The Unexpected Thing

Prospect Park

I started running last week. I am still running this week, so hopefully I will be running next week as well.

I am 25. I ran as a kid, but only in the context of games. I hated running for running’s sake. Like a lot of bookish kids, I was asthmatic.

I outgrew my asthma. So when a friend asked me to go running with her last week, I shrugged and put on my sneakers.

It’s weird, having a body that is in some ways more functional than the one I had as a child. I still associate running with the feeling of my lungs being squeezed in an enormous fist. This time, though, my legs moved and kept moving. My lungs took in air and sent oxygen to my blood. Everything worked.

I ran for half a mile before I had to stop. I am not good at running. But as I get older, I find that I am more likely to take on activities that I am not good at.

So, a few months ago I began working my way through Learn Python The Hard Way. I’m interested in the internet of/with things. I’m interested in reading and writing electronic text. It’s about time that I actually start learning how to make the things I want to make. I’m hoping to get a practice project or two up here soon.

I think that writing has made me braver and more stubborn. I know that you have to work at something to get better at it. I am used to the idea that valuable things are often difficult.

Right now I am writing and sending things out. I will let you know if anything finds a home.

In the meantime, I’ll keep working.

Clarion West Write-a-thon 2k13

It’s that time again. I’m participating in this year’s Clarion West Write-a-thon. The Write-a-thon runs for six weeks: June 23rd through August 3rd. My goal this year is the same modest goal I had last year: complete and polish a story. Maybe two, if I press my nose to the grindstone. In the spirit of Clarion West, I’m working on something science fictional. My secondary goal is to form some better writing habits. I’m going to try to work for an hour a day, five days a week. By the end of the six weeks, hopefully I’ll have made working on my own projects a solid part of my workweek.

I’ll be posting here about my progress and process.

You can sponsor me, if you like. Proceeds benefit the Clarion Foundation.

1Q84 and the End of the World

I started reading 1Q84 late last evening. I’d been putting it off. After Dark, Murakami’s last novel, was a slender thing that seemed to end too soon. I wanted to read 1Q84 slowly, carefully. I wanted to make it last.

I read the first two chapters last night before bed. Halfway through the second chapter, my fingers were eagerly drumming on the edges of the pages. As soon as I finished, I grabbed a notepad and ballpoint pen and began to write. I didn’t have the patience to go upstairs to get my laptop and wait for it to power up. I needed to immediately scrawl words across a page.

I first encountered Haruki Murakami when I was about 16 or 17. It was in the fiction section at the main branch of the Charleston Public Library. The main branch of that library system was a very good one, and I spent a lot of time there during the five years I lived in South Carolina, and afterwards when I would come down from Connecticut to visit my mother. My memories of that library are very vivid. I remember how it smelled: book glue, new shelving, highly conditioned air.

This was before Goodreads and literary social networking. I read novels voraciously, but with very little guidance. I enjoyed my English classes in school, but those classes usually didn’t put post-modern fiction, or foreign novels, or science fiction on the syllabus. I was on my own. I would discover an author I liked, and then methodically work my way through every single book by that author at my library’s particular branch. I read Philip K. Dick that way, and Kurt Vonnegut, and William Gibson. I had no one to talk to about those books. My friends liked books, but not always the same books that I did. I read in a vacuum. I don’t remember how Murakami’s name was first given to me. I think I read a sentence somewhere that compared him to Philip K. Dick. That was enough.

I went to the “M” section of the library. After reading through the jackets of the various Murakami novels, I picked out Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I read through the book in under a week. Afterwards, I was completely blasted. I felt like something had written something especially for me, directly to me.

Soon afterwards, I began writing fiction for the first time after years of writing poetry. My entire brain switched gears.

I then proceeded read every Murakami novel ever written. Later, in college, a writing professor introduced me to Murakami’s short fiction. I read all of those collections, too. I’m caught up now, so I have to wait years between new novels. Sometimes I go back and re-read. Every time I encounter Murakami, though, it always triggers a flurry of productivity in regards to my own projects.

Nowadays I have plenty of friends who are happy to talk about Murakami with me, but sometimes I still think about my teenage self wedged into a gap between the stacks at the CPL, reading her first Murakami novel, and feeling like she and he were the only two people left in the world.

The Spaces They Inhabit

Was it overly ambitious for me to set the goal of writing, finishing, and editing a science fictional yarn for the Clarion West Write-a-thon this year?

Probably. I’m spending July 3 – July 15 travelling across the country, and before that I packed my entire house into a relocation cube and shipped it off the rural Massachusetts, where I’ll be spending the next few months. Despite all this, or perhaps because of all this, I’ve actually been doing a quite a bit of writing. I have a 6,782 word skeletal draft of “Man of War”. It will probably get longer before it’s done, and then shorter as I edit it down.

I’ve never had much of an interest in writing hard science fiction, though I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and loved it to pieces. Usually, though, I like it when things get weird.

I like the Kirby sort of cosmic. As I visualize the people and places and things in this story I’m writing, I’m finding myself drawn repeatedly to animation and comics. Kirby, yes, but I’ve also been really enjoying the contemporary Prophet and Saga. I’m revisiting shows about sad kids in giant robots and machine ladies.

The nice thing about immersing myself in other mediums, as opposed to focusing on prose fiction, is that I don’t have to worry so much about voice creep. I also find that studying the visual language of comics is very helpful to me as a writer of prose. Good comics are lessons in economy: a single issue can convey reams of information in 20-30 pages. They build worlds, fantastic or otherwise, with incredible efficiency. Comics also remind me to think about physicality more often. What are people doing as they spit dialogue back and forth? Where are they in the spaces they inhabit? What are their bodies communicating that their words aren’t?

Comics are also great about zooming in about mundanities of the fantastic in a way that completely knocks my socks off. X-men has always been as much about interpersonal drama as it is about punching bad guys. Chadwick’s Concrete is certainly the most realistic story about an invulnerable rock man ever written. It always impresses me when a story manages to balance space aliens  and ray guns with unrequited crushes and empty afternoons. I like big ideas, but I like my big ideas mixed with small moments that tell me who these people are and why I’m supposed to care about them.

Anyway, I should really get back to working on this thing. Maybe I’ll just read a few issues of Before the Incal first?

Clarion West Write-a-thon

Thanks to the power of peer pressure, I’ve signed up for the Clarion West Write-a-thon. You can find my terrible author page here. If you like, you can donate some money to Clarion West and help keep this very wonderful workshop alive and kicking.

The Write-a-thon runs from June 18th to July 27th. My modest goal for the ‘thon is to finish and polish my current short fiction project, a story based on this short from my February Flash Fiction Fight to the Death. It’s my attempt at writing more tightly plotted science fiction, because that’s what the editors I’ve been in contact with lately have been asking for.

I’ll try to post updates, and perhaps excerpts, here. Maybe even some drafts, once I have one of those.

I hope you like squid ships, because you’re going to be hearing a lot about them over the next six weeks.

Notebook: Man of War

Once in a while a story grabs hold of me and doesn’t let go. I’ve been writing stories that are more explicitly science fictional this year, finally shrugging off the “genre fiction can’t be serious fiction” complex battered into me during my 16 years of schooling. It’s been nice. I’m writing a lot more than I used to, because I’m no longer worrying about whether or not I’m writing the right kind of thing. I’m just writing.

I’ve been trying for a while to figure out how to work this pilot and her absurd spacefaring vessel into a story. Originally developed during my frantic Flash Fiction Fight to the Death, this concept has been pulling at me. What is it like to be a ship? How can this character be part of a functional story embryo? How do you force a ship out of its comfort zone?

A few days ago I figured it out, wrote for a heady five hours after getting home from work, and now I have a skeletal rough draft. This is one of the longer things I’ve tried recently, and it’s also the most plot-heavy. The story propels itself. It’s been an interesting piece to work with.

In the tradition of the process posts I wrote while thesising, I thought it might be interesting to post a list of the disparate things I’m absorbing and thinking about as I write this.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go write some gratuitous space battles.

Words, Words, Words

I might be fictional.

“You look like a character in a book,” said Bethany.

I blinked, taken aback. I felt like somebody had just cracked open my skull and was divining signs from the twists of my brain tissue. “What?” I said.

“I don’t know. The tea. The blazer. The New Yorker magazine casually placed to the side,” continued Bethany.

“Yeah,” agreed Kassandra, “I could totally see someone writing a book about you.”

I wanted to ask, “What kind of book?” I didn’t because I was afraid of the answer. If they said “a 19th century Russian novel” then I’d spend the rest of my life as a bureaucratic cog suffering from existential paranoia. I said, “Maybe I’ll write a book about myself. Nah, I won’t. I feel like that’s too… vain.”

“No, it’s not. It’s okay, because somebody else said it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. I take a sip of hot black breakfast tea laced with milk. Since when did I take milk with my tea? “Everyone is always writing about themselves anyways.”

A book, she said. Not just a character. A character in a book. I am leaking literature.

The secret to happiness is to reconcile the internal image with the external self. I always wanted to become my own protagonist.

I had a friend help me re-edit a reportage piece I was working on for my Creative Non-Fiction course. In between correcting my excess verbiage and woefully faulty knowledge of Japanese rope bondage, we got into a conversation about the place of reality in non-fiction. James Frey, of course, came up.

“I just don’t understand why people felt so betrayed by it. Why was it such a big deal? If people researched all the stupid memoirs out in the airport bookstores right now they’d find lots of things that were just completely made up!” I said. I was getting angry and I didn’t know why. No, I did know why. I was getting angry thinking about all those poorly worded, heavily fictionalized, best-selling memoirs. I was getting angry thinking about the lying hacks who made a living off of their writing, something that I’m certain I could never do.

“He pissed off The Oprah,” piped another friend. True.

“I have to admit, the story becomes more interesting to me if I know that it’s true,” said my current editor.

“But why? I don’t get it, It’s all the same! Most of fiction, of good fiction, is taken from the writer’s life or their observations of other people’s lives. They take life and make it better. Rearrange the events, put words in other peoples’ mouths, have their characters say the things they wish was said. And memoirists do the same thing. Life doesn’t have snappy dialogue. If somebody took all their dialogue verbatim from life then nobody would want to read it. It’s all the same fucking thing. Who cares if it’s true as long as it’s good?”

I catch myself yelling and stop. I realize that as I was ranting I was also bouncing aggressively. This odd behavior may have been caused by the fact that my proofreading friend is much taller than me, or it may simply have been an unconscious effort to get rid of some of my buzzing physical rage. I had never realized that the expression “hopping mad” could have some factual basis.

There’s got to be a beginning. First lines are always the ones they quote for posterity.

Allison Rebecca Werner decided she would buy the flowers herself.

I am a sick girl. I am a spiteful girl. I am an unattractive girl. I think my liver is diseased.

As Allison Rebecca Werner awoke one morning from a troubled dream, she found herself changed in her bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.

That’s not even mine. I stole it. I have to be careful, sometimes, when I’m writing, that I’m not unconsciously pilfering a character, a phrase, an image from somewhere else. It’s hard to separate what came from inside of my head and what came from outside it. How can I write something new? How can anyone? I read something and I absorb the ink through my fingertips. The words run up my veins, lodge themselves in my brain and dissolve into my grey matter. My thoughts are not my own. I’ve become a literary amalgamation; even my dreams are clichéd pastiches. I haven’t been real since I learned how to read in 1994.

“If you don’t dress up like Tank Girl for Harvest Ball next year I’m going to be very disappointed,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, looking up. I was looking up because the boy I was conversing with was much taller than me. Most people are. When I asked a small sampling of friends and acquaintances to describe me in a series of adjectives the responses ware varied and often contradictory, but “short” was used fairly consistently. The word “short” can mean both “having little height” and “abrupt”. It can also mean “lacking in a necessary quality”.

“You have a Tank Girl aura about you,” he explained, waving his fingers vaguely. I have the aura of a post-apocalyptic antiestablishment drug-addled superheroine? Of course I do. I read the comics and the character became a part of my collective unconscious.

I might be fictional. Sure, I’m Tank Girl. I’m Sal Paradise, Katurian Katurian, Enid Coleslaw, Ivan Illych, Laurie Juspeczyk, K., May Kasahara. I’m–

Allison Rebecca Werner drank her tea slowly. She neglected to remove the tea bag from her paper cup, instead letting it seep until the brew was astringent and bitter with tannin. Every so often she turned a page of a magazine and it made a sound like the movement of dead leaves.


Through a haze of text she became aware of someone setting a lunch tray down across from her. Allison made herself present. She looked up, dark eyes clicking into focus, absorbing the rays of light reflecting off alien topography before the facial features registered as something familiar. She smiled, quickly and automatically. She tried to act like she would much rather talk to this girl than continue to read about linguistic anthropology studies in the Amazon. She did it well.

Allison closed her magazine and slid it outside the range of her peripheral vision in order to avoid giving it clandestine glances while making necessary conversation. She brought up the easy topic of their shared class and let the words run from there. Every so often she made eye contact and smiled. Every so often she took another sip of her tea.

She liked people. At least, that was she repeated in her head every once in a while, as if to remind herself. It was just that, at this particular moment, she would obtain much more enjoyment from reading her magazine article than making small talk with the girl sitting across the beige cafeteria table.

“You look like a character in a book,” said the girl, apropos of nothing.

Allison’s smile wavered imperceptibly at the edges. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she replied lightly. It was not a compliment. It was a sentence. Those strange, simple words confirmed Allison’s underlying sense of doom. She looked like a character in a book because she was a character. She’d absorbed defining details from too many other personas and now there wasn’t anything original left. She’d finally ceased to be a real person.

That night, as she lay in bed with her eyes screwed shut, she heard terrible, decisive clacking noises, like someone in the next room was pounding on the keys of a giant typewriter. She was terrified by how resolutely final the typing sounded. A panicked, claustrophobic feeling overcame her, the feeling that her life had already been plotted out for her by some inescapable, unseen force. A few strokes of the keys and her personality would change. A few strokes of the keys and she might be scrapped entirely and cease to exist. Her mind raced and spit out nightmares.

I am being cut out of reality and soon I’ll be nothing but a blank white cut-out with crisp new edges. Cut me and I’ll bleed ink. I am being cut out of reality I am I am I am

I look like a character in a book.


An older piece. Written in the spring of 2007 for a Creative Non-Fiction course with Jean Thompson. The italicized portions were originally in a typewriter font. A bit gimmicky, but effective. Unfortunately, I couldn’t for the life of my figure out how to transmit the font changes into blog form. Ah, formatting. This piece still does a remarkably good job at summing up my feelings as a reader/writer and a person/character.