Flying on Other Writers’ Fiction

Me and My Muse, Discussing Lunch

I’ll use the pandemic, politics and general pissiness for an excuse, but I haven’t written any fiction—other than some absurdist flash—in more than two years. That surprises and distresses me, because I love the stuff: I love its whooshing of you into another world, the anxieties and delights you can feel for certain characters, the textures of place and time.

I’ve had a good story idea in the wings for a couple of years, with notes and references, but type a word of narrative?


But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped reading. If I stop reading, it’s time to put me down. That dog isn’t breathing.

I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s latest, Crossroads, a 600-page sprawler, though it’s set in a narrow phase of time, December 1971, and in a sometimes claustrophobic family situation in suburban Chicago, which at moments spirals into mania. Three of the family’s children are in high school or recently out, and two of them have a torqued involvement with a Christian youth group, as I also did during that period.

If you ever read The Corrections, another of Franzen’s novels, you know that he has more than small skills in depicting family dynamics, especially if those dynamics involve much self-deception, unfounded hopes, absolute lies, love, desire and a highlight reel of human folly. He goes into that ring and everybody gets a good workout; at times his depictions of some mental illness and drug-addled actions had my heart beating (maybe because of my own suppressed depression and drug addlement during the 70s, about which I’m writing a memoir now).

I can’t give the book five stars though—there were some long sections of backstory that plodded along for me, and that seemed curious in light of Franzen’s talents. And occasionally the whininess and entitlement of all of the main characters was grating, even though it served the plot. Plus, I think he could have shaved 100 pages off, and not missed a beat with his themes and story arc. Nonetheless, worth the read.

I am also a sweep of the second hand from finishing Einstein’s Dreams, a much more compact fiction work. Or works, as it is a collection of very short stories, vignettes even, on the nature of time, what it does to us, what we do with it, and how it slips away. Or in the case of several stories, stops.

There are 1905 title time stamps on all the stories, though none of the tales take that as a starting point. For Einstein, 1905 was his so-called “miracle year,” when he published 4 groundbreaking (clock breaking) papers. The great man himself is a peripheral character in a few of the stories, but most of them center on unnamed men or women or places and objects in Berne, Switzerland and elsewhere in the country.

For these men and women, they are subjects of memory leaks, jarring and soft movements through the past, a variety of parallel worlds and futures, baffling fulfillments or thwartings of their desires, bizarre time effects on bodies and minds.

The author, Alan Lightman, is a physicist himself, who naturally has poured the bucket of relativity theory over his own head more than once. I admire his use of lyrical and often economical language, and perhaps I absorbed some remote-starlight glimmer of the scientific dissection of time tricks, though I doubt it. No matter: There is a romantic wistfulness in many of the stories, which are often just three or four pages long. People meant well, but time got in the way. I loved this one.

And for the people of Ukraine, and of Europe, and to we Americans, Godspeed in the hell to come. Now is a time that should happen only in a parallel universe, and one from which we could step away.

Links to Thinks

I said in my last monthly newsletter that I was going to park all of the links to articles on psychic health and good cheer I’ve been curating only in that newsletter, but instead, fickle boy, I’m going to split them between there and the blog. Here are a couple:

“This silent internal dialogue is vitally important to our ability to problem solve, cultivate a sense of self, and understand our place in the world. But our inner coach can become our inner critic.”

How to make a difficult decision
“Avoiding a decision is in fact a decision. It can be tempting to kick a difficult decision down the road – but that itself is actually a decision, and probably the wrong one.”

Five Fiction Sites That Tell the Facts

Once in a while I do a round-up post that lists my go-to sites for fiction-writing advice. Maybe not so oddly, some of the same names come up over and over—not because I’m lazy (don’t roll your eyes), but because the people that populate these sites know their stuff.

And that stuff is all about how to write, how to think about writing, how to write about thinking. As well as all that gritty craft stuff: story arcs, theme, setting, character development, side plots, secondary characters, beginnings, endings, denouements and other fancy words that might be spelled “climax,” and maybe even how to use a semicolon once in a while. (Hint: use tongs.)

Most of the solid citizens below have newsletters that will remind you, with pleasure, why you subscribed.

Writer Unboxed

Consistently good pieces on craft and craftiness (and an occasional jeremiad on the trials of the writing life), written by established writers, up-and-coming writers, and writers who recently realized that every letter of the alphabet is theirs. This is a strong writing community: the comments section is often the heart of the writerly dissection, and that’s saying something, because the posts are gold.

Steven Pressfield

Frank discussions on writing foibles and follies, from a guy who made “The Resistance” mean more than just rolling your eyes at the White House. Pressfield is a novelist and nonfiction writer who writes with succinct zing on what keeps us from writing, and how to wipe the cobwebs off your keyboard and get going.

Jane Friedman

Friedman covers all things publishing, which is a lot of coverage. Tons of info on self-publishing and indies, with example best practices and how-tos. Her material ranges from good cover design to Amazon analytics (and speaking of Amazon, her information covers the industry practices as well). There are also guest posts on matters of craft for fiction and nonfiction writers alike.

The Creative Penn

An established thriller writer and writer of nonfiction books on writing subjects (many on self-publishing), Penn seems tireless, since she also puts out a great podcast on publishing matters. Good tools/resource lists on a spectrum of writing concerns. Do check out her free Author 2.0 Blueprint book. Penn, who probably couldn’t stand still as a child, now has a travel and writing blog and podcast too.

Funds for Writers

No, they aren’t just going to dole out dough to you, you underfunded writer you—I already asked. But the free newsletter lists lots of writing grants and retreats, writing contests, job markets and guest columns on writing, both fiction and non. Hope Clark, the author of many mystery novels (recommended!) who runs the joint, is tough and charming at the same time. Her column is personal, sometimes blunt, and always worth the read.

Bonus Lie
K. M. Weiland

Hah, I lied, so I could preserve the alliteration in the subject line. I must recommend six sites, because the sixth provides some sixth senses about writing fiction. Weiland, writer of speculative fiction and nonfiction writing guides, gives solid advice on pretty much every brick in the writing castle, from outlining, to writing scenes, to understanding the differences between plot and theme to every little way a character can wiggle. (And I have to say, “and much more,” because there really is a lot more on her site as well.)

Discount Shrubbery!

For the next 5 days, my novel set in Prohibition Boston, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub, is discounted to $2.99 for the ebook version. You can get a lot of background information on the characters and the time period Rick Wilson (my co-writer) and I put together at

Buy the hundreds of copies you crave here on Amazon or here through other online retailers. And if you already bought a copy, please consider a review at the retailer of your choice—we do so crave attention (and it really can help sales).

Even When the Whiskey Runs Dry, There’s a Story in Every Bottle

Were Pappy here today, he’d be smoking a much more expensive cigar

In the summer of 2011, I made a video homage to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, only instead of sipping and then tripping on the layered characteristics of wine, I swilled three whiskeys instead. One of those fine vintages was Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon, at the time considered one of the best bourbons in the world.

I’d been given a bottle that past Christmas, and as I explained in the video, at $110.00, it was a galaxy beyond my normal price range. Though I’d been given the whiskey months before, I’d been doling out its precious drams—it was a Christmas miracle that I had any left by summer to make the video.

But alas, even bountiful loaves and fishes must go the way of all things. Yet, after I did suck out the last drop of the distillate with a glass pipette in a thermally regulated room and wearing a blackout mask to concentrate on the taste, I kept the bottle on a shelf in my office. Sort of an aspirational inspiration.

Aspirational indeed.

Let’s See: How ‘Bout Two Ounces of Gold for 750ml of Bourbon?

If you Google Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old, and you read current prices for the hootch, you will lose your eyebrows. You probably won’t find it for under $1,200 a bottle (if that cheapo bottle is actually available), and in some rarefied zones, you will see prices climbing over the $3,000 dazzlement barrier. Zounds!

Sure, Pappy is fine whiskey, and perhaps it was and is the best bourbon in the world. That’s arguable. But $3,000 a bottle is more of a theoretical thing, a result of smashing atoms together and coming up with a particle that can’t be explained. Along the lines of the tulip mania craze in the 1600s in Holland, where the price of tulip bulbs unpredictably lifted to the heavens, and then resoundingly crashed in 1637, a hellish year for bulb brokers.

Now Pappy hasn’t crashed yet, but one suspects as all markets climb and all markets plummet, it will. The whiskey will still be good, but the folks who have hoarded it for its investment value might start mixing it with Coke.

I’ll Take the Porsche Carrera GT and Two Empty Pappy Bottles

But artificially inflated whiskey prices aren’t what I actually wanted to discuss. I want to discuss artificially inflated bottle prices. Empty bottles. I’d heard a bit back that empty Pappy 20-year-old bottles were selling for $75 on eBay. What? Empties? I checked it out, and sure enough, many people had sold their Pappys for $60 and up. Mine had sat on the shelf for 8 years, and I’d never bought another. (And if prices hold, never will.)

So, I put that pup on eBay, and in a week’s time, sure enough it had sold to some lucky fellow in Ohio for $115, including shipping. It wasn’t lost on me that the bottle sold for more than the sizzlingly high price it held when it was full of its soothing elixir. I was pleased that someone had paid me a tidy sum for a bottle that only held vapors (it did still have a nice bouquet), but being a writerly sort, I had to wonder: what was he (and all those other bottle buyers) going to do with the bottle?

Fill the Bottle with Stories

Was he going to fill it with Early Times bourbon and casually whip it out at a poker party to lavishly indulge his friends? “Yeah, I bought it a while back at only $900. I figured you guys were worth it.”

Was he going to fill it with some nice but not nearly as pricy wheated bourbon (maybe even Maker’s Mark), get the cork professionally resealed, and try to get three grand for it on some Dark Web site where he’d be forever anonymous?

Or perhaps he is going to put it on a shelf with some other distinguished empties he bought online, some outrageous 200-year-old single-malt, maybe a Screaming Eagle or two, a Chateau d’Yquem, and invite his new girlfriend over to his mancave to have her gasp at his impeccable palate and his bulging bank account?

Who knows? But it’s amusing to work up a story or two on the disposition of the bottle, and how even empty, it might provide intoxication to come for new owners. In the meantime, I’m scouring the house for eBay potentials. There’s a Sock Monkey that’s been sloppily grinning at me for years now. Surely after I shake off his dust he’s worth a grand or two.

Stories Sleep in Your Mind’s Cellar—Wake Them!

I was on a press trip in Las Vegas this past weekend, where my moldering memories mingled with the city’s current offering of craziness. Memories because my parents used the excuse that it was a perfect 2- or 3-day rest stop on the way driving with us kids across the country to their parents every couple of summers. And my sister was a reporter there for years, and for a while in the 70s, I lived there myself. So I know its chimerical aspects pretty well, its indelicacies and its promise, its fevered optimism and its crushing defeats, its up-front impossible glitz and the behind-the-scenes muscular shoulders of its workers making that impossible possible.

I return every few years to see how the city has reinvented itself, because that’s what it does, tearing down an aging illusion and putting up another with fresher makeup. Press trips in and of themselves are a particularly concentrated form of madness, where we media types are wheeled from venue to venue, tasting full menus’ worth of fabulous food, offered the snappiest of snappy cocktails, given front-and-center seats to the most beguiling of entertainments.

One of those entertainments was VIP admission to the Bellagio performance of “O” by Cirque du Soleil. One of its perks was photos with some of the remarkable athletes who dazzle at every show. This post’s photo is that of some of the performers and yours truly; I am the tallest of the clowns.

Stories at Rest and in Motion

This is my windy way of getting to the point: your mind’s building has several floors of storage, and some lower-level memories are more cobwebbed than others. Many might never see surface light again, unless triggered by a fortuitous association. As I lay in my hotel room after a long day of press tripping, near insensate from the last meal, which had at least six desserts (and yes, I tried them all), a flash came to me of someone I hadn’t thought of in a gazillion years, back when I lived in Vegas. His name was Michael, and my best friend and I chanced upon him there while playing Frisbee—in 108-degree weather, mind you—in a public park.

The cuckoo part of the story is that my friend had known him from many years back, in the little town of Cranbrook, British Colombia, where I’d met him too. They’d long been out of touch; it was sheer coincidence that we all met again in Vegas. But here’s the story part: even though I’d barely known him in Canada, since I was just visiting my friend there who knew him much better, I recognized that Michael had an almost other-worldly charm. Women loved him, and unabashedly let him know it. He was a handsome guy, and genuinely friendly, but there was something much more than that.

And when we met up with him again in Vegas, that “much more than that” manifested again and again. I won’t go into a lot of details, but Michael was the only man I’ve known who would have women hoot at him from their cars when we crossed a street at a stoplight. That happened more than once. But it wasn’t just women: men immediately liked him, wanted to take him into their confidence, perhaps hoping that some of the gold dust on him would rub off.

Stop That Movie—There’s a Story There

So, as the sweetest surging of sugar pulsed through my blood in my hotel room, it came to me in that glorious way that, if you’re lucky, stories sometimes come: Michael, the golden boy in the golden town, the mystery behind his magic, its effect on people, the problems that ensued, and the story’s end. But whether that’s sad or glad, you won’t know until I write it. But the heart of the tale, the character, the conflict, the marrow of it, came to me in a moment, courtesy of being in Las Vegas once again. (And maybe courtesy of the last cocktail I’d had that night, perfectly named Comfortably Numb.)

I love this gift of how stories come to us, sometimes from this layer cake of our experience, and how they suddenly leap out from the cake’s center. I don’t know yet if Michael’s tale is a long short story or a novella, or something else, but it’s something, and I will map it out soon.

Do stories jump out at you from old closets too?

(And if you want to read a Vegas story I wrote many, many years ago as a callow college student, which was published years later in The Labletter literary journal, try this: Unmarked Highway)

Content Writer? Goodness No—I’m a Storyteller

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and ...

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and …

Grasshopper, it’s an interesting time to be a writer. Journalists have fled (or been dismissed from) newsrooms in droves, and many of them have morphed into “content writers,” a phrase that doesn’t have the panache of “investigative reporter,” or “columnist” or even “scribe.”

Fifteen years ago, or maybe even ten, if you told most people you were a content writer, they’d have probably given you the same squinch-eyed expression supplied if you’d told them you were a tangerine. But now in many quarters the term gets a sage nod. Content writer, yes. Enterprising fellow.

When I was an undergrad (some time before the spoon was invented), I was on the staff of the college newspaper, for all four years. I envisioned the reporter’s life to be one of glitz and grit, and I wanted to be a glitzy-gritty one. Then, lacking today’s “choose yourself” perspective, two successive years of rejected applications at Berkeley’s journalism grad school managed to chasten my quest. But I did end up becoming a corporate editor, then a copywriter, then an editor, then a copywriter and then some conglomerations of the two. But I always kept a hand in journalism, writing freelance pieces (profiles, features, reviews) for newspapers and magazines.

Don’t Call Me No Damn Marketer
Circles, being the roundish things they are, curve things back yet again: now it’s hip for marketers to dub themselves “storytellers.” Telling stories, once the province of liars and impoverished fiction writers (bet you can’t cleave those two without a claw hammer) now has business-writing currency. Use your journalism skills to tell good stories with your content marketing, and you’ll get engaged. Whoops, I meant, get engagement. From your customers—who are now your peeps. Or something like that.

Now that I’ve trod back and forth over these words without a discernible direction, I’ll circle back: it’s an interesting time to be a writer, because sometimes you can get hired by companies to write materials whose content seems quite a stretch from their direct business interests. Companies want copy (that stuff, “content”) on their sites that pulls in readers, who after the reading might just check out the company’s goods. Take this example: I recently wrote a piece for an IT integration company on how bitters can complement the booze in a good cocktail.

Here’s another one of mine, again planted in the tech domain, written for a Forbes partner. The piece profiles a photographer who’s been doing good work for 40 years. The company wanted articles that demonstrated deep expertise in a subject, complementing—perhaps—the deep expertise they have in IT issues.

What, You Didn’t Know About Blue’s Secret Power?
Right now I’m doing a series of articles for a global company that supplies eyeglass lenses. Here, the articles are all slanted to the vision field, but still, the subjects—like “The Secret Power of the Color Blue” and “Children Should Play Outside for Eye Health”—can seem tangential. But behold the power of content writing—the wizard of Oz, known as G. Oogle, might just direct 30,000 drooling aficionados of the color blue to the site, and maybe some need glasses, to more clearly ogle their blue walls.

It isn’t journalism, and to this fiction writer it doesn’t quite seem storytelling. Also, the words “content marketing” have as much charm as a two-thirds full spittoon. But it’s still working with words, trying to weave them into something that beckons the imagination. Being a hired gun firing commercial bullets seems a fair hike from my gossamer proto-reporter’s dreams of decades ago, but still, it ain’t bad.

Caution: This Fiction Contains Pulp

'Gun Smoke Red' photo © 2010, Charles Knowles - license:

My last post was about how writing prompts can spread some salsa on your keyboard to get your writing moving. In checking out some of the writing prompt sites, I found this prompt contest, which supplies 10 pages of writing prompts on varying subjects.

I chose one in the Action category, because the prompts made me think about writing a story beginning in a pulp-fiction like style. First prize wins $500, but hurry—contest ends at 11:59 CST Dec. 22. (You only need to write the beginning of a story, at least 500 words.) Below is my effort, which leans heavily on alliterative wordplay. It begins in media res.

Love at First Shot

I’d coated my fright about being caught for the crime—one I didn’t commit—with four bourbons, neat, but the pleasant hum in my head wouldn’t last: there was a knock at the door, and a knock in my knees.

It was Lucy Ligature. Former vamp turned viper—editorially speaking, that is. My colleague, my critic, my counterpart chaser of riveted readers. The editor of the Hearsay Herald, a rival rag run by Lucy, the delicious dish with the tire-squealing curves. Though now she only revved her engines for on-paper scandal scooping. This rendezvous called for the saucy sangfroid only a true cad could corral.

“Uh, well, Ms. Ligature, Lucy my dear. An unexpected pleasure. And I thought our boy Cal only spilled his soul for the pages of Hush-Hush. And now he’s spilled so much more. Shot in the tabloids—or by them, you might say. And now the cops are sure to think the shooter is me. But what’s this I hear about me being next in line for some lead?”

She slowly shaped her ripe-cherry lips into a smile that played leapfrog with a sneer. “Danny boy. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.” Since she was punctuating these pleasantries by waving a stainless-steel Smith and Wesson, my idea fountain at the time was distinctly dry.

“I’m afraid that any article about this incident is going to have to center on the sealed secret of the smoking gun, trite as that might be,” she said, with a smirk that crossed a gargoyle with a goddess. “I do fear you’ll accuse me of lacking imagination, but, silly as it may sound, it was an accident. An accident that’s never going to have my name attached to it.”

She slid her limber legginess onto what was left of a leather loveseat and let out a sibilant sigh. It was then that I notice the weathered wisp of paper in her other hand’s gunless grasp. She glanced at the lifeless lug, whose innards were swiftly becoming outtards on his reddened rug. “Cool Cat seems to have misplaced his meow,” she said. She settled a steely stare on me and said, “The ninth life is always the nastiest one, I’ve heard.”

“Look Lucy,” I said, “Cal’s never been a choirboy, and there’s many a man who’d like nothing better than to see him skewered. But what’s he ever done to you, besides only offering the Herald his leftovers, rather than any major meat?” I was trying to play it cool, but I was shiftily sliding back, hoping to get my hind to the hinterlands in a doorward dash.

Lucy languidly lounged on the loveseat, and gave me a lissome look. “Hey, I’m going to tell it to you straight, Daniel, if you have ears to hear. The main means of getting secrets is being able to keep them, and I’ve kept more than a couple out of your readers’ sour saliva. One is that I’m engaged to be married in two days. The other is that I stand to inherit two million dollars, but only on the condition that I marry before I turn 50.”

She stirred on the loveseat and waggled that winking weapon. “The last secret, and the one that’s going to be covered up as cleanly as Calhoun’s coffin, is that I’ll be 50 the day after my wedding.” She brandished the birth certificate and laughed. “You see, you pathetic peddler of fishrot, my fickle fiancé thinks I’m barely thirty-five! Cal was blackmailing me, being the only one who knew my real age, and with a copy of my birth certificate to prove it!”

She slapped the gun on the loveseat and my heart did a triple-flip. “Cool Kitty had no pity,” she said. “He knew that my fiancé would skip out as fast as those facts got out. So I came here to cop the cop’s certificate, and he showed up while I was rifling through his house. It’s probably the only wrestling match with a woman he’s ever lost. I didn’t mean to shoot him.”

I was flat-out flabbergasted. For a woman of a certain age, she was sensational—she’d always zinged my heartstrings. I’ve never considered quicker or scampered swifter in my love-lacking life. “Lucy, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” I said. I called my office on my digital phone, telling them that charming Cal had never opened his door to me. We did a swift scrub of Lucy’s paw prints and mine, and then made a beeline for the beach, where a shiny firearm was flung into the maw of mother ocean.

I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to manage to write a story that plucked me from the heart of the crime without implicating the honey that was making my heart melt (or yours tangentially truly), but hey, I’m good at improvising. And Lucy knew how to tango, so a twosome we shall be. As the old saying goes, keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Action suggestions.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and no dangling participles to all!

The Mother of All Storytelling (Well, Mine, at Least)

Thinking about my writing influences, I make a beeline for Mark Twain—why not set your standards high? But then I mosey about some, bumping into Kurt Vonnegut, who seemed to pick flowers from the same field as Mr. Clemens. But whether a writer’s echo can be heard in your work isn’t necessarily a mark of their sway over you. There are people whose writing I fiercely admire, like Marilynne Robinson or Cormac McCarthy or Annie Dillard, and the DNA of their superb stylings can’t be traced to my pratfalls on the page. (For that matter, I may have been influenced as much by Dr. Seuss, or maybe Steve Martin.)

But the original influence? That’s easy. That’s the woman up above, who is cracking up the nearby priest with some tale. That woman has been telling stories for a lot longer than me, and with more accomplishment. That woman is my mother. Before Sarge Bentley got his hands on her, she was Eileen O’Brien, and though Iowa cornfields were the setting for her growing up, I’m sure the storytellers of the Old Sod made their ancestral mark on her. And she on me.

From my earliest memories, I saw her absorbed in reading. Hey, books! They must be good. I want to do that too. She never pushed reading on me, but the obvious pleasure it afforded her was generously transferred to me. And because she could shape a story, could find the odd and often humorous angle on some episode of human folly, I was drawn to storytelling too.

Stories: 100% Nutritive, Taste Great Too
The absorbing thing is, my mom’s stories, like her life, have never been pocked with pettiness, or buzzing with the trivial, or interested in shoving someone aside so she could shine. As a writer, I tire myself with my own jealousies over other writers’ successes, with my own trivialities and peeves. My mother has never swum in that shallow end of the pool—she laughs at the human comedy, but there’s never been spite in her smiles.

So here’s to my mom, my biggest writing influence. The photo is from her 90th birthday party a couple of weeks ago, where she was surrounded by friends, young and old, who uniformly wished her well. She’s wearing those test-pilot’s welding glasses because she can barely see a damn thing anymore and light bothers her, but she still reads wielding a fat magnifier. Words—can’t get away from them. By her side is a priest from my old parish being entertained by her point of view (though the margarita he’s drinking may have helped).

Thanks Mom.

Bonus Prizes!
A couple of good things just happened to me between my sojourns from the Airstream office to my house. MediaBistro and GalleyCat have been hosting an online literary festival with live webinars sporting the likes of Susan Orlean, Rebecca Skloot and Elissa Schappell talking about aspects of writing. A pal told me that you could win free admission to the occasion by tweeting what you considered to be the best sentence you’ve ever written. Well, I thought “I will not take them soft or scrambled, despite an argument well-rambled” was pretty good, so I—no, I actually tweeted one of mine, and I won. The festival has been fantastic.

I also entered a contest to win a year’s admission and a bunch of other goodies in the Freelance Writer’s Den, just by writing a blog post. So I did, and was chosen as one of the co-winners. Lots of good writerly stuff there that I’m just digging into. I entered both of these on a whim, and whimsically enough, won. That does tell you to enter contests if you think you’ve got a shot—who knows what might happen?

Thanks again, Mom.

Writing Without Words


It wasn’t your typical spring day today: thrashing rain squalls, gusty, spiraling winds, and wet, wet, wet. I ran around town doing errands, hunched and squinting in my ancient Benz, windows fogged, because the heater blower has given up the ghost. But there was a short break in the rain, so I drove over to Steamer Lane, one of California’s premiere surf spots, to look at the crashing waves. Too blown out for surfers today, but there were a couple of kiteboarders whipping across the scudding waves, digging the wild winds.

It occurred to me that the boarders were writing on the waves, kind of free writing, where you don’t pause to reflect on the course of the narrative, but you just let the pen roll, the words barreling through willy-nilly, one word trampolining higher than the next, or slipping its nose under the surface of those to come. It’s a kind of writing I don’t often do, being the prim walker of my writing dog, usually leashed.

How Do You Tell Stories Without Words?
But the rollicking kiteboarders had me thinking further—it being a rainy day and all, perfect for damp musing—what would it be like to tell your stories without words? The kiteboarders were writing stories on the waves, stories of exuberance and thrill, of experiment and error (and recovery from error), of sheer, spontaneous spunk. There are so many different ways of telling stories, but writers think—and write—in words.

Language has always come easily to me, probably because I loved the play of words from childhood. Since my young punk days, I thought being a writer, a storyteller, was an exalted vocation. Because I couldn’t hit a curve ball (professional ballplayer being my first dream), I chose the curve of words. Now that I’m an old punk, I still think of writing as one of the best approaches to map out your world. But considering how few people work with words on an intimate basis, I wondered if many people, particularly today (where word-worthiness doesn’t seem a premium), perceive not owning the bricks to build up a story structure as an insufficiency or a frustration. But maybe their stories are wrought from different iron.

Lone Cowboy
There are many kinds of storytellers, of course. I was held in thrall by a crusty old mechanic years ago, who, chewing vigorously on an unlit cheap cigar and spitting into the engine recesses of our disabled ’55 Chevy, rattled out a sequence of profane tales. A born word-worker, spitting out stories in a dilapidated old gas station at a dusty crossroads out of Wasco, California. He certainly didn’t need any paper (and maybe didn’t even need an audience).

When you look closely, you can see storytelling everywhere, often wordless; the barista at your local coffee shop might make a perfect cappuccino with a swift succession of rhythmic motions, each musically timed, so that a once-empty cup is filled not with coffee but a warm poem.

Approximately a thousand years ago, I hitchhiked across Canada with my best friend. In one of the little towns we were stuck in, we went to a local park and watched a Little League baseball game in some rickety bleachers. While we were sitting there, we were accosted by a skinny, scruffy old man wearing a droopy cowboy hat and carrying a harmonica. When he asked “Could I play a song for you today?” there was no answer but yes. He got up close to the both of us, and played a series of short songs, none of which I recognized. His face, lined, tired, told a story that didn’t need any musical accompaniment. When he was finished, we thanked him, and he said, “I’m the Lone Cowboy, you know.” He started to leave and turned back, and with a big, rheumy-eyed grin said, “I kissed a pretty girl today. I’m the Lone Cowboy!”

The delighted, crafty and slightly self-astonished look in his eyes told as much of a story as his words. Here’s to the crusty mechanics, slick-serving baristas and Lone Cowboys, storytellers all.

Write As Though There’s No Tomorrow

I sent an email to Nelson Mandela a little while back, asking him for an interview. These are interesting times—if you poke around a bit, you can often find a listed email address for all kinds of folks. Of course, the address I found for Mr. Mandela is probably one handled by a phalanx of administrative types who send most requests down a tube into large cellar vats, to be boiled with the suet and other table scraps. (These are likely the same functionaries who dispatch my queries to the New Yorker into a similar large vat of innocuous fats.)

But DOA queries aren’t my point here; my point is that if you don’t take the initiative to further your writing career, who will? If you have been sitting on an essay about your cousin Doreen who drained the family bank accounts, joined a Mexican drug cartel and now owns a quarter of the blood diamond trade in Liberia because you were squeamish about the family reaction, when will you write it? Every writing thought that isn’t written is just evaporated water.

I am editing the memoirs of a woman who is in her mid-sixties, and it’s provocative stuff: the political tumult of the San Francisco Bay Area 1960s and 1970s, filtered through the view of a rebellious coming-of-age adolescent who experienced a dizzying amount of personal roller-coastering. Lots of torquing family entanglements, including affairs, alienation and death. Even though many of the principals are still alive, she knows that she’s got to put the truth on the page—this is her chance to tell the story, and she’s not sparing feelings, including her own.

Fate Is Indifferent to the Closing of Doors
Now that my once-dark locks are streaked with grey, it’s become more clear to me that I have to write as though there were no tomorrow. Because there isn’t—you just don’t know. I see among my own friends and family where fate has closed doors on people who presumed they’d be long open. My father, who at 93 is swathed deep in the fabric of his Alzheimer’s, was a decent storyteller. Though he can still shakily—and almost randomly—utter occasionally clear thoughts, he can no longer command language. I realize now how little I actually know of him—and didn’t have the sense or gumption to ask. I still see stories locked in my father’s eyes, but they are his stories, not mine—and now he can’t tell them.

I don’t want to be morbid, just realistic. One good car crash can make “what might have been” the saddest song, or you can just peter out your time, thinking there’s bushels of it to waste. I have been a big procrastinator in my writing life, loving literature, but rarely writing passionately. Some stories published here and there, a fair chunk of articles, but never driven to write. But I have more impetus now (and I’m finally working on that once-moribund second novel, by Jove!).

I found one of the strongest messages of Seth Godin’s rousing book, Linchpin, to be this: Don’t settle. Do your best work. If not now, when? Take some risks. If you fail, so be it. At least you acted, moved the pieces on the chessboard, ate the cake instead of agonizing over its calories, said “I’m for this!” instead of “someday, I might be for that.”

Oh yeah—if you happen to talk to Nelson Mandela, tell him I’m waiting for an answer.

Stories Cry Out for Capture (Milk Those Tears)

Over the weekend, I attended the wedding of a friend’s daughter. It was a lovely setting, in a bower warmed by the early fall sun of Northern California. Prior to the ceremony, all was going satisfactorily, with sighing grandmothers, scanty-skirted wardrobe malfunctions and many tuxedo tuggings. The groom, a hearty, open-faced lug I’d never met, joined the assembled bridesmaids and groomsmen at the head of the crowd. All turned to watch the bride’s stately approach, and she joined the groom at the altar, presided over by the minister, a Jerry Garcia-lookalike who grinningly bid them to join hands.

That’s when I noticed that the groom was weeping. He had holding his beloved’s hands, and was gazing into her eyes, and the tears were streaming down. The minister voiced some of the standard wedding pleasantries, but all the while, our boy on center stage was crying, shaking a bit in the depth of his emotion. He had to pause many times in the recital of his vows, and had to mop his face with a handkerchief all the while.

I watched the bridesmaids, and as you might expect, a number of them were crying too, but I could see that a few of the groomsmen, hearty fellows all, were showing some reddened eyes as well. Even one of the commercial photographers, a woman, was crying. The display of the raw male emotion became even more interesting when I found out that the groom was a cop.

The Gift of the Odd Angle (Snatch Those Stories When They Surface)
The reason I’m making note of this is that as storytellers, life gives us gifts. All you have to do is open your eyes (if they’re not too full of tears) and note them. Here you have a situation where something plays against type. A cop, a tough guy, openly weeping at his wedding. It turned out that most of the groomsmen were cops too, and they weren’t hiding their own rising feeling. I’m sure you know that there’s a lot of machismo in the fraternity of the boys-in-blue—group cries are probably not the norm.

For a writer, it’s one of those moments that you store away (or if you’re someone who gets right on it, damn you, you use it right away). You make a cop character who chokes up when he arrests a criminal, but is otherwise mister macho. Or maybe your cop character organizes a secret group of emotional policeman, the Crying Cops, for encounter group support. Or maybe the cop is only emotional around beautiful blondes, like our bride. (There are worse problems, I suppose.)

What I’m getting at is that you should keep your notebook at the ready, and write down those moments—and your life is full of them, if you look—where something is a bit unconventional, or off-kilter, or puzzling. Even if those things only provide a secondary character or a sub-plot, they give texture to your stories, and provide sparks for ideas and angles.

And who knows? The next time you get pulled over, you might get a crying cop, and he won’t be able to write out the ticket because his pad is so damp from the tears…