, and why I felt compelled to withhold its details on the page. “Because,” I said, “you don’t need to know the trauma. You as the reader want to know how it feels to write the experience; you don’t need the vehicle of trauma to tell it.”

“Very interesting,” Jane said in that comforting, allusive, and prelude-to-a-backhanded compliment way she has. “It is striking how illuminating you are about the act of writing for someone who doesn’t pay attention to her own life.”

I wouldn’t think about trauma and trauma writing until two months later, when, in pre-July 4th festivities, my friends and I trekked to Tucson’s Best Western for karaoke night. The bar was fairly empty for the Thursday night with only a handful of mostly older, male rednecks singing drunkenly to ‘70s and ‘80s tunes. My three male friends surrounded me on all sides and told me to ignore the men. Still, they left at some point for drinks, the bathroom, cigarette breaks. Three guys came up and flirted with me, but gave up when I didn’t budge.

Then a couple walked into the bar, already boisterous from drink. The woman, a forty-something, talkative German, introduced herself as a tourist. She introduced herself to each of my friends, but when she got to me, she stopped and pointed at my lips. “Are you Korean?” she asked. “I can tell by your smile; all they do is smile.”

Never mind that I’d shake my head and say, as nicely as I could muster, that I wasn’t Korean, and that her assertion was racist and rude. Never mind that despite my attempts to avoid her, despite my saying, “I’m busy; let me respond to this e-mail,” she’d come back to me and say, “When you smile, I can sleep better at night.” Never mind that when she introduced me to her husband, he, too, would place a hand at my nape and squeeze it.

The thing about trauma that’s easy to remember is its inherent fear. I could write that I’m a strong-willed and stubborn writer in my mid-twenties, that I easily lend my opinions on politics, literature, and jazz. That I was seized with fear – an old fear which has roots in as early as my eight-year-old self, and from similar situations with grown men and women who were preoccupied with what has been termed my “exotic looks” – made me incredibly shamed and reserved. That’s why I didn’t tell my friends that the woman was bothering me, more than they had seen. Private shame and fear, arguably the most binding tenets of trauma.

When one of my friends went to get another drink and the other two stepped outside for cigarettes, I went to the one place where I thought they couldn’t bother me – the bathroom. When I opened the bathroom stall, I found myself face-to-face with the German lady, who had followed me into the bathroom. “Slanty gook,” she said. “Why won’t you smile for me?”

I don’t know how many racial epithets were thrown before I realized I hadn’t left the stall, and she was blocking my exit. I stepped forward and she didn’t budge. I asked her to move and she stepped forward, partly into the stall. I said I needed to pee again and made as if to close the door, and I slammed the door hard into her stomach.

“Blöde Fotze!” she yelled, falling back against the nearby sink counter. She didn’t seem fazed, though. “Why are you so exotic?” she asked, as I ran out the bathroom.

It took another fifteen minutes of Bon Jovi and Bonnie Tyler and Sinatra before I started crying, and my roommate led me to the car and said we were going home. Even after he realized she had been harassing me, and said he loved me and wanted to know, I didn’t say what had happened. “Nothing,” I said.

“Do you pay attention to your life?” he said. “You are crying, and you never cry. You can tell me anything. I’m not going anywhere.”

And that’s how Jane Miller’s Two Cardinal Rules for Writing and Living came into mind. “One,” she always told me in and out of class, “Pay attention to your goddamn life.”

“And two: connecting with people – maybe there is nothing else more important on this earth.”

Why the attention to detail, then, of what can hardly be easy to admit? To relinquish trauma, to recount details of shameful and scary moments which still provoke my nightmares and make me wonder if I’ve done anything to elicit my traumas? What is the purpose of beginning to write and speak about what most disturbs me?

One: my writing. Once I returned to my poetry manuscript and wrote, “The sex was cut/ in the print of a meadowlark,” I felt I had written a truthful experience, even if might be blurred and at times, possibly imagined. I commanded the autobiographical “I,” and this “I,” even as I don’t identify entirely with my poetry’s speaker, is mine. All mine. Nobody, least of all a drunk German tourist, can take that away from me.

And that’s freeing. So is talking to the people around me, the ones who are there for me despite my trauma at being harassed at karaoke night for something other than my singing. This is the “I” whom I want to write, the writer who doesn’t shy away her friends – all of whom said they would’ve gotten down and dirty and defended my honor had they known – and the one who isn’t ashamed of her voice, which can do more than I’ve been giving her credit for. Ariana Reines says it best in Coeur de Lion:

          Now that I am not addressing you
          But the “you” of poetry
          I am probably doing something horrible and destructive.
          But this “I” is the I of poetry
          And it should be able to do more than I can do.

Sylvia Chan is a poet and fiction writer. Recent work appears in Seneca Review. A San Francisco East Bay native, she teaches creative writing and composition at the University of Arizona.

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Tim Johnston on today’s bonus essay: When I was younger, I thought tied bed sheets were step one to escaping prison. Weren’t there cartoon characters like or not like Donald Duck using bedding as Rapunzel hair? Didn’t Ernest? Didn’t that kid in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? And now that I’ve spent a month sleeping in a bed that is not my own (I’m a subleaser), I’m aware of the personalities bed sheets can take on, how, no matter how long an absence, no matter how many heavy-wash cycles, others linger on, and I’m irked that it has taken me so long to fall asleep comfortably, as though I were warming up to a person, learning quiet intrinsicities. That is all I know about bed sheets. And now this.

If No One Can Be Kept Safe At All Times

My older brother comes home from the juvenile detention center and tells us a story about how all of the products in the youth home were Bob Barker products. He says, Bob Barker everything. We are imagining Bob Barker the game show host of The Price is Right, and we don’t understand why he would put out a D-list line of toiletries, of clothing, you name it. Bob Barker, the game show host, did not make available a line of products that went straight to jails. Bob Barker Company, Inc., in North Carolina, however, is “America’s Leading Detention Supplier.” Bob Barker disposable clothing. Bob Barker toothbrushes. Bob Barker meal trays and tray carts. Bob Barker black and white slip-on shoes, reminiscent of Vans, the word INMATE on each side of each shoe. Bob’s Bargain Basement where there is a special deal on an “Officer’s Only” Scorpion Micro DV Recorder the size of your index finger for $89.95, out the door. Bob Barker sells restraints: Emergency Chair Restraint (“intended to control [the] combative, self destructive or potentially violent”), One-Man Restraint Chain, Smith & Wesson Transport Restraint, leather transport belts, Peerless Handcuffs: Standard, and, Smith & Wesson’s most popular handcuff: Smith & Wesson Model 100. Sheets: if a detainee wanted to attempt suicide, they would try to make nooses out of Bob Barker bed sheets, which are safe for everyone in both isolation and suicide-watch cells. It took all of my brother’s self-control not to steal something Bob Barker as a souvenir for me.

When I was admitted to the children’s unit of a psychiatric hospital in middle school, I remember eavesdropping on a conversation between two mental health workers on the ward about the sheets on the dorm-like, freakishly long twin beds. They said the sheets were not “suicide safe,” that other sheets on other wards they had worked on were not as easy to do self-harm with. “Look at the stitching,” one said. No one can be kept safe at all times, said the other. Suicide-safe bedding is more hard-wearing than average bedding, with no obvious stitching to bite or pull out, making the material harder to rip apart, to bunch together, to make a noose with. The mental health workers, when I was admitted, took away all the cliché items one might think would be taken away from a child that has attempted suicide (cord to stereo, shoelaces, pencils) but they did not take away a piece of leather strap hinged on top of my suitcase to aid in pulling the suitcase along, sturdy enough to asphyxiate myself with. They somehow overlooked this strap in the combing and excavating to keep me suicide safe. They did nothing about the sheets, too, what was perceived by those that were responsible for my care as unsafe. In the staff meeting at shift change, I watched the two mental health workers speak animatedly through the soundproof glass partition. The next week, men in light blue uniforms I had never seen before changed everyone’s sheets during gym time, but the sheets looked the same, and I have no idea if these two things are related.

What happens when we try to keep people safe but we cannot? What happens when we fail? Another leading maker of suicide and destruction safe items for jails and mental health facilities on the internet willingly resigns to this fact; they do not guarantee “indestructibility” in their products. Human beings will be human beings, if they want something bad enough they will find a way to get it, make it happen, et cetera. This leading maker of suicide and destruction-safe items produces makeshift mattresses that are see-through and cannot be picked or pulled apart, mattresses made for the floor of the archetypical “padded cell,” sometimes a round room with a locked door, a “think tank” it was called on the children’s unit, an “isolation/suicide” cell in the juvenile detention center. They produce restraints: Hand Control Mitt, Sleeper Jacket, Limbholders to restrain limbs to beds, chairs, tables (made from both disposable foam and reusable synthetic sheepskin). They produce “The Sani Belt,” made specifically for “the suicidal and self-destructive” female. It looks like a sanitary napkin belt from 1902, but cannot be used as a noose due to the material, which cannot be cinched into a knot and breaks away too easily to make a cord of any kind; one more way to keep people safe.

Katie Jean Shinkle is the author of one novel, Our Prayers After the Fire (forthcoming from Blue Square Press) and four chapbooks, most recently There Are So Many Things That Beg You For Love (on its way from Patasola Press). She is the associate editor of Denver Quarterly and an assistant poetry editor for DIAGRAM.

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Photo by Tom Rydquist

First, Please Yourself

About ten years ago I was fortunate enough to get the chance to meet Elizabeth Berg when she gave a talk at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Afterwards, as she signed my copy of her terrific novel Durable Goods, I asked if she had any advice for a young writer like me. After a moment of thought, she wrote underneath her signature: “First, please yourself.”

I didn’t understand what she meant. That was her biggest suggestion? Those were her magic words for building a life as a writer? It seemed a little… selfish. Shouldn’t writers think about their readers and fans? Editors and agents? Parents, friends, spouses, children?

Yet, the older I get and the more I write, the deeper Berg’s advice rings true to me.

As writers, we are so focused on the response of others to our work. We join critique groups and take writing workshops. We study the market, bounce ideas off others, absorb compliments and criticism, all with the goal of making our writing better. But if we always write to please other people, we’ll never be satisfied—because we can never please everyone.

Let’s face it: there will always be people with different tastes than your own. That’s life. But if you focus on pleasing yourself first, you’ll be armed with that self-knowledge when sifting through feedback. You’ll be able to revise and grow while staying true to your own vision.

Another secret about writing to please yourself? The writing comes easier.

When we write to please ourselves, our writing has that indefinable “spark,” that breath of life, that magic shimmering between the words on the page. When was the last time you picked up a pen with joyful abandon? When was the last time you wrote, not for anyone else to read, but for the simple exhilaration of creative expression?

Throughout the years, along with the successes I have been fortunate to experience, I have also faced plenty of criticism and setbacks. I remember one writing workshop in particular that made me question my vision and voice. I sat at a table with other writers, all of whom I admired, and listened to them pick apart the short story I had been working on for months. I wrote down their suggestions: what my story needed was an alcoholic character. Better yet, drugs. I should add some cursing and grittiness to my prose.

I nodded my head, but my heart sank. What if I didn’t want to write about drugs or violence?

The low point came when of the workshop participants accused me of not being “serious” about writing because I was largely writing stories with younger protagonists. “You need to spend time observing the real human condition,” she told me.

Dejected, I left the workshop wondering if she was right. Was I a phony?

But I found myself turning back to Elizabeth Berg’s advice: First, please yourself. What I once thought of as selfish now gives me strength.

I write stories with the goal of portraying the life I know honestly and with importance. That is what makes me a “serious” writer. In my opinion, anyone who actually sits down and takes the time to write is serious about it.

I realized it doesn’t matter what boxes other people—even if they are writers I admire—try to put me in. It doesn’t matter what rules they try to enforce. I can choose not to listen. In my own writing life, I get to set my own rules.

Howard Thurman famously said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And go do that. Because the world needs people who’ve come alive.”

To writers I say: Don’t write what you think the world needs. Write what makes you come alive—because the world needs writers and books that have come alive. Write what makes you happy. Write to please yourself.

Dallas Woodburn, a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her writing is forthcoming inAmerican Fiction 13: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by American Writers and has appeared in Superstition Review, The Nashville Review, Louisiana Literature, Ayris, Monkeybicycle, and The Los Angeles Times, among others. Connect with her on Twitter @DallasWoodburn and learn more about her youth literary organization “Write On!” at

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iguazu falls

Photo by Kevin Buehler

The Essential Swamp

I don’t believe in heaven, but I believe I’m being watched. During a bike ride, on my favorite trail that winds its way out to Payne’s Prairie, the trees intertwined over my head like pairs of hands, holding me there. It was humid. There was a pollen alert. I sneezed again and again. Four butterflies kept speed next to me, moving in to kiss each other, then separating, kissing, separating; all I could see was the shape they made in my periphery—a collapsible box, moving in and out. I thought to myself, “Pay attention, this is good shit.” My shoulders hurt from their usual rigid position, balled toward my neck, expecting the worst out of a beautiful spring Florida Friday. I thought through possible ways to relax and let in the creative energy that I was sure would wrap my worries in dough and bake them into place. As a fiction-writer, I hope to create something significant, something that promotes change, that affects another person, anything to prove I’m not wasteful, that my recent request for a day off from my paying job wasn’t completely moronic. I want to write a story that means something, without being too emotional, without giving too much away. Good luck with that, I heard the bugs say.

In an interview by Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace said, “Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naïve or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.”

What writer, especially the writer that feels suffocated by what she or he could say and constricted by the truth that she or he probably won’t say it, wouldn’t pause with curiosity, doubt, maybe a little bit of shame, at DFW’s words? However, an emotional pause all too often leads to a quick exit in order to avoid any true feelings that might manifest as a result of meaningful thoughts. Because that’s not clever. Sentiment is absolutely not clever. It is not a sheet, a quilt, a tarp I can hide behind. So my typical egotistical brain snips the route that carries sentiment. Goodbye, sentiment. I’m a writer, yes, but barely so—only backed by five serious years of trying—and I clunk around in these writer-boots my feet only half-fill, hoping that merely walking in them, nothing else, will lead to a good fit, a reason for wearing them. But I never tell the reader how I truly feel. Absolutely not. And it’s excruciating not to, but, in my corrupted modern opinion, it would be equally, if not more, excruciating to tell the truth.

My problem used to be the thinking that people cared what I had to say. My problem now is thinking that people don’t give a shit. The second is closer to the truth. And knowing that, what the hell is the point? Even now, writing this, I’m cutting the heart of out thoughts before they mature—getting it when it’s young, a tiny, flickering baby-bulb of a feeling, of many feelings—because such feelings are irrelevant, no one cares, and I have a headache. But isn’t the frightening truth of readers’ apathy what stems the question writers so often hear, the question that makes our feelers squirm: “Why do you write?” It’s what so many people want to know, including writers themselves.

My first semester as an MFA candidate at the University of Florida, David Leavitt assigned us Joy Williams’ essay “Why I Write.” He’d heard Joy Williams read the essay at the 2009 Tin House Summer Writers’ Conference. He said that she had the whole room. He said they were all like, “Well, shit.” After reading it myself, I understood what he meant. For me, it was in the closing line: “The writer writes to serve […] not himself and not others, but that cold elemental grace that knows us.”

That stuck me like a needle straight out of the freezer. Right. There.

On my bike ride, there was a turn off to an overlook, so I took it. The path encircled a bench where you could sit and watch the prairie exist. I sat. The wind shot out from a vast expanse of swamp that didn’t change. In fact, by definition, a swamp is an uncultivated ground where water collects, and if water collects, it isn’t moving, it’s collecting, festering, being there. And yet I still enjoyed looking at it, felt peace and awe in its presence, because it’s a true thing of nature. It is a swamp. A swamp is what it is. And there’s no disputing it. And so, is it possible, I wonder, for a person to create the exact same effect just by being exactly who they are?

As I sat there alone, nature put its relaxed hands over my ears so I could hear nothing but my own desire to create. It’s a realm many artists experience before something happens inside or outside their head that fuels their muse, pushes them into the temporary insanity of believing the connection they’re having with whatever source they’re connecting to will result in an output of work that matters. I pushed out my chest, leading with my heart, waiting for it.

But this uninterrupted time with nature was interrupted. The tick-tick-tick-tick of a bike invaded the left side of my creative zone. Since my bag and I were taking up the entire bench, the blobby person in the corner of my eye stared, hinting with his unwillingness to keep moving—he wanted to sit. I finally looked over. He was wearing a cyclist uniform and a helmet. This was a serious work out for him. He had to have been tired.

“Do you want to sit?” I asked.

“Please,” he said, in a voice that sounded as if it walked on a pillow, feathers, anything soft.

We sat in silence for almost a minute, and I wondered if this was truly happening, because how long can two strangers really sit in silence without one of them fleeing from the awkwardness?

He finally said, “There’re all these little things floating in the air.”

I nodded. I’d noticed them, too—little cotton puffs, or something. That was his conversation starter, and it worked. We exchanged names and ages (indirectly) and I honestly wanted him to go away. He was a kid—sophomore in college—and nice, I mean really nice. He asked if I was a student, and I explained that I was finished with graduate school and my fiancé was almost done. He asked what we planned to do. I told him I didn’t have a clue.

“Well,” he said, “I’m majoring in building construction. If I end up hating it, I’m moving to Costa Rica. If I end up liking it, I’m still moving to Costa Rica.”

He wasn’t afraid to look at me when he said this. After chatting for a while about surface topics, he said he needed to go study. I saluted him.

“Oh,” he said, “keep me in your thoughts next week. I’m turning twenty-one.”

“Oh,” I replied. “Well, don’t do what I did.” I told him I called an ambulance on myself in a blackout. “I don’t know how heavy a drinker you are, but be careful.”

He laughed and kicked the dirt. “I’ve actually never drank before.”

“Oh,” I said, and stopped there. I realized this conversation had held many “ohs.”

He told me his mom and sister were coming to Gainesville from his hometown in Sarasota and taking him to dinner. I told him that was really great, and meant it. It had taken me until recently to realize just how great something like that is. I wondered then if the reason he chose not to drink until he turned twenty-one was because that’s the rule. He followed the rules. And he’s moving to Costa Rica no matter what. It was completely interesting to me because he seemed to know who he was and how to be true to himself. That’s what I believe makes good writing—being exactly as you are, telling the truth as you know it, no matter what experiences you have behind you. Marilynne Robison discussed this idea in her essay on beauty that appeared in Tin House’s 50th issue: “For me, this is a core definition on beauty: that it is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.” As the young cyclist pedaled away, I was wrapped with an illusion that I knew him, though I didn’t know him at all. I thought about writing this essay in that moment and wanted to center it on this cyclist’s character, but I realized that if I wanted to really comment on something, I would have to be a little more familiar. I am thankful for the exchange, however, because it got me to look at myself. It got me thinking about truth.

Alone again at the swamp, I thought about my truth, the experiences that make me who I am. But how does a person determine whether or not an event is notable or life-changing? I went to Italy with my mother last summer. She has co-workers in northern and southern Italy, so we never had to pay for lodging, allowing for a two-week comfortable trip. Near the end, my mom wanted to show me Ravello, a small medieval town on the Amalfi Coast. Ravello is home to the Villa Chiambroni, which has a view known as “Infinity,” a terrace that overlooks lemon groves, vineyards, rooftops miles below, and the widest expanse of the Mediterranean and the cliffs surrounding it a person can see without being in a plane or helicopter. And I stood there after being blindly led to the very edge. Once my mother’s hands were removed from my face, I felt as if my own breath moved under my feet, suspending my body, creating a feeling of unease and relaxation and utter wonderment all at once. That night, my mother and I stayed up laughing together about nothing and everything. We talked about how love changes as you age, and how each year, we see the world differently than we thought we’d see it. My love and appreciation for my relationship with my mother beat against my bones. I was also reminded how much my mother loved me, how connected we were. I’d gotten sober in January of that year, and my mother arranged the entire trip to exclude situations that involved alcohol. That changed me more than the overlook—developing a special place of gratitude for my mother.

If I could look at a timeline that had large stone markers for life events, the most notable events might be: 1) getting married at twenty-one years of age because I wanted to prove I was a responsible person who did responsible things (and, at the time, being raised in Kansas, I thought responsible people got married as soon as possible, committed to another person), followed by separation and divorce a year later (I can’t really explain it other than I was acutely messed up—the guilt occasionally still bites); 2) stopping drinking because I had a problem stopping drinking; and 3) agreeing to marry again because I found the love you can barely talk about without breaking apart, but this is after a year of blustery relationship atmosphere as a direct result of said drinking. Yes, only three notable events so far, but they all imparted pieces to whatever pixilated screen I see through, new feelings and layers to feelings I already had. And see, I’m communicating the truth a little more than I wish to, and it still isn’t very much.

I’m afraid of tapping into what sets me apart. It’s safer and unbearable to coast on the surface and feel that misery of self-ignorance. So the pressure of grace will have to continue to wait for each of my small, human realizations, wait for me to serve, to be productive to the stream of it all, in some small insignificant way, and until then, it will starve beside me. And every day I worry that grace will give up on me. And that’s really it. It’s the guilt that keeps me writing, the guilt of still not knowing who I am.

Amy Scharmann currently resides in Gainesville, Florida, but will soon be moving to Long Beach, California, with her fiancé. Her work has appeared in the Flash Fridays series at Tin House, New Orleans Review, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, Bodega, and elsewhere. She tweets @AmyScharmann.

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That House Where Janice Went to Live

Photo by Thomas Hawk

On Starting

Every story is an impossibility and every time I start a new one there’s a long moment when I believe in that impossibility. To write a story is to make something from nothing, to not only fill a glass with water but to manifest out of thin air the glass itself and the water and the table on which the water glass will rest and the walls of the room and the windows and the door to the hallway to the stairs leading to the foyer and the door to the driveway to the street to the city and the world in which the story lives. This is how starting a novel has been described to me — like building a house from the inside out and plotting that house in a world with all the complexity and nuance of the real world.

But this world of the novel is not a real world or at least it’s not our world subject to the rules we let determine the courses of our lives. It’s a world in which anything can exist, anything can happen. A world in which there doesn’t have to be any right or wrong, in which there needn’t be any rules, in which anything is possible: real genuine human interaction, realization epiphany satori, unimaginable magic, the lives of beasts and beauties, the fantastical, satisfying resolution and lasting life change, and even the creation of something from nothing. In this way, every story is possibility and it’s only when I believe again in this possibility that I can start a story.

In this case, the story is a novel and at the moment, after two-plus years of sketching, drafting, rearranging, reconceiving, reimagining, drafting, thinking, planning, I’ve started to move between impossibility and possibility. Only now is the novel beginning to seem possible. The more I convince myself that it doesn’t have to be anything, the more I can see all the everything it could be.

Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer: “{T}he book has begun to grow inside me. I am carrying it around with me everywhere. I walk through the streets big with child and the cops escort me across the street. Women get up to offer me their seats. Nobody pushes me rudely any more. I am pregnant. I waddle awkwardly, my big stomach pressed against the weight of the world.”

This story, this novel, feels new in the way a novel should. But there’s also something elemental and nostalgic about it, like I’ve had this story with me for all thirty-five of my years alive. I don’t know when I first realized it, but I need to write this story. Not “want to,” not “would like to,” not “should.” NEED. In the same way I need water and oxygen. To survive.

It is a part of me, this unwritten book, a malformed limb that I must make right, a limb no less important than an arm, an organ no less important than my heart.

I wasn’t always convinced that I wanted to be a writer but I’ve always written. I’m originally from the Detroit suburbs, where hard work is its own reward and fiction isn’t a serious pursuit. My mom taught elementary school and my dad worked for General Motors and they both wanted me to grow up to be whatever I wanted. They thought maybe I might be a chef, but instead I steered myself toward politics and law. At Michigan, I studied international relations and then spent a year as a legal assistant, more interested in understanding the clients and their businesses than copying and filing, and another year working for the government. Then there was law school and five too-fast years as an international lawyer. During all of this, nights and weekends between seventy-hour workweeks, I was writing — after hours and on the side and not (I realize now) very seriously, but still: I was writing. I don’t know if it was time I lacked or courage. Whatever it was, the passion for writing survived and two years ago I quit my job as a DC lawyer to attend the MFA program I’ll be finishing in less than a year. I’d finally persuaded myself that it was more important to risk failing at doing what I at last realized I loved than to continue to hate myself for the life I wasn’t living. And now the fear is that I’ve only just begun, that I haven’t even started writing the novel, the story, that I need to write. The fear is that these last two years have been prefatory to nothing, that soon I’ll go back to the real world and look back on this time as a vacation. The fear is that starting the novel is the first step toward failing to write the book I need to write and that, in failing, I’ll look more fondly than I should on those soulless years of lawyering.

There’s something about starting a story that feels vaguely destructive. Like there’s this entire everything of possibility that’s erased as the novel is written, one choice at a time. Like the writing of the novel progresses from impossibility to possibility to certainty, at each step pulling words, ideas, characters, events, story out of the impossible and into the possible and then, when it comes time to affix words to page, pulling them from the possible and into the certain, all the while killing off all else that might have been possible, that might have been certain had I chosen differently.

The length of a novel feels daunting.

When I read, I love to get plunged into a scene, to experience the entire everything of it, and then pulled out just as quickly not knowing what happened but nonetheless soaked in the story’s world. The literary equivalent of being held underwater for a moment and watching an entire life flash before my eyes and knowing when I come up that nothing will be the same again, even if I’m not sure how.

This is why I write short things, why I write mostly flash fiction, very short stories that pull and trap and inhale and evoke and linger. It’s what I love about reading great things and it’s the challenge of writing a novel: to elicit this polyglot feeling — of immediacy, of provocation, of intensity, of irrevocability, of discovery, of inevitability, of astonishment, of wonder — in a long work as effectively as in a very short work.

I have a hard time outlining stories before I begin. I know there would be some comfort, some safety in having an outline, a guide. But it doesn’t work for me. Where for some writers, writing is speaking, communicating, for me, writing is exploring and discovering. I write because it’s the only way I’ve ever had any success in figuring out myself or the world around me. To start with an outline would short-circuit this process of discovery, like Magellan charting his course around the world before leaving shore and without knowing the challenges or joys each wave may bring.

They say every novel has its own rules and form but it’s only by writing, by starting, that you discover them.

Things few authors talk about: the grueling, at times torturous physical act of writing. Try sitting upright in the same spot for more than an hour.

Other things few authors talk about: the grueling, at times torturous mental act of writing. Try focusing on one thing — one thought, one sentence, one word — for more than an hour.

A good writing day is a sore back and a headache and a few words on paper that I won’t hate tomorrow.

I love writing. I don’t think I say this enough. I love writing. I love it.

Have you ever seen The Hold Steady live? I have. It was a street festival and I was with my partner. She and I were a few weeks into the same MFA program and had just started dating after a quick, unexpected coming together. It was still new — that special kind of exciting electric that made it hard to hide our new relationship from others in our cohort — and we stood near the back of the crowd at a safe but difficult-to-maintain distance from each other. The band came on stage, its infectious energy immediate in effect. The band’s lead singer, Craig Finn, hopped around the stage, swam through the air, cradled the microphone, reached for the crowd. To be sure, some of the moves were choreographed, thought out in advance or just developed into habit or muscle memory over the I don’t know how many shows in their decade of existence. And yet there was something new, something started in the moment, about every motion. He danced with the eyes and smile of a kid taking a present from under the tree, as though this were the first and only show he’d ever played.

There are two joys I remember from that night: the joy of this new woman in my life, these ecstatic moments of near-touching, these momentary reliefs of touching, this feeling of resistance when our hands would move too far from each other, that snapped us back toward each other like a rubber band; and the joy of Craig Finn, a man so in love with this job of his, that this is what he does for a living, this thing he inspires in others, that he discovers in others, that every night is a new gift, a new ecstasy.

Whenever it seems too hard to begin, whenever the story feels too big, too impossible to sit down and write, I think about Craig Finn and his joy. And in the year and a half since that concert, my partner and I have discovered so many other types of joy, so many different versions of it, and so many other types of resistance, too, so many other things that hold us together. It’s easy to think we’ve become so familiar with one another that there’s nothing of that original spark left, that we’ll never experience it again. And then she walks into the room or she turns a certain way in a certain light.

There is the joy of life in these stories, there is joy in creation.

Whenever I lack inspiration, feel like there’s no way I can write or no sense in trying, in even starting, I listen to The Hold Steady or I look into the eyes of my partner.

Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer: “A man who belongs to this race must stand up on the high place with gibberish in his mouth and rip out his entrails … {A}nything that falls short of this frightening spectacle, anything less shuddering, less terrifying, less mad, less intoxicated, less contaminating, is not art. The rest is counterfeit. The rest is human. The rest belongs to life and lifelessness.”

It’s hard to explain without sounding pretentious and/or ridiculous. But I rarely start with a story in mind. More often, I start with an idea or a moment or a line or a premise or a character or whatever provides the seed for the story, whatever photosynthesis. Some people plot everything out in advance. I don’t. I can’t. I’m not that smart. Stories exist in a world, characters are real people in that world with real agency in that world. There’s no way I can know what a person would do until I get to it. Create a character that’s a real person, put him/her/it in a situation, and let him/her/it surprise. If I’m not surprised by anything in the story when I’m writing it, there’s no chance the reader will be surprised and surprise is the thing. Surprise means interest and emotional investment which equals a story that exists in more than just the pages or plot that I’ve written, that resonates beyond the page.

Sometimes it feels like there’s nothing inside. Other times it feels like there’s everything inside. I think we all feel this way. We all feel like nothing and everything.

And the everything builds up and there’s no way to get it out and we’re just stuck with all this matter inside us. You could make a whole other being out of it; or armies: you could make armies out of it, kings even. It sits there inside the walls of the body, gloms onto the walls of the body. I can’t cope with it, this hellstorm of who-knows-what that just sits there like bile except that it’s happy, if conflicted, bile — it’s praise the lord we’re “young and alive and a king all at the same time” bile and “how tragic that no one will know” bile.

To get some cognition of the hellstorm, the ARRGHGWHARRSH, inside, to give words to it, to find some form that’ll handle it, to arrange the words the right way, to cut out some part of my soul and liver it on the page, with the hope that it might do something for someone else but in any event to get rid of it, to expel this matter that corrodes the lining of my insides.

I write because maybe in the process of writing, trying to figure everything out and sharing it, together we can do something real special: we can capture a few moments of the excruciating ecstatic of being alive.

At the start of things, before I’ve written anything, this task seems impossible.

On need:

There are things about myself I don’t understand. Most specifically, this nostalgia I have for a time that didn’t exist. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. The first hint for me of something awry was in John Hughes movies. These idyllic burbs with the two-car garages and the perfectly potted plants. Parents with decent jobs. But Hughes questioned it, told us to question it. Home Alone: This life they lead, they’re too busy even to notice us, to see us or help us develop agency, independence of spirit. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Their rules are arbitrary and keep us from growing through real life experiences. The Breakfast Club: We’ve been raised to try to fit in and, in the process, to develop high walls to keep in whatever might differentiate us.

Life in the suburbs was plain and unremarkable except when it wasn’t. I don’t know what it means but one morning when I was 9, our neighbor down the street, an out-of-work stockbroker, came out of his house in a mask and shot his wife to death as she backed their car out of the driveway.

We had a master class last year with Marilynne Robinson, author of such novels I’ve loved as Housekeeping. I asked how she starts, how she decides she’s ready to write a novel. She responded that it’s all about the voice, that there’s a voice that one day, suddenly, comes alive inside her and she notices it and she hears it and she spends some time listening to it and when that voice has a certain heft — a heft that might carry a novel — she lets it take over, lets it flow through her onto the page.

I like Jonathan Lethem’s idea better: that we wade into some unknown territory, unknowing, but with faith in what we do and what comes next because every once in a while like lightning striking the horizon, the land before us lights up and we can see the whole of it and we hold onto that image of the whole when it’s dark. We turn it over in our imagination, map it best we can. And we write toward this unknown we can only occasionally see.

The older I get, the more unlikely it feels that I’ll ever write anything of value or importance, the more I feel like I’ve closed up, that everything ordered and civil has been too ingrained for me to even think of anything so anarchic as a novel, much less an important novel.

This is when my partner reminds me that Henry Miller started writing Tropic of Cancer when he was thirty-nine, that I’ve got at least four years before I even need to start writing my masterpiece.

Still, it never feels like enough time. Like I don’t have time to sleep.

Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm: “We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of light uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home. There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.”

…how to start and where, how to love and when…

Here’s what I think:

I think there’s no right time to start, no anything that you need to have figured out, that the right time is now, that a novel isn’t written in a day or in a draft but in a while and in a life and the only way to overcome impossibility is to prove the possible and in this case, the possible is only possible by writing. It may not be perfect in the beginning and it may not be perfect in the end but we’re not perfect ourselves — the condition of all mankind is imperfection and impossibility. But imperfection and impossibility can be cured by dedication and possibility and heart and joy. All we have are our words and our will and there’s no way to write the world without either, no way a novel is possible without both. So I might as well start now.

Born and raised in the square-mile suburbs of Detroit, Matthew Fogarty currently lives and writes in Columbia, where he is editor of Yemassee. He also edits Cartagena, a literary journal. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Fourteen Hills, Smokelong Quarterly, and Midwestern Gothic. Look for a few of his flash stories in the upcoming print issue of Passages North. He can be found at or on Twitter at @thatmattfogarty.

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Crossing a river
The other day, I stumbled across a list of writing tips from Elmore Leonard. I’ve never read any Elmore Leonard novels, though I kind of want to now. At any rate, partway through the list I came across this one:

“3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated,’ and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”

Well, sure: no character should ever asseverate, and indeed nobody should asseverate in real life, either. I would like it stated in the permanent record that I am 100% against asseveration. I just looked it up, and apparently it means “to affirm or declare positively or earnestly.” Well, people and characters should do that without having to call it asseverating. Let the surrounding dialogue, events, characterization, and so forth indicate the manner in which the person affirms or declares whatever they’re affirming or declaring.

We all learn this stuff fairly early on in the process of becoming writers, and its more or less good advice. It should be clear from context and the way you wrote the dialogue if a character is snapping, snarling, or stammering. Stuff like “observed”, “continued”, or “added” is, as a general thing, fairly pointless as well. And God help you if you feel the need for your characters to ejaculate their dialogue.

All that said, I don’t think that this advice is universal. Consider, if you will, two characters, Hortense and Betram, who are standing on opposite sides of a wide, noisy stream:

“Come across the stream,” said Bertram. “That weird guy with the shoe polish is behind you!”
“Oh no!” said Hortense. 

That doesn’t really seem to work; I have my doubts that Hortense and Bertram can actually hear once another. Consider, then:

“Come across the stream,” shouted Bertram. “That weird guy with the shoe polish is behind you!”
“Oh no!” cried Hortense. 

Much better, though I would probably drop Hortense’s dialogue tag altogether, let the exclamation mark indicate volume, and get on with her crossing the stream. You get the point, though, that we need some indication that Hortense and Bertram are raising their voices. Suppose Hortense and Bertram continue on their way, and are later pursued through an abandoned light fixture factory by the deranged shoe polish salesman, who is also an android and from the future. The two of them huddle behind a piece of machinery and watch the salesman’s flashlight beam play across the floor:

“Hand me that bag of marbles; I’ll throw them and distract him,” said Bertram.

It seems that Bertram has just given away the game, and that Hortense could have picked a better partner for her adventures. Perhaps Bertram should have kept his voice down, like so:

“Hand me that bag of marbles; I’ll throw them and distract him,” whispered Bertram.

Better, but I’d still want to get that tag closer to the beginning of the sentence, just to make sure the reader doesn’t misunderstand the volume and think Bertram is a complete moron (or in league with the shoe polish salesman; it’s a complicated story).

The point, I think, is that dialogue tags other than “said” do have a use, and that use, as far as I can see, is indicating the auditory qualities, as opposed to the attitude or tone of the person’s speech. Which fits with the other general principle of trying to ground things in sensory detail whenever possible.

So, there you have it. Your characters can shout, holler, scream, whisper, murmur, and even sussurate if you’re feeling fancy, but they should probably avoid claiming, fretting, gasping, commenting, or conceding. Certainly they shouldn’t asseverate.

Keep it sensory, keep it simple, and keep it awesome. Onward, readers, and happy writing!

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Photo by Margot Gabel

Truth-Seeking: On the Art of Finding Truth in Fiction

In a recent workshop at school, a professor told my fellow students and I that “all fiction is inherently a lie.” I felt angered by this sentiment, though perhaps I shouldn’t have. His notion, at its core, is correct and cemented in its own truth. All fiction writers, when they imagine, create, and write their stories, are building worlds that do not exist, however borne from memory or experience they might be. Fiction writers are consistently spinning well-told lies, ones that hopefully resonate into the truth of the world. None of this should take away from the craft and art of fiction, or the beautiful catharsis of reading a good story, but my professor’s sentiment provides a mode by which to access the ideas and notions that, in my opinion, should be at the heart of good fiction and good art in general.

Not too long ago, I attended a writer’s conference where I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from Andre Dubus III, who told me, over his whiskey and my beer, that all writers are “truth-seekers.” We were sitting outside on a mild night and I was slightly buzzed from the mix of alcohol and coffee. It was refreshing to hear such a vastly generalized universal statement come from the mouth of someone whose success might have conditioned him to speak about writing in more certain and teachable terms, ones that pertain to arc, structure, characterization, etc. – words that seem to float above my head, out of reach, at all times. The thought of a “truth-seeker” conjures up the image of a child, eyes wide, searching, and vast, looking out at a world so strange and new and frustratingly nonsensical. It is a beautiful image, almost innocent, at times fearless.

If we take to heart that all fiction is a lie and that all fiction writers are truth-seekers, we create a paradox of two ideas so inherently at odds with each other that any resolution seems almost unattainable. I am arguing now that the one resolution (if we may call it that) lies in the supplanting of truth deep within our fiction, especially now, in a modern age that makes it far easier and far more addictive to live within the deep strange holiness of the lie. The reality of daily life is one in which the hovering lingering possibility of the lie clouds over us at every moment. We do not know, at any time, whether the person we know is truly the person we know. There are masks and facades that social media and the general exponential growth of technology have made more transparent, invisible, and harmful. It is hard, in many respects, to speak of this reality in less metaphorically vague terms. If we as fiction writers, then, are spinning our own lies into the world, we must inject these lies with the deepness of truths universal and fearless, ones that subvert themselves underneath the masks of society and turn their gazes inward. This should not be a genre-specific endeavor, however, as many people have left postmodern fiction with the task of subversion; rather, it should be the aim of all fiction–to seek truth in the realm of imagined worlds, truth that resonates deep at the core of the reading world.

I am thinking now of Breece D’J Pancake, the Southern writer who cut his life far too short, whose The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake remains one of the most moving, haunting, visceral, and vastly underappreciated works of contemporary American fiction. Even now, in a world far removed from Pancake’s fictional West Virginia, his passages still shine forth from some deep eternal place. In the opening story, “Trilobites,” a masterpiece of short fiction, he writes: “I feel way too mean to say anything. I look across the railroad to a field sown in timothy. There are wells there, pumps to suck the ancient gases. The gas burns blue, and I wonder if the ancient sun was blue. The tracks run on till they’re a dot in the brown haze.” Pancake’s lines, fluid and ripe, speak to universality. They speak to time, how it moves, what it does to us. Nothing happens in “Trilobites.” Colly, the story’s protagonist, if you can even call him that, moves slowly through a world that is moving far too quickly for him. He watches the ones he loves die, run away, or grow old, unrecognizable. He watches the land change. One of the lies that exists in storytelling is the seeming necessity to ascribe structural certainties to the fiction itself. Characters needcertain things, we are told. They need motivation, drive. Stories must rise and fall in action and scope. Pancake’s Colly has no extreme motivation, no pulsing drive. The story reaches no climax. Sometimes it seems to avoid it. But it is the truth that makes me cry, bawl, sometimes scream at the page. It is when Colly’s old girlfriend finally leaves him, when Colly says, “I stand there looking at the blood spots on the cloth. I feel old as hell. When I look up, her taillights are reddish blurs in the fog.” Perhaps Pancake would agree with me when I say that the world moves with no structural certainty, that time is the only guiding force we have. The only arc we are prescribed is the arc of aging. Our motivations change, our drives, too. There are days when the world moves around us and days when we feel as if we are moving the world. These are truths.

A common question in writing workshops is “what are the stakes of this story?” It is perhaps so common that in many ways it may have lost its meaning. Sometimes, I assume, it may make fellow workshoppers groan. I am begging now for it to be asked at the onset of every approach to a new piece of fiction, before questions of structure, plotting, characterization, and plausibility. What are the stakes of this story? What truth is it grasping for? Andre Dubus III never told me that writers are “truth-finders.” The seeking is part of the beauty. It is the reaching through the lies, the fearless and curious searching of near-ethereal universality, for the things that resonate under the skin of human beings and not just under the masks we so often walk through this world wearing. If a story, regardless of its claim to a certain school of postmodernism, or realism, or genre fiction, does not mitigate its wide-eyed attempt at truth for the structural certainty of the lie, then, regardless of its quality as a piece of writing, it has my deep and profound respect.

I recently assigned my 7th grade creative writing class the task of completing a short story. Most of them tackled the assignment with a youthful earnestness that was both endearing and refreshing. We had talked of guiding principles – notions of fictional storytelling that I eschewed above – but my students forgot these kinds of elements of fiction with a certain abandon that I secretly favored. They had things they wanted to say, and so they said them. One student wrote: “I hate having these conversations; you don’t learn anything from a person besides that they are liars for telling you that their day was great because you know it wasn’t.” Another student, in five page, single-paragraph story (the next Krasznahorkai?) wrote: “I have this strange feeling in my heart that gives me a sense of disbelief.” And yet another student wrote: “Life for me was harder than anyone thought, I had problems with my family, and on the top of that, school work and tests. Sometimes, the tower was too high for me to get to the top and I just wanted to let go, and then I saw others. Everyone was stressed and I noticed that I was not alone.” It hurts sometimes to think of these children growing up and feeling their earnestness to tackle in writing what they do and do not know lessen as they age into the strangeness of this turning world. It aches to think of them retreating further and further into themselves, hiding, perhaps, behind the objects, invisible or not, that make it easier to hide in the modern age. I do not want them to grow into the safety of the lie, knowing now with what ease they approach the scary uncertainty of the truth. I want us all, as writers, to write and learn as these children do, now, as eleven year olds – still wide-eyed, still searching, still restless. I want us to write stories that seek truth first, above all else, in a desperate, almost naked way, like skinny-dipping into a glassy pond whose bottom is eternal.

Devin Kelly is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, by way of Fordham University. He has read as part of Lamprophonic’s Emerging NYC Writers Series, and attended the Sirenland Writers Conference, hosted by One Story. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Catch & Release and Dunes Review, and are forthcoming in Steel Toe Review and Cleaver Magazine. He teaches creative writing and English to 7th graders and high schoolers in Queens and currently lives in Harlem.

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Photo by Katarina Stefanović

Tim Johnston on today’s new story: A conversation about “the real” is never something I want to get into, but I’m always pulled into the technicalities of the idea. I’ve mostly been affected through movies, whether it’s the whole premise behind “The Truman Show” or the deja vu cat in “The Matrix”—-these are the clues that let us know something’s not quite right, that something’s been changed, controlled, false. That was the late 90s and I got over it. But now, Brouckaert challenges me, again, to dispose of reality, to indulge my neurosis of what is real, what is zoo, and as I revisit the obsession I had when I was five, I still wonder if there are people in the house in that snow globe. And: aren’t they terribly sick of snow?

The Men Who Flew Away

There is no welcome party waiting for the three men from earth when they touch down on the planet they have been traveling so long to reach. They are greeted instead with a vacant asphalt lot cracked with weeds, penned by a square of battered buildings—a far cry from the landing zone filled with revelers they were told would anticipate their arrival.

The three men walk down from their ship, across the alien lot and down an alien street until they meet their first alien.

You there, says the first man. Are you part of the delegation?

The delegation? asks the alien.

We’re ambassadors of peace, says the second man. From earth.

Listen, buddy, I don’t know what you’re talking about, says the alien. It pulls a hood over its head and walks away.

The three men explore the new planet together. They find a cluster of buildings near the landing site, the sky-scraping structures not unlike the ones they knew on earth. They strap their survival packs tight around their waists and venture cautiously into the heart of it.

The first two men walk with their guard up, each keeping one hand on his pistol, but the third man begins to notice that this alien city doesn’t look so different.

He sees a red and white building that looks just like the pharmacy where he once filled prescriptions. He recognizes a squat building with a black awning and patio that looks similar to a restaurant where he and his wife once dined on Sunday afternoons. He spots a building that looks exactly the same as a bar all three men visited after their final training session at the space station across the city, sharing the last pitchers of beer they drank together before rocketing from earth.

The crosswalk symbols show a blue man walking and a bright red hand. A police car whirs by, sirens blaring. A few aliens stare at the men in their spacesuits. Most just keep walking.

This doesn’t seem so alien, the third man thinks. This doesn’t seem so strange.

The other two men stop at the window of a building that looks to the third man like a familiar fast-food restaurant. They all peer through the window, through their reflections at the aliens eating inside.

Funny, says the third man cautiously. This place doesn’t seem so different.

The first man probes the building’s wall with his fingers, bringing his eye to the brick to measure its slant.

No, he says, Something’s not right.

Like what, asks the third man. What do you mean?

I’m not sure, says the first man. Something’s just not right. I can feel it.

The second man presses his face to the window, staring hard at the red- and blue-striped wallpaper border that framed the room.

Something’s definitely not right, he says. Something is definitely very wrong.

When the three men pass a building that looks like a grocery store the third man used to frequent, he stops his crewmates and points to a newspaper rack just outside the automatic doors. The trio ventures cautiously toward the building and forms a huddle around the machine.

The date on the paper is the same date as indicated on their wristwatches.

The cities in the paper are the same cities they came from.

The newspaper is the same newspaper they read every day on earth.

We landed back home, says the third man, now confident in his suspicion. We’ve made a mistake. We must have gotten lost and circled the galaxy and now we’ve landed right back where we started.

It’s a trap, the other two men say. It’s an alien trap! They pull their pistols from their belts and survey the street for danger.

The third man urges them to wait, but already the other two men are walking away, back-to-back, pistols cocked at their chins, leading the retreat back to the ship.

The third man protests while the other two men prepare the vessel for an early departure.

I know this city, he says. I know that street.

They’re tricks, says the first man. Alien tricks!

They’re shapeshifters, says the second man. They’ve shapeshifted the whole damn place.

The three men had heard stories of hostile aliens encounters, but their superiors had believed this planet to be peaceful. The men were not trained for war.

Wait, says the third man. Even if this is a different planet, an alien planet, there’s not enough fuel in the ship to make it back home.

There will be enough, says the first man. There has to be enough.

I’d rather die out in space than at the hands of those freaks, says the second man.

The third man tries to argue, but his companions have already taken their seats in the cockpit.

We can’t risk any more time here, says the first man. Are you coming or not?

The third man has spent countless hours with these men in training and in travel. He has learned to trust them with his life, but this time he trusts his own intuition. He’s called this city home for much longer than the other two, who only relocated when training began. There is no other city that lights up like this city, that stings with salty air like this city, that thunders and rumbles beneath his feet like this city. From his very first step off the ship, the man felt in his bones the familiar thrum of home.

When the other two men turn to the controls, the third man slips down the stairs, leaving behind his survival pack and his pistol. He locks the hatch shut above him and jogs from the ship as its engines glow red and roar to life. He stands at the edge of the lot and feels the heat from takeoff slowly leave his cheeks as the ship soars above the star-scraping buildings, up above the iconic skyline, and away.

The abrupt departure of the man’s companions leaves him uneasy, but he grows more comfortable as he walks the familiar path toward home. The man has been flying for so many years, and a deep sense of relief settles over him as he spots familiar landmarks, the shops and buildings that were a part of his daily commute, his café, his market, his park along the water.

The city is almost exactly as the man remembers it. Occasionally he finds himself searching for a once-familiar building now boarded up or missing, transformed into something new, or he finds himself wanting to turn onto a street he doesn’t quite recall, but the man reminds himself again of how long it’s been since he’s walked this city. It’s only reasonable, he thinks, that these small changes and lapses of memory should happen over time.

The man takes the subway to his station and walks the three blocks to his apartment, arriving at the building as the sun rises. He enters, walks down the hall and stands in front of his door. His heart beats faster than when the ship first left earth, when he was shot into zero gravity for the very first time. The man takes a deep breath, and knocks.

A woman in a robe answers holding a mug of coffee. When she sees the man at the door, she drops the mug. It shatters between them.

The woman bursts into tears and throws her arms around him.

It’s you, she says. It’s really, really you.

After their tearful reunion, the man and his wife waste no time contacting the agency that organized his voyage. There is a meeting with the new commissioner, more tears and disbelief.

We thought you were lost, says the new commissioner. We lost all contact. Do you remember the static? The connection cutting out?

No, says the man. I guess I don’t remember that at all.

He’s had a tough time of it, says the woman.

He has, indeed, says the new commissioner.

I’m just happy to have him back, she says.

As are we, says the new commissioner, and it’s no small thing. The world will want to know.

Will they? the man asks. Will they care, do you think?

Of course they will, son says the new commissioner, gripping the man’s shoulder. You’re our returning hero.

In a matter of hours, the man has done interviews with the morning news and local radio shows, and the coverage is picked up by all the national programs. By the end of the morning, he is seen and heard on every television and radio station. His face is on the home page of every major website.

The mayor organizes a city-wide parade for that afternoon, and the man is honored as grand marshal. He rides with his wife at the end of the parade, and they wave dumbly to the thousands of people that line the streets.

At the end of the parade is a podium, and the man is asked to give a speech.

I don’t really know what to say, he says when he’s ushered onstage. I’ve never given a speech before.

Speech, speech! the people chant.

I’m happy to be home, the man says, but I guess I’m just not sure I deserve all this.

You do, you do! the people chant.

We set out from here years ago with a job to do, and we failed. We failed everyone.

You did what you had to do, the people chant. You came back home!

The men who flew away might seem foolish or crazy, says the man, but they were the ones who led us here safely. If I were as brave as they were, I could have kept them from leaving. If I were brave, they would be here today.

The man puts his hands on the sides of the podium and begins to cry.

It’s me, he says. I’m the one who left them behind.

After a few moments of silence, the new commissioner touches the man’s shoulder and escorts him off the stage.

The man’s debriefing with the new commissioner doesn’t last long.

He set out with the other two men as ambassadors of earth to a newly discovered planet. Each man brought gifts to deliver to the planet’s leaders, who were believed to be friendly. They were to dine with the planet’s dignitaries, expressing their planet’s desire to enter into a friendly partnership. The men weren’t agents or spies. They had no ulterior motives. Their pistols were only for their protection.

Some time during those years of travel the men lost radio contact with earth. The voices they thought were their superiors were really echoes of previous correspondences, Roger’s and Copy’s and Go’s the men had praised for their efficiency.

The ship followed the coordinates programmed into the mainframe. An error must have been made, and the ship looped back around while the men were sleeping. Coordinates were swapped, or there was a warp, a shift in the fabric of space. Somehow, the ship mistook home for their foreign destination, and, unknowingly, the men rocketed back toward earth.

The agency is sweeping the sky for the men who flew away, says the new commissioner. As of right now, we’ve found nothing.

What about the dignitaries? asks the man. Were there repercussions for our failure?

The new commissioner shakes his head.

We don’t hear from them anymore, he says. They no longer accept our calls.

The next two weeks are a whirlwind for the man. Though he and his wife hoped to spend time reconnecting after the parade and the debriefing, the man is whisked from talk show to talk show, then to speaking engagements across the country. He is asked to comment on the future of space travel, of intergalactic relations, the atrocities taking place on nearby planets—issues for which he has no answers.

If you could say anything to the men who flew away, the people ask, what would you say?

I’d say I hope they found their way somehow, the man responds. He imagines the men desperate, their reserves depleting. He imagines their shock at landing on a planet to refuel and realizing their error. Or worse: years later, landing at their now-unfriendly destination.

I don’t think we’ve heard the last of them, he says. I think that some day they’ll be here to speak for themselves.

At night, the man sleeps in hotels the agency has booked for him.

At the end of a long day of speaking, of shaking hands and taking pictures and signing autographs, he comes back to his room and locks the door behind him. He begins his ritual of lifting each item from its place, holding it up to the light and turning it, examining its sides. On one of his first nights on the road, the man came back to his room and was convinced his door was crooked, or if not the door then the hallway, and if not the hallway then the pattern on the carpet, and if not the pattern of the carpet then the pattern on the wallpaper that seemed in some way blemished, changed by some immeasurable shifting the man couldn’t quite name. The man tries to push away thoughts of his crewmates, of the incommunicable difference they couldn’t articulate at the fast-food restaurant, the thing they felt was wrong. The ritual becomes a compulsion: he examines the telephone, the nightstand drawers and the books inside. He examines the lamp and all of the towels and soaps and lotions in the bathroom. He slides his hand along every sheet on his bed, the pillow cases and the headboard.

When he’s finished, the man pulls his mattress from its frame and positions it in front of the sliding door that leads to the balcony. Thousands of miles away, his wife is waiting for him to return to his half of their bed after an unbearably long absence. For now, he draws the curtains from the window and falls asleep with the stars.

When the man finally arrives home, his wife sits in the living room and watches him probe their furniture and belongings, his hands sliding over them and under and around.

This picture, he says, holding an old photograph of the two of them.


Was this—-

Our first anniversary, she says. Fifteen years ago, almost to the day.

I’m sorry, the man says, sitting down with his head in his hands. It’s just so hard.

Don’t be sorry, his wife says. You’ve been through a lot.

Yes, he says. I guess I have.

At night the man and the woman get into bed together. They talk for some time. They make love, slowly and timidly. Afterward, the man stares at the ceiling.

What are you thinking? the woman asks.

Oh, nothing, says the man.

He begins to feel tired, more tired than he has felt in a long time, his weeks of travel finally taking their toll. The woman rests her head on the man’s chest. His eyelids flicker until the room goes gray, until the walls warp and shudder and eventually fade. The woman waits until she feels the man’s chest rise and fall evenly, until his breath becomes steady. She smoothes the man’s skin with her hands from his neck to his ankles, and when she’s sure he’s asleep, she slips herself inside.

Justin Brouckaert’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The McNeese Review, Gigantic Sequins, and Stymie. He is a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina. Find him at or on Twitter @JJBrouckaert.

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