Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Honored to have a story in this gorgeous anthology out February 1st, edited by Persis Karim and Anita Amirrezvani.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Bandages Come Off

For some reason, I’m the one standing up here, but the truth is, if we’re going to talk about writing, if we’re going to dissect a story, we should be on our knees. Not to worship – although yes, reading a great story is like being inside a cathedral, the power of the words hushing you, turning your head this way and that. We should be on our knees because we’re in this thing together. I have no monopoly on storytelling. You have stories – you’ve brought them with you, whether you know it or not – and I will have failed you if I remain standing behind a podium or on a stage instead of on my knees right here with you, our hands in the dirt. The truth is that if we want to get into this thing – this process of writing – we better be ready to get down and excavate.

I’m not trying to be flowery when I say these things. At any reading I’ve ever done, there is always someone who asks me, “What advice would you give to someone trying to publish?”  I tell them to forget at first trying to publish. I tell them to read and keep reading until they find some book, some writer, who sets them all aflame. Then practice getting close to that flame. Get your hand closer until you go from discomfort to sizzling palm, until you say, I cannot write as well as this writer and it makes me sick. Are you there yet?  Yes? No? Either way, read some more.

I tell my students that Sherwood Anderson, now no more than dust and bone fragments in a box, will teach them more than I ever can sitting across from them with some flimsy handouts. Read and read and read and then, Step 2: write fearlessly. What does that mean? To write fearlessly? Not to dump your diary on the page like a pepper shaker. Keep your diary. But dump your passion on the page. Dump your blood.

Look, you’re going to leave this talk and go eat a cheeseburger somewhere and go home and feed the cat and sleep and dream, but remember this one thing, if you remember nothing else I say: No one has ever read something and said, you know, there was too much passion in this.

Here’s something I wrote recently, fearlessly. And when I say fearlessly, I mean that I was fearless writing the words – I did not stop them – but I was terrified to let them be published. My ego said, my secret shame said, why would anyone care what I have to say? I took my ego and my secret shame outside and beat them to a pulp. They pissed their pants, and I hit send. Be brave. It’s okay to look foolish. Hit send.

By now you realize there is nothing glamorous about this. I write; I have written. What I do is go into a room, wrestle my butt into a chair, tug on my face, eat potato chips, write some words, delete those words, write new words, re-arrange the new words. Hate it, fall in love with it, do it all over again.

Here’s what I don’t do. I don’t walk around waving my arms, saying, “You know, I love the idea of being a writer.” You know what? Being a writer means being poor and anxious and vulnerable and competitive and grasping. It's not at all romantic. If you want a fantasy gig, try Iron Man, flying around with flames shooting out of his feet. It makes no sense to talk about all the great American novels you’re going to write if you’re never going to write them.  If you want to write, sit down, uncurl your fingers, and for heaven’s sake, write.

I don’t wait for inspiration or muses or bugs landing on my shoulders, whispering in my ear. Here’s what I also don’t do: aim for perfection. The biggest mistake my students make is that when I ask them to write something, they start acting like their world is made of glass. They get scared. When the stories come, they sound like they’re being told from inside a gym sock. It’ll get closer to perfect when you revise, but for now, just begin. Screw caution. Write with muscle. Write about work, write about what’s happening in the world or what’s happening in your bedroom. Aim to make someone feel something.

Go word by word. Write the way that Spiderman gets around. Let one image unfold into the next. A student wrote this sentence: “Those words haunted her, and soon it made her crazy enough to be checked into a mental institute.” I wrote this sentence as another option: “Those six words, thick and heavy as asphalt, haunted her, took her down a road so far and fast she couldn’t turn her head, took her, finally, to a place without windows.” Those words, what words? Give them weight, a number, connect them to the tangible. From asphalt grows the road, Spiderman’s web. From the road grows the journey (far and fast), the inevitability of “crazy” conveyed by the fact she can’t turn her head. She can’t see any other options. Mental institute just sits there. Make it “a place without windows,” and we feel what a mental institute could be, what it would mean for this character.  One image unfolds into the next.

You know what breaks my heart? On more occasions than I’d like to admit, someone will approach me and say, “I should sit down with you and tell you some of my stories, let you write them down.” When I ask this person why she doesn’t write her stories herself, she always says, “Oh, I can’t. I don’t have the time. I don’t have the gift, the way with words.”

If you have a story to tell – and you know you do – tell it. Write it. Get it down. Don’t leave your children to a stranger, to some uncertain moment in the future, what you imagine to be the perfect hour. Take off the bandages and describe what you see, scabs and dried blood. This is what good writing is, the things we don’t yet realize we need to see. If the bandages are tight, slice through them with your pen. Watch the ink stain the muslin. Be brave. Get down on your knees.

- Excerpted from a talk I gave at the Nye Beach Writers Series, May 2012.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Three Great Writers You Should Be Reading Right Now

Author Victoria Johnson recently published her own letter to herself at sixteen, A Life Without Pictures, which you can read here. I loved participating in this series with writers Harrison Solow, Signe Pike, Thaisa Frank, and many more. Victoria's piece is the series finale, but the series itself doesn't seem to want to end.

"What advice would you give to your sixteen year old self?"

Three brave and brilliant writers answered the question: Chris Clarke, author of Walking With Zeke, wrote this godawful gorgeous response.

Jessamyn Smyth, quadruple-threat writer and editor of poetry, prose, short fiction, plays (and more!) wrote this piece, Skinless. Read it and be gut punched, awed, electrified.

 Last but not least, Dale Favier and Glimmer. God, this will break your heart. Dale is the author of two collections of poetry that you'll want to buy after reading this, Opening the World and Not Coming Back.

If you want great writing, gobble up everything you can by Chris, Jessamyn, and Dale. Track down their stories, books, and blogs. I promise you this: Theirs is the kind of writing that makes you want to leap up and run around the block three times.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Escaping into Montana's Rattlesnake National Recreation Area

I can't think of a better way to spend a week than hiking Montana's Rattlesnake National Recreation Area just outside of Missoula. I wrote about it for the Escapist Traveller here.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Maps at Sixteen

Writer and filmmaker Victoria Johnson graciously invited me -- along with fabulous writers Harrison Solow, Signe Pike, Erica Goss, and Lita Kurth -- to write a guest post for her website. What advice would you give to yourself at sixteen? I took a crack at answering that question here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Keepers" in The Rumpus

For a few years after grad school, I worked as a housekeeper. Hard work, as you'd imagine, and strange. You're invisible, yet you have intimate knowledge of strangers. What they eat, when they last had sex, last went to the bathroom. Diaries, teeth in a glass. Remember to tip, folks, and if you want to save someone's back, strip your bed. I've got a short piece up about the experience here at The Rumpus.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Everything and a Pueblo

Editors Jon Tribble and Allison Joseph have been engaged in the hard work of archiving numerous issues of Crab Orchard Review. Below you'll find a pdf of their Color Wheel: Cultural Heritages in the 21st Century issue, which features my story, "Everything Gets Mixed Together at the Pueblo." Check out COR here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Upcoming Events

On Wednesday, April 25th at 7:30pm, Manhattanville College will have its Student/Faculty Reading in the Library Periodical Room. I'll be reading new work along with my fellow professors.

The real pleasure though is hearing our students read, especially the winners of the 2012 Writing Awards, including the Eileen O'Gorman Prize for Fiction, the Robert O'Clair Prize for Poetry, along with awards for screenwriting, film, and literary criticism. We'll also celebrate the release of Graffiti magazine.

Next month on the 19th, I'm thrilled to be returning to Oregon to be a part of Newport's Writers on the Edge Series. I'll be reading, signing books, and enjoying their famous open mic! Can't wait! Read more about Writers on the Edge here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Escapist Traveller

Congrats to the U.K.'s new travel magazine, The Escapist Traveller! They've just launched, and I'm excited to have a short travel piece included in their debut issue here.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Eight Jokes for the Unborn

I've got a new essay up at The Nervous Breakdown. Here's an excerpt from Eight Jokes for the Unborn:

Twenty-seven years older than we were for Ethiopia and we still watch, hands against our bellies, unable to understand what we are watching.

Okuma is abandoned, Namie abandoned, but their street lights cycle. Grass is only beginning to push through the asphalt. The dinner bowls grow mildew, and a pig sups rotted fruit and candy bars until it falls asleep, head against a dead woman’s basket of groceries. A cat crouches inside a dryer, bony shoulders pricking through her skin.

The Haruspex says: The human brain has a limited capacity for sustained tragedy.

We cut photographs out of magazines and put them in envelopes, time capsules our children might be better able to deal with in 2050. Fukushima, a fistful of dog fur. A duckboard of words across dark water.

To read more, click here.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

American Literary Review

Honored to have a new story, "Sawtooth," in the current issue of American Literary Review, along with great work by Christine Sneed, Karl Taro Greenfeld, and many others.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Page 69 Test

Marshal Zeringue was kind enough to ask me if I'd like to submit Bone Worship to Marshall McLuhan's infamous Page 69 Test. McLuhan's idea was that if you don't know whether or not you want to commit to reading a book, you should turn to page 69 and see if it speaks to you.

Click here to see how Bone Worship fared.