BASS 2022: Lauren Groff, “The Wind” from TNY, 2/1/21

TNY art by Ping Zhu
There are parts of this story that I have tried and failed to tell for over two decades. Bless my agent, Bill Clegg, for having read perhaps a dozen variations on some of these themes over the years, and each time ever so gently suggesting that I unhook the story and let it swim away to grow for a bit longer. It’s impossible to rush a story if it just isn’t ready to be finished.

Lauren Groff, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

Soon after this story originally appeared in The New Yorker, fellow story blogger Jon Duelfer emailed me to ask if he could do a Guest Post about it on my blog. I said sure, I was happy to publish a post of his – he’s a thoughtful, insightful reader – but I didn’t want to bother with the story. In retrospect, I see I claimed to have read the story. This was, well, let’s call it an exaggeration rather than a lie; I’d glanced at the first sentences (which use a construction I particularly dislike – “the woman,” “the girl” –  and at a couple of sentences of other posts about the story, and decided I didn’t want to be bothered with what seemed to be a harshly realistic story about a woman fleeing domestic violence. When I saw the story in the TOC for this year’s BASS, my heart sunk a little, but I figured it was fate catching me in a… exaggeration, forcing me to read the story after all.

You know that old saw about when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me? Well, I sure did. I should have trusted Jon. I should have trusted Lauren Groff. I can imagine some of the earlier versions of the story Groff mentions in her Contributor Note might have been closer to what I’d imagined when Jon contacted me. But she ended up doing something quite remarkable instead, turning a ripped-from-the-headlines piece into a smartly crafted narrative form that moves beyond the expected into themes that are, by now, familiar to those of us who’ve read these BASS stories in order: the generational transmission of trauma, and the use of story to form history.

The bare-bones plot is what you might expect: when an abusive man progresses from beating his wife to beating his child, the mother/wife grabs the kids and runs. One complication is that the husband is a police officer; how do you report a man for abuse when he and his buddies are the officials you would report it to?

Beyond that, Groff employs a narrative twist that lifts this story: originally it seems to be omniscient third person, but halfway down the page, we find out, as the three children leave for school, that isn’t the case: 

When they stopped by the mailbox, the younger brother said in a very small voice, Is she dead?
The older boy hissed, Shut up, you’ll wake him, and all three looked at the house hunched up on the hill in the chilly dark, the green siding half installed last summer, the broken front window covered with cardboard.
The sister touched the little one’s head and said, whispering, No, no, don’t worry, she’s alive. I heard her go out to feed the sheep, and then she left for work. The boy leaned like a cat into her hand.
He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.

This allows several storytelling devices. It creates a narrative where the narrator’s mother is referred both as mother and a child, where the boys are both kids and uncles, and where the children’s mother is a grandmother, compressing time until there is no past, present, and future, but all three exist at once. One of the primary features of PTSD is time compression: the sufferer repeatedly experiences the past as if it is the present.

It’s also the first in a series of carefully timed reveals, some subtle (such as we now know the twelve-year-old girl will survive and have a child of her own, relieving a huge dread and allowing the reader to focus on other things) and some explicit (Ruby is the mother/grandmother’s name, Michelle is the twelve-year-old daughter/mother, Joseph and Ralph the nine- and six-year-old boys/uncles). And by the way, though unrelated to narration, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Ruby takes care of three children, an unspecified number of sheep, and works a job outside the home.

Immediately after the narrator is introduced, she, safely in the future, will reveal the themes that are powerful enough to override even this harrowing plot:

Much later, she would tell me the story of this day at those times when it seemed as if her limbs were too heavy to move and she stood staring into the refrigerator for long spells, unable to decide what to make for dinner. Or when the sun would cycle into one window and out the other and she would sit on her bed unable to do anything other than breathe. Then I would sit quietly beside her, and she would tell the story the same way every time, as if ripping out something that had worked its roots deep inside her.

And again, for the fourth time in this volume, we deal with family history passed on by story, how that story becomes history, and the sense that the past is always with us, it is indeed not dead or even past. In his Introduction, Greer highlights this choice:

Groff has not chosen to tell it in third person, or from the point of view of the woman, or even the point of view of her child. The narrator is the daughter of the child. The granddaughter. Someone who was not there. It makes the story somehow grander and more terrifying, because it is a story passed down through generations, a story told to make sense of who these women are. A myth, in the sense of story crucial to these women. That simple choice – and an unusual one – puts enough emotional distance between the narrator and the characters to remove any cliche or sentimentality. Instead: there is dignity, sorrow, and rage.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

The escape is as tension-filled as one would expect. The story manages to focus on the effects of the fear of detection, of decisions that must be made quickly, and on how compromised by terror Ruby is at this moment when she’s acted. At one point she’s paralyzed, and this becomes a moment of truth for Michelle. As Michelle’s daughter relates in the future:

Fine, my grandmother said. Yes. I can’t think of nothing else. I guess this will be our change of plans. But, for the first time since the night before, tears welled up in her eyes and began dripping down her bruised cheeks and she had to slow the car to see through them.
And then she started breathing crazily, and leaned forward until her forehead rested on the wheel, and the car stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. The wind howled around it.
…. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, my grandmother whispered. It’s just that my body is not really listening to me. I can’t move anything right now. I can’t move my feet. Oh, God.
It’s fine, my mother said softly. Don’t worry. You are fine. You can take the time you need to calm down.
And at this moment my mother saw with terrible clarity that everything depended on her. The knowledge was heavy on the nape of her neck, like a hand pressing down hard.

Notice how similar this bodily reaction to fear – a shutting down of physical will, of control over one’s own muscles – is to what the daughter – “my mother” – feels in the present as noticed by her daughter.

Yes, it’s confusing, since who is mother and who is daughter depends on context, on whether we are in the story or in the narration. That’s reflective of the chaos of this family, where Michelle, at nine, is helping Ruby, her mother, cope in a moment when Ruby isn’t able to cope on her own. Michelle has her own black eye at this moment, but she must become the adult. This is one more perversion of abuse: adults become children, so children must become adults.

Groff finishes off with two paragraphs that hammer home the overriding themes of the story. First, how we tell stories, how we turn stories into history – or at least, try to:

This was the way my mother later told the story, down to the smallest detail, as though dreaming it into life: the forsythia gold on the tips of the bushes, the last snow rotten in ditches, the faces of the houses still depressed by winter, the gray clouds that hung down heavily as her mother drove into the valley of the town, the wind picking up so that the flag’s rivets on the pole snapped crisply outside the bus station, where they watched on a metal bench that seared their bottoms and they shuddered from more than the cold period the bus morning to life, wreathed in smoke, carrying them away. She told it almost as though she believed this happier version, but behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in the red and blue and the acrid smell of piss. How just before the door opened and she was grabbed by the hair and dragged backward, my grandmother turned to her children and tried to smile, to give them this last glimpse of her.

This is the fourth of four stories so far in this volume to make use, to greater or lesser effect, of this theme: by Lucy’s need to tell the story of her vision in “A Ravishing Sun,” by the way the Dominican girls tell the story of The Little Widow From the Capital to change both their participation and the ending in that story, and in Jeb’s efforts to put together his family story in “Man of the House,”

Then there’s the generational transmission of trauma, also reflected in both “A Ravishing Sun” as Lucy considers the torture and fear her family went through in Cuba, and in “Man of the House,” as Jeb remembers his father and his uncle and how their fear, predating his birth, is visited on him. It wasn’t until the third time I read this story, when I was pulling quotes, that I was driven to tears by Ruby’s strength in smiling as her husband dragged her away, trying to offer her children a view of her that did not reflect her fear and pain. Maybe it helped. Then again:

The three children survived. Eventually they would save themselves, struggling into lives and loves far from this place and to this moment, each finding a kind of safe harbor, jobs and people and houses empty of violence. But always inside my mother there would blow a silent wind, a wind that died and gusted again, raging throughout her life, touching every moment she lived after this one. She tried her best, but she couldn’t help filling me with this same wind.

We don’t know exactly what happened to this family. The impression is their mother was murdered by their father, and the kids were put into some kind of foster care, but Groff leaves those details out as they aren’t important. It’s the relationship between the mother and her children, in this context of violence, that matters, and that’s where Groff focuses our attention.

By a strange coincidence (I keep saying, I love a good coincidence), I just started watching This is Us a few days ago (yes, I’m always late to the party). I’m just a few episodes in, but I’m also blown away by the time compression used there, until there is no past, present, future. It’s used in a pleasant way there, rather than the grim way it’s used here. But the technique is the same: on some level, past, present, and future form a whole, where they aren’t separate. This also fits in with the mooc I recently took on metaphysics, which looked at ways time can be viewed. Do things in the past or future exist? Some schools of thought say yes. Do we look at time as moving, or do we look at our perception as moving along a timeline? How does now become then? Is there a present at all? And moving to ethics: if we realized how our actions in the present will affect those we will love in the future, would we perhaps act differently?

Maybe I just used these things to force the story into something I found more interesting than your standard tale of abuse. And what does it mean that I want to do that? Am I cold-hearted, don’t I care about abuse? I don’t think that’s it; I think it’s more that, at this point, when we’ve already seen the news specials and TV shows, it begins to feel a little emotionally exploitative to use such high-impact drama for fiction unless there’s something more than a display of horror. And here, I believe, there is, both aesthetically, and emotionally.

  *  *  *     

  • Lauren Groff reads this story on WNYC.
  • Jonathan Duelfer discussed this story in a guest post on this very site back when it first appeared in TNY. At the time I made some assumptions about it and declined to read it. I now recognize that was a mistake. Fortunately, BASS has corrected that mistake.
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic looks at his wife’s experience at a shelter for battered women.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: V. V. Ganeshananthan, “The Missing Are Considered Dead” from Copper Nickel #29

When my husband disappeared, my closest neighbor, Sarojini, hurried over from her house across our Batticaloa lane to tell me she had seen him being picked up and taken away. That is how we Tamil women talk about disappearing in my village, which is still my village after all this time, even though it has been stripped to its bones: we say disappearing when we mean kidnapped, and being picked up and taken away when we mean probably on the way to be killed. Sarojini had always liked to feel important, and although Ranjan was not standing next to me, smiling in the quiet way he had of letting me know he shared the joke of considering her a gossip, I saw no reason to stop her from telling me her version of the story. I didn’t listen to her; I thought about Ranjan. Where was he? I was at the very beginning of a kind of wondering that would later become like breathing to me, if my own breathing could be not only necessary but also intolerable.

With this story we return to the theme of grief. All along I’ve been saying grief looks different in different people, but often the circumstances of grief affect its expression as well. In this case, the grief is almost crowded out of the picture by other factors: poverty, demeaning work, and, most of all, uncertainty and rage. How do you grieve when you aren’t sure there was a death? And how do you grieve when it’s as much a bureaucratic problem rather than a personal one? Yet, the grief is only almost crowded out; it still crops up throughout the story: in memories,  comparisons, a wish. In outrage. And in the uncertainty itself.

In an interview about this story, among other things (link below), Ganeshananthan characterizes the narrator as “a ticking clock.” That’s a great description, and indicates the kind of tension present in this story.  Apparently there are so many missing men in the country – kidnapped? Murdered by the government? Forced into military service? – that a bureaucracy has been set up to compensate widows for their husbands. But there is a three year waiting period before that can happen. We’re with the narrator, counting down three years from the disappearance of her husband, when she will be eligible for desperately needed compensation. But in the meantime, she and her son still have to eat. How can mere grief compete with all that?

The widow-to-be takes a job cleaning the local school where she herself used to be a student, the only job available to her. It’s not an easy place to be.

The students were kind to me, and the teachers ignored me, which was also a kindness; I think they knew that I was humiliated, working there, when I had once been good at maths, and even better at English, so good at English that some people thought I might go abroad, to the Middle East or even Europe. Now when there was a concert or special event at the school, I stood in the back with my broom, and everyone acted as though I were not there, so that I could also watch and feel that I was a part of the world, although I was less than a wife and less than a widow, and had never even been a Tiger. Even then, I imagined Ranjan next to me, his width and breadth, the space his body would have taken up. His untidy mustache, his smile. Your son will study here someday, someone said to me generously, and I hated that I was supposed to be grateful.

The climax of the story comes when, a few weeks before the three year waiting period is up, the military bring a man, beaten and bloodied, to her, saying he claims to be her husband. Here is where my hazy understanding of the context makes it difficult to fully appreciate what is happening here. Is this her husband? She seems to hear him use an endearment they shared. Or is that wishful thinking? Why are they bringing him to her? She seems to think she can help him by claiming him; I’m not sure how that works. Is this some way of invalidating the compensation she is owed?

But even though I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, her grief fills the page. The title is the line that runs through her head, a phrase spoken by a government man during a meeting at the school, a phrase actually used by government officials. Death, its grief denied, posed a bureaucratic problem. Raise your hand if you think this might have any relevance to the past year.

In her interview, Ganeshananthan tells of the rather unique origin of this story:

I started writing it for a conference in Edinburgh years ago. A friend of mine is an anthropologist asked me to read there, and I didn’t want to read from the novel I was working on, so I thought I would start a new story. And then I started the story, but I didn’t finish it in time for the reading. So I did something very weird where I just kind of read to an audience of mostly social scientists who do fieldwork in Sri Lanka, and then they were kind enough to want to know what happened. So I finished the story…. And it takes its title from something that the prime minister of Sri Lanka said in a speech in Sri Lanka a few years ago, which which I thought was super offensive, he said, The missing or considered dead. So the story is from the point of view of woman whose husband is missing.

“Sugi” Ganeshananthan, Animal Riot Press Podcast #35

Grief may look different, but it always finds a way.

* * *

Story available online at Copper Nickel.

Interview transcript available at Animal Riot Press.



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TALK: VidPo #3

Love Anne Frank. Love labor, mad-cow disease…
God: cancer, Anne Frank?…
God Love.

Haruki Murakami Rape-Bubbles.

Haruki Murakami: love god, war god?
Anne Frank!
Online education drones Miley Cyrus, giving editing.
Loooove money.
Anne Frank, Anne Frank! Running books love Anne Frank; our fields like.

I’ve put up another Video Poem: TALK. And, whereas the other two were pleasant if incomprehensible, this one’s annoying as well as incomprehensible.

Not in the mood to be annoyed? Here’s what it is:

I ran a Google search for “What we talk about when we talk about” and made a poem of the results words, in order; grouping of words, pronunciation, and, at times, meaning was changed from the item found in the search. Then I read it over a slow scroll of the 39 pages of results (no, the timing isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than I’d thought it would be) and added an “underdrone” track of me reading each search return: yes, I really did say, “What we talk about when we talk about love What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank What we talk about when we talk about love What we talk about when we talk about labor What we talk about when we talk about mad-cow disease What we talk about when we talk about God What we talk about when we talk about cancer What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank What we talk about when we talk about God What we talk about when we talk about Love What we talk about when we talk about Haruki Murakami What we talk about when we talk about rape What we talk about when we talk about bubbles….” for all 374 results, though not all in one sitting (and I used Audacity to speed it up and fit in the same time it took to read the poem made from the results words).

Yes, it’s annoying; it’s supposed to be. It’s even self-referential since one of the results is “lame headlines” pointing to an article complaining about how so many articles use this title, and you know neither the writers nor the readers have ever read the original Carver story.

Here’s where it came from: while ranting about TNY’s nondisclosure of the “tribute” nature of Chinelo Oparanta’s “Benji” in a post last November, I mentioned the proliferation of titular take-offs of Carver’s original story. To do that, I had to google around, seeing what was out there. I got interested.

This list isn’t final or definitive; I did another search a few weeks ago and found things that didn’t show up the first time. Part of that may be the “filter bubble,” one of the scariest things about technology today. Part of it’s just a matter of timing; at the time I did the original capture, the Paris Review blog hadn’t yet published their article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ill-Fitting Doll Suits.” I would’ve loved to have done another capture, but that would’ve meant starting all over again, and anyway, I would’ve had to give up “Melancholy God buying sex gypsies, Los Angeles.” Everything’s a trade-off.

It’s not pretty like my previous efforts, “A Forest From Some Trees” or “When MOOCs Collide” (neither of which are pretty, really, since they’re more or less PowerPoint presentations; I have little technical expertise, can’t draw, don’t have a decent video camera and won’t buy/learn fancy software so this is what I’ve got). But it was something I wanted to do, and now I’ve done it.

Mesosticize This

I’ve had a bad case of mesostic fever. Don’t worry, it’s only contagious to the highly susceptible. I caught it from my ModPo class, of course.

What’s a mesostic, you say? I’m glad you asked, and I’ll tell you even if you didn’t ask. It’s similar to an acrostic, with the spine word running vertically through the middle of the horizontal words rather than through the first letters. John Cage invented the technique in the 60s. He also invented 4’33”, the symphony of silence, which should tell you something.

Our assignment for Modern & Contemporary American Poetry was to create and close-read a mesostic. I was dubious, but after four hours, I was enthralled. The rules for a mesostic are complicated, but ModPo has this handy-dandy Mesostomatic (“You, too, can have nothing to say, and say it”) and I added a few wing words (ignoring the rules on those completely; hey, I’m a beginner, give me a break) and was all set. I finished one for the assignment, a cross-breeding of my math class, my philosophy class, and ModPo, then did a longer one. I took John Ashbery’s “Some Trees” and ran the names of different trees through it – maple, birch, spruce. Some of the trees made more sense than others. I cut out individual trees, played with the order a little; some trees created more than one mesostic, so I wanted to keep them in order, and some seemed to belong together, like the birch trees that almost grew together. I arranged them in three rows, noticed “neighbor” showed up a few times in the first row so I grouped the neighbors together. I noticed “surrounded” showed up in twice in the second row, so I surrounded the second row with that. Then I just moved the pieces around until it said something to me, something about everyone coming together to make a forest out of some trees. I liked it so much, I made a video of it, which was pretty stupid of me since I have neither a video camera, nor animation software, nor a shred of artistic or musical ability. But it pleases me. What can I say, I’m easily amused, particularly by myself. I’m a little old to be bringing home refrigerator art, but when that’s all you’ve got, it’s what you bring home.

The major question the mesostic raised for me is this: who wrote this? John Ashbery wrote the seed text, and every word came from his poem (though I suppose it’s hard to tell whose “something”, whose “are” is used); the Mesostomatic generated the spine words using rules John Cage set forth; I added the wing words from Ashbery’s poem, and I chose the seed text and the spine words. And hit “enter”. Who wrote it?

I’m reminded of an episode of Star Trek:TNG in which Capt. Jean-Luc Picard praised Data’s violin performance:

Picard: Your playing is quite beautiful.
Data: Strictly speaking, sir, it is not my playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trenka Bron-Ken.
Picard: Is there nothing of Data in what I’m hearing? You see, you chose the violinist. Heifetz and Bron-Ken have radically different styles, different techniques, and yet… you combined them, successfully.
Data: I suppose I have learned to be… creative, sir – when necessary.

~~ “Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Ensigns of Command (#3.2)” written by Melinda M. Snodgrass (1989)

Given the depth of my obsession, I was a bit concerned that I might spend the rest of my days cranking out mesostics, but then ModPo moved on, and I was gob-smacked by Ken Goldsmith and Tracie Morris in our weekly live webcast. Yes, this is the poetry class that brings in actual poets. Between the two of them, and some additional poking around (Goldsmith reading a mashup of Whitman and his own Traffic at the White House, for instance, and his talk about Uncreativity in Croatia; and Tracie’s later broadcast performance) I ended up with dozens of ideas. I’m working on one right now, inspired by my earlier rant against The New Yorker. Everything is connected, you see, somewhere underneath it all. It just takes someone like Al Filreis to say, “How about if we put on a MOOC about modern poetry” and to do it right. I’m more grateful for this experience than I will ever be able to say, however (un)creative I may find myself to be.

My Secret Life as a Fourth Grader

[addendum: this course is no longer available on Coursera]

Quite by accident, I found myself taking a Freshman Comp course.

How does one do that by accident? I noticed a tweet by one of the behind-the-scenes guys from my Calculus course, promoting his latest project: WexMOOC, the system attached to Coursera’s “Writing II: Rhetorical Composing” class. I didn’t realize it was the second half of Freshman Comp (I thought it was the actual study of rhetorical devices), but since I spent 15 weeks in Calculus whining “I’m a words person, not a numbers person,” I figured it was only fair I put up or shut up. I was also very curious about just how a computer would evaluate the writing of 25,000 students, and the only way to really find out was to take the course – to let it evaluate mine.

This generated a great deal of anxiety: what if I flunk? It’s one thing to risk a fail at calculus. Flunking writing is a whole different matter, ego-wise.

I do lots of things that aren’t acceptable in Freshman Comp. For instance, I digress, which is capital-b Bad unless you’re David Foster Wallace. But it’s how I think; it’s what makes writing feel like flying, and clipping my wings for writing class becomes like the last time I tried to sing, which is also like flying, in a choir, which is also like clipping my wings: most of the music was terrific, but after a while the director got on my case about my vibrato, and suddenly I couldn’t wait to get home from choir practice so I could sing and fly in my living room, which defeats the purpose of singing in a choir. But choir directors – and Freshman Comp teachers – don’t care about flying. Digressions = Bad.

I also nest parentheticals (one of the reasons I love Vi Hart is, she nests all over the place [sometimes dual nests, one on the audio, one on the video] and not only does she not apologize for it, it’s become – along with digression – one of her trademarks). However, in Freshman Comp, parentheticals, especially nested parentheticals, are Evil.

Punctuation is another mode of flight Freshman Comp teachers don’t like, unless they’ve changed since I last took a Freshman Comp course, which was, admittedly, some time ago. Back when the USSR was still the Evil Empire, in fact. Semicolons seem to be a bad thing, though I don’t understand why; they’re perfect when you want a little break in rhythm somewhere between a period and a comma. Em-dashes make teachers – and editors and online workshoppers – sad. In fact, most punctuation aside from periods, commas, and quotation marks, are quite stigmatized. You can use one exclamation point per 10,000 words (or 5,000 or page, the point is, they’re rationed, and that’s why I love Zin). Colons precede lists and lists alone, and only if you have a very good reason for a list. And speaking of lists, the Oxford comma makes Freshman Comp people downright surly, even though it’s functional, occasionally necessary, and historically proper.

Screw that. I want to fly. But I also wanted to see how WexMOOC works. One must sacrifice sometimes for Knowledge.

After poking around WexMOOC a while, I realized the computer is more of an organizer than an evaluator in this course. It would store our assignments, and manage the horrendous logistics of peer-evaluation, a mainstay of MOOC humanities courses. It would make sure each essay was read and evaluated anonymously by a set of other students from a range of experience and ability levels, and thus be a lot better than a message board rating system where, just like in high school, some people end up more popular than others and it has nothing to do with quality.

At least, that’s what I thought – until WexMOOC told me I write like a fourth-grader.*

The first assignment, which would not be peer-evaluated unless we re-posted it elsewhere, was a wide-open invitation to discuss how we felt about some aspect of writing or literacy. Since I’d just had a crisis of confidence following the Initial Course Survey (yes, basic demographic stuff is terrifying when it includes rating yourself as a writer from weak to strong), I used that experience as the core of my 800-to-1000 word essay (which follows).

Then I discovered the part of WexMOOC called “Analytics.”

It’s based on the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scale which I keep calling the Jamaica Kincaid scale, much to my embarrassment. And not-Jamaica-Kincaid thinks I write like a fourth grader.

Now, I know I took this too seriously (it has nothing to do with the “grade” for this non-credit class which really has no grades) and far too personally. But when someone, even a software someone like WexMOOC, tells me I write like a nine-year-old, I take it seriously. And personally.

I vaguely recalled from my linguistics days that pretty much every American news magazine, such as Time, has about an eighth-grade readability level, and there’s a fourth-grade poet in this year’s Pushcart volume, so I wasn’t too upset. Just upset enough.

The internet contains numerous Flesch-Kincaid utilities, so I used two of them on some of the Pushcart essays available online. Maybe Time sticks to eighth-graders, but Pushcart writers go for high school sophomores, juniors even.

I was very depressed.

When I’m depressed, I listen to music, in this case, my YouTube Likes to cheer me up (I have a Wallow playlist for wallowing, but in this case, I wanted to snap out of it). One of the videos was Vi Hart’s Ted Carpenter commentary about audiences. I hadn’t listened to this in quite some time, and it was just what I needed to hear: all this talk about writing to your audience is fine but there’s value in talking out loud, too, which is what Vi Hart does. And pretty much what I do. That video also ended up as the backbone of my Project Runway recap, since one of the season-long conflicts there was about artistry vs. commerce. They could’ve had a bang-up season with that kind of theme if they hadn’t cheapened it with male strippers and fake drama. But that’s more digression.

Feeling cheered by Vi, I did more research. I put my own essay into one of the online Flesch-Kincaid. It should, of course, have returned more or less the same results as WexMOOC (minor variations always occur). But it didn’t. I’d been promoted to 9th grade. Seems my sentence count went from 129 in WexMOOC to 47 in both online Flesch-Kincaid utilities. That is not a minor variation.

I felt a lot better. The fault, dear writer, lies not in my prose, but in the computer that I am nine years old. I’m still worried I might flunk Freshman Comp, but at least I’ll do so as a teenager.

On Encountering the Participation Survey Question: “How would you characterize yourself as a writer (very weak/weak/average/strong/very strong)?”

Am I a writer?

I suppose it depends on your definition. If “a writer” is one who writes, then of course I am; most people are. Most of us write something, at some point. Maybe it’s a business letter to a client reporting on the progress of an evolving deal. Or maybe it’s just a line to personalize the Hallmark birthday card for Aunt Helen so she won’t feel like her family has relegated her milestone to perfunctory duty, or, more prosaically, a shopping list (produce first, since that’s where the entrance to the grocery is, then deli, then canned goods, pastas, pet foods, paper products and cleaning supplies, finally ending up with dairy and frozen foods before heading to the register).

But that isn’t what’s really meant by “a writer,” is it? No matter what the emotion, real or contrived, is conveyed to Aunt Helen, regardless of the organization and planning – the narrative, really, predicting the little tale of a journey through the supermarket – that goes into a shopping list, “a writer” is typically someone who writes for someone other than his family, or for herself, and for purposes other than necessities of daily living.

So am I a writer, or not?

About once a decade, I jump again into fiction writing, just to see if I’m still really bad at it: I recently learned, oh yes, I am. Maybe I’m just not good at storytelling. Maybe I’d rather explain or inform or enthuse than narrate. Maybe I’d rather say what I want to say than figure out how to configure characters and plots and symbolism to do it for me. My publications have been so few, and in such unmemorable venues (you mean you haven’t heard of Diddle Dog, Forge, or that 80’s classic, Camera Shopper?) they don’t even count as publications. I don’t even have an e-book on Amazon. I know sixth graders who have e-books on Amazon.

I do have a blog, subtitled “I’m Writing and I Can’t Shut Up,” but it’s in a dusty corner of the internet where few bother to tread. I like it that way. If I thought anyone were actually paying attention to me, I’d be paralyzed.

But here’s the thing: I think – I process the world – by writing. I’m processing this class, this assignment, these very thoughts right now, by writing.

When I read a story I love, I write about it. I explain to some imaginary blog reader who may live only in my head what I thought of when I read the story, where it took me, what I remembered that I hadn’t thought of in a long, long time. When I read a story I hate, I write about that, too, and say exactly why I hate it, often using those same tools of memory and association, perhaps to claim it didn’t take me where it should have (in my own opinion) or that it took me somewhere that offered me nothing. Or maybe that it refused to take me anywhere. I’ve even come to the point where I’m willing to post these observations on a blog, to publicly say, “I loved this” or “I thought this was stupid” and let others judge me, or not, for literary comprehension.

If someone breaks my heart, or if I’m yearning after something I can’t have, when I fail, I write about it. These writings usually remain private, but they’re a necessary part of recovery from the emotional spills of life. Sometimes I’ll be unable to sleep – all this stuff bouncing around in my head – until I’ve pounded out a page or two, at which point it organizes itself and becomes manageable: Oh, I see, I’m feeling rejected (or ignored or unappreciated or frustrated or or or…). Oh, I remember, I’ve felt this way before. Oh, it’s ok, I got over that then, and I’ll get over this now.

When I get terrific news, or fall in love, or conquer some mountain that once towered above me, somehow it isn’t real until I write about it. Often this writing remains private as well. It’s hard to brag in public, not only because it’s obnoxious, but because there may be those out there waiting to tell me that my joys are trivial, or, even worse, are interfering with their misery.

And that’s where the Participation Survey for this course comes in.

I spent a long time looking at two of those questions – “How would you characterize yourself as a writer/reader?” I know it’s not a trap. They’re meant to be guidelines for data analysis, to allow collation of statistics showing how people feel about their writing before and after the course, with the goal being to increase self-perceived ability. With tens of thousands of students signing up for these courses, they have nothing to do with someone looking askance at my evaluation of myself: “Really? That’s what you think of yourself, is it? We’ll just see about that.” They have nothing to do with the universe punishing hubris.

I hope.

Because, after spending most of the last 58 years writing, reading, reading about writing, writing about reading, thinking by writing, I finally found the courage to say: I’m a strong reader. I’m a strong writer.

I am a writer.

*The Flesch-Kincaid scale measures readability, not writing level; so while it indicates one must have fourth-grade reading ability to read, it does not actually place an evaluation on the level of writing. It just feels that way.

Zin Murders Your Darlings!

It is not easy to write about joie de vivre!

Hello, I am Zin! No, I have not gone on a homicidal rant – I am a gentle Zin! But I have a guest post on the blog Cortney Bledsoe writes, and the title of the blog is “Murder Your Darlings.” Cortney is not homicidal either – he is a very kind, imaginative poet-writer and high school teacher and he and his wife are about to celebrate their first Christmas with their new baby daughter! The phrase “Murder your darlings” was coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch a long time ago and refers to the final edit of a manuscript, when you must cut out everything that is not absolutely essential – and it feels horrible, especially to someone like me who tends to blather on! That is why my posts are so rambling, I do not edit them the way I edit my stories (though I do some editing, believe it or not!).

I “met” Cortney when I received my contributor copy of Pear Noir 4 (with my story “Harold”) and it included a Postcard of his prose-poem “18.” I wish I could provide a link to the piece, it is magnificent, but as far as I know it is only on that postcard! Another of his powerful and disturbing stories, “The Baby,” is featured on my “Online Fiction Etc. to Read and Love” page. He has published several collections of poetry and stories, and a young adult novel, and he edited and ran the well-respected online literary magazine Ghoti for several years (and we have the rejection notices to prove it!). I was surprised he had a blog just like an ordinary person might, and turns out he is an ordinary person! Except he writes really, really well!

Over the past several months, Cortney has been publishing both his own posts (on Mondays) and guest posts and interviews (on Thursdays). I have been following along, and was very happy when he asked me for a post about something that gave me joie de vivre! Except I froze! Like stage fright! So I wrote about the experience itself, because when I am overwhelmed by emotion while writing, I try to incorporate the feeling into what I am writing (I believe it will be incorporated anyway, so I might as well do it on purpose), and that seemed like a good way to handle this assignment!

I am honored to be included in this blog! Thank you, Cortney!

Fractured Zin!

Hello, I am Zin, and I have been Fractured in Scotland!

One of my flash stories, “Above It All” has been published in Fractured West, Issue #3 – “the pull of distance”! It is such a lovely teeny-tiny book, just the right size to put in your rucksack or your pocketbook and carry with you, full of teeny-tiny stories to entertain you while you are waiting for your lunch or to calm you while you are on Hold with The Man From The Insurance Company (or whoever you are On Hold with).

The cover is beautiful, featuring “Examined Repetition Image 43” by Wendy Wolf from Philadelphia, shown above. She calls it her form of poetry, and I agree! It makes a very sharp-looking cover! All the art on her website is beautiful!

I am so excited to be in an issue with Greg Dybec, editor of Fix It Broken, and Joe Kapitan, and so many other writers I have seen in so many wonderful places! The stories are terrific – a two-sentence wonder, “Dissection” by Annie Hartnett leading off the volume, “Avoidance Behavior” by Lam Pham, “Olivia and the Bulletins and the Leaving Sadness” by Peter Kispert, and you can read a few of the stories online at the website!

My story, “Above It All” was written in the Flash Factory at Zoetrope earlier this year. The prompt was set by Randall Brown; we were to write a story inspired by the Robert Frost poem, “Birches.” I kept reading words like “arching” and “bending” and I pictured a man arching his back so far he bent over backwards! So I wrote a story about him! He became a giant who protects the town that way, but things go awry as things usually do in stories! It was a fun story to write!

And I am reminded that I have not written any stories lately! I try to do something about that every once in a while but so far those efforts have not ended well. I think I am in hibernation or something! But I am so happy to have this little book to remind me that it is possible to write something! Thank you to Kirsty Logan and Helen Sedgwick for producing this lovely little magazine!


Hello, I am Zin! I have another flash – “Yarn” – up at Prick of the Spindle! (no longer online, sorry)

I started this story in the Assignment Workshop office of Zoetrope, run by Brent Millirans. The prompt, supplied by Brent, was:

Story form: Flash Fiction
Story Exercise: Please write a story set in a library. Use only one character. The character may be anything or anyone you choose. Make your character unique. There should be no dialogue. All expression must be descriptive.
Genre: Drama
Plot: Describe the character and some quandary from which to escape.
Obstacle: Create an obstacle, which intends to endanger the character, either real or implied. The character must extricate himself from the situation at the last minute.
Twist: Utilize a tricky or unexpected interaction with an inanimate object, which helps the character deal with his conundrum.
Story length: 500-1000 words.

Sculpture by John Ventimiglia

Sculpture by John Ventimiglia

I went to the Portland Public Library around the corner from my apartment and once again admired the sculpture, “Three Apples Fell From Heaven” by John Ventimiglia, a teacher at the Maine College of Art (not the actor), “In memory of Agavny Johnson (Der Hovanessian).” I have not been able to find a picture of it, and I do not have a digital camera so I can not take one and put it on-line, but (Good news! I now have a digital camera – it is a really crappy one, but it takes pictures – and here is a picture of the sculpture! And the pages that are next to it to explain the letters!) I have always loved the sculpture, and the way the shadows play on the wall. I have tried to contact the artist but have not been able to reach him, I think he thinks I am a nut! Well, I am, but I am harmless! I wanted the sculpture to be the inanimate object required by the assignment, and then I just wandered around until I had an idea of how to include it.

I received some wonderful feedback on this story from the Workshop members that helped with rewrites and edits. I am very happy Prick of the Spindle liked it enough to include it in their Fall 2011 issue!

I Learned the Truth in Mexico

Hello, I am Zin! (this post was written a couple of weeks ago – I forgot about it, sitting there gathering dust in the Drafts bin!)

Since the Second Person Study is winding down (not ending – I will keep adding to it, but not as often), I need a new project! I just this week – yesterday – started writing in the Flash Factory at Zoetrope again. I have not written there since last May! So I am thinking maybe I will track that here, to keep me motivated.

For those who do not know, the Flash Factory is a private office at Zoetrope that holds weekly prompt-driven flash-writing “contests” (the only prize is the honor of giving the prompt for the next week). All participants review each other. I have found it useful for finding ways to approach things differently. Most of my published flashes began in the Flash Factory!

This week, the prompt was “Eavesdropping” given by the wonderful Beth Thomas:

Your task this week is to write a flash based on an overheard snippet of conversation. Take note at the grocery store, park, bar, etc. People are so free on their cell phones these days, you can overhear all kinds of interesting personal stories.

You can borrow a phrase, a few sentences or a plot, just make the story your very own. You must post the “borrowed” stuff at the bottom of your story and give us a little insight into when/where the eavesdropping took place.

Word limit: 600.

I wrote a story from this true incident from 2 or 3 or 4 (or 5?) years ago:

I was waiting for the dental hygienist – the one who loves to scold me, and even though for four years I have had no cavities, no tartar, no gingivitis, no additional bone loss, nothing, nothing at all for her to tsk tsk over, she still will scold me because she is like one of the nuns from Catholic school (where I never went but I understand about it anyway) and I deserve to be punished for spending the first 50 years of my life ignoring my teeth and somehow I have managed to redeem my molars and she does not believe in that kind of forgiveness!

I was reading the 2001 O.Henry Prize stories (pre-PEN). A little girl, maybe 6 or 7, said to her mother: “I learned the truth in Mexico!” I stopped reading, because I thought that was a surprising thing for a little American girl to say (you might expect it from a waif, wearing rags and peering at you with haunted eyes from behind the ruins of her ramshackle hovel in a burned-out village somewhere on the other side of the world). Her mother mumbled something from behind her People magazine, and the little girl said, “MOM!” in that tone little girls use to let their mothers know a tantrum is imminent if proper attention is not paid to them immediately.

“Yes, you lost a tooth in Mexico,” her mother said, and turned the page to read something else about some other beautiful person.

I wrote the words on the inside cover of my book, both versions, for some day when I would be able to figure out how to use them.

I do not want to post the actual story here. It was titled “I Learned the Truth in Mexico” and was about a man with a long history of depression who was drowning, clinging to a rope, he could just let go and die but he found he could not do that, so he discovered the surprising “truth” that he wanted to live!

It is not a very good story but I am glad I actually wrote something! I have been writing so much on this blog but no fiction! So I have to start somewhere. And maybe I can turn it into a good story after it percolates a while and I see the suggestions the Flash Factory has!

Update: My flash won! And the “prize” as usual was to set the prompt for the next flash gig – so I made it, write a flash in second person! And, in honor of my friend Marko, gummi bears and gruel (which, well, you would have to be there, Marko runs a “What’s for Dinner” thread in an office on Zoetrope and somehow works gruel and/or gummi bears into nearly every week!) And what is really wonderful is that Randall Brown, Flash God, wrote a story and will be here at some future point to talk about second person! I am so excited! So even though the story was not that great, good things came out of it. And now I am going to work on the next Flash Gig…

Zin Has Another Story!

Hello, I am Zin! I have another story up!

“Drowning” is online at Berg Gasse 19. [ETA: I am sorry, but the site has dissapeared! This makes me sad! I hope Darcy is ok, she did not tell me she was shutting down, it just expired! I have removed the link from the sidebar! But I figure, it was there, so I will not remove this post!) It is an actual short story, not a flash! And there is no goofiness in it, no wings that fly away, no giant plastic noses, no plumbing! It is quite grim, in fact.

It was “inspired by,” I guess you could call it, by a real thing that happened here in Portland a couple of years ago – a man was working on a Saturday down by the waterfront and he saw some teenagers push a couple of homeless guys into the harbor! No one died, the men were fine, the teenagers ran away and were never caught, the man had to climb a fence to help one of the guys get out.

I read this article while I was waiting for an MRI of a “solitary pulmonary nodule” (which turned out to be, like most of them, absolutely nothing, but at the time I was pretty upset; I had quit smoking six months before and I was really going to be pissed if I had cancer). I tried to write a story from the point of view of the homeless men, from the hero, and the kids, and I liked the kid version the best! It took on a life of its own and started to be about trust, and who a kid believes and who they do not believe – they will do anything Justin Beeber says to do, or is rumored to do, but their parents, not so much!

I had to turn into the POV kid and imagine the harbor scene and the bullying scenes in detail, which was really scary! I am a gentle Zin! So the scary ended up kind of in the story too.

Zin Makes The Longlist!

Happy Happy Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! This is amazing! My flash, “The Man With The Nose In His Living Room” in FRiGG Fall 2010 made the Wigleaf Longlist for best online flash for 2010! It did not make the Top 50 list, but it is one of the 200 best flashes for the year, which maybe sounds a little like one of 40 best states, but when I look at the names of other people from the Zoetrope Flash Factory on the Longlist – Randall Brown (my hero), David Woodruff as Kyle Hemmings, Tania Hershman, Meg Pokrass, Ethel Rohan, Jeanne Holtzman (heroes all) – and so many other wonderful writers and literary magazines I love, I am honored to be on this list, on any list where they are.

This particular story did not start off very well, but Ellen Parker (she is the editor of FRiGG and a wonderful person, patient, full of generosity of self as Suvir Saran from Top Chef Masters put it) told me exactly where I went wrong and stood by waiting as I fumbled and finally fixed it!

This is good news! And it is good now because I had two rejections this morning so it is always nice to get something good to balance that out! And I have been struggling with the prompts in the Flash Factory lately, I do not seem to be really getting my teeth into anything though I keep writing anyway.

Zin in Translation

Hello, I am Zin! I am very excited again: I am going to be translated!

A friend from the Flash Factory at Zoetrope, Jesus Silveyra Tapia, works with a literary magazine based in Mexico, Levrel (which is an artistically misspelled version of Lebrel, meaning Sighthound). He is putting together a dossier for the Winter issue and remembered one of my flashes from several months ago (the prompt was: one phone call from jail), and asked if he could translate it and include it! I am so excited! I have never been translated before! I am becoming International! It is a new magazine, this will be the third issue, and many things can happen between now and then, but I am honored that he remembered my Oatmeal story.

Lee, my Maine writer friend who loves all things Mexican (and is working on a book about the Mayans), I hope your eye is better so you can read this!

Delinquent Zin

Delinquent Zin

Hello, I am Zin!

Today I received my copy of The Delinquent. Wait. I did not receive it as much as I went and got it, since it did not fit in my mailbox on Saturday when the mailman arrived and people in the building have insisted nothing should be left on the shelf by the mailboxes because things get stolen. Book never get stolen. I think that is sad.

Anyway I went to the Post Office which is open even though it is a holiday, Patriot’s Day. It is the day the American Revolution started, and this is a holiday only in Massachusetts and Maine (which used to be part of Massachusetts). It is not a Federal holiday so the post office is still open.

Now, the point, I suppose. I have two pieces in Issue 14 of The Delinquent (April 2010), a three-times-a-year (triennial? They call it 3i pa, “three issues per annum” I would assume) British magazine of short poems and prose. One is a poem, “Maples” which became a prose poem, “Sap” in the Flash Factory during the Revenge prompt. The tense changed as well, and a few details. It was more grim as a prose poem but Jason at The Delinquent preferred the poem form, which is fine. They also published “The Man In The Crisp Suit” which is a prose poem. Both are very short, less than 100 words.

So I am happy that I actually have some work published again! And print! Not exactly top tier but it is a nice enough magazine! And it is nice to have something on my shelf to keep Pear Noir!4 company. It can be downloaded for about $1.50 which is good. The hard copy costs about $9 with postage which is probably too much. Or if you are a friend of mine from Zoetrope just ask and I will email you something. 😉 shhhhh….

The Joy of Writing

Hello, I am Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! I am learning that I am not by nature a fiction writer. I am not that interested in stories, in characters, in plots and twists and conflict and rising action and dramatic tension and pacing.

I just want to write.

I had to write this (the piece that follows) last night. Then this morning I patched up the holes, and realized now I have to find a story to fit it into. I do not want to do that. I am done with it. It is not a story, it is not an essay. It is just something I wrote because I wanted to, I had to, and it felt terrific to write. I am not even sure I breathed as I was writing! But because there is no setting, plot, character, no thread, no construct, no beginning-middle-end, it is not “really” writing, it is just, well, I am not sure what it is, it is one of my 3 a.m. rants! But it is what I love to do. It is what I used to do daily, more than daily, before I decided to take another stab at fiction and started to study the details of how to write a story. I have not written like this in a long long time. It was glorious. But is it just self-indulgent literary masturbation? And if so is that wrong?

I am scared. Because instead of writing stories, I think I would rather just write. And, what is the use of that?

Do I want to work hard and write properly, or do I want to write joyfully? Is joy enough of a payoff?

And does this count in those edicts to write 500 (1000, 200, whatever) words a day? Or do those have to be submittable words?

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I’m trying to teach my cat not to shit in the middle of the night. This isn’t just a parlor trick or some passing fancy, something with which to while away the time and recount to fill in awkward pauses at parties with something so arresting it would jar event he most jaded into consciousness (“Say, did you know it’s possible to train a cat to move its bowels at certain times of the day?” “Really? And how does one do that?”). It is instead a practical matter, as I am tired of being wrenched from my bed, on the verge of falling asleep (always on the verge, never there – in fact, I am beginning to suspect that the very vergedom of slumber triggers some kind of autonomic reflex that causes said cat to defecate at that particular moment) when I hear her pawing in the litter. Though experience has taught me otherwise, I lie there and hope, maybe, perhaps, surely this time her shit will not smell, as she scampers back into my bedroom via the couch, the bookshelf, sometimes the coffee table, the foot of the bed (I draw up my feet as soon as I hear her coming so I don’t get a random claw in a tender piece of sole), and the windowsill. A minute passes, two, and I start to drift off, thinking this miracle of fecal purity has occurred. And then it strikes me, the stench of a hyperthyroid gut emptied into a closed litter box in a bathroom fifteen feet down the hall. And I trudge up, scoop (sometimes I drop it, never a good thing, because that requires not only tearing off enough toilet paper to pick up the offensive particle to place it in the toilet, but also another piece of paper, dampened (after waiting for hot water, which can take up to a minute, a very long minute in the middle of the night) to wipe the floor of any smelly stickiness that might remain.

If this were the only problem that robbed me of sleep, I might be all right, for I could then go back to bed and continue the night’s session. But then there is the acid reflux. Not the polite kind seen in television commercials, where heartburn provides enough comic annoyance to provoke the purchase of expensive medicaments (which I have in abundance and take regularly). No, this kind of reflux is more virulent, and strikes me particularly when I lie on my left side (and it is so irresistible, to change position, isn’t it, the right sight gets worn out after a while and lying on the left means I face the window with it’s light and air) and means I wake with a mouthful of bile that has already gone into the back of my nose and my windpipe and I will spend the next hour hacking the bitter stuff out of all the wrong places. They don’t tell you that in the ads, that while the stomach acid is reduced, the bile still pours from the liver, particularly in those of us who have been relieved of our gallbladders and continue, against all medical advice, to eat batter-fried fish or cornbread with butter. I will smell it for hours, vomit in my sinuses, unless I put my head in the sink under a towel and run hot water to get the mucous moving freely. This is the reason I can no longer tolerate Parmesan cheese; it contains butyric acid, the substance that gives vomit its traditional smell, and I can not understand how gourmets everywhere praise something that smells like vomit as the noblest of cheeses. For me, I’ll stick with Havarti or Provolone and, when I’m feeling adventurous, Swiss.

And if my cat has already relieved herself and my bile is under control, there is still the brain that becomes problematic. Strange things I don’t normally think about become important in the wee hours. I think of a sentence I must write, which means getting it down (on paper if it is short, or, if longer, like these paragraphs, which I am writing at 4am, on my computer) before it turns to dust, another thought that glimmers like an oasis in the distance but is never reached. And topics I want to know more about, but forgot I wanted to know about during the hours when I could conveniently research them. Like spontaneous human combustion. It’s a documented phenomenon, not an urban myth, people do occasionally – exceedingly rarely, I’ll admit – burst into flames for no apparent reason and are consumed, leaving the chair upon which they sat or the bed in which they lay slightly singed but otherwise undisturbed. I want to know more about this, how many cases have been studied, how many turn out to be like crop circles, completely explainable by other means or downright hoaxes, and if there is any scientific explanation for these events. If I were curious about this at, say, ten a.m., it would be a simple matter to put aside my coffee or whatever memo I happened to be working on, and to google around until I had the information or at least ordered a book which claimed to contain the pertinent information. But when that thought starts at 3 am, it is as inescapable as the smell of hyperthyroid poop or bile in my nasopharynx, and I must understand it.

“Do you think you are going to spontaneously humanely combust?” a particularly stupid therapist once asked me. It wasn’t her fault; she was very young and very earnest, and still had the dream that if she could find the magic question, that single sentence that would reach into my psyche through decades of angst and despair, she would effect a miracle cure and I would leave the clinic happy, joyous and free, and she would be absolved of whatever crime she had committed long ago, in thought or deed, that sent her to not only plumb through the hideous depths of wretchedness for a living but called her to do so in a subsidized treatment center frequented by those who sought not insight, but sport.

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Smokelong makes me a very happy Zin!

Happy Zin

Happy Happy Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! I have more exciting news! The new issue of Smokelong (31) is up, and my flash, “The Mystery of Water” is in it! And an Interview! I am very happy!

The other stories in the issue are wonderful! Smokelong has a sign-up where you get a new flash from the upcoming issue about every week, so I already had read maybe half the stories. I have added some of them to my “Online Stories etc. To Read And Love” page (which has been sadly neglected and needs attention!):


More stories accepted!

Hello, I am Zin!

Hello, I am Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! I am very happy – I have had another story accepted! No, that is not quite right, it is two pieces and they are not stories they are more poems, little things, prose poems maybe? They were accepted by The Delinquent which is a magazine in England. They have beautiful covers! Maybe you can not tell a book by its cover but it is nice to have good art anyway! One is my Maples story and the other is The Man In The Crisp Suit. Both are very short, under 100 words.

In the meantime my other story, Yarn, is not going so well, boo hiss. It was the top story in the Flash section of Zoetrope for March I found out, which surprised me, because it did not get such high scores. I have had stories with higher scores that did not get on the top three list at all! But I suppose that is how it goes some times. And it has been rejected several times, maybe five? So I think maybe that ranking system has a few bugs in it! I am still undecided about how to send things out. I rewrite all the time (when The Delinquent told me they accepted my Maples piece I told them I had a rewrite if they wanted it) and I try to figure out what is not working, but I am not sure what to do, should I just keep submitting it to places that are easier to get into. See, I think, if really good magazines do not want the piece, I do not want it out there at all! I already have one piece I do not like in a cat webzine and I keep hoping no one will ever find it!

And what about my “nates” story, that did quite well in the Flash Factory, but I am not sure it is something I want to see published, I am not sure I am proud of it! I think there may be a couple of places that might like it (it is very dark and mean) so maybe I will see if they like it and if not I will just let it sit until I know better what I am doing.

But anyway I am very happy about The Delinquent. They seem a little bit crazy so that is perfect for me!

Happy Happy Zin!

[Zin Kenter] Hello, I am Zin! Warning: I am about to brag! Or crow! Or do a Happy Dance! I have had a very VERY good week and I am very happy and I have had so many bad weeks I want to document this so next time I am sad I can look here and think, well, that happened, who knows, maybe it will happen again some time. I try not to document my bad weeks (I made a mistake last week but I deleted it) but this was a VERY good week, at least in my terms. I mean, I did not win a million dollars or get a Nobel prize or cure cancer but I wrote a good story! And that did not seem possible a month ago!

Last year I was doing some writing work in the Flash Factory on Zoetrope. Zoetrope is an online writing workshop, and the Flash Factory is an office where a prompt is given every week. I got some good flashes out of that, some of them were published, and I learned a lot from some very talented people there, very talented, and part of the gig is we all review the stories we write so I had some very good feedback. In late summer I had some problems with a class I took, it made me very sad and I stopped writing, we started this blog in an attempt to get back to writing, to do exercises and read, but I could not write. And I got an email from my dear writing friend Marko (he is a wonderful writer, one of his stories is in my “Online Reading” page, and I am resisting the temptation to put another one there because I do not want it to be the Marko page, after all, one entry per writer), and another from my new writing friend Leonard, about my dear Zoe Godmother Liesl looking for me, and between those three people I went back to the Flash Factory a few weeks ago. As of today I have written four flashes for the Factory – which is four more than I wrote in the six months before!

And this week I wrote a story I really liked, which can be dangerous because you post it in the Factory and find out sometimes other people do not like it! I was scared! But I posted it and a lot of people did like it – in fact it was the winning story for the week! And even better, one of the editors of Smokelong (a wonderful online magazine) read it – it was her prompt that was used since she won the contest the week before – and asked me to submit it to Smokelong, and they will publish it in March! This is so wonderful! It is an honor, like with FRiGG, really a great thing to have happen! And it is funny, when I go back an look at the story, which I did not know what would be happening when I wrote it, it is very short, but I see it includes someone wanting something and obstacles and all those things people have been telling me for years and I put it in the story without really concentrating on those elements! Maybe I am becoming a writer after all!

Now I have a week off from the Factory (I do not want to write to my own prompt) and I am going to buckle down and keep reading, and there is another office on Zoetrope that might be starting that might help me get going with short stories, I have not been able to do that either, several are lying dead in the road because I have neglected them and I think I need to start over. But this week gives me a little boost and feeling that maybe I can do this, maybe if I work hard and study and keep reading all these great stories from BASS and The New Yorker and One Story and all the other places I have been reading, I will be able to write a halfway decent story!

So forgive me for being so brazen and happy, but some times I just have to let myself have a moment!

This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

I love teeny tiny books. I love oddball books. I love books about writing that mean something to me (not many of them do). And I love Steve Almond. Put them together, and you’ve got This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey which I first heard of in Randall Brown’s blog, FlashFiction.Net.

 It’s a teeny tiny book, I carry it in my rucksack along with Amie Bender’s “The Third Elevator” and whatever collection I’m reading at the moment, because I never know when I’ll want to look at it.  4½ by 6½ , 37 plus 41 pages. Why not just 78 pages? Because it’s two (snap) Two (snap) TWO books in one (if you weren’t a TV addict in the 70’s, that reference will go right by you). When you’re Steve Almond, you can get away with that.

 When viewed from one side, there’s nurse on the cover (the legs of a nurse, at least) dressed in a white uniform, holding a hypodermic syringe. It’s kinda scary, but, after all, this won’t take but a minute, honey. What follows is a series of essays about writing (prescription, see?). Wonderful essays. One of the last discusses titles for stories, and mentions a brilliant student named Ellen Litman who wrote a wonderful story about Russian immigrants titled something bland like “How to Succeed in America” but contained a scene about the narrator’s father clutching a supermarket chicken like it was “The Last Chicken In America” which because the title of the story and the novel-in-stories that resulted. A review of this book on Jon Morgan Davies’s delightful blog “Short Story Reader” reminded me that I hadn’t yet put Steve Almond’s gem of work and play on this blog as a Favorite Read, prompting me to do so immediately.

The essay that meant the most to me, though, was the one about the character alienated from everything living at the bottom of a large hole. It’s his #1 Plot Fail. I was stunned: I thought I was the only one who did this, and now I find everyone does it. “Character in a Hole” is a hilarious essay, about such alienated characters still wanting something, like a really big symbolic fish. His take on the development of the bullshit detector is also special. But every essay is special.

And then we come to the stories. A story about Nixon – yes, President Nixon – that made me cry. Stories about socks, cashiers, various phases of Germany. Amazing stories, so short you can read one while holding your breath, but so long they stay in your head. To read these stories, you must flip over the book, to reveal the cover – the nurse in white with the hypo is now in a black catsuit and heels with a whip in her hand – the Fun side. Or maybe, once you’ve had your Fun, you need your Shot, I don’t know, it’s very entertaining to keep flipping the book (half is always upside down) just looking at the covers, and if you read in public as I do, someone will always stop to stare at you (which, frankly, I could do without, at least when I’m at the supermarket – maybe I need to find a new venue for public reading).

 I read somewhere that this magnificent book is available only at Steve Almond’s readings, or through the Harvard Book Store. I don’t remember where I heard that, but I tend to believe it because it isn’t on Amazon. And because Steve Almond self-published it. When you’re Steve Almond, you can get away with that.


I got a “Tale of Two Cities” rejection today – the best of times, the worst of times. Overall, I feel pretty good, and that’s the first time I’ve ever said that about a rejection.

First on the good side, I crossed it off my list about a week ago, sure I’d already received a rejection slip (it was a postal sub) and forgot to mark it before I tossed the note. So finding the envelope in my mailbox wasn’t a big disappointment – I’d been immunized by pre-disappointment.

First on the bad side, it was a magazine I very much wanted to get into – the J Journal from CUNY’s College of Criminal Justice, they like stories that use themes of justice, not courtroom dramas or police procedurals, and I thought “Drowning” would work.

Second on the good side, I got a very nice note on the rejection form, that it came very close but the writing “just doesn’t quite reach the inner workings of this scared kid.” And I agree with that assessment! It was the third-person, scaled-down version that was my final unreviewed submission to my online writing class – I never got feedback on it from the Teacher to the Stars, so for all I know s/he might’ve said it was crap, but I felt kind of vindicated that it was stripped of all personality and life in order to focus on tiny little “specificity” details and to remove all internal workings. They also said to try them again.

Second on the bad side, I regretted sending out that version, and I wish I’d sent them the version that followed. But I can’t, I’ve been told that sending rewrites, unless specifically requested, is baaa-aaa-aaad.

Overall, I feel good because I learned something, that sometimes I need to listen to myself and give myself some input, too. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked anyway, but I’m glad I feel like it would’ve been a real possibility. And they said it was “very close.” In the past, “very close” has depressed me. That, and the “well written but the story didn’t work.” Yep, that’s me, the one who writes terrible stories, beautifully. But today’s “very close” felt good for some reason, maybe because I understand, even agree with, why it fell short. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.