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.

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.

Waking Sleeping Town

This idea came a few years ago and I love the idea (which is why I returned to this story a couple of times over the last year) but I do not like the story draft here. Parts, yes. Ideas, yes. But the idea deserves a better draft. Before posting I read through to think what I wanted to share about the process. Instead of front-loading my thoughts here, my responses are italicized. I recommend reading a third or half of the piece if you want, but don’t bother doing more than skim the rest. Friends, I promised drafts.


I am the only one awake now. Two days ago Mom said she was tired and that she was sorry. We were at the kitchen table. She was paying bills online and I was doing homework, physics. She closed her laptop and asked me to look at her. There was a tiny moment before I looked up from my notebook when I tried to guess what I was supposed to look like now, when I met her eye and said it’d be okay, I’d be okay. Really, I didn’t know what to feel when she said she was tired. I don’t know what my face looked like. Hers was crinkly and wet. This was harder for her. So we sat holding hands across the table and I absorbed what she had to say. I didn’t hear anything so I hope her words are hiding somewhere in my body, in a muscle or tooth, and I hope her words come to me when I need them because I will need them now that I’m the only one awake.

There are other families like ours, everyone but one sleeping. You’re supposed to report to county health or a hospital when you’re the last one awake but I haven’t done that yet. When I do, if I do, I’ll get a sticker to place on our front door or window so police and social services know to periodically knock, find out if the last one’s down too. I really don’t know what happens then. I think we get moved to a care facility. Our city won a state contract to build and staff a sleep center but it’s only a giant rectangular cut in land right now, ready for its concrete foundation pour.

I saw pictures in National Geographic of sleep centers around the country. Church basements, American legions, empty classrooms. One picture was of a triple stacked bunks, all you could see where the tops of heads resting on pillows and iv lines dropped from the ceiling. Another picture was of twin girls turned on their sides to face one another, their hands touching but maybe not feeling, feeding tubes running through their nostrils. I really don’t want to end up like that.

Mom went upstairs to wash her face and brush her teeth. She came back wearing a nightgown, carrying a sleep kit. She’d ordered one for each of us after Josh went to sleep. Mine is under my bed. I closed my physics text and notebook, slid both into my backpack. Mom opened the box. She found the catheter with its tiny accordion of instructions. I think it’s better if I do this now, she said, I don’t want you to have to do it later. I followed her to the living room where we surveyed the floor space and guessed what might work best. Dad, Josh and Bud were on the queen sized mattress Mom and I brought down from her room after Bud fell asleep too. Then Taylor went to sleep and we put her on the futon mattress. Mom could lay next to Taylor. She’d fit. Or she could lay next to Dad and we’d move Bud to share the futon. I guess the question is how you’d roll us, Mom said. She looked at me. You pick, she said.

I feel like you should be next to Dad, I said. So we moved Bud to the futon.

Looks good, Mom said. She unfolded the absorbent blue sheet from the sleep kit and laid it next to Dad. While she went to the bathroom with the catheter in hand, I sat on the couch and thought how I should check fluids or ports or turn everyone to the other side. I didn’t get up from the couch though. When people first started falling asleep, there were all these PSAs about staying awake. Exercise, eat healthy, get eight hours a night. It’s always that and it never quite works. Mom quit buying Cheetos after Josh fell asleep. She cooked again. We didn’t order pizza for three months until Bud knocked off and Taylor asked what was the point, really? Mom was running seven or eight miles a day, making Taylor and me bike to school while three bodies occupied a mattress between the couch and television. I was looking at that television when Mom came back downstairs.

Honey, you think you’re going to fall asleep, go to Mrs. Johnson, Mom said. Mrs. Johnson is a woman Mom knows from church. She’s a nurse. Mom laughed. She said, Don’t try this at home.

I smiled a little. Taylor and Mom would fight but Mom and I didn’t fight much. She opened her arms to me. I got up for the hug. We held on for a little while. She was warm. Tomorrow her body would feel cooler. She kissed my forehead, my cheeks. She touched her nose to mine. I love you, Chelsea, she said. I love you too, Mom, I said. She laid down in the space between Dad and Josh. She turned on her side to face Dad and sighed. This feels good in a funny way, she said, I’ve missed laying next to your father. She propped up on an elbow, leaned forward to kiss his dry, parted lips. He didn’t move.

Alright, she said, I guess this is it. They’ll figure it out, honey. Keep going to school.

I watched Mom fall asleep. When Josh fell asleep we all thought he was just being lazy one morning. Then Dad took a nap in his recliner, watching the game, and didn’t get up. Bud said he felt weird at dinner one night. I think Mom knew what was going to happen because she gathered him in her arms and snuggled while reading the last four chapters of Mouse And The Motorcycle. Taylor asked for privacy while she fell asleep. But Mom doesn’t mind if I watch. She rolls her head to look at me, upside down. She looks like when I was little kid and she’d pull a face to make me laugh. I smile, she smiles. She shuts her eyes, relaxes her face and breathing. I watch her whole body go soft before I turn on the television.

I went to school the next day. At lunch, Ezra asked how the home fires burned. I shrugged and ate his potato chips. There are posters all over school that say Stay Awake! Find A Friend! A support group meets after school in the choir room. The bike rack is out front of the classroom. I unlocked my bike. I saw the kids arriving to the support group, taking places in a circle of chairs. I’d never gone but Taylor used to. She said it helped. It made a living room of sleeping family seem okay. A living room of sleeping family is not okay. A girl in the choir room saw me looking. She raised a hand. I got on my bike and pedaled away.

At the end of that first day, I sat cross legged on the couch watching television. On the futon, Taylor and Bud were still. I thought Taylor should be where I was now, she’d be better at this, she’d go to county health and get a stock of ivs and supplements, she’d check our temperatures and measure our waste and calculate just how much to adjust our fluid intake. She’d go to the support group and take tissues by twos and threes, lean on a friend’s shoulder while saying she missed tossing popcorn at Bud during family movie night.

For two weeks I only roll Dad, Mom, Josh, Taylor and Bud. I check the iv lines, swap empty bags for full, regulate the drips. I avoid checking the catheters, instead only unclipping the urine bags and taking them to the hall toilet for a flush. I know I’m supposed to check the catheters for irritation or infection. I know I’m supposed to wash the genitals but I don’t want to. I think about calling the number listed on all the Stay Awake! posters and asking county health to send someone to the house but I’m afraid that might result in everyone going to one of those quiet shelf spaces I saw in National Geographic.

Before Mom and Taylor fell asleep, they’d talk to Josh, Dad and Bud. Mom was on a lot of message boards. She’d forward articles to Taylor and me and Taylor would bring home pamphlets from the support group. Your voice and presence may have power to remind your sleeping loved one(s) that he or she is important to you. Talk to your sleeping loved one(s) as you would speak to him or her at the dinner table. You may want to pause as if waiting for an answer from your sleeping loved one(s). This may give your sleeping loved one(s) an opportunity to form a response in his or her brain. That sense of connection may be an important part of waking.

But no one was waking yet.

The longest sleepers were child refugees from Syria and Iraq. Three years ago BBC and CNN posted short articles, video links of kids temporarily resettled in Scandinavia who were running up and down sidewalks, eating unfamiliar food at a school cafeteria while their siblings were laid out on cots in small bedrooms. There was a photo of a mother sitting at the feet of her sleeping son, trimming his toenails. I don’t think anyone paid much attention until later, when people who hadn’t just barely escaped war fell asleep too. Then we all went to archives to read about these first sleepers who still hadn’t woken up, whose parents were learning Swedish or Norwegian now because how do you move a family who is half asleep? The mother clipping her sleeping son’s toenails, the entire time she was talking to him in Arabic. What are you saying, the reporter asked. She looked up, answered. The translation read, I am telling him about making his favorite food when he wakes. I am telling him about his sister learning to walk.

I tried talking to them. My voice sounded funny. A little too loud, bright. It has this shine on it like when Mom would wake us up early to load the car for a summer road trip and you could hear her tone trying to say this was going to be an adventure, a great fun day in the car, you could hear that in her voice. That’s how I am talking about eating lunch with Ezra. He shared chips! We studied for Spanish! After a month it’s easier to be quiet. How’s the ashram? Ezra asks at lunch one day. I glare at him but think it’s funny too. I can’t help but laugh. And after that, the name sticks. We call my house the ashram.

I like the story to this point. I like the idea of sleepers. I can picture the news coverage, the think pieces, the curated photo spreads. I can also imagine the panic, the screaming stupid. And I can imagine pretending this isn’t really happening.

I like Chelsea and I am glad Ezra is sticking around. I do not want to get bogged down in the medical stuff as the writer, so I let Chelsea skip over it too, for now.

Most afternoons, Ezra walks me home from school even though it’s out of his way. Sometimes he comes in to say hi to the family, make microwave popcorn, help me with physics. He asks if I want to go to the homecoming dance and I close the front door, turn the deadbolt, and watch him go back the way we came, hands in his pocket. I stand at the living room window and watch him walk down the block, halfway down the next until he’s out of the frame. He walks on the balls of his feet as if he might skip or run at the next step. When I can’t see him anymore, I cry. This is the first time I feel how alone I am, thinking that if I went to the homecoming dance I’d have to find a dress and do my own hair and take a selfie. Later that night the phone rings and I jump. It’s Ezra’s mom. Lisa.


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From The Vault & Behind The Curtain

Today I watched freshmen play variations of handball and thought about this story I wrote five years ago. I remember the idea taking bones on a commute in Kuwait. I was at a stoplight waiting to merge onto the Thirty, heading home, and the BBC was on (I listened to a lot of BBC while driving around Kuwait) and I heard this interview in which someone (man? woman? I don’t recall because what sticks is what s/he said) answered that no, no s/he was not a hero. I remember rolling my eyes because this person was a hero, really. Probably saved dozens of souls, but was too humble to admit heroic action. I just did what any person would do blah blah. So I thought, what if someone in one of these interviews just said, Yeah, I am a hero. I carried eight kids out of a burning building! I got kneecapped for telling the truth! I assassinated a terrorist! Yeah, I’m a hero! Yeah! I thought a person would be crucified in the comments if they said such a thing. And then I had a place to start.

Part of the challenge of Thirty-Nine Stories is to generate new work. But some of my new work feels a little too raw to share yet. There’s a reason why we revise before publishing, and most of what I’ve been writing is more a slog through self-doubt and fear interrupted with pep and prayer for peace, contentment. A few pieces are taking shape (Deo volente might be my first tattoo) but nothing is okay to post here yet. So today when I remembered that weird story I wrote – well, here you are. Never before posted. I actually workshopped this with an editor who had reservations about the ending.

I like the ending. I like the whole piece. Once the BBC interview sparked a what if? all I had to do was find a situation calling for heroic acts, and make a character admit that, yes, he or she is a hero.

Now. A peek behind the curtain. I found my character one day while I ordered a coffee. Behind me was a crew of five or six painters contracted to paint the new shops at the Avenues mall in Kuwait. The one man was broad and muscled and sex just rolled off him. How does that happen? How do some people vibe potency like that? Here is the thing, friends. If you write, you talk with all kinds of people, even the ones that make your insides quiver, and when you talk you learn all kinds of things like that this broad, muscled man from LA paints stores for Victoria’s Secret, and that he’s dying for a drink in a dry land. Also behind the curtain is a podcast host I followed through his move from LA to Seattle. Also behind the curtain is the fear I had while living in Kuwait where security seemed a little loose for the region, that I might die the victim of a spectacular, poorly planned but well executed terrorist attack.

This piece is about as final as you’ll read on this blog. I drafted extra scenes as I wrote, revised two or three times before sharing with an editor, cut a lot, and today I line edited a few things but kept the piece largely same. Before I call this piece finished finished I’ll take a close look the dialogue (structure, tags and interspersed action), and (maybe) the last lines. I like the ending, but. Hm. Oh, as with other pieces, please stop if you must.


The worst part came after the bombing, when Jake was home in LA. He said yes, he was a hero, and talk radio, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up. “Don’t look at it,” Krissy said, closing her laptop, “Don’t.” She looked like she might be sick. He took the computer and opened it to a CNN blurb about the quote Jake gave. There were hundreds of comments, mostly angry. Jake didn’t need to hear the clip on repeat. It was in his head. “People you rescued call you their guardian angel or their hero. Are you a guardian angel?” Jake had laughed a little, “No.” The reporter followed up, with a laugh of his own, “Then are you a hero?” And Jake said, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.” The aired interview and the blurbs cut the quote there. It didn’t matter that Jake said he was a hero alongside other heroes of the day. What mattered was that he owned the title. There was a website selling tee shirts and shot glasses with the quote, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.”

He was dying for a drink but Krissy tossed even the miniature Baileys she kept for her Saturday morning coffee. He didn’t think she had any other bottles hidden. Jake scrolled through a dozen comments and handed the laptop back to Krissy. “Baby,” she said, but he was already on his way to the bedroom, pulling the blackout curtains, closing the door.

He was in Kuwait to paint murals in the Victoria’s Secret store opening in the Grand Avenue mall. The job was slated to take two weeks, ten hour days. A week into the job, the boss called LA and said they needed another week. The other guys bitched about having to stay another week in a dry country – someone had gotten ahold of date rum, but two bottles between five guys lasted only a few nights. Jake didn’t mind not having booze easily available. A year ago he’d gone to Dubai to touch up The Rainforest Café and the guys got wasted nightly. That’d been hard, at the start of his sobriety.

Painting Victoria’s Secrets was one of his favorites. It was hard to mess up cream bows and pink swirls, gold accents. He listened to music and painted his panel. It wasn’t like painting a patterned grid. Bows didn’t have to be equally pleated.

All the guys had something they added to their panels, nearly invisible signatures. Jake liked to put a circle somewhere in the panel. Once, on the checkered wall of an expensive boutique, Jake painted a circle small as a thumbprint. At Victoria’s Secret, he added a tiny circle at the end of a curlicue. Laura called that cheating. She’d joined their crew a few months before. “Curlicues already have circles,” she said. He shrugged. Laura hid her initials in the panels. They weren’t supposed to be artists with names. “One day I’ll have a show and sell a ton of shit and these crappy bows will be worth something,” Laura said, nose close to a corner of her panel, using the tiniest brush she owned to make nearly invisible cursive letters: LPA. Laura was a few years out of art school and leased studio space with four other artists, took this job as a muralist to pay bills. Two of the other guys had gone that route too: art school, small shows, maxed out credit cards, job as a muralist.

One thing Jake missed about drinking with the crew were the stories. He still ate dinner with the group but when one of them suggested a bar or nightcaps at the hotel, he left. He missed the bullshitting and storytelling and laughing. He missed hearing about cut up credit cards and girlfriends’ cats and the one painting that sold for seven hundred dollars. He didn’t get the jokes told the next day.

The morning of the bombing, before there was a bombing, Krissy called. Jake was drinking his second cup of coffee and had ten minutes before the van took the crew to the Grand Avenue. He could hear a late show on the TV, during the pauses. “I gotta go,” Jake finally said and Krissy murmured something he didn’t catch. “Love you too,” he said. He stood and finished the last of the coffee, patted his back pocket for his wallet, and left.

He was jetlagged. When he got to the mall, he stopped at Starbucks for a latte. He’d order another on his morning break, another in the afternoon. By the end of the day his arms felt tingly from the reach and precision of painting, but also from the caffeine.

It didn’t happen until eleven that morning. By then, they’d been painting for nearly four hours. The boom was thunderous but distant. Jake muted his music and held still, listening. Laura climbed down from her ladder and walked toward the store entrance, opened a door cut into the drywall and turned back toward the guys. That’s when the second bomb went off, at their end of the mall. Jake heard a sharp crack and shattering, then a deafening explosion in his body, in his teeth. He jumped from the platform before he fell. Laura staggered back. Jake ran toward her and shut the door. The wide palm lined path was already rolling with dust and smoke. They stood, uncertain, in the middle of the store. A siren went off with a whoop, interrupted by evacuation instructions in Arabic and English. Jake felt his pockets for his phone and wallet. His heart was wild.

“I don’t think we should go out yet,” Scott said, “What if there’s a third?”

“Give it five minutes, then we leave,” Laura said. They waited, ears ringing. Laura got on her phone to check Twitter. A few witnesses had already uploaded pictures. “Oh my God,” she said. There were numerous routes out of the mall. They decided to run for it: open the door and take the clearest exit.

At first, Jake just saw the structural catastrophe. Mounds of concrete and metal. The few standing palms had no leaves. Plate glass windows blown out. Café chairs and tables scattered and twisted. Where the blast occurred, the high domed ceiling of metal triangles and thick glass was blown open to show sky. The air was gritty. Jake coughed, pulled his tee shirt over his nose and mouth. The broadcast warnings continued, a calm female voice urging exit. Scott pointed at the short staircase where they entered each day. They could go down to the parking area, cut through the cars to outside. Others were already moving in that direction. Some walked or shuffled. A few ran. More hesitated.

Laura saw the first body, a woman slumped against the giant gold brick of Harvey Nichols. Laura went to the body, knelt. Jake followed. Dust settled like snow on the woman. Jake hadn’t seen anyone dead before, like this. He made a slow circle. There were more, bodies thrown like the café chairs and display tables. The surfaces were hard and sharp. Jake was strong, muscled, but the edges and jags of damage made him feel soft.

“She’s alive. Hey.” Laura looked up at Jake. The woman took the shallowest of breaths. Her forehead was broken open. “We can’t leave her,” Laura said. Scott was at the stairs. Jake waved him on, but he shook his head and came toward them.

Now other bodies were waking. Jake heard whimpers and moans, crying. Jake and Scott left Laura holding the woman’s hand. They walked zigzag from body to body to see who was alive. Further down, a store ceiling collapsed; they dropped to the ground, cutting their knees and palms on glass. For another minute it was quiet again. Jake could hear rescuers shouting. He got up and walked toward Starbucks where another hall opened to more stores and more halls: the blast destroyed that section entirely.

Later, Jake showed Krissy where he’d been, pointing on the mall blueprint everyone saw in the days after the attack. “I went here on breaks.” He traced his finger from Victoria’s Secret to Starbucks. “But that morning, I wanted to finish my panel first.” He shivered. His memory was smaller than the casualty and costs numbers reported.

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Santa Claus

Earlier this month our school hosted a family Christmas party. The conference hall tables are set with white cloths and Christmas decorations. There is holiday music and a slideshow of family photos playing while we eat our potluck meal. And the potluck set on a long L of tables reminds me of Christmas day growing up, when we joined my mom’s extended family in a church basement or American Legion, all of the kids skimping on mains and sides to fill on cookies and fluffy marshmallow salads. Always the church basements or rented halls were a little chilly at the start, warmed after an uncle turned up the clanking heat or enough of us were gathered in one place, and the family Christmas party was like that this year, held on one of the coldest days yet.

We took the city bus to the stop at the bottom of the hill, and walked up to our school. We arrived early with a few others to set up, but most was ready. Justin filled the hot water dispenser for tea, and he and Gene sorted how to give a crowd their Sunday morning coffee (there’s a coffee maker in the business office, and they brewed pot after pot to fill a thermos dispenser). As families arrived with crock pots and serving platters we made room on the tables. Light conversation about holiday traditions or upcoming travel, a little commiseration about getting the kids out the door on time. But like the family Christmas gatherings of my childhood, once we are all arrived at the conference hall, any bumps or arguments of the morning are smoothed by the camaraderie of us just being together. We all made with our socks on or off, gloves remembered or forgotten, the dishes just right or a little burned.

I meant to start this piece about Santa Claus, but setting the scene gave me these connections to my growing up Christmas day celebrations. This is how my writing works. I drafted the Santa Claus piece in my mind while out on a run, but when I sit to commit the words, the words lead another way. Yesterday on a walk we were remembering our past Christmas days. On the beach in Australia, along the Gulf in Kuwait. Kenya, India. So I was already thinking to write about the holiday, and how Justin and I have made our own family celebration from our separate growing up traditions. Maybe those thoughts, and my own nostalgia (I want to spend a Christmas in Wisconsin, soon) are in the way of drafting the piece about Santa Claus.

So let me start again.

Before the family holiday party, I reminded Claire and Grant not to ruin Santa Claus for any of the other kids. Each year I say something similar at the start of December. I did not grow up in a Santa Claus family but I also did not feel compelled to correct the Santa Claus kids in my class, or to do anything but smile politely and nod when a bank teller or store clerk asked if I was excited for Santa to bring me a gift. I have a dim memory of once saying that my parents were the ones who brought me gifts, and the clerk and my mom laughing together. This kid is in on it.

I only became impatient with Santa Claus as a parent. The story of Saint Nicholas is beautiful, but he isn’t the Santa of songs or malls or holiday parties. But my real qualm is the lie. I don’t want to lie to my kids. And for years I could say to Claire and Grant that Santa is a fun story, but some families pretend the story is real. So don’t tell kids that Santa doesn’t exist. Please don’t call the Santa who shows up at our holiday party a fake. Keep your mouth shut, kids. Santa is the opiate of the child masses. Which takes me to the reason I resist this easy lie. I do believe God exists. I talk to God, I talk with my kids about God. We attend church as a family. I read that old book full of beautiful poetry, yearning, hard answers and wild, uncomfortable stories. Faith is a stretch. And as I live my faith for my kids to see, that they may know who God is by the way I walk through the days, I am aware that I am asking my kids to call real the very being many reject. But if I say Santa Claus is real and God is real, what happens one day in elementary or middle school when another kid wise to the unreality of Santa spoils the belief for my kids – do I still insist that this other, crazier story of God really is real, really? So I do not present God as pretend. God is God. Santa is a fun holiday story.

This year Claire asked did she have to sit on Santa’s lap. No, I said. (In light of the MeToo movement, is anyone still insisting their daughters and sons sit on an old man’s lap for the photo op? Sure. This is Santa, not your boss, CEO or director). Grant wanted to know the same. Look, I said, Neither of you have to sit on Santa’s lap. He’s going to give you a present. You can say thank you, smile for the camera, and that’s fine. Claire and Grant agreed to play the moment as they felt most comfortable.

While I didn’t stand in line at the mall to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas, Dad’s company party had a Santa who gave generous gifts and we went a couple of times. I probably asked for art supplies. I might have admitted my unbelief to the man with a fake beard. As a kid, I remember feeling a little smug or superior that I understood Santa wasn’t real, not like God was real. I felt smug about God too. (That may be another essay entirely). For now, understand the intervening years blessedly stripped my pride, though I continue to swell and fall. What I want for myself and my kids is a wrestle with belief in God, and not smugness but humility as faith increases.

The only reason I am writing this at all is because a few days after the family Christmas party, Claire and I were walking to Hyundai department store after school to get black pants and a black shirt for her winter concert. The walk was longer than expected, we were cold, and Claire started a debate with her position that all kids should believe in Santa Claus. It isn’t fair that any kid shouldn’t get Santa Claus. It’s magical. At least the toddlers should have Santa Claus. I thought of the howling toddlers held in place on Santa’s lap for the quick photo while the other kids and parents laughed or made sympathetic faces. I thought of Claire and Grant during their own toddler years wanting nothing to do with the Santa Claus who showed up at holiday parties. I doubt most toddlers would protest being kept safe, away from the totally unfamiliar costumed man, magical or not. After I said this to Claire, that most toddlers didn’t seem to actually enjoy Santa very much and was it kind for parents to make their kids feel afraid, Claire repeated that Santa is fun, Santa is magical, before arriving at her point, that we should celebrate Santa too.

I like the story of Saint Nicholas, I said.
That isn’t Santa, she said.
You’re right, I said, But we can celebrate Saint Nicholas. We can give to the poor.

How did Saint Nicholas become Santa Claus? Why celebrate Christmas with coerced good behavior and wish lists when we could celebrate with an excess of giving to the least of these? Claire was unmoved. I get her feeling of loss. Every family has its culture, its beliefs that inform who we are, what we are about, and as kids we learn the differences between one family and the next, one way to believe and another, and as we grow we wonder and ask. Just as Claire was then doing. I tried again to explain why we didn’t do Santa. We don’t hide Santa from the kids. The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas we watch Santa movies: Miracle On 34th Street, The Santa Clause, Arthur Christmas, Elf. We like but don’t elevate Santa. And for years I just did not think this was a big deal to Claire or Grant. Then on this cold walk, Claire unraveled her certainty that because Santa is magical, it is cruel for parents not to let kids have him.

One day I will talk with Claire and Grant about ways I have failed as their parent. I told Claire that on our walk. There are things that I did wrong or feel badly about, I said. I apologize as I go, but one day when the kids are older, I will open a dialogue to address my own regrets and hear any hurts they harbor too. I value honesty. I value perspective. I value truth.

But I am not sorry my kids missed thinking Santa Claus is real. Claire, I said, You know I tell you the truth. She nodded. I said, You know I answer your questions. She nodded again. I said, Claire, I don’t want to lie to you. Sometimes I don’t tell you everything because of your age. But I don’t lie. That’s why we don’t do Santa. I don’t want to lie to you.

This did not soften Claire. She was belligerent at the injustice of me keeping Santa Claus from her, at ruining Christmas magic. Just suck it up, Mom, Claire yelled at me. Call it a Christmas miracle I did not push my screaming daughter in the river. Instead I thought for a moment. I sat down at the edge of the path, even though it was cold and we both wanted to get the errand done, have dinner. I sat down because sometimes I need to physically still my body to really know what to do or say next. I wasn’t bothered by Claire questioning our decision to skip Santa, but I was upset at the tone, the irrational banging on and nonsensical yelling that I needed to just suck it up. If I laughed, the conversation would end and Claire would be too wounded to hear anything I said. If I yelled, I would only fuel Claire’s anger. Oh the many crucibles of parenting.

What I did was say I am sorry she feels like she got left out of something fun. I am sorry she feels gypped a dose of magical thinking. She softened a little. And then I repeated that I am not sorry we didn’t pretend Santa was real. Before Claire could relaunch her lines, I asked what all of this was about. Why is this a question now? What prompted this conversation? Claire told me she is practicing debate. Fifth graders are working their way toward presenting arguments about the urgency of environmental problems, and how to share potential solutions. So they are practicing debate strategies. Telling someone to suck it up is not a good strategy, I said. She laughed. Really, I said, Don’t say that again to me. We walked on. By the time we reached Hyundai department store, our feet were cold. We were hungry. We sat side by side at a noodle counter.

I know the conversation isn’t over. Maybe Santa Claus isn’t a big deal, but there are other ideas we explore too, because ideas and beliefs inform our actions. I don’t think it is a mistake to make Santa a story, or to emphasize the greater work of Saint Nicholas, or to altogether axe Elf on the shelf in favor of Christ in a manger.

Because I started the writerly asides: Here I wonder how to end the piece. I want to go on about my own parenting questions. There are lines I draw that may prove inconsequential. Santa seems like such a stupid argument. But I remember a colleague telling me he was devastated when he learned Santa isn’t real. Why would parents risk that betrayal? As for magical thinking, isn’t childhood woven through with pretend and fantasy by way of practicing how to be a person? Even now, at age thirty-eight I live in stories. I crave fantasy. Simple fantasy constructed in a moment, like gorgeous hair, or smart conversation. Wild fantasy constructed over years, like a craftsman house I inherit in Seattle or a collection of my best work. I am a fan of magical thinking. I like to think how what is real might tilt just so at the unfurl of a thought or prayer. And perhaps because I write, drink too much wine on occasion, and talk freely, my imagination is no mystery to friends and family. (At a revision of this piece, I would parse imagination and magical thinking. Or cut this altogether).

Here is where I am, a few days after Christmas: At my kitchen table. Dinner is in the oven. I am eating blueberries and pomegranate arils and have already had my small fear of the day, wondering if Justin and I will make it through marriage and parenting and still like one another in fifteen years. God have mercy. This morning I thought how to end this essay. This is probably not how to end this essay, but if my aim is to generate (churn/ toss on the page/ draft/ spit/ fling) thirty-nine pieces before I celebrate thirty-nine years, well: cannot be picky. One day, maybe, this gets revised. One day, maybe, I’ll say it perfectly. But saying things just so keeps me from sharing here. That isn’t fair to my practice. It isn’t fair to the process. One day I’ll write another essay about Santa Claus and you will recognize a few lines from this first piece. And one day Claire will argue about more than Santa Claus, with such conviction and clarity she won’t need to shout to be understood.


Four of thirty-nine stories. 2379 words, including asides. I’m counting it all. Drafted over a week, mostly during a two hour chunk the day after Christmas.

Bush Burning

I returned to an old story idea today, working out the way I might move the plot. Thinking about a character. Knowing I would post tonight, I daydream drafted today and am ready to write one or two scenes but that isn’t what I’m giving here. When I started this project (I need a catchy nickname for Sustain Creative Momentum – SCM sounds like a medication – if you say it like Essee-em – or a pyramid scheme, or dirty shorthand, but it might work), I thought I’d be posting lots of new work. Just blow through all my top ideas. Instead I am bush burning.

The metaphor came early. I’d sit to write with the intention of not whingeing about writing or Korea or my old school or the handful of people I find it so, so easy to judge because years ago I was insecure enough to take a sideways glance as condemnation and now it makes me feel better to imagine their veneers are wearing thin. Years ago I was insecure? Make a pie chart of my notebooks and depending on the month or hormone levels or if one of my kids just got pulled into the principal’s office, at least a quarter and up to ninety percent of the pages are worries that I really don’t know what I’m doing. The bigger worry underlying the reality that I often don’t quite know what I’m doing is that you also recognize I don’t know what I’m doing.

Maybe six or seven years ago I got reckless with my writing. Those are the journals you want to steal. Pretty much anything I wrote in Kuwait. And whatever I’m writing now. And probably whatever I’m writing when I die. After Grant was born I got so dark at times and writing everything helped. Much of my notebooks are prayer or working my way toward prayer. Anything sensational I write can probably be bulleted on a single page or may show up in a collection of essays at some point, an entire book of my worst moods and moments. (Please yes, please no).

Anyway. Bush burning.

When we were in Australia for Christmas I ran in the mornings. For Christmas we were on the beach and I ran inland up and down hills, past a golf course where I’d see kangaroos on the green, to a road that widened as it turned to gravel. There was a chain link fence and gate bordering the property on one side of the road, and a sign that warned No Trespassing. I think there was a picture of a security camera. It was a mine. On the other side of the road was a ditch, tree line and sparsely treed field. The tree trunks were blackened to about my height from a controlled burn. I stopped the second morning I ran out that way and thought a. I should have brought my phone so I could take a picture b. no one knew where I was c. I would miss my children if I were murdered d. (more likely) I would miss my children if I got bit by one of the thousand outback creatures that kill. Then I went back to looking at the burned trees and midsummer growth.

Sometimes I use my writing practice as an excuse not to push ahead with a new draft or revision. Instead of giving myself an assignment (for what! for what! why! who reads any of this!), I return to a habit of writing whatever mess my headspace is until the time is up, the pages are filled and I’ve ended with a prayer of Dear God, Help. Etcetera. We all need a good bush burning sometimes to keep us from burning down the neighborhood. But what surprises me is that when I sit down to Sustain Creative Momentum, embers flick my page and instead of writing an essay about a weekend in Salento, I end up burning a ditch. Is this a part of the composting process I so adore? Or am I just bush burning fields I could as easily walk by on my way to knock out a good scene or two?

(697 words)

Drafting Real Time

This is the opposite of what I’ve been doing for years. I have notebooks full of starts (some finishes) and files of the same. When I started this blog a year ago, I wanted to dig into the writing process. For a most of the last year I wavered about posting any finished work, for a few reasons:

a. I’d rather an editor validate my work for print
b. I don’t want my work stolen (though it will be eventually, won’t it?)
c. It’s show-offy (and a little sad?) to showcase work that isn’t anywhere but on my blog, red by tens*

There’s some overlap there. When I started this blog, I was writing intensely introspective stuff about marriage and parenting. While early posts allude to those pieces, I probably won’t post them here. But I can post new fiction drafts and revision. Something changes when I’m writing to share. I’m still drafting, but with a new pleasure that this next chunk isn’t landing in a file, but going out for you to read.

Part 3 of Tally Draft (though the whole, revised piece will be read without divisions)

We don’t catch anything that Saturday but the next we catch a couple of small ones we pan fry at my house. I feed Shane slivers of white flesh, lick the oil and salt from my fingers. One Saturday we catch seven fish and invite Charlene to join us for lunch. She brings potato salad and sits across from Carl.

You’re Jenny Ross’s boy, aren’t you? she asks him. He nods and Charlene says, Such a sweet girl. I’m so sorry.

He shakes his head, pays close attention to the end of his fork. Mom mouths something at Charlene who stands, goes to the sink to refill the water pitcher. I don’t realize I’m holding myself tense until Carl looks up from his plate and says, It’s okay. This is a good lunch.

When he leaves, he tells me he might have to go somewhere next Saturday but he’ll let me know. My chest squeezes. I say I might have something else to do too, but the way I say it tells the truth.

Most Saturdays Mom puts Shane down for a nap and the two of us watch a dvd from the library. We microwave popcorn and sit close on the couch, cry at all the good parts. When Jessica still lived a few blocks over, she’d join us. Once Dad came home at the end of Sense and Sensibility and saw the three of us bawling. He went pale, thought some terrible news was on the tv. He clutched his heart. When he saw Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson on the tv, he said he thought it was another 9/11, the way we were crying.

While Mom settled Shane in his crib (Such a big boy! You need a big boy bed!), I made popcorn and put ice in our glasses. I cued the dvd. But when Mom sat on the couch she told me to wait. She angled herself toward me. Look at me, she said. She smiled at me. Carl is nice, she said. I nodded.

Are you kissing?

I shake my head. I’m embarrassed she thought we might be kissing, embarrassed because we aren’t. And after a month of standing out on the dam with nothing to do but fish and talk, is it okay that we haven’t kissed? But Mom seems relieved. She pats my leg. She says, Someday you’ll kiss and it’ll be the right time. I’m not sure if she means me or me and Carl. She tells me to be careful and I know she means about sex, but that’s all she says, just be careful, and then she turns to face the tv and I press the tiny forward arrow on the remote and we watch Sandra Bullock be sassy.

When I see Carl at school, he’s with the baseball players, blocking the hall. They’re high-fiving and joking so he doesn’t see me until one of the guys bumps me and I stumble into the lockers. Carl yells, Watch out for the lady, and the player apologizes. I’m sweating, dying. I can’t look at Carl. I just need to get to Mr. Halverson’s room. He calls me later that week to say he’s going to Richland, to visit his dad. It feels funny to talk on the phone with him. He pauses and asks if I’d like to fish on Sunday morning. My stomach flutters. I wish Mom hadn’t asked about kissing.

That Friday night I wait for Mom to fall asleep and reach under my bed for the water bottle. I’ve listened to Wolf and Midget talk about drinking. I know I don’t do it anything like that. I’m afraid to ask Carl for another water bottle, so I’m putting less in the jelly glass. It hardly does anything except make me sleepy. I prop myself on my elbow and listen to Shane breathe. Sometimes I reach between the crib rails and rub his back. He’s a sweet boy and I think of Carl going to Richland to see his dad. I don’t know if Shane will ever see his dad. We haven’t heard from him in a year. If I think about that for too long, I become the most unloved person in the world.

I almost think about it too long and pull myself upright. I think instead about Carl driving to Richland tomorrow, or maybe already there tonight. Charlene told me about Jenny Ross, one afternoon while we watched Shane drive trucks up and down the front walk. Carl was six when his mom and younger brother died in a car accident. The jelly glass on the floor is empty but I’m wide awake. When I was six, I had a box of watercolors I took everywhere, I ate toasted peanut butter sandwiches and begged for a baby sister.


*tens refers to TBTL, whose hosts celebrate their “tens of listeners.”

No Fancy Way To Say Apathy

Oh man.

I started a short fiction piece this week because if I want to write short fiction, I need to write short fiction. Probably because of Fiction Workhorse, I want to write like I’m ripping off a Band-Aid. Fast. Get a story, write a story. Feel it, leave it. That’s what this current draft is. Another fast piece covering a lot of time in a short space. Spare details. I’m thinking of slowing it down, except I’d like to get the suffering over with quickly. The character deserves to sit in limp regret but I can’t think why I’d draw that over more than a thousand words.

Here’s why: because when I sit in limp regret it always takes well over a thousand words. This month I returned to an old itch, why I didn’t quit teaching  and get an MFA and go on to publish in floundering journals and then in more widely read journals and, maybe, put together a collection. I think I’m nearly done scratching because I realize that

teaching
marrying
moving abroad
having babies
traveling

and whatever else (all the unglamorous issues and insecurities I manage):

it all adds to a much richer current writing experience. I am banging away at learning a craft, mostly having fun. I am writing my way to okay being small, okay waiting for anything I write to find its way to a reader who does just what I did this morning when I read a sentence and stopped to cry a little; or what I did yesterday when another character made me laugh.

So I spent three weeks moping that I know nothing about writing when that isn’t true. I just wanted to mope. What is true is that I need to decide (again) it’s fine to write just to write. I send pieces out. And one day I’ll publish. But right now, this is it. Do I have the endurance to keep writing narrative for the practice of constructing better narrative in five years? I pray about this. Because art is important to me. I write nearly every day. I figure things out on the page. Stories run through me. I have to remember that I am not so special. I do not deserve an audience. But I have been writing to write for years and this month I again asked why.

Packed into my list of why is pleasure. Writing gives me pleasure. It’s so good. We need a little art each day. Every time I ask why, I remind myself of the metaphors the writing process contains. Drafting, revising. Experimenting, discovering or uncovering. Please let all of this be enough.

Fiction Workhorse Recap

I give myself these projects because I’m not in an MFA program with actual assignments. And if I didn’t make up assignments (ex: sestina, Postsecret flash fiction, one more page in the notebook), I would probably just go on thinking maybe someday I’ll write that thing about a thing. And it’d be brilliant when I did. But I know better: between here and brilliant is a lot of workhorse.

In five weeks, I managed just over 18,000 typed words total, a thousand of which are wails and whines and a couple of thousand more of which are stutter starts. Some of those stutter starts might find their own finish, someday. Two of the starts are third or fourth goes at stories that are kicking around upstairs, looking for a way out, but unwilling to be rushed. One week isn’t enough time and five thousand words not enough space for either story.

Here is what I gleaned:

Knocking out a story without pretense is fun. I like to start stories with the idea that someday readers (like, hundreds or thousands) will read the piece and love it because in the turn of ten or twenty pages, they are transported / connected / entangled. Up front, I demand a lot from an itty bitty five hundred word start, putting immense pressure on everything that follows. Such an unfair and un-fun way to draft! Telling myself that all of these stories were only practice gave me no obligation to consider revision or submission.

Still, I like to practice revision too. One or two of my Fiction Workhorse drafts will give me that.

My 1000-5000 word parameter is on the low, low end of short fiction. During the first two weeks, I was reading a lot of published short fiction and noticing how long most of the pieces are. For one-a-week, 1000-5000 is easily done. I spent between three and five hours writing each draft, including light edits. More hours if you count headspace.

Working on a story in my mind before going to the page is a great strategy. The challenge from one week to the next was dropping the previous draft and its characters and finding a new story. I took a day or two after finishing a draft before starting the next, but that time wasn’t wasted. I was looking for what might turn into my next draft: BBC, news, podcasts, overheard conversations. When an idea came, I let it sit for a day. I’d go to my notebook and write a few notes, but not much more. Then, if I came to a turn while drafting, I took a break from typing and l played out a scene in my head. Try visualizing a scene a few different ways before choosing the better option to write. Take notes on the other possibilities if you want to revise later.

Fiction Workhorse was a good time. I almost missed writing another short fiction piece this week. Almost.

One of my next assignments: tell variations on a single story, after “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood or “The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris.