Chekov’s characters] do not exactly forget to be themselves. they forget to act as purposeful fictional characters; they mislay their scripts; they stop being actors–James Wood, The Broken Estate

Writers are hopelessly dependent on characters. Besides being the chief elements readers can identify with,  they’re the only elements besides the writer that can change what happens. It’s what characters want or don’t want that changes things, and narrative arcs (and plots)  that don’t flow from their desires are rarely believable. (We all know about stories that end with lottery wins, people dying or another act of God.)

Characters are the victims or the heroes of the story. They are effected by events and push back against them–or don’t.  In fact, fiction depends on characters so much there’s a myth that you have to start with a clear idea of a character or characters. But characterization is a notion invented long after people began to tell stories. Some writers start their stories with an image, a plot, a title, a or scene and meet their characters later. And writers who start with characters may seem luckier, but often these characters resist a narrative arc. What is true is the eventually, the plot must flow from the motivation of the characters.  Characters either transform or don’t.  And transformation or resistance to transformation is a key element in creating the  illusion of time in fiction.


In the beginning of almost every good story, whether it is intentional or not, almost all writers consistently reveal the following information about the character. If you read any number of beginning pages, you’ll discover that this is true:



level of education


Except for one dramatic event (and sometimes not even one) the plot should flow from the motivations of the characters

You don’t have to start a story because of an interest in a character;; but ultimately the characters must begin to guide the story.

The writer is always separatefrom the characters.

Characters usually change stories by acting out of character in convincing ways orby having an opportunity to act out of character and thus change their lives and not taking the opportunity.

Most dialogue between characters reflects a relationshipbetween two people, rather than a monologue.

Although almost every good story identifies characters quickly, neverinclude something about a character that doesn’t interest you.


A Short Lexicon

Narrative persona— The narrative persona is the cloak–or personality–that the writer assumes in order to tell a story. One might think of it as the narrator behind the scenes—so even in first person narrations, there is an invisible puppet master guiding the unfolding of the story.

The narrative persona defines the writer’s relationship to the characters—whether the narrator feels distant from them, close to them. It also includes the writer’s sense about the truth of the story. Characters may believe things that the narrative persona isn’t convinced of, and may not believe things that the narrative persona is convinced of. Narrative persona is conveyed by tone, pacing, use of language, distance from characters, and concentration on (or lack of concentration on) description.  The persona in Felicity’s Journeyis a different persona from the one who wrote William’s Trevor’s short fiction.

Narrative personais different from point of view, which defines the various perspectives from which a story is told. Pont of view intersects with the work of the narrative persona because writers often feel a tension between the narrator, who in some sense is inthe story and  the omniscient writer (who is in some sense outsidethe story). One might say that the writer, who knows the story, is always banished from the story precisely because the knowledge prevents the unfolding and discovery of the story.

Embodiment—is the literal sense of a character’s body, moving through space and taking up room as a physical presence. A kinesthetic sense of a character lets you have  transmit a character instinctively.  Sometimes, it can create a character without a lot of description.  If you’re character is embodied, it’s often easier to convey how characters relate to the space around them—how they walk down the street, what objects are important to them.



Suggested Text:THE BROKEN ESTATE-by James Wood, Essays on Literature and Belief

Writing About Writing: A Cautionary Tale


searching for origins

On Amazon there are over 8,000 books about writing. There are how-to-write-a-bestseller-books, how-to-survive-as-a-writer books, how-to-write-detective-story books, how-to-write-bodice-ripper books. Write-a-novel-in-five-days-books. No wait! Write-a-novel-in four-days.
For every book about writing there are a thousand online sites with tips about how to write & essays from writers about their process and their lives. There are point- of-view books, character books, plot books, subtext books, plot-arc books, character-arc books, voice books and tone books. Many are written by writers.(I wrote one : ) )
Books & online publications form a strong invisible community for a profession that works in silence. Intentional or not, they comfort loneliness and low morale–both occupational hazards of the writing profession. They all have concepts that ring* interior bells for a writer.

But they can mess things up if their advice about craft and their admonitions about ideal work hours, interfere with first drafts where the writer needs to discover the story haphazardly, on her own, discarding characters, disregarding plot, trying different tenses, perhaps at three in the morning. The books are talking about strands of something organic and parts never add up to the whole.
Ironically, When the writing happens, the writer has disappeared into the work and can’t really tell you how it got done. Nor can she ever see her work for the first time. Even so, she might write a book about what happened–a remarkable fishing story, where the most crucial events happened below the surface.

*had written “wring interior bells”–actually, both are true…

Worlds in Fiction: Balancing Figure & Ground

Worlds in Fiction- A key to subtext

When you read a good writer the world, for that moment, can seem no other way. Crime and Punishment is imbued with Dostoyevsky’s sense of the world. If Tolstoy written Crime and Punishment, we would have visited a different Russia. One might argue that Tolstoy couldn’t have written Crime and Punishment; but Crime and Punishment is so imbued with Dostoyevsky’s sense of the world it’s almost impossible to imagine the book written by anybody else.

To write, then, is not just to tell a story, but also to create a world in which your characters live. These worlds can be ordinary like the world of Ferrante, fantastic, like the world of Calvino,  or somewhere in between, like Remainder by McCarthy. Worlds are shaped as much as by what is left out as by what is left in.

All readers are aware of them subliminally This is why some mystery readers choose English cozies and others choose techno-thrillers. These worlds include qualities of weather cityscapes, landscapes, and sensate objects, ranging from fruit to velvet. They also include the singular vision of the writers.  (The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus is an example—a book so good that many voice-driven writers say it made them want to give up writing.)

On might say that a world is ground and narrative is figure. Interesting fiction is a balance of world and narrative.  But unseasoned writers often focus on narrative so characters hanging in empty space. If you have trouble creating a world, spy on the way you pay attention.

Here are a few ways to spy


The Inner World


Make the journal dangerous:  Discover what you don’t know about your day instead of what you already know: We all have a running story about our day, based on what we know we did.  (Had to teach a class. Couldn’t find my keys. Almost late and couldn’t find a place on the UC Campus. Etc.)  But If I allow myself to remember my day quickly, I’ll see a few images, or hear a few bits of dialogue that have made an impression.  (The green rim on the white plate. “Those McNuggets are real good,” he said.)

This quick log, has a lot of benefits: You’ll begin to have a lexicon of what interests you. You’ll remember the day more vividly than you’d remember a blow-by-blow account of your day.  You’ll begin to have a lexicon of what interests you.  It will take a few minutes at any time of day.

Discover what you don’t know about your dreams.  Freud, Jung and a lot of other people have told us how to understand dreams and you may rush to understand the symbolism or decide how it relates to your life. But if you review your dream quickly and write down a few images, you’ll begin to have another lexicon.

You may never use any of these things in your fiction—but you’ll start to focus different.  These exercises bring you closer  to the way you pay attention, to the concrete sensory things that interest you and your imagination.

The Outer World

Eavesdrop: You’ll be forgiven if you write good dialogue as a result.  People often speak elliptically and poetically.   Their voices are the chorus of the worldMedia

Media. Do you ever look at the Enquirer at the supermarket–the most surreal literary fiction in this country? Or race to see what the NY Times is reporting about fashion?  Have you read posts like “Twenty Movie Stars Who Now Work in Offices”? The easiest way to do this is to look at Show All History on your computer. (Be honest!)

Research. Create a list of questions about your outer world, with particular attention to a sense of place. For example: What houses have I lived in?  What streets have I walked on?  What do I remember about the last room I saw?

As must be clear, a world often depends on a sense of place, or places.  You can play with this by changing your perspective on a place. For instance, imagine what it’s like to walk down a familiar street as if you were from the future or the past, a spy on a mission from another country.

Most people don’t think that what they notice is interesting because it’s what they’ve always noticed.   The more you pay attention to what you notice, the more you’ll understand that no one else has your perspective.  Appreciating what you notice (and not longer thinking it’s a boring, obvious perspective) is the key to creating an interesting fictional world.


To Speak or Not to Speak: Tricks for writing dialogue

Conversation is a journey and what gives it value is fear.  You come to understand travel because you have had conversations, not vice versa. Anne Carson, The Anthropology of Water.

Like polite guests at a party, writers rush to fill in the silence between characters. This usually results in predictable dialogue that bores the reader and the writer..(“Hi,” she said. “Hi,” he answered.)  But dialogue is rarely a direct exchange and is often most important because it reflects what characters don’t say rather than what they do say. To put it differently: Dialogue often bears the burden of the unsaid.

It also reflects the relationship between people. One might say that the relationship is a third character and this is what drives  conversation.

Think, for example, of throwing a ball against a fence. Before it comes back to you, you hear the sound of the ball against the fence. That sound is like the moment between one character’s speaking and another responding. It’s the most important beat.

Before going any further, it’s important to remember that most writing tips are helpful after you’ve been spontaneous, made mistakes, and written a hundred “Hi,” she saids.   If you clench yourself up and try to think too much your writing will be stalled and become a head trip with a new inner critic inside.

Unless you’re a writer to whom dialogue comes easily, getting characters to talk naturally takes time and mistakes. You have to learn to listen to the dialogue rather than think it.

Having said this, one trick is to learn to cross out beats.  In the process you will eventually discover that you have written something interesting in the midst of all the verbiage.

Here’s an example of crossing out beats:

‘”Hi,” he said.

“Hi ,” she answered.

“Did you go to the store?” he asked

“I went before I left for work,” she answered.

“Did you buy potatoes?”

“Yes. They’re in the pantry.”

“I don’t see them.”

“They’re in that bag.”

“In the bag?”

“Yes. It’s in the pantry,”

“How come you put them in the pantry?”

“It was the easiest place.”

“How come?”

“The path’s a mess. I set down the bag and when I picked it up the bottom had oil from when you worked on the car.”

There’s a long interchange between A and B that’s boring and predictable. But eventually the dialogue starts to illuminate the relationship. If you cross out all the beats that aren’t interesting, you’ll get:

“Did you go to the store?” he asked.

“The path is a mess,” she said. “I set down the bag and when I picked it up it was all full of oil from when you worked on the car.

More often than not, you will find that you have written interesting and illuminating dialogue.  It’s just gotten lost with unnecessary beats.

The more you become familiar with crossing out dialogue beats, the more you will learn to listen to your characters when you write. You also may begin to pick up what’s not being said when you listen to people talk.

copyright Thaisa Frank: Essays on Writing Fiction/please contact before reproducing; please reference this article and credit it.  Thanks!






Flash Fiction: What is it, anyway?

A cage went in search of a bird…. Franz Kafka

I like it except for the whole thing…Henry James

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn …Ernest Hemingway.


The History of Flash Fiction and Its Predecessor: The Prose Poem.

With the abundance of online publications, flash fiction is making a dazzling re-entry into the literary scene. Because it’s short, flash is the essence of the “less is more” school of writing. Whether or not you choose to concentrate on flash fiction, learning to write flash will train your ear and allow you to make crisp transitions so the reader can take a leap of the imagination with you. Economy and compression are the essence of good flash. Until recently flash fiction only appeared in literary journals, escaping critics and enjoying marginalized obscurity. Perhaps for this reason many writers have felt that flash fiction was a backwater and a refuge from conventional narrative. It can bivouac vacant buildings, welcome unknown countries, talk to shadows—and express radical beliefs. Flash fiction is free and exalts in its protean nature.

Flash fiction combines the poet’s monologue with the fiction writer’s penchant for  working with characters. In a sense it’s an urgent letter, telegraphing secrets you might tell to strangers on a train. These once told, quickly-heard tales must capture a reader’s trust, imagination and attention.

It’s  helpful to remember that flash fiction morphed from the prose poem. And if you’re serious about writing flash, it’s helpful to study and write some prose poems.

The prose poem looks like prose, but has elliptical leaps in language characteristic of poetry. It also has startling twists of imagery and a spirit of radical imagination. The prose-poem is image driven and relies on transformation of the image.

Nobody knows who wrote the first prose poem.  Sei Shonogan, the author of The Pillow Book in the 990s and early 1000s in the Japanese court, certainly wrote prose poems–although she didn’t call them that. Bertrand and Mallarme, among others in France, began to use the prose poem to rebel against the strict Alexandrine form of poetry. It was used in Syria, too, in the 19th century.

Russell Edson and W. S. Merwin, both prose poem masters, are partly responsible for the blossoming of the prose poem in the late sixties, seventies and eighties. Edson in particular influenced Lydia Davis and several other writers.

The evolution of flash fiction from the prose poem.

As the prose poem began to  deal with characters  it morphed into flash fiction, which is character-driven, rather than the prose poem which is image driven.  In other words, the transformation (or interesting lack of transformation) occurs with the characters.

The distinction still remains, but sometimes blurs.  Some flash is called “micro-fiction” or “nano-fiction” and even “smoke-long fiction”which means that it’s long enough to finish a cigarette.   Flash is rarely more than 500 to 750 words and  often less.  Microfiction is often 300 words or less.

Some examples of prose poems

(Reprinted with permission from Finding Your Writers Voice, St. Martin’s Press, Frank/Wall)

Ana Hatherly  is a Portuguese prose poem writer. This is  from her series  Tisanas–an anagram of her name

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

You can see the transformation of the image: There aren’t any clouds. There’s a hidden premise that there has to be rain.  The conclusion is that one must wash the sky with feathers.

Incidents—a prose poem from Danhil Kharms, is a Russian novel in a paragraph.

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.

Like many prose poems of that era, this Russian novel in a few sentences is also a poem of political protest.  Kharms was eventually murdered. No one character transforms here. The image is one of utter chaos and the transformation occurs with an ironic comment. The prose poem is a vehicle for presenting tilted environments without the causal implications of science fiction or fantasy.  It is a natural vehicle for unself-conscious surrealism.

The prose poems I write usually don’t have a political slant, but here’s one:

It’s a only a memory, the gold and green, the yellow daisies, the emerald lawns. Since X became president we mostly live in our garages. There’s a chance to breathe there and sort through old postcards. On the day before I decided to burn everything my ex-husband knocked and carried me to the watering hole. He snorted and whinnied like a horse and when we got to the watering hole he put me on the ground. All animals lay down their arms before water, he said. For water, they forget their differences.

Here the transformation is the transformation of a landscape:  From cultivated images, to isolated, arid garages, to a collective watering hole. Like many prose poems, this transformation of an image was unconscious.  (I realized later that the fact that my ex-husband brought me there italicized the laying down of arms and the forgetting of differences.)

What’s in a Name?

“Flash fiction” got its name from James Thomas, an editor of a several seminal anthologies of flash. The name came to him one night in a New England farm house and has never left the literary scene.  This obviously happened after the prose poem began to slide into work with characters.    But by giving “Flash Fiction” a name, James Thomas defined a form . The definition of a new form allowed writers to say “This is something with parameters I recognize!” . The definition–and Thomas’s  eclectic collections (he also collaborated with Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka)—encouraged writers to work with the form and push it to explosive possibilities.  Recently Thomas has created a new category called “MIcrofiction.”  It’s three hundred words or less and is  a form unto itself.

Key Attributes of Flash

Flash originally was defined as around 500 words or less—occasionally expanded to a little over 500 and sometimes 750. Over time, it has expanded to 1,000 words. However if you’re going to learn to write flash, you should stick to between 250 and 400 words, keeping it as short as possible. This is because flash isn’t defined by length alone. It’s defined by elliptical leaps in language, startling subtext, and a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It involves key skills that are easier to learn  if your work is short.

As part of its debut, the online world has given birth to journals that publish flash-fiction almost exclusively. TwitterFiction, with a restriction of 140-character segments, is defining even shorter forms.   Books have also begun to utilize flash-like sections. And readers and writers alike are asking questions, signaling that flash has entered the conversation.

Perhaps the most common questions are: What is flash fiction, anyway? Isn’t it much easier to write than a novel? What are the key elements of flash?

What is flash fiction, anyway?

The short answer is that flash fiction is short.

The longer answer is that although flash is its own form, it overlaps both poetry and fiction and always convoys a sense of compression. Like poetry, flash is  characterized by a distinctive voice, with 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 interesting lack of it. The transformation can be slight, but is always surprising. Sometime flash omits characters in lieu of a fable, a parable, or a dystopian universe. Unlike the traditional novel or short story, flash has no pre-conceived templates. It can surrender to the imagination without announcing a genre.

When writing flash it’s helpful to understand how much flash has taken its inspiration from the short, language-driven form of the prose poem–its indisputable predecessor—and often a vehicle for political protest. (As was the case with Danhil Kharms.)

What are the Key Elements of Flash?

Compression: Making every word count. Leaving out everything that’s unnecessary–although what is necessary can involve lush lyric imagery.

Working skillfully with the three unities (time, place and action) and and using them sparingly or (to put it differently):

Using minimal transitions. Allowing the reader to take leaps of imagination with you–and not describing how something got from here to there or how it’s later the same day or using a flashback describe a character.

Voice—learning to use who you are, how you express that artistically and (in a final draft) understanding that you’re communicating with a stranger (i.e. the reader)*

Skillful use of imagery and lyricism—knowing when it works and when it’s excessive

Understanding both transformation of an image and transformation of a character.

Understanding the relation between individual lines of the story and the narrative arc. (I.e. The narrative arc is always greater than the sum of its parts.)

Understanding the difference between plot and narrative arc. (If plot were the same as narrative arc, the synopsis of Hamlet would be as good as the play.)

*Voice isn’t style. Rather, voice is the fire that gives rise to style.  A writer with a good ear can imitate another writer’s style, but can’t find the whole story.  Imitating style is like using a rope to go a certain distance out to sea.  But the rope is too taut for you to dive  below the surface.  The writer you’re imitating and make the dive and find a story. You can learn from imitating style. But the voice of the story is larger than the individual lines–and you’re stuck with finding your own story.  Flash will help you find the narrative arc, as well as not get tangled in in what’s not relevant.  This is partly because flash is so short you can see the whole story and the individual lines at the same time.

Is Flash Fiction Easier than Longer Fiction?

Many writers revise flash quickly or don’t need to revise at all. But all of these writers have developed their skills and honed their voice. Other writers say that flash requires revision. A piece that has been anthologized and won a Literary Death Match took me five years, pulling me by the sleeve when I worked on something longer. Flash looks easy because there are so few sentences. But sentences—no matter how clever or artful–won’t coalesce into a story. Understanding flash involves a deep understanding of a narrative arc–that elusive beast, whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Although flash fiction can take time to write, after it’s finished, the reader has the sense of a story told in a single breath, a swift and urgent letter.  Writers of flash often express surprise that something so small has its own mysterious wholeness. Flash is brief, complete, and teems with protean forms.   I hope it remains renegade and continues to evolve and astound.

Because they’re longer, permissions to reprint are harder. For the time being, here’s one of my own—300 words.

The New Thieves

One night my lover said: You must be learn to be like the new thieves—they never steal, they add. They enter rooms without force and leave hairpins, envelopes, roses. Later they leave larger things like pianos: No one ever notices. You must be like that woman in the bar who dropped her glove so softly I put it on. Or that man who offered his wife so carefully, I thought we’d been married for seventeen years. You must fill me with riches, so quietly I’ll never notice.

            The next day I brought home a woman in camouflage. She looked just like me and talked just like me, and that night while I pretended to sleep she made love to my lover. I thought I’d accomplished my mission, but as soon as she left, he said: I knew she wasn’t you. I knew by the way she kissed.

           I tried new things but nothing eluded him: Shoes like his old ones, scuffed in the same places; keepsakes from his mother; books he’d already read. He recognized everything and threw it away.

            One rainy afternoon when I couldn’t think of anything else to give him, I went to an elegant bar, the kind with leather chairs and soft lights. I ordered chilled white wine, and suddenly, without guile, the bartender smiled at me. That night while my lover slept next to us, we made love, and the next morning he hung up his clothes in my lover’s closet. Soon he moved in, walking like a cat, filling the house with books. My lover never noticed, and now at night he lies next to us, thinking that he’s the bartender. He breathes his air, dreams his dreams, and in the morning when we all wake up, he tells me that he’s happy.

Whether or not you write flash fiction, learning the skills involved in flash improves skill in  longer pieces. Notice how many novels have passages that don’t drive the narrative arc and wake readers from the fictional dream with prosaic and predictable details. These passages usually involve an unnecessary break in unity of time, place, or action: A  reductionistic flashback explaining how someone’s mother used to lock the refrigerator and he has turned into a compulsive eater. Long descriptions of driving an old Prius to the other side of town. Explaining that someone had tea, vacuumed and took a nap before it was later the same day. Flash trains you to trust your voice, veer from conventional templates and get to the chase.   Its emphasis on voice allows writers to access a vibrational tone, a music, that conveys though the use of voice as an instrument–one that is visceral and  kinesthetic.. Fiction writers do a great deal of cerebral and analytic thinking–far more than people realize.  But flash reminds us again and again, that fiction is not the same as linear thinking.  And that voice is a kind of music.

 Here’s a Short Reading List–with apologies to flash writers I’ve omitted.

Flash Fiction edited by James Thomas  and numerous other anthologies by  James Thomas that you can find on Amazon or in your local bookstore. (Among them: Flash Fiction International and Flash Fiction Forward..)  Once more, James Thomas deserves special mention:  By giving “flash fiction” a name, he brought the form into literary consciousness.

Break it Down Lydia Davis

Parables and Paradoxes Franz Kafka

Wouldn’t You Like to Know? Pam Painter

Damn Sure Right by Meg Pokrass

Fissures: 100-word stories,  Grant Faulkner

We the Animals Justin Torres

Complete Works and Other Stories Augusto Monterroso

Selections from Finding Your Writer’s Voice, Frank, St. Martins Press

The House on Mango Street–Sandra Cisneros

The Meat and Spirit Plan: Selah Saterstrom

Palm of the Hand Stories Yasunari Kawabata

The Pillow Book Sei Shonogan

Comics by Lynda Barry. Although they combine art, they are wonderful examples of vernacular, short fiction, done with extraordinary economy.

American Born Chinese Gene Yang  (the first graphic novel to be nominated for an American Book Award. (Full disclosure: Gene was my student in an Honors English undergraduate class at UC Berkeley.  He just won a MacArthur, said almost not a word in class, and never went to an MFA program.)

Enchantment by Thaisa Frank  (selections–interspersed with short fiction)

Prose Poems by Frances Lefkowitz

Platero and I Juan Ramon Jimenez

Silk Allesandro Baricco

Faces and Masks from Memory of Fire Trilogy (Galleano—particularly helpful for non-fictional flash)

The Sisters” from The Dubliners by James Joyce; although this isn’t flash fiction, it will give you a sense of how voice and subtext create the shape and unity of the story and are far more important than plot.


Velvet Flash

In addition to phone calls and letters, its time for writers to have a velvet revolution.  I’m creating a webpage called Velvet Flash where anyone can post flash fiction. Aside from a 500-word limit, the only requirements are use of the imagination– one the most radical of freedoms—which means a limit on hatespeakweaponized fear and gratuitous violence.  It can be fabulist, surreal, or realist. Nothing needs to be directly political.You can write 100-word stories about secret acts of defiance. Or a confession from one of DTs ties. It can be about imaginary meetings between you and the government. Confessions from imaginary government officials. Spies with secret powers. Strange protests.


200px-L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-GorskyWriting shapes our thoughts, our ability to see things freshly and  this fiction helps shapes our perceptions of the rest of the world.  Generally novels do the shaping.  Now and then flash or a short story (think of The Lottery) is powerful.  It also works for writers writing long pieces and feeling stymied during a troubled time. Flash can occur iduring a break, in a blank moment in front of the computer, washing dishes.  Writing it will remind you that you can indeed write! If you’re interested, please send your piece with a thumbnail photo to

​The website Velvet Flash will be up in about two weeks.
An important note:​This project isn’t meant to be a panacea to the horrifying  results of the election.

There are also so many other things to do For example, in addition to calling your congressmen, there is an ongoing list on Jezebel of organizations that need support.  I also read into the following article on Vox  about the best way to talk to racially biased or LGTB– biased people. It was quite enlightening for me.

 The Grotto, where I belong, is in the midst of having long discussions about writing to influence both people and the media. I

Above all:

in addition to activism now, it will be very important to keep 
constant pressure on the press.  No matter what people say about
who will run the government, there will be surprises and shocks and
justification for horrifying programs and actions.   The press
normalizes such things–as they did with G.W. Bush.   It would be great
to be on the alert, and write collective letters to all the major newspapers.
It would also be great to arrange to have some of them published, as
the Authors Guild did with Amazon.   It would involve raising money
in a Kickstarter program and being ready to spring into action with a
So there’s a lot of work to be done on  a concrete level  and Velvet Flash is just reminder that writing itself is a radical act.  And flash is just one way to remind writers of their power.

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

This essay happened because I wrote one book that took place in WWII and a lot of people asked me how I did my research. Research is a broad term.   But when writers talk about research, the word  funnels into a vision of 3×5 cards, deliberate reading, and carefully-planned interviews.  In truth, the hardest work you will ever doc in a good book is finding its shape, or to put it differently: The most difficult part of writing a book is finding the narrative arc.  Traditional research becomes important to most fiction writers and some non-fiction writers as the shape and the arc of the book takes place.  Traditional research happens through planned reading, interviews, talking to colleagues, and results in getting facts straight, including dates, chronology, spelling, and verifying events and scenes. Contrary to most thinking, this research is the easiest.   But in most cases this research should come last and when it’s the first things writers do, they often gets stalled.

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 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.)

Faith-based research 

This is research that is random.  One doesn’t know quite why one is visiting a particular place or reading about the Napoleonic wars.  In my case, I did totally random reading about WWII–not really knowing why I was choosing some books or articles over others. Like someone going through a free-bin, I saw documentaries, read, looked at photographs and talked to people about Germany during WWII.

In the process of very random reading, I discovered two obscure facts that gave the book its narrative arc.  This helped me link a ghoulish procedure called Operation Briefaktion with The Reich’s interest in the occult.

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

Stuff I already know There’s a whole category of things I’d call “stuff I ready know or stuff I know how to do,” whether it’s the history of graphic novels or how to make an omelet.  To the extend that I plowed ahead in the novel anyway, what I already knew helped drive the novel.   To the extend that I thought I knew less than I did, I hoodwinked myself. In may case, “stuff I already knew” included Heidegger’s Being and Time, which blew my mind after dry undergraduate work in philosophy of science. WBy the time I heard about Heidegger’s glasses at the Christmas party, he was a towering, enigmatic presence–someone whose mind had made me walk around New York in an altered state of consciousness for two weeks.  I’d known Heidegger was a Nazi and often wondered how he could create a brilliant cosmology of being 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.But without my background in Heidegger, someone telling me a story at a party would have been nothing more than an entertaining moment.

 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 was also drawn to books. For instance, one day when I went to a bookstore to get out of the rain, I found a book on the bookstore’s bargain table called. The Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege, published in 1991.

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. A famous Austrian writer named Oskar Rosenfeld had an extraordinary depth of vision. His sensibility helped create an important character.

The book had 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.


All writers have things that happen to them that affect their interests and their research, although they may not know this until years later.

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 toCalifornia. 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. More importantly, however, I realized that meeting him was the beginning of my interest in WWII, and it set me on a path.

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 experience? c. people I associate with what I’m thinking about writing. d. Noteworthy conversations

2. Current strategies

a. If this were a work that depended solely on things I couldn’t look up, what do I think is the narrative arc?  (you probably won’t answer this question, but asking it will make you look for it)

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?

Sometime you know part of the story in advance.  You may not know what comes before it, or after it.

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.

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.


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.