If You Write Fiction, Read This: Ben Percy’s THRILL ME


Congratulations to my friend Ben Percy and today’s release of THRILL ME!

I thought about my childhood reading often when reading Ben Percy’s first non-fiction book, THRILL ME: ESSAYS ON FICTION. Ben establishes the premise of the book early on: Don’t forget the most basic reason we read: to discover what happens next. Just like kids, most adults don’t set out to read something for its excellent character development, nor for its lovely “rhyming action” (described originally by Charles Baxter in Burning Down the House and referenced by Percy in THRILL ME), and certainly not for the “feckless pondering” Percy (pretty comically, especially for those of us who have been known to indulge) eschews. What readers want–kids and adults–is a good story.

Clearly, what they’ll enjoy more is a story that is made better by the many topics Percy covers in this fast-paced book of fiction-writing craft, including how to create urgency and suspense, how to “make the ordinary extraordinary” and how to “activate setting.” You’ll read about his “suspense-o-meter,” his use of screenplay pacing, his general distaste for backstory. There are no writing exercises, but there are scores of references to good books, compelling stories, can’t-look-away movies. If all you did was collect Percy’s literary/film references and set out to read/view each, you’d be a better writer for having read Thrill Me.

As a fiction writer myself I also love and desperately want to use a suggestion he makes regarding “the balance between whimsy and logic.” “Try changing one thing,” he writes, if that’s where you want to go. “Just one. This is our world except for______.” How exciting is that? Just one thing–what will it be? A person with some kind of ESP? A ghost? A piece of music that bubbles up randomly–or not? And then there’s all the rest of my favorite Percy-isms: I’ve always loved (and since first hearing it, have consistently employed–so to speak) his advice in the “Get a Job” chapter, which is to have characters do meaningful work. I love to have characters make decisions after which there is truly no going back. I’m counting on my main character being able to say, “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.” And I’m serious about trying to “reverse engineer” the next story I write. Percy suggests a writer know the ending and work back from there–heady, useful stuff in these days of meandering plot lines.

Percy’s essay on “Revision as Renovation” makes the traditional advice about revision–“Kill your darlings”–seem like sweetness and light. Fiction writers note: Let Ben “tell you something: if you’ve got the angel in one ear, whispering kind things, and the devil in the other, hissing about how badly you stink, listen to the devil. The devil drives revision.”

Listen to the devil. Go buy your copy of Ben Percy’s Thrill Me today.



Kindergarten Room Talk


There’s been a lot of buzz in the news lately about locker room talk–what it is, what it isn’t, who engages in it–and while I’ve loved reading professional athletes’ indignant responses, denying that Trump’s vulgar and rape-culture remarks are common in their locker rooms, I think it’s naive to assume they don’t happen somewhere. They do. And it’s a problem so overwhelmingly (and maybe you think this is the wrong word, but I’ll use it) sad, I chose not to watch the debate Sunday night, in the hope of preserving my hopeful self. My dignified self. The self that resists craning my neck as I drive by a horrible car accident. The self I want to present when I volunteer in a neighborhood kindergarten classroom each week.

I missed the month of September but I was welcomed yesterday with (quite literally) open arms to a kindergarten classroom of my neighborhood Minneapolis elementary school. There is a new class of children vs last year, of course, and woe to me for not recognizing the family resemblance between one child in the class this year and his brother (who I now recall from last year). “How could you not remember [my brother]?’ was the evenly tempered question. No indignation, no name-calling, no foul language.

I should have remembered this boy’s brother. I apologized. What’s more, I’ll try to be more attentive to things like this–important relationships, respecting and appreciating a child’s claim to and pride in family. It’s one of many things to learn from kindergarten room talk.

Here’s some more kindergarten room talk worth noting: Question from a student:
“[Teacher], can we have a snack?” Answer from the teacher: “Of course you can have a snack.” It was a kindergarten room snack worth noting: fresh, whole pears. Messy, sticky, whole fruit. Devoured with relish by the children, or in some cases, half-eaten. No problem. These are five- and six-year-olds, after all. They get hungry. They need real food, in small amounts, often. I can’t remember the last time I was so happy to see half-eaten pears, or hear the talk of children eating good, real food. “This is really good.” “Where’s my pear?” “[Name of child], don’t forget to finish your pear!” Lovely kindergarten room talk.

There was discussion, understandably, around activities in which several children wished to participate, but had to wait their turn. “That group is filled for now,” explained the teacher, with the patience of Job, “but we’ll switch in 10 minutes.” Deferred gratification–what a concept. Or how about permission? This one is particularly tough for small children, but examples of asking and receiving permission abounded in the classroom yesterday. Teacher: You need to ask if you can borrow…x. You need to ask if [another child] would like to sit with you. And there were constant reminders about personal space:  Keep your hands to yourself. No pushing.

It feels entirely possible that this kind of thinking will permeate a child’s young brain and be available for use when, for example, as an adolescent who wants to kiss someone, he or she sees it is more prudent to wait. And then to ask. Fine kindergarten room talk, for the ages.

One child in the class, J, uses a wheelchair for mobility at least part of the day. Some of the talk at a table around which a few children gathered (including J) was about the future. “Next year, my brother will be in grade two, and I’ll be in grade one, and you, too, J. Only you’ll still be in a wheelchair.”  J appeared to have no problem with this. I did, a little: Did J feel like he was being singled out, in a negative way? I said, Sure, and he’ll be stronger and bigger just like you. Was it a kindness, or an unnecessary over-compensation?

Not all kindergarten room talk is easy. A person might even think about it, long after they leave the room.

Before lining up for lunch, the children were asked to say one thing they liked about the morning’s activities. Children who had already spoken occasionally strayed into their own conversations, or let their attention fall away from the group. The teacher said, “Children, we need to be kind and listen when our classmates speak.”

Fine, fine kindergarten room talk.

Maybe we all need to listen particularly well this week. And maybe we can all–try, anyway–to think before we speak this week. To put what we say (and do?) to the kindergarten room talk test.








The Future of Fiction


I’m a bit behind the times but news of Lionel Shriver’s address on cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival (early September, 2016) has recently come to my attention. I’ve had dark nights of the soul, of late, about my own fiction writing, and about the future of fiction in general.

It was in David Shields’ Reality Hunger that I was first introduced to the idea that fiction may be doomed. It seemed such a ridiculous concept that I dismissed it…mostly. Now, in addition to my own mixed feelings about the meaning and ramifications of cultural appropriation in fiction, I wonder if David shields wasn’t right. Or, as Lionel Shriver apparently said in Brisbane, “All that’s left is memoir.”

Let me first say that I am terrifically disappointed that Shriver chose to make her speech in a sombrero, and that reviews from many sources, including The New York Times, Financial ReviewThe Daily Telegraph, and the Wall Street Journal are characterized by a similar and unfortunate degree of snarkiness, regardless of which side of the aisle they represent. I like this comment (from the website The Conversation) at least as much for its content as the sober, serious manner of its expression:

Very few critics suggest that fiction writers limit their fiction to their own experience. Indeed, critic Nesrine Malik suggests this constrains understanding between people and the processes of empathetic engagement that can happen in writing and reading fiction.

Rather, writers in positions of privilege are encouraged to think critically about how this shapes their writing. Novelist Jim C Hines argues that engaging in a process of scrutiny actually creates better writers. Privileged writers could also consider how to support and help amplify the voices of diverse writers, who experience publishing bias and lack of access to writing opportunities.

I didn’t think (much) about cultural misappropriation while reading Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. If every writer achieved what he did in that haunting book, I don’t think we’d be having much of a conversation. And yet, in spite of this, I did feel compelled to research Johnson’s actual connections to North Korea. They are minimal. Similarly, when reviewing a book by an older white woman whose story included some Native American characters, I considered investigating if this woman did, in  fact, have any (real?) connection to Native American culture. Because she is a minor player on the fiction-writing stage, I couldn’t research this online, and would have had to ask her, in person…what? What exactly would I have asked her? Are you Native American? What per cent Native American are you? Do you have friends who are Native American? Even a question like How much research did you do into this particular Native American community? seems absurd, and like it misses the point.

So what is the point?

That’s the question. What exactly do we need to know to authenticate or validate a writer’s appropriation? The quote above from The Conversation suggests that we need to know the writer gave the question serious consideration. We need to feel confident the writer asked him or herself questions like, What is my privilege? and How does it shape my writing? 

It’s why snark has no place in the discussion. It’s why Shriver should not have worn that sombrero. It’s why stereotypical, easily-chosen, poorly researched names and behaviors are a fiction-writer’s doom. Do these things and you will, in my opinion, be judged as misappropriating, regardless of your intent. You will invite discussions of your privilege, and they won’t be kind.

Fiction writers can write what they want, but it better be good. And we all need to do what we can to foster the writing of people who have traditionally been subject to publishing bias and restricted opportunity. Which means buying and reading their books. Which will make all of our fiction better.







Payback Time: Thanks for Your Support, Dale Gregory Anderson

 Intermedia Arts presents
Queer Voices: LGBTQIA+ Reading Series
September 27, 2016 | 7:30PM
At Intermedia Arts | 2822 Lyndale Ave South | Minneapolis
$5-25 Suggested Donation Supports the Series!

 I got an email today from excellent writer and fine person Dale Gregory Anderson, a man who has been nothing but kind to me for as long as I’ve known him. Check out his website here. I consulted Dale several years ago about a story I was writing. He read it, suggested changes, and generally encouraged me to continue working on it. I did, and it became one of my best publications (“Seizure,” Spring 2014 Ploughshares, listed under “Other Distinguished Stories of 2014” in BASS 2015.)

Dale’s got two big events coming up, so I’d like to begin to return his many favors by letting you know about them. The first is an Intermedia Arts event publicized above. On Tuesday, September 27 at 7:30 p.m., Dale will be reading as a part of this distinguished series. Below is his bio and, and the here’s the link to the event.

 Dale Gregory Anderson has published short stories in North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, The Greensboro Review, and other journals. He earned an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona and has received a number of awards for his work, including a Loft Mentor Series award, a SASE/Jerome award, a Jerome Foundation travel grant, and the Jack Dyer Fiction Prize from Crab Orchard Review. He is a fiscal year 2016 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. 
This Intermedia Arts event is a kind of “pay what you can” situation. But there’s another event being conducted by Dale that’s ABSOLUTELY FREE: a class he’s teaching at the Walker Library in Minneapolis on revising your fiction. I tried for about an hour to reproduce here the cool flyer he’s prepared, but I had to settle for a kind of cut and paste. You get the idea:

Saturday, October 15, 2016, 10 a.m. – noon Walker Library, Calhoun Meeting Room 2880 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN55408

Join Minneapolis writer Dale Gregory Anderson for a free class on revising fiction. Whether you write short stories or novels, this class will explore many of the techniques writers use to develop characters with the emotional complexity and motivation needed to drive a work of literary fiction. All you need to bring is a pen and paper or a laptop. While we won’t have time to critique individual manuscripts, participants will have a chance to ask questions.

This is a wonderful opportunity made possible by a very talented friend of mine. You’ll only be sorry if you miss it.



Another science love letter


Continuing my love affair with Natalie Vestin’s and EA Farro’s Science Love Letters, I was particularly entranced by EA Farrow’s August 24 letter, Under the Microscope. Consider, for example, the beauty the image above (from an entirely different website). According to its caption in an article titled “Beautiful Data: Cell Biology Yields Microcosms of Art,”

Neon-colored cells divide in a cell culture. Wendy Crone and graduate student Suehelay Acevedo are looking at how the mechanical properties of their surrounding might influence cells during division. The green stain marks centrosomes, which are one of the main mechanical components involved in cell division. The blue marks cell nuclei, and the red marks the DNA of dividing cells. Images by Max Salick

In her August 24 love letter, EA Farrow writes, among many other things, about how she fell in love with a microscope as a child. About the microscope as a tool to her better understanding the “forests of 8,000 years ago,” research of which has been a part of her scientific career. And then she talks about introducing her microscope to her young children:

I pulled out my scope this morning, touched it like I would a lover. I introduced it to the boys like it was an old friend. I felt the urge to dive in, leave off. But what we had to look at was bits of our neighborhood: oak leaf, dirt, kale, onion skin. I could see without looking the cell walls, reaching vein structures. As if once you see, you cannot forget the level of detail in each bit of life.

My husband is a pathologist, the only other person I know to use the near-to- affectionate word “scope” for microscope. We’ve purchased a few, one a long time ago when we could ill afford it and yet it is the microscope and my husband’s keen eye that has made most things in our life possible. It is why those good eyes of his have gone myopic and why his body wishes he wouldn’t sit so much. It is what has helped him recognize disease: inflammation, infection, cancer. He has saved lives–many, many lives–with his scope.

He told me yesterday about a remote place in the world where surgery for cancer occurs, but there are no pathologists. No scopes to find detail in tumorous cells that might help make a diagnosis, which predicts a prognosis, which directs a clinician to treatment. Life saving treatment, but not without a scope. Without a scope, without a pathologist with a keen eye looking through a scope, people in these small and remote villages sometimes purchase a container (from container-selling vendors who set up shop near surgery clinics) in which to place and preserve, with the appropriate chemicals, the tumors removed from their loved one’s bodies. Families take the tumors (and, presumably, their loved ones) home, and wait until they can raise enough money to later bring the preserved tumor to a setting where a pathologist practices.

Only then do they get to see the tiniest details in this bit of life (and possibly death) of the people they love. Only then do they benefit from the keen eye of a pathologist, as s/he looks through that miracle of science, the microscope, to the miracles of science, ourselves, our cells.