Verbal Rape & Sadist’s Remorse–The New Flower of the 21st Century & The Invisible Veil

There has been a lot of talk about male degradation of women these days. But do we look at the minor incidents that relate rape to a more subtle and equally destructive degradation? Tonight I was driving on the left lane of Mason about to make a left turn toward the bridge. A driver on the right side swiped me. He got out and began to yell at me “You were at fault! You were at fault! Look at what you did! You have a dent on that side of the car! That proves that you did this! Now give me your driver’s license . Now!”
He began to take pictures. (There was no dent on his side at all) He demanded my drivers license and insurance. A woman interfered and said I needed his information too. .She also said she would be my witness. But he harangued for so long, she left. After he bullied me and saw me shaking and frazzled, he did the Sadist’s Remorse number of calming me down. “There there. Don’t worry. Everything will be okay. Don’t worry. Calm down. Don’t worry. Calm down. Drive carefully.” Etc. And suddenly it rose in me–an anger I’ve suppressed for decades. What he did was nothing less than a rape. A rape of my insides. First, while I was being yelled at on a dark street and accused of something I didn’t do. Yelled at for so long and without any provocation, it rattled me. And then the Abuser calming me down for the havoc and humiliation and fear he evoked. My being upset was my fault, not his–the Fault of the Hysterical Woman. All my life I’ve tried to juggle the myriad of impossible alternatives offered to women. “Stick up for women’s rights–yeah! But–if you want to succeed, be one of the boys. Joke with them! Rub elbows with them.Hey! You’re a feminist. But isn’t that part of being a feminist?” Guess what–I’m not one of the boys. I don’t have a penis–real or fake. I know what it’s like to be penetrated. I have been raped for real and raped verbally. Some men know that instinctively and find ways to repeat it on levels that aren’t explicitly sexual.. Because they’re bigger than me. Because they have this thing called Power. Because they can penetrate with their minds as well as their bodies.” (How fun was that, when a lover once said to me (not kindly) “You have a phallic mind.”?) Men rape in countless ways. And it rose up inside of me: I’m not one of the boys. I’m a woman. Raping me in any way is a crime.

From Anecdote to Story: Turning Life into Literature



Note:  Because so many first attempts at fiction start out with stories from the past and from family, I have made the conventions of family life a touchstone for discovering freedom as a writer.  But everything I’m saying here applies to all fiction—and to all vague ideas for stories that strive for a universal component that will reach people outside of the sensibility of the writer.


I bring you some water lost in your memory

 follow me to the spring and find its secret.

Patrice de la Tour Du Pin

One fall day when I was about thirteen, a neighbor who belonged to the Ladies Christian Temperance Union appeared at the door of our apartment. She was dressed in a navy-blue suit, wore a pill-box hat, and carried a large white envelope that bore the slogan Better government through faith. My mother, in her perennial green housecoat, smoked a cigarette and finished the remains of a sandwich. She put her plate over a copy of _The Nation_ on the coffee table.

The neighbor walked inside, looked around our small apartment. “I have a favor to ask,” she said, waving the white manila envelope at my mother. “Could your husband possibly drop this off at his office? It’s for the community.” My mother was a rabid atheist as well as a Marxist. When I begged to go to Unitarian Sunday school, she always bellowed: “Religion is sheer crap! The opiate of the people!” Now she took the pamphlet, smiled at the neighbor, then looked at me menacingly and pulled her skin below her left eye. This was my mother’s idea of a secret family signal. Sometimes it meant this person is peculiar. This time it meant shut up.

Later that year, I was assigned an essay called “The Most Amazing Epiphany of My Life.” “Without a doubt,” I wrote, “the most amazing epiphany of my life occurred when my mother turned into a toady for the Ladies Christian Temperance Union.” The mother of Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff, once said, quite wisely: “If I’d known my kids were going to be writers, I would have given them a very different childhood.” My mother, who had less perspective, found my essay and tore it into shreds. “Don’t you evah,” she said, in her most theatrical voice “write anything about us again! We are your family!”

It’s not an accident that I learned about the dangers of truth-telling in a family setting. Families are tight survival units, and have explicit and implicit rules about what can be told—both inside the family and outside. The injunction not to break these taboos evokes tribal culture when families can be murdered for breaking norms. Not all taboos are there for the writer to break publicly. Some may need to be respected. But the writer’s workroom should be a place that’s safe where taboos are broken.

Without a doubt watching my mother tear up my essay terrified me. But there was also another reason I stopped writing from personal experience, and this was because what I wrote seemed too easy: Revealing my mother’s hypocrisy was a delicious form of revenge; but it stayed within the form of an anecdote.

What I sensed, but couldn’t put into words, was that there was a difference between an anecdote and a story. When you relate an anecdote, you’re a found character and this creates an automatic tension between the “I” who is telling the story and the “I” who is in the story. Furthermore, most things that happen to people become “just so” stories on paper. They don’t transform, twist, or bend. Nor do they seem universal but are particular to the people in the anecdote. This is why so many stories that are verbally entertaining or deeply moving fall flat through the paper. It’s also why people buy ghostwritten biographies of celebrities: We’re already curious about the character. The promise of revealing secrets has enough universal appeal to create the sense of a narrative arc because going from knowing less to (supposedly) knowing more can feel like a delicious journey.

No Surprise for the Writer, No Surprise for the Reader

 I began to learn about turning anecdotes into stories fifteen years later when my first collection was being published. Most of the stories had elements of surrealism. But there were two stories based on my family that the editor discovered and loved.

Although I can tell shocking things about my childhood and love being outrageous, I’ve always shied away from writing about my life. In addition, the voice and content of these two stories didn’t fit with the rest of the book. I wanted to take them out, my editor wanted to keep them, and we argued endlessly. I lost the argument—but with a compromise: I would write a novella about my childhood as a separate part of the book. This would create a sense of balance and distinguish between the two voices.

When I began the novella, I was always surprised because even though the stories were faithful to the facts there were always few elements that were a slight deviation from what I remembered. I didn’t know where they came from but I always knew they belonged. In every case, I discovered they contained a crucial truth. And after I had written the book, I felt that I’d lived a slightly different childhood precisely because of these surprises.  (In a sense, the failure of the intended story guaranteed the success of the final story.)  (See Yuri Zalkow’s innovative rendition of this idea, after he interviewed me for The Rumpus

There was one story, however, that I couldn’t write and had to write because it was crucial to the sequence. It was a story I’d told to several people—in the way I told outrageous stories about my family. I knew the events, but couldn’t make it a story.

The anecdote is as follows: When my father got a job in another part of the country, we set off in our car at nine at night against the advice of friends, who offered places to stay. My mother believed we would stop at a luxury hotel and didn’t seem to notice when we drove right by it. Eventually it was one in the morning and all the motels were filled.

After we left a town with apocalyptic smoke from a steel mill, my mother realized we hadn’t stopped at the luxury hotel and began to scream at my father. At one point she opened the car door and threatened to jump out. Chaos ensued.

I knew the sequence of events. But I couldn’t feel any tension or universal resonance until one day I heard the following sentence: My mother shouted that she was really leaving and opened the door so wide I could see the whole Midwest—far too real for the likes of us.

As soon as I heard this, I knew I had my story. At the time this was an intuitive understanding. A few years later, I understood why: My feeling about the Midwest being too real for all of us transformed my mother’s actions from something that was purely violent into a collective sense of being trapped as a family.  We were trapped together and also trapped because we had a sense of not being able to function in the real world.

In order to turn an anecdote into a story one must find the hidden story that runs beneath events like an underground river and eventually gushes up.   It’s this collision that creates a story that has universal resonance. Not every one has a histrionic family or mothers who try to jump out of cars. But every one has seen someone we’re close to lose it, and our feelings are usually a mixture of resentment and compassion, although we may not be aware of the compassion at the time. It can also have an element of identification that we’re not aware of.

An anecdote doesn’t need a hidden story to create tension. Your telling it is the tension. But if something on paper doesn’t have a hidden story, it won’t find tension or an arc.

Triggering and Generative Elements

The poet, Richard Hugo, wrote about the difference between

Triggering and generative elements in writing. Triggering elements are catalysts for stories and poems, but unless they generate new material, the piece won’t get off the ground. One might say that the anecdote never needs to go beyond the triggering element of memory to find a generative element that can reach all readers. This is because it’s an oral narrative. But to leap from the personal to the universal–i.e. to get your story on the page– you must be willing to let the triggering material generate. This means being willing to improvise, invent, and even omit cherished scenes. If you’re willing to do this, your story will be a slightly different story from the story you thought you were going to write. And if the generative material goes far enough, you’ll leap from writing about what is meaningful only to you to something that reaches a stranger.  You will also discover something about your life that you didn’t know.

Learning to turn anecdotes into stories isn’t a sure-fire formula for dealing with writing about family secrets. Even if you write a good story, there are times when you decide not to publish for the sake of someone else’s feelings. These are personal decisions every writer must make.

But when you ‘re writing drafts based on real events, you must feel free to write whatever you want to write and experiment with invention as well as ruthlessness. Otherwise, your writing room will be full of locked closets.

Just as there’s no map for revealing family secrets, there’s no map for turning an anecdote into a story. This comes to writers through grace, serendipity, hard work, and a willingness to discover something new about themselves and people or events in our lives. It also requires a slight irreverence for facts, and a fierce belief in the regenerative powers of the imagination. As the French poet, Robert Ganzo has written:



Invent. There is no lost feast

           /At the bottom of memory.

Avoiding the Linear Fallacy in Writing


Avoiding the Linear Fallacy in Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction

 The imagination is the weather of the mind

The mind is part of the weather–

Wallace Stevens Adagia


The Prescience of the Creative Process

When I’d written just one collection of short stories, I heard a woman’s voice from deep below the earth. She was blond, in her thirties, and lived in Germany during World War II. I saw her helping multi-lingual prisoners answer letters to the dead. I knew her name and could feel her claustrophobia. I also heard some of the letters.  I wrote sixteen pages and stopped because I knew that this woman lived in a world with so many strands only a novel could do it justice. What I’d written were a few musical notes, surrounded by hours of silence.  But I only knew how to write short fiction and put the sixteen pages away.

I wrote other books, but the sixteen pages kept turning up in my studio, as if attached to springs. They turned up on the bookshelf.  They turned up in a tax pile. They turned up under my printer. They even turned up inside a flyer from my son’s school—a long flyer, pleading for ecologically packed lunches. They began to feel like the woman’s voice, impatient to tell her story. The paper grew more brittle. I began to use a computer and the typewriter print looked ancient.

Whenever the sixteen pages appeared, I felt drawn to them. But I never wrote another word.

A few years ago, someone at a Christmas party told me that the philosopher Martin Heidegger had a revelation that was catalyzed by his own eyeglasses.  As soon as I heard this, I saw the title Heidegger’s Glasses and knew I was going to write a novel.  I had no idea what it would be about, but was sure it involved World War II.  At this point the sixteen pages stopped popping up until


the exact day I received final galley proofs from the publisher. They’d hidden while I was writing, but reappeared—again on invisible springs. The few passages I’d written were the same as passages in the novel. I also found some details in time to add them to the galley.

After I re-read the sixteen pages, I realized they were a DNA of almost everything that became Heidegger’s Glasses. Through stumbling and research, I’d linked an imaginary world to real events in World War II.



The Secret of Research: Avoiding the Linear Fallacy

Writers often ask how I write, and in particular how I dovetailed writing and research when I wrote a book set in WWII.

More than anything I emphasize I didn’t wait to do all the research until I began to write. I can’t emphasize enough how important this was and continues to be.  If I’d waited until I decided I had all the facts or knew how the novel was going to play out, I would have sabotaged myself because I’d already done a lot of research without knowing it.

To state it more abstractly: A book is linear. It starts on the first page and ends on the last and all the pages are numbered in sequence. But the process of writing a book is rarely linear. When John Gregory Dunn started The Red, White

and Blue the only thing he knew was that the last word of the book would be Yes or No. It turned out to be No. Faulkner began The Sound and The Fury with the



image of a little girl’s in a pear tree, looking in a window at her grandmother’s funeral. Her underpants were muddy and after he finished explaining why they were, he realized that whatever he’d written was going to be a novel. A non-fiction writer I know, Alison Owings, began interviewing women for Frauen, a book I used when writing Heidegger’s Glasses, before she knew she’d had enough information for a book. Many writers write the last scene and work backwards. Others start from the middle.

But writers hoodwink can themselves by thinking they should start from the beginning. They also believe they should “have all the facts” and wrestle everything into an outline.. This may be true for short pieces of journalism. But it isn’t necessarily true for longer pieces and isn’t at all true for fiction or a work that mixes fiction with fact: Writers write to discover what they don’t know, not to record what they already know. (I would add that all during this hit-and-miss process, I felt unbearably stupid. In retrospect, I can’t thank myself enough for being willing to stay in this utterly thankless state.)


The first kind of research I did I would call faith-based research that led me to the narrative arc:

In the process of very random reading, I discovered two obscure facts that gave the book its narrative. Like someone going through a free-bin, I saw documentaries, read, looked at photographs and talked to people about Germany during WWII. This helped me link a ghoulish procedure called Operation Briefaktion with The Reich’s interest in the occult.


There were other factors that were also a kind of research, although I didn’t recognize them at the time. To the extent that I didn’t take them into account, I hoodwinked myself and thought I knew less than I did.  To the extent


that I ploughed ahead anyway, I accumulated material.

I would divide this sort of research into “stuff I already knew,” “unintentional research” and “life.” I realize it’s vague—but starting with what was vague allowed me to whittle things into concrete images and what we call “facts.”

Here are examples of this kind of research that turned out to be essential to Heidegger’s Glasses.

  1. “Stuff I know.” There’s a whole category of things I’d call “stuff I

already know about or stuff I know how to do,” whether it’s the history of graphic novels or how to make an omelet. In this case, it was Heidegger’s Being and Time, which blew my mind after dry undergraduate work in philosophy of science. When I read him in graduate school, I walked around New York in an altered state of consciousness for about two weeks. By the time I heard about Heidegger’s glasses at the Christmas party, he was a towering, enigmatic presence. I’d known Heidegger was a Nazi and often wondered how he could create a brilliant cosmology of being(which he called Dasein) without an ethical system.

“Stuff you already know, or know how to do” is often the unwitting catalyst for being interested in a particular topic. It’s something writers discount


–I certainly did. But without my background in Heidegger, someone telling me a story at a party would have been nothing more than an entertaining moment.

(2) Unintentional research: I’d also done the kind of reading many writers do when they’re drawn to a subject before they know they’ll write about it. A


few years after I wrote those sixteen pages, I felt compelled to read everything I

could about World War II without knowing why. I’m particularly indebted to a book I discovered called The Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege, published in 1991. I found this book on a bookstore’s bargain table where I ducked to get out of the rain.

Except for some photographs, The Lodz Ghetto consists of documents in

chronological order. The documents detail the dissolution of Lodz, where 200,000 Jews were forced into slave labor before deportation to extermination camps. The

documents alternate between coded diaries of prisoners and decrees from the Reich about food rations, round-ups and deportations. Many coded diaries were by writers enlisted by the Reich as official Scribes to praise life in the Lodz ghetto.  One was a famous Austrian writer named Oskar Rosenfeld who had an extraordinary depth of vision, and I mention him because his sensibility helped create an important character. The woman I’d seen in the mine was in charge of scribes—so that was an interesting coincidence.

I would add that the diaries of prisoners alternated with photocopies of the decrees, so I had the sense of being a prisoner in Lodz with other prisoners, crowded around the decrees, reading to discover what was going to happen to


me next. Each decree tightened the vise and pointed toward the cremation of everyone in the Ghetto. This gave the book a novelistic momentum and was the kind of serendipity that can come from unintentional research.

(3) Another factor had to do with an experience I didn’t realize would affect my writing: I suppose you’d call that “life.” One hot summer day in New

York City, I brought my broken typewriter to Stanley Adelman, who owned Osner’s Typewriter on Amsterdam Avenue. I was young, in a state of sheer panic about ending a relationship, and in no condition to understand anything about machines. Stanley Adelman could see I was frazzled and only wanted to drop off my typewriter. But he insisted on explaining and re-explaining every gear and wheel until he was sure I understood what was wrong.

While he talked, I had the sense that he wouldn’t settle for anything less than absolute contact. His blue eyes were intense and telegraphed such an urgent demand that I understand, I began to listen until it was clear how a typewriter

worked—a miracle since the mechanical world can elude me. From the periphery of my vision, I saw blue numbers on his arm. He must have been very young when he was at Auschwitz, but I could imagine he’d been in situations where he had to transmit and listen to information in a state of terror or near-terror (which is what I was feeling.) We became good friends and I got to know his wife. But he never told me that almost every published writer in the city brought him their typewriters: I found this out when I read his obituary in The New York Times.

I’d already started the novel and we’d lost touch when I moved to


California. As soon as I read about him I remembered him in detail and felt a kinship between his sensibility and that of Oskar Rosenfeld, the scribe in the Lodz Ghetto. The two of them merged into a character who became Heidegger’s optometrist and was sent to Auschwitz.

In Adagia, Wallace Steven’s phrases—the mind is part the weather and the imagination is the weather of the mind—aren’t presented as syllogisms. But it’s not

much of a leap to say that the imagination is part of the world. That strikes me as a stunning miracle, because the imagination and consensual reality are always in conversation.

Although fiction writers and journalists may start from opposite ends of a spectrum, at some point everyone’s mucking about in the middle. I would urge all writers to understand that the imagination also has phalanges that reach into the objective world. It’s nourished by previous reading, thinking, and experience and has instincts that allow it to leap beyond the limits of what we think we know and travel to uncharted territories and distant centuries. Writing Heidegger’s Glasses was an adventure in discovering the fluid boundaries between the imagination and recorded history


Below are some tricks to avoid the Linear Fallacy.  I’m sure you can think of others:

If you’re contemplating a long piece, here are some questions to ask yourself:

1. Prior research

a. What prior knowledge has influenced what I want to write or reflects it now?

b. What prior research? c. What prior experience? d. Noteworthy conversations?


2. Current strategies

a. If this were a work that depended solely on fiction, what is the narrative arc?

b. What, scenes, characters, dialogue, etc. have I already imagined? Do some appear in what seems like the middle or the end? c. Based on this, what scenes can I start to write? d. Have I written any of these scenes already?

3. Current research includes:

a. “broad” research that helps establish narrative arc b. reading c. interviews

d. documentaries e. talking to colleagues (especially if you’re a journalist)

f. bringing up your topic in informal conversations g.  getting facts straight, including dates, chronology, spelling, and verifying events and scenes. In my case, I needed to know what Berlin looked like the war and who from the Reich attended the Tulle Gesellschaft. Contrary to most thinking, these facts are the

easiest. You already know where they belong and how to plug them in.

The hardest research is the research that leads you to the narrative arc. Sometimes you know the narrative arc in advance. In my case, research helped me find it. If you don’t know the arc of a piece, this is helpful to remember.

In addition to drawing on all the unwitting research I’ve mentioned, writing before I knew how the novel would play out also kept me focused. The focus led to botched scenes that got better with revision. It also led to the right books, the right informal conversations, and the right interviews.



Jerusalem–An X-ray of The 21st Century

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea

the Wailing Wall

the Wailing Wall


The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea

the Wailing Wall

the Wailing Wall

Jerusalem….beautiful, strange and troubled. Grateful for the stones. They’ve been broken, buried, excavated, broken, buried, and excavated. They’re patient and remember everything. Many people, on the other hand, seemed to be live enactments of some of the archeological layers you can stand on.

This ranges from a true sense of oppression to self-satisfied insularity.

I found the old city to have an intensely tribal feeling and a troubled heart: The visiting pilgrims, each with their own agenda. The people who live in different districts and don’t relate to each other. The security guards in front of the gate that leads to the Dome.

At the Protestant site of Jesus’s burial there were 40 charismatic Christians from California. They assured me they didn’t handle snakes but were less vague about speaking in tongues. “At one point their guide said, “The Romans got fed up with the Jews for all the trouble they made. They liked to throw rocks.”

(Hello–2,000-year-old man. Do you have an opinion on this?)

At the other site of the crucifixion and burial (The Church of the Holy Sepulcher) all the other Christians have to share, except for the Ethiopians who got kicked out, and have two small chapels on top.  (Their chapels are pathetically small. The Ethiopian priests live on the roof as ascetics in  tin houses with small half-domed windows on top.)

The Eastern Orthodox and the Catholics got the best spot. The Armenians and Coptics didn’t do so well. An Israeli told me this has resulted in brawls.

Here, I saw people rub the stone where Jesus was laid out, using various objects to get the vibrations to take home with them. There were credit cards and candles, crosses and purses. And a kind of frantic, laser-focused desire to get things.   I saw no one standing still and contemplating.

Each District had its own tourist mall. Glitter after glitter.   Trinket after trinket.  It reminded me of Times Square for the iconically-inclined.  Arab, Muslim, and Jewish women in different headgear, many with faces bent to the ground. Jewish kids who live in the Muslim district being escorted home by security guards with highly-visible guns.

The Wailing Wall has changed considerably, according to someone who has been here for a while.  It’s now almost as crowded as a subway.  The Little Wailing Wall in the Arab quarter, however, is one  few people know about.   I put in a small piece of paper with a poem by Yeats, and a koan:

What’s lost in the river is found in the river.

The old city is so compressed and so segregated, in some way it seems like an X-ray of the world’s problems.

There are many Israels.  And within those Israels there is conflict one can’t imagine.  There is even conflict between the strict Chassids and Israelis who may consider themselves cultural Jews but aren’t observant.

When I came back to my hotel at the German Colony, the desk clerk took one look at me, brought me food, wine, and insisted I eat.

“The only things that makes this city this city,” he said, “is that people pray. That’s the only thing that has lasted. The only thing that will never change.”


Aside from visiting homes, the time I felt the most harmony was in the city of Safed. It was the center of the flowering of Jewish mysticism in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had periods in which Muslims and Jews lived in harmony—although interspersed with atrocities, particularly to jews.


The inner city of Safid had a sense of joy and peace.   The streets were narrow and from somewhere I heard the sound of a flute.


I hesitated outside one of the oldest synagogues. My head wasn’t covered and I didn’t know if women were allowed. Two men who were talking outside extended their arms in a gesture of welcome.

Inside there was a very old man dovening, and, at a table, there was a man looking up things on a computer. There were books on various shelves.


The sound of the flute became louder and a teacher wearing tallis came into the room with about twelve children.   Some were black some were white, some were boys, some were girls. Some of the boys wore yarmulkes, others didn’t. He began to explain to the children about the synagogue.


The man at the computer continued to work.   The man who had been dovening lay down and slept.


This reminded me of the synagogue as a community—what I read about in Singer, for example.


Later, I went to a Yemenite stall where a woman was making wraps out of a spicy pancake and all kinds of people stood on the street, eating.


This experience was heartening and made me again remember what I’d put in the wall:


what’s lost in the river is found in the river











Deconstructing the Interview: The Myth of the Literary Persona


If a novelist has a secret, it is not that he has a special something but that he has a special nothing…..a writer has to be an ex-suicide, a cipher, a naught, a zero. Being a naught is the very condition of making anything….writing well is simply a matter of giving up, of surrendering, of letting go. It’s a question of being so pitiful God takes pity on you, looks down and says, He’s done for. Let him have a couple of good sentences. —Walker Percy


The other day, when writing my novel was like driving through a fog I pulled a literary journal from my bookcase and re- read an interview that I’d given a month after my last book was published. As the rain drummed on the skylights of my studio, I noted–with detached fascination, even envy–that the interviewer had described me as ‘bold’. I also admired the elusive, shimmering creature, who said she always worked on more than one story at once, and simply ‘went on to the next thing’ if an idea wasn’t moving.

When I finished the interview and closed the journal, this creature, The Writer, disappeared inside its pages. Once more I was confronted with a wastebasket that contained the botched beginning of one story, a completely muddled revision of another, and a terrible ending of a third. This interview—like most interviews with writers–fed the myth that the writer is a fixed and solid entity, someone who can describe a map, if not the territory, of a working day. I’d talked about the creative process in the interview, even acknowledging how difficult it was; however, I couldn’t recreate the experience, either for myself or the interviewer, of what it’s really like to have a working day in which one accomplishes absolutely nothing. Nor could I explain those odd, serendipitous moments that occur just before a story begins to work, the inchoate sense of knowing that one path, rather than another, is the path to take. As I’d sat in a cafe with burnished lights and little plates of tapas and people discussing movies, writing became an object, something to be sketched, fictionalized, talked about. The interviewer leaned forward, the soft lights of the cafe added to the illusion of being inside a painting, and I became a found character–The Writer.

In truth, I’d never met The Writer, nor will I ever meet her. She’s an imaginary creature, created as a kind of ambassador for the real writer who has no idea how she manages to write stories or novels and is always surprised that she can do it again. Other writers I know also say they can’t recognize themselves in interviews, even if (as one writer does) they prepare with written notes. “It’s not that I’ve said anything that isn’t true,” a novelist once told me. “It’s simply that it never really captures the experience. Also, when I sit down to write again, nothing I said in that interview ever describes what I actually do.”

Having made this disclaimer, I can now tell you that I love to read interviews with other writers. Collectively, they comprise a vast, cerebral People Magazine, and often have the aura of delicious, slightly illicit intimacy. In The Paris Review, one page of the writer’s first draft is always reproduced, with many scribblings and corrections. I can look over P.D. James’ shoulder, see that she substituted ‘strap’ for ‘rope’ and think I hear a tree fall in the forest –the perverse philosopher’s tree that falls without making a sound. James’ manuscript is typed and her corrections are easy to read, but in the same issue there’s a handwritten, nearly hieroglyphic page by Patrick O’Brian, a page which surely only he can decipher. Indeed, his writing looks like the Rosetta Stone, and I can imagine an enormous installation of Patrick O’Brian’s first drafts, one that might require over twenty rooms, allowing viewers to glimpse the origin of his stories. I know, of course, that these manuscripts are not the real origin. The real origin is concealed–in the fragment of a dream, or an image of a child in summer twilight, or a vision of a Mediterranean village–as well as in hours and hours of daydreaming, writing and revising, not to mention everything the writer has lived and experienced up to that point. The perennial questions posed to writers about whether they write longhand or use a computer, who has influenced them, where they get their ideas, and what routines inform their working day, can’t possibly expose these origins. We’re content to settle for what whatever is in superfluous orbit around the writer, accidents of fate, history and personality.

Thus we discover that Joan Didion sleeps in the same room with her novel, that Tom Robbins spends half-an hour a day looking at the sky, and that P.D. James got the setting for Devices and Desires when she was looking at a nuclear power plant near the North Sea. These tell us nothing about the actual process. They are stand-ins, understudies, markers. The literary interview is a bit like a failed detective story, seeking the answer to the question how does the writer do it? when everybody knows that no one can explain how the writer did it–not even the writer. As John Steinbeck said: “We work in our own darkness a great deal with very little knowledge of what we are doing.” Remembering this darkness, we concoct stories about how stories finally came to be written. These meta-stories always are told after the real stories are finished. Ultimately it doesn’t matter that the literary interview is a masquerade ball, in which the writer and the interviewer meet in a ritual promenade, never taking off their mask.  In a sense, this doesn’t matter because the real meeting happens when the reader reads, and this meeting is so clandestine not even the writer can witness it  In the privacy of their rooms, readers immerse themselves in the writer’s language to recreate the writer’s story as a personal living theater. This immersion–intense, solitary, yet deeply interactive—can result in a sense of connection to the writer  more intimate and profound than connections with many people the reader knows.

Thus readers, seeking to sustain this anonymous connection, write letters to writers, have fictitous conversations with writers, and sometimes imagine dinner parties where guests are their favorite writers. There’s always a paradox to this connection: The more the writer is willing to let go of a persona and allow every fiber of their being to disappear into a story, the more the reader feels that, in addition to having met particular characters, they have met a very particular person. Even third-person narrators, in the grand tradition of 19th century omniscience, manage this slight-of-hand feat, imbuing every novel with a distinct quality of presence. You speak of liking Jane Austen and not liking Anthony Trollope. You would never mistake Charles Dickens for Emily Brontë. Because we are curious, because we are uncomfortable with the invisible–and because our culture revels in the cult of personality–we will always write literary interviews, and we will always greatly enjoy them. Readers will read to discover secrets that don’t exist, settling for odd bits of information that are ultimately tangential to the actual process of writing. Writers will be guaranteed a temporary reprieve from their lonely, uncharted days. These interviews serve us well if we take them for what they are–talismans of a mysterious, alchemical triad, the reader, the writer, and the story.

The Luxury of Sleep


I think I was born awake.  And even though I drown under the panoply of Proust’s detailed memories, I empathize with his insomnia. I also admire Balzac, who wrote from five in the evening until seven in the morning and was seen in daylight once, on his way to court to settle a lawsuit.

Once, a boyfriend who had just come back from Tuscon, woke up and began to feed his pet python.  The silver bracelets on his arm jangled like rattlesnakes.  His eyes looked at an undefined point in the distance.  When I began to talk to him, he startled, then said:

Oh my god. You’re a twenty-four-hour-a-day person.

I suppose I am.  Except when I forget my keys or put a bill,   My only refuge is the day dream. Since I’ve been a kid I’ve escaped by staring out the window at nothing in particular, always knowing I would have to come back to a place where  faces and conversations burned inside me because I couldn’t ignore them.

So it was with a strange and abberrant pleasure that I slept for five days solid with the flu. My friends were cats .  My environment was a tangle of sheets and a feather quilt, more intricately tangled as days went on–from valleys to dunes, from canyons to mountains.

This was a sleep without dreams and a sleep without thoughts.  In essence it was a writer’s vacation, as though the angel of dreams colluded with the angel of inspiration and they decided to put a screen between me and every image and memory available. Sleep was everywhere. And everywhere was sleep.

As suddenly as it began the flu went away and I forgot, all over again, what it was like to sleep.  The angel of oblivion disappeared.  And my long-trusted friend, the angel of daydreaming, took over. Ideas began to surface: Strange, tufted fragments that might be part of a book or might be fragments. Characters  eager to audition. Titles that might have resonance.

And, not for the first time, I began to wish there were a country where things people did during the day happened at night.  Home Depot would be haunted by non-sleepers.  The aisles would be quiet. The tools would be lit. And everyone–shoppers and salespeople– would walk down the aisles in socks.   Costco would have a cathedral-like calm. The towels and toilet paper would be lit by votives.

I might like this country more than the country of sleep.  I imagine encounters with people I’d never talk to in the demanding etiquette of daylight.  I see shops with illuminated windows, restaurants with people making business deals over candles.  And bookstores,too, some with books already written, others with books about to be. The stores are behind thick doors and have halls that lead to endless aisles filled with bookshelves.

After getting a garden hose at Home Depot and boxes of detergent at Costco, I would immerse myself in these stores.  Then night would become a place of refuge without tossing and turning and wondering if I should work or watch something on Netflx.  I might meet Proust, restless after a few hours in his cork-lined room, or Colette, who worked until three in the blue light of a paper lantern–or maybe Balzac, out for a walk.   Oh! To sleep!  one of us would say.  Those lucky people who are sleeping now. Would we mean it?  I don’t think so.  We would be glad to live in the company of  insomniacs.  And if we found a dark store that offered the vacation of no sleep, we would look in the window for a moment and hurry on.

Against the Anxiety of Influence: Notes on Flash Fiction

Before writing this piece, I’ve offered a prayer that flash fiction isn’t in the process of becoming fossilized by literary criticism and what Harold Bloom talks about in The Anxiety of Influence. This is because flash fiction has enjoyed marginalized obscurity, and critics have left it alone. Flash fiction has been the backwater and refuge of many writers: For me, it’s an explorer who bivouacs vacant buildings, a harbor welcoming unknown countries, an insomniac who talks to shadows. Flash fiction is free—very free—and exalts in its protean nature.

Flash fiction isn’t new, but has become increasingly visible because the online world has given birth to journals that publish it almost exclusively. This visibility makes both readers and writers ask new questions about flash. Among them: Do more men than women publish flash, or is it the other way around?[1] What is flash fiction? And isn’t it easier to write than a novel?

There are so many forms of flash fiction that no definition is complete:   Its one stricture is brevity: Flash is 1000 words or less—and often as short as 100 words.   The brevity makes flash an urgent letter that must reach a reader quickly. There’s no time for complicated transitions, flashbacks or connective tissue. Writers of flash fiction must cut to the chase.

Although flash is its own form, it overlaps with poetry and fiction. Like poetry, flash is characterized by a distinctive voice, more reliance on subtext than plot and elliptical leaps of language. Like fiction, flash usually deals with at least one character and involves that character’s transformation (or lack of it). The transformation can be slight, but is always surprising.

Flash has also taken some of its inspiration from a short, language-driven form called the prose poem. Aside from its brevity, the prose poem deserves mention because flash has continued the prose poem’s tradition of startling, elliptical leaps in language and surprising twists of imagery. (Bows here to Russell Edson and W. S. Merwin, both prose poem masters and partly responsible for the blossoming of the short form.) Flash, however, has taken the short form to explosive possibilities and the distinction between the prose poem and flash fiction has become blurred. Flash is sometimes call “micro-fiction” or “nano-fiction” and even “smoke-long fiction” (i.e. long enough to finish a cigarette.) But the term “flash fiction” has become an umbrella that encompasses most short work.

I came to flash fiction after a hiatus in writing during which I reconfigured my brain by studying logic and philosophy of science. Because I was so cerebral, I imagined flash would be easier than longer forms and spent two years writing short pieces with clever images. These were fun to write and people found them amusing. But I never felt I’d reached the indisputable stopping point that defines a good story or a poem—a stopping point that takes me by surprise and turns the sentences into a story that’s larger than the sum of its parts. When I finally wrote my first piece of flash I knew, on a visceral level, that I’d found a stopping point that was indisputable.

The first piece I wrote was the kind of flash fiction I’d never read—a five-sentence story about Gogol who was a notorious gambler.   It had never occurred to me that flash could be about historical figures. And I mention this only because each writer’s version of flash fiction turns out to be as unique as a thumbprint. Unlike the novel and short story, flash doesn’t have narrative templates. Its only template is its restriction on size. The story itself must be reinvented.

Once I had an intuitive understanding of flash, it was easier to write more of it. But many times I return to a piece again and again to get it right. Flash looks easy because there are so few sentences. But individual sentences—no matter how beautiful or clever–don’t necessarily coalesce into a story, far more elusive than individual lines. Each writer of flash discovers his or her story differently.

I speak about flash fiction, then, as a writer who’s had to discover—and rediscover—its subtle nature. I also speak as a novelist and short story writer and am sure that flash is its own form, not a mutant novel or a short story without growth hormones. Novels begin like sad amphibians with missing phalanges and often depend on a tsunami that crashes into characters’ lives. Flash fiction depends on finding, obscure footholds, unexpected openings, and eventually surrenders to a seizure of language. Ironically, it’s often easier to find the tsunami than the footholds.

Although flash fiction can take time to write, after it’s finished it has the sense of a story told in a single breath. And whenever I write a story in a single breath, I feel intense surprise that something so small has its own mysterious wholeness and is wonderfully separate from me. Flash is brief, complete, and teems with protean forms.   I hope it remains renegade and continues to evolve and astound.

In conclusion, I find writing about flash, as opposed writing it, feels a bit like temping the gods of literary criticism. And as I write, I keep putting myself into a piece of flash fiction about someone writing about flash fiction, which begins: “When she told her miniature horse she was writing about flash, he stamped a hoof and spoke to her sternly…..”


Thaisa Frank’s most recent books are Enchantment, a collection of short fiction and Heidegger’s Glasses, a novel that has been translated into ten languages. Her flash fiction has been anthologized and her earliest flash fiction was cited in Pamelyn Casto’s piece, Flashes on the Meridian.

For more about the prose poem and gender issues, see flash notes below.

Flash notes:

1] There aren’t any statistics about whether men or women write/publish more/less flash fiction. The fact that the question comes up is proof that flash has become part of the contemporary conversation.   Whatever the answer, I hope that Men’s Flash Fiction and Women’s Flash Fiction will never become marketing niches.

Some notes about the prose poem and its relation to flash fiction.

Prose poems often involve a pure transformation of an image. An example of pure transformation of image can be found in Ana Hatherly’s prose poem, Tsianas #82:

Once upon a time there was a country where there weren’t any clouds. To make rain, it was necessary to wash the horizon with feathers.

Translated from the Portuguese by Jean R. Longland

The elliptical writing of the prose poem has been consider a vehicle for dissent –a kind of politically radical newspaper. One of the most famous of such writers is Danhil Kharms, who was shot during the Stalinist era. Although he called his pieces prose poems, he managed to write a Russian novel in a few sentences. Today, many people would characterize this as flash fiction.   The piece is called


Once Orlov ate too many ground peas and died.Krylov found out about it and died too. Spirindov up and died all by himself. Spririndov’s wife fell off the cupboard and also died. Spirindov’s children drowned in the pond. Grandma Spirindov took to drink and hit the road. Mikhailov stopped combing his hair and caught a skin disease. Kruglove drew a picture of a lady with a whip in her hand and lost his mind. Perekhrestove was sent four hundred rubles and put on such airs that they fired him at his office.


Good people, but they don’t know how to take themselves in hand.


Translated from the Russian by George Gibian


The first prose poem is attributed to Baudelaire and but I’ve found it in much earlier works, like The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogan, written in the 2nd century.




Reading to Dogs

reading to dogs The hardest part was getting their owners to leave the bookstore.   They didn’t trust their dogs to behave. As they leaned over to say good-bye a few capsized books with their heads or disarranged bowls of kibble. The dogs licked their owners  and waited. In the previous hour they’d been allowed to sniff all the books and their excitement made them tired. The only dog that lifted his leg was a mournful Irish wolfhound, now placed nearest the door.

The reader, a woman in her mid-thirties, was in back of the store, impatient for owners to leave. It had always been her passion to read to dogs–dogs of all shapes and sizes, dogs assembled together. A few people to whom she’d expressed this passion had misunderstood and suggested readings about dogs at special events in pet stores. But she didn’t want to read to owners. She wanted to read to dogs. And this wouldn’t just be about dogs anymore than a reading to a group of women would be just about women.

The story she planned to read, though, did involve one dog—and it happened to be a wolfhound. Thankfully, when the real Irish wolfhound raised his legs, someone with foresight placed a bowl between him and the book and this relieved her because a camera-man from a TV station had gotten a clear shot of the dog’s legs over the book and if the dog had peed it would have have eclipsed her quiet reading.

She’d chosen a story called Boudica the Enchanted Princess--something short so she could read slowly and pay attention to the dogs. She wanted to see if they listened. And she wanted to be sure it was the story they were interested in as a story, having nothing to do with dogs. Please don’t use the word dog in your introduction, she said to the bookstore owner. Some of the dogs know that word and it could make them over-excited.  He looked startled but agreed, although she knew the introduction didn’t really matter because he wouldn’t mention the red shoes pinching her feet, or the Citizens for Humanity jeans pinching her ass or her passionate desire to read to dogs.

After the  introduction, in which the word dog wasn’t used, she stepped to the podium and made eye contact with each dog. They looked at her with eyes that were moist, a little wolfish, and wagged their tails. They waited.

And so she began to read about Boudica, a beautiful princess, who had been made into a furry calico cat by an evil stepmother. Boudica grew small, had whiskers, and  a sad enchanted face, marked by an M between her eyes. After becoming a cat, she was exiled from her kingdom and adopted by a couple who fought. One day, after an argument, the man flopped on the bed and saw Boudica in her gorgeous fur. Their eyes locked, he kissed her and  Boudica turned back into a person. The dogs were attentive and quiet. When Boudica was exiled they put their noses between their paws. When she became a person, they wagged their tails.

Now it gets a little complicated, she said to the dogs apologetically. The man left his wife and asked  Boudica to marry him, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to. She joined a gym with co-ed exercise rooms, fell in love with men and women, and eventually decided to go back to the man, who was angry and made Boudica sit on the steps until he proposed again.

The dogs wagged their tails and a few howled.  She waited until they were finished and went on: In homage to her life as a cat Boudica wore an enormous cat suit to her wedding. But when she walked down the aisle, the cat costume crumpled and a small calico cat jumped out. The flower girls cried and ran to their mothers and all at once, without warning, the groom turned into an Irish wolfhound.  For a moment it was a horror show while they barked and hissed and ran around the church, until the minister had the presence of mind to roar, and this brought them to their senses and they became people again.

At the altar, the minister said to them: ”What are your original faces–to yourselves and to each other? This is a question you will ask again and again for the rest of your lives.”

They kissed and had a reception with an enormous buttercream cake.

When Boudica and the man turned into animals the dogs put their noses between their paws and whimpered.  When the buttercream cake appeared they wagged their tails. But they still looked expectant, because, for dogs, the prospect of excitement is infinite. So she looked at them quietly and said: That’s the end.

The dogs understood! They raised their noses and howled. Their heads went far back and their snouts touched the books behind them and book after book tumbled to the floor. The bookstore owner let her shake their paws and each dog licked her hands so by the time the TV-man appeared her fingers were sticky . He put a microphone under her chin and asked what it was like to read to dogs. She told him about their wagging tails, their whimpering, their howling and the way they watched her—all signs they followed the story.

Why do you think they followed the story? the interviewer wanted to know.   She said it was because the dogs knew she was reading to them, not at them.

He thought about this for a moment, then asked how her own dogs had enjoyed the reading. She said she didn’t have any dogs.

Then you must have had a dog when you were little, said the man. A dog that listened to your first stories, a dog you trusted.

No, she said. We lived in an apartment and the landlord wouldn’t let us have pets.

The man stared at his notes. They were all questions about her dogs–their names, what they ate, whether they slept on her bed, if they did tricks. After a moment, he gave her a strange look and interviewed the bookstore owner.

Later, with her cats, she watched the news so she could see the interview. There she was, microphone under her chin– but only for a moment. It was amazing, said the interviewer. The dogs sat still and listened. He didn’t mention their howling or wagging tails or waiting to be told the end. Nor did he say she didn’t have dogs. Instead he said she hadn’t talked about her dogs out of respect for their privacy.

And now the bookstore owner appeared and said reading to dogs was a high-concept event, one that would catch on everywhere.

A boon, he said, a boon for all of us.

She’d agreed to the interview because it was the only way the bookstore owner would let her read to dogs and now  the event was a travesty. She poured a huge glass of scotch and went to turn off the television. Yet, as the camera panned around the store, she saw all the dogs–a vast carpet of differently colored furs. She saw their ears, their noses, their wagging tails and their sense of outrageous, exuberant radiance. It spilled into the room, filling the air with boundless joy.  She raised her glass to them.

Linda Gray Sexton, author of Bespotted, talks about her writing process


Linda Gray Sexton is an acclaimed memoirist, novelist and essayist.   Her most recent memoir is Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmations.   (Counterpoint Press 2014).   In 2011, she published the memoir Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide (Counterpoint Press) and in 1994, published Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton. She has also written several novels, including Private Acts, Mirror Images and Points of Light. She is  the author of numerous essays.  More at ,


1. What am I working on/writing? Or what book have I just finished writing?

I have just published a memoir called, Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair With Thirty-Eight Dalmatians this first week in September 2014. It is an account of the way these many dogs influenced my life, and my family’s life, since I was a child up right through to the present. It shows the joy, companionship and happiness dogs have brought into my life, as well as the story of the one Dalmatian who saved me from depression and suicide. I also show, breed and train these dogs and it deals with that world as well.

Right now I am working on a novel tentatively titled Sunday’s Magician. It is moving along slowly because I now have to take care of the publicity and publishing tasks that go along with having a book come out.

2. How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

I like to think my work deals with hard truths, with the exception of Bespotted, which is a lighter and more joyful book. Previously, I have published Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, which is about my relationship with my mother and how I learned to forgive her for her suicide, which occurred when I was twenty-one. Another, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide, which covers the legacy of self-destruction that was left to me and examines my own bipolar disorder and three suicide attempts, followed the first memoir. Some people think of Half in Love as a sequel to Searching for Mercy Street. The final chapters in the book tell the story of my return to health, happiness and love—all that enables me to move on to write the later, lighter memoir, Bespotted.


3. Why do I write what I do?

I write candidly, in any genre, about the truths I find in life. I nearly always write about family relationships and the secrets we keep from one another—and even ourselves. I find it helps me to examine myself if I “tell it true,” as my mother said. Knowing that this is acceptable is liberating and enables me to scrutinize the psychology of others and myself.


4. How does my writing process work?

I work each weekday from nine o’clock to noon, when I break for lunch and do the errands of the day. At lunch I read at the same time I am eating, books that are generally lighter and more commercial, focusing on storyline and character. I resume in my office around two o’clock, reworking previous material rather than creating new, or, if I find myself with “writer’s block,” I read—generally “literature” that will help me hear the rhythms of my own work. Writing is a solitary act and I find I need a lot of self-discipline to be productive. Sometimes I write my first drafts on my laptop computer, and sometimes by hand on a yellow-lined pad of paper with a number two Ticonderoga pencil. These tools comfort me with their familiarity. If I have used paper, I then transcribe onto the computer, editing as I go. I love revising and editing and I hate creating first drafts. My first drafts tend to be awkward attempts and I refine, refine, refine over time. Generally each book goes through twenty or so drafts before I show it to a friend who is a writer, or my writer’s group. I then take their comments and revise before showing it to my agent, who critiques it once again and I make one further revision. She then takes it to my editor. My editor requires further honing and expansion in different spots before it is published at last.


Laura Pritchett Counterpoint Press Author

Laura Pritchett is the author of Stars Go Blue. She also authored Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, which received the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and a PEN USA Award for Fiction. For Sky Bridge, she received the WILLA Fiction Award. She has had over 100 short stories and essays published in various magazines The Sun, Orion, O Magazine, High Country News, Salon, Desert Journal and others. Pritchett lives in northern Colorado and teaches around the country. More at


From the publisher:

Laura Pritchett is an award-winning author who has quickly become one of the West’s defining literary voices. We first met hardscrabble ranchers Renny and Ben Cross in Laura’s debut collection. In Stars Go Blue, they are estranged, elderly spouses living on opposite ends of their sprawling ranch, faced with the particular decline of a fading farm decline of a fading farm and Ben’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Then they discover a new horrible truth: Ray, the abusive husband of their daughter who shot her dead in the family kitchen, is being released from prison early. This news opens old wounds in Ben, his wife, his surviving daughter, and four grandchildren. Branded with a need for justice, they must each confront this man, their own consciences, and their futures. Stars Go Blue is a triumphant novel of the American family, buffered by the workings of a ranch and the music offered by the landscape and animal life upon it. With an unflinching look into the world of Alzheimer’s, both from the point of view of the afflicted and the caregiver, the novel offers a story of remarkable bravery and enduring devotion, proving that the end of life does not mean the end of love.




Readers will remember Renny and Ben Cross from Pritchett’s stellar first collection of linked stories, Hell’s Bottom, Colorado (2001). Life in the meantime has not been kind to the salt-of-the-earth, hard-working couple. Their daughter, Rachel, was murdered before their very eyes a few years back by her meth-head husband, Ray. Now Ben has rapidly progressing dementia, and Renny is left to tend to the ranch and her husband single-handedly. When the Crosses learn that Ray has been released from prison innearby Greeley, Ben leaves in the midst of a snowstorm to confront the man who ruined his family, armed with enough weapons to ensure his misery will end. When Renny discovers Ben is gone, she takes off inwhat is now a full-blown blizzard, uncertain that she will find Ben in time. There is more than just the bleak and unforgiving setting of the Rocky Mountain foothills to recommend Pritchett to fans of Kent Haruf’s similarly placed novels. Strength of character and simplicity of language comparably complement a rich underpinning of savagery and sadness as Pritchett sensitively navigates the end of a life and sublimely realizes its enduring legacy.


— Carol Haggas

“Stars Go Blue manages to be both warm-hearted and violent at once — a complex deeply-imagined family tale which finds unexpected gifts at its conclusion. Laura Pritchett is a writer who knows country life on the Rocky Mountain front range thoroughly and she conveys this physical world expertly, beautifully out of her long experience. Within this specific place her clear depiction of character and suspenseful delivery of story compel us to the last exact word.” —Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong and Eventide