Aug 07

In Which Commercial Fiction and Literary Fiction Square Off

I read a piece by Joyce Carol Oates[1] in which she mentioned Charles Dickens’ essay “Night Walks,” about how, when he had an ongoing and intense bout of insomnia, he walked through the streets of London until dawn, and how this profoundly unsettling state of “night-restlessness” led him to rename himself “Houselessness” for the course of those evenings. Oates observed: “No one has captured the romance of desolation, the ecstasy of near-madness, more forcibly than Dickens, so wrongly interpreted as a dispenser of popular, soft-hearted tales.”

“Yes,” I thought immediately, “I know that intoxication.” I closed my eyes and let myself fall, for just a moment, into that delicious 3a.m. hush, when thoughts charge through our brains unrestrained, and words curlicue like smoke from our souls. Worlds end at 3a.m. Lives are unbearable and yes, desolation and near-madness can lick up around the edges of our minds, and the blood surging through our veins at those moments turns our pages red.

Even Shakespeare agrees! And who argues with Shakespeare?

Wait, what? The “romance of desolation”? The “ecstasy of near-madness”? And then there is “dispenser of popular, light-hearted tales.”

This is the lit fic rallying cry.[2] It embraces the idea that writers write because we can see the demons everyone else ignores, and we cannot rest until we wrestle them down onto paper, over and over, forever. Writing is our barbaric yawp, and we send it out over the rooftops, hoping to help dim the bedlam of lives lived in the vicious grip of the mundane. Anything less is inauthentic.

I hear the siren call of this idea, and I know it lives deep inside me. And yet my brow furrowed over Oates’s words. I know writers for whom this is not necessarily the state of their souls. They aren’t carving out pieces of the collective subconscious and nailing them to the page. They write about nice people who have all the trouble they need trying to get together with a person they’re attracted to without having to face an existential crisis on their way to dinner. These writers scoff at this idea: “That’s ridiculous! You don’t need to court madness and desolation to be authentic.”

I think both responses are correct. But how can that be, when they’re fundamentally opposed?

I was stumped until I started looking at it from a completely different angle. If you want to understand a culture, one of the biggest sources of information is that culture’s stories. What a bonanza the explosion of story forms in the last two centuries has been—among them commercial fiction, graphic novels, comic books, movies, and video games. And that got me thinking…

Amazing insights can be found by using all these stories to dissect, for example, what a culture fears, how it loves, and what it thinks is possible. Crime, horror, and paranormal, romance, and science fiction do just that. And lit fic, which is busy analyzing and digging into the underlying darkness of the psyche, gives the cultural sleuth an intentional glimpse of the gritty machines grinding away behind the beautiful facade people try so hard to preserve. And with those statements you can already see how this perspective makes murky the line between the two sides—there is just as much commercial fic that gives this glimpse as lit fic that fails to.

See how similar they look? Let’s face it–they’re both badasses.

This broader view gives us the objectivity to look at fiction as existing on a continuum of human experience. This continuum goes from dark to light. And since no shadow can be thrown without light and no light can exist without creating shadow, there is no way to have sides. Even in a book without shadow we notice its absence, just as much as we notice the absence of light in a book consumed with shadow. The question, therefore, becomes not “What kind of book is this?” but “Where on the continuum of the human psyche does this book fall?” This question invites the reader to engage every book they read on a much deeper level.

If we’re honest, we, as writers, exist on this continuum, too. So what should matter most is how our story answers that second question, because we’re creating roadmaps of the human psyche, whether we’re aware we’re doing it or not. Our duty, collectively, is to provide as many different roadmaps as we can, not dismiss one story or another because of an imaginary literary fistfight. Only through all our approaches can we capture enough variations to get a glimpse of the true play of light and shadow in the soul, and this could lead to the deepest insight of all: When I look at you, your lights and darks, I see myself.

[1] “Running and Writing,” from The Faith of a Writer

[2] I’m not saying this is Oates’s intention. Everything that follows is my exploration, sparked by her observation.

Jun 10

My first Snippet Sunday post!

Tools of a trade Kelly never thought she’d pursue.

Kelly Hannow knows she has to get away from Chax. The question is, how?

For Major Camden Williams and Major Devin MacGreggor, Green Berets, after what they survived in Iraq, it’s nothing to them to catch a burglar. But when they see Kelly’s scar, the dark rage that burns hot beneath their surfaces is kindled, and just sending her on her way is no longer an option. Teaching Kelly defensive strategies takes an unexpected turn when the heat of battle turns to a very different kind of heat. Now the only question is, what kind of future can three lost souls possibly find together?

Here they are, the first ten sentences of my WIP, Breaking In.

Thanks to Karysa for such a cool idea! And thanks to all who read. I really appreciate it!


Breaking and entering was not on the list of things Kelly had hoped to accomplish when she graduated from college. But she also wasn’t one to run from good fortune when it decided to shine on her, which had been damn little in the last few years, and not at all in the last month. Breaking and entering posed the most welcome opportunity she could imagine at the moment.

Music bellowed from the speaker mounted on the ceiling and she let her mind create patterns in the dusty spider webs vibrating with the bass. Across the dingy pub Chax shoved crumpled, sweat-damp bills around on the bar. “Adam! Christ, you gonna give me change or what? No way I’m leaving you four bucks tip.”

She rubbed her thigh, a habit she hated and needed to break, even though finally her touch wasn’t met by a hot sting. She lifted her glass to her mouth and gin smoked its juniper tendrils toward the back of her throat before she swallowed. The familiar hollow feeling, like her chest had been emptied out, began to spread.


Thanks for reading! And be sure to check out the other authors who are posting for Snippet Sunday.

Jun 02

Reader Expectations–The Good News…and the Bad

There are hundreds of types of fiction, but, arguably, they all boil down to three: literary, genre, and crossover. I’m forever interested in the distinctions between those three (and why those distinctions exist in the first place), but recently I had a conversation about distinctions from a completely different perspective—the reader’s.

I know, you’d think I would have understood the influence this perspective has on these distinctions a long time ago. I did, to a certain extent, but it was more along the lines of “Hey, reader, come on this journey with me! Maybe it won’t be what you expected, but I promise it’s going to be worth it!” It wasn’t until I saw, and understood my reaction to, the movie Pain & Gain that I really got that what I was saying wasn’t taking into account the power of what a reader brings to our books before they even pick them up off the shelf or download them. I’m talking about the power of expectations.

But first, Pain & Gain. I love Mark Wahlberg and pretty much trust, at this point, that the movies he’s in are going to be of a certain caliber. The trailers for Pain & Gain, at least the ones I saw, portrayed it as a comedy. I was all on fire to see it. When my husband and son went on a camping trip together, I eagerly bought my ticket and a great big box of Reese’s Pieces and claimed my seat in the exact center of the theater.

THIS is the movie I wanted to see! This is FUNNY! Hey, *I* want to wear Swagger now!

True to the trailers, when the movie began, it was very funny. But as I sat there in the dark, munching tiny peanut butter spheres, it became harder and harder to maintain my laughter. In fact, as the true awfulness of the situation became clear, I stopped laughing all together. These horrible things had really been done to a real man by the real main characters.

This was not a funny story—not at all. In fact, it was horrifying.

Fast forward to my discussion with other writers about reader expectations.

I’ve always maintained that, as long as you write a good story, your readers will come along for the ride. I’ve done my fair share of genre-twisting, running on the far side of a “rule,” playing with the tropes and definitions of our genre. And, to a certain extent, I think those are good things to do.

But the lesson I learned from Pain & Gain was this: if you tell your audience you’ve written a certain kind of story, in a certain genre, they come into it with certain expectations. And those expectations can be a good thing. They prime the pump of your audience, predisposing them to like your work.

On the other hand, if you lead them to believe your story is one thing, and it’s really something else, those same expectations are going to sink you.

For example, you can write amazing romance, absolutely knock that ball out of the park, but if your cover blurb, Amazon description, and jacket copy try to sell it as lit fic, you are going to get bad reviews. Because your story is bad? No! Because you failed to meet the readers’ expectations—they aren’t expecting romance, and won’t recognize your efforts in that genre. (And vice versa!) They’re looking for lit fic, and they’re not getting it, and they hate your book because of that.

I’ll say! And as far as expectations go…..

…that’s really, really a bummer.

I hated Pain & Gain because it wasn’t funny (whether or not it is a good movie at all is a different discussion). I couldn’t change my expectations half-way through and re-imagine the movie as whatever it was trying to be, because I was too busy being horrified by the subject matter, which certainly didn’t meet my expectations.

Ultimately, we can write whatever kind of book we like. We can tweak and twist the “rules” of our genre every which way (and this can be, in part, the definition of “crossover”). But it’s also our responsibility to understand the expectations of our audience. There are rules to our genres and sub-genres, and when we write, whether we like it or not, our stories are going to be judged, in part, on whether or not we met the expectations of our audience, based on those rules. Does this mean we’re locked into tropes and the like? No. But if we’re going to push the genre, we need to be clear exactly which direction we’re pushing in. We can’t just presume our readers will love the sushi we serve them when they very clearly ordered lasagna.

May 23

Plagiarism or Inspiration?

On October 2, 1998, the movie Antz was released to great fanfare and critical acclaim. This was Dreamworks’ first animated movie, and they were entering a powerhouse genre, going head-to-head against heavy-hitters Disney and Pixar. Antz was a huge success, making millions for Dreamworks.

Then, on November 25th, only a little over a month later, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life was released.

There was no question someone had copied someone else. The only question was: who had copied whom?

At least this time, there’s an answer.

Turns out, John Lasseter, who was friends with Jeffery Katzenberg at the time, had told Katzenberg all about Bug’s Life on a visit to L.A. in the fall of 1995. In his battle to undercut Disney, which distributes Pixar films (and now owns them), Katzenberg began production on Antz, intentionally planning on getting it into theaters before Bug’s Life.[1]

That sure as heck was copying. But was it also plagiarism? And why am I making that distinction?

Because it appears that while plagiarism is illegal, copying isn’t. The law states that no one can legally protect an idea—only the implementation of an idea. If we apply that law here, then the idea “an ant with individual ideas uses them to save his colony” isn’t protected. And the way that idea is implemented in Antz and Bug’s Life is, indeed, different, so there is no legal problem, and, therefore, no plagiarism.

But the issue at hand is much bigger than this simplistic distinction implies. Legal or not, there is the whiff (and perhaps more than that, a downright stink) of the dishonest in what Dreamworks did. Individual implementation aside, there’s no way to see the two movies without knowing, in our bones, that, indeed, “someone copied someone else.” We sense the moral wrongness of what Katzenberg did, regardless of whether it is legally allowed.

In the writerly world, consider 50 Shades of Grey. This book originated as Twilight fanfic. Indeed, the main characters still retain the exact physical and emotional characteristics of Meyers’s, with the exception that the male protagonist is no longer a vampire. It’s impossible to read the two books without noting the blatant similarities—even, overall, in aspects of their plot arcs.[2]

Fanfic has a long history of drawing its inspiration from existing, copywrited works, and I’m not knocking it in the least. But when it goes on to its own publishing life, something goes creepy-crawly up my spine because of that copywrite on the source material. Again, this doesn’t fit the legal definition of plagiarism. But there’s no denying that something ain’t right there, and the literary world agreed, diving into the ethical considerations of publishing 50 Shades.[3]

But it gets more distressing, and confusing. Because in thinking about the roots of fanfic, I realized the real question in these cases is about much more than copying.

Which brings us to the case we discussed at a writers meeting I attended, where author Kelly Rucker brought a suit against Harlequin, alleging that they stole her idea for a novel. I’m not so interested in the outcome of this case, or even the actual particulars, but instead, in the implications. Because the real question raised by all these examples is: what is the role of inspiration in the creative life? And when I realized that was the actual question, I got nervous about my reactions to both Antz and 50 Shades.

In the case of Kelly Rucker vs. Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. the real accusation is about the source of the inspiration for the Harlequin book. Did Rucker’s book, How to Love a Billionaire, inspire The Proud Wife? In that case, does phrasing the question as “Did A Bug’s Life inspire Antz?” change our feeling about the issue of those movies?

I am a devotee of inspiration. I would wield a sword against the strongest opponent to protect our right to be inspired by others’ ideas. But is inspiration a different animal than plagiarism? Or does the very idea of inspiration contain within it the notion of plagiarism?

Do we feel better if we call it a tribute? This is from the point of view of designers. Very interesting.

Indeed, plagiarism asks real questions about what we are, and are not, allowed to do as artists. If we read a story that inspires us to write (Twilight), are we now, ethically, allowed to make (and publish) of that inspiration whatever we like (50 Shades)? How much must be changed before we can be morally comfortable calling the idea our own? If Katzenberg had changed the characters from ants to water buffaloes, would that have been enough to rid the movie of its suspect morality?

What are the rules? Do we want there to be rules? If we do, how strict do we want them to be?

The law as written and put into practice falls clearly on the side of those who wish to copy—who wish, in what to me feels like the true spirit of the word, to plagiarize—because of the inherent looseness of the idea of “implementation.” Are we happy with the distinction between “idea” and “implementation” if it allows instances like Antz/Bug’s Life and Twilight/50 Shades to happen?

On the other hand, if we eliminate that distinction, if we win cases against the Antz and 50 Shades and Good Wifes of the world, have we now hamstrung ourselves from being able to be “inspired” at all?

I don’t know the answers. I’ve had amazing and valuable conversations with a variety of people about this, some who believe there’s a real problem and some who don’t.  There isn’t a clear resolution. Should there be?


[2] For a good list of them, see

[3] A fabulous one:

Apr 12

Hey! You! Don’t write by yourself!

To succeed in telling compelling, rich stories, we need two things—talent and skill. Whether or not talent can be taught is something I’ve heard debated over and over, but I think that’s a useless debate. The real question is whether or not skill can be taught. And the unequivocal answer is yes.

Skill, in the writerly sense, is what we call craft. The craft of writing is the raw wood, the material that underlies the beautiful home we build with our words. It includes the knowledge of how to structure a plot, whether we figure that out beforehand or pants our way through it; the awareness of how to build three-dimensional characters with strengths and weaknesses that will create empathy in our readers and a strong enough interest to carry them through the pages; and so on.

I am aware of the argument about whether or not even that much knowledge is needed to write compelling stories and I think that dispute, while interesting, is not helpful. It’s true that you can teach yourself to be a builder by the trial-and-error method. But it’s also true (and I speak from experience—insofar as this is a metaphor for writing) that you are going to do a lot of reinventing the wheel while you’re at it. And no one enjoys watching the home we built crash to the ground if there are a few aspects of building we haven’t perfected yet.

I thought anyone could build with Legos!?

I am by no means trying to make anyone wrong who’s out there doing what we do without having taken tons of classes or read dozens of books on craft. I wrote that way for a long time, and I created projects that I’m proud of and had published, so I’d be a fool to say it can’t be done. But I also wrote stories and even books that had problems I tried again and again to fix, that required me to completely rewrite them, because I didn’t have a good enough grasp of craft to understand that the structure holding up the home of my story wasn’t sound. (I rewrote one 450-page book six times, from beginning to end, as I worked on various aspects of my craft. I was learning as I went along, which has a lot of merit, until you want to write a book that doesn’t take years to edit.)

Once I opened the door to craft, once I took my place in the shop of some of the master writers in whose company I’ve been, I began to see how much more I could focus on the talent (or art, or whatever you’d like to call it) side of my writing. When I began to understand how and why a scene didn’t work, or a plot bogged down at a certain point, I didn’t have to use all my energy figuring out what, exactly, was wrong; I knew what was wrong, and why, and so could jump immediately into the number of ways I could fix it, not how on earth I was going to fix it.

You, your notebook, and other writers. It will make that notebook sing.

Critique groups and writing clubs and groups are invaluable sources for learning all aspects of our craft. We write in isolation, that will always be true, but, if we’re part of a regular gathering of writers, every month we have an opportunity to invest in our builder’s repertoire, whether it be straight-up craft or knowledge of the business side of our writing lives (to me, craft equally involves knowing how to negotiate the world of agents and editors as well as, for instance, understanding what to look for in a contract and how to negotiate when something is lacking). And no matter the speaker or the topic, my experience has always been that there is some tool we can come away with.

Can talent be taught? I’ll leave that to those who like to debate. Craft, all aspects of it, can, and that’s the commitment we make to each other when we come together as writers. Together we can create a writerly sanctuary worth its weight in gold. Our engagement with this sanctuary can only strengthen our own stories.


Mar 04

Do you have what it takes?

“Even if you’re writing crap, at least get something on the page. You can go back and rework it later. You can’t rework a blank page.”

This from a successful author friend today. It’s a good reminder. Many are the times I’ve sat down and known that every word I was writing was not up to my standards. Many times those words have given way, through persistence, to gold. And many times they have not.

You have to have persistence if you’re going to do this work. You have to have more persistence than in most other endeavors, because there are absolutely no guarantees. You can’t guarantee the words are going to flow today. If they do, you can’t guarantee they’re going to make the final cut. If you finish a story, there are no guarantees it’s ever going to see the light of day. If it does, the whole process begins again with the next story.

Yes, it can feel exactly like this.

At a conference I went to, a well-known New York agent, on a panel attended by 250 hopeful fiction writers, said, “I’m going to be honest. Most of you in this room don’t have what it takes to make it.”

People were angry. Some derided the agent, saying he had no right to be so harsh, that he had no idea what we were made of, etc. Others slumped in their seats, staring blankly at the walls, their hands slack in their laps. But I thought what he’d said was brilliant. What kind of a reaction was I going to have to his words? Discouragement? Rage? Hopelessness? Was what he’d said enough to get me to give up?

He’d given us a gift—a chance to see, first-hand, what our level of persistence really was. Did we have enough to hear what he’d said, look deeply into ourselves, catch where his words were accurate and resolve to work on those places, and let them go, cleanly, where they didn’t apply? Or did we diffuse the energy created by his observation by lashing out, either inwardly (“What he said applies to everything in me”) or outwardly (“What he said applies to nothing in me”)?

Another test—Harry Potter was rejected thirty seven times. What if J.K. Rowling had lost her persistence at rejection twenty? Or thirty? We all hold that series up as the wunderkind, the series singlehandedly responsible for bringing kids back to the page. She is lauded for that, and rightly so. Imagine the pressure as her readership grew–it’s one thing to write a story and know it’s your own baby until such time as you decide to bring it forth. It’s another entirely to be pregnant in front of the whole world, with millions of people screaming at you to induce. Many a writer has found their persistence fails them under such pressure. J.K. Rowling has what it takes.

But there is another side to persistence. If you read that first Harry Potter book…it’s really not very well written. (Please put away your pitchforks. She gets better as the series goes on, and I love Harry Potter.) My point is, I can see why it was passed over thirty-seven times. That first book really is a risk.

J.K. Rowling didn’t give up, and she shouldn’t have. But that doesn’t mean you never should. Blind persistence can quickly become irrational obstinance. Some stories must die. It’s the nature of the beast. It means it’s time to start another story, if you really do have what it takes.

Irrational obstinance

And that’s a difficult balancing act: how do you know when to call it with a story, and when to stick in there, stick your neck out again, and keep going? There’s never going be a definitive equation for figuring that out. It’s as individual as each story. But we have a tool: feedback. Which introduces another dilemma: do we take others’ critiques or do we pass on them? How do we know which feedback is good and which is so much sturm und drang?

There is no such thing as an objectively good story. But that doesn’t mean four people telling you your story isn’t good are to be believed. Nor is the opposite, necessarily, to be believed.

So here we are, back at the no guarantees thing. What can we count on? Is there really a still, small voice that endures at our cores and that, after the tornadoes and earthquakes and fires of contradictory feedback and rejections sweep through, we can rely on? If there is, how do we cultivate it? How do we learn to hear its whisper against the incessant howling of our own and others’ thoughts about our writing?

I don’t have any answers. But I persevere.

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.

Feb 24


Twisted, yeah, I knew you’d call me that. Because I spit in your drink last night at the bar. But you don’t know from twisted. Ever watch a knife fight? Circle, circle, then in for the kill, you never even saw the knife if they’re good. I’m not that good.

All I did was spit. You’re still alive.

I kick the concrete while you talk because I can’t kick you.

You want me to apologize. Say I’m so, so sorry. Or what? You’ll turn on those tough boot heels and leave? Me? That’s your threat?

You’ve got a lot of leaving behind you. I can see that. Tracks lead all the way back to seven years old when your dad left his own trail behind him. So I get it.

I just don’t give a shit.

Now you tell me to stop kicking. Your words grow weeds in my ears.

You shove me. Well, go ahead. No one’s stopping you. I could tell you I won’t do it again but it’s just a bell clanging.

We hate each other during the day but at night…well, at night. You once made a sound when you finally blundered your way inside me like what we were doing punched through your chest and wrapped a hand around your soul. Deep, river-wide, clear all the way down to the bottom, that sound.

It whispers in my heart.

“I’m sorry I spit in your drink.”

You put your arm around me, elbow akimbo around my neck. Pull me close. Lick my throat. Breath cools my skin. I shiver.

We stumble down this road, pitch and roll.


Some people will call this the worst example of a co-dependant, abusive relationship. Maybe they’re right. But I believe that somewhere in us we’re all suffering and it takes everything we have to deal with it. For most of us, like the two above, this means we cover it up–head down, arms in, disappear. Get by. Survive. Don’t give too much away and no one will take it, ride us, and leave us broken.

So what drives us together, two bodies colliding, what collision are we hoping, praying, to get in? Drawn on, drawn in, something in us longs for that crash, values it wildly beyond any logical measure.

It’s not the physicality of it. Come closer. Look. Better yet, see. Remember that time when someone—could be anyone, a stranger even—threw wide their door and for that moment there was nothing between you, no you or them at all, just a joining that leaves you wrecked. From then on we’re junkies, searching the rest of our lives for the handle to that door.

Not lust. Love. Know me. Crawl inside me. Live there. If I hand you my heart, will you know how to hold it? This is what we are longing for—to be stripped by someone and recognized.

Our problem is the face we put on in the morning is not the face we were born with. Even if we’re so far gone we’ve forgotten that.

And that means, in that split-second when we have a chance to open up and reach out to someone, chances are we can’t switch faces. That’s a true cause of suffering–the illusion of separation pierced, and us helpless to make anything of it.

Whatever the violences of our lives, inside and out, whatever the wreckage we leave in our wake, every one of us is capable of being transfixed by those moments of complete knowing. It explains a lot. Maybe everything.

These roots go deep.

Feb 15

Bullshit stories

It’s rare that someone looks you in the eye and tells you the truth.

I don’t mean about the little things, like “Does this soup need salt?” or “Do you, um, know what happened to my shoes?”–I mean the big things.

I was talking with a friend recently about a dynamic that frustrates me in my relationship with my husband and I got to that most common of phrases, “I mean, what’s up with that?”

He paused for a moment, a look of wry amusement on his face, and said, “You’re a bitch, Theresa. That’s what’s up with that.”

It was so unexpected, so honest about that dynamic, and so undeniably true I burst out laughing. How could I not? He’d hit the nail on the head, squarely, and I could either waste a ton of energy denying it and taking it personally and shooting the messenger or I could use that shock to crack open a possibility in my relationship I hadn’t seen before.

I had the same response when I saw this picture:


Oh yeah baby! It was another one of those moments where I encountered something and within seconds its tentacles had slithered through my entire head, connecting everything together in a new and undeniable way.

We all have a bullshit story. It’s that tiny, poisonous whisper that most of the time we don’t even hear anymore, but that still has the power to bring us to a complete standstill in life:

“I’m not lovable.” “I deserve to be treated badly.” “I’m not allowed to exist.” “Whatever anyone does to me is fine because I’m a bad person.” “If I stick up for myself, I’ll get killed.” “It’s too scary to try. Just don’t.” “Being open with people hurts too much.”

There are thousands of others but they all boil down to the same thing–stay safe. Curl into a ball and don’t risk sticking your neck out.

And if you’re a writer and you’re not aware that that voice is there and how it affects you, the things you write may be technically good–great–even brilliant, but they won’t touch anyone (talk about bullshit stories). Readers will move through your story, laugh, feel the tension, maybe even cry a bit if something sad happens, but your words won’t snake into them, curl around their hearts, and wake them up at night because there’s something there that affects them, too, a niggling little feeling that what’s happening on the page isn’t isolated to the page, that it’s actually happening to them, right here, right now, and they’d better pay attention.

Great literature does this. J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Jennifer Egan, John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, George Orwell, Orson Scott Card, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, I could go on and on (and I’m not even listing the non-fiction writers who do this, like Nietzsche and Heidegger and Kierkegaard, to name a few), but the thing that makes them great, besides an obvious level of mastery of their craft, is that they aren’t speaking from their bullshit stories.

When I read these writers, I’m not just reading a story. I’m seeing the machinery inside all of us. I’m getting an in-depth picture of what it looks like to live out a bullshit story and what it takes to break free of it.

My contention has always been that literature is a conversation, not a lecture. As a reader it’s my responsibility to join in by bringing to bear all my experiences in life and seeing what that author has to say about them. When I engage this conversation, I have a chance to engage amazing minds who have thought deeply about what it takes to be human and what we need to do to reach that goal.

Hamlet: everyone talks about his hesitation, and how relieved they are when he finally acts at the end. But when I join in that conversation, with the benefit of my own bullshit stories squarely in my sights, I see the true tragedy of a man lost in his head, completely unable to connect to his heart, to the extent that he sacrifices everyone he loves, including himself. To me, Shakespeare is screaming a warning of one of the great dangers of his, and our, age: beware the death of the heart under the tyranny of the intellect.

As someone who spent most of her adult life living from her head, completely shut down emotionally, I feel the seriousness of this warning and see the impact of losing sight of one’s heart all over my life. Here be tragedy, indeed.

When I read The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, I threw the book across the room when I finished because I thought she’d completely cheated me as a reader by how it ended. Who couldn’t see that the Painballers deserved to be killed in a long, drawn-out manner? But I was haunted by that ending. Atwood is a master at this kind of conversation and I knew something deeper was happening there.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for the good people, gnashing my teeth until I got the pleasure of seeing the bad people die. And the Painballers–they’re so bad–they kill people, rape women, turn women into sexual slaves; they’re vicious beasts with no redeeming human qualities–you just feel yourself go rabid with wanting their death. And in the end, Ren and Toby have the perfect opportunity to kill two of them….and they DON’T.

This isn't me. It's my soul screaming at the injustice of them living.

But what I got was that throughout the whole book I’d been identifying with the good characters because that’s how I see myself. I’d been horrified by the bad men, disgusted and afraid of them…..and at the end of the book, my blood lust at wanting them to die? I WAS THEM. I was not like Toby at all. Given the chance to forgive and uplift or crush and destroy, I’d chosen to crush and destroy.

It was a watershed moment for me, as a writer and a person. As a writer, what an amazing amount of trust Atwood placed in her readers. How many got no further than their reactions to the end and swore never to read another Atwood novel? How skilled do you have to be to write a story that is so physically embodied by your readers they may not even notice which character they’re actually emulating?

And as a person, I had the devastation of seeing one of my bullshit stories so strongly there was no way I could turn away from it. I wanted to kill the Painballers in exactly the ways they’d killed people throughout the book. As horrified as I was by them, they are in me, and if I don’t pay attention to that, that poisonous whisper could wreak havoc in all sorts of situations.

I’m not saying I’m going to go out and kill anyone, but that “killer instinct,” that desire to destroy someone, that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with. It comes up, for instance, when I get hurt emotionally or when I think someone’s done something to make me look stupid. My mind goes into overdrive figuring out ways to make sure that person goes DOWN–I am cutting, rude, snide….a bitch. And here we are full circle, a poisonous whisper traced both through honest friendship and amazing literature.

So in terms of writing and life (some claim there is no distinction there ;) ), you can’t put a better poster on your wall than the one above. We can write things that do nothing but scream our bullshit stories–or we can write things that expose those stories, rip them open, and chart them so others can lay that map over themselves and see something, too.

Being a writer is a service to the greater good of humanity. That’s a grandiose statement, but look at the list of names that back it up.