Mar 15

“What do you write about?”…, crap. That question.

The question all writers dread: What do you write?

We can usually fob this off by genre-listing: I write literary fiction and erotica, non-fiction, and dabble a bit in sci-fi and fantasy.

The problem is that this isn’t really what they’re asking and if they’re not the easily-assuaged type, they follow up with an even worse question: What do you write about?

For the love of God, just read the book!

I think the reason this question is so hard is because, to answer it, you have to reveal a rather large part of your soul, and that’s just not something people like to do at all, much less at cocktail parties or when meeting someone new.

Consider my answer: I write about that moment it dawns on someone that their whole world is not only not what they thought it was, but is actually only tenuously balanced on a teetering structure of lies they’ve told themselves to keep from seeing reality. And I agree with Flannery O’Connor, we only get to that moment through violence.

This is always a good look to get when explaining something that lives at the center of your soul.

That’s pretty much a conversation-stopper.

Thank God, because the next question, asked with any of a variety of “I’m uncomfortable now” faces, is: Why do you write about that?

Sometimes I say this: I’m drawing a road map so if people want to give themselves an authenticity check-up, they know where to go.

Which I realize is waaaay too cryptic.

So I wrote a little story to illustrate what I’m talking about. (That’s an annoying thing we writers do. If we can’t get you to understand with “telling,” we’ll get all metaphorical on you. It probably makes you want to  slap us, but what can we do?)

Anyway, it goes like this:


It wasn’t until I was shoved up against the wall, your fist an inch from my face, that I started to think, “I’d like not to be here again, if I can help it.”

Does your fist have to land first? Or can it stop there, your breath hot on my face, your other hand twisted in the front of my shirt? Is that enough?


But maybe not.

I know the path out is more than this scene; this is just physicality, the flesh between you and me. But maybe I need the fist on flesh, the splitting of skin, the warmth of my own blood, to convince me I am, indeed, walking down a path that no longer suits me.

How did I get here? Ah. That is a question that will keep you up at night if you really try to answer it.

It wasn’t by thinking. Or not thinking. There is a third thing, as Hegel said, as I say, as we know from experience. There is always a third thing. And sometimes a fourth, fifth, and sixth thing. But there are never, ever just two things.

In this instance, there is the wall. There is the fist. One, two. But there is also the space between them. And in that space exists something I spent a lot of time not naming—not because I can’t, but because I won’t. It is responsibility.

I have to look in that space and see my own path, my own choices, and how they led to this, “this” being whatever it is that serves to scare the shit out of us, in this case being shoved up against a wall and threatened with physical violence.

Those choices are what lurk in the dark after the kiss has been administered, the drink of water has been consumed, the song has been sung. They are the monster under the bed that no flashlight or candle can eradicate. Why are they so scary? Because we have met them, and they are us.

Those choices are the basis for the shadow agreement I’ve made with you—we promise to recreate our bad times for each other. “I’ll stay with you even though you threaten to hit me,” my agreement goes, “because this recreates the intense fear I felt living in my house growing up.”

Me cringing against the wall did not start with me storming into the apartment and saying the stupid shit I said. No, I watched my father and mother scream at each other for years first, felt the way that made something sharp and hot crawl into my stomach and settle. I watched how she pestered him constantly about what he was doing and how it wasn’t good enough, smart enough, right, well done, or even wanted. I watched them both do their damndest to prove the other was worthless.

I watched and learned that the sharp-hot belly, and the screaming, and the shaming, was what I was supposed to feel, and do. And I picked you, in the shadow world of unexamined neuroses, because you were the perfect match for making sure I could recreate those things forever.

I paved my adult path with the shattered concrete I had been handed through the years, constantly trying to match it up, make it whole, not looking closely enough to realize it was never going to fit together again, that the right choice was to look for an unbroken piece and work with that.

So now I stand, your fist an inch from my face, between the moment you grabbed me and this moment, the mobius strip of time slipping through my nostrils and out of my mouth, my eyes wide open. . .

My feet do not move but something in me slides out, around you, down the hall. It pads into the bedroom and gathers together my clothes and lights a match and throws it on, watches as the flames lick around the edges of the pile, dance upwards, throw smoke up to form a black shadow on the ceiling. A shadow I need to leave behind.

Your hand uncurls and drops. My shirt falls into wrinkles filled and pressed with your sweat. You back away and run into the couch. I watch your body in motion and then at rest. You turn over and press your face into the pillow.

I do not move. I do not have to. I already have.

“Fault” is a word to further distract me from “choices.” It is not a word I want to know any more. I want to know how to rip up the concrete burying me in my choices and watch the darkness wriggle and come to life. I want to dig my hands in until they are black and crawling with filth, until I can taste dirt in the back of my throat, until I can look those choices in the eyes and not look away.

Until I know what they are and why I made them.

And then I want to leave the earth torn up and turn. And walk a different way.

I turn to the door. For a moment I am still there.

Then I am gone.


It’s not comfortable, what I put my characters through in my stories. But comfort does not lead to change. Comfort feeds the shadow agreement.

Comfort is death.

Don’t you want to come up and talk to me at the next cocktail party?

Mar 04

Beating a Dead Horse

Cliches! Oh how we writers hate them and are horrified when we find ourselves using them. We do everything we can to banish them from our heads. But this may be the very reason they have such power over us–the forbidden is always that which arises first, I’ve noticed. So I say write them down. I’m not saying use them, but you have to get them out before you can find the fresh take.

When the words are flowing for me, I put down the dreaded cliche (or equally dreaded almost-right word) and make it red. Then, the next day, I just riff on those words or cliches. I write down everything I think of in the riffage session because what starts to happen is the words go deeper. They start to line up and suggest other words and ideas. And when I have a whole string–I’ve had as many as thirty words in a row–I start to look at the chain I’ve made.

Red words!

Is there some deeper idea I’m actually getting at? Is there some other feeling I’ve masked up to now by the “wrong” cliche or word choice? Is my character screaming and holding a huge sign that says “I AM ACTUALLY SAYING THIS!” What is the story trying to tell me?

This is why those long word/idea strings are so important. If you just run through them in your head, you’ve lost your whole train of thought. And that train is leading you somewhere. You need to be able to see all the cars because the thing you’re looking for is the engine.

The engine is what’s really at the heart of your story. It’s the emotion that’s fueling the story in the first place. You might think it’s ridiculous not to know what that is–if you’re writing the story, you must know what it’s about, right?–but, just like in real life, there is what’s happening on the surface, and there’s what’s really going on underneath, and it’s not always easy to find, or face, what that is.

Sometimes you realize the engine is actually parts of two or three of the ideas you’ve recorded. Sometimes in the list of wrong words, looking up more synonyms for that one that showed up three times reveals the engine. And sometimes the engine can only show up because you’ve gotten those thirty other words out of the way.

The more you struggle with finding the right word, the more familiar you get with that itchy feeling that arises when it’s not the right word. That itchy feeling is a signal–you’re on the wrong track. You’re not yet clear about what’s really going on in your story.

Because ultimately, you’re not really struggling to find the right word. You’re struggling to find out which deep, quite voice inside you is fighting to get itself on the page. And all those red words are the barriers we put between us and what shows up when we turn over the rocks in our souls. No wonder I’ve got strings of thirty words! Give me words, dear god, so I don’t have to look at the creepy crawly things that live in the dark of my mind.

Sometimes the engine takes its time showing up. I’ve had stories with several word/idea strings in them up to the final edit. For those tough ones, I know there’s something not clear in my exploration of what that story is really about. (Dialogue in your final scene is another indicator of trouble–if you can’t decide what a character should say, something’s not clear!) If everything was clear and flowing the way it should be, I would know what word was needed.

That’s when I start again at the beginning of the story. We are building themes, symbols, and meaning from the first word on the page–we are expressing a deep emotional truth–and in a well-strung-together story each word and idea leads to the next and follows from what came before. If I can find those breaks in the links, understand what they’re really calling for, and fix them, often by the time I get to that red train, it’s obvious what word or idea needs to be there. But I can’t be afraid of diving into my own swirling inner world.

“Wrong word/idea,” then, is not just a stylistic choice. It’s also a red flag for something you haven’t yet understood about what you’re really trying to do. And cliches, then, are even worse–they’re the short-cuts writers use to avoid a truly examined life.

But what of the power of cliches? There’s no denying their power to evoke. And a brilliant writer can tap that power and use it to make a ho-hum image indelibly imprinted on the reader’s mind; but only if he or she can bring that inner world to bear upon it.

Cliches are the only way to tap into your reader’s mind and know what you’re going to get. And that’s where we can slam the engine they think they’re driving into the rock wall of their own expectations. Take this one from Margaret Atwood:

“You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye.”

Aw, that’s so sweet! says her reader after the first two lines. As writers, we know exactly what that reader is thinking: they’re lovers, they’re meant for one another, the reader can safely assume a hundred thousand things about how they function together as a couple.

And then the mental image formed by the last two lines.


From “warm fuzzy relationship” to horror story in six words and the reader’s imagination. The second image is as powerful as it is because of two things: the power of the feelings evoked by the initial cliche, and the power of Atwood’s ability to nail those feelings most of us shy away from.

Try and get that image out of your head. It’s been in mine for twenty years.