Day 16: I am suspending my presidential campaign

My fellow Americans. After much soul-searching, I have decided that running for president is not where my skills are most needed in these perilous times. I must also acknowledge that my polling and fundraising numbers are not competitive with such candidates as Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. I probably don’t have time to catch up.

The hyper-competitive state of politics in 2019 was also a factor in this decision. Thirty years ago, I didn’t need a platform. As a white male, all I needed was a good suit. Today, I am expected to have “positions.” I am expected to defend them. The public is fickle, and no one gives a rat’s ass that I am against single-player chess.

My campaign, though over, was not without its indelible moments. Partnering with Amy Klobuchar on Dancing with the Stars. Riding along with Jay Inslee as he busted ivory merchants, especially Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. The night I got Cory Booker so stoned, he thought he was John Hickenlooper. Mud-wrestling with Bill de Blasio.

I’ll miss you guys and all those late nights on the team bus, looking for soul food and a place to eat. Kirsten, you can keep my J. Crew sweater.

I hereby pledge all of my delegates to Elizabeth Warren. And I pledge all of the time I am not going to spend running for president to the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon).

Day 12: House party

After a day and a half of cleaning, moving furniture, yard work, and dodging a puzzled dog, my family arrived and the whirlwind began. I was perhaps a touch optimistic in assuming I could be a good host to my dear sister while disappearing every day to participate in the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon). Plus dieting.

But after much shuffling and some hard choices, I not only ate three slices of pizza, I settled the names of my characters. I finally understand them and their relationship to each other. They’ve been waiting for me: an insignificant fellow, someone I needed for one paragraph to do one thing, suddenly has a recurring role. He fits.

Now comes the easy part: the writing. As the psychiatrist Dr. Spielvogel said in the punchline to Portnoy’s Complaint, “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

Day 9: Today I felt the baby kick

Today was the first day of the last year of my working life. It was a good day. I woke at 6 a.m. Lucky and I were at the park with the other dogs and their sleep-deprived owners at 6:30. Little do those workin’ stiffs know that a year from now I won’t be standing around with them while our dogs chomp and sniff each other and that coming up is the last winter when I’ll be chasing Lucky around in the pre-dawn rainy blackness with a flashlight and handing out extra plastic bags. No way will I ever see 6 a.m. again unless I go to bed at 6 a.m.

(Loyal Reader Accused of Lurking celebrated his birthday last week by sleeping in. He didn’t get up until…5:30 a.m. Normally, he gets up at 10 o’clock at night, half an hour before he goes to bed, drinks a cup of sulphuric acid, works 29 hours a day down-mill, pays the mill owner for permission to come to work, and when he gets home, his parents kill him and dance about on his grave singing “Hallelujah.” But you try to tell the young people today that…they won’t believe you.)

Work was OK. I took two naps under my desk. Nobody knew I was unconscious. I shelved problems, reordered priorities, and rationed productivity. Today was also the first day of the company’s fiscal year, and to celebrate, we had donuts rather than bonuses. I ate a donut. There are fewer calories in a bonus, but you take what you can get in this life.

As for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, something is simmering inside my book. Finally. I’m imagining scenes and hearing dialog. I’m not sucking on a bong, either.

I’ve recently reread some of the work of a writing teacher I respect, Jessica Page Morrell. She once wrote an essay about manuscripts that have entered a coma and what to do about them. A brief quote:

Problem: The plot is meandering, stalling. You keep changing your mind.

Solution: All writing requires a deep understanding of structure. Without this understanding you’ll waste time, hit dead ends, and write endless drafts. Find a structure that works for you and stick with it….Always know where you’re going before you start writing and head toward that ending.

The time I’m putting in now on structure is the time I should’ve put in years ago. (Although it could be that years ago I wasn’t ready. Trying to write a novel has meant learning more about me.) I can’t get by on enthusiasm, though God knows I tried.

Now I’m feeling organized, energized, somewhat enlightened…and one day closer to retirement.



Day 8: A little help from my friends (19th-century white males)

If your parents are 90, every day you’ll connect with someone you don’t want to connect to. A doctor, a nurse, a caregiver, a lawyer, a bureaucrat. It’s like dealing with the Village People except you don’t have sex at the YMCA.

As your parents continue their unsteady march into their 10th decade and the news gets grimmer and the choices tougher, each connection with the doctor, the nurse, etc. hits a little harder. Today was one of those days.

If you’re a writer, the way to deal with turmoil is with habit. Write at the same time every day, for the same amount of time. Begin with a ritual, a bell, a song, something that signals the brain that now is the time. End the session with a ritual that tells the brain to take five. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Gustave Flaubert knew this: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” No one will ever mistake me for Flaubert. I tend to write in unruly and unpredictable bursts, at widely varying times of the day and night. I achieved a few things today in the Clarion West Write-a-thon, but not what I had planned. I was too long derailed.

“Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. “Up again, old heart!” One hundred and seventy-five years ago, Emerson knew how to represent:

Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

A couple of months ago, I was visiting Antique Parent Land and I had dinner with my favorite high school English teacher and his wife. At one point, Roland asked me how my folks are doing. My folks are not much older than he is. I gave them a summary, then I said I realized how fortunate I was. My sister and I are the only people we know in our  generation who still have both their parents.

“It’s a blessing,” I said, and paused, because I realized I was about to say “and a curse,” the natural pairing with blessing, and how could I say that out loud? Roland smoothly finished my sentence with “and a responsibility.”

I haven’t been Roland’s student since 1972, but he’s still teaching me.



Day 7: I rested

Instead of the Clarion West Write-a-thon, I have a few things to say this evening about Glimmer Train, one of two litmags based in Portland, Oregon, that will not be with us when we enter 2020. The other is Tin House.

Glimmer Train began in 1990 when two sisters, Susan and Linda, decided they wanted to publish volumes of short stories. (I know their full names, but they always refer to themselves as Susan and Linda, so I will, too.) That they did, for 30 years, in 106 perfect-bound, digest-sized issues of 200+ pages, along with interviews, interesting comments from the writers on their stories, and a childhood photo of each writer.

The zine was never an art director’s delight – that was Tin House – and they never ran themes or led their readers down unexpected trails –  again, Tin House – but the writing was usually solid, often inspired, and there was at least one year when the annual Best American Short Stories included more stories from Glimmer Train than from The New Yorker or, yes, Tin House.

When I found out late in 2018 that both zines were ending their runs, I knew I had to make a last-ditch attempt to sell them a story. I was too late for Tin House, which received more than 20,000 unsolicited fiction manuscripts a year until they finally barred the door. But Glimmer Train has always tried to make a home for the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They were running three last contests. I set myself a goal of writing two new stories and entering two contests.

I checked off that goal in April after writing one new story and rewriting an old one. Close enough. But Susan and Linda weren’t biting, and I will not be in that number when the literary gods go marching in. In my final rejection from them, number 14 lifetime (this includes an honorable mention in one of their contests), they called my story “a good read” and wrote:

Readers and writers have – through their writing and by their presence – deepened and enlivened our lives. The thousands and thousands of stories people have sent us over these last three decades have each revealed something significant about what it means to be human. As much as it really is time for us retire, we’ll always hold these many years, the stories and their authors – you – close to our hearts.

It’s been a great honor doing this work and one heck of an exciting experience for us.

With gratitude and warm wishes,

Susan & Linda
Glimmer Train Press

Glimmer Train is gone but Tin House rocks on as a book publisher and as the sponsor of the Tin House Summer Workshop, held every summer at Reed College, barely a mile and a half from our house. I went to the workshop in 2008 (22 years after I went to Clarion West) and it was a wonderful week (for which I was prepared by having gone to Clarion West).

Good-bye just now, Susan and Linda, and thank you.



Day 6: Extreme psychic damage

The Write-a-thon continues! What have I been doing for two days, besides overeating?

In Dan Wakefield’s essay “How I Overhauled My Mechanic’s Novel,” his mechanic is startled to learn that he needs a protagonist to make his book work. He’s never heard of a protagonist. And he’s shocked when Wakefield tells him how much a protagonist is going to cost, even if they buy one secondhand from a book that was remaindered.

Fortunately for me, I know how to build my own protagonist. My question is what kind of protagonist to build. I know he is definitely a he and as manly, chiseled, and woke as his creator. But is he young? Old? How you define those words changes as you move from young to old. Are we in his head (first person)? Following him around (third person)? In and out of his head (Pink Floyd person)?

In an interview with the novelist Kent Wascom in the Spring/Summer Glimmer Train, Wascom says, “That first year or so for each book is about finding the shape. I follow a lot of different threads and try various voices. One lives. The others die….I’ve accepted that there’s probably a year of my process, if you add it all up, that is filled with false starts, pursuing different threads, and accepting it all as play.”

It’s good to know that I’m following the path blazed by a successful novelist, even if one year for him has been several years for me. Perhaps we live light years apart?

Here on my planet, I just gave my protagonist his third different name, and I’ve adjusted his age and background. I’m going to give him some misfits to hang with. Names are easy. What the characters do with those names is a tougher.

Character names I rejected for my book:

Chaka Cohen
Rimshot Korsakov
Sal Contrabando
Stan the Man Musical
Van Lingle Mungo
Vlad the Inhaler

Of his method Wascom said, “I think you an do this and not suffer extreme psychic damage if you’ve already published a novel.” Uh-oh.

Diet Day 6

Here at the office, after a week of birthdays and a celebration for a departing colleague for which every woman in the company baked a bundt cake, my diet was in sad shape. So I skipped lunch today and lost 5 pounds. Dieting: Solved!

Day 3: Cranberry scones of death

Happy fattening birthday, bitches.

Not much progress in the Write-a-thon today. Three of us in our department had birthdays (one last week, one this week, one next week) and the apocalypse of pastry brought in to celebrate was placed on a table by the door to my office. My discipline and self-esteem immediately left the building. Plus we all went out for a Caribbean lunch. By 2 p.m. I longed for a hammock under my desk like we used to have in software.

You are what you eat, and if you eat like this you’ll demote your brain. The rest of you won’t be happy, either.

My lone accomplishment today (though still satisfying) was to finish rooting out all the false starts, cul de sacs, potholes, critiques of versions that no longer exist, and other irrelevancies that form the archive to a book I’m nowhere near finishing. I shredded the paper and deleted the files. I am not the Smithsonian.

Diet Day 3

Looks like I’m not 25 anymore.

Greetings, Eastern Europeans

After every post, half a dozen bloggers from the countries that once were trapped behind the Iron Curtain like and/or follow me. From their photos, I can tell they are 25 and they can still eat like that. I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. As soon as we reach our cruising altitude you may move about the blog.


Clarion West, Day 2: The cult

No, I’m not talking about the English goths who made a lateral career move into stadium butt-shaking. I refer instead to a subclass of railroad enthusiasts who enjoy sneaking into railroad facilities and risking arrest and bites from angry watchdogs to photograph equipment that looks like, well, equipment.

These are men who can look at a passing line of tank cars and tell you from the number on each car where they’re from and where they’re going while the rest of us are worried that all that gasoline is going to blow us to the Yukon. These happy-go-lucky hobbyists are what professional railroaders call FRNs: Fucking Rail Nuts.

I mention this because yesterday I said I’m writing a book full of trains. Another gentleman who wrote a book full of trains, Carlos A. Schwantes, was besieged by FRNs as soon as he went on the road to promote Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest. This is a book about the impact of the railroads on urban and rural areas and what happened when, in many places, the trains stopped running. It’s full of old advertising, memoir, maps, and cultural and economic analyses. But Schwantes could not escape the FRNs who assumed he had counted all the rivets in a steam locomotive, all the wooden ties under the tracks, all the bridges of Madison County, and other burning issues of the day.

I am not writing a book for rivet counters. My target audiences are my wife’s book clubs, past and present. I have met these women and I can tell you plain that not one of them knows the four types of stresses on a railroad bridge, and yet their lives run along just fine, thank you very much.

Today, after working on one unified chapter 1 from three variants, I cleared out more of the stalactites of surplus language in the cave of literature. In my piles of notes I found I had written a job description for a job that’s probably not going to be in the book and even if it was who is going to apply for it, a reader? Also some songs, critiques of chapters from critique groups I was in years ago, and, of course, erotica. Can’t have a book with trains in it without erotica.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on protagonists and the novelist Kent Wascom, who, on the advice of his mentor, kept 90 pages of the first draft of his first novel, The Blood of Heaven, and threw away the other 600. Frankly, I don’t have that kind of time.

Diet Day 2

There are entire nations that don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and here I am complaining because there’s too much food coming my way. This problem would be incomprehensible to approximately 2 billion people.

The trick to dieting is filling your stomach with something that makes you believe you’re full but something that is not donuts. For a while I experimented with frozen corn and peas mixed with cut-up pieces of protein, such as chicken or sasquatch, then microwaved. Not bad, but these simple lunches required seasoning. All the seasoning. There’s actually not enough seasoning. I have returned to the test kitchen.

FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper said, “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present.” Permission to transgress once may be the best dieting advice ever given.

I came to plié

The Clarion West Write-a-thon began today. I promised that I would blog about it every day, no matter how much I blood I lose.

Here’s the situation: I’m writing a book about working for a living, except unlike the offices I usually write about, this story is set in 1947 on a railroad in the mountains. I have a hero who’s going to have to learn a thing or two, the woman he’s focused on, the woman he should be focused on, allies, villains, mentors, bystanders, eccentrics, philosophers, misguided twits, and, of course, trains.

But I’m stalled.

I have seven chapters, about 28,000 words. I have 22,000 words in my notes, including three obituaries of my characters (one of which is one of the best things I’ve ever written), and a fake bibliography (it was fun). I’ve written three short stories based on this book. I even have an alternative chapter 1 where I try a different point of view. And then there are all the maps, charts, photos, and postcards I’ve collected for — inspiration?

As you can see, I’m doing everything except writing my novel. I think there are three reasons for this:

  1. I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never written a novel before.
  2. Sloth.
  3. The thought that even if I finish, I will never publish this book anywhere.

As for that third point, I have some evidence. Yesterday one of my stories was bounced from Glimmer Train. (More about this magazine in another post.) That is my 175th rejection in this century.

I’ve never received a single rejection for a novel, because I’ve never written one. I should write one. Public accountability will help. Thanks for reading along.

The two deadly sins: writing and eating

Some guys turn to alcohol when they’re stressed. Some turn to Coldplay. I eat. This morning before we went hiking in the Columbia Gorge I stepped on the scale and the scale glared at me and said 170.8. That might seem like nothing much for a man who is 6’7″, but I’m 5’7″. I was in better shape than this not too long ago. So here is how I’m spending the next 41 days: making things up and not eating.

Clarion ends on August 3. My overarching goal is to still be alive on that sweet Saturday.

See you tomorrow.


You can have a writing life or you can have a clean house

The 2019 conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, held March 27-30 in Portland, Oregon, was fattening. There were more than 800 exhibitors in the conference expo – indie publishers, small literary zines, editorial services, and a guy who was selling concept-coded dice to help kids write poetry – and most were handing out lollipops, bite-size candies, or chocolates. Except The Paris Review, which had croissants. The expo space, large enough to hold half a dozen defective Boeing airliners, was full of good things to read and bad things to eat.

AWP offered hundreds of panels and workshops over three days exploring every aspect of gender, race, identity, mainstream voices, marginalized voices, writing, publishing, and teaching. There were also more than a hundred off-site events. “This reading will eat you alive,” a smorgasbord of 16 writers promised, while The Cincinnati Review and two other litmags from the heartland billed themselves as a clash of the “Monster Mags of the Midwest.” The off-sites popped up in bars, restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, bookstores, Mar-a-Lago, and on the International Space Station.

This was not just a writing conference. This was an event.

The only day I had was Saturday, and the only time I had covered 0.75 expos, three panels, and one reading (female science fiction writers of the Northwest). What follows is my report, with tips on writing. But first: Merch!

Secret expo missions

I entered the expo with two goals: stripping the place like a one-man plague of locusts and getting my photo taken with every editor of every litmag that has rejected my stories. There were plenty of candidates: Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, Paris Review, The Sun, etc.

The latter plan proved to be unworkable. Either there were no editors present, or the editors were busy, or the editors were 10 feet tall with lightning bolts idling around their heads (cf. Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, Paris Review, The Sun).

Or I scared them. At the table for The Bellingham Review and the MFA program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, I jauntily said to the two 20something women running the place, “I have so many rejections from The Bellingham Review!” I probably don’t have more than three, but I’m a big tipper. One woman was a student, the other was recently a student, neither was an editor, and both looked stricken, as if I had declared, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Fortunately, I’ve made enough verbal gaffes since I first learned to talk that I know how to put the helm over and tack toward safety. I’m familiar with Bellingham, and soon the three of us were safely chatting about Western’s campus, Village Books, and Lake Padden. They gave me a copy of The Bellingham Review. Maybe if I actually read this issue, I’ll write something the editors like for a change.

My other expo mission was a success. This being the last day of the conference, no one wanted to lug all those magazines, books, and other paraphernalia home. Everything was on sale or, failing that, they’d just give it to you. Although now that I’ve been woked by AWP, I wonder if the gross tonnage of stuff I received was directly proportional to me being a clean-shaven, middle-aged white male in a sport coat.

Beats the crap out of the Associated Press lip balm they were handing out that weekend in Providence, Rhode Island, at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

I had to make an extra trip to the parking lot to stash everything in my car. There were no AWP off-site events going on in the back seat.

Now you – yes, you – can become a famous writer just like me

I went to three panels:

  • “You’ve Got This: Finding and Sustaining Self-Reliance While Writing a Novel”
  • “Surviving the Writing Life: Whither, Life Balance?”
  • “Listening to the Art: Committing to Your Book No Matter How Long It Takes”

The panelists and moderators had all come from academia and MFA programs. Reading their credentials in the program book made me feel as if I had come from a mall. However, no one demanded my passport or asked me to explicate a canto, and I learned a lot. I was particularly impressed by the moderator of “Listening to the Art,” Cara Benson, who kept things moving. And hopping. She is exactly the kind of person who can commit to her book no matter how long it takes.

Here are some notes I jotted down while juggling merch and, during one panel, my sandwich.

How to get shit done

A young father said that sometimes you have to neglect your family to advance your writing. “I tell myself, this week I’m going to be a bad dad,” he confessed. “I’ll make it up to them next week.”

One panelist told us about a woman who works on one novel in the morning and another novel in the afternoon. Eventually, one project pulls ahead of the other, and that novel becomes the woman’s focus. (There was no explanation of how she makes a living. Morning novel, afternoon novel, evening shift driving a bus?)

Plan your week. Buy the biggest white board you can find.

Hold yourself to a weekly word or page goal. Colson Whitehead, the conference’s guest of honor, said in his keynote speech that his writing goal is eight pages per week. There’s no magic number, a panelist said. Just pick a number. Any system that works for you, that results in you getting words on a page, “even shitty words,” is the system for you.

Everyone agreed: Don’t waste time rewriting first chapters. One of my toughest challenges. Everyone also agreed: Don’t waste time with writing software. Just write.

Crash Davis to Nuke LaLoosh: “You have to play this game with fear and arrogance.”

Be ruthless. If something isn’t working, throw it away.

Corollary: Once you’ve written 50,000 words, even if you throw them away, writing a novel won’t ever intimidate you again.

Addendum: Do you have a novel fragment hanging around? Throw it out – or finish it by any means necessary. “Dragging things out results in poor writing,” one panelist said, while another adjured us to “show up for the page.”

What kind of beast are you writing?

How can you tell if the story you’ve begun is a story or a novel? Stories close. If your story won’t close, it’s probably a novel.

You never come out the way you came in

A quiet but forceful woman, speaking from lengthy novel-writing experience, said that every project needs something different from you. By the time you finish your novel, you are the writer you needed to be on page one to write the novel. Then you start the next novel and you’re starting all over again. But you finished a novel and that knowledge will keep you going.

Fail whale

A 60-year-old mom of grown children said, “It is what it is. I don’t write fast and I get rejected a lot. My novel took 30 years to write because I got it wrong so often.”

“You have to fail so hard and so often,” another writer said. Her first three books failed, but books 2 and 3 failed faster because she gave up sooner.

Carve out the time. Pick out a project you can commit to for years, knowing that you might fail.

Listen to what calls you, but don’t be wedded to an outcome. “You’ll get to your next set of obsessions.”

My new mentor

The youngest panelist on all three panels was 25. She works at Powell’s City of Books. In fact, she was working at Powell’s that day. With her supervisor’s blessing, she jumped on a bus to the Convention Center to get to this panel. After the panel, she was heading back to work. Until her next panel.

Despite her up-talking and and the way she filled every sentence with like like like like, she was a great writing coach:

“Just write a shitty first draft. At least then it’s done. Five words or 500, you’re doing it. Those five words weren’t there yesterday,” she said. “As long as you’re writing something you care about, that’s the best thing you can do.”

Can’t touch this

One of the panelists told us that he’d been in recovery for alcohol and heroin addiction. In response to a question from the audience about writing after recovery from addiction, he told us, “Recovery is not for the people who want it or need it or deserve it. Recovery is for the people who do it.”

I didn’t buy a white board, but if they had been giving them out in the expo, I would’ve grabbed one. Writing is for the people who do it. It’s time to show up for the page and fail. Or to get shit done.