Making More Work, But The Best Kind

Today is my first Flash Five story. The cheapest way to knock out five pieces, remember? I biked to Shinsegae this morning, sat with an iced latte and a blank page. Yesterday I was subbing in a grade four classroom and during the writing workshop a boy sat near me on the floor, spinning in a tight circle and whispering to me that he didn’t know what to write. Just start writing, I whispered back, and your mind will give you a story. I thought of that kid this morning. I wrote through two pages before starting a story. And one (long) paragraph in I realized it isn’t a flash fiction piece and I wasn’t going to unravel the characters in an hour. So I’m interrupting Flash Five before it’s begun and will instead post this untitled start serially for the next couple of days.


One of Jennifer’s former students emailed her about the murder. Vanessa Ridge neé Speth, a student in her freshman English class who was now a nutritionist and last emailed to announce the birth of a son, a year or two ago. Vanessa – all of her first freshmen – were now older than Jennifer had been when she moved to Cross Plains to begin her teaching career. The first year of teaching is supposed to be a nightmare but hers was not. She stayed late nearly every day, wrote lengthy responses to even banal notebook entries, cajoled Jeremiah to write one more paragraph, found audiobooks for Amber, decorated her classroom with literary quotes and twinkle lights, bought floor pillows and beanbags for Reading Fridays, stocked her class library with YA bestsellers and graphic novels. She let students bring their lunches to her room, spent one prep period taking on a study hall. Jennifer adored the need of her kids. She kept granola bars and crackers in a filing cabinet, half pints of milk in her mini dorm fridge. She listened to hour long recounts of family drama, and placed a hand on the shoulder of a student near or in tears, sat across many of those same confessing students in the counselor’s office as next steps were determined. (Her boyfriend called these kids her rescue project, and so what if they were?) Other students, like Vanessa who thought to email her a decade after that freshman English class, were bright with hope, excited to be in high school, arriving the first day wearing unscuffed shoes and toting backpacks full of clean spiral notebooks. These were the students who revived a dead socratic seminar, remembered to MLA format their essays, and returned books with an expectation to discuss what Jennifer thought too, before asking for another recommendation. Jennifer loved doling out, and her kids gave in return: cookies baked over the weekend, an invitation to a quinceañera, nods in the hall or calls out at a football game – Ms. Avery! Ms. Avery! Over here! – with introductions to parents (who never replied to her class updates emails), handwritten notes delivered in person the day before summer break, and later, hugs and ecstatic smiles at graduation. Jennifer stayed in Cross Plains four years to see Vanessa and her class graduate. Rereading the email, Jennifer remembered now that Del was Vanessa’s processional partner, and that the woman who would murder him was then only a girl named Bethie who was partnered with Jeremiah, and following a few paces back.


Twenty-six of thirty-nine. 423 word start!

Dropping It

Last week I started reading a book I wanted to like. I read the first page, the fragments a good turn from the long, winding sentences of the previous book. But I couldn’t find the place. I read the second chapter, a new narrator, the chapters trading voices, but then came two chapters of the same voice, and neither voice was well enough distinguished except by their individual thoughts – no defining stylistic choices, only that the man had this work, the woman had this thought. I have been reading widely lately, reading to examine what I might do as a writer too. But I still quit the book, picked up another I read in three days – a plural narrator, something I try occasionally but haven’t figure out.

My ThirtyNine Stories project ends in two months. I have fifteen pieces to write. Yesterday I thought about looking up the parameters I set and decided against the reminder: there is something, I am certain, about ten thousand word stories (as in more than one) and I haven’t put one together. There are stories I am mapping, but not for this project. In February I decided to apply to MFA programs but wasn’t ready to slam together a portfolio in three weeks so I have only just applied to begin next semester. I am not yet accepted. But deciding to pursue an MFA and thinking about my writing from a more professional perspective, and a conversation with an old friend this summer has made me more protective of some of my work. Which means that some of my better, recent work is only mine right now.

Yet I will post a thirty-ninth story in early November. Last week I thought about how to make that happen. I am always making up some writing assignment for myself so two ideas came fast: Five Flash and Snapshots. Five Flash is the cheapest way I can think of to knock out five pieces: starting next Saturday I’ll post one story a day for five days. To prep I’ll write first sentences, maybe second sentences. Snapshots comes from writing practice I did a couple of weeks ago when I thought about the little green house my family rented after we returned to Wisconsin from Italy. For the practice of writing place and period, I want to write about three of my childhood places.

Back to dropping it. The piece I’m posting below is a start I’ll likely never finish. I was thinking about Bonnie and Clyde. I was thinking about grandparents robbing banks to pay their granddaughter’s college tuition. They have to get caught. The sprees they got away with in their youth are just not possible in a world of GPS, surveillance, web sleuths. I still like the idea but am dropping it for now. I held it for a fun minute though.


Her grandfather hollered down from the porch that she was lying, and what did she want anyway? I’m not lying, Diane yelled back, And I only came out here to tell you I saw it on TV! Her grandfather, who kept the pantry stocked with peanut M&Ms for her, who remembered her half birthday with a twenty dollar bill, who called her sweetpea even though she was nearly twenty years old, her grandfather took a shade of red and hollered she best be on her way. Next to him, her grandmother leaned over the porch rail like she might leap, leaning like the forward motion might propel them all to a better understanding. Diane took a step back, reaching for her bike, pushing off and pedaling as furiously away from the old farmhouse as she had, minutes before, pedaled toward the same. Near the road, Diane turned to look over her shoulder. Her grandmother with both hands, palms flat, on her grandfather’s chest, face tilted up. Her grandfather with rare, unkind strength, hands at his sides. It was their truck Diane saw in the corner frame of surveillance footage from the bank. The truck that pulled flatbed floats in the homecoming, Fourth of July, and Dairy Days parades, the truck that stopped at empty four way intersections, the truck that rarely tipped past fifty-seven miles an hour even on a flat stretch of county highway. 

Diane was at Abigail’s when the news came on, the two girls microwaving popcorn to celebrate the summer home after a freshman year away to different UW campuses. At breaks during the year they had met to do this too, make popcorn and talk. About classmates who dropped at semester or broke up or got pregnant, about classes and what a bitch all that reading is now, how a C may as well be an A at university, about newly acquired or considered piercings or tattoos, about sending nudes once, about drinking beer versus vodka, about still going to mass. Diane hadn’t shed the strictures of her upbringing but the ties were loosening and Abigail’s stories were a peek at what sophomore year might contain. Diane was wary though. Her mother was manic depressive and Diane was raised in two homes during her middle and high school years, after her father fled, her mother’s small, high ceilinged apartment in an old brick building on the square, housed above the small, nearly extinguished town paper, and her maternal grandparents’ sprawling acreage two miles outside of town, the bordering fields leased out to other farmers now. Diane had started the summer at her mother’s apartment in town, selfishly because her mother was less attentive and Diane liked the freedom of hours she’d discovered at university. Her mother, at the moment Diane saw the news story in Abigail’s house, had no idea where Diane was, and couldn’t remember seeing her daughter the day before either.  

It was her grandfather’s truck. Diane recognized the decal on the back window. An unusual, unique decal, the reporter said. Stick figures of a man, woman, girl and four cats. The decal, enlarged and enhanced, and the make and model of the truck was featured on local newscasts across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Investigators were fairly certain this exact truck was at the scenes of bank robberies in the three states, the earliest seven years before when the truck was new off the lot. The microwave dinged but neither Diane nor Abigail moved to retrieve the bag. Both girls had drifted from the kitchen to the living room and stood numb before the gigantic flatscreen as the female anchor held her grave expression before a commercial cut in. Oh my God, Abigail said and pulled her phone from the back pocket of her jean shorts, thumb typing a search. Oh my God, Diane, it’s Papa and Nana. Look. She held out her phone and Diane looked at the silhouette of her grandparents sitting in the Ford truck at an Illinois toll booth. Police seek to identify suspects in tristate robberies. If you have information call. Investigators crossed state lines to piece together elaborate pattern of robberies. Diane put a hand to her mouth. The microwave dinged again and this time Diane moved, running out to the driveway where she’d parked her bike, hopping on, shoving off to race to Papa and Nana’s.

Papa and Nana didn’t believe in television, and that’s how they explained it when Diane asked could they please get a TV, at least for weekends. They did believe in internet though, even when it was molasses dial up. But even when they couldn’t get an internet contract without a cable contract, Papa and Nana resisted buying a television, compromising at watching the occasional movie on Diane’s laptop set on the coffee table. So when Diane arrived at her grandparents’ farmhouse, they hadn’t seen the news story about their truck, the link to half a dozen (or more) robberies, the decals everyone would now look for (the decals the whole town would know immediately, without the picture proof). You rob banks! Diane yelled before she’d even parked her bike. Banks! Her Papa and Nana  were on the porch with the cats, as they were most summer evenings.


Twenty-five of thirty-nine. 877 words.

Reading Response

Of course I googled Lindsey Stone while reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Last week one of our school administrators referenced the cautionary tales featured in Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, a jokey but serious reminder to be careful what we say and share. I remember the Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco messes unfolding, and when Lindsey Stone was under fire I was one of the people who just could not understand how stupid a person had to be to pose next to the tomb of a soilder while flipping the bird. Ronson’s book provides context to all three stories. Lehrer was busy and lazy. And a bestselling author, brought low by a no name blogger (named Michael Moynihan). Sacco had a small Twitter following and a string of odd tweets before she boarded her flight to South Africa. AIDS isn’t funny and racism isn’t funny and the two side by side are really, really not funny, and by Sacco’s admission hers is not the voice to deliver any sarcastic public commentary. Knowing your audience isn’t an adage when your audience is a potentially unknowable everyone and their opinions are all over and you cannot be certain what might blow up because you don’t really expect anything to blow up. Stone knew her audience – Facebook friends who got her irreverent humor – and never intended her photo at Arlington to be judged publicly. 

A year ago one of my new colleagues was tagged in a photo on Facebook. In the picture she is sitting next to the bronze statue of a woman, laughing. I recognized the memorial to Korea’s comfort women and that morning approached my colleague and let her know she should ask the poster to remove the photo. She told me they were out in the city and she was being goofy, sitting next to this statue woman. Like, hello friend! The moment after the picture was taken she read the plaque explaining who the comfort women of Korea are, and she quit laughing. But it wasn’t her photo and when her friend posted it she had qualms. When I spoke with her, she decided to talk with her friend, ask for the photo to be removed. And it was. 

At the same school meeting last week another administrator said if it isn’t an amen, it’s an ouch. When I think about Sacco and Stone: was the pile on good? People cried ouch but what was accomplished? The comments were brutal. The judgement went beyond the behavior. Unnatural consequences. If the critique had been quieter both women still might have lost their jobs. (I did wonder where the adults Stone was chaperoning in DC were when she was fake shouting and giving the middle finger). And a quieter critique would likely have yielded introspection. Sacco and Stone might have retreated, cleaned up their online presence, thought how to rebuild. But what happened to both women was such a thorough tear down. 

I put myself in this. 

I say I am so glad I went to university before smartphones. A few regrettable, lost messages on ICQ. A few terrible photos. Emails gone from all but gray memory. My siblings are on Instagram and I look at an occasional post and think about the work of making life look just so. 

Yet I am not spared the desire to document and share. I keep a line between my notebooks and what I publish but even so, I am comfortable sharing the muddle of working out my faith. I am comfortable writing about anger, suffering. Parenting. I am comfortable writing about the uncomfortable. I am practicing how to write, how to say what I want to say. I compost, writing around the same ideas and events for months or years. 

Which is why one part of Lehrer’s experience made me nervous. The initial schadenfreude was too delicious (and the judgement deserved) but once journalists started fact-checking his work, Lehrer was called out for self-plagiarizing, recycling sentences or paragraphs from one article to the next. And then I wondered about bloggers who find book deals, upcycling old posts. Ally Brosh, Ree Drummond. I also compost. I rewrite. I lift a phrase I like from an old draft. I want what I do to be distinguished from what Lehrer did because my notebooks and Piecemeal are together one big practice for the collections or novels I will publish. My transparent process is my justification. Piecemeal contains drafts of what I will or have finished, some pieces I would consider including in a book. Brosh and Drummond’s books evolved from their blogging existence too. I think of this as an extension of creative work, finding new form. Maybe this kind of self-plagiarism is okay. Art has echoes. But Lehrer work wasn’t about a new form or platform. He robbed one previously published article to pad another.

And how the mighty fall. And get up again. Ronson asked what comes after a public shaming. For Lehrer, a public apology that doubled as a second round of tar and feathering. And then sleepless nights writing and writing until he put together a book about love, the necessity and security of primary relationships. Years ago I picked up and put down Lehrer’s How We Decide, probably because I’d read The Tipping Point. Also years ago I glanced at Imagine in a book store. I don’t know if I’ll read A Book About Love but I am interested in how Lehrer recenters his writing purpose and work. Ronson caught a raw moment of Lehrer’s experience. Publicly Shamed is four years old now. Schadenfreude goes a little stale. Lehrer’s writing will now be more scrutinized and criticized and that’s fair, but.

There is a frightening, unreasonable permanence to our online presence. We have to be allowed to live beyond single horrifying moments or choices. Keep the consequences, sure, but when I googled Lindsey Stone I hoped the results would be varied as promised by a reputation.com. Publicly Shamed left Stone in a new job working with autistic children, desperate to keep her Arlington photo a secret, desperate to reclaim some normalcy after a year hiding in her parents’ home. I don’t know what Stone is doing today. The top result for her name is the Arlington photo. She is a lifelong object lesson. Sacco too, perhaps. Her tweet is one of her top results. But also her new employment, returning to IAC as a publicist for Match Group. CEO Joey Levin said to Recode, “With one noteable exception, Justine’s track record speaks for itself. Very few people in the business world have Justine’s indomitable spirit, tenacity and drive to persevere.” I love that. 

Last thing. I like to think I wouldn’t go to an eighteenth century public shaming but there are two literary shamings I stood on tiptoe to watch. One was Mike Daisy. I loved his This American Life story about visiting Apple factories in China. And then I really loved his conversation with Ira. Daisy shared with Ronson that he considered suicide. I do not love that at all. The public shaming I first savored though was when Oprah called James Frey to her couch after the factuality of his memoir A Million Little Pieces was challenged. I drove home from school, parked on the couch with a bag of chips, and hooted at the stern undoing. Frey and Daisy both cited artistic license to reason their lies. But their fault was not hyperbole or poor metaphors. Their fault was purposely misleading their audience to believe a story was real. (Quick digression: I do wonder if the great appeal of Daisy’s work was how fantastic the story was, the image of the old man with a damaged hand marveling that the iPad screen was like magic. And Frey’s recovery was so much more for the depth of the pit. And all those broken teeth. So I wonder if the stories would have had the reach or impact – Daisy’s story prompted scrutiny of Apple’s employment practices, and Frey humanized addiction – if the stories were presented as fiction. Fiction is powerful too). But you know, Frey kept writing. He made up with Oprah. His memoir-ish is a movie. And Daisy keeps telling stories too. 

I have to ask what I would do. 

Probably I will not be publicly shamed any time soon. What I take from Ronson’s book and my subsequent googling is that people can suffer great falls for big and small transgressions and still recover. There are moments I relive with a cringe. Sometimes I slip into a cringe coma. Maybe shame replays coincide with certain ages or places or vulnerabilities. Maybe my shame replays are brought on by a shuddery hormonal cocktail. The point is, we all understand shame. And none of us like to live in it. Shame isn’t healthy. I tell my kids (and myself) to tell yourself true things. Sometimes the truth is you did something terrible but the truth is also that you suffered the consequences, that you learned, that you got up in the morning when you didn’t feel like getting up in the morning. The truth is that you keep on. The truth is that you are still very loved. I want Ronson to return to the subjects of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in another decade, to show how a brief, startling and awful shaming looks against a stack of years. But I don’t think we need that book. Let’s do our own work, stack our own years.


Twenty-four of thirty-nine. 1588 words. I do think about shame often. I currently live in a culture that – I don’t know how to put it. Does Korea value shame? Shame can teach us. Shame can keep us in line, though what that line is varies. I’m not so interested in sussing the giant, awful wrongs people do to one another, universal wrongs. But I am interested in the range of shamed behaviors and the unspoken ways we shame one another. I am interested in why shame is hard to shake. I am also interested in what my faith says about shame and why it is difficult to live as free.

He Sat Across From Me

An essay from Starbucks. Sit long enough and an essay comes along, I suppose. As I drafted this I thought about tense. I kept the conversation past but I use present tense at points. I like writing conversations in present – that’s why I decided to write this one in past, for the practice, and to see what it feels like after.


This young man sat across from me. He asked, as he pulled the chair from the table, and I nodded as he sat, folded and unfolded his arms across his chest, dropped his hands to his lap. He looked at me directly and said he liked my hair. He thought my hair was beautiful. My husband thinks my hair is beautiful. He tells me he loves the color. The day this young man sat across from me I wore my hair down. Maybe it can be beautiful. This young man introduced himself with an English name, Sean. I asked why he came over to me. 

You look interesting, he said, And a little – cute. 

On the table between us was my notebook and a novel I was reading and my iced latte. If Sean dipped his head he could have sipped from my straw. I moved the glass closer to me. I said thank you. Then I looked at him. Smooth skin, sparse whiskers at his chin and cheeks. A good haircut. Slender arms, tapered fingers. How old are you, I asked. 

How old do you think I am?
I’m not playing that game.
He told me he is over twenty. I said, Well, I am much older.
That doesn’t bother me. 

I rested my elbows on the table so he could see my rings and he nodded at my hand. What is the story of that ring, he asked.
The story is I’m married, I said.
He nodded. Are you a teacher here?
I nodded.
Where? At an international school?
Yes, at an international school. When I said the name of the school he knew it, knew people who went there. I asked about his schooling, what he was studying now.
What Trump learned before he became president.
I played nice. Business?
Sean nodded.
What kind of business are you interested in? Like, do you want to manage a business, start your own? What will you do?
I want to be like Elon Musk. I want to work with space travel.

He was disappointed when I told him he is the second young man in as many months here who has expressed interest in working with space travel. The first was a graduate I talked with about his future plans, for an alumni post on the school website. Sean, I wanted to say, get over it. A lot of boys want to build a rocket or fund a rocket or ride in a rocket. Sean, I wanted to say, I am being respectful to you but this whole conversation will go nowhere and you’ll walk away feeling a little dumb. Not because I make you feel dumb but because you’ll realize you just spun a fantasy into halting conversation. Sean, I wanted to say, I am not mean enough to tell you to fuck off.

Really, what were my plans for the fifteen minutes he sat across from me? I was midway through a dark thought. I had already regretted wearing eyeliner and mascara when I hadn’t brought a make-up bag for touch ups. Before Sean sat across from me I pulled a long breath through my nose and told myself not to cry, just get through the day without crying in public. Later, in bed with my husband, I said that if an older man had sat across from me, I might have been flattered. Instead I wondered if this was a joke, or a dare. The Starbucks was full of students, clustered around an open text or gossiping or snapping photos of their drinks. 

Sean rubbed his chin. It is only fair I ask you how old you are, he said, since you asked me.
I’m thirty-eight.
You don’t look thirty-eight.

I wanted to say, I feel thirty-eight. I do not feel twenty-nine or twenty-five, or any other elastic age. I feel very thirty-eight. I may be exactly halfway through my life, I wanted to say, or nearer to dead than that. But Sean did not betray surprise. He repeated that age did not matter to him. 

When I was twenty I started running again after a year or so of eating Chinese take out and drinking beer. One of my first runs was eight miles and I nearly threw up. I just made myself keep running around the lake eight loops. When I was twenty I was a double major in English and history, with a minor in writing, but I’d drop the history major two or three classes short, swapped for education methods courses. When I was twenty I started going to the Lincoln Hills juvenile correction facility to lead poetry writing workshops with troubled, criminal boys who were not allowed to say last names. When I was twenty I thought I would write poetry forever. 

I am writing poetry forever. I think how to write all of this, and before I string a sentence, I float in phrases and dashes, poetry enough.

I waited for Sean to decide our conversation was through. He asked how I liked it in Seoul. He asked what I thought of the culture. We talked about school. I said that I taught in South America and the Middle East before, and that people are people. I said I liked it here. We talked about the pressure people feel here, the students to earn a grade, the parents to raise whatever kind of child, the professional expectations. I wondered if Sean thought about failing at his space venture. I wondered if failure could be trend here. Fail forward. Fail fast, fail often. But I did not ask. I did not feel like extending our conversation. Instead I wanted to return to my own dark thought, or read the novel still open between Sean and me.

As abruptly as Sean sat down, he stood. He thanked me for my time. I said it was nice to meet him and wished him a good rest of the day. He took the stairs up and after his legs were gone from view I stared at the space he’d just been, the empty chair. I wanted to turn to ask the young women nearby did they see that, hear that? What was that? I was thinking about failure or flattery and couldn’t concentrate on the novel. The day was hot but I wasn’t out in it. When I was twenty there was a man at least ten years older than me. He smelled like cigarettes and read my poetry. We sat next to one another and if he ever guessed I wanted to taste the cigarettes on his tongue he was too kind to say.


Twenty-three of thirty-nine. 1111 words!

Get Over This All Over Again

At Starbucks at a small square table by the third floor window. From here I can watch foot traffic. I can see houses built close together up a hill. Yesterday I was here to draft in my notebook. Today I came to draft on my laptop but when I arrived, taking this table away from the ac vent, not under a speaker, I sat unmoving for a long time, thinking about how my own suffering affects my husband and children. Since mid January my left knee has swollen every other week. An exhausting cycle. In June an MRI confirmed cartilage damage, a nearly healed bone bruise. I quit walking in the mornings. I continued physical therapy exercises. I cut sugar from my diet. But the pattern holds. In June, the doctor prescribed medication with the caution to take the little pills only for a little while, and only when needed. The anti-inflammatory probably eats my stomach lining. So I took the pills to reduce swelling. The swelling did not reduce. I took the pills when I had no swelling, thinking to stave off the next round of swelling, but the swelling came. I quit the pills and the swelling was on schedule, no better or worse.

When my knee is swollen I must be more cautious. I am slower. I usually wake to weep before I carry on with the day ahead. Sometimes I think of chopping my leg at mid thigh or taking a hammer to my kneecap. This injury is healing. The mystery of such an exact pattern of swelling is what walks me along the line of despair, a small fear at my neck that I am somehow making this happen to my body, that my mind is fucking my joint, because the injury should be healed now with the rest/ medication/ pt exercise/ ice and heat therapy/ rest/ more rest/ fasting/ other dietary changes/ prayer/ rest.

I ask the Holy Spirit to renew my mind. I think about the net of fascia the length of my body, the kinks in my nerves, knots in my muscles. Heal my body. I wonder if I am supposed to be magic about this suffering. Like once I knock out the right ratio of hope and joy in the middle of suffering, perhaps then my body will release itself to heal. I miss the cadence and breathing of a morning run, and the work of my body, the sweat and calm after. But I really miss the ease of a day. When I make plans now I count out the days to know my swollen knee might make the walk difficult – it isn’t really the walk that is difficult at all, only the effort of keeping a plan, the effort of keeping on. I am tired of thinking that this must be the last time my knee swells. This must be it. This time for sure. 

I am not healed yet. I will heal but I am the middle of not healed yet. Maybe I am at the middle end of not healed. Maybe in a month I will wake up and not weep because my whole being will just know this particular light momentary affliction is over. That is what I am like – I have these moments of clarity when I know the shift in my body or mind, when I can recognize an end or beginning, when a truth settles. 

This healing is not for my own body only. Justin reminds me nothing is wasted. I think I could take the mind or the body but both at once is a bit much. And both at once is wearing on my family. We make a joke of it but I cooked a dozen times since January, and when Claire said she missed family dinners like what I used to make, I bought box macaroni and cheese: this is not a joke. This is terrible. I keep thinking I will unearth old motivation. I make myself do things now. I make up reasons why it matters that I keep doing things. This summer I spent seventy dollars on board games, an aspirational purchase for the winter evenings ahead when we’ll sit around the table playing a game and eating popcorn. This summer I also burrowed under a blanket and told Justin I was tired of trying and now I want to try not trying at all. 

Claire looked at me the other day and told me I wasn’t fine, that I didn’t need to pretend I was fine. But she wants me to be fine. I want me to be fine. Yet we live with a weird dichotomy. I am fine and not fine. Today I am asking the Spirit can I please be okay where I am? Can I be okay even if my body continues to disappoint? Can I have peace before I ask? I do not need to be pleased with my circumstance to accept how it may work my body and mind for my good and God’s glory and to ask for that, at least: do what must be done to make me more of who I am in Christ. Any day, situation, relationship shapes me. So this too. So this too!

Yet. Now I am thinking what to do for my husband and kids if this goes on for much longer. Both children expressed they miss me on family ventures around the city. My knee is stable enough I can go along, but slowly. The slowness frustrates me. But Justin and the kids love me enough to walk alongside, slowly. I would rather try not trying. I would rather hide in a darkened room. Points earned for going to the park or making a meal are not adding up to what I want and there is my mistake, thinking that once my knee heals and I can move through the day with ease, then everything will be okay. It is true that I will feel better when my body is healed: I will move again, my brain will welcome endorphins with sweet relief. Probably I will sleep better. Likely I will spend fewer hours staring out a window. And it is true that my family will feel better when I am healed: imagine me making crepes just because, or trekking Seoul Forest with the kids while Justin takes a home day. But I don’t really want to wait until my body heals for all of us to be over this suffering. 

It’s like I have to transcend this shit. Quit playing if. If my body were healed I would have gone for a run this morning, come home and kissed the kids while I was still hot and sticky from the humidity, stood in a cool shower, dressed without thinking what pants still fit. We would have left the apartment twenty or thirty minutes later than we did because I could have kept a walking pace. I might have googled “best brunch in Itaewon” and found a new cafe to try while the kids went to VBS, or I would have walked to our old favorite cafe down the hill, or hiked up the hill to a trendy spot for a Dutch cold brew served with a square of dark chocolate. Now I would be walking back to church to pick up the kids. I’d have drafted the story I woke up thinking about, instead of staring at the sidewalk below, or the shops across the way. If my body were healed I would hop on my bike when we get home this afternoon and head to Shinsegae for dumplings because Grant and I have been craving dumplings. And after we’d all head outside for a warm evening stroll and ice cream. I would go to bed expecting another lovely, uncomplicated day tomorrow. 

Tomorrow I will wake up and have to get over this all over again. But I want to do more than get over the suffering and through the day. I want this middle to not feel like a waste of ticking days until I get to the part where I don’t have to pep talk myself in the bathroom, whispering that I am okay, this is okay, I belong here now. I love the people near me, dearly. I ask the Spirit for joy in my heart. The mercy of this year has been that joy hasn’t gone completely dark. I want more though. I want a ridiculous portion of joy. I want to know better how to love my family. I want my husband and children to be okay even while I am not. But God I want to be okay too. I want to know better that the process matters, that this long wait to heal my body and mind is part of healing my body and mind. There is no way to end this. 


Twenty-two of thirty-nine. More wandering than I prefer. 1486 words. There are ideas here I want to say the right way, like the weird dichotomy, like wanting me to be better not just because I will directly (finally, gladly) benefit, but because I also feel terribly about the burden my suffering is for others. No glamour in this, just the shit of it. And my desperate holy reach for the Spirit to move.

Fiction! For Fun!

I need more funny. My body is falling apart and my mind is very tired of dealing with the body. No one wants that essay (but you’ll get it at some point!). I get tired of raking my brain for what I need to do to get well. Despair is a swift undercurrent these days. So: more funny. I spent Sunday in bed (air mattress) reading Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different and on Monday I went to coffee with Justin in the morning, deciding to draft something other than the undercurrent. Here you go:


There is nothing really wrong. I broke my ankle two years ago, got a pin put in. When the weather turns my ankle aches. And sometimes my ankle just aches so at the end of most days I watch Netflix and do an ice heat therapy. All day I have this ankle with me. I flex. I make the alphabet with my toes pointed. I stand on tiptoes, rock back on my heel. The idea is to stretch and strengthen my whole lower leg, strengthen my arch, all the little muscles between my metatarsals. The idea is to always be aware I have a leg and ankle. 

I also have a dog I cannot forget about.

I work on Petz, an app you probably know. It’s like a dayplanner for your furbaby but possibly worse because the whole thing is meant to discover patterns to suggest a new diet or walking route or play thing for you pet but what happens is that if you don’t update Petz like every twenty minutes you get a notification. And after three dings the notification is accompanied by puppy eyes. I wrote that and I am sorry. But most users love this. It’s like Facebook or Instagram for furbabies except furbabies cannot open the app with their tiny claws so we’re all really guessing that Moofie loves the organic vegan chewy.

I have a dog on Petz. A furbaby. I hate that term. I campaigned for a change at the last retreat. Mostly because we’re about to launch a feature for fish, reptiles, snakes, etc. and scalebabies sounds gross. Say it. This is my scalebaby. Ew. But it might work. If everyone was bonkers for Petz harassment puppy eyes, they might like scalebabies, and I really don’t care. What is the expression? Not my circus. Not my monkey. Not my iguana. 

But I like my work. It’s technically challenging, for a product I don’t think anyone needs. The idea is to get experience, more experience, and then even more experience to stack into a career that nets some kind of achievement to point to and say, I did that. I did that. Right now I can say I did puppy eyes. And a bunch of coding that aligns columns, drops confetti (tiny cats and dogs). Right now I’m working on a notification that suggests you get off your phone and play with your furbaby.

So my furbaby. This is how that happened. I have a Petz account for Grover, my made up snickerpoodle. There are so many breeds I figured that must be one when Taylor (round three interview) asked about my own furbaby. Or babies! she said, Hard to have only one! Easier to have none! I said and laughed. You know microexpressions? I caught one of Taylor’s, a tiny pinch in her smile, jaw clench. So I said, But none is no fun! Of course I have a pet furbaby! Grover! After Cleveland, not Sesame Street! He’s a – snickerpoodle! The last time I spoke with so many exclamation points I was in grade six inviting Libby (popular Libby, not violinist Libby) to my twelfth birthday party. She declined, but to my astonishment Petz hired me and on top of a bloated salary (yes please) the contract included a lifetime Petz account (no thank you) which I quickly populated with photos of my friend Caroline’s mutt. Rocky looks nothing like that I imagine a snickerpoodle would look like. But Rocky lives nearby and Caroline lets me borrow him for walks so I can capture his/ our cuteness #furbaby #Petz #morningwalk #doggieparty #yougetthepoint.

It was on a morning walk with Rocky/ Grover that I missed a curb, turning my ankle and half falling into a puddle. A runner jogged across  the street. Whoa, he said, You need help. I looked up from a crouch and said I was fine. He shrugged but didn’t run off. Then I had to be fine. Rocky/ Grover licked my face. I stood up. The pain was magnificent. There, I said, Fine. Mr. Runner patted Rocky/ Grover’s head, scratched behind the ears, bent close to Rocky/ Grover’s wet nose and said in a cutesy voice, You take care of your mama. Yes you do, yes you do. You love your mama. Rocky/ Grove and I watched him run down the walk. I looked down at the mutt. I am not your mother, I said. But he already knew I am the least cool aunt too. 

I really couldn’t walk but did anyway, all the way to Caroline’s where she made me sit on her couch with my foot propped on a pile of laundry. My swollen ankle was a steady pulse of pain. I was wearing pink flannel pajama pants, the conceit being #justrolledouttabed #withmyfurbaby. I’d have to scrap the other three outfits and two locations. The week ahead would be a lot of close ups of Rocky/ Grover, re-filters of old snaps. Caroline put a frozen plastic cylinder on my ankle. 

I don’t have ice, she said, This is from my Contigo. So. What happened?
I tripped.
You need to get this looked at.
Can I get a photo with Rocky first? I was near to passing out from the pain but Caroline put her dog on my lap and handed me a tube of lip gloss. I cropped out the mud on my thigh. 

Well that was two years ago and against all odds (our users are gluttons for punishment) Petz is still a thing which means I am still walking Rocky/ Grover, taking him for an afternoon of wardrobe changes to restock the scroll. Caroline is the hero of this story.

At Petz we have all these retreats. Once a month it feels like. Once a quarter, really, but we’re all supposed to bring our furbabies for weekends of the most interrupted focus sessions. I made up an ex who shares custody of Grover and my ex is a real jerk who won’t let me switch weekends, what a bummer, yeah, I know, geez. Well, anyway. Carpool?

But now Taylor moved to a building a block away and she keeps saying we should walk our pups together. In the hallway kitchen she popped a pod into the Nescafe and we both listened to its quiet whir. Then she asked, So what time do you walk Grover?

Four thirty, I said.
In the morning?
Yup.
Wow. What about at night?
Oh, he only likes one walk a day now. Recent change. Is that normal? I picked at a hangnail. Her coffee dripped to a finish but Taylor didn’t move to take her mug. She was totally on to me. I refused to look up. She held the pause, then delicately cleared her throat, took a tone like she was good cop. Well, I just love your Petz scroll. And it looks like Grover loves his walks. 

Taylor was more an equal than superior now but she was still one of the first hires at Petz and that had to count for something, and I wasn’t ready for the gig to be up. The insurance is awesome. I sighed and looked up from my angry hangnail. You’re right, I said, Grover loves his walks. Can I – can I tell you something? Taylor softened her body, angled toward me. I whispered like I was dying of embarrassment. Sometimes I have a hard time making friends. A walk – a walk with our furbabies would be nice. Taylor made a cooing noise, opened her arms for a hug. Sweetie! Babe! Come here!

I called Caroline to ask how she felt about true joint custody. It’d make dog walking dates with Taylor much, much easier. 

Exactly how good is the insurance? Caroline asked.
Pretty good.
You don’t even like dogs!
Gro – Rocky’s alright. I like Rocky. I like Rocky!
Well. I love Rocky, so there.
Please. I’m sorry. I didn’t think it’d last this long.
Caroline sighed. I said, I have an idea. We do this for a like a month, two tops, three tops tops, so everyone at Petz meets Grover and then Grover gets hit by a car and you get Rocky all to yourself, forever.
You’re sick.
I know. I wrote the alphabet with my ankle, waiting for Caroline to concede. 


Twenty-one of thirty-nine. 1383 words. Soon I’ll write about posting first halves of some of my fiction work rather than throwing whole drafts here.

Burn It Down

A year ago I liked the metaphor of a wildfire. Scorch my earth, burn the dead wood. I was already setting fire in my notebooks and I had this terrible, appealing idea that I may as well share all my shame and fear here, just lay it out plain. Always this is a temptation. I began drafting twin essays, unimaginatively titled “Shame” and “Fear,” cataloguing as much garbage as my mind could dredge, absolution by way of confession. I thought to do this so that when you read how I love Jesus, you can better understand why I am in such desperate need of a savior. I do not glory in the mess. Yet I write the mess and last year all I could think was how much I wanted to walk into the dry forest of past wrongs (mine, yours), smoke a cigarette, and flick the butt on tinder ground. And while I was curious what color my anger would burn, how high the flame of my sorrow, I was more interested in what might come after the fire caught and went hungry through my mind, over my body.

This year I like the idea of a controlled burn. If the wind is right my wildfire would char you. I may want the revival of undergrowth, the newest green at a cost, but I do not need to set fire to neighboring forests and fields. 

A week ago we were at a cabin on a lake near Eagle River. I called my friend Kate and confessed that when I woke up before light that morning I’d scrolled through a few old relationships and then messaged people I haven’t spoken to in over a decade. One a cringe, apology. One an appreciation. Neither wholly necessary and both unlikely to reply. Kate laughed, in the best way. What is it with Wisconsin? I asked. I return in the summer and all these things come to me. Like, I thought I was over whatever and then there it is again. And I am compelled to attend all the feelings, to examine and figure out, justify or let go, pray for comfort or healing or forgiveness, pray how to redeem, restore. Rarely do I let a hurt or regret be on its way without first stripping it to bone. 

It’s situational, Kate said. She experiences the same. We all do. A person, song, place. Something that rockets us back to an old bruise or cut, break. And usually I take this part of summer in stride, expecting a round of paralyzing shame or a flame of anger mitigated by the patient tenderness of my husband who reminds me everything will really be okay, yes it will, yes.

But this year I am impatient for a controlled burn after One: a year of thinking I might always feel a little dead, and Two: years of wanting to scream retroactively about situations I keep thinking I let go, brought up by an annual journey to the place and people of scream-worthy situations. Each year I return to my university town where I encounter some past Sarah that presses my spirit to change in some way. One summer I drove all my old running routes, recalling mornings after terrible nights when I tied my shoelaces and thought I might throw up one mile in. Another summer I recounted a list of misguided (can we even call them) relationships. I sat on a swing in Iverson park and wished I could be awesome at marriage. When the children were little I ran for miles on the fuel of fear Justin and I made a mistake to marry one another, but to negate our marriage was also editing our children from existence. And every summer I was angry at a situation that was awful but probably not as awful as I imagined, and angry that I was angry at all. 

The situation that wasn’t as awful as I imagined is my in-laws. And this is a controlled burn I crave. I want to write about when Justin and I moved abroad and his parents were wildly unsupportive. It was a parenting miss I just could not let go. But I want to write about that time, and the years since, because my relationship with my in-laws bears thoughtful reckoning – what I have learned (what have I learned?), the navigation of time together, slow forgiveness, fear of bitterness, the effort of love. And I think I can finally write this without wanting to set their lives on fire. Still, I marvel at the swells of anger, the summers home when I returned to our earliest disagreements at the dining table. My father-in-law reddened and shouting. Is there an escape clause!? he wanted to know, after Justin and I signed our contract with a school in Colombia. I remember my body going cool, thinking, This is the escape clause. Then, lifting from the flashback, I’d go about the regular, present day, my heart pounding. 

And during months away I would find a benevolent balance again. Compassion again. Only to drive up north the next summer in the States, tension in my body again.

For a long time I dismissed my response as something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I move on from that hurt? Why did that hurt come back new? And for a long time I supposed my in-laws’ response to our moving abroad wasn’t mine to share because the story does paint them poorly and caveats are insufficient cover. Things are better now and they aren’t terrible people, but they also dumped a lot of junk in one year, and that was terrible. Their response is mine to share because it was directed at me, and while my mother-in-law has patted my shoulder and kindly said I need to get over it, words and actions ripple. One of my prayers is to see people as people, to practice the love I need too. I understand why my in-laws were afraid of Justin and I moving overseas. Or, at least I understand their perspective better. Most summers home I engage my mother-in-law in uncomfortable conversation about that year and our relationship because I want to say what is necessary as I continue to process, and because I want to know her better too. I want to trust what we have now. I doubt my mother-in-law or father-in-law would react today as they did years ago. We grow. And that is part of this story too.

What I want to do is likely opposite what anyone would advise. Sometimes I wonder why more adults aren’t estranged from their parents or in-laws. Why we keep going back when very often the relationship is unchanged, when approval is withheld, when the best we take away is the sense we’re probably doing the right thing to not burn it down. Is there always something worth salvaging after a fight or pause of years? There are periods during my marriage when I did not want to visit my in-laws. Yet I held to the ridiculous hope that we could be a lovely family. Ridiculous hope because I was angry and hurt but still thinking I might somehow turn the whole mess to better – only to later abandon hope to tally wrongs. So this writing I want to do is about that one awful year, but also about who I am (we are) now because of that year, and what good and difficult work has come from this important relationship. This story, for the fun revel of a family fight (pick a side!), is mostly about heart change. Or rather, heart change is why I can now write about this without fear or shame. 

Also, a late note: that year was so much more than the disapproval of my in-laws. We loved moving abroad. We were excited and ready for adventure. I want to write the joy and relief of chasing a dream. Justin and I talked about moving abroad for years before it was set that next year (next year!) we’ll leave Wisconsin for somewhere else. Probably Europe. I want to write about the hours exploring school websites and maps, fitting ourselves to Belgium or Singapore or Argentina, and then our first job fair on a frigid February weekend in Iowa when our expectation was recast and to consider Colombia, Egypt, Senegal. I want to write about giving away stuff, culling our closets and cupboards for what to ship to South America. I remember the plane banking to land in Cali at night, the city lights flung up the Andean foothills, and the bus ride through the city. I looked out the window and felt electric and certain this was where I belonged. So all of that is contained in our last year in Wisconsin too. We took on a daring project. We played unsafe. And being away from home felt at home. 

When I talked with Kate about what coming back to Wisconsin stirs emotionally/ mentally/ spiritually, I was also curious if these issues might be resolved by now if I hadn’t moved away. Like, if I was always driving north to visit my in-laws would that single year figure so prominently in my definition of our relationship? Maybe I am finally hitting the exposure therapy quota. Maybe it’s all coming together. Maybe it’s time I learn how to be here, observe and honor past experiences as they come back, but choosing to walk the full present too, allowing the present as it is – looped to but not completely defined by the past. So I’ll sift through the burned pages. I’ll find the green shoots. 


Twenty of thirty-nine. 1613 words.

Process

A few years ago (several years ago, likely – the years and practice bleed) I started note drafting my narrative pieces. This is a way for me to pull my daydream drafts to a page, sketch a story while the ideas are in my head. Character names, places, motivations, situations or plot points, whole sentences, dialogue, whatever elements I can see in the moment I put on the page for later use. Sometimes my story notes weave through a few notebooks before I commit much to a draft.

Yesterday I thought about that line

I don’t take the heat like I used to

and what story I might make from it. We’re up in northern Wisconsin, on a lake with my husband’s parents for the week. I imagine any vacation as a potentially prolific time for my writing, and most aren’t, but here I’ve taken an hour or two each day to journal and draft. Last night, citing spotty wi-fi in the cabin, the kids and I headed to the camp lodge where they connected to play Minecraft and I thought about not taking the heat like I used to.

Today I headed into town for a coffee and drafted the first paragraphs of the story. I like to draft longhand, at least to get the piece started, before I begin typing, and I usually return to my notebook to draft scenes or think about a story further. Again, this can run through a few notebooks. Thirty-Nine Stories is supposed to cut the space between thinking and making so today I quit journaling (I have little new to say anyway) and started the draft. Then, with fifteen minutes until closing (at 2pm!) I began typing.


Maggie called Lynn on Monday night. Mom, she said, I have an interview in the Cities tomorrow morning. Maggie’s usual sitter caught a bug or had food poisoning, something gastric, and couldn’t watch Cheyenne. Can you? Maggie paused. Please? Within the hour Maggie pulled into the drive, popped the trunk of her old Honda to retrieve a duffel bag. Come on! she called over her shoulder and Cheyenne unbuckled, opened the car door and followed her mom up the walk. Maggie knocked but pulled the screen door open before Lynn moved from her view at the kitchen window. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Maggie said, I didn’t want to leave early and still hit traffic. She met Lynn in a tight hug. Third interview, she said, They actually booked a hotel for me. I think this is when – . She stepped back, shook her head.

Honey, that’s great! Lynn smiled. She sounded and looked like this was great news, and it was. Maggie caught the effort but didn’t know if it was Lynn, hurt by the surprise, or Lynn, still unmoored by widowhood. 

I’m sorry, Maggie said, I should have told you sooner. But it’s like, a little too good. I didn’t want to say anything. Behind her, Cheyenne scuffed the floor with her shoe. Could be fun, right, Chey? Maggie reached an arm around to pull her daughter into a side hug. Cheyenne shrugged. Maggie dipped to kiss the part in Cheyenne’s hair, then looked up at Lynn, made a face that said please help. Lynn was out of practice helping, though she’d been great help during her granddaughter’s first years as Maggie finished a degree and found work. Tether distance, Maggie said after landing her first job, echoing Lynn’s own joke about which colleges Maggie could apply to, when Lynn couldn’t imagine not seeing her daughter each day. But Maggie flung a wide net and moved to the ocean, returning with a baby, staying tether distance in the decade since. 

Lynn looked at her granddaughter, reached a hand to touch Cheyenne’s shoulder. I’ve missed you, she said, We should do all the things. Cheyenne smiled then, ducked her head at that, an old exchange that once opened their time together. What should we do? Lynn would ask. Everything! Cheyenne would open her arms wide. You mean, all the things? Lynn would lift Cheyenne to rest on a hip and they would begin listing: lunch first, then a safari, a walk to the playground, a trip in a hot air balloon, ice cream for dinner. Cheyenne became the small voice of reason. Grams, she would say, We can’t go to Paris. It’s a hundred million miles away! 

Thank you, Maggie mouthed. She hugged Cheyenne and whispered something. Cheyenne nodded. Then Maggie was out the door, backing the Honda down the drive. Lynn asked, So what should we do? and Cheyenne sighed, picked up her duffel and retreated down the hall to her mom’s old bedroom. 


Nineteen of thirty-nine started. 496 words so far.

More Of The Moment: Found Starts

This summer I join Justin on his morning bike ride. Country road, bike path, side streets, giant hill to a coffee shop that opens at five. We don’t arrive at five. We get there around seven, seven-thirty, stay an hour or so. Justin orders a latte. I drink green tea, not because I’m a tea fanatic but because I intermittent fast. I am not fanatic about intermittent fasting either, but it’s what works for my body/ mind now.

All spring I put together an MFA application portfolio and a week ago submitted the work to two programs. Then I fretted about one of the fiction pieces because it needs more revision before I’d call it really done. (I like to revise for months or years though, so). Then I found a small typo in an essay. So this morning I sat with my green tea and an open notebook, thinking whether to email program directors to ask permission to resend an essay (the errant s removed) and the latest revision of a piece I titled but think of by its protagonist, Eugene. As in: I’ve got to work on Eugene or I keep picking at Eugene. I will get to those emails. But first.

I opened my notebook to write some calm. When the kids were little and squabbling I’d say, I want peace in the house. They picked up on this and the phrase still comes as a reminder to ourselves or a prayer, that we want peace in our house, minds, bodies. Sometimes I write my way to steady. This morning I just wanted to remind myself again that

probably

everything

will be okay. I was a sentence into fear that everything will not be okay when the table next to me started talking about hotel stays. A couple in their sixties, another woman in her fifties or sixties. Last month the couple showed up at a hotel and at check-in were asked to please check the room and if it didn’t meet their standard the hotel would provide a different room. We had a couple of farmers in last night, the clerk told the couple, And we’ve changed all the bedding but the scent lingers.

So at that point I just start transcribing the lines I catch. The couple couldn’t sniff out farmer in their hotel room but their friend remembered working at Farm & Fleet, following men’s muddy footprints around with a mop and bucket. No way their wives would put up with that! she said, At least kick your boots!

Maybe it was the cadence of their voices, or volume, but I could not not listen. The range of conversation! A house on fire, or thought to be on fire. The temperature yesterday, ninety-six degrees. An elderly mother who refuses to eat more than two bites of supper. Orange-y sweaters. Waiting in line to be served. A man with gout who might have quit drinking except the pain was too great. Desire to be a homebody. An angry man who never meant to hurt her. He was creative too. One of the women said, A lot of creative people are troubled. They think too much. The man said, Sometimes creative people are angry. The other woman said, Look at Hemingway. He shot himself.

I have salvaged one line and will start a story with: I don’t take the heat like I used to. Give me a week.

Craft: Not Because I Say So

Sometimes I start with a character. Sometimes I start with a situation. I like to write a first draft quickly, within two or three hours or two or three days. Pin that butterfly to the paper, as per Ann Patchett. When I am mired by the details (smudging the delicate wing) I quit the story for a week or fifty-two, or steamroll ahead for the sake of finishing a draft. But if I decide I want the story to be a story, not its first nebulous idea – beautiful and blurred from a distance – I begin my revision in note form.

First I reread the draft, or give the piece to a friend or editor to read. Now I am revising a story whose first thought was lifted from a few places. I want to write more about the places I’ve lived or traveled. I also explore questions in fiction, for the fun or empathy of knowing that life. So this story is about a Korean man marrying an American woman after meeting in college, somewhere in the midwest. At one point in the story, they visit Seoul with their son, and the father is out of place in this city so different from the one he knew as a boy and adolescent.

When I first drafted this story at the end of last summer I was frantic to make it work. There were claws at my shoulders. I am not a Korean man but I wrote myself into his character. He is initially afraid of fatherhood. He carries guilt about a wish. He goes home to Korea and knows he cannot be at home in Korea again. Yet he is also not at home in the States. He worries for how his son fits in a small white suburb. He is afraid his guilt is manifested in the disease his body suffers. I really thought I might write this story and be delivered from my own fear and shame, that my body might let go its injury too. So I wrote the draft quickly to make it end. And at the end I thought I made something worth revising.

Now I revise. I am glad for the help of an editor who asks good questions. After our conversation, I reread the draft and notes from our conversation. That afternoon and again today I sat with a coffee and my notebook and thought about who this Korean man is, who this American wife is. I should know the scene of their meeting, the weeks after, the attraction, marriage and sex, the optimism of meeting neighbors who later bring a card to wish a happy Chinese new year. I should know the work of this man and woman, their parsing of household chores and bills. I should know the son and his hobbies and his response to that trip to Seoul. Before Seoul, the son only heard his father speak Korean while on the phone with a grandmother the son did not know for the distance of geography and language.

Now I know my characters. I understand their motives. When I revise, “because I say so” is not a reason to the reader. “Because I say so” is not a reason for me, the writer, either. There is no satisfaction in because. But also there is no satisfaction in a deluge of detail. In one of my first college workshops the professor (a poet who loved Florida and wore cowboy boots in all weather) assigned a character exercise from the first edition of What If? We answered approximately thirty-four hundred questions about our character. Picking a favorite song or food or giving a character a superstition was supposed to help us write details into the story but I only ended up bored of my character. Since then I’ve been wary of dating my characters. There is so much I don’t care to know. Yet.

What a balance, to spend time shaping who this Korean man is, who this American woman is, who this son is, to then decide what a reader must also know, and how to show or tell them these details that will answer motive or emotion or dynamic. I have not yet returned to the draft to revise. I want to keep my notes another day or two. Before I begin adding whole scenes, sentences, or clauses, I will reread the piece again with my notes (new knowledge) in mind to see what I might need to cut or move to enmesh this better understanding of my characters, to tell a fuller story.

Just this afternoon, on the way home from a cafe, I saw an English teacher friend. She is glad for me to apply to MFA programs, and offered to read my work. I said it’s a little weird to tell people I’m working on a story. I write a story, but I also work on a story. Most people don’t know what that means but she understands. For a moment it was good to stand on a corner appreciating how unmagical writing is, and to know that sometime this week I’ll revise the draft, share it with my friend who will recognize the hours but still critique the gaps so that on the third or fourth revision, the story will stand. And not just because I say so.

Eighteen of thirty-nine. My baby can drink soju in Korea. 892 words.