unless it’s cancer, or something


I just lay in bed and think about my body. All the ways it hurts.

I dream about words.

When you are sick with the flu, it isn’t the time to watch a documentary on HIV.

In my dream I am writing my thesis, but I’m not sure what my thesis is and anyway I thought I already got my degree.

When you are sick with the flu, it’s a good time to watch Amelie all over again. Also Chocolat although it’s hard to understand why everyone speaks English.

A woman I know told me that as her mother lay dying of cancer she remarked that she’d finally reached the weight she’d always wanted to be.

My daughter said, I wonder how much weight you’ve lost and I said: six pounds!

I was hoping for dramatic dreams, even a real nightmare, but my dreams are merely neurotic.

What happens when someone is sick and alone?

What if they’re old, too?

What if they’re homeless?

What if they’re in a refugee camp or in a war?

Think of the Irish with typhoid or cholera crammed below deck for months– And Chuck said okay let’s think about something else now.

When you’re not sick, it’s impossible to imagine sickness. When people feel bad for you, you know they can’t really understand because of that, that amnesia we have about pain.

The thing that’s good about being sick is that you can say no to everything.

I’m supposed to be teaching summaries this week. I dream the words I need to say are in little plastic baggies. I dream they are tethered to fence posts.

When I’m sick I remember how impatient I am about the sickness of others.

I was putting genealogical facts into my computer when I had a coughing- and- not –being- able- to breath fit. I went to Immediate Care and they told me I had pneumonia. I was happy I had pneumonia because I knew something was wrong and now there was proof. And there was a drug. I came home and continued filling in the facts for Mary Abigail Foushee Dunavan. Cause of death: pneumonia. I feel for you, over time and space, you’ve got my sympathy, Mary.

Like a Little God

330px-Salmon_leaping_at_Willamette_Fallsopening of Like a Little God, a novel

Every fall you can see the fish gathered at the mouths of the rivers or in the tidewaters, waiting, and the fishermen waiting, too.  The rains come, the water rises and the fish begin to swim upstream. A steelhead is the same as a rainbow trout, except a rainbow trout stays in fresh water and the steelhead doesn’t. A rainbow trout has a red band around it, so they call it rainbow, but the steelhead loses its band when it goes out to sea. If I was an animal, I’d be a salmon, I told Tree, but she said no, you’d be a snake. Maybe her name is Tree and she has dreadlocks and a full sleeve tattoo, but she is a moralist. “You should leave that woman’s husband alone,” she said. Under normal circumstances, she would have been right, but this was not a normal circumstance.
I leaned forward inspecting myself in the little mirror on my wall. My face was smooth and clear and innocent. I thought it was funny, how some people’s lives get put on their faces, but mine hadn’t. “You need to forgive and forget,” said Tree, and I didn’t argue. She sat on my bed watching, while I got dressed. She said, “What goes around, comes around.”
I said, “Uh huh. Don’t I know it.”
People say it’s up to us to forgive and forget, but maybe that’s because they believe in karma. They think karma will take care of it. Karma will settle accounts. But if you don’t believe in anything, if you don’t believe in karma, or God for that matter, then maybe you have to even the score yourself.



Some part of me believed I could still go back there. That somewhere existed my 21 year old self and Frank, that I could go back and see him, go up the stairs to his room, sit by the window where he worked, the window where he watched me.  And I’d say sorry. Or I’d say something other than sorry. I’d say the things that sorry makes unnecessary. I’d say them and or I’d say nothing and instead we’d lie down on his mattress on the floor beneath the picture of the woman with the tattooed face. I always thought we would, one day. What if the things you regret aren’t anything more than the times you said no, you said wait, thinking it was like a circle and you’d get another chance, you’d get chances forever.

Harry Finds Out About Mortality

aliceandcurtainNo! He’s not even three yet.
There was a dead deer in the river.
Why? Why did it die? Why is its head in the water? What happened? Why did it die?
He always comes back to that, that fundamental, heartbreaking human question. His mom tells him we don’t know. We die and our bodies go back into the earth and things grow and so we’re part of the life cycle.
I don’t want to die!
You won’t die for a long time. First you’ll get old and your hair will turn gray. You don’t have to worry about that now. It’s so far away.
I don’t want to get old. I don’t want to get big.
Later, when we’re alone, working in the garden, he asks again: why did that deer die?
I want to tell him that nothing dies, but really this is up to his mama, and anyway, what do I know? I say I think some part of us always lives. I tell him it’s a mystery. And then I say it’s a big surprise. And then we turn back to the garden. Maybe he figures mortality is something that will make sense later, but it isn’t.

Also a Sandhill Crane

silhouettesandhillcranenew-sky_189_origMy yoga teacher moved to Florida. Every few days she posts a photograph on Facebook. While most of my friends post updates on Gaza or Ferguson, on labor efforts, climate change, police brutality, Monsanto, or economics, she posts the image of a bird, flying over the ocean; the sunset; a tree. It’s messy, being alive. It’s never all one way or another. It’s Gaza and Ferguson, and it’s also a sandhill crane, silhouetted against a pink sky.

The Cover

zoe book cover

My daughter helped with the cover for my self-published, erotic eBook. She put on red lipstick and curled a section of her hair. She stood against the kitchen wall and had me hold her camera. She picked up one of the baby’s toys, a plastic strawberry, and held it to her open mouth. So there it is. The cover art to my erotic story. If you back up from the lips and the strawberry, you will see women in sweatpants, dinner on the stove, a baby on the floor, toys everywhere.

Not to be confused with the Middle Ages

holy grail

Yesterday I heard about a man who stole a can of beer from a convenient store in Georgia and went to jail for a year. I heard the story of the shootings in Santa Barbara.  I heard a school official saying we just can’t do anything. Australia did, you know, but no one talks about that. I heard the story of a girl and her family who couldn’t afford housing and lived in the woods. I heard about a mentally disturbed man who was scalded to death by his prison guards in Florida.  I heard some state official from Georgia or South Carolina talking about using firing squads for executions. I heard someone say we can’t release the men from Guantanamo, and I wondered where are those guys who are so fired up about the Constitution? I feel like I’m hearing stories from the Middle Ages, but it’s just NPR reporting on the United States.


Axolotl and the defiance of thought

axolotlI’ve been thinking about this one story since I was 22 years old, but I never wrote it before. Okay, I wrote a nonfiction version. I wrote a fictional third person version, told as a report. I gave it up. And then Kerry showed us the short story, Axolotl, by Julio Cortázar. And Margery said what Cortázar did, his method, was to take a subject and stick with it, follow it, bore into it. I do this sometimes without thinking, when the unconscious takes over. We all do it, I guess, when we let ourselves go. Anyway. I decided to write the story this way. To begin and follow it.  If I started to veer, to get in my head, to intellectualize or plan or worry, I’d recall the Axolotl, a creature that defies thought. And so, finally, I wrote the story. Hooray.

Some stories take such patience.

This week my students are writing down their dreams. We are trying to access the unconsciousness. I have not remembered a single dream since I’ve made this announcement. Oh, rebellious unconscious mind. Axolotl.

Little blue skirts

press operatorI’ve assigned Girl by Jamaica Kinkaid because we’re looking at the way people use their own lives for material. Years back when I read that piece, I sympathized with the daughter, but now I sympathize with the mother which is not what Kinkaid intents, I think. I assigned it because we’re talking about images, the way we use images to create little movies in our readers’ minds. Girl is simply image after image. Images of Antigua. When I read Girl, I see Antigua. I see the little girls in their blue skirts and white blouses,  walking past our house in St. John’s with school books under their arms. Today I’ll talk a little about Antigua only getting its independence from Great Britain in 1980, but I don’t think I’ll mention the fact that Chuck and I were there then. That Chuck helped the opposition party set up a printing press. That we were arrested and deported.  I told Chuck last night that sometimes when I talk about my life I feel like I’m making stuff up.

The man in the picture above is the press operator.


they don’t think at all

vargtimmen[1]I write fiction, but decided instead of doing what I’ve been doing for the past few decades and sort of know how to do, I’d write a screenplay for my MFA thesis. I wanted to do something new, I said, pretending I don’t realize that every piece of writing requires something new. I wanted to watch more movies. Something school has put a damper on. I wanted to study with Jon Lewis. Also, screenwriting directly addresses my weaknesses as a writer. I am an interior writer. I write thoughts, feelings, obsessions. I write interior space. You can’t do this in a movie. You have to create setting and move characters around in it.  Appallingly, characters in movies don’t think at all. They do stuff. And the pacing is completely different. I learned writing by writing. I learned by reading. It’s much harder to get at a screenplay through watching a movie. Plus, I always forget I’m watching. I tell myself to notice, but I get caught in the dream and forget.

But it’s also the face of a real child.


It’s the image I want but it is also the face of a real child. I was looking for images for the Pinterest board I’ve created around my latest manuscript. I collect images for story ideas. I collect images around my books. In this latest as yet unpublished book my character Mavis “was a secret animist” as a child. I searched images for “animist” and found a stunning picture of a little girl, the perfect picture, the child’s face, the background, tone: all  perfect. So I added it to my board. It’s the image I want but it is also the face of a real child. Her name—I go back to read—is Abi Gul. She is 7 years old and Kalash, from Rumbur Valley, Pakistan. For eleven years her father fought in Pakistani courts to keep their valley from being logged. Three years ago her father was murdered.  For the Kalash the trees are sacred. Animists: those who believe “the natural world is inhabited by spirits who nurture or destroy in accordance to the respect they are shown.” Which brings us back to the child, Abi Gul, and the question of ownership and privacy, of using the sacred things of the world, including the face of a child, for own purposes.  I don’t have an answer, but at least I can include here this website: Blue Earth, http://www.blueearth.org/blog/?p=1509  And look at her face. All the things in it.

everything is not a job

I want to enjoy my own house Imagethe way I enjoy the funky hotel where we stay in Mexico sometimes. Not looking around to see the jobs that need to be done. I want to sit in my back yard and not think about what a failure I am at gardening. To sit in my studio and not wonder what the exact right configuration of furniture should be. This morning the sun comes up in front of me and from the studio window I see trees. Don’t think about the fact that one of them is the supposed dwarf that’s taken over and must be cut down. Stop the thought at the sunrise.

To the black man in the blue van on the road when I was walking

flower-43jonsullivan.publicdomTo the black man in the blue van on  the road when I was walking. This is an apology. I was walking and looking at the big houses. I was listening to a tape of a novel about a serial killer by the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø. I was thinking about  being a white woman in the United States. I was thinking if I was a young black male, I probably wouldn’t walk around in this neighborhood simply for the  pleasure of doing it. And I definitely wouldn’t stop to examine the houses, set back in their enormous yards.  It’s a quiet walk. I hardly ever see people. I see the mother deer and her twins. I see trees, flowers, woods. I saw a van parked up ahead and I moved to the other side of the road. I’m sorry. Fear is a liar. I know this, and yet.  Several years ago a woman was pushed into a van here and murdered. This is the kind of information females file away. I pulled out one of my ear buds, so I could hear. There was no one around but the blue van and me. I looked as I passed by, hoping for a female. I looked carefully, turning my head, squinting. A young black man was trying to look like he didn’t see me staring at him or notice the way I hurried past. He was looking at a map, but I didn’t stop to help. He was a gender to me. I was probably a race to him. A man looking at a map, a woman on a walk. Stuck with all that history and context.

it all devolves into self doubt


I’ve been lying on the floor with the dog, Riley, index cards spread out all around us. I’m organizing the scenes of my screenplay. I have to be alone to do this. I talk out loud to myself. I try out different lines of dialogue. The windows are open and the sky is a brilliant blue. I can hear my neighbors. A woman rides by on a motorbike. But I’m thinking: would Bill really forget that Cindy works with his wife? Can I create a scene designed only to develop character? Is Jon Lewis right when he says my film will be upended if I include even the rumor of incest? Are readers more willing to experience trauma than movie-goers? Am I obsessive/compulsive? Is my writing a way to rationalize my neuroses? Am I agoraphobic?

Chronology matters.

me and printer

I used to keep diaries but now I don’t. I have boxes of old journals starting back from when I was eight years old. Now, when I feel like writing in my diary, I think instead I should write for my blog. You cannot post to your blog once a blue moon and hope to keep your readers. Some of my journals are embarrassing and I think I should destroy them before I die. Some of my journals make it seem like I am mostly depressed,  but that’s because I went through long periods of writing in them only when I was depressed. Journals represent us in funny, honest, dishonest ways. I used to write explicitly about sex.  I used to be very interested in my own life and obsessively document it.  I kept journals of my dreams for years. Once I had a violent boyfriend and when I was trying to break up, I took all the dreams I had ever had of him, starting from the moment we met, and I wrote them out and had them bound in a little book. I thought then he would see my point.  Some of my journals are funny and, occasionally, interesting. Once I thought I’d start pulling out parts of  them for my blog.  There is so much material!  I could post every week!  I tried it. I started with an entry from when Chuck and I went to Antigua so he could set up a printing press for a group called the Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement, but we spent most of our time doing acid and then we got arrested by the Antiguan intelligence service and deported.  I thought I’d start there. But my audience was confused. They didn’t read the date. They wrote to me:  I didn’t know you are in Antigua!

as if simple pleasure is not enough

film_noirI like detective stories. Henning Mankell says that character is revealed in moments of crime, or something like that, and he uses his detective novels, many of which are also films, to talk about politics, too. Which makes me feel better about it, as if simple pleasure is not enough. I’ve watched all the Scandinavian crime TV shows on Netflix. The cops hardly ever carry guns. Fat old cops chase down young muscular criminals and catch them, somehow, through sheer force of will or authority. European cops often go right into people’s homes if the people are gone, and we don’t even mind because they are good. European criminals hardly ever think to say they want a lawyer. Usually detectives drink too much, but we don’t hold that against them unless they are female. If they are female, it’s troubling. We worry about them in a way we don’t if they are male, even if we are feminist and know this is illogical. When I read Donna Leon, I want my husband to be Commissario Brunetti, and I want to live in Venice. For a long time after the Supreme Court appointed Bush president, I only read detective novels. I wanted a world in which things got sorted out eventually, a world in which the bad guys lost, the good guys won, the truth prevailed.

Plot is My Enemy

100709-221228Mimi asked how I find time to write a blog, and I said I only write about once a month so that hardly counts. It’s spring break, and I’m writing my never-ending YA adult Tarot card novel, which is so difficult because it’s all plot driven and figuring things out. Someone once wrote that I am a master of plot, but that is not true. Plot is my enemy. I just want to write. I want to run around on the page frolicking, letting myself go wherever the words lead,  and saying whatever I want even if it’s stupid or mean. But writing like that is no good.  In this story, it’s almost all holding back.  Every day I look at the page with dread. Every day it seems impossible. So this is what people mean when they talk about the struggle of writing. Weirdly, the writing is good. Which seems wrong. Shouldn’t we see the dread, awkwardness and worry? It seems like we should see those things on the page.

Reader Response, more than a theory


Most of the others in my writing workshop took a lit class in “the uncanny.”  When we read stories, they always see that. They see the blurring of dreams and reality; they see the Gothic.  I, on the other hand, watch a lot of detective shows. I read, seeing crime. Get out the yellow tape.

to my high school English teacher

blog - feringhettiDear Mrs. Gist,

I remember when you were my English teacher and encouraged me to read poetry. I remember you took me to a reading competition, and I read a poem by Ferlinghetti. I remember once you assigned us to give show and tells, and I showed how to make a Molotov cocktail, which was an intentionally provocative choice on my part — and you jumped up from your seat in alarm. I was a depressed and angry teenager, but I remember you always treated me with respect. I don’t know if you remember me, but I wanted to say thank you.

Alison Clement

ps I’m a novelist now, and I teach writing at a community college. No one has ever demonstrated the manufacture of a Molotov cocktail in my classroom, thankfully.

Larry Love

eugenics angel

Am I including the subplot of Larry Love, the phony modeling agent, in my novel because the scenes I’ve written about it are my darlings? Do those scenes belong in the novel? My eugenics mystery. Or maybe eugenics thriller.

 I spent last week talking to my students about the narrative thesis. Get rid of everything that falls outside of your focus. Just because you love something, doesn’t mean it belongs. I feel their pain.

targeted for elimination



I wrote a novel based on eugenics, but my agent didn’t like it. Once she didn’t like it, I found that I didn’t either. I thought the backstory was more interesting than the front story. I thought the whole section that takes place when the protagonist lives with a male prostitute in New York City was just an excuse for me to write about when I lived with a male prostitute in New York City. I used to talk about this when I talked to groups, not the prostitute part but the part about including something irrelevant to our stories just because we feel like writing about it. I put the manuscript in a box and dismissed it.

The story idea came from a family known as the Ishmaels who are said to have descended from a group made up of displaced Indians, ex-slaves and poor whites, a family (a tribe) who rejected monogamy, property rights, Christianity and capitalism. According to this particular narrative, they were able to maintain their identity for centuries, until finally the group was declared undesirable and targeted for elimination by eugenicists. This is the absolutely true part of the story—the part about the Ishmaels being targeted for elimination.

I spent several years researching and several years writing.

A few days ago, I read that old story again and wondered at my willingness to dismiss my own work. It’s good -even the New York City part, even the prostitute part- but back then I didn’t understand exactly why I wrote the story the way I did. I wrote it before I was conscious of what I was doing, before I could understand or speak clearly about my work. I wrote it before I thought too much about writing. When I had the words for the story but not the words to talk about it.



The Northwest Blog Tour

Yeah, way.

(the official) NORTHWEST BLOG TOUR

in which writers answer four questions and then post those answers to their blog

  1. What am I working on?

So many things! Last week I finished a young adult novel, The 5 ½ Senses of Sophie LaVelle, based on the Tarot cards, a family curse and the 19th century secret society, The Golden Dawn. I did not write this because YA is a hot market, I beg your pardon. I did it because I imagined writing such a book would be a fun break. It was not a fun break. It was hard.

I’m currently putting final edits on another manuscript, Like a Little God. It’s a novel about betrayal and revenge. It’s about identity and family. And class, because I always end up writing about class. A short story pulled from that novel, The Man at Table Five, was published in The Sun last March.

I earned my Master’s Degree last spring (yes, I should be retiring by now, for crying out loud, but instead I went back to college), and for my thesis, I adapted my second novel, Twenty Questions, into a screenplay. This was harder than it might sound. I had to turn the story inside out. I’m an interior writer. I write thoughts, impressions, feelings; I write the interior landscape. A screenplay is all about the exterior: images, pictures, sound — the physical. I liked being forced to work within the tight parameters of the genre. My style of writing is already sparse, but this forced me to strip it down even further.  I’m not completely happy with the ending of the screenplay and am working on it again. Or at least I’m thinking about it, which is the beginning of work.

Those are my big projects. I’ve also been writing short pieces, both fiction and essays.  Not long ago, an agent told me not to say that I’m working in so many different forms. It looks bad, she said. But you get restless. You want to try new things. Maybe it’s not good for the career, but I think it’s good for the craft.


  1. How do I differ from others in my genre?

Regardless of genre, I tend to be sparse, to write in a stripped down way. I probably rely on voice more than most writers.


  1. Why do I write what I do?

Like most authors, I write about things that dog me. I wrote my first published novel about a town where my family moved when I was fifteen. We moved from Charleston, South Carolina to a little town on the Illinois River. It was a mean, racist, other-hating place, and I was a hippie kid. It was also a place of subtle beauty and unexpected kindness, I realized later, but then, at fifteen, it was hellish. The story idea for my second published novel came from a young woman who was murdered when she accepted a ride from a man after I had turned him down.  My most recent manuscript, Like a Little God, is based on a foster child who rode my school bus. I write to grapple with things. When the mind won’t leave something alone, that’s the place to start writing.

  1. How does my writing process work?

I write in the morning. I write alone, in silence. People think the “ writer’s life” is romantic, but really it’s just someone sitting alone for long periods of time.


Also on the Tour: Karelia Stez-Waters

Karelia Stetz-Waters is an English professor by day and writer by night (and early morning). She has a BA from Smith College in Comparative Literature and an MA in English from the University of Oregon. Other formative experiences include a childhood spent roaming the Oregon woods and several years spent exploring Portland as a broke 20-something, which is the only way to experience Oregon’s coolest, weirdest city. She now lives with her wife, Fay, her pug dog, Lord Byron, and her cat, Cyrus the Disemboweler. She teaches at a rural community college which  provides ample inspiration for writing, as the college attracts all walks of life, from Sudanese refugees to fresh-out-of-the-closet drag queens. Her interests include large snakes, conjoined twins, corn mazes, lesbians, popular science books on neurology, and any roadside attraction that purports to have the world’s largest ball of twine.  She publishes with Sapphire BooksOoligan Press at Portland State University, and Grand Central Publishing part of the Hachette Book Group.