Category Archives: Things You Should Be Reading

Post #44: Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir Wild

Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir Wild is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  Engrossing.  Exciting.  Enriching.  Deeply emotional.  True in the best sense of the word.  There were passages in it of such honesty, of such naked emotional truth, that I shuddered as I read.  As such, I’ve been meaning to write a post to share with you just how excellent it is, how worthy of your valuable time.  But my good friend Alan Stewart Carl has just written a fantastic review of her book over at PANK, and he’s said it way better than I would have.  Enjoy.  And then get reading!

Post# 34: Utilitarian Description

I read a short passage in Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box the other night and I liked it so much, I wrote it down and am here to burden you with it.  It’s a short passage.  Here it is:

“She glared at Jude, saw he was dressed, black Doc Martens, ankle-length duster.”

Wow, you’re thinking, I’m so relieved you brought that to my attention.  But, to me, this is a great example of what I like to think of as totally utilitarian physical description.  Joe Hill is not the most concise writer I’ve ever read (I recently read Justin Torres’s We the Animals which re-defines concision in a way I’m not totally crazy about), but he’s got a great eye for the telling detail and he’s very precise and direct with physical description.  And his descriptions, like this one, work for you, consider your experience, your busy day, and your ability to think for yourself.   For me with physical description I’m always thinking, what have you done for me lately?

This description comes about a third the way into HSB in which we’ve met aging rocker Jude Coyne and learned the reasons that he’s now being haunted by a ghost who’s trying to ruin his life and drive him insane as quickly as possible.  We know Jude’s lived hard, spent a lot of time on the road.  We know he’s a rock and roller and probably dresses accordingly, and in six words (black Doc Martens, ankle length duster) Hill confirms this and then some, totally filling in the gaps for me about what Jude looks like and how he carries himself.  He looks like a bit like The Punisher, another Doc and Duster wearing bad ass kind of fellow.

Physical description should always be doing more than describing what a person looks like.  I don’t care if a guy has blue eyes, but for God’s sake, use them.  Description should be working for the character, and therefore, for the reader, dealing with characterization as well as description.  Only a select number of people leave the house in black Doc Martens and an ankle length duster and Jude is one of them.

Here’s how Hill might have written the same description if he wanted to make it a lot worse: “She glared at Jude, saw he was dressed in a pair of gleaming Doc Martens, the yellow stitching running up their sides like broken lines down an endless highway.  The shoes were old and broken in and Jude rarely wore any others because they felt so good.  Nothing fit him quite like his trusty Docs.  His duster was ankle length and also black and tickled the shoes as Jude walked.  Its leather had worn with the years and was now soft and supple and fragrant with the many years of his life.”

This description, instead of working for the reader, throttles her with information.  Its greater sin, though, is that it doesn’t put a whole lot of faith in the reader, not nearly as much as Hill’s six words do, which allow you to fill in the gaps for yourself.

If you can deliver the effect of ten words with six, or even better, twenty words with six, keep the six.  Kill the rest.

Post #14: There’s Always Time for Good News

This message brought to you by the fact that even though I’m in the throes of writing a novel in a month and barely keeping up, some of my writing friends are publishing amazing work right now, not to mention being nominated for awards.  And there’s always time for good news.

Alan Stewart Carl has a new story on Hobart.  Check it out here:

Alan also received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention for his Mid-American Review story “A People’s History of Martin Zansamere.

In other news, Liz Wyckoff published a great short story in the new Annalemma.  Have a look.

Post #11: Assignment Afghanistan

Elliott Woods is another amazing writer (and photographer) I met at Bread Loaf this past August.  He is a journalist and former soldier who covers America’s war in Afghanistan.  I knew that Elliott reported regularly for Virginia Quarterly Review on the subject and recently discovered a website he’s put together that collects his writings on Afghanistan.  It’s full of engaging media as well, photos and video from and about his trips, as well as many heart wrenching stories of a war that I, like so many Americans, know very little about, though it’s the longest war in our nation’s history.

Kudos to Elliott on this brave and important work.

Post #9: You Should Be Reading More John Fowles

I first discovered John Fowles via his marvelous and twisted novel of obsession and sexual gamesmanship The Magus.  It scrambled my brain.  Freaked me out.  Turned me on.  It’s a wild ride.  But as good as The Magus is, Fowles’s first novel, The Collector, might be even better.  I read it recently and had one of those out of body reading experiences, the kind where you look up and hours have passed, the thicker part of the book is now in your left hand, and you have a fantastic cramp from holding the book so long.  It’s a dark and immersive experience.  Imagine Silence of the Lambs without any uncomfortable chortles, only the uncomfortableness.  It’s Lolita without a trace of irony or romanticism.  It’s creepy as hell and rather brilliant.  One of those books you almost don’t want to admit you liked so much because you’re afraid people will think you’re weird.  I’m here to comfort you.  You’re not weird.

Post #6: Revision and the Clock

A writing teacher once told me that you know a piece is done when you can’t stand to look at it anymore.  For a long time, I thought that was about the best writing advice I’d ever heard; it distilled a lot of my own beliefs about revision to a luscious sound byte.  Though, as I’ve progressed in my own work, I’ve become less and less confident that it’s fully true.  I do still feel that the diligent and dedicated writer’s gut is a useful measure of a story’s relative “doneness,” but I’ve also started to see a broader, longer, and more methodical approach to revision creeping into my work.

Enter Alan Heathcock.

I met short story writer Alan Heathcock at this past summer’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, Vermont.  Full confession that I’d never heard of Alan before the conference, but after his reading in The Little Theater the second night “on the mountain,” as they say, Heathcock, constantly wearing a fedora, become one of many writers I made a mental note to learn more about.  Alan gave a craft class on Revision at Bread Loaf, much of which he covers in a great interview he gave to  Some of the ideas may be unappealing, mostly because they imply that you’re probably sending in your stories too green, but there’s a great deal of wisdom coming out of this guy’s mouth.  And you can tell he believes it.  Like, really believes it.

Check it out here:

Also recommended is Alan’s story collection Volt, which is garnering praise and earning well deserved rewards.  The collection took him 12 years to perfect and he talks about why in the interview; his approach to revision is a big part of it.  A sobering reminder here that we all work hard, but to get something truly “right” means you may just have to kill your clock.

Post #3: Flash This

As a novelist (mostly), I come to short stories a bit cautious, a bit weary.  After a few years of attempts, I’m warming up to them.  Which means that I come to flash fiction somewhere between mildly perplexed and scared shitless.  The form, though, is a good counterweight to my own tendency toward verbosity (see?), not to mention a healthy taste of my own medicine for a guy who won’t let even his best students write essays over 700 words long (usually 500 words) because he thinks they can’t be trusted with that many.

All this is to say I’ve been trying my hand at flash fiction, and mostly, failing miserably.  I always try to squeeze in too much.  Have trouble finding the telling gesture that can replace my paragraph with a few well chosen words.  I’ve decided flash fiction is the golf of the writing world–the form that has the biggest discrepancy between how hard it looks and how hard it actually is.

It’s like this.

You read a piece like Amy Hempel’s “San Francisco,” which is marvelous, but over so quickly you sort of don’t know what just happened to you.  You wonder if it was as massive as it seemed.  So you read it again.  Nope, you think, still not sure.  Then you read it a third time.  And that’s when the story really starts to go to work on you.  And yet, it’s so short!  It can’t be that good and be so short too.  Can it?

So you sit down and try to write a piece like Amy Hempel’s “San Francisco,” capping your story at a page and a half, and that’s when the full weight of her abilities sucker punches you in the gut.

This just in: writing is really hard.

Post #2: DFW on the (sub) Brain

The umbrella topic to start the year in my classes has been “What Does it Mean to be Educated?” but after re-reading and playing the audio to my honors seminar, I’m wondering now if the entire theme and the subsequent class periods spent discussing and writing about it wasn’t subconsciously chosen so that I could spend more time with David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech from Kenyon College.

Posthumously published as This is Water, the speech is a marvel.  And not a little unsettling, due to the onslaught of suicide references within it.  In it, Wallace urges us to live more aware lives, believing that the essence of being educated lies not in having information, but in being able to choose what information, and what emotions, you’ll give your time to.  He talks about the challenges of being alive and enjoying life in a world as fractured and busy as ours.  As usual, it sounds trite when I talk about the same idea, but in Wallace’s hands, cliches become nuanced and remarkably interesting things.  They become birds.  It’s especially powerful to listen to Wallace give the speech, which can be done here:  

I won’t re-hash the sadness of Wallace’s suicide and the giant crater it left in American letters.  Suffice to say, it’s massive.  But I will take a small stand here and say that, though I’ve read quite a bit of Wallace’s fiction, it’s his non-fiction that I go back to, that I would choose if pressed to grab only a handful of books from my shelf while the house burnt around me.

Post #1: Fantastic and Twisted Individuals

I’ll begin my first blog post with a couple of tributes.  First goes to my good friend (and Bread Loaf roommate) Alan Stewart Carl, who can be found on the interweb at  Read his fiction, much of which can be linked to off his blog.  It’s really good.  And occasionally unsettling (in the best possible sense), steering us down strange avenues of the human psyche.   Alan is going to be a “I knew him when” kind of writer, so get on board now.

I credit Alan with urging me to get my writing identity on-line.  He brought me back to facebook after a long hiatus, and inspired me (indirectly) to start this, the blog you are now reading.  He’s also, though he may not know it, re-invigorated my own fiction, and has me excited to take more risks in my writing.  He’s a fantastic and twisted individual.  That’s high praise.

The second tribute goes to another good friend of mine, Mark Twain, the inspiration behind my blog’s title.  Twain wrote (and the exact wording fluctuates depending on who you ask, which I suppose Twain would have loved) that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lighting bug and the lightning.”  I’ve always loved that.  It’s so Twain.  It’s funny.  And true in a way that feels self-evident and fresh at the same time.

Another fantastic and twisted individual.

By the way, did you know that Twain, when he wasn’t penning classic literature, was an inventor?  It’s true.  He invented and patented something called the “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments,” which, apparently, could make your shirts snug and was supposed to give suspenders the boot.