Running a Marathon: Writing Lessons in 26.2 Miles

Lenore Myka

I ran a marathon once, all 26.2 miles of it. When people hear I did this, reactions are generally the same. There is the initial incredulity, followed by the indiscrete body scan—needless to say I do not cut the figure of a gazelle-like distance runner—and finally murmurs of admiration. The most common response I hear is I could never in a million years do that, to which I always reply: Ah, but you could.

Truth is, there’s nothing special about me. I’m just a girl whose friend asked her if she’d run a marathon with her and, not thinking all that hard about it, said: Um, sure.

Make no mistake, training for and running a marathon was hard. It required a monk-like dedication—indeed, a religiosity—that I’d never before practiced. And yet I was able to successfully complete it. How, exactly?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately as I embark on yet another marathon, this one more ultra—sixty, perhaps a hundred miles or longer—in nature. The event date of this race is unknown, and yet its conditioning schedule is far more rigorous than anything I’ve experienced before. You see, I’m trying to complete a book.

In reflecting on what it took to run a marathon, I’m mystified why the depressed, alcohol-addled stereotype of writers wasn’t usurped long ago by the endorphin-addicted, fartlek-speaking, type-A runner-author, since so many of the qualities required to run a marathon are necessary for writing a book, the most fundamental among them being the ability to develop habits.

In Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), Wendy Wood explains that habits are formed when decision-making stops and automation starts. In essence, our brain follows the advice an excellent—and exasperated—therapist once gave me: Don’t think! Just do!

It turns out that people who are successful at developing good habits and ultimately achieving goals aren’t superheroes possessing iron-clad will power and self-control. Instead, they create conditions that optimize their likelihood for success, reducing what Wood refers to as “friction”—external forces that might impede their ability to get that thing they really want to do but are resistant to doing, done. Simultaneously, they create cues that signal the start of that habit so their brains and bodies grow accustomed to a specific routine. Combined, these two factors help them get their thoughts out of the way, paving a road for success.

Training for the marathon, I was able to do this. I avoided friends I knew would encourage late nights of debauchery; I read and watched things that would motivate and inspire me; I kept a strict sleeping schedule; I followed nutrition guidelines to optimize my performance. I refrained from taking on new hobbies or challenges that might pose a risk to me physically; I planned ahead for visitors and mapped out running routes when on vacation.

Most important of all, I kept a set schedule, running at the same time every morning, four days a week, for specific amounts of time. Though initially I came up with all sorts of reasons not to go, negotiating and renegotiating with myself—I’ll run after work; I’ll run twice as long tomorrow; I had an awesome run yesterday and will skip today—I quickly learned diplomatic efforts weren’t getting me anywhere and I needed to return to my original roadmap. Although those early weeks were tough, eventually I reached a point where I was waking up minutes before my alarm. With little if any thought I drank a glass of water and half a cup of coffee, tied my shoes, and headed out the door.

This is no different for writers. We’ve all heard about the importance of ritual—writing at the same time and in the same place, making sure at the end of one day we know where we’ll begin the next. Some of us become superstitious about this. Like Michael Jordan wearing his University of North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform for every game, we don hats and frayed sweaters, light scented candles, pour specific herbal teas, turn on music we imagine is the soundtrack for our project. I brew espresso, froth milk, double-fist my cappuccino with a tall glass of water. I find the earthy scent of coffee, the gurgling of the steamer—even that specific tumbler-style glass I prefer—all lead my mind toward my creative work. These are cues, indicating to my body that this is the particular moment of the day when I sit down, open my laptop, and imagine.

Of course, cues aren’t enough to make the writing happen, and sometimes the days just suck. But this challenge is no different than the one I faced training for that marathon. It wasn’t that I wanted to go running. It wasn’t that I was inspired. Sometimes I was so flush with the runner’s high I had to hold myself back from going longer and harder than I’d planned, but more often running was painful, slow, and discouraging. Still, I resisted thinking that might impede me from training, channeling my inner robot: Wake. Run. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

As writers, it’s hard for us to resist thoughts. After all, isn’t thought essential to writing? Well, yes and no. When that wonderfully patient therapist admonished me with Don’t think! Just do! she wasn’t mimicking a tough-love Nike ad; she was highlighting my tendency to over-analyze to the point of paralysis.

Think of your thoughts like a two-handled faucet, she explained. You want hot water, not cold. When you start to overthink and can’t act, imagine turning the cold water—your over-analysis—off. Allow the hot water to flow. Take a bath.

This is all easier said than done, of course, and it doesn’t do much good when, despite your best intentions, the world conspires against you. Your computer breaks. The phone rings when you’re deep in creative flow; the plumber who’s scheduled to come at four arrives instead at two.

However perfect we create conditions for success, friction will inevitably appear. Midway through marathon preparation, my friend injured her knee and dropped out. We’d been training partners, and her absence made me feel unmoored. I considered quitting. Then I developed ITB syndrome, an overuse injury that causes pain in the outer thigh and knee joint, and an orthopedist told me I needed to take six weeks off to heal.

It is often just this sort of impasse we need to be reminded of how important something is to us. Being told I could not run only motivated me. Reflecting back on the two months of training I’d completed, I saw how far I’d come, running distances I’d never imagined possible. I had no interest in giving up, and eventually, once we’d both recovered, my friend and I selected a new marathon and resumed training.

It turns out that trying and failing and trying again—that’s a habit too. And sometimes disruptions are just what we need to get our priorities in place. A break in routine can provide a fresh perspective, giving us the necessary distance that helps us see a goal and our relationship to it anew.

Sometimes this distance results in a difficult realization. For me, a break from an earlier manuscript meant coming to terms with the fact that I needed to abandon it altogether. But a similar vacation from my current book resulted in the opposite, only strengthening my resolve to complete it.

It’s hard to run a very slow race and, contrary to popular opinion, it’s actually hard to write even a bad book. It’s more fun when it feels good, when we’re inspired and can think of nothing better than spending an hour or two at our desks spinning brilliance. But so much of writing comes down to the most humdrum and banal of days, if we’re willing to commit to it.

I’ve written before about how I think writing advice—the popular tropes that have come to feel like rules to many of us—can, despite their best intentions, prove to be a disservice. I still stand by that belief. I don’t think measuring myself against the extreme-sport discipline of  Stephen King or Joan Didion is helpful for my own process. Which is why when I say I do believe habit is essential to getting the work done, it also requires self-awareness about the conditions that are right for me.

Let me return to that marathon. After my break from training, I consulted with a running coach. He recommended establishing a run-walk ratio of 6:1—six minutes of running followed by one minute of walking. Given my previous injury, I needed to consider how to reduce the potentiality of another such setback. A run-walk combination provided brief interludes of recovery time for my body, decreasing my likelihood of reinjury. In addition, he suggested a reduction in weekly mileage, focusing on the minimum and not the maximum number of miles I should complete.

At first, I was resistant to his advice. I wanted to run a marathon, not walk it. I wanted to push myself. Hard.

“Are you running for time?” the coach asked.

“No,” I admitted.

“So what’s your goal?”

“I just want to finish it.”

“Well,” he said. “Both of these approaches will help you do that.”

It turned out he was right. On those days when the runs felt really hard, I reminded myself that I just needed to complete three miles (my baseline) and could run them as slowly as I wanted. The 6:1 ratio helped me “chunk” my runs—rather than thinking of the whole (long) distance, I visualized it incrementally, focusing only on those six minutes before the next minute-long walking interlude. Inevitably, after that minute I was ready to run again. As I drew nearer to the end, I’d look into the distance, my finish line in easy view.

These same lessons apply to writing, too. While I’d love to win a Pulitzer or receive a Guggenheim, my aim is not awards or even publication, but rather completion. I commit to five days a week, an hour minimum, and use an hourglass to keep time, allowing myself to do one of two things: write or watch sand. In the same way that I chunked my runs, I chunk my writing, keeping my eyes focused not on the entire book but, depending on the writing goals for a given moment, a single chapter, page, or paragraph.

While there are days when I do nothing but watch white sand funnel and pile, more often my experience is like that of my marathon: I write beyond my expectations, seeing that the finish line is not so very far after all.

The largest challenge of both writing a book and running a marathon is one and the same: keeping fear at bay.

While training for a marathon, I was constantly beating fear back into the dark corner from whence it had crept. I worried about muscle soreness, a cramp I developed during a particularly grueling run, an ache in my knee when doing bench presses. Two weeks before the race, I put out my back. Panic set in.

Having quit a previous manuscript, these days fear about my current creative project likewise runs high. I’m at the same critical juncture—call it Heartbreak Hill—that proved most difficult and fatal to me in my last attempt. What will happen this time? I ask myself. Will I experience an injury and need to regroup? Or will I quit like I did the last time?

I think I know what my old therapist would say. But since I no longer see her, I’ve found others to assist me when I’m unable to reassure myself. This is another lesson I learned from that marathon: However small it may be, find your community to help you cross the finish line.

On the morning I threw out my back, I wondered who I should consult. Though most of my loved ones were supportive, none of them were choosing to live the way I was, and translating this choice—my reasons for pursuing it, for giving up other pleasures and interactions in order to complete it—had been impossible. Truth is, it was hard for me to articulate all this for myself. Running simultaneously enriched and complicated my life; I felt open to a new community and isolated from old social connections. In general, I avoided talking about it because when I did I was often misunderstood. It made no sense to contact any of these people to lament my predicament, especially since there was a good chance they would tell me precisely what I didn’t want to hear: Quit.

Sound familiar?

I called my training partner. After reassuring me this was a minor glitch, she advised me to call the running coach; he’d know what to do.

When I contacted him, his immediate reaction—to laugh—eased my mind.

Of course you threw out your back,” he said. “That’s gotta happen two weeks before the race.”

He reminded me that all my work had been done; I was ready to run whether I trained in those final weeks or not. He recommended I walk for ten minutes a day, adding a minute’s worth of jogging until my back felt better. And it would feel better, he assured me. He was right.

Sometimes, you just need someone else—the right someone else—to advise you.

Recently I sat down at my desk, opened my manuscript, and began to hyperventilate. The whole thing needed to be changed, the structure wasn’t right, I needed to break it down, rearrange it, start from scratch. I was in the middle of redrafting when I had these cold-water thoughts and the tap was broken; I couldn’t shut my thinking off.

Tears running down my cheeks, I texted a writing friend.

What should I do? I asked. It’s all wrong. Why can’t I just write this STUPID BOOK????

Calm down, my friend wrote back. You ARE writing this book. Get to the end of the draft. Finish the revision first.

In my writing studio, on the wall opposite my desk hangs a photo. It is of me at the marathon finish line—draped in a foil space blanket, gripping a cup of Jamba Juice and a bouquet of flowers my husband brought me, smiling ecstatically, looking shockingly good for a person who had transformed herself into a human salt lick. It is just about the only photo of myself I can tolerate.

You can do it, my friend wrote. You ARE doing it!

I studied that photo. I knew she was right.


Lenore Myka is the author of the award-winning short story collection, King of the Gypsies (BkMk, 2015). A recipient of numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, she is currently at work on a memoir.

It turns out that people who are successful at developing good habits and ultimately achieving goals aren’t superheroes possessing iron-clad will power and self-control.

Publishing Your First Book: Advice for First-Time Authors


Shelly Oria


Publishing a book, especially your first book, is an experience that can mess with your head—regardless of how your book “does” in the world. When my first book, a collection of short stories titled New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, was published in November 2014, many people in my life assumed I’d enter a state of total bliss. And to some extent I assumed the same. A decade earlier, I’d moved to New York City from Tel Aviv, where I grew up, and started translating my work from Hebrew in the hopes of getting into an MFA program. Every step along the way felt hard-earned: learning how to write fiction in my second language, graduating, getting my first few stories published, signing with an agent. So why wouldn’t I be blissed out that it all came to fruition, that Farrar, Straus and Giroux was publishing my book? And I was, or part of me was. I also felt too anxious to breathe, which is perhaps understandable. And I also felt sad—at times extremely sad—which seemed much less understandable.

In many ways, my book “did well.” It was nominated for several awards, was reviewed by both the New York Times and the New York Times Book Review—a fairly rare occurrence for a debut story collection and an accomplishment that certainly exceeded my expectations—and it got quite a bit of attention in Israel, including a cover story with a major newspaper, which encouraged my second-grade teacher to track me down and prompted some people to send my parents flowers. But to be perfectly honest, through most of it I was pretty miserable. I’m not shy by nature, so doing many events and going on a book tour, even appearing on TV, wasn’t the cause of my angst. I felt extremely vulnerable and exposed. This thing I’d poured so much of myself into, labored over for years, was now out in the big wild world, so completely out of my control, and strangers were having opinions about it and sharing them: in a review, in a tweet, in an e-mail. Even in the best of all possible scenarios (a glowing review, for instance), I wouldn’t rest for long, because soon another opinion could come in through one of the channels—and maybe it would be terrible? I knew that as a debut author of a story collection I should be grateful whenever anyone cared enough to say anything at all about my book; no matter the content, the attention could help sales. But that awareness meant only that on top of feeling miserable, I felt guilty for not feeling grateful. And more important, it meant that I wanted everything that was happening not to stop but rather to have happened, which is to say that for long months after my book came out, I wished I could leave the present moment. Trying to escape your life is no way to live.

By the time my book was published, I’d already had my private practice as a life and creativity coach for about five years. I work primarily with artists and writers, so the experience with my book has reshaped the way I approach my clients when they face similar challenges. Recently a friend reached out to me for some coaching advice before her debut novel came out; I compiled a list of what I now consider the core principles to navigating book publication, in the hopes of helping her and others avoid some of my mistakes.

1. Be proud. Life is going to pull on you all kinds of ways, but the most important truth is this: You wrote a book. A whole damn book! Remember how you used to think that would never happen for you? Remember all the times you almost gave up? Somehow, somehow you not only finished the thing but also got it published. In all likelihood, you went through hell in the process, but you powered through. That required a lot of work. It also required faith, and energy, and love, and then more work, and then luck, and then other people’s faith in you and in your book. It required some stupidity, too—the beautiful kind that makes us keep going when it doesn’t “make sense.” Because at some point along the way, someone close to you probably suggested that writing this book, and perhaps writing in general, wasn’t the best use of your time. But you kept going. Whatever it took in your case—you did it, and that’s kind of amazing if you think about it. Can you take a moment now to think about it? Try to locate this thought in your body, consider it your core, and return your attention to that particular spot every time you face a challenge related to your book. Or write a sentence that summarizes this notion—all caps—and make it your screen saver. Or find an object that captures that sentiment and take it with you wherever you go, or hold it close to your chest for a minute every day. Or set a daily alert on your phone to remind yourself. Or ask a friend to remind you. You get the idea—make a commitment to stay actively connected to the fact of your accomplishment. Make a commitment to do that through whatever turmoil or feelings a day brings—to return to this truth and feel, even for a few fleeting seconds, your pride.

2. Prioritize self-care. Just do it, even if it makes you feel guilty or silly. Even if it feels futile or frivolous. It isn’t. For the next few months, commit to taking good care of yourself—whatever that means to you on any given day. Sometimes it means going to bed early, and sometimes it means going to bed late so you can spend quality time with a friend; sometimes it means taking a bath, and sometimes it means forcing yourself to write that e-mail that’s been weighing on you. Most of the time it means not giving yourself shit—for smoking after you quit forever, for getting impatient with your grandma, for dropping the ball on that essay your publicist pushed you to write. I’m not suggesting you treat your body or your loved ones (or your publicist) poorly; I’m only saying: Don’t forget the context. The context is that whether it feels true or not on any given day, this is a time of extreme vulnerability in your life. So be kind to yourself. Be a good friend to yourself. Don’t be an asshole.

And stay committed to self-care for far longer than you think is necessary. It’s going to be so easy to tell yourself a couple of months from now that, okay, your book came out, and the experience was great in these ways and disappointing in these other ways and whatever, now it’s time to move on, and you should mostly be over all these feelings. No. The effects of this particular life event run deep and last a while. Whether we understand this phenomenon or not doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we recognize it and respond. And taking care of yourself is a response; it tells your psyche that you haven’t forgotten that it just went through a trying time. When you take a day off from your day job (if that’s a possibility), or go for a run, or pick up some flowers on your way home, you’re telling the creative part of you that you’re not blind to its needs. That’s the part you’re hoping will show up all refreshed and ready to work when you announce it’s time for your next book, so it seems wise to stay on good terms.

3. Journal, every day if you can. For some people this might be part of self-care (I know it is for me), but I think it’s important enough to list in its own right. Because during this time it’s likely that all kinds of public events will take place, and that pressures will be put on you, and that conversations will play out around and/or about you. And all of these are inherently external—they focus on other people’s views of your work, opinions about your work, and reactions to your work. Even if every single one of these reactions is positive, you will still feel a little blinking arrow originating in the center of your body and pointing out; much of your energy will be spent on other people’s thoughts. Journaling is one foolproof way to stay connected to your own voice. But you don’t have to write about your experience during this time; in fact, you don’t have to write about anything in particular. You only have to listen to your own mind and write down some words.

4. Write. This is a tip that seems impossible nine times out of ten and was certainly impossible for me, but if and when it is possible for you: Throw yourself into a new project, into a story that may or may not pan out, into any piece of writing. There is no better remedy in the known world for difficult postpublication feelings. Most theories of creativity discuss the process-product divide in some way (using this or similar terminology), and the work we’re asked to do in this context is to shift our consciousness back to process whenever it veers toward product. (A classic and familiar example: writers worrying about whether or not their book would ever find an agent/publisher/audience way before they’ve finished—or at times even begun—writing the thing. That’s as ridiculous as worrying about your child’s Harvard application when you’re five weeks pregnant.) It’s almost always solid creative advice: Get back to process! But the months following your book publication are by definition all about “product.” It’s a time when you focus on the finished project and its reception. And even when that focus depresses the spirit, or feels toxic, you can’t shift, you can’t move toward process, because there is no more process with this book—it has culminated. Which is why the only available cure is more process…with new work. Because for our psyches it’s pretty much all the same: As long as we find a way to play, to make, to imagine, to zero in on the creative process itself, a sense of balance will be restored.

5. Remember that the stakes are lower than they may seem. Everything matters less than you think. I hope you don’t find this demoralizing; I think it can bring relief. Publishing a book is a big deal, and in some ways your life will change. In other ways, nothing will change at all. You might know this, but you will forget. On certain days, some aspect of things will seem terribly important: that your name is missing from the shortlist of an award, that a radio interview went poorly, that you never got that radio interview even though it’s your hometown. It will seem like a big deal, but it won’t be. Try to zoom out. See this book, and then all your writing throughout the years, and then your whole beautiful life—everything that has led up to this moment, and everything that’s yet to come. Suddenly the moment is relatively small. It appears so big when we’re in it, but it is always, in fact, tiny. This also means that when you truly don’t want to go to an event—or give an interview, or write an essay—well, just don’t. Do you imagine yourself on your deathbed saying, “If only I had trekked to Bushwick for that reading in 2018?”

6. Be mindful of your relationship with praise and appraisal. I’d flat-out say, “Don’t read the reviews,” except I know writers who find reading reviews helpful. You need to figure out what works best for you. But I would argue that mindfulness is crucial with this: Check in with yourself after you read a review (even if it’s a rave). See if you might need to talk to a friend, or if taking a kickboxing class suddenly seems super appealing. Stay in that kind of conversation instead of pretending that what you just read (again, good or bad—in some ways it’s all the same) has not affected you. And even if you decide to follow the mainstream reviews, there is never, ever a reason for a writer to read the reviews of random people on the Internet. Amazon, Goodreads, and certainly any and all comment fields are always 100 percent none of your business.

7. Accept that your experience is far less fact-based than it seems to be. Do you imagine that you’re disappointed only because you didn’t get reviewed by the New York Times? I’m suggesting that even if you had, you’d have been disappointed by the review. If the Times gushed about you, you’d have been devastated that your book—a book gushed about by the New York Times—didn’t sell well. There’s always something to be proud of and grateful for, and there’s always something that feels devastating. So don’t tell yourself that you’re feeling however you’re feeling because of this review or that event. You’re feeling however you’re feeling because publishing a book is kind of a fucked-up experience.

8. Don’t isolate. Talk to your friends, particularly your writer friends. There’s no shame in the joy and no shame in the sadness, the highs and the lows. Don’t be modest when good things happen, and try not to be alone when you’re feeling crushed. So many people have ridden the book-publishing roller coaster before, and they understand what you’re going through. Give them a chance to support you. I have faith in and gratitude for the writing community because so often in my life, writers who didn’t know me offered help or solace or advice. I try to pay it forward. Don’t hesitate to reach out to other writers. Dare to be vulnerable. Rely on your community. And enjoy the ride. 


Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, among other honors. Recently she coauthored a digital novella, CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Oria lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she codirects the Writer’s Forum at the Pratt Institute and has a private practice as a life and creativity coach. Her website is

First Fiction 2017


Danzy Senna, Mira Jacob, Maggie Nelson, Emily Raboteau, Gary Shteyngart


For our seventeenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2017 issue of the magazine for interviews between Zinzi Clemmons and Danzy Senna, Hala Alyan and Mira Jacob, Jess Arndt and Maggie Nelson, Lisa Ko and Emily Raboteau, and Diksha Basu and Gary Shteyngart. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

What We Lose (Viking, July) by Zinzi Clemmons
Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May) by Hala Alyan
Large Animals (Catapult, May) by Jess Arndt
The Leavers (Algonquin Books, May) by Lisa Ko
The Windfall (Crown, June) by Diksha Basu

What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons

My parents’ bedroom is arranged exactly the same as it always was. The big mahogany dresser sits opposite the bed, the doily still in place on the vanity. My mother’s little ring holders and perfume bottles still stand there. On top of all these old feminine relics, my father has set up his home office. His old IBM laptop sits atop the doily, a tangle of cords choking my mother’s silver makeup tray. His books are scattered around the tables, his clothes draped carelessly over the antique wing chair that my mother found on a trip to Quebec.

In the kitchen, my father switches on a small flat-screen TV that he’s installed on the wall opposite the stove. My mother never allowed TV in the kitchen, to encourage bonding during family dinners and focus during homework time. As a matter of fact, we never had more than one television while I was growing up—an old wood-paneled set that lived in the cold basement, carefully hidden from me and visitors in the main living areas of the house.

We order Chinese from the place around the corner, the same order that we’ve made for years: sesame chicken, vegetable fried rice, shrimp lo mein. As soon as they hear my father’s voice on the line, they put in the order; he doesn’t even have to ask for it. When he picks the order up, they ask after me. When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.

My father tells me that he’s been organizing at work, now that he’s the only black faculty member in the upper ranks of the administration.

I notice that he has started cutting his hair differently. It is shorter on the sides and disappearing in patches around the crown of his skull. He pulls himself up in his chair with noticeable effort. He had barely aged in the past twenty years, and suddenly, in the past year, he has inched closer to looking like his father, a stooped, lean, yellow-skinned man I’ve only seen in pictures.

“How have you been, Dad?” I say as we sit at the table.

The thought of losing my father lurks constantly in my mind now, shadowy, inexpressible, but bursting to the surface when, like now, I perceive the limits of his body. Something catches in my throat and I clench my jaw.

My father says that he has been keeping busy. He has been volunteering every month at the community garden on Christian Street, turning compost and watering kale.

“And I’m starting a petition to hire another black professor,” he says, stabbing his glazed chicken with a fire I haven’t seen in him in years.

He asks about Peter.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone you like,” he says.

“Love, Dad,” I say. “We’re in love.”

He pauses, stirring his noodles quizzically with his fork. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asks.

I stare at the food in front of me. It’s the closest thing to comfort food since my mother has been gone. The unique flavor of her curries and stews buried, forever, with her. The sight of the food appeals to me, but the smell, suddenly, is noxious; the wisp of steam emanating from it, scorching.

“Are you all right?”

All of a sudden, I have the feeling that I am sinking. I feel the pressure of my skin holding in my organs and blood vessels and fluids; the tickle of every hair that covers it. The feeling is so disorienting and overwhelming that I can no longer hold my head up. I push my dinner away from me. I walk calmly but quickly to the powder room, lift the toilet seat, and throw up.

From What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, published in July by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Zinzi Clemmons.

(Photo: Nina Subin)

Salt Houses
by Hala Alyan

On the street, she fumbles for a cigarette from her purse and smokes as she walks into the evening. She feels a sudden urge, now that she is outside the apartment, to clear her head. This is her favor­ite thing about the city—the ability it gives you to walk, to literally put space between your body and distress. In Kuwait, nobody walks anywhere.

Mimi lives in a quiet part of the city, mostly residential, with small, pretty apartments, each window like a glistening eye. The streetlamps are made of wrought iron, designs flanking either side of the bulbs. There is a minimalist sense of wealth in the neighborhood, children dressed simply, the women always adjusting scarves around their necks, their hair cut into perfectly symmetrical lines. Souad walks by the manicured lawns of a grammar school, empty and discarded for the summer. Next to it a gray-steepled church. She tries to imagine that, elsewhere, there is smoke and destroyed palaces and men carry­ing guns. It seems impossible.

The night is cool, and Souad wraps her cardigan tightly around her, crosses her arms. A shiver runs through her. She is nervous to see him, a familiar thrill that he always elicits in her. Even before last night.

Le Chat Rouge is a fifteen-minute walk from Mimi’s apartment, but within several blocks the streets begin to change, brownstones and Gothic-style latticework replaced with grungier alleyways, young Algerian men with long hair sitting on steps and drinking beer from cans. One eyes her and calls out, caressingly, something in French. She can make out the words for sweet and return. Bars line the streets with their neon signs and she walks directly across the Quartier Latin courtyard, her shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

“My mother’s going to call tomorrow,” she told Elie yesterday. She wasn’t sure why she said it, but it felt necessary. “They’re taking me to Amman.” In the near dark, Elie’s face was peculiarly lit, the sign making his skin look alien.

“You could stay here,” Elie said. He smiled mockingly. “You could get married.”

Souad had blinked, her lips still wet from the kiss. “Married?” She wasn’t being coy—she truthfully had no idea what Elie meant. Mar­ried to whom? For a long, awful moment, she thought Elie was sug­gesting she marry one of the other Lebanese men, that he was fob­bing her off on a friend in pity.

“Yes.” Elie cocked his head, as though gauging the authenticity of her confusion. He smiled again, kinder this time. He closed his fingers around hers so that she was making a fist and he a larger one atop it. They both watched their hands silently for a few seconds, an awkward pose, more confrontational than romantic, as though he were preventing her from delivering a blow. It occurred to her that he was having a difficult time speaking. She felt her palm itch but didn’t move. Elie cleared his throat, and when he spoke, she had to lean in to hear him.

“You could marry me.”

Now, even in re-creating that moment, Souad feels the swoop in her stomach, her mouth drying. It is a thing she wants in the dark­est, most furtive way, not realizing how badly until it was said aloud. Eighteen years old, a voice within her spoke, eighteen. Too young, too young. And her parents, her waiting life.

But the greater, arrogant part of Souad’s self growled as if wo­ken. Her steps clacked with her want of it. The self swelled trium­phantly—Shame, shame, she admonishes herself, thinking of the war, the invasion, the troops and fire, but she is delighted nonetheless.

From Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2017 by Hala Alyan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Large Animals
by Jess Arndt

In my sleep I was plagued by large animals—teams of grizzlies, timber wolves, gorillas even came in and out of the mist. Once the now extinct northern white rhino also stopped by. But none of them came as often or with such a ferocious sexual charge as what I, mangling Latin and English as usual, called the Walri. Lying there, I faced them as you would the inevitable. They were massive, tube-shaped, sometimes the feeling was only flesh and I couldn’t see the top of the cylinder that masqueraded as a head or tusks or eyes. Nonetheless I knew I was in their presence intuitively. There was no mistaking their skin; their smell was unmistakable too, as was their awful weight.

During these nights (the days seemed to disappear before they even started) I was living two miles from a military testing site. In the early morning and throughout the day the soft, dense sound of bombs filled the valley. It was comforting somehow. Otherwise I was entirely alone.

This seemed a precondition for the Walri—that I should be theirs and theirs only. on the rare occasion that I had an overnight visitor to my desert bungalow the Walri were never around. Then the bears would return in force, maybe even a large local animal like a mountain lion or goat, but no form’s density came close to walrusness. So I became wary and stopped inviting anyone out to visit at all.

The days, unmemorable, had a kind of habitual slide. I would wake up with the sun and begin cleaning the house. No matter how tightly I’d kept the doors shut the day before, dust and sand and even large pieces of mineral rock seemed to shove  their way inside. I swept these into piles. Then the dishes that I barely remembered dirtying—some mornings it was as if the whole artillery of pots and pans had been used in the night by someone else—then the trash (again always full), then some coffee. Eight o’clock.

This work done, I sat in various chairs in the house following the bright but pale blades of light. I was drying out. oh, an LA friend said somewhat knowingly, from the booze? But I had alcohol with me, plenty of it. It wasn’t that. I moved as if preprogrammed. only later did I realize that my sleep was so soggy that it took strong desert sun to unshrivel me and since it was the middle of winter and the beams were perforce slanted, I’d take all of it I could find.

For lunch I got in my car and drove into town, to the empty parking lot of Las Palmas. There were many Mexican joints along the highway that also functioned as Main Street. I hadn’t bothered to try them out. Las Palmas, with its vacant booths, dusty cacti, and combination platter lunch special for $11.99 including $4 house margarita, was fine.

A waitress named Tamara worked there. She seemed like the only one. She wasn’t my type—so tall she bent over herself and a bona fide chain-smoker. Sometimes to order you’d have to exit your booth and find her puffing outside. A friend who had borrowed the bungalow before I did told me about Tamara and so if I had a crush at all it was an inherited one that even came with inherited guilt—from having taken her on once he could no longer visit her. Regardless, we barely spoke.

I had things I was supposed to be doing, more work than I could accomplish even if I
duct-taped my fists to my laptop, but none of it seemed relevant to my current state. In the afternoons I drove back home slowly, always stopping for six-packs of beer at the Circle K. I enjoyed the task. The beer evaporated once I stuck it in my fridge—it was there and then, it was gone.

My sleeping area was simple: a bed on a plywood platform. A wooden dresser. Built-in closets and a cement floor. At first  I would wake up in the night from the sheer flattening silence of the desert. It was impossible that the world still existed elsewhere. After that initial jolt, relief.

Don’t you miss it? my same friend said during our weekly telephone chats. But I couldn’t explain the euphoria of walking up and down the chilly aisles of Stater Bros. In week-old sweatpants if I wanted, uncounted by life. Would I buy refried or whole beans? This brand or that? It didn’t matter, no one cared.

It was in these conditions that the Walri arrived.

* * * 

I’d slept as usual for the first few hours, heavily, in a kind of coma state. Then had woken, I thought to pee. But lying there with the gritty sheets braided around me, the violet light that was created from the fly zapper, the desert cold that was entering through the gaps and cracks in the fire’s absence—I felt a new form of suffocation.

It wasn’t supernatural. I’d also had that. The sense of someone’s vast weight sitting on the bed with you or patting your body with ghostly hands. This breathless feeling was larger, as if I was uniformly surrounded by mammoth flesh.

Dream parts snagged at me. Slapping sounds and hose-like alien respiration. I felt I was wrestling within inches of what must be—since I couldn’t breathe—the end of my life. Now the lens of my dream panned backward and I saw my opponent in his entirety.

He lay (if that’s what you could call it) on my bed, thick and wrinkled, the creases in his hide so deep I could stick my arms between them. His teeth were yellow and as long as my legs.

“I’m sexually dormant,” I said aloud to him. “But I want to put my balls in someone’s face.”

Then somehow light was peeling everything back for dawn.

From Large Animals. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2017 by Jess Arndt.

(Photo: Johanna Breiding)

The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. “What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.”

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. “Did you get off work early?” It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn’t usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. “Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment.” Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn’t tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn’t call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and slow laughter warming the thin February air. “I don’t want you to be like that,” she said. “I don’t want you to be like me. I didn’t even finish eighth grade.”

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was. “I’ll come to your school tomorrow,” his mother said, “talk to your teacher about that assignment.” He kept his arm against his mother’s, loved the scratchy sound of their jackets rubbing together. She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street. Inside her gloves her hands were red and scraped, the skin angry and peeling, and every night before she went to sleep she rubbed a thick lotion onto her fingers and winced. Once he asked if it made them hurt less. She said only for a little while, and he wished there was a special lotion that could make new skin grow, a pair of superpower gloves.

Short and blocky, she wore loose jeans—never had he seen her in a dress—and her voice was so loud that when she called his name dogs would bark and other kids jerked around. When she saw his last report card he thought her shouting would set off the car alarms four stories below. But her laughter was as loud as her shouting, and there was no better, more gratifying sound than when she slapped her knees and cackled at something silly. She laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny, like TV dramas and the swollen orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them, or, better yet, at things Deming said, like when he nailed the way their neighbor Tommie always went, “Not bad-not bad-not bad” when they passed him in the stairwell, an automatic response to a “Hello-how-are-you” that hadn’t yet been issued. Or the time she’d asked, flipping through TV stations, “Dancing with the Stars isn’t on?” and he had excavated Michael’s old paper mobile of the solar system and waltzed with it through the living room as she clapped. It was almost as good as getting cheered on by his friends.

When he had lived in Minjiang with his grandfather, Deming’s mother had explored New York by herself. There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled. She jiggled her legs, bounced her knees, cracked her knuckles, twirled her thumbs. She hated being cooped up in the apartment on a sunny day, paced the rooms from wall to wall to wall, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “Who wants to go for a walk?” she would say. Her boyfriend Leon would tell her to relax, sit down. “Sit down? We’ve been sitting all day!” Deming would want to stay on the couch with Michael, but he couldn’t say no to her and they’d go out, no family but each other. He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside—a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. “To bagels?” she said. “What flavor bagel?” “Everything bagels,” he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.

A bus lumbered past, spraying slush. The walk sign flashed on. “You know what I did today?” his mother said. “One lady, she had a callus the size of your nose on her heel. I had to scrape all that dead skin off. It took forever. And her tip was shit. You’ll never do that, if you’re careful.”

He dreaded this familiar refrain. His mother could curse, but the one time he’d let motherfucker bounce out in front of her, loving the way the syllables got meatbally in his mouth, she had slapped his arm and said he was better than that. Now he silently said the word to himself as he walked, one syllable per footstep.

“Did you think that when I was growing up, a small girl your age, I thought: hey, one day, I’m going to come all the way to New York so I can pick gao gao out of a stranger’s toe? That was not my plan.”

Always be prepared, she liked to say. Never rely on anyone else to give you things you could get yourself. She despised laziness, softness, people who were weak. She had few friends, but was true to the ones she had. She could hold a fierce grudge, would walk an extra three blocks to another grocery store because, two years ago, a cashier at the one around the corner had smirked at her lousy English. It was lousy, Deming agreed.

From The Leavers. Printed by permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Ko.

(Photo: Bartosz Potocki)

The Windfall
by Diksha Basu

The following week, on an unusually overcast September day, Mr. Jha pulled into the quiet lane of his new Gurgaon home. He had never been here by himself, he realized. Mrs. Jha was usually with him, and this summer Rupak had come with them a few times, and there were all the contractors and painters and builders buzzing around, working. He had never really appreciated the silence and the greenery before. Gurgaon felt still while the rest of Delhi throbbed.

The air was heavy with heat and the promise of rain. On the radio, a Bon Jovi song played. “It’s been raining since you left me,” the lyrics said. How funny, Mr. Jha thought. An Indian song would have to say, “It hasn’t rained since you left me.” Unless, of course, you were happy that they left you.

An electronic shoe-polishing machine in a large box was on the passenger seat of his Mercedes. He had strapped it in with the seat belt. It was beautiful. And it was expensive. It was not a planned purchase. This morning he had a breakfast meeting with two young men who were launching a website that would help you find handymen around Delhi, and they asked him to join their team as a consultant. He declined. He did not have time to take on any new work until they were done moving homes. And then they had to visit Rupak, so he was not going to have any free time until November or December. And then it would be the holiday season, so really it was best if he took the rest of the year off work.

The meeting was over breakfast at the luxurious Teresa’s Hotel in Connaught Place in central Delhi, and after filling himself up with mini croissants, fruit tarts, sliced cheeses, salami, coffee, and orange juice, Mr. Jha went for a stroll through the lobby and the other restaurants in the hotel. All the five-star hotels in the center of town were little oases of calm and cool. Mr. Jha was walking by the large windows that overlooked the swimming pool that was for guests only when he thought he would book a two-night stay here. He knew his wife loved the indulgence of nice hotels and he had recently read about what youngsters were calling a staycation—a vacation where you don’t leave the city or the home you usually live in, but you give yourself a few days to take a holiday. Of course, since he didn’t work much anymore, most days, weeks, months were a staycation, but how wonderful it would be to check into a hotel and have a lazy few days. Having room service—or, like they were called at Teresa’s, butlers—was a different sort of pleasure than having servants bringing you food and cleaning your home. Butlers showed that you had made the progression from servants to expensive appliances to uniformed men who ran the expensive appliances.

From The Windfall, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in June. Copyright © 2017 by Diksha Basu.

(Photo: Mikey McCleary)

First Fiction 2016




For our sixteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine for interviews between Yaa Gyasi and Angela Flournoy, Masande Ntshanga and Naomi Jackson, Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub, Maryse Meijer and Lindsay Hunter, and Imbolo Mbue and Christina Baker Kline. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Homegoing (Knopf, June) by Yaa Gyasi
The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, June) by Masande Ntshanga
Rich and Pretty (Ecco, June) by Rumaan Alam
Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) by Maryse Meijer
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, August) by Imbolo Mbue


By Yaa Gyasi

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.

Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”

The villagers began to say that the baby was born of the fire, that this was the reason Baaba had no milk. Effia was nursed by Cobbe’s second wife, who had just given birth to a son three months before. Effia would not latch on, and when she did, her sharp gums would tear at the flesh around the woman’s nipples until she became afraid to feed the baby. Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small bird- like bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry crywhich could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.

“Love her,” Cobbe commanded, as though love were as simple an act as lifting food up from an iron plate and past one’s lips. At night, Baaba dreamed of leaving the baby in the dark forest so that the god Nyame could do with her as he pleased.

Effia grew older. The summer after her third birthday, Baaba had her first son. The boy’s name was Fiifi, and he was so fat that some- times, when Baaba wasn’t looking, Effia would roll him along the ground like a ball. The first day that Baaba let Effia hold him, she accidentally dropped him. The baby bounced on his buttocks, landed on his stomach, and looked up at everyone in the room, confused as to whether or not he should cry. He decided against it, but Baaba, who had been stirring banku, lifted her stirring stick and beat Effia across her bare back. Each time the stick lifted off the girl’s body, it would leave behind hot, sticky pieces of banku that burned into her flesh. By the time Baaba had finished, Effia was covered with sores, screaming and crying. From the floor, rolling this way and that on his belly, Fiifi looked at Effia with his saucer eyes but made no noise.

Cobbe came home to find his other wives attending to Effia’s wounds and understood immediately what had happened. He and Baaba fought well into the night. Effia could hear them through the thin walls of the hut where she lay on the floor, drifting in and out of a feverish sleep. In her dream, Cobbe was a lion and Baaba was a tree. The lion plucked the tree from the ground where it stood and slammed it back down. The tree stretched its branches in protest, and the lion ripped them off, one by one. The tree, horizontal, began to cry red ants that traveled down the thin cracks between its bark. The ants pooled on the soft earth around the top of the tree trunk.

And so the cycle began. Baaba beat Effia. Cobbe beat Baaba. By the time Effia had reached age ten, she could recite a history of the scars on her body. The summer of 1764, when Baaba broke yams across her back. The spring of 1767, when Baaba bashed her left foot with a rock, breaking her big toe so that it now always pointed away from the other toes. For each scar on Effia’s body, there was a companion scar on Baaba’ s, but that didn’t stop mother from beating daughter, father from beating mother.

Matters were only made worse by Effia’s blossoming beauty. When she was twelve, her breasts arrived, two lumps that sprung from her chest, as soft as mango flesh. The men of the village knew that first blood would soon follow, and they waited for the chance to ask Baaba and Cobbe for her hand. The gifts started. One man tapped palm wine better than anyone else in the village, but another’s fishing nets were never empty. Cobbe’s family feasted off Effia’s burgeoning woman- hood. Their bellies, their hands, were never empty.

Excerpted from HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi. Copyright © 2016 by Yaa Gyasi. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Reactive
By Masande Ntshanga

The way I got to know them, by the way, my two closest friends here, is that we met at one of the new HIV and drug-counseling sessions cropping up all over the city. We were in the basement parking lot of the free clinic in Wynberg. The seminar room upstairs had been locked up and taped shut, there’d been a mer­cury spill, and our group couldn’t meet in there on account of the vapors being toxic to human tissue. Instead, they arranged us in the basement parking lot, and in two weeks we got used to not being sent upstairs for meetings. I did, in any case, and that was enough for me in the beginning.

In those days, I attended the meetings alone. I’d catch a taxi from Obs over to Wynberg for an afternoon’s worth of coun­seling. By the end of my first month, when the seminar room had been swept once, and then twice, and then three times by a short man who wore a blue contamination meter over his chest, each time checking out clean, everyone decided they preferred it down below, and so that’s where we stayed.

Maybe we all want to be buried here, I said.

It had been the first time I’d spoken in group. Talking always took me a while, back then, but the remark succeeded in making a few of them laugh. It won me chuckles even from the old-timers, and later, I wrote down my first addiction story to share with the group. It was from a film I saw adapted from a book I wasn’t likely to read. Ruan and Cissie arrived on the following Wednesday.

I noticed them immediately. Something seemed to draw us in from our first meeting. In the parking lot, we eyeballed each other for a while before we spoke. During the coffee break, we stood by the serving table in front of a peeling Toyota bakkie, mumbling tentatively towards each other’s profiles. I learned that Cecelia was a teacher. She pulled week-long shifts at a day­care center just off Bridge Street in Mowbray, and she was there on account of the school’s accepting its first openly positive pupil. Ruan, who was leaning against the plastic table, gulping more than sipping at the coffee in his paper cup, said that he suffocated through his life by working on the top floor of his uncle’s computer firm. He was there to shop for a social issue they could use for their corporate responsibility strategy. He called it CRS, and Cissie and I had to ask him what he meant.

In the end, I guess I was impressed. I told them how I used to be a lab assistant at Peninsula Tech, and how in a way this was part of how I’d got to be sick with what I have.

When we sat back down again, we listened to the rest of the members assess each other’s nightmares. They passed them around with a familiar casualness. Mark knew about Ronelle’s school fees, for instance, and she knew about Linette’s hepatitis, and all of us knew that Linda had developed a spate of genital warts over September. She called them water warts, when she first told us, and, like most of her symptoms, she blamed them on the rain.

That day, when the discussion turned to drug abuse, as it always did during the last half-hour of our sessions, the three of us had nothing to add. I looked over at Ruan and caught him stashing a grin behind his fist, while on my other side, Cecelia blinked up at the ceiling. I didn’t need any more evidence for our kinship.

The meeting lasted the full two hours, and when it came to an end, I collected my proof of attendance and exchanged num­bers with Ruan and Cecelia. I suppose we said our goodbyes at the entrance of the parking lot that day, and later, within that same week I think, we were huffing paint thinner together in my flat in Obs.

Excerpted from The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. Copyright  ©  2016 by Masande Ntshanga. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 Rich and Pretty
By Rumaan Alam

Lauren’s office is freezing. You could keep butter on the desk. You could perform surgery. Every woman in the office—they’re all women—keeps a cashmere sweater on the back of her chair. They sit, hands outstretched over computer keyboards like a bum’s over a flaming garbage can. The usual office noises: typing, telephones, people using indoor voices, the double ding of an elevator going down. For some reason, the double ding of the elevator going down is louder than the single ding of the elevator going up. There’s a metaphor in there, waiting to be untangled. They make cookbooks, these women. There’s no food, just stacks of paper and editorial assistants in glasses. She’s worked here for four years. It’s fine.

Today is different because today there’s a guy, an actual dude, in the office with them, not a photographer or stylist popping by for a meeting, as does happen: He’s
a temp, because Kristen is having a baby and her doctor put her on bed rest. Lauren isn’t totally clear on what Kristen does, but now there’s a dude doing it. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, and loafers, not sneakers, which implies a certain maturity. Lauren’s been trying to get him to notice her all day. She’s the second-prettiest woman in the office, so it isn’t hard. Hannah, the prettiest, has a vacant quality about her. She’s not stupid, exactly—in fact, she’s very competent—but she doesn’t have spark. She’s not interesting, just thin and blond, with heavy eyeglasses and a photograph of her French bulldog on her computer screen.

Lauren has it all planned out. She’ll walk past his desk a couple of times, which isn’t suspicious because his desk isn’t far from the kitchen, and the kitchen is where the coffee is, and by the third time, he’ll follow her in there, and she’ll make a wisecrack about the coffee, and he’ll say it’s not so bad, and they’ll talk, and exchange phone numbers, e-mail addresses, whatever, and then later they’ll leave the office at the same time, ride down together in the elevator and not talk because they both understand that the social contract dictates that sane people do not talk in elevators, and then he’ll let her go through the revolving door first, even though she’s pretty sure that etiquette has it that men precede women through revolving doors, and then they’ll both be standing on Broadway, and there will be traffic and that vague smell of charred, ethnic meat from the guy with the lunch cart on the corner, and he’ll suggest they get a drink, and she’ll say sure, and they’ll go to the Irish pub on Fifty-Fifth Street, because there’s nowhere else to go, and after two drinks they’ll be starving, and he’ll suggest they get dinner, but there’s nowhere to eat in this part of town, so they’ll take the train to Union Square and realize there’s nowhere to eat there either, and they’ll walk down into the East Village and find something, maybe ramen, or that Moroccan-y place that she always forgets she likes, and they’ll eat, and they’ll start touching each other, casually but deliberately, carefully, and the check will come and she’ll say let’s split it, and he’ll say no let me, even though he’s a temp and can’t make that much money, right? Then they’ll be drunk, so taking a cab seems wise and they’ll make out in the backseat, but just a little bit, and kind of laugh about it, too: stop to check their phones, or admire the view, or so he can explain that he lives with a roommate or a dog, or so she can tell him some stupid story about work that won’t mean anything to him anyway because it’s only his first day and he doesn’t know anyone’s name, let alone their personality quirks and the complexities of the office’s political and social ecosystem.

Then he’ll pay the driver, because they’ll go to his place—she doesn’t want to bring the temp back to her place—and it’ll be nice, or fine, or ugly, and he’ll open beers because all he has are beers, and she’ll pretend to drink hers even though she’s had enough, and he’ll excuse himself for a minute to go to the bathroom, but really it’s to brush his teeth, piss, maybe rub some wet toilet paper around his ass and under his balls. This is something Gabe had told her, years ago, that men do this, or at least, that he did. Unerotic, but somehow touching. Then the temp will come sit next to her on the couch, please let it be a couch and not a futon, and he’ll play with her hair a little before he kisses her, his mouth minty, hers beery. He’ll be out of his shirt, then, and he’s hard and hairy, but also a little soft at the belly, which she likes. She once slept with this guy Sean, whose torso, hairless and lean, freaked her out. It was like having sex with a female mannequin. The temp will push or pull her into his bedroom, just the right balance of aggression and respect, and the room will be fine, or ugly, and the bedsheets will be navy, as men’s bedsheets always are, and there will be venetian blinds, and lots of books on the nightstand because he’s temping at a publishing company so he must love to read. She’ll tug her shirt over her head, and he’ll pull at her bra, and they’ll be naked, and he’ll fumble around for a condom, and his dick will be long but not, crucially, thick, and it will be good, and then it will be over. They’ll laugh about how this whole thing is against the company’s sexual harassment policy. She’ll try to cover herself with the sheet, and he’ll do the same, suddenly embarrassed by his smaller, slightly sticky dick. When he’s out of the room, to get a beer, to piss, whatever, she’ll get dressed. He’ll call her a car service, because there are no yellow cabs wherever he lives. They’ll both spend the part of the night right before they fall asleep trying to figure out how to act around each other in the office tomorrow.

Or maybe not that. Maybe she’ll find a way to go up to him and say, what, exactly, Hey, do you like parties? Do you want to go to a party . . . tonight? No, the jeans and tie are fine. It’s not fancy. A party. A good party. Good open bar, for sure. Probably canapés, what are canapés exactly, whatever they are, there will probably be some. Last party, there were these balls of cornbread and shrimp, like deep fried, holy shit they were great. That was last year, I think. Anyway, there might be celebrities there. There will definitely be celebrities there. I once saw Bill Clinton at one of these parties. He’s skinnier than you’d think. Anyway, think about it, it’ll be a time, and by the way, I’m Lauren, I’m an associate editor here and you are? She can picture his conversation, the words coming to her so easily, as they do in fantasy but never in reality. They call it meeting cute, in movies, but it only happens in movies.

From Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam. Copyright © 2016 by Rumaan Alam. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

By Maryse Meijer

Daddy comes over on Thursdays. My husband and son are out watching movies where people blow each other up. They have burgers afterward and buf- falo wings and milkshakes and they talk about  TV shows and girls and the latest bloody video game. At least that’s what I imagine they do. No way do they imagine what I am doing, sitting here at the kitchen table doing my math homework as Daddy microwaves the mac and cheese he brought over. We have three hours together and in these three hours I am twelve years old and my daddy is the most wonderful man in the world.

On craigslist I post the photo from my work website, the one with my hair scraped back in a ponytail, expos- ing my shiny forehead, my thin lips, my arms bursting from the sleeves of my blue blouse. Daughter seeks Father is all I write as a caption. In response I receive an avalanche of cell-phone numbers, chat invitations, and penis pics lifted from porn sites.

I delete all the emails except for Richard’s: Sweetheart, please call home. I sit for a moment hunched in my cubicle, sweating, before lifting the receiver and dialing his number.

Daddy? I whisper, hand up to cover my mouth so no one walking by can see it moving.

He doesn’t skip a beat. Sweetheart! he says. Did you see the photo? I ask.

Of course, he says.

I’m not better in person, I warn. You’re perfect, he assures me.

I’m married, I tell him. I have a kid. No problem, he insists.

I chew the inside of my cheek. There’s not going to be any sex, I say.

Absolutely not! he agrees.

I wait for him to say something creepy or disgusting, but he doesn’t. We make arrangements to meet at McDonald’s for dinner on Thursday.

Don’t kill me, I say, and he laughs.

Oh sweetheart, he says. What on earth?

I’m  early. I don’t  know what Daddy looks like and every time the door swings open my head jerks like a ball on a string. I convince myself I’m going to be stood up and that it will be better anyway if I am. But at seven on the dot he enters and he looks straight at me and waves.

Our usual, sweetheart?  he says, loud enough for other people to hear, and I nod. He brings a tray of chicken nugget combos to my table. He kisses my cheek. The food steams in our hands as we look at each other; he seems about twenty, twenty-two, with chinos frayed at the bottoms and red hair and glasses and biceps as skinny as my wrist. Maybe someday he will be good- looking.

Extra barbecue sauce, just the way you like, he says, gesturing to my nuggets. I smile and take a bite. He asks me about school and I ask him about work and he is as interested in how I’m doing in gym class as I am in the stocks he’s trading at the office; we slip into our new roles as easily as knives into butter.

I almost forgot, he says. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a CD with a Christmas bow stuck on it. Just a little something, he adds, and hands it to me. I unstick the bow and turn the CD over in my hands: Britney Spears. I bounce, once, and my left butt cheek, which doesn’t quite fit on the plastic chair, bangs on the edge of the seat.

Oh Daddy, I say, touched because I k now he went into a store and asked what would be the right thing to get for his little girl, and he paid for it with his own money and put it in his pocket and found  the gaudy bow to go with it and then brought it all the way here, to me, because he k new he would like me and already wanted to give me something, and this makes me want to give everything I have to him in return.

Apart from  Thursday nights—and it’s  always Thurs- days, always nights—we don’t communicate, except by email. Sometimes he’ll send me a note just to say, Have a great day!! or he’ll tell me what plans he has for dinner: Working late need a treat pizza sound  good??? or he’ll hint at imagined happenings in my little-girl life: Don’t forget dentist today xoxoxoxo!! and Good luck on the history quiz I know you’ll do awesome!!!! I write back in equally breathless terms to report the results of the history quiz or the number of cavities rotting my teeth or to squeal over the impending pizza feast. These exchanges give me a high so intense my chest muscles spasm and when my boss calls and says to bring her such-and-such a document I hit print and out comes an email from Daddy, not the work document, and I giggle into my hand and hit print again.

He always arrives exactly fifteen minutes after my hus- band and son leave. I sit on the couch with the televi- sion on while he fumbles with the keys and the empty banged-up briefcase he always brings. Sweetheart! he says when he enters, and I yelp Daddy! and if I was maybe ten or twenty or, okay, thirty pounds lighter, I might run toward him, but as it is I wait on the couch for him to come over and k iss my hair. I’ll pour him a soda on the rocks and he’ll  pour  me some milk and we touch glasses and smile. If my husband calls I stand by the back door with my head down and say Uh-huh, yes, fine, all right, see you soon, no, nothing for me, thanks, I’m enjoying the leftovers, have fun, love you.

Excerpted from Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. Copyright ©  Maryse Meijer, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue

He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn’t even owned a résumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.

He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about. Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

“Good morning, please,” he said to the security guard in the lobby when he arrived at Lehman Brothers. “My name is Jende Jonga. I am here for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Clark Edwards.”

The guard, goateed and freckled, asked for his ID, which he quickly pulled out of his brown bifold wallet. The man took it, examined it front and back, looked up at his face, looked down at his suit, smiled, and asked if he was trying to become a stockbroker or something.

Jende shook his head. “No,” he replied without smiling back. “A chauffeur.”

“Right on,” the guard said as he handed him a visitor pass. “Good luck with that.”

This time Jende smiled. “Thank you, my brother,” he said. “I really need all that good luck today.”

Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no visible remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips. When the doors opened he straightened his shoulders and introduced himself to the receptionist, who, after responding with a nod and a display of extraordinarily white teeth, made a phone call and asked him to follow her. They walked through an open space where young men in blue shirts sat in cubicles with multiple screens, down a corridor, past another open space of cluttered cubicles and into a sunny office with a four-paneled glass window running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the thousand autumn-drenched trees and proud towers of Manhattan standing outside. For a second his mouth fell open, at the view outside—the likes of which he’d never seen—and the exquisiteness inside. There was a lounging section (black leather sofa, two black leather chairs, glass coffee table) to his right, an executive desk (oval, cherry, black leather reclining chair for the executive, two green leather armchairs for visitors) in the center, and a wall unit (cherry, glass doors, white folders in neat rows) to his left, in front of which Clark Edwards, in a dark suit, was standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder.

“Please, sir, good morning,” Jende said, turning toward him and half-bowing.

“Have a seat,” Clark said without lifting his eyes from the shredder.

Jende hurried to the armchair on the left. He pulled a résumé from his folder and placed it in front of Clark’s seat, careful not to disturb the layers of white papers and Wall Street Journals strewn across the desk in a jumble. One of the Journal pages, peeking from beneath sheets of numbers and graphs, had the headline: Whites’ Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-blind America.” Jende leaned forward to read the story, fascinated as he was by the young ambitious senator, but immediately sat upright when he remembered where he was, why he was there, what was about to happen.

“Do you have any outstanding tickets you need to resolve?” Clark asked as he sat down.

“No, sir,” Jende replied.

“And you haven’t been in any serious accidents, right?”

“No, Mr. Edwards.”

Clark picked up the résumé from his desk, wrinkled and moist like the man whose history it held. His eyes remained on it for several seconds while Jende’s darted back and forth, from the Central Park treetops far beyond the window to the office walls lined with abstract paintings and portraits of white men wearing bow ties. He could feel beads of sweat rising out of his forehead.

“Well, Jende,” Clark said, putting the résumé down and leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about yourself.”

Excerpted from Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Copyright  ©  2016 by Imbolo Mbue. Reprinted with permission of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

First Fiction 2016: Nine More Notable Debuts

As part of our sixteenth annual First Fiction roundup, in which five debut authors—Yaa GyasiMasande Ntshanga, Rumaan Alam, Maryse Meijer, and Imbolo Mbue—discuss their first books, we picked nine more notable debuts that fans of fiction should consider reading this summer.

Remarkable (BOA Editions, May) by Dinah Cox
Set primarily in Oklahoma, the remarkable (that’s right, remarkable) stories in Cox’s award-winning collection spotlight characters whose wit, resilience, and pathos are as vast as the Great Plains landscape they inhabit.

Anatomy of a Soldier (Knopf, May) by Harry Parker
A former officer in the British Army who lost his legs in Afghanistan in 2009, Parker delivers a riveting, provocative novel that captures his wartime experience in an unconventional way. Forty-five inanimate objects—including a helmet, boots, and weapons—act as narrators, together offering the reader a powerful new perspective on war.

Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove, June) by Anna Noyes
With language both sensuous and precise, these interconnected stories immerse us in the lives of women and girls in coastal Maine as they navigate familial intimacy, sexual awakening, and love’s indiscretions.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (Graywolf, June) by Max Porter
In the wake of his wife’s sudden death, a man is visited by Crow, a “sentimental bird” that settles into the man’s life and the lives of his children in an attempt to heal the wounded family. A nuanced meditation that not only breaks open the boundaries of what constitutes a novel, but also demonstrates through its fragmentary form the unique challenge of writing about grief.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds (Viking, June) by Bob Proehl
Valerie and her son embark on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles to reunite the nine-year-old with his estranged father, attending comic-book conventions along the way. Proehl weaves the comic-con worlds of monsters and superheroes into a complex family saga, a tribute to a mother’s love and the way we tell stories that shape our lives.

Lily and the Octopus (Simon & Schuster, June) 
by Steven Rowley
Rowley’s novel centers on narrator Ted Flask and his aging companion—a dachshund named Lily—but readers who mistake this as a simple “boy and his dog” story are in for a profound and pleasant surprise. This powerful debut is a touching exploration of friendship and grief.

Pond (Riverhead Books, July) 
by Claire-Louise Bennett
In this compelling, innovative debut, the interior reality of an unnamed narrator—a solitary young woman living on the outskirts of a small coastal village—is revealed through the details of everyday life, some rendered in long stretches of narrative and others in poetic fragments. Bennett’s unique portrait of a persona emerges with an intensity and vision not often seen, or felt, in a debut. 

Champion of the World (Putnam, July) by Chad Dundas
Gangsters, bootlegging, and fixed competitions converge in the tumultuous world of 1920s American wrestling, which disgraced former lightweight champion Pepper Van Dean and his wife, Moira, must navigate in order to create the life they want. With crisp, muscular prose, this 470-page historical novel illuminates a time of rapid change in America.

Problems (Emily Books, July) by Jade Sharma
Raw, unrepentant, and biting with dark humor, Problems turns the addiction-redemption narrative inside out, as Sharma follows heroin hobbyist Maya through her increasingly chaotic life after the end of both her marriage and an affair. 

First: Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut


Rigoberto González


Three years ago, Rajiv Mohabir and I were living only a few neighborhoods apart in Queens, New York. He was a graduate student in the MFA program at Queens College and teaching ESL in Ozone Park. Because of his Indo-Caribbean ancestry, it wasn’t surprising to learn that he had ties to Richmond Hill, another Queens neighborhood, which had been nicknamed Little Guyana, but his residence in the borough was a much more complicated immigrant story. Shortly after the announcement from Four Way Books that his manuscript The Taxidermist’s Cut had been awarded the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry, I made an appointment to interview him about that journey. But I had to travel all the way to O’ahu to meet with him.

“In a way, it makes sense to talk about my life here,” Mohabir says, pointing with his chin toward the view of the ocean and the row of high-rise hotels along Honolulu’s Waikīkī beach. “This is yet another colonial narrative. And even worse—a settler fantasy. None of this is natural. Waikīkī used to be a wetland. Now it’s a tourist paradise.”

Mohabir’s keen awareness of place and history is informed by his sense of being an outsider no matter what place he inhabits. His parents migrated from Guyana to London, where he was born in 1981. Soon after, his family moved to Toronto, and then to Richmond Hill, a community thriving with culture, but not open spaces. “My father kept escaping city life,” Mohabir explains. “He wanted to reconnect with the land.” Lured by the promise of a rural haven, the Mohabirs relocated to Chuluota, Florida, a white working-class town.

Mohabir spent his formative years in Chuluota, where he began to reckon seriously with his difference, his apartness, by answering repeatedly that most invasive of questions, “Where are you from?” No, he wasn’t from India and neither were his parents. They were from South America. No, he didn’t speak Spanish. Or Hindi. Questions about his identity began to plant the seeds for the pursuits he would eventually undertake in college, but for the moment he felt trapped inside a puzzle of an ancestry. And just when he thought he was gaining ground toward acceptance, troubling comments about his body, about his physical appearance, rattled his confidence: “Once I dared play barefoot like all my friends and one of them said, ‘Your feet are just like leather.’”

But there was yet another difference he had to contend with—his sexuality. “Then it became too much,” he confesses. Despite the bright day and the jovial sounds from the beach, the mood takes a somber turn as he shows me the visible marks on his arms. He had become a cutter. “Scars are another kind of language,” he adds.

Suffering with depression as an adolescent was an ordeal for the entire family. “It’s like the fire went out inside me,” he says. “I believe my parents were trying to protect me, but this was beyond their grasp.” He was prescribed Prozac, but received no counseling, and so he moved through his adolescence inhibited and unresponsive. He took solace in writing “little snapshots” of thoughts and images that he kept to himself—a private diary he would later identify as his first attempts at poetry.  

His other consolation was the annual trip to Toronto to visit Aji, his grandmother, an outsider herself because she refused to assimilate into Canadian society. Aji regaled Mohabir with stories about India and folk songs in Bhojpuri. “She nurtured my drive to find myself in the beauty of Indian culture,” he says.

And then there were those rare visits to Queens that made Mohabir long for the company of his immigrant community, and that made him more fully aware of his desire for intimacy with men. “I knew I wanted to explore my heritage and I knew I’d be back to live in the freedom of Queens someday. But first I had to heal myself.”

That healing process began as soon as he enrolled as a microbiology major at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where almost immediately he sought help at the counseling center. And then came the life-changing opportunity to live in India for a year through a study abroad program. He lived in Varanasi, where he was exposed to Hindi and rediscovered Aji’s world all over again.

By the time he returned to Florida in 2004, just one year shy of completing his undergraduate degree, he was on an alternative path and changed his major to religious studies. “My parents were disappointed I wasn’t going to become a doctor,” he says. “But they didn’t protest. And neither did they object when I decided to move to Queens after graduation. I was still looking for my happiness.”

For the next seven years he taught ESL as community empowerment for immigrants, a rewarding experience because he saw himself in the faces of his students, young immigrants from India, Guyana, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. “It was also disheartening to know all the obstacles they had to deal with in order to make something of themselves,” he says. “I had been there myself.”

Mohabir had a hard time letting go of this tough but rewarding job after he decided to enroll in the MFA program at Queens College in 2009, but the incentive to return to academia to focus on his intellectual and creative growth was strong. “When I told my mother I was headed back to school to get an MFA, she was relieved I was finally aiming for a practical degree,” Mohabir recalls. “Until I clarified that this wasn’t a master of finance but a master of fine arts.” And then came the next admission: that he wanted to write poetry. “It was like coming out to her all over again,” he says. He suspects that somehow she knew he would end up in good hands.  

“Queens College was so good to me,” he says. “It took me four years to complete my degree but my professors knew that I was on a long journey with winding roads.” During his time there, he received a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to study the Hindi language and culture in Jaipur for a year. Since his department had a translation component, the administrators encouraged this supplementary education, which fueled Mohabir’s imagination and work. Nicole Cooley, director of the school’s MFA program in creative writing and literary translation, was particularly thrilled for Mohabir. “His studies in India and his work with translation enriched and invigorated his poems,” she says. “They’re experimental in the very best sense, crossing boundaries in ways that open up our understanding of language and the world.”

But it was a challenge posed in Cooley’s poetry workshop that gave Mohabir permission to pursue the sensitive subject matter that shapes The Taxidermist’s Cut. She said simply, “Write something that scares you.” Suddenly, Mohabir was looking inward, unearthing the fears and anxieties of his youth in Chuluota, where he felt his body suffocating. “To be a man of color is tough. To be a queer man of color is even tougher,” he says. “I felt vulnerable being both, but I also learned to be fierce, to survive like a coyote in a pack of wolves.”

Lycanthropy—the transformation of a person into a wolf—is a dominant trope in The Taxidermist’s Cut. The speaker perseveres by moving openly among strangers, not necessarily in disguise, but not denying his true nature, either—which waits patiently, itching for the right opportunity to reveal itself. “I think of this book as my journey out of my body’s prisons,” Mohabir says. Intro Prize judge Brenda Shaughnessy was taken by the rawness and honesty of the manuscript, which she says was filled with unexpected turns and surprises. For her, this was a book “pulsing, with life leaping off the page.”

The book is also a conversation with masculinity, the tensions between desire and rejection, pursuit and persecution, and passion and fear, particularly as they are negotiated through the eyes of the paternal figure. The following lines encapsulate these complicated dynamics: “Dear Father, forgive me / for what your body made me, / for what I perverted, being a man / and taking another.”

For Martha Rhodes, the founding editor and director of Four Way Books, The Taxidermist’s Cut is an exciting addition to the independent press’s list: “The energy of Mohabir’s lines is what is particularly remarkable, to my mind. His lyrics, whether pure from the musical heart or erasure, rise from the page and engage our senses. This is what I look for in poetry—this kind of engagement with language,” she says.

By the time Mohabir received word that his book had been selected for publication by Four Way Books, he had already made another life-changing decision: to pursue a PhD at the University of Hawai’i in Mānoa. Currently in his third year of study, his concentration is on postcolonialism and queer theory, and American poetic movements from the 1950s to the present.

This relocation, like the one he made to Queens years earlier, was seamless. “Hawai’i is a perfect fit for my interests,” he says. “This is an occupied nation. Its troubled history, the activism around indigenous rights, and the conversations I have with my classmates from Fiji and the extensive Polynesian lands provide me with quite the political education.” Mohabir can’t contain this excited energy, so I suggest a walk along the beach heading toward Kapi‘olani Park.

As we trudge along the pristine sands of Waikīkī, Mohabir’s earlier statement begins to resonate: There’s always another story beneath the surface. Diamond Head, the majestic volcanic tuff cone, has witnessed the entire narrative. “There’s more to these names than just words on signs,” Mohabir says. “If you look up Queen Kapi‘olani’s story it will make you angry at the travesty of manifest destiny.”

Kapi‘olani Park is located along Kalākaua Drive, which is named after the last reigning dynasty overthrown in 1893, opening the door to U.S. occupation. The park, located at the end of a row of high-end boutiques, is populated by homeless people. Homelessness has become a contentious issue on the island. “Living here makes me grapple almost daily with how I belong or don’t belong, and that makes me a more ethical person,” Mohabir says.

For him, poetry began as a way to understand the self, but it also became a way to keep stories alive, particularly those that shaped his consciousness. Though The Taxidermist’s Cut has only recently been published, he has already signed a contract with Tupelo Press for his second book, The Cowherd’s Son, which won the Kundiman Prize and is slated for publication in 2018. “I use more creole in this second book,” he says. “I use phrases and couplets in Bhojpuri because language is identity. And resistance.” This is certainly a palpable lesson reaffirmed by Hawai’ian history and culture.

And although he’s immersed in his doctoral studies, Mohabir is still able to write poems, which are being influenced by the landscape and ecology of Hawai’i. It’s become an inevitable outcome of his residence on the island. When I press him for a specific example of this new direction in his work, he says: “I’ve begun writing about whales.” He looks out into the ocean as if they can be spotted in that instant. I scan the water, and then I understand completely: Of course they’re there, underneath the surface.

Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.  


Piano Lessons: Do Writers Need a Teacher or a Coach?


Jim Sollisch


On the day my son Max discovered his superpower, Raffi was singing “Big Beautiful Planet” on the car stereo as the two of us tooled around town doing errands while leaves fell like giant confetti from the sky.

Max ran into the house ahead of me, and as I put away the groceries, I heard the last song we’d been listening to in the car playing in the living room. I rushed into the room, and there was Max, three and a half years old, playing the antique piano that had sat mute in the corner all these years.

Possessed. That was the word that came to mind. Who was he channeling? The people in my family were nonmusical. The piano was simply a giant end table.

When he finished, I put on an album and played a version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by the great jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Before it was over, Max was playing along—Max and Ahmad, filling the room with tiny, syncopated stars.

It is an awe-inspiring thing to watch your small child do something you can’t do. I could listen—and I did for several weeks—but after a while I assumed he needed a teacher, not an audience.

There’s a difference between teaching and coaching. I learned this by teaching a composition class for beginning writers at the college level for seven years, having taught my last class just months before Max was born. I hadn’t yet articulated that difference, though, and it would be years before I saw that my struggling writing students needed the same things my musically gifted son needed.

Atul Gawande, author of four best-selling books, including Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (Metropolitan Books, 2007), points out in an article in the New Yorker that the concept of coaching comes from sports and is a recent development in the history of skill acquisition. Teaching goes back to the beginning of history; coaching seems to have gotten its start at Yale around 1875 on the gridiron.

Max’s first piano teacher was eighty-two years older than he was. She lived in the neighborhood and came highly recommended. You could tell she loved kids, and she couldn’t have been more delighted with her newest, youngest pupil. She showed him how to draw notes, she had us buy him a beginner’s book, and within weeks Max wouldn’t go near the piano.

When I taught writing, I told my students there was no reason to worry about punctuation until they had written something worth punctuating correctly. I was trying to show them that the important part of writing—the part their teachers didn’t teach them—was the revision process. The stopping and starting, the rethinking, the crossing out, the sharpening of a thought—that’s writing. It’s a verb, after all. Punctuation, which their teachers had “taught” them, was simply politeness, no different from covering your mouth when you sneeze.

By the time Max was nine, we’d been through eleven teachers, including a Suzuki-trained theorist, a few classical pianists, a seventeen-year-old music student, and a series of jazz pianists, one of whom wore only pajamas and greeted us at his apartment door accompanied by the smell of pot. Even he could not stop himself from trying to teach Max theory and requiring him to read music. Every teacher started the same way, full of optimism and promising to meet my requirements, which were simple: Just play music with the kid for an hour a week. Help him master difficult sequences. Don’t try to teach him to read music.

The difference between teaching and coaching is the difference between thinking and doing. Teachers are in the concept business; coaches deal in the physical world. Theory versus practice. Admittedly there is overlap. Coaches teach and teachers coach. And there are gray areas made grayer by semantics. But the older I get, the more I believe we too often teach when we should be coaching.

We don’t teach basketball, we coach it. So is writing more like basketball or more like physics? To get good at physics, you need to know the laws that govern the universe. And to really grasp those, you need to understand the mathematical concepts behind them. You need a teacher.

To acquire the skill of basketball, you need only to watch others play and to practice. Imitation and repetition. Isn’t that how you learned to write: by reading essays and then writing? Like the kid who learns to play basketball without a coach, you acquired the basic skill of writing. You did it despite the teacher, who got in your way by trying to teach you concepts like the parts of speech or constructs like the five-paragraph theme. These are as useless to the would-be writer as a lesson about the dimensions of a basketball court would be to a developing basketball player.

A coach would have helped. But you got a teacher.

My wife, a gifted teacher-coach of young children, loves to say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” When Max was fourteen, we finally found the coach he needed. Danny was a senior in high school, four years older than Max, and a jazz-piano whiz who was on his way to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He coached Max through the jazz standards. After a year or so, Max was ready to learn chord progressions, theory, and even history. And the teacher was already there.

We seem to believe that to acquire skills, especially academic ones, we first need to learn concepts and theory, and then put them into practice. But that’s not the way humans acquire language or learn the pattern recognition that leads to categorization, which is the foundational skill of the natural sciences. You practice and then you learn. More accurately, you learn while doing. But doing often precedes understanding. Learning is more like a sport than we think.

At forty-five, Atul Gawande, an accomplished Harvard-trained surgeon entering the peak years of his career, decided to hire a coach. He had all the knowledge and understanding he needed; he had practiced his craft—performing more than two thousand surgeries—but he wondered if his skills had plateaued. He wondered if he could get better.

Gawande makes the point that coaches are experts at breaking down the mechanics of physical actions into steps. His coach told him to keep his elbows lower and to change the way he draped the patient so the surgical assistant had better access; he recommended adjusting the surgical light. He tinkered with Gawande’s mechanics and approach like a tennis coach might. In surgery—as in tennis—insight can come from practice.

And so it is with writing. All writers know the same secret: Writing is the art of figuring out what you know, not the process of recording what you already know. I have told this secret to many classrooms, but it’s something that cannot be taught. You can’t know it till you experience it, and you can’t experience it without lots of practice. 


Jim Sollisch is creative director at the Marcus Thomas advertising firm in Cleveland. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and many other publications.

The Teachable Talent: Why Creative Writing Can Be Taught


Gregory Spatz


Can creative writing be taught? I’ve always hated the question, in part because of its passive construction, which omits both students and teachers. It has always seemed to me to imply some abstract learning scenario wherein a generic would-be writer is acted upon by unnamed forces and thereby caused to understand the obscure codes and formulas of creative writing. There’s actually a name for this approach: Transmission Model Learning, wherein the teacher transmits information to a passive student, who memorizes and regurgitates the material until it is learned. While it used to be the dominant approach to teaching, no one really believes in Transmission Model Learning anymore, certainly not in the arts and humanities. So the question has always seemed to me to promise its own answer: Of course not. Besides, creative writing has no quantifiable body of information, its outcomes are difficult to objectively measure, it involves too much chatter and sitting around in bars and coffee houses, and anyway, real artists are born artists—people whose genius shouldn’t be corrupted by instruction. Right?

Even before I started down the road of becoming a full-time teacher of creative writing in an MFA program, before I’d entered a graduate fiction writing workshop and heard the late Frank Conroy’s staple first-day lecture on Occam’s razor, abject naturalism, the meaning-sense-and-clarity pyramid, and a long rant that included chalkboard diagrams with stick figures, coal bins, and something reminiscent of broken rainbows, during which he adamantly debunked not Transmission Model Learning but rather Transmission Model Reading (“It’s a dance! The reader is not a passive blank slate, reading-and-writing is always a collaborative endeavor!”), I knew writing was something I wanted to do—and that I could be taught how to do it better. I didn’t know how I’d learn it, much less how I’d one day teach it; I only knew that I wanted to be in the classroom, and that something about the whole endeavor was electrifying. 

I’d spent most of my adult life to that point playing and teaching violin for a living. I had some faith that, if I could learn to do that, then I could learn about writing and I could learn to teach it. Musicians and music teachers don’t spend a lot of time questioning whether or not their instruments can be taught. We take it for granted and share what worked for us as learners. We invent or research new techniques and approaches as students come to us with problems we don’t recognize, and we adjust the pace according to the student’s abilities and drive. Some of us are better or worse at this than others. Frankly, I don’t think I ever got to be very good at it. But when I was teaching music close to full-time, the question was never, Can this be done? The question was always, Why are some students so much better and faster at learning? Why do some of them have willpower and discipline and others don’t? All my students, if they applied themselves, could absolutely improve, but the ones with discipline and talent, the ones who practiced, could go faster and further.  

After fifteen years of teaching creative writing full-time, I’m pretty sure the question for writing teachers is, or should be, basically the same. It’s not, Can it be taught? Of course it can be taught. Anyone who’s sat in an effective workshop can tell you that. The question is, Why does it work when it works? When it works especially well, what’s happening? 

In order to answer, we have to make the original question active by returning to its true subject and object—student and teacher.

Every year my colleague Sam Ligon and I admit eight to ten new MFA graduate students to the fiction-writing track at Eastern Washington University. We review application files from across the country all winter and try to understand, based on a twenty-five-page writing sample, academic records, and a one- to two-page personal statement, which students show the most promise. Which ones are hungry, and demonstrate a mature relationship to or understanding of their work in its current state? Which ones can write gorgeous sentences already? Which ones are passionate and articulate about what they’re reading, and already have a story that pulls you all the way through? Which ones seem to have an earnest desire to learn, or some life experiences that might make for really good material, even if they don’t have the writing chops to pull it off at present? We puzzle over mysteries like the application file that contains an utterly bland personal statement paired with an arresting writing sample, or the brilliantly clever and intelligent personal statement matched with straight-across perfect GRE scores and a garbled, boring writing sample that never gets off the ground. In all this we’re looking for one thing, and it’s unknowable and we know that it’s unknowable: Who here is teachable, and why? Every year we guess about this and get it somewhat right and somewhat wrong. But because of limited financial aid and competition with other writing programs, we do have to guess; we have to decide, in advance, who looks to us like the learner most likely to succeed, and who causes us concern. Generally, we expect that all students we admit, if they apply themselves to the work earnestly and don’t resist learning, will improve. We expect that, and we also expect surprises—students who don’t develop according to the promise we saw in their application and those who exceed all expectations. 

The most interesting and informative surprises, year after year, come from those students who we let in based more on a hunch than a strong conviction (and sometimes with real worries), and who, by becoming astonishingly good, full-fledged writers by the end of their two years, show us not just that creative writing is learnable, but also exactly what the learning looks like when it happens, and why it’s worthwhile. 

In 2001 we admitted Shann Ray on such a hunch. He was not a front-runner, or even in the middle of the pack; he was the last student we admitted. Aside from the fact that he was local and therefore willing to enroll on short notice, what stood out to me in his application was the fact that he’d been a star basketball player for Montana State and for Pepperdine University and had even played pro ball in Germany, but he’d more or less walked away from a career in the sport (though he did continue playing for a faith-based organization for some years). Also notable to me was that he had a PhD in psychology, and had worked for years as a clinical psychologist before taking a full-time teaching job at Gonzaga University in something called Leadership Studies, and later Forgiveness Studies. I don’t watch basketball, much less play it, and I am about as unreligious as anyone you’ll ever meet. So the particulars of Ray’s achievements didn’t mean a lot to me, but they suggested a record of discipline and hard work. My colleague at the time, John Keeble, himself a minister’s son, and I talked about this at some length and agreed that though Ray’s writing sample was troublingly weak, he at least seemed likely to be agreeable and hardworking. We took a chance and let him in.

That year, in my fall workshop I tried very hard not to regret the decision. The stories Ray presented for workshop exhibited two glaring problems that I assumed he’d hang on to with all his might. Probably in imitation of some of his favorite poets and Bible passages, he seemed to be in love with gigantic, lyrically looping and garbled metaphors to describe a landscape, which all but devoured his characters and which I guessed would fog his vision and prevent him from finding his own voice and essential subject matter for a long, long time. He also incorporated a lot of heavy-handed, message-driven, didactic Christian themes that deadened the work at every level, and alienated me as a reader (and the rest of the class as well). In my experience, these were red-flag writing problems that I expected would be really hard to work around, and that I knew would seriously challenge my own reflexes as a reader-critic. We had so little common ground, and I didn’t have a lot of hope that I’d be able to show him the way. The stories were exhausting, and Ray’s persistent questioning of our feedback, mine and the class’s, sounded then more like resistance or refusal to hear than genuine curiosity or requests for clarification. 

With his rigorous background in psychology, theology, philosophy, and ethics, Ray always asked us, “How can you write anything without moral purpose? Why would you want to write without a moral purpose, and who are the great moral fiction writers of today?” I was surprised that though he was a voracious reader of academic texts and premodern poetry, he’d read very little fiction at all, and possibly no contemporary fiction whatsoever. For starters I assigned lots of Andre Dubus, Flannery O’Connor, and Marilynne Robinson. 

I remember during one class going off on a too-long diatribe about the power of metaphor to transform a reader’s experience of the world: how a writer needs to learn to use that power with discretion and purpose because nothing else we have at our disposal, at the line level, will quite so vividly illuminate the world for the reader as a really great metaphor, which simultaneously functions to reveal the author’s unique vision—the writer’s imagination’s “fingerprint,” if you will. This wasn’t something I’d ever articulated for myself until Ray pushed me for the explanation. I also remember talking a lot about message and meaning—the whole class talked to Ray about this, often—trying to describe for him how readers who feel corralled into a predetermined point or moral at the close of a story will feel manipulated and disrespected, their imaginations beaten down, as if they are being asked to believe in a one-dimensional reality. 

What Ray took from any of these craft lessons I don’t know. I do know that delivering them crystallized some things for me.

Ray’s next class was with Keeble. At the end of that quarter, Ray told me, he remembered going to talk to Keeble about the low grade he received and asking if it was due to a lack of effort. “No,” Keeble answered. “It was the writing.” The next quarter I heard from another of my colleagues, who asked somewhat angrily if Keeble and I hadn’t made a mistake letting Ray into the program. “What were we thinking?” she demanded. I gave her my reasons and told her we just needed to be patient. And then I tried to forget about it. At that point I suspected he’d never finish the program.

Aside from having taught at Memphis State, Eastern Washington University, the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, I’ve also participated in creative writing workshops at the University of Arizona, the University of New Hampshire, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I was married to a poet while she was enrolled in workshops at Brown University and the University of California in Davis. I’ve seen, heard, and absorbed a lot of information through the workshop culture and can safely say that for one thing, no two writing workshop classes are the same. No teacher runs a workshop in quite the same way as another, and no program or workshop has ever managed to codify an approach to creative writing that would achieve aesthetic uniformity, or any kind of uniform outcome, period—nor does any program I know of seem to have that as a goal. In fact, the only generalization I ever felt I could comfortably make, as a student of creative writing, was that my teachers disagreed about everything and that trying to find any kind of consensus in their feedback on my work would have made me crazy. I had to learn to follow my gut and go with the advice that made sense.

This is what I share with my students at the start of every workshop class. I caution them that no story has ever been written by committee or by consensus. A workshop’s goal is not to write your story, or tell you how to write your story; its aim is to give you feedback on what you’ve already written—to point out where it succeeds and soars, what it seems to want to be about, where it might be improved, where it’s too slow or too rushed, and to give line-edits and suggestions for revision. A workshop can only respond closely and candidly to what’s on the page. I tell students that if at the end of the day 5 percent of that feedback is actually applicable to the story up for discussion, then that was a good workshop. The other 95 percent? It goes into your hard wiring to inform future stories, maybe—it gives you walls to reach out and touch later as you make your way through the dark. I advise participants against being prescriptive in their feedback, and ask that all participants lay aside their own aesthetic preferences as much as possible when reading one another’s work. I want their revision suggestions to work with a story’s best interests rather than against them. My role as a teacher, as far as all this goes, is also to widen my critical lens in order to understand each story on its own terms, regardless of how foreign the story feels—and to use examples from each story, as appropriate, for general craft tips and pointers.

Because I want students to write their own stories according to their own most strongly held convictions, I also tell them that the only hard-and-fast rule in writing that I know of is this: The student who figures out what is most loved, what is absolutely essential for that student to write about before the time runs out, and who figures out how to get started on that, is the one who will have a breakthrough and write something with lasting power. This is not something I can tell students how to do or find access to in themselves; the process is too individualized. I can only describe it by responding to the words on the page when I see it happening.

I also tell students that, aside from the many craft tips and pointers they will pick up from me in class, from one another, from assigned reading, from visiting writers, from other faculty, or from other classmates over drinks after class, the single most valuable thing they can hope to walk away from the MFA workshop experience with is a handful of lifelong faithful readers: two or three people with a shared vocabulary for stories, who will always be willing to trade drafts of new work no matter what else is going on in their lives and who will know how to get inside that work to give prompt, constructive criticism that makes sense, long after the MFA work is done.

The culture of the MFA program is itself one of the strongest components of the learning experience—the dialogue that carries on in class, after class, at parties, in coffee shops—and if students can find two or three readers to keep that culture alive in their post-MFA life, they will have gotten more than their money’s worth. 

By the time Ray showed up to work with me one-on-one on his thesis project, he’d already made significant strides as a writer. The work was no longer as clouded with overwrought descriptive language. The descriptions were still very dense, sometimes too dense, but he’d learned to couple that density with real physical urgency in the story action to always keep things moving and purposeful, no matter how heavy the language became. He did still tend to ram his black-and-white, good-versus-evil themes and messages through a little too hard, but I could see that by peeling back the language he had found the subject matter that was most essential to him and about which he felt a genuine urgency to write: basketball, life on and off the res and along the Montana Highline, hard living, true love, violent family life, and alcoholism, and through all of this an insistent pursuit of, or longing for, some kind of spiritual lightness, purity, and transcendence. I no longer felt that the stories were intended to persuade me to share his moral perspective; instead the stories felt inspired and illuminated by a moral vision that was essential to him and thus to his characters, and which consequently I couldn’t help but admire and feel moved by. When I asked him what had happened, he said simply, “I paid attention. A lot of it was talking to other students after class at the bar, going over stuff from class. I listened. And I realized I had to work a whole, whole lot harder.” 

During our time together we discussed many or most of the stories that later comprised his hugely successful, prizewinning debut collection, American Masculine, which was published in 2011 by Graywolf Press. Not many first books of stories have done as well in recent years. That Ray managed to write most of that book during his MFA years with us is probably the most astonishing thing I’ve ever witnessed in my years of teaching and stands as a model for successful and effective teaching and learning. Could he have done as well alone? I have real doubts, but of course it’s possible. I am certain that progress of any kind would have required that someone read and respond critically to his work. I’m also sure that without something analogous to the structure and intensity of attention he received from our program, the process would have taken him many years longer.

I learned to expect Ray to show up for our thesis meetings with a legal pad full of questions about whatever story of his we were discussing, and I learned to expect that he would ask every single one of those questions, all the while methodically and patiently taking notes, flipping back and forth between his notes and questions. The first round of questions would be followed up with a second, as he dug ever more persistently into the most sensitive and uncomfortable problems his stories faced. Rather than resisting or defending the material if I suggested something radical—or defined for him how certain story elements failed or alienated me as a reader—Ray asked more questions to understand better why I’d had these responses. He had a dispassionate, clinical curiosity about this. “Tell me just a little more about that, if you would—what you mean when you say…” was a familiar refrain. I also learned to expect full-blown revisions of each story addressing everything we’d gone over, within weeks of talking to him. 

Despite our notable cultural and aesthetic differences, it became apparent that my responses to Ray’s work were valuable for him precisely because of those differences; my responses could show him how to reenvision, reshape, and recalibrate his prose and his more message-heavy leanings so as not to exclude a reader like me. As it turned out, just by tuning in to the work and being honest and thorough in my own responses to it, modeling all the advice I always give in workshop, I in fact became an “ideal reader” for Ray. I also learned to expect our sessions to end with a lot of tough questions about my own writing—what was I working on, what problems was I facing, how was I integrating the writing work with family and everything else going on in my life. This seemed to matter a lot to him, which was unusual. He’d share, in kind, some of his own struggles to carve out writing time and to keep it balanced with a full-time teaching job and a busy family life. In one conversation it came out that he was rarely sleeping more than a few hours a night.

Ray’s stories got better and better. He had some solid bites from good literary quarterlies, and soon a few acceptances. When he brought in a draft of the story “When We Rise,” I knew he’d really broken through to a new level and come into his own as a writer, and that my role as teacher was just about done. I remember feeling something as I read the story’s first sentence, a kind of pleasure and awe as the sentences continued to build and build without a misstep. As a teacher, there is really no more pleasurable moment than this. I knew the best thing I could do for him would be to get out of the way. Not long after, he brought me another excellent story, “Mrs. Secrest.” It was all there, but had no ending, or had the wrong ending. He later reminded me that my advice was to pay attention to the characters to find the ending. Something like, “It’s perfect right up to here. Now you need an ending. So just write the ending and don’t fuck it up, because that’s about all you could do to wreck the story at this point.” I don’t remember saying that, but I don’t doubt that I did.


Obviously, writing isn’t for everyone. I’m fully confident, though, that if MFA students want to learn, and if the environment is right, if they’re willing to work, tear down all defenses and hear the hardest news about their stories, they can and will grow as students at an astonishing rate. All writers, students as well as nonstudents, can become so overfocused on their own words that they cease having any useful perspective on them, making it difficult to understand how those words might register with anyone else. All of us need to be read. By providing good, candid readers, the workshop process breaks open students’ hyperfocus on their own words. That, by itself, can cause real shock and discomfort, but generally it moves them forward. And though moving forward and breaking hyperfocus can make for difficult, clarifying shake-ups in each student’s private writing-musing process, it’s not that part of it—the writer alone with the page—that I try to teach. Unlike teaching violin, where I could physically manipulate a student into a better bow grip or left-hand position, and could assign exercises that would strengthen good technique or specifically address technical weaknesses, there’s no hands-on way to manipulate a writer at a desk. It’s a private process. Its “mechanical” aspects are emotional, intellectual, and interior.

The real mystery for me is what happens to students after they receive their degree. All too often I’ve seen people leave our program with a handful of unique, published, or publishable stories, a head of steam to write more, and then…nothing. The disjunction may be explained by another silent but profound benefit of participating in the MFA culture: the provided structure of study and the pressure of deadlines. As long as a student is enrolled in MFA classes she never has to ask the really hard question, which is, Why? Why write at all? The MFA program, with its imposed workshop and thesis completion deadlines, can facilitate accelerated artistic development by temporarily removing that existential block. You write in order not to let down your workshop peers, who are expecting a story by next week, or in order to finish that presentation—in order to finish the degree. I warn students about life after the MFA. We talk about it and strategize. I encourage them to form a long-term network of friends and readers and stress over and over how important this will become in the years ahead.

All of which gets me back to why I argued to admit Shann Ray in the first place—something I saw in his admission material which was beyond or behind the page and which gave me hope for him: the record of discipline and the breadth of his interests. And though there were times while teaching him that I wanted to say, “My God, this is impossible, it’s too hard, writing is not like playing basketball,” in the end I learned that it kind of is like basketball, at least for Ray. He learned from our program and grew at a phenomenal pace as a writer, but in the end the real cause for his success is somewhere else, off the page, in him. I can’t say what it is and would never claim the ability to define it or the credit for having taught it to him; I can only guess that whatever it is probably looks a lot like the same set of character traits that drove him to be such an uncannily good ballplayer. I’d describe those as dedication, desire, drive, and discipline. He might have other words for it.

Gregory Spatz
is the author most recently, of Inukshuk, published by Bellevue Literary Press in June 2012. His story collection Half as Happy was published by Engine Books in January 2013. He is the recipient of a 2012 NEA literature fellowship and teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University.

Publishing, Empowering Teen Writers


Tara Jayakar


For Chicago teenagers with a passion for writing, there is no shortage of resources. Young Chicago Authors; 826CHI, a branch of the youth writing organization started by writer Dave Eggers; StoryStudio Chicago; and Writopia Lab, among other programs, have been offering writing workshops, open mics, summer camps, and poetry slams for kids throughout the city for decades. But a new organization has a more specific goal in mind for Chicago teens: to offer them hands-on experience in editing and publishing their peers. Launched last year by poet and educator Jennifer Steele, [Y]volve Publishing (YP) is an extension of Revolving Door Arts Foundation, which Steele founded in 2014 to empower and publish young and emerging writers and to get them actively involved in the publishing industry. Steele runs the organization almost exclusively on her own, with some help from a volunteer board that includes writers Fred Sasaki and Kenyatta Rogers. While Steele has other projects in the works for the organization, including workshops for young and new mothers, an anthology about postpartum depression, and a reading series, her primary focus is currently YP and its inaugural project, the Teen Chapbook Series, which features poetry chapbooks written and edited by teens. 

The chapbook series began last summer, when Steele asked four teenagers on the slam poetry team she coaches to each write five poems and then expand that work into a chapbook-length collection. The four young poets—Nyvia Taylor, Semira Truth Garrett, Kai Wright, and Jalen Kobayashi—worked with one another, along with Steele, to edit their poems. “Each book has been a personal journey for these writers, as they explore personal ideas and also think about how to expand the craft of their writing,” says Steele. “Semira, for instance, was really interested in learning how to write short poems. Jalen has learned about truth versus fact when writing a poem. And Nyvia has been writing brave poems that are confronting difficult, personal subjects.” 

The chapbooks, each featuring artwork the poets chose themselves, were published in May. Steele also invited four established poets, including CM Burroughs and Jacob Saenz, to write introductions to the chapbooks. For the young poets, seeing their words in print has had a powerful impact. “When you have a hard copy of something, it’s forever,” says Kobayashi in a video on the press’s website. “As poets, we share our work on social media, but that can only get you so far. Once you actually have that physical copy of all your words on the page, nobody can take that from you.” Wright agrees: “I’m just a little Chicago kid from the West Side, but to be able to put my work out there in a permanent way—these are just my words that are here and nobody can take my story, or my truth, or my life away from me as a result of that.” 

The Teen Chapbook Series will be published annually, and next year’s series will be expanded to include fiction and nonfiction. (Submissions will open this month, and the chapbooks will be released in Spring 2018.) Steele is also in the process of developing a teen editorial board, which will oversee the production of each book in the series from start to finish. “We’re hoping to have a full-fledged publishing program that includes graphic design, marketing, and promotion teams by 2018,” Steele says. Students will create a call for submissions, read and select manuscripts, and then be paired with a more established editor or writer to edit the selected manuscripts. They will also work on every stage of production, from layout and design to promotion. Steele plans for the press to release three to five chapbooks through the series each year and to put out other books as well. This summer she is working with a group of teens to curate, edit, design, and publish a book of poetry and fashion photography centering around the Gwendolyn Brooks centennial, which is being celebrated this year in Chicago. The anthology will be published in October. 

By teaching teens how to publish books, Steele believes she will help equip them with both entrepreneurial and collaborative experience that will be applicable within and beyond the creative industry. By taking on the role of an editor, publisher, or marketing executive, Steele says, the young people involved with the YP will acquire marketable skills before they even graduate high school. She also hopes to reach more teens by bringing YP books into classrooms. Starting in the 2017–2018 school year, she plans to provide the chapbooks to teachers in Chicago schools and help them develop lesson plans based on each book’s content or theme. “We often hear from teachers that they wish they had more books written by teens to share with their students, so we’re hoping this could fill that need,” she says. “As far as I know, there aren’t many collections of poetry being taught in the classroom, let alone collections by teens.” 

Steele’s commitment to empowering teens is partially motivated by her own experiences as a young person. “I didn’t know I could be an editor,” she says. “I thought if I got my English degree, I was just going to be a high school English teacher. But if someone had told me that I could be editing a magazine, I probably would have made different choices. We’re trying to create these experiences for kids at this age so they can make more informed choices about what they’re interested in doing. That’s the underlying point of all of this: creating, through the literary arts, skills that can be transferable to any career path they’re interested in.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

[Y]volve Publishing’s poets (from left) Semira Truth Garrett, Jalen Kobayashi, Kai Wright, and Nyvia Taylor.

(Credit: Kikomo.p Imagery)

Amanda Gorman Named National Youth Poet Laureate


Maggie Millner


Last night in New York City, at a historic ceremony at Gracie Mansion, nineteen-year-old Amanda Gorman of Los Angeles was named the first national youth poet laureate. The unprecedented title, to be awarded annually, honors a teen poet who demonstrates not only extraordinary literary talent but also a proven record of community engagement and youth leadership.

For Gorman, poetry and civic outreach aren’t separate interests. The Harvard University freshman knows firsthand that creative writing can build confidence and a sense of community among young people whose voices are often underrepresented in mainstream dialogue. In 2016 she founded One Pen One Page, a nonprofit organization that provides an “online platform and creative writing programs for student storytellers to change the world.” She continues to serve as the organization’s executive director.

Gorman’s own writing often addresses the intersections of race, feminism, and adolescence, as well as the changing landscape of her native Los Angeles. For both her poetry and her advocacy, Gorman has been recognized by Forbes, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the YoungArts Foundation, and the OZY Genius Awards. She has also performed on The Today Show, ABC Family, and Nickelodeon News, and helped introduce Hillary Clinton at the 2017 Global Leadership Awards.

“For me, being able to stand on a stage as a spoken word poet, as someone who overcame a speech impediment, as the descendent of slaves who would have been prosecuted for reading and writing, I think it really symbolizes how, by pursuing a passion and never giving up, you can go as far as your wildest dreams,” said Gorman at the ceremony on Wednesday evening. “This represents such a significant moment because never in my opinion have the arts been more important than now.”

Amanda Gorman, national youth poet laureate.

The event represented the culmination of years of work by arts organizations across the country. In 2009 literary arts nonprofit Urban Word NYC, in partnership with the New York City Campaign Finance Board and Mayor’s Office, began bestowing the annual title of New York City youth poet laureate on one visionary poet between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, says the program was founded on a belief that “young poets deserve to be in spaces of power, privilege, and governance, and to have their voices front and center of the sociopolitical dialogue happening in our city.”

Since the inception of New York’s youth poet laureate program, arts and literacy organizations in over thirty-five cities have followed suit, launching their own youth laureateship positions. As it spread nationally, the program garnered support from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and PEN Center USA, among other major poetry organizations. Finally, in 2016, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities partnered with Urban Word to bring the program to the national level.

Last July a jury of prominent poets, including U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang, and Academy of American Poets executive director Jen Benka, narrowed the pool of local laureates down to five national finalists. Poets were evaluated on the caliber and subject matter of their poems, as well as their commitment to serving their communities through volunteer and advocacy work, and each finalist was selected to represent a geographic region of the country (Northeast, Southeast, South, Midwest, and West). Along with Gorman, Hajjar Baban of Detroit, Nkosi Nkululeko of New York City, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay of Nashville, and Andrew White of Houston were named the first annual regional laureates and finalists for the inaugural national youth poet laureateship.

Each finalist received a book deal with independent press Penmanship Books, which published Gorman’s first poetry collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015. Over the past year, the finalists have also had the opportunity to perform for large audiences at renowned venues, including the Poetry Foundation, the Kennedy Center, and the White House. As the national youth poet laureate, Gorman will continue to give readings and participate in events across the country throughout her yearlong term.

“The role of poetry, especially in marginalized communities, is to provide a voice to those who are traditionally silenced,” says Cirelli, “and the best way to effect social change is to provide platforms for youth to tell their stories. We hope to leverage our work to allow these diverse stories to be told in spaces that have historically omitted youth voices, and to energize and engage the issues that they are most passionate about.”

The ceremony at Gracie Mansion featured performances by three of the finalists, as well as a roster of current and former New York City youth poets laureate. The performers were introduced by a group of acclaimed poets, including American Book Prize winner Kimiko Hahn and four-time National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith. Nkululeko recited a poem about his hair, a metaphor through which he discussed his relationship with his mother and collective African American history. Baban, who was named runner-up for the national title, recited a sestina on language, family, and her Muslim name. Finally, Gorman delivered a poem about how her speech impediment led her to discover writing.

“I am so grateful to be part of this cohort of young creatives who are taking up their pens to have a voice for what is right and what is just,” Gorman said in her acceptance speech. “I don’t just want to write—I want to do right as well.”


Maggie Millner is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.  

Q&A: Yang Inspires Young Readers


Dana Isokawa


In 2008 the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and the nonprofit organization Every Child a Reader established the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature position to celebrate and promote books for children and young adult readers. The current ambassador, graphic novelist and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Gene Luen Yang, started his term in January 2016. Yang has devoted much of his work to his Reading Without Walls Challenge, which encourages kids to read books with unfamiliar characters, topics, and formats. Yang is the perfect advocate for such an undertaking: His popular graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints have pushed against cultural stereotypes and blurred the lines between the comic-book and book-publishing industries. More than halfway through his two-year term, Yang spoke about his work as the ambassador.

What inspired you to come up with the Reading Without Walls Challenge?
We want kids to read outside their comfort zones, and we want them to do it in three ways. One: We want them to read about characters who don’t look like them or live like them. Two: We want them to read about topics they don’t know anything about. And three: We want them to read books in different formats. So if they normally read only graphic novels for fun, we want them to try a chapter book, and if they read only chapter books for fun, we want them to try a graphic novel.

What are you planning next?
Right now we’re trying to promote the Reading Without Walls program. We’ve put together a bunch of downloadable materials: recommended reading lists, posters, and certificates of completion. We’re hoping librarians, booksellers, and teachers will download, print, and use these materials to promote the initiative with their classes. And we’re trying to do a wider national push for the summer.

What else is involved in the national ambassador position?
It’s pretty flexible. I have a few speaking engagements—I was at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in the fall, which was a ton of fun. I’m going to go again this year, and I’ve done a few school visits, some of them in person, some of them over Skype. We’ve tried some online stuff. I have a video podcast called the Reading Without Walls podcast—it’s just me having conversations about children’s books with people I really like. I had one that came out with Lois Lowry, who wrote The Giver; another one with Patrick Ness, who wrote A Monster Calls. I also do a monthly column at Book Riot about making comics, and we’re probably going to start another podcast this year.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to read books with characters who don’t look or live like them?
There are studies that show that fiction in particular builds empathy—that when you read about characters who don’t look or live like you, you begin to understand them a little bit better. You understand what makes you similar and how vast the differences are, and it helps you to be a little bit more compassionate toward people who are different from you. Right now it seems like—not just in America, but around the world—we need a little more empathy. And I include myself in that too. I worry about how technology affects us. Just recently with the presidential election, there was all of [this research] about how Facebook basically shows you stuff you like to read. And then even beyond that, you can literally read about yourself all day. You could just fill your whole day with pure narcissism because of digital media. And I think fiction is the exact opposite of that. Well-written fiction pulls you out of your own mind space and helps you see into the thoughts and lives of somebody else.

Can you think of a book where you were reading without walls as a kid?
As an Asian American kid growing up in America in the eighties, almost every book that I read was outside of my own walls, because they were about kids that were part of the majority culture. I do think that maybe gender-wise there were books that pushed me outside of my walls. Like almost every kid in the eighties, I loved Beverly Cleary and I loved the Ramona books. I think as a character Ramona really broke stereotypes and cultural norms about the way little girls should act, because she was creative and rambunctious and kind of loud. And there was a lot of overlap in the way she saw the world and the way I saw the world as a little kid. So I think that that pushed me out. And there were also books that mirrored my life. I started collecting comics in the fifth grade and got really obsessed with superheroes. I wonder if part of that obsession comes from the fact that these superheroes negotiated two different identities—Superman wasn’t just Superman, he was also Clark Kent. In some ways that mirrored my own reality since I had a Chinese name at home and an American name at school; I lived under two different sets of expectations. And Superman is actually an immigrant too—he deals with the cultures of both Krypton and America.

Have your experiences as a graphic novelist informed the challenge, especially the part about reading in different formats?
Yes, absolutely. I think in America, up until pretty recently, the comic-book market and the book market were really two separate entities. They had their own stores, distribution systems, norms, and readerships. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years that they’ve started working together. I really think I’ve been a beneficiary of that merging, and it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting to see how publishers and authors who are prominent in one area are starting to embrace the work from the authors in the other area. More and more we’re seeing publishers who typically only publish prose books start to add graphic novels to their list. On the other side, we’re starting to see comic-book publishers recruit writers who are primarily known for their prose, like Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Marvel.

Do you think that’s because people’s opinions or the form itself is changing? Can you diagnose why that shift is happening?
I think there are three prominent comic cultures in the world. There’s the American one; there’s an Asian one that’s centered primarily around Japan, and there’s a European one centered around France and French-speaking Belgium. And in those other two cultures, comics have been prominent for a long time. If you go to Japan, there will be people of every age and gender reading graphic novels and manga on the subways. In France, it’s the same way: They televise the comic awards shows. In both of those cultures, it’s always been a big deal. It’s only in America that comics have been in this backwater. And that really goes back to the 1950s when the child psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. The United States Congress took it very seriously and had a series of congressional hearings where they called comic-book authors, publishers, and artists to Washington, D.C., to testify to see if comics actually caused juvenile delinquency. These hearings lasted for a few weeks, but didn’t end conclusively—there was no congressional decision that came out of it. But they damaged the reputation of comics in the eyes of the American public, and that lasted for decades. That didn’t happen in Japan or France. I feel what happened in Japan and France was a much more natural development of the medium, whereas in America it was stunted. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that people have forgotten about what happened in the fifties. People have finally started to realize that comics don’t cause juvenile delinquency.

What draws you to working with and writing for young people?
I think it’s kind of my natural storytelling voice. When I first started writing comics, I was a self-publisher. I was working at a tiny scale. I would Xerox comics and I’d try to sell them at shows. I’d sell probably a dozen or two—tiny scale. And when you’re working at that level, you don’t think about demographics. I wasn’t actually categorized as a young-adult author until I signed with First Second, my primary publisher. They come out of the book world, not the comic-book world. In the book world age demographics are huge; that’s how booksellers decide where to shelve their books and how to sell them. So I was categorized there. It’s not something I had in my head when I first started, but I think it sits well—probably because I was a high-school teacher for a long time. I taught high-school computer science for seventeen years, so I was just surrounded by teenage voices, and a lot of that just bleeds into you. When you spend so much time in the hallways of a school, the voices of those hallways just kind of get into you.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Academy Establishes Web Resource for Teen Poets


Yesterday, the Academy of American Poets launched a new online poetry resource targeted at teenage readers and writers of poetry. The initiative was conceived after the organization conducted a survey of visitors to its Web site and found that 75 percent of users developed an interest in poetry before the age of eighteen.

The new home page features writing resources and a collection of poems for teens, as well as links to the organization’s discussion forum and a comprehensive index of Web sites and reference materials for poets. A “Leave Your Mark” feature prompts teen users to share indispensable lines of poetry, upcoming events, and to create virtual poetry notebooks of their own design featuring poems, writer profiles, and interviews culled from the Academy’s site.

Young writers are also prompted to sign up for the “Street Team” newsletter, which will notify them of poetry projects and contests in which they could participate. Planned programs include the Free Verse Photo Project, in which a line of poetry is written using a temporary medium and photographed before it disappears, the National Poetry Writing Month challenge and pledge drive, and Poem In Your Pocket Day.

The home page initiative was funded by close to five hundred Academy members, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which supports advancement of artistic inquiry and scholarship, and the graduating class of 2008 from Holmdel High School in New Jersey.

How to Get Unstuck: The Psychology of Writer’s Block


Dennis Cass


An experiment: You enter a large room that’s empty except for two pieces of string dangling from different points on the ceiling. Your instructions are to get hold of a piece of string in each hand, but after grabbing the first string you quickly learn that the other is too far away. A scientist comes into the room and hands you a pair of pliers. You try using the pliers to seize the second string, but as much as you lean and stretch, it remains just out of reach. The scientist tells you there’s a simple solution and then leaves. What do you do?

Subjects who do this experiment in real life are a sight to behold. They twist and contort and lunge and jump. In the hopes of gaining even a millimeter of extra reach, they hold the pliers every which way, as if trying to figure out some secret handshake. Of course the pliers are the key, but not if used in the usual way. You must think instead about weight, motion, momentum. The solution is to tie the pliers to one of the pieces of string and give a gentle shove. Then walk calmly over to the other piece of string, turn around, and wait for the unreachable to come to you.

This experiment, which was created by industrial psychologist Norman R. F. Maier, is designed to study what psychologists call fixation. Typically, fixation is studied in the context of engineering and industrial design. The tricky thought experiments in Texas A&M University psychology professor Steven Smith’s paper “Design Fixation,” for example, challenge subjects to invent a spillproof coffee cup or make a bike rack using limited materials. But while the problems may be different, the underlying struggle will be familiar to writers of all genres and levels of experience. Fixation, after all, is just a fancy way of saying writer’s block.

I initially became interested in the psychology of writer’s block while working on my first book, Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins, 2007), which has as one of its many themes the notion that—wonders of the human brain notwithstanding—people generally don’t know what the hell they’re doing even while they’re in the middle of doing it. I became further interested in the phenomenon when, three years ago, I started teaching and discovered that the advice we give young writers for conquering writer’s block was either dismissive or thin. “Don’t write, just get it written,” said James Thurber, which deservedly gets him into Bartlett’s but offers cold comfort for the rest of us. Then there is Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” approach: Suspend judgment and keep the pen moving. Free writing is fine, but it’s a blunt instrument, and, in the context of the aforementioned experiment, a bit like telling the person stuck in the string room to “just keep reaching.” Surely we can do better.

The answer lies in the academic research into creativity, a treasure trove of ideas that hides in plain sight for several perhaps obvious reasons. First of all, creativity as a subject of serious study only got its start in the 1950s and, as a relatively new and small field, lacks the gravitas of more established intellectual pursuits. Much of the research into creativity has been in the realm of education, often involving the testing of gifted children, which doesn’t come up very often on Book TV. The research that isn’t related to education is related to business, which for many writers and artists creates distasteful, if not hostile, associations. And, finally, dissecting creativity runs counter to the cultural belief that writing can’t be taught, that the artistic process can never truly be understood—and even if it could, that would spoil all the fun.

If we can get past these barriers—not to mention fussy terms like fixation—then we can mine academia for all it has to offer, and we should start with a seemingly familiar but more nuanced definition of creativity itself. In the early 1950s, psychologist and pioneering creativity researcher J. P. Guilford came up with a model for creativity that was revolutionary at the time, but will be recognizable to anyone who has ever taken a writing workshop. He loosely divided the creative process into two parts. Divergent thinking is coming up with options, free-associating, filling the pot. (Around the same time, advertising executive Alex Osborn championed brainstorming in his book Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking, published by Scribner in 1953.) Convergent thinking is narrowing options, making choices, and driving toward meaning. In other words, the psychology of drafting and editing.

What makes Guilford’s model useful for combating writer’s block is how it details the getting-it-all-out part. According to his model, divergent thinking comprises three elements: fluency (the volume of possibilities); flexibility (the variety); and originality (the uniqueness). If you’re going to keep the pen moving, there’s a more sophisticated way to do it.

When I teach, I use a divergent-thinking exercise that’s a variant on Guilford’s Unusual Uses Test. Breaking the class into small groups, I hold up a black Sharpie and ask my students to imagine different ways of using it. After a happy buzz, it’s time to share. “Shoe polish!” “Make tattoos!” “Prop open a window!” Then I ask if others had the same or similar answer and up come the disappointed hands. What felt original and exciting turned out to be commonplace.

Mark Runco, Torrance professor and director of the creativity center at the University of Georgia, relates a similar experience. He’ll go into a school and give a divergent-thinking assessment to two hundred kids, asking them to think up things that are round. “They’ll say ‘basketball,’ ‘Ping-Pong ball,’ ‘tennis ball,’ ‘baseball,’ ‘soccer ball,’” says Runco. “That’s fluency, but there isn’t much flexibility. Then a kid will say ‘moon’ and ‘eye.’ She’s being a little more flexible. That’s one way we measure creativity. This kid is tapping three conceptual categories. That kid is tapping into nine.” Originality is rarer still. “I guarantee that at least 60 percent of them will say ‘basketball,’” says Runco, “but only one will say ‘quark.’”

Part of our job as writers is to pinpoint where our divergent thinking is lacking and then take steps to enhance it. You might spend one writing session going for volume. (“Today I’ll come up with fifty names for the gas station attendant in chapter 2.”) The next time try being more flexible. (What other people—or objects or abstractions—can steer the protagonist to the haunted amusement park?) The worst thing you can do—and here is where block rears its ugly head—is to start by trying to be original. As a matter of practice, it’s easier to be original if you’re flexible, but you can’t be flexible until you’re fluent. Furthermore, originality is entirely contextual. Try the What can you think of that’s round? question with a group of friends. The most original answer won’t reveal itself until you’ve aired out the obvious.

So how can we be more flexible? How do we tap into more conceptual categories, like that kid who said “quark”? What if you’re stuck drumming up a million types of balls? Now we’re back to fixation.

According to Texas A&M’s Smith, there are two basic types of fixation: mental set and functional fixedness. Both are pervasive, but the former is easier both to spot and to manage. A classic mental-set experiment involves giving people ten math problems. The first nine are all solved using the same method, but the tenth—which is far easier—requires a different approach. People get into a rhythm with the first nine, then hit a wall on the last. If you’ve ever been cruising along with a dramatic scene and then try changing gears and writing description, you’ve experienced mechanized thought. You might be better off simply continuing to write scenes for that session. Just because your audience reads your story from beginning to end doesn’t mean you have to write it that way.

Functional fixedness is far more deadly. “Mental set comes from short-term knowledge,” says Smith. “If you go into a lab and use pliers to loosen a nut, then you’re going to be thinking of pliers as a nut loosener. Functional fixedness has to do with our long-term knowledge. Pliers grasp stuff. That’s what pliers do.”

Another way of thinking about functional fixedness is to consider that it’s more natural for human beings to move from concept to example than it is from example to concept. Smith tells the story of asking subjects to imagine another planet, where, like Earth, life has evolved. “We ask people to create life-forms and label the parts,” he says. “They draw a dog, but it has six legs and antennae. They don’t think that life could be a cloud or a crystalline structure.” Or that a pair of pliers could be a pendulum weight.

“One of the most insidious things about getting stuck,” Smith adds, “is that it’s often because you’re making assumptions that you don’t realize you’ve been making. You don’t realize you have started at a certain conceptual level. You don’t realize you put constraints on an idea that don’t have to be there. It’s only when you step back that you realize that, whether it has six legs or no legs, it’s still basically a dog.”

If you’re experiencing mechanized thought, then the answer might be as simple as going for a walk or reading some poetry. If you’re struggling with functional fixedness, the answer might not be so clear. Some writers, such as Calvino and Borges, are naturally more flexible. For other writers, moving up and down the conceptual ladder may be more difficult. If this is one of your struggles, then you have to watch out for what Smith refers to as premature conceptualization, which is being convergent before you’ve been sufficiently divergent. The only answer is to experiment, even if you don’t consider yourself an experimental writer. Try writing a short piece with the goal of attacking every assumption every step of the way. The final result may be a mess, but you’ll gain a better understanding of your conceptual strengths and weaknesses, and going forward you’ll start seeing the six-legged dogs that are holding you back.

As we move further away from simple brainstorming, simple tips and tricks for battling block may become less effective, but we come closer to understanding the root causes of writer’s block. Mechanized thought is of the moment, whereas functional fixedness speaks to a writer’s personal style. The big contributor in the realm of personal creative style is British psychologist Michael Kirton, whose Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) instrument is the standard for helping people figure out what kind of creative thinkers they are. Kirton’s model is based on the theory that everything that human beings do is a form of problem solving, and that everything involves creativity. The question is one of approach.

Phil Samuel, a business consultant who has a PhD in mechanical engineering and in a previous life worked in R&D in the aerospace industry, is certified to give the KAI assessment, a thirty-three-part assessment that poses questions such as whether or not you’re good at detail work, whether you’re ever stuck for ideas, if you like to conform in a group setting, and if it’s hard for you to get out of bed in the morning. This inventory is designed to ferret out adaptive versus innovative styles, which Samuel characterizes on a spectrum between Edison and Einstein.

“Edison is adaptive in style,” says Samuel. “The more adaptive look at a problem within given limits. Their creativity comes from doing things better and more efficiently. They care about details. Thomas Edison took other people’s ideas and meticulously performed experiment after experiment. He was creative in perfecting existing ideas. Contrast that with the innovative style of Einstein. He questioned the problems themselves. He may not have been good at the details, but he looked at the prevailing view of Newtonian physics and decided to come up with something different.”

When Samuel consults with businesses, he will administer the KAI and then sort people into groups by type. He’ll then give them a problem (you’re a tea bag company and Starbucks is eating your profits) and ask the teams to solve the problem. The difference between adaptive thinkers and innovative thinkers is stark. “The more adaptive will want to improve the tea bags or do better marketing,” Samuel says. “The innovative thinkers want to fill the tea bags with dry soup and sell it to airlines. They joke about attacking Colombia to influence the politics of coffee.” Each approach has its pros and cons. Innovative thinkers come up with a higher volume of ideas and tolerate failure better, but they can also abandon good ideas too quickly. Adaptive thinkers have fewer, more conservative ideas, but they expect—and more often achieve—high success rates.

Samuel stresses that everybody is both innovative and adaptive, even if you have a “preferred style.” Furthermore, if you’re motivated enough, you can work in another style (Kirton calls it “coping”), although it might take you more time and burn more energy. The next time you’re blocked, consider whether you might be forcing your preferred style on a task that requires a different approach. When I was first starting out, I used to think every transition had to be a work of art. The day I became a real writer was the day I just wrote, “Two weeks later…” and got on with it. Clifford the Big Red Dog is already a freakishly large dog. He doesn’t need to be vermilion.

The adaptive-innovative spectrum gets more problematic at the project level. A dreamer who needs to get his facts straight and a meticulous thinker who needs to get her ya-yas out can work through a given moment using the other approach. But the innovator who tries to write an English Cozy because she thinks mysteries sell is setting herself up for misery, as is the adaptive writer who feels pressure to be experimental when he would be better off writing something more conventional. Saul Bellow said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” But we have to be careful. What we like to read may not be what we’re meant to write.

Let’s assume that we’ve now mastered divergent thinking. We have churned out the volume, we have spiced it up with variety, and we’ve done our best to be conceptually (and stylistically) nimble. Now what? How do you then make sense of all the possibilities? If it’s time to make the hard choices, how can we make the best ones?

The conventional wisdom on creativity and choice is that first you need the volume, and only then can you start making selections. But Roy Chua, a creativity researcher at the Harvard Business School, isn’t so sure. In his paper “Creativity as a Matter of Choice: Prior Experience and Task Instruction as Boundary Conditions for the Positive Effect of Choice on Creativity” (laugh all you want: it’s brilliant) he explores the idea that more is better only if you’re at a point in your career when you’re capable of handling it.

“I argued and found that when given too many options, you can easily be overwhelmed by the number of possibilities,” Chua writes in an e-mail. “That can be paralyzing, especially if you don’t have the relevant experience to sift through the maze of options. If you’re not experienced enough to discern and choose among the vast possibilities conferred by a large choice set of initial materials, it might actually be better to start small, i.e., with a smaller and more manageable set of materials. I think the key lesson for writers is that we’re often thinking of so-called writer’s block as the lack of ideas—but my research suggests that too many ideas could also stop a writer dead in his or her tracks.”

One of Chua’s experiments was based on something that you would think would be easy: wrapping presents. Indeed, subjects who were the wrappers in their families, or who had retail experience, loved having all the options and created better results. But when Chua gave people who were inexperienced or uncomfortable wrapping gifts all kinds of papers, ribbons, and gewgaws, they not only froze up, they even produced less creative presents than did the control group. In other words, too many choices doesn’t just inhibit performance but can decrease it, especially if you’re expected to be creative.

Chua says that one cue to finding out if you’re suffering from this kind of block is to see if you keep comparing options and still have no idea what is better. In that case you may need to try some convergent thinking techniques, such as progressive elimination. Chua says that if you suspect you are blocked because you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of ideas for writing a story, try dropping the least promising options to narrow down your choices. You may have to do this several times, depending on how extensive the initial choice set is. “Another strategy is progressive expansion. Select a small number of key ideas that jump out at you and use those as the starting point to construct your writing. Go back to the larger pool of ideas now and then to pick up additional information as you go along. Both approaches aim at limiting the number of creative choices one has to deal with at a given time.”

How you set limits is also important, because convergent thinking can bring you perilously close to being overly self-critical. What writer hasn’t looked at his mountain of research notes, character sketches, outlines, and drafts and wanted to simply shove the whole stupid-idiot worthless-moron pile into the trash? There is also something dangerous in limiting choices arbitrarily. As writers we still need to feel in control of our work. Convergent-thinking techniques that limit options in a mechanistic way will rob us of the joy of creation.

Mary Murdock, associate professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at the University at Buffalo in New York has some insight. She says that a lot of people are familiar with staying positive in the generative stage, but not as many know the power of being positive in the cutting stage. “Even people who think of themselves as open and creative still have to come back to their ideas and remember that new and different things can be scary.” Murdock suggests being very deliberate in your mind-set when you make choices about your work. “How we manage judgment is about how we manage our state of mind,” she says. “It’s called affirmative judgment. It’s a cognitive strategy, but it’s also an affective state. It’s about finding the good. Here’s what I like. Here’s what’s interesting.”

What Murdock is saying about cognitive strategies and affective states is important, because at its heart, the writing process is about metacognition, a psychological term that means “thinking about thinking.” It’s about being aware not of who you are in terms of overall identity, but who you are in this very moment. Where’s your head at? Where’s your heart?

We revere and mythologize our great authors, and we present the road to becoming a writer as a long, lonely journey of increasing knowledge and mastery, but what nobody tells you is that you already have all the tools you need. You’re capable of divergence and convergence, of moving up and down conceptual ladders, of being adaptive and innovative, of growing into an area of expertise. At the individual-tools level, you’re probably a better writer than you realize. The real question is, How good are you at metacognition? Are you aware of all the cognitive strategies at your disposal? Do you know what part of your mind your work most needs right now? Can you diagnose why the strategy you’re using isn’t working and are you open to switching on the fly? Are you strong enough to stick with an approach that might not be a natural fit? Finally, are you willing to let go of whatever assumptions and beliefs you have about literature and art in order to do what’s best for your work?

As Murdock notes, “I think people get concerned that if they become too aware then the magic goes away. I disagree. Why not take advantage of all your mind? If you say, ‘It’s magic, I don’t want to think about it,’ that leaves you helpless in front of the page. Nobody wants that.”

Dennis Cass has written for the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, and Slate. He is the author of Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins, 2007). He offers writing advice on his Web site, Dennis Cass Wants You to Be More Awesome.

If you’re experiencing mechanized thought, then the answer might be as simple as going for a walk or reading some poetry. If you’re struggling with functional fixedness, the answer might not be so clear.
We revere and mythologize our great authors, and we present the road to becoming a writer as a long, lonely journey of increasing knowledge and mastery, but what nobody tells you is that you already have all the tools you need.

Beyond Words: Five Writers Who Practice Other Arts


Suzanne Pettypiece


The history of writers who have
found an outlet for inspiration in the visual arts is long and well documented.
Many of the greatest names in literature—from Blake to Dostoevsky, Faulkner to
Proust, Kafka to Updike—made drawings or paintings as well as put words on
paper. But there are many kinds of artistic expression that complement the art
of writing. The five authors profiled here have found inspiration in other
crea-tive endeavors—cooking, photography, book-making, and, yes, painting and
drawing—that feed their literary appetites while continually pushing them to
explore and expand their ideas about art.

Michael Kimball is the author of three novels, an amateur painter,
a documentary filmmaker, and a blogger who lives with his wife in Baltimore and
works as a freelance editor. He began painting after reading an article about
one of his favorite painters in the New Yorker and ever since then has used it as a way to
enhance and sometimes work through issues that crop up in his writing. His
third book, Dear Everybody (Alma Books, 2008), a novel
written mostly as a series of letters by the narrator, who has committed
suicide, was published in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada;
his novel The Way the Family
Got Away
(Four Walls Eight
Windows, 2000) has been translated into five languages. For his ongoing blog,
Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a Postcard), he regularly interviews
people from around the world and condenses their life stories to postcard

Why did you begin painting?
I read an article about [abstract
painter] Barnett Newman and was fascinated by the way he talked about his
painting. It seemed like a metaphor for reading and writing to me. I had all of
this scrap wood in the back of our house and a bunch of leftover latex paint,
so I just tried it and kept going from there.

What type of painting do you
do and when do you do it?

It’s mostly abstract
expressionist stuff. I like a lot of the early abstract expressionists—Newman,
[Mark] Rothko, Hans Hofmann, and some painters today like Mary Heilmann, Sean
Scully. I often will paint when I’m stuck with a piece of writing and think
about how they created effects, how they used shape, color, line, texture to
create not just the image, but a sense of feeling.

Do you feel you’ve found
another voice through painting?

It gives me a new way to think
about fiction—anything from the organization of the book to the narrators of
the book. Because I know so much less about painting, having taught myself, I
can still look at the painting and think, “Well, this doesn’t work,” and I
paint over a painting that already existed. It’s another way to think about
revision; it’s another way to think about creating an effect.

Do you paint as you’re writing
or as you’re revising?

It’s kind of a continuous thing. Dear Everybody is made up of about four hundred
little pieces—a lot of letters from the main narrator, but there are also
diary pieces and newspaper articles. At the same time, I was working on a
painting that’s made up of 225 squares of different colors, and thinking how to
piece all the text together wasn’t unlike thinking about how to piece together
all those squares. Sean Scully does some paintings that look like tic-tac-toe
figures…. He has paintings within paintings where you can see he built a canvas
around another canvas. Structurally, this sort of fit with how I was thinking
about Dear Everybody.

How would you describe your
creative process?

I generally start with an image,
a little bit, a sentence or a feeling. I don’t plan it out, I don’t have a
plot, I don’t think about characters so much. I just have this little thing
that I start with and see where the narrator takes it. I try and figure it out as
I go. Every day is trying to get some number of words down and the next day is
going back and revising those and taking it a little further. Painting is a lot
the same way. I may start with some form or some set of colors, but I keep
working it over and over, and so it becomes layered. My writing involves a lot
of revision. I rework things endlessly. The paintings I’m happier with are the
ones I’ve reworked a lot.

Are there certain periods in
which you dedicate more time to painting or writing?

There are periods when I’ve
finished a draft of a novel and I don’t want to start again. I want to get a
little time away from it. I paint more often when I’m really stuck with
something, when the fiction isn’t working—the time at the keyboard isn’t
fixing what’s wrong with the fiction, and that’s when I walk away and try not
thinking about it explicitly. And when I come back to the fiction, often
there’s a solution.

Do you ever feel pulled
between the painting and the writing?

Every once in a while that
happens, but I’ve kept the painting separate. The writing becomes public. The
paintings almost no one has ever seen unless they come to my house or to the
house of someone I’ve given one of the paintings to. And so it’s more private
in a sense. It’s just a thing I do on my own without any other worry.

What inspired you to do the
life story project?

I’d written a bunch of them at a
performance art festival. People would sit down and I would interview them in
about five minutes and ask them the highlights of their life and what mattered
most to them, what they wanted to do, those sorts of things and they would tell
me and I would write it on the spot for them right there. It was one of the
strangest experiences I ever had as a writer. I was really moved by what and
how much people told me. A week after I did the first bunch at the festival,
one of the people got in touch with me and said that I had taken a dark and
difficult time in her life and made it something manageable. She said it was a
kind of postcard therapy. It sort of broke my heart. Once the blog started, I
started getting requests from all over and it really just grew in a surprising
way. I’ve written almost two hundred of them now.

Have these projects helped to
market your fiction?

The painting doesn’t at all since it’s something I do
and hang on my wall. The postcard project accidentally turned into the best
publicity I could have done. A lot of people came to the blog because of that.
It wasn’t a plan and I don’t think I could think of something like that if I
tried for that purpose. It just happened.

Is there some way in which all
your projects come together for you as a writer?

I like to make things. I’m
happiest when I’m making things. I have found that I can’t write all the time.
If I were to write fiction even eight hours a day, I would be exhausted. But
I’ve found by doing different things, I can do a lot more. By thinking about a
problem with one particular art form it pushes me to think about another art

Five Paintings That Inspire Kimball
Mary Heilmann’s Neo Noir
Alfred Jensen’s My Oneness, a Universe of

Barnett Newman’s The Wild
Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild
Alma Thomas’s Evening Glow

Michelle Wildgen is the author of You’re Not You (Thomas Dunne Books, 2006), a New York Times Editor’s Choice and one of
People magazine’s Ten Best Books
of 2006. A film by Hilary Swank and Denise DiNovi based on the novel is
currently in development. Her second novel, But Not for Long (Thomas Dunne Books), was published last
October. She’s the senior editor of Tin House Magazine and a serious cook, who
lives in Madison, Wisconsin. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s visiting
farmers markets and exotic groceries, as well as finding loopholes in FDA law for
ordering imported cheeses on the Internet.

How does cooking play into your
writing process?

ends up being a really handy thing at the end of the day. There are those times
when you hit your limit of usefulness for the day. You write, you edit, you
generate work, and you’re living in this one little spot of the brain almost
all the time, so it’s a massive release to stand up, to use your hands, to let
your mind wander in the way it does when you’re engaged differently. That’s
usually how I use it—to feel like I’m still accomplishing something
pleasurable in a completely different way.

Do you ever use cooking when you’re
stuck in a certain spot in a story?

cook in the same way that I write. Another good friend of mine is a cook in a
really different way than I am in that he does it very technically; I’ll just
go ahead and make it. Later on I’ll be like, “That didn’t work so well because
I did X, Y, or Z.” I think my writing is the same, where it’s just kind of
giving it a shot, messing with it, and being willing to throw it out if it

Are you the type of writer who has
to work in a certain environment?

usually sit at my really crappy little thirty-dollar Ikea desk. I thought when
we moved [to Wisconsin] that I’d sit and look out my big window at the trees,
but in fact I sit with the shades down. I don’t really notice what’s around me
when I’m working.

Are there
certain periods where you turn more to cooking or more to writing?

the last year I’ve felt like I had really almost no time to write, if I had any
time at all. I still do Tin House, and I picked up another developmental-editor
job and a freelance job and I would still cook from time to time. But when I
was working on revisions of But Not for Long, I was just sitting there telling my husband
to bring me food because there was no time to cook. I was on deadline, just
sitting at my computer. There definitely are periods where it seems to be one
or the other, but usually there is a much more pleasant balance. I’m not
somebody who is even able to write for eight hours a day or write through the
night. I write for four or five hours and I feel like that’s a day well spent.

Do you think having an alternate
interest—something beyond reading, writing, and editing—has made you a better

do. Especially as a fiction writer, you need other tools to build that world
that is not just about…reading and writing. If that was your milieu for
everything you wanted to express, it would be kind of boring. So that’s where
these alternate things come in for any writer. They just give you more tools.
All your characters have to go around and do things. They have to want things
that are material and to live in a sensory world.

You write
fiction, you’re an active cook, you edit for
Tin House, you’re married. How do you balance all of it?
are times when I can do all of it nicely, when I turn from one thing to the
next and I really enjoy the variety, and there are times when something else
comes up and something else just has to fall by the wayside. And I would love
to say that I don’t make myself feel guilty when that happens, but I do.

When you’re stuck with a project or
starting a new one, where do you turn for inspiration?

lot of times it’s writing prompts, the kinds of things your teachers would give
you. One of Anne Lamott’s prompts in Bird by Bird is to write about school lunches. A
lot of times it’s food related. I’ll write about what people eat when no one is
around. What they love to eat or never will. I may never use it, but I like
those personal things that people don’t necessarily share. Forgetting about
whatever plot point I’m trying to do or question I’m trying to answer about a
character—that’s usually what works for me.   

Wildgen’s Favorite Recipe
Pasta With Cauliflower, Olives, and Feta
1/4 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 dried chili peppers, crumbled (or vary the amount, to taste)
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (I like to puree these by
putting a little handheld immersion blender into the opened can, but you don’t have to. However, don’t use a heavy canned tomato puree—it won’t have the
lighter, fresher taste of the diced ones in juice, which you want.)
salt and pepper, to taste
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
1 pound short pasta, such as ziti or penne
1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, basil, tarragon, or
a big handful (maybe 3/4 cup, or more if you like) of Sicilian
green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup crumbled feta, or more or less to taste

1. Heat a large
pot of salted water to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, in
another heavy-bottomed, wide pan, heat olive oil over medium heat and add
garlic and chili pepper. Cook, stirring now and then, until garlic is golden
but not browned. Add the tomatoes, some salt and pepper, and let it simmer for
a few minutes. Then add the cauliflower pieces, lower the heat a bit, and
cover. Ideally, you should add the cauliflower about the same time as you add
the pasta to the boiling water. When the cauliflower is tender, you’re ready to

3. Drain the pasta
when it still feels a little firm, because you’re going to finish it off in the
hot tomato sauce. Add the pasta to the pan of tomato-cauliflower sauce and toss
well. Add the fresh herbs and toss again, then add your olives and toss once
more. When you serve the pasta, scatter the cheese over the top of the bowls.
You may want to wait to taste before you add any more salt, since the olives
and feta will be salty too. Serves 5–6.

Jesse Ball is the author of the poetry collection March Book (Grove Press, 2004) and two novels, The Way Through Doors (Vintage, 2009) and Samedi the Deafness (Vintage, 2007). He was awarded the 2008
Plimpton Prize for his story “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and
Carr,” and a book of poetry and prose, The Village on Horseback, is forthcoming
in 2010 from Milkweed Editions. Ball also has illustrated books. He and his
wife, Icelandic poet Thordis Björnsdottir, coauthored The Disastrous Tale of Vera and Linus, a haunting story about a
sinister couple, which features sketches by Ball and was published by the
Icelandic press Nýhil in 2006. He also illustrated Björnsdottir’s book
of poetry Og svo kom nóttin (And Then Came
the Night), published by Nýhil in 2006. He teaches unconventionally
themed creative writing courses—some of which explore such topics as walking
and lying—at the School of the Art
Institute of Chicago

Did you start
drawing before or after you began writing?

I’ve always done a lot of drawing. Even as a very
small child I did lots of drawing. I drew monsters—sort of spiky monster guys
with little legs and arms. At that time I decided I was going to write a letter
to the Queen of England, so I did. The contents of the letter was mostly
drawings of monsters. A year passed and I got a reply from the lady-in-waiting
to the Queen saying that the Queen liked the monsters very much. I consider her
my first patron, and that gave me the encouragement I needed. Despite years of
discouragement thereafter, nobody could stop me from drawing, because the Queen
told me it was fine.

When I was a little older
than that, I had this big problem with my other types of drawings, landscapes
with stuff flying around. I would just keep drawing and drawing on top of them.
I guess they call it perseveration. I would draw a full drawing then draw
another one on top of that and another one on top of that and another one on
top of that until the whole paper was filled.

Drawing is something I do,
in terms of the writing, because I feel like the drawings give another
indication of the situation of the work, and that can help people understand my
work better. But I make no claims to be a good artist.

How did you come to illustrate your
wife’s book?

had an offer for a poetry book and there were drawings that I was thinking of
doing, so we decided to combine them….
I did some of the drawings after the poems, and she did some of the poems after
the drawings.

Do any of your drawings or writings
inspire one another?

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever written something from a
drawing, but I think for me the drawing is closely linked to handwriting, which
is a very important thing for me. There are some people, like Rudolf
Steiner—you know, the guy who did the Waldorf education system? He has a lot
of stuff on handwriting and how a person should develop it. I like to keep
journals, so I’m always thinking about my handwriting and changing it through
the years and stealing new ways of doing letters from people that I like. I
think the drawing and the handwriting are very linked because as my handwriting
changes, my drawing also changes.

Does concentrating on the
handwriting tie into your discipline as a writer?

Every way in which you can examine your practice and
heighten it and move forward with it gives energy to the whole rest of your
practice. So a small thing like changing the handwriting ends up easing the way
toward other things.

How do feel
about your drawings appearing in published books, if you don’t consider
yourself a good artist?

I’m very fond of the guys that I’ve made. But their
purpose is less for someone to look at them and think, “This is so
magnificent,” and more to get a feeling of that drawing’s position and
representational space and what it’s intended to do. From that person’s sense
of the position of a drawing, they can apply it to many other things within the
work and get a vector of the work.

You write novels in a concentrated
time period. How do you fill the voids between writing spurts?

I have a journal that I keep. I write things down. An
example: I’m walking down the street and out of the corner of my eye I see
somebody wearing pajamas and running around with a really large carrot; I get
excited and write down “man with pajamas, carrot.” By and large that’s the
writing process that goes on in between books. I believe that writing is a
product of the perception you evolve as a writer.

As a writer do you feel like you
have to be in a certain place to accomplish this?

I really like cafés in a country where my speaking of
the language is bad enough that I have to concentrate [to understand it], so
then you get this pleasant din of voices around you and you can write

How does your teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago tie in?
In my teaching I try to get into people’s practice and
help rearrange it in a way that creates more work. Usually what stops writers
from writing is some kind of poorly laid-out practice that causes them to get
tired really quickly—to not want to write. You could be a great writer but if
you don’t have it orchestrated so that you want to write, then you’re not going
to produce anything.

While you were in college at Vassar
you assembled your books and distributed them yourself.

When you write you don’t want to surrender to a
publishing company the moment when a book is judged to be a book or not a book.
You decide if it’s a book or not a book, no one else does. That’s your
prerogative as the writer. If you imagine yourself in a postapocalyptic world
where—somehow you managed to survive—you’re in this log cabin and there’s a
little printing press there, you’re writing these books. You produce a book.
Then it’s a book. You just made a book. That kind of agency you want to have
always. Whether you’re in a postapocalyptic cabin or in your life now. You
should never surrender that.

In terms of giving the
manuscript out as a little book to people, for poets of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries sometimes their audience was just the few friends they
managed to pass the book out to. You’re no less a writer. As soon as someone
makes a book and gives it to someone else, that’s the whole thing. There isn’t
anything to be added to it.

is the author of three critically acclaimed novels: That Summer in Paris (Nan
A. Talese, 2006), Babyji
(Anchor Books, 2005), which was recently optioned for film, and Miniplanner (Cleis Press,
2000). Her most recent novel, Family
, was published by Penguin Books India last year. She is the
recipient of the 2006 American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award, a
2005 Lambda Literary Award, and a New York Foundation
for the Arts fiction fellowship. She was short-listed for the Prix Médicis
Étranger, Prix Femina Étranger, and the Prix Bel Ami in France. Her
photography, drawings, and paintings have been exhibited in galleries and
museums all over the world. She lives in New York City.

You take photographs, draw, and
paint. Do you consider these other art forms as support for the writing or do
you regard them all as separate endeavors, offering you different creative
outlets as an artist?

impulse for different art forms comes from different places; they are unique
creative outlets that allow for diverse expression. There have been times when
I’m working on a novel and have to actually forbid myself from doing art
because it would eat too much time. A novel takes stamina and the rewards are
delayed; art is appealing because it promises short-term fulfillment, and I’m
afraid sometimes that I’ll get so involved my writing will grind to a halt.

I do consider myself a
writer first—partly because I have always written and also because it is my
major activity in terms of the time I consecrate to it. I have memories of
writing as early as the time I was eight. Photography came into my life later,
in school; painting imposed itself in my twenties and drawing in my thirties.
Video came to me eventually as an extension of photography. I sometimes mix
these media. I am hoping to realize a project, time permitting, where I would
use video along with photography and a lot of text to produce a whimsical but
factual autobiography.

As a writer, what’s your creative
process like—from the initial inspiration to the revision process?

Each book has gone through a different process. With
my most recent novel, Family Values, I knew that
the palette of the book would be black, white, and gray rather than color. This
was true from the very first pages all the way through until the last revision.
With That Summer in Paris my prose was
very much under the spell of the French language. I am currently working on a
book that is structured like a spider’s web (or the worldwide one, there are
many similarities). Every short chapter seems to begin anew but adds to the
story; the narrative returns again and again to its themes, though with each
iteration the theme is changed. With this book, I actually drew the structure
at different stages. In the beginning it seemed more like a book in three parts
made of three interconnected anthills, but when the real structure was revealed
there was a certain simplicity and logic to it that wasn’t there with the other
forms I had mapped. Sometimes, for me, writing is about making conscious what I
already know.

Explain what you mean by describing
Family Values as having a palette of black, white, and gray.
is very little color in the book for a story that takes place in one of the
world’s most colorful countries [India]. In its mood as well as its moral
ambiance, there are shades of black, white, and gray. While writing the book I
internally thought of it very much in black-and-white images; when color
appears it is exceptional. In a similar vein it eschews all exoticism: There
are no saris and no spices, not even proper names. Detail lies instead in the
microscopic description of sounds and odors, in human things related to our flesh
that are universal. 

How does your photography play into
your creative process as a writer?

my first novel, Miniplanner, set in New York City, the speed of the
narrative is akin to a hasty taxi ride; when a cab is in motion, some images
take on a certain stillness and crystallize as photographs, while others escape
memory. The novel was imagined in this vein with some of the more important
scenes having an almost photographic quality.  

In That Summer in
photography became my
major source of note taking. I photographed almost every corner that happens to
come up in the narrative of my novel and used the photographs to evoke the
place for me while I was writing. Instead of keeping notes by hand, I kept a
visual journal. Using a notebook as an aid to the novel means that the
experience has already been filtered at first through verbal consciousness. I
found that maintaining a photo journal meant preserving the scene fresh for my
novel. I, the person, didn’t come in to verbalize, interpret, and intellectualize
the scene—something that happens by default while writing. Instead, the
novelist, while writing the narrative, saw the photos and was able to go back
directly, perceptually, into the experience, which is to say, access the
experience through the characters.

Photography is the only
art form in which I have some training. I’ve not trained in the other visual
arts or even creative writing. I started working a camera and developing my
pictures while I was in school in India and my own memory works in still images
and photos. When I evoke India, as I did in Babyji or Family Values, it’s always this mental album that rolls in my head—still photographs
in either black and white or color that capture street corners, faces, moments.
My mind’s eye plays less like a movie than a series of still images. The
narrative of the novel provides the motion, the emotions, and the

Five Photographers Dawesar Recommends


is a poet and visual artist whose work is inspired by language and
books. Her poetry books include Under What
Is Not Under
(Potes & Poets Press, 2000), Nets (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004), A Non-Breaking Space (Ugly Duckling Presse,
2005), and The Desert (Granary Books,
2008), an erasure poem machine sewn with over five thousand yards of pale blue
thread. It was released in forty artist-book editions, which sell for four
thousand dollars each. Her visual installation The Dickinson Fascicles was constructed on eight-by-six-foot quilts and
reveals the patterns that formed when the stray crosses and lines from Emily
Dickinson’s original manuscripts—marks later removed by editors of her
poems—are presented intact. She’s an editor-at-large for Jubilat, and splits her time
between New York City and Seattle.

Tell me about
how you first became a poet and a visual artist. What first inspired you?

I started out as a visual artist. I had finished my BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when I
started most seriously getting involved in poetry. I’d been a reader prior to
that, but I started to feel as if a lot of the work I was making was pointing
toward that form of expression. I needed to understand better how to write
poems to understand what I was doing in my visual art.

What projects
were you working on that were pointing toward poetry?

I was working on video installations, and they all
seemed to be about language in one way or another. I think I actually made a
small prototype of a book for one of those installations, and thought, “Oh, I
need to be able to talk to writers about this.”

What is your creative process as a poet?
different with every book, but everything I do takes a long, long time. A lot
of the editing happens over many, many passes, and a piece or a poem accrues
over a long span of time too. That might be concurrent with a visual project or
an interdisciplinary project. I usually have maybe three or four sort of
big-flow things going at a time.

Tell me about The Desert.
The first chapter of The Desert was composed as an occasional poem. I was invited on
the Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour, and one of the readings was at Roden Crater.
James Turrell’s piece in Arizona is a major artwork inside a giant crater. It’s
very rare to have access to it. And I wanted to write a poem both to thank them
for the invitation to see it and also to honor Turrell.

I was in France before
that tour and was working on the Dickinson quilts and had a borrowed sewing
machine that could do a zigzag stitch. I [usually] use really old sewing
machines that basically go straight forward. So it was a new option that I had
available. Also Joshua Beckman, who was one of the organizers of the tour, had
done a book called There Is an Ocean, which I love, so I thought about composing a poem using his method of
zigzag stitching over the words.

I tried that first
chapter, and it had its own life. When I got going with the book, all the
future drafts I did were sewn drafts. It was important to me in writing the
poem that the composition process deeply affect the writing of it, so I didn’t
want to cross out, to work in a mode other than the one I was “writing in.” I
think there are three or four drafts. Some chapters were redrafted more than
that. That happened pretty intensively. I did 130 pages of the book through
multiple drafts.

It takes a
long time to write a poem, let alone sew one. How does it feel as a writer to
add that extra challenge to the process?

I feel every writer spends that much time writing a
book; it’s just more manifest in The Desert. They might
not spend sixteen hundred hours sewing or printing their book, but I think most
writers spend that much time writing. It just doesn’t look like it when the
book is published.

What do you
gain as a poet by using this technique?

that technique in particular, I made rules for myself. Like if I sewed over a
word, I didn’t get to take it back. So when I was composing the poem, I had to
stay very, very present as a reader and as a writer when I was sewing, because
I would lose a possibility really quickly. The machine would just go right over
a phrase and I didn’t have that option anymore. It became a real exercise in
attention in that sense. I couldn’t not pay attention and have the best
possibilities for the poem even though it was a mechanical process.

Is there any overlap among your
projects? Has one inspired the other?

There’s a lot of overlap. I’ve been working on a scale
model of the Mississippi River. It’s hand sewn in sequence, and when it’s
finished it will be close to three hundred feet long. I started that in 2006
while I was still working on the quilts, before I wrote The Desert. Since then I’ve written
another book called “The Niagara Book” and another chapbook called “You Are
Vast Unto Others.” I think in all of those works the river is present. Not in
the quilts, but in The Desert there’s a
chapter called “The Silent River.” There’s a poem I wrote called “Phoenix”
that’s very much about the hanging water. In “The Niagara Book” there’s a lot
of reference to the river. The practices rarely separate themselves out. The
river looks separate but it’s not separate. And the poems, even when they’re
just words on a page, look separate but they’re not.

How does the
time you spend making visual artwork compare with the time you spend writing

moves back and forth a bit. For example, in August when I was working on the
river at a residency, I listened to poetry all day long. So if you’re listening
to Ovid day in and day out while you’re sewing, it’s not like you’re not doing
poetry. If you’re memorizing, listening, then reading and trying to recite
another poet’s work, you’re still actively engaged; it’s just a different kind
of engagement.

How do you think the life of an
artist who writes and is also immersed in another art form compares with that
of a writer who only writes?

The one thing I’d say is I think how I conceive of a
project and its boundaries or lack of limitations is really specific to
visual-art training and to artist books; they’re both super wide open in terms
of how formally things are framed. You can have that within a very traditional
collection of poems too, but I think as writers the forms are very codified:
There’s the short form, the broadside, and the slightly longer form, the
chapbook, and then there’s the sixty-five-page collection. If I could only
think of the work I’m doing in those terms, it would be a very different
experience. I don’t think I would fit as a poet, if those were my only avenues.
I guess I feel delimited.

A lot of writers have a hard time
sitting down to write. Does expressing yourself in all these different avenues
help with discipline as a writer as well?

think it comes out of just loving, really loving, what you’re doing. It doesn’t
feel like discipline. It just feels like getting to do the things you want to
do most.  

Five Visual Artists Who Inspire Bervin
Von Mertens

Suzanne Pettypiece is the managing editor of Poets &
Writers Magazine.

Get Up, Stand Up for Your Writing


John Moir


In his book How to Write: Advice and Reflections (Morrow,
1995), Pulitzer Prize–winning author Richard Rhodes recounts how he once
worked for Conrad Knickerbocker, an editor with a single, rather colorful rule
for achieving writing success: “Apply your butt to a chair.” While producing
accomplished poetry and prose demands infinitely more of us than simply resting
on our posterior, the Knickerbocker Rule does convey a fundamental truth:
Everything we do begins with sitting down to write.

But do we really need to sit? The hundreds of hours we spend hunched
over a keyboard can exact an insidious physical toll, tightening our muscles
and ossifying our joints. Our shoulders slope, our necks kink, our jaws clench,
our backs ache, the joints in our hips and legs lose mobility. Moreover,
sitting down to write—floating in a semi-quadriplegic state, breathing
shallow breaths, moving only our eyes to track the cursors on our
screens—can actually lead to a decline in mental acumen.

Two years ago, I read how
Ernest Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast (Scribner, 1964) at a stand-up desk in his room in Cuba. I soon
discovered a number of other well-known people—not just authors—who
stood up to write, including Winston Churchill, Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson,
Virginia Woolf, and John Dos Passos. I decided to give it a try.

My stand-up desk
is simple. A friend helped me attach a one-inch-thick piece of white shelving
to a wall in my writing studio. It measures eighteen by forty-eight
inches-plenty of room to hold my work. A trip to the lumber store plus an
hour’s effort and my new desk was ready to go. I now stand to write my first
drafts in longhand, and to edit and rewrite printouts of current drafts. I
stand for phone calls and I stand when I’m reading research material. All in
all, I stand for about 40 percent of my writing work.

Of course, I still like to sit some of the time, so I’ve
retained my traditional chair-desk-computer setup. I have discovered that
frequent changes in position—from sitting to standing and back again—help
maintain mental acuity and physical fitness. Installing the stand-up desk also
provided an unexpected advantage: an additional work area. I now have a handy
space to spread out my rough drafts and reference notes.

If price is no object, you
can do a quick online search and order a stand-up desk to suit your needs. To
meet the growing demand, many companies now offer a variety of options, from
the mundane to the magnificent. Stand-up desks often have an open-frame design
without drawers, although many models have hinged desktops with storage space
underneath. Some stand-up desks even sport a foot rail.

An alternative is to buy an adjustable computer desk and
elevate it high enough to use while standing. Another option is to store a
portable lectern under your regular desk. When you want to stand, place the
lectern on top of your sit-down desk and you are ready to work.

The wisdom of Conrad
Knickerbocker’s advice is that we need to carve out time to write. With a stand-up desk, we can add a
corollary to the Knickerbocker Rule: To achieve writing success, apply your
feet to the floor.

John Moir is the author of Return of the Condor: The Race to Save Our Largest Bird From Extinction (Lyons Press, 2006). His Web site is

Sitting down to write—floating in a semi-quadriplegic state, breathing shallow breaths, moving only our eyes to track the cursors on our screens—can actually lead to a decline in mental acumen.

Send Us Your Photos


Do you have a special place where you sit down (or stand up) to write
every day? Whether it’s a traditional desk surrounded by your favorite
books, a little space cleared away at the kitchen table, or a slightly
more exotic locale, send us a photograph of it.

Poets & Writers Magazine is looking for photographs from readers for a potential slideshow at If you’d like to submit, send your images electronically, set to 300 dpi and saved as a jpeg, to Include your full name and city and state of residence in the e-mail. Type “My Writing Space” in the subject line.

Due to the nature of this project and our limited
budget as a nonprofit, we will not be able to
pay for usage of your photographs. By submitting to
this call for photographs, you are confirming that you own the copyright to
the images and can grant usage, and that you are agreeing to allow Poets & Writers Magazine to publish your photograph(s) in an online slideshow of writing spaces.

Improvisers and Revisers: An Experiment in Spontaneity


Ken Gordon


It took a long time to write these words. I’m not referring to the psychosomatic affliction known as writer’s block. I mean the delays caused by the process of composition and revision. The clichés I’ve killed! The drafts I’ve lost! The existence of this page—this paragraph—is a marvelous feat of Darwinian staying power. It has gone through so many minor and major tweaks that I can barely recall what it looked like when I began (on December 11, 2005, at 8:14 P.M., to be precise). The road from rough draft to final manuscript was a lengthy, indirect one, with so many wrong turns that I feel carsick just glancing back in the rearview mirror.

In her essay “Education of the Poet,” from Proofs & Theories (Ecco Press, 1994), Louise Glück asserts that “most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: wanting to write, being unable to write; wanting to write differently, being unable to write differently. In a whole lifetime, years are spent waiting to be claimed by an idea. The only real exercise of the will is negative: we have toward what we write the power of veto.” Writers don’t get just one shot at putting words down correctly. It’s not like having to hit a professionally pitched baseball. It is in the nature of the literary arts to revise. You get far more than three strikes in writing; you can have three hundred, if you need them. When asked about revision, Ernest Hemingway said, “I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.” I use the same labor-intensive approach, and so do almost all the writers I admire.

The goal of all this revision? To create a coherent human voice, or even a chorus of voices, so that when a reader picks up the work, it seems a form of spontaneous generation, in which sentences arrive one perfect word after another. When this succeeds, the reader believes in the writer’s authority. As Buddy Glass, the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction (Little, Brown, 1963), says, “We read, and usually we believe; good, bad, or indifferent, any string of English words holds our attention as if it came from Prospero himself.”

But the real Prosperos are improvisers—the artists, musicians, comedians, and writers whose compositions seem to erupt fully realized from the mind or mouth or instrument. The artifice of most literary composition is, when you think about it, a little embarrassing when compared to what professional improvisers do. Pianist Keith Jarrett, for instance, performs entire concerts, entire albums, off the top of his head. Most writers are engaged in a relatively safe and easy task—we face nothing like the kind of threats (hecklers, immediate public humiliation) known to the onstage extemporizer. We operate in slow-motion, crawling at a dial-up pace compared to the cable-modem speed of the improvisers. They walk onstage and dare to make visible everything that they’ve ever learned—and then to learn even more right there in front of an audience. This takes courage, a willingness to test oneself in the most extreme circumstances. Nothing gets erased in a live performance. You have to succeed with every word, every note. But if you do go flat or sharp, you must ride your mistake until its ultimate, and ultimately beautiful, conclusion. In fact, true improvisation requires the sort of solipsistic fortitude that mopey Stephen Dedalus suggests in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” To improvise is to court error, and to trust that your own artistry will prevail.

Improvisation is often miscast, in the drama of our cultural life, as the slow second cousin of Thoughtful Composition. It’s nothing more serious than an ad-lib here, a Freudian blurt there. The negative definition of the term asserts that all improvisers work from impulse rather than from intellect, and that the idea of spontaneous expression is too messy a business to bother with. Far better, argues the anti-improv school, for Apollonian order to impose a sort of rhetorical martial law on human expression.

Consider Harold Bloom’s remarks about “Spontaneous Me,” a poem by Walt Whitman. “Whitman is no improviser,” opines the critic. “His artistry reflects conscious study of his precursors in the language, despite his American nationalist ambivalence toward British tradition.” This insinuates that an improviser is someone who operates without cultural knowledge, who works directly out of his own, impoverished self. It’s a radically unfair characterization. I’d argue that improvisation involves exactly the sort of awareness that Bloom recognizes in Whitman. Think of the relentless wit of Robin Williams, the adventurous saxophone solos of Sonny Rollins. These men deliver remarkably thoughtful (and thought-provoking) performances, their minds churning at incredible speeds, making aesthetic calculations at an unthinkably rapid pace.

Of course, there are poor improvisers, those for whom an off-the-cuff performance is a goulash of sloppy thinking and cliché served up with little thought for its ultimate consumption. No one, for instance, wants to hear an unskilled high school jam band pounding away in the garage next door. But before judging them, consider that much of humanity falls into this “poor improviser” category, including writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote the following exchange in a 1962 self-interview:

Q: I notice you “haw” and “er” a great deal. Is it a sign of approaching senility?

A: Not at all. I have always been a wretched speaker. My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a miracle. I have rewrittenoften several timesevery word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.

Still, when it comes to on-the-fly expression, not everyone is a Nabokov. According to William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde was a great improviser. “My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment,” Yeats wrote in his Autobiographies (Macmillan, 1926). “I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous.” In our own day, essayist and editor Anne Fadiman speaks with superhuman lucidity. And John Updike. After watching a documentary on Updike, Nicholson Baker wrote that “he tossed down to us some startlingly lucid felicity, something about ‘these small yearly duties which blah blah blah,’ and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!” Baker’s evident envy and annoyance are understandable. His comment underlines just how rare accomplished improvisers are.

But maybe they aren’t as rare as we are led to believe. Maybe there just isn’t a good place for spontaneous expression and our nation’s supreme literary talent to meet. What would such a place be like, one where the very best writers could see if their first thoughts truly were their best thoughts?

A possible answer came to me the day I stubbed my literary toe on The Imperfect Art (Oxford University Press, 1988), Ted Gioia’s book on jazz and modern culture. In the title essay, Gioia explains how essential improvisation was to jazz by asking the reader to conceive “what twentieth-century art would be like if other art forms placed an equal emphasis on improvisation.” Imagine, he writes, T.S. Eliot “giving nightly poetry readings at which, rather than reciting set pieces, he was expected to create impromptu poems—different ones each night, sometimes recited at a fast clip.”

After a good little laugh, I thought about the notion of spontaneity in literature. Sometimes, spontaneity is a necessary ingredient (think of the huge popularity of the Beat generation’s improvisational style or how much energy and excitement are produced at a single poetry slam), but it doesn’t take long for most readers to demand some aesthetic law and order. Truman Capote wittily expressed this distrust of improvisation when he characterized Jack Kerouac’s work as typing, not writing.

Then, after a keyword search on Google (our digital Virgil), I found an interview in which Robert Pinsky remarked, “There are literally improvisatory poets, that is, people who compose very quickly and don’t revise much. Frank O’Hara, I think it’s in “Personism: A Manifesto,” says that he likes to sit down and play the typewriter for an hour or two after breakfast. Very few people have that kind of ease.”

I wondered, “Could O’Hara’s sort of ease be learned?” My hunch was that truly talented poets, if put to the test, could write with O’Hara’s efficiency and focus. My mind then shifted to the immediacy of blogs and the off-the-cuff creativity of TV shows like Iron Chef America, and I cooked up a strange idea.

I would create a Web site that could serve as a forum in which some of our best poets would be given just one hour in which to write a poem on an assigned topic. The results of each contest would then be considered by a notable judge (a critic or editor), who would pick a winner and write a commentary on the works. Perhaps readers could vote for their favorite poem. I was hoping to access what Gioia describes as the pleasures of improvised art: “We enjoy improvisation because we take enormous satisfaction in seeing what a great musical mind can create spontaneously. We are interested in what the artist can do, given the constraints of his art.” Could a Web site such as the one I envisioned bring some spontaneous energy to contemporary poetry?

The real Prosperos are improvisers—the artists, musicians, comedians, and writers whose compositions seem to erupt fully realized from the mind or mouth or instrument.

The first step was to involve some talented people in my experiment. Remembering the success of Robert Pinsky’s online Favorite Poem Project-an open call for readers to share the poems they love, and the reasons for their choices-I asked the former poet laureate to participate. He was, to my great pleasure and surprise, interested. “But,” he added, “an hour is way too long. That’s not improvising, it’s rapid composition. Five or ten minutes would be more like it. Maybe one minute.”

I worried when I read this. This “spontaneous composition” stuff would be new for a lot of poets. Would they be able to come up with the goods on such short notice? If not, would my experiment be a pure embarrassment? Alice Quinn, poetry editor of the New Yorker, echoed my own reservations when, after receiving my invitation, she wrote, “I might be interested in participating. I’d certainly be interested in seeing the results of the early ‘contests.’ May I get a feeling for this before I commit?”

But the best response came from poet Thylias Moss. I e-mailed her on Friday, January 13, at 7:55 P.M. Five minutes later, I had her reply:

I’m in
even without the lure
of competition, possibility of quick-fix victory
I’m in

the chance for a poem to find its audience fast
for my words to not have as much time to stale, pale

lose the relevance of the moment
to which it belongs —why I’d even allow

glimpses of the poem unfolding, line by line, word by word
poem emerges onto the web.

This was what I was looking for: poetry at the speed of light. Round One clearly went to Moss, and my hopes for this experiment, which had dimmed here and there, were suddenly incandescent. I slowly became aware, however, that it might not be for everyone. Writers who are unused to extemporizing, whose sense of self and professional status have almost nothing to do with spontaneous composition, may not take kindly to the suggestion that they wing it for a few minutes, “live,” on the Internet. In fact, they just might get defensive.

My first intimation of this came in the form of an e-mail, on January 14, from Anne Fadiman. I’d asked her to be a judge because for seven years she edited the American Scholar—the literary quarterly described by the New York Times as “an intellectual giant”—but she politely declined (“I wouldn’t be a good judge.because I’m neither a poet nor a critic of poetry”). Then she added a surprising note: “The premise that someone must lose each time may be a challenge for well-known writers who have the literary equivalent of an unbeaten record. Their willingness to participate will be in direct proportion to their degree of security.”

Still optimistic about my experiment, I sort of ignored this idea. I thought of Iron Chef America, and how each week a world-renowned chef loses to another, with what appears to be true adult equanimity. I decided that this kind of grace under pressure was a byproduct of the agonistic process: Once poets began competing, they would realize the appropriate way to behave should they lose—and that there was always the possibility of a rematch. Plus, the people who had expressed an interest in this project were accomplished professionals, and I was certain of their talent and self-confidence. Surely, they understood that this wouldn’t be an exercise in self-congratulation—the sort of easy adulation that comes to famous poets at their readings—but a competition.

Then came a shocking response from Andrei Codrescu, a poet, novelist, and essayist whose work I quite admire. His e-mail, containing the subject line “oh boy,” originally landed in my Junk Mail folder:

I find the whole idea exhausting, not because it’s not possibly entertaining, but because it’s time-consuming. It’s also sort of silly, ultimately, since these kinds of contests go on hourly now on the net and in cafés, and I don’t see what can be gained by it. An insight into spontaneity? It’s there. I’m sure. I practice it like everybody else every minute. Make poets faster? There are a million poets out there, slow and fast. Or is it a sinister attempt to make “name” poets act like kids on speed? Actually, now [that] I’ve thought of it, it’s not even entertaining.

Clearly, the idea of holding a public competition of improvisational writing isn’t for some poets—for example, those for whom art making, in Wordsworth’s phrase, is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Former poet laureate Mark Strand, who also declined to participate, put it this way: “I write so slowly, so laboriously, each poem sometimes going through forty or fifty drafts before it is finished, that I wouldn’t be a candidate for an improvisational mano a mano. I like rewriting and don’t trust anything that comes spontaneously. It is just my way. Others may have their ways. More power to them.”

And power, poetic power, is what it’s all about. Whether you get yours from polished, printed poetry or a bit of virtual inspiration is not important; what we all want, as readers, is the best our writers have to offer. I don’t know if an online improvisational competition is the answer, whether it could inspire our great poets (the great poets who agree to participate, anyway) to produce their best work—or not. But I think it’s time to find out.

This project, which is still in the planning stages, has taught me that improvisation and revision are subjects worth thinking about. Hopefully, it will lead other people, those of the various aesthetic ideologies, to think about the way they compose. Perhaps this modest online experiment will prompt skeptics to try improvisation themselves, or even encourage unscripted scribblers to take a second look at the idea of revision. I realize that the lesson learned might turn out to be “abandon revision at your own risk,” but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. Actually, it’s a risk I’m willing to have some wonderful poets take too—Thylias Moss, for instance, who e-mailed the other day to say that, while revision is helpful in smoothing out wrinkles (“I too look smoother after a session with cosmetics”), she prefers the “irregular, / ruined states and their greater variety along the stages of ruin.”

And so I doff my reviser’s visor to these brave writers. I’m reminded of a line from Jack Kerouac’s most famous stretch of typing, On the Road: “Their energies met head-on, I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them.”

Ken Gordon, the editor of, contributes to such publications as the Boston Globe Magazine and the New York Times.

Writer as Parent: No More Aching to Be an Artist


Dan Barden


About two years ago my wife opened a general interest independent bookstore—the first our city has had in ten years—and most of the parenting of our baby boy fell to me. This made sense, as my writer-professor schedule is relatively flexible, whereas the bookstore often requires fifteen-hour days. Since then, navigating time and energy and inspiration has been both a nightmare and a joy. And when I say “nightmare,” I mean nightmare. Fortunately, when I say “joy,” I also mean joy.

At this moment, my son is crawling over my body toward the page I’m writing on. I abandoned my laptop about a half hour ago because that’s not a tug of war you want to have. He says he needs to “take it [my notebook] back to the library,” and, just now, he started licking the page. He’s in bed with me because he “no like” his own bed. This would all be pretty funny if I weren’t on deadline and it didn’t sometimes make me want to throw myself out the window. Did I say “sometimes”? More like, several times a week. And dig this: My son is the most accommodating, generous, and lovely child I’ve ever met. Really.

Parenting is no doubt difficult for people in all professions, but I believe there are special challenges for writers. First of all, there’s the matter of time: You no longer have any. Those long afternoons spent pacing beside your desk, thinking to yourself, “Should my story be told in the third person or first person? Is the main character’s name Jimmy Timberson or Jimmy Tomberson?” are gone. You pretty quickly start spending your life scrambling for a free moment to write. I’m always more or less wondering when my son will take a nap. And if he does nap, where is my computer? And if my computer is nearby, can I let the dishes and the laundry slide?

Not only is there no time, but there’s precious little space. And by that I mean both in the world and in my head. The attic office where I’m working right now is a good example: Once easily recognizable as a writer’s nest, now it looks like a playroom with a laptop in the middle. Matchbox cars will soon wage their war against the books.

When I asked a friend how it felt to be a mother, she said it was like she was exactly the same person except now she was a new species. I’ll endorse that. My new species is characterized by always being in two places at the same time: I am with me, but I am also with my son. I am wondering about my life, but I’m wondering more about his. “Do I have the notes that Bill gave me about chapter 4?” is always trumped by “Did I remember to get the diapers?” “How much exercise am I getting?” is always trumped by “How much exercise is he getting?” It’s not like my ego has disappeared (God, no), but it’s been overrun by vastly larger concerns. At any moment, no matter what I am focusing on, it can be swept away by anything that the boy needs. This is, in fact, the way it’s supposed to be. But sometimes it’s hell on the book, which used to be the only demanding toddler in my life.

My writing had always been the thing that completely absorbed me. Walking down the street, having a conversation with my wife, getting angry about some perceived slight—this was my life, but it was also what I wrote about. Now, instead of wondering how any given situation will impact my work, I wonder how it will impact my son. If, as Dr. Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” I am certainly no longer a blockhead. I expect to be paid for my work because, to put it quaintly, baby needs new shoes. I also engage in a lot less of what my wife calls “aching to be an artist.” That kind of self-torture has never been particularly productive for me, and these days it just seems silly. Now I can imagine many worse things than writing poorly: Prose stylists don’t matter in a pediatric emergency room.

There are plenty of similarities between parenting and writing. For example, it’s not success that ultimately defines you but getting by. As I enjoy telling my students, the guy who writes technical manuals for Motorola has a lot in common with Philip Roth: Both he and Mr. Roth get their sentences published. I think of myself as a novelist because I’ve written something like ten novels. How many have I published? One. When I ask someone to read a manuscript, I don’t say, “How good is it?” I say, “Does this work?” Especially with small children, it’s a farce to believe that it matters whether they end up going to Yale or the Truckmasters School of Trucking. What’s important is that they: (a) survive your care, (b) become at least as socialized as you are, and (c) still want to talk to you when they’re adults.

Another similarity between writing and parenthood is the way in which your accomplishment disappears into the accomplishment. Some days, this is the thing that mostupsets me—that way in which, if you do your job well, it will seem effortless. This, of course, is the test of a successful piece of writing—that none of the seams show. Even the people who think they know how hard you worked don’t have a clue. With parenting, it’s the same deal. In my world, where a three-year-old can make the logistics of a morning shower as difficult as a trip to the moon, why doesn’t anyone give me credit for being clean? For getting to work? For keeping food in the house? As proud as I am of my new book, I’m a little prouder that I can remove and re-install my son’s car seat in less than five minutes. Or how about the fact that he walks and talks and doesn’t poke anyone with sharp objects? Why isn’t there an award for that?

Just now, in the bed beside me, my son has had an attack of existential pain. He’s tired and his face is screwed up like a fist. It’s my fault: I haven’t yet fixed the spider that he made in preschool today. So I go upstairs, retrieve the last roll of Scotch tape (note to self: Scotch tape is essential to father-son harmony. GET MORE!) and I tape the black yarn once again to the back of the paper plate. Then, being careful that he can see every move I make, I also reattach that eighth leg that ripped off when we got out of the car this afternoon. Then I ask my buddy where he’d like the “scary spider” to hang. He says on the door handle so “Mommy can see it when she comes home from the bookstore.” The look of absolute joy and relief on his face, I’m embarrassed to tell you, makes everything else that has happened today disappear. And this is another problem with being a parent-writer. Who wants to take the time to write a novel when you can get just as much satisfaction from reattaching the eighth leg of your son’s spider?

When I queried my parent-writer friends about this issue, I was shocked by how quickly everyone responded, and I decided to read all the e-mails in one sitting. This session left me feeling a sort of gorgeous despair. There was a grandeur to our experience that was like reading letters from some besieged fortification—the Alamo, maybe, or Masada—where everyone accepted defeat but still believed in the glory of the cause. My friends shared with me a kind of inspired cluelessness that speaks not only to the experience of parenthood but also to the experience of writing. These people are very, very good writers, and yet they wrote humbly about their inability to answer my questions in a way that made sense even to them.

Some of the writers seemed a little angry, a response that I’m well equipped to understand. Steven Rinehart, the father of three children and author of two books, told me that he wrote an entire novel “out of being pissed off at forty-year-old single guys seemingly being the spokesmen of our generation.” As an act of revenge, he made the main character of his novel “pay for their sins.” Read his excellently frightening take on fatherhood, Built in a Day (Doubleday, 2003), and you’ll see he’s not kidding.

A few of my correspondents had a “well, you just get on with it” response. Those writers who support their families from their writing alone were more likely to take this tone. George Pelecanos, the father of three children, a prolific novelist, and also a writer and producer of the HBO series The Wire, could be forgiven for not even reading my query. He instead blasted right back with:

I have a family to support. None of this, “I don’t feel like writing today,” or, “I’m going to put the manuscript in a drawer for a few months and come back to it.” I go to work every day because that is what I’m here to do. Writing puts food on the table and keeps the roof over our heads. My father had his own business, a lunch counter in downtown D.C. I have my own business, and it is located in the first floor of my house. To my mind, there is no difference. I turn the proverbial key on the front door every day, just like he did, to take care of my people.

Parenting is no doubt difficult for people in all professions, but I believe there are special challenges for writers.

The response that seemed the most consistent with my own experience came from Helen Schulman, the mother of three children and author of five books, as well as a number of screenplays:

Of course my children have kept me from writing. They have also kept me from sinking into the quicksand of my own solipsism. They get me out of my head. That may not be the best thing for writing but it is much better for living.

And then later in the e-mail, as though she were afraid that she’d slapped me too hard with the truth: “They have brought me more joy than I ever knew was possible. I love them more than life itself. Isn’t that how most parents feel?” Still, her impatience is almost audible in that last sentence, like “Why am I writing this stupid e-mail to Dan when I have to get everyone dressed for school?”

Holding on to Raymond Carver’s claim that he invented himself as a short story writer because it was the form best suited to the anxious, time-starved life of a father, I was disappointed that no one offered me any such tidy workarounds. George Pelecanos’s assertion that he was inspired by the noise of his family around him was as close as anyone came. Susan Neville, the creator of seven books and two children, guessed that “Raymond Carver would have written stories regardless, or…if he hadn’t had kids he might not have written at all.” Neville added that she herself had “this whacked-out sense of time prechildren. I thought I had a lot of it, and so I wasted a lot of it. Afterward, I had to fight for every second of writing time, and I wasn’t picky. I wrote during swim lessons or while waiting in the car outside the middle school. I would say being a parent made me a lot more productive as a writer, but who knows?”

For me, ninety minutes used to be a good stretch of writing time, after which I could get a cup of coffee, check e-mail. During my son’s first two years—when he still napped every day—I went down to a half hour. As a reward, I would allow myself to tidy up a room, put away a few dishes. Now I work in ten-minute chunks whenever and wherever life will allow—and I count myself lucky for that. For most of this last year, it was impossible to open my laptop anywhere near my son without his rushing over to the keyboard crying, “Where’s Mickey?” To him, my PowerBook is only good for finding pictures of Disney characters.

At a time when money was too tight to provide me with more childcare than my college-professor day job required, the opening of my laptop—and his response to that—was a big and scary moment. For a while I toyed with the idea of just drugging my son with Elmo videos, but because I still live with the damage that this child-care strategy caused me, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Ultimately, the only appropriate response to a child is surrender. In this, too, it reminds me very much of the writing process. People who don’t know children or can’t remember how it felt to raise one may believe that getting my son to preschool in the morning should be a simple matter of exerting my will. They probably think that writing a novel should be a simple matter too. But writing a novel is different from typing a long manuscript. Just like raising a child is different from containing one within your house. And just like parenthood, novels are a mess. I’ve never done anything more difficult or more unsatisfying, while simultaneously finding it joyous and deeply satisfying. Writing a novel that works is like practicing archery inside a fighter cockpit during aerial combat. If you can return to base with your eyes still in your head and a book contract, you have to call that a miraculous win.

Sure, I can talk about the gifts that parenthood has given to my writing life: My mind has never been more fertile. I pour ideas from my skull like I’m Thomas Edison. The moment that my son goes to sleep, I grab the baby monitor and return to work. This past year of his life might actually have been the most productive time of my career. The pressure of his existence has squeezed my attention as hard as a diamond. And I have never, if truth were told, felt more like a writer—whatever that mysterious self-description means. Writing is what I do. It’s like loving my family. Eating Mexican food. Breathing.

And yet I know that my writing week can disappear at any moment into a stomach flu, just as a freelance deadline can disappear into “I no like my bed, Daddy.” Sometimes my brain is so fractured by parental concerns that I can’t remember what I’m writing. I don’t know how I missed the memo that my life would no longer be my own, but I am grateful for every person who has reassured me that they, too, no longer own their lives and that it is “going to be okay, Dan.” Maybe even better than okay.

Actually, the words that have meant the most to me didn’t come from my literary friends but from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Speaking on a talk show about his own children, Seinfeld said, “Make no mistake about it—they’re here to replace us.” That recognition of mortality, I think, is at the heart of my parental humility. Until I met my son, I’d probably never met anyone whom I hoped would outlive me. I’d certainly never met anyone I would die for. That raw fact of my imploded self-centeredness runs counter to most of my writerly instincts. If I write to be heard, so that my voice will persist beyond community, beyond geography, maybe even beyond my own lifetime, how does it affect my writing to admit that I don’t really care about that anymore, that I just want the best for him, that I might take any job that provided a good foundation for him? That my writing is no longer essential?

Maybe this is just what it looks like to grow up.

The book that has meant the most to me during these difficult toddler years—a time when I miraculously gained tenure, finished my second novel, and saw my wife embark on the career of her dreams—was one that I might easily have missed if I hadn’t been so starved for news from this particular front. Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen priest and first-time mother in her forties, has written a stylish and remarkably honest account of parenting called Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood (Shambhala, 2006). When the publisher’s catalog arrived with a quote from the author about learning to just be with her sleeplessness and frustration and anger, how she didn’t have to turn them into language, I said to my wife, “I want that book.” It was while reading this meditation primer disguised as a memoir (or, maybe, the other way around) that I started to relax. I realized I didn’t need hints about how to better manage my life: I needed to live my life. Miller drives home this point when she writes about her garden:

I have a garden in my backyard. The more time I spend in it, the more beautiful it becomes. Not because of the hard work, the weeding, cleaning, raking, the tasks and sweat, but because I no longer view it as separate from me. From inside the garden, I no longer view it critically from arm’s length as flawed, as less than perfect.

It took me a long time to figure out that my life is exactly the way it’s supposed to be. And, now, sometimes, when I’m playing with my son, I actually play with my son. And when I’m writing, I actually write. To wonder about anything else but what’s in front of me is to live inside an illusion. Every fall, for example, I look at the leaves I haven’t raked, the beds I haven’t cleared, and I’m tempted to see personal failure. My son, on the other hand, sees golden, crunchy opportunities for play. That’s the extent of my understanding right there.

Dan Barden is the author of John Wayne: A Novel (Doubleday, 1997). An associate professor of English at Butler University, he lives in Indianapolis. His wife, Elizabeth Houghton Barden, is the owner of Big Hat Books.

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  • November 3, 2021