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Working Backwards

28 Jan
View of Elliott Bay from Lower Queen Anne.

View of Elliott Bay from Lower Queen Anne.

I haven’t posted story snippets to this blog in a long time, but I had such a wonderful time this morning at a generative workshop for the Jack Straw fellows, I wanted to share one here. We discussed our writing concerns and what we’re dwelling on now, and the general theme among us all had to do with connecting dots and making leaps. Kevin Craft, our curator, then offered this concept he learned from Heather McHugh about hypotaxis and parataxis–the causal-oriented and the free associating, waking logic and dream logic.

Then he pitched the Story Spine exercise, which originates from improv. It’s a basic exercise offering a rigid structure for a story that is then written quickly, using free association. The stakes are low. I used the basic plot of the novel I’m working on now, which made the exercise feel somewhat mechanical, though the final step seemed to open up for me a more expansive way of seeing the ending–something I will continue to ruminate.

Then Kevin asked us to do the exercise in reverse. I decided not to write from my novel and just let myself go. This version of the exercise was very fun. And I can see why you need to go forward first, to feel the mechanics of an unfolding story, and why thinking backwards can allow the writing to get wilder. Here’s that backward story I wrote:

And ever since that day, she held that stone in her mouth before bed, as a reminder. Finally, she chose a slick green stone on a rocky beach strewn with sea vegetables. And because of that, she went to the coast, to look at something wild and open and to fill her lungs with salt. Because of that, she felt all tied up in a box, a sensory deprivation tank. Until one day she crouched in on herself into the tightest ball. And every day she tried to be smaller and smaller. Once upon a time, she didn’t want to be seen.

One month into this program, and it is already so helpful and generative and amazing.

Made at Hugo House Fellowship Reading – Video

11 Oct

In case you couldn’t make it or wanted to watch again, here’s the video from my final Made at Hugo House reading. I read half of my story “Healers,” which I workshopped at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop this summer and which may be the final story in my collection MORE LIKE HOME THAN HOME. Many thanks to Samudre Media for recording!

Audio Excerpt from “Dirty”

11 Jun

I’ve recorded a brief excerpt from the opening to my novel Dirty and uploaded it to SoundCloud. You can listen to it right here:

In case you missed it, an essay I wrote about my novel was featured in Airplane Reading.

From “Fetch” by Kathlene Postma

9 May

Kathlene Postma‘s reading is next week, and I’m so looking forward to it. An excerpt from her story “Fetch” is up on The Furnace blog to give you a taste.

The Furnace

Here’s a tiny taste of Kathlene’s gorgeous story “Fetch,” which she’ll read at Hollow Earth Radio in just one week!

It seemed as if she had been the one to die, so light she felt, so porous and open to the snowy sky. When the surgeon explained she was fortunate to still have her leg, she fixated on a hawk that hung every day over a nearby cornfield. It seemed frozen in the air.

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Overheard in the Ladies Room at Pacific Place

2 Jan

Over the holidays, while waiting for the restroom, I overheard this exchange and have been so enraptured by it (read to the end to feel the rapture) that I’m convinced at least one person, if not multiple, could write a short story, if not a novel, from this tender seedling. Please do share if you do!

“Mommy, it’s not coming out.”

“Well,” says the mother, from a neighboring stall, “you don’t want to eat your fruits and veggies. That’s what happens when you don’t eat your fruits and veggies.” Time passes. “Are you ready? Do you want my help?”


The mother flushes, exits her stall. “Get out,” she says, “so I can come in.” A big brother, about seven or eight but large for his age, comes out, smirking. A gold earring, maybe it’s a stick-on, gleams in one of his lobes. The mother enters the stall. Clucks her tongue. “Why isn’t there a toilet seat cover?” She sighs, loudly.

“Mommy,” the big brother says, face near the closing door, eyes half-closed and dreamy, “I love you.”

If you liked that, here’s another inter-generational overheard, in Florence:

Snippet from a longer thing

1 Nov

The weekend passed slowly, with the Saturday morning walk in the woods (with singing, of course), afternoon game of snooker, and dinner with the Grumleys in the nearby chalet. The Grumleys had two boys and a girl, a yapping terrier named Frances and a rasping parrot named General Attawalpa. Frances, when nervous and especially yappy, usually aggravated General Attawalpa, whose previous owners had taught him to say “Sucks to yer assmar.”

Mr. Grumley, a specialist in Peruvian archaeology at the local university, and Mrs. Grumley, a retired ballerina, took their family on weekend trips about as often as the Pieters. The parents usually had post-dinner ruminations while the children ran off to play, usually right about when Mr. Grumley extracted the pipe tobacco from his left pocket. Mother and Father Pieters generally took Mr. Grumley’s occasional dinner table lectures with good humor, as they were usually truncated by Mrs.Grumley’s inquiries about the development of the Pieters children in comparison to the Grumley children, and often, what that loud ruckus in the rumpus room was.

“Oh yes,” crooned Mother Pieters with earnest eyes, “Our Booboo is the head of his class. He will be a great biologist one day.”

“How nice,” said Mrs. Grumley. “Our Daniel wants to be a cardiologist and our George is an impressive athlete.”

“Now, now, dear,” said Mr. Grumley, puffing on his pipe, “Let’s not brag so much, or the greatness of our children might turn them to stone.” Mrs. Grumley giggled.

“He’s referring to Inka myth, you see,” said Mrs. Grumley.

“We know,” droned the Pieters.

From the rumpus room came a great crash, followed by silence. The four parents rushed in, saw Zanzibar standing on a toppled bookcase, hands on hips, pigtails awry. The three other children stood in one corner of the room, stunned.

“Oh ho ho ho,” laughed Mr. Grumley. “Trying to scale the Andes?”

Zanzibar blew here hair out of her face. “No,” she said, furrowing her brow. “I knocked over the bookcase, Bucko.”

“Now, Zanzi, why can’t you be a good girl for once? Go into the parlor, and wait for us there,” said Mother Pieters. Zanzibar fumed and stomped out of the room. The men re-erected the bookcase, and everyone helped re-shelve.

The littlest Grumley, with large green eyes and cinnamon curls, took her thumb out of her mouth. “Zanzibaw is scehwee,” she whispered to her mother. Mrs. Grumley nodded to her child, clucked her tongue in admiration at her three-year-old’s remarkable astuteness.

Lost At the Aquarium

4 Oct

Eels slithered, sinewy, in the dark water of the dirty tank. Electric eels. Lala stared at them, watched them dance, mouth agape. Absently, she poked at her dry lips, twirled a soft curl. What made them electric, she wondered? She stood closer, pressed her nose to the glass, and smeared her little finger on the fog prints she created. Thought of Miss Janet in a hot pink leopard print leotard, teaching the electric slide in jazz/tap class.

The din of Mrs. Burger’s second grade class trickled away, but was easily replaced by new din. Lala looked at the information on the electric eel’s plaque. She read the words quickly, her eyeballs jumping from line to line, then looked back at the undulating animals.

“Did you just read that whole thing?” a strange woman asked, astonished. Lala didn’t want to hurt the lady’s feelings.

“No,” she said. This seemed to satisfy the adult. Lala looked around to find her classmates gone, the parent-volunteer having ushered them away—but when? How long had she been staring at the eels?

Lala walked toward the exit of the Eel House, picking her nose. She wiped her finger on the yarn around her neck, attached to a construction paper ID card. “LALA” it said in red glitter on glue globs. Her school, grade, and teacher neatly printed underneath in Mrs. Burger’s cautious hand.

Lala wandered from the dark building into the gray light outside. She squinted, and found the penguin habitat. The penguins seemed stuffed, standing so still on their plastic rocks, painted white to resemble ice and snow. Lala wondered if they were real. She peered closer. Finally, a penguin dove into the water, its awkward wings becoming graceful fins. Lala wanted to be graceful too. She gave herself a twirl, watching her skirt fly up, and skimmed her palms against the soft, ruffled denim.

She looked at the penguins again. One of them was stuffed. How lonely it must be, Lala thought. It was a very mild winter. Lala fidgeted in her wool tights.

She moved on, twirling her hair, and found the polar bears, great big lumps of whitish gray fur. They seemed to sleep, paws shielding their little black eyes from the harsh Coney Island light, the wrong type of salt wafting in from the Atlantic. Lala found them sadder than the penguins. One bear rolled on his back, paw out like an open palm. Then it rolled again, dragged itself up and dove into the water, its tired face becoming serene as a manatee.

Lala had enough. Where was her class? She was ready for lunch. The errant parent-volunteer, Chichi, had promised cupcakes. Lala had spied multicolored sprinkles. She considered consulting a security guard. But there they were, lining up at the gate to leave. She joined the end of the line. Mrs. Burger tapped her head, the last in the count. They filed onto the yellow bus with the squeaky green seats.


29 Jun

Ride through the sickness. That’s what she had to do. She leaned against the red wall and shut her eyes from the milling crowd and ambient, amniotic lights. Her eyelids shielding her from the flashing bulbs and the photogenic smiles.

She leaned against the wall and against his reassuring torso, standing behind, and listened to the lulling acoustic music, the music that spoke blue in the face of the all the red, that was the peppermint for her nausea. A tranquilized cover of “Eight Days a Week” almost droning, but beautiful in some narcotic way. She couldn’t see the musicians if she tried, stuck there in the back on the stool the bartender had pulled out for her. She shivered once, twice, curled up into the music beneath her eyelids and rode it out.


23 Jun

(another story snippet)

On the balcony Luda dreams, feeling the morning air on her face. British women, she has heard, have beautiful skin, because of the moisture in the air. She thinks about this and lets the dew seep into her pores. Brown and white pigeons ruffle their feathers in a coop in the corner, coo-cooing at her and each other. She holds a butcher’s knife, idly twirling the point on her calloused finger. Which one will be for dinner?

Suddenly, a great white bird alights on the ledge, bristling, head cocking curiously. Luda stares at it. The cockatoo reciprocates. She fears it will speak, it will reproach her.

“Come in, come in, sweet bird,” she says, opening the door to the apartment. She’d love it as a pet. Would like to teach it to speak and sing. Pissou the cat looks out from under the kitchen table, two green eyes in the shadows, his black tail switching stiffly back and forth. The cockatoo has other plans: no apartment block for him. He leaves as abruptly as he came.

Luda shrugs. She puts the knife down on the ledge and opens the pigeon coop, selecting the plumpest of the bunch. She holds its body in one hand and delicately, lovingly, uses the other to break its neck.

Watermelon, Baby, Chicken Bone

20 Apr

(Some more Luda. Previous bits of Luda can be found under Fiction/Story Snippets.)

She walks down the hot sidewalk pushing the cart, empty but one bulbous watermelon. The metal of the cart sags at the bottom. Green bits of glass sparkle on the asphalt. Round the corner from the bodega and up three flights of stairs—it takes her ten minutes and Luda is tired when she retrieves the grandbaby from the neighbor. Grandbaby coos with glee at her return. She plays with the brown cowlick on his head, coiled like a sarmaluta.

In the kitchen, she gives the baby a chicken bone. He gets grease on his rosy cheeks, bangs the table as she chops up the cool melon, slices through the sweet flesh with her favorite knife: a good, sharp knife, a wedding present to her daughter and the son-in-law. She thinks perhaps she’d make sarmala for dinner, smiling at the baby’s curl. But she’d have to go back out for the cabbage and this thought tires her. She stops chopping a moment and looks out the kitchen window, at the rusty fire escape and down to the avenue.
She hears the dreaded noise: a faint little scuttle.

“Mices!” One of her few English words, such as yes, no, help and bodega.

She drops the knife and it clatters to the floor. Sticky pink juice and black pits splatter. She clambers atop a chair and onto the kitchen table, gathering her floral moo-moo. She sees the little brown mouse go behind the stove. She shudders, but is grateful its not one of the more dreadful rodents, the ones that scurry in the subway. The ones large enough to eat the baby.

Slowly, slowly, she climbs down. The baby laughs at her. Laughs at his silly Bunica. She gets tired easily under all her weight, but she doesn’t take long to clean up the fruity mess, and move the baby to the living room. Out of breath, she switches on the fan and the TV. She sits down with an ooph and watches the mid-day news. Pictures of looting in darkened streets, broken glass, sirens and screaming: the chaos of the blackout a few days ago. She sighs and eats melon, chews and swallows but doesn’t process the sweetness. Watches the procession of soaps after the news, tries to take in the new language, is mildly shocked and amused by the love scenes. Over the course of the afternoon, alone in the apartment with baby and TV, she goes back and forth to the kitchen, cutting and eating the watermelon.

The son-in-law arrives from work on his bike. Brings it up and locks it on the fire escape. He is a good son, with a secure job making gravestones. A demand never to diminish. Only all that death. Was it bad luck? Luda wonders. Her daughter is in a more abstract field. At least she can understand the stones, the carving. Computers, she will never understand. I only understand the buttons on my dress, she thinks.

The son-in-law is taking art classes at the community college at night. Painting. The old Romanian teacher jokes with him: “You can take this class for free if you make my gravestone complimentary.” So he pays just for the supplies and sits in the back, craning his neck a bit to see the lithe model or the basket of fruit and animal skulls on silky colored fabrics.

Tonight he works on his homework, portrait of a family member. He sits Luda down on her twin bed in the sewing room. The walls are painted in a bluish sherbet color and her dollar store house dress is of blue, white, faint orange-pink flowers. She sits forward, hands on knees, rocking slightly with impatience. “Dukes of Hazzard” will be on in fifteen minutes. The son-in-law doesn’t care if Luda misses it because she can’t understand anything on the TV. But there’s something funny about all that nonsense English and sound effects and music—no matter what she watches she finds something to laugh at, manages to clap her hands in amusement. She likes to enjoy life, not like that daughter of hers, hunched over the typewriter in the bedroom, endlessly updating her resume.

Luda brushes her white hair away from her forehead, her bowl cut growing out. It is hot and though all the windows are open the air inside is very still. Very still and vaguely brown. The baby sits in his high chair, commenting on his father’s art in gurgles, banging the chicken bone on the little table. A natural critic.

“Did you eat that whole melon?” he asks.

“What melon?”

“I saw the rinds in the trash. You can tell me, Bunica. Better you tell me than Mia.”

“I tell you, you tell her. What’s the difference?”

“You know you don’t need all that sugar.” He reaches for a tube of pink and squirts it on his pallet.

“Melon. Fruit. It’s healthy!”

“Do you want to go blind, Luda?”

She rolls her eyes and sighs. Looks at her hands. Needs to cut a cuticle or two. Tell me what’s next, she thinks. Amputation? She lets a moment pass.

“What would you like for dinner?”

He doesn’t look up, he is concentrating on the canvas.

“Whatever you cook is good with me,” he finally says, still not looking up. She sighs and heaves herself up.

“Can we finish later?”

“Sure, Bunica.” He looks up at her, finally. Gives the smile with the dimple that the baby has.

At night in her little room with the sewing machine and the twin bed, she lays facing the window. The moon peeks in and bounces off the sherbet walls. Her thick glasses are off and everything is a luminous blur. She listens to the baby cry and to her daughter murmur in the other room. Their sounds weaving in and out of her memories.

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