First Saturday Catch-up for August.

Been a busy-ish month on the reading front. I’m working through a little backlist on a couple of writers with new books coming out this fall, and starting to work through some debut galleys.

Finished River of Dust by Virginia Pye. A well done, very dark story about missionaries in China in the years after the Boxer Rebellion. She has a new book coming out soon that’s been getting some really good reviews: Dreams of the Red Phoenix.

Also finished The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish by Elise Blackwell. A beautiful, gentle story about a young man’s coming of age during the lead-up to the 1927 flood of New Orleans. I also have Blackwell’s an Unfinished Score in my stack, followed by her new book due out this fall called, The Lower Quarter.

The other books on the list are Thicker than Blood by Jan English Leary, American Copper by Shann Ray, and a short story collection King of the Gypsies by Lenore Myka.

All of those are with an eye toward getting the authors onto the podcast. More about that later.

For personal reading, I’m looking to get started, finally, on Molloy by Samuel Beckett, or maybe Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, or Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, or maybe The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Because I have a little celebrity crush on Grace Park (Boomer/Athena in the Battlestar Galactica series), I’ve been watching Hawaii Five-0 on Netflix. It’s . . . OK. There’s some good humor in it, but at the moment, only part way into Season 2, I’m not that impressed with the writing. I know it’s an hour long TV show so they’ve got to get thing wrapped up all snappy like, but . . . wow. They make some pretty amazing and unbelievable leaps of intuition and logic. Also, who knew Hawaii was such a hotbed of international intrigue? But it’s fun and I get in some good eye roll exercises.

However, I do find a few certain things disturbing, especially in the light of current events related to police these days.
        1) Everywhere they go, every person they encounter, the Five-O team has their guns drawn. WTF? Within the isolated context of the TV show it provides visual drama. Within the broader social context, it further reinforces this militarized, escalated idea that every police encounter is a tense fart away from violence.
        2) These cops always seem to shoot the right person. It’s always a bad guy and the bad guy is always armed. Also, they repeatedly have shootouts in public places full of bystanders . . . and no bystander ever catches a bullet unless – somehow – that bystander is integral to the plot.
        3) Five-O has been given special legal status in the context of the storyline, but I still find it disturbing how cavalier they are with the collection of evidence. Sure, yeah it’s a TV show, but staging the kidnapping of a suspect, complete with placing a black hood over his head, and then pretending to threaten the suspect with throwing him off a cliff . . . well, I doubt any confession obtained would be admissible in court, either in the effort to convict the suspect or to convict the “real” bad guy the suspect works for.

What I’m getting at is this: cops watch TV, too. How many of them watch fictional cop shows? Is there a correlation between the overly aggressive cop and that cop’s consumption of unrealistic cop shows on TV? We are already concerned that the dramatic device of torturing a suspect to save a city in fictional scenarios is seen as acceptable and effective in real life when really it isn’t. I’m not demanding Cop shows on TV b become hyperrealistic. That would be boring for one, and for the second part, the show would pretty much consist of cops stopping people for minor violations and issuing them tickets and fines so that the police force can keep itself funded. Here, read this piece from Mother Jones about the financial pressure behind super aggressive policing.

Didn’t discover any new music this last month, but I’m not worried that my musical exploration has ended. I’ve been locked down on writing, so, mostly I’ve been listening to the playlists I’ve built for a couple of the stories I’ve been working on. I have a playlist for Far Nineteen, and one for a new project that I’m itching to get started. When it’s not either of those, I’ve still got Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight going.

I am interested in finding out more about certain bands that have some catchy songs getting some play now, but I’ll have to do some research since I mostly hear the songs on the radio, in the car, driving to and from work.

Podcast News
Ok, podcast news. Stephen and I have been continuing to do the Laboratory shows on The Outrider Podcast. We’ll be late on the August episode. Doing the podcast has been a challenge and a reward. I love talking to other writers, learning about new books, and feeling like I’m engaged in a community despite being in the middle of nowhere (basically) and isolated for some undefinable reason among the writing community (small as it is) here in Wichita. Perhaps it’s a “Gen X” thing, in that I’ve never been much of a joiner, and I recoil at naive earnestness and delusion.

Anyway . . . the difficult thing with the podcast is the time and energy to maintain the initial schedule I had when now, I’m kind of in the standard publication cycle. I’ve pretty much run through all the writers I know who are up for talking to me. A few I know have, for unfathomable reasons, declined. I’m hard of hearing, was one excuse. Recovering at home from surgery was another excuse. I’m not going to name names, but seriously, I can make a weekend trip for someone close enough who can’t hear well over the phone, and how physically taxing, even post surgery, is it to lay on your couch and turn on Skype? So, having run through all the writers I know, I now have to track down writers I don’t know, and that means, more often than not, reading the writers book first to see if I even like it.

I’m not going to spend an hour talking to someone whose book I didn’t like. That wouldn’t be a good conversation and it would be dishonest.

So, I’m kicking around ideas on formatting and so on. A number of podcasts I listen to do “seasons,” and that may be the solution I go with for the interviews. The Laboratory will continue, but Stephen and I may reformat it, or not. I like the exercises, but I’m a terrible procrastinator. I have some other things I’d like to do with the podcast, but, of course, those take time and effort and I’m here also trying to get a novel out into the world, finish writing another one, and start yet another. Throw in a full time job, trying to exercise on a regular basis, and hopelessly, dumbly, deludedly trying to find someone to date, it doesn’t leave a lot of hours in the day to sit and think – and sitting and thinking, for me, is a huge part of being able to write.

Writing & Submitting
So, writing and submitting. I’ve decided that The Palace of Winds does NOT need to be 700 pages. I’d written it to stand alone, so it should stand alone. Plus, I needed a “finished” in my create ledger and telling myself after almost a year of thinking it was finished that it was, in fact, NOT finished, was sending me into depression. I should be using it to find an agent anyway, so I’m getting back on that track. But, of course, I’m hyper critical of my query writing skills. So much so that I often paralyze myself. I need to find a way around that.

Far Nineteen missed its deadline for the end of June. It missed its deadline for the end of July. Good thing these were just my own, personal deadlines. It’s been harder to finish than I’d expected, but that, in a way, is a good thing. I feel like the hang-ups have come from me allowing myself to simply sit with a character and get them properly understood. Since the book deals with race and racial issues and has several African American characters, that is far more important than the drive to get it done.

When that gets done, I’ll be recruiting readers to either read it and provide notes, or come visit me and read it out loud while I take notes and mark up the text.

Random Thoughts
Dating sites are horrible places.

There’s always a secret baby.

I’m too old to hang out in bars, and even when I was young enough, I never had the nerve to approach a woman and strike up a conversation, so what make anyone think I’d start doing it now.

They say that to meet someone, you should go out and do something you like to do and while you’re doing that thing you like to do, you’ll eventually meet someone who also like doing that thing – and Yahtzee! So, if you’re a dude who’s into motocross, do that a lot and eventually you’ll meet someone. I like indie bookstores and libraries. Problem is, my ex-girlfriend is the inventory manager at my favorite indie bookstore. It feels kind of awkward to troll the place looking for a new girl right in front of the old girl. The other problem is that the main library here in Wichita is just a few blocks south of the largest homeless charity, so every time I’ve been in library I’ve a strange encounter with a homeless man, which, being me, is utterly disturbing. I’m usually very much inside my own head. I move through the world trying not to have surprise encounters. Homeless men always surprise me and on top of that they’ve been known to go to great lengths, to cross wide, empty parking lots, push through crowds of other people to, seemingly, target me as the person to most likely have change. Startle me in public, and I react like a frightened cat. That’s not good. So, I avoid the library except when I really need something, and I always enter trying to look as mean as possible, which is not the best look to have on my face when I accidentally bump into a cute librarian.

There will be a very intense conversation with the next person who tells me I should go to church to meet a good woman. That conversation will begin with “Do you know the difference between a leap of faith and a conclusion based on empirical evidence?” I’ve also been planning a graphical way of representing the lecture I imagine following the person’s inevitable wrong answer to that. Then I’ll explain that since I do not share any faith in their particular deity, and since they cannot empirically prove the existence of their deity, nor can they prove the non-existence of all other deities imagined by humans, it’s pointless to ever talk to me about God. Also, which church has the hottest women? And, furthermore, which of those hot church women would be OK with finding out that I’d trolled her church pretending to be a believer? Not many relationships survive that were started on a foundation of dishonesty.

I am flabbergasted that people think the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked. Of course, some of those same people probably think people and dinosaurs coexisted and just missed getting on Noah’s Ark. I often get the “your brand of stupid hurts my eyes” look when I have to talk to them.

The Outrider Podcast: The Laboratory #4 w Stephen McClurg

In this laboratory we have a guest sitting in, Eric Jenkins, erstwhile compatriot for our mostly dormant Eunioa Solstice endeavor. Eric helps us figure out which of the two exercises Stephen completed gets read, and it’s a winner called “Write Club” and that leads to me laughing like a maniac and later a lively discussion about young writers. We talk a bit about Gerard Genette, War and Peace, the need to finish things, what makes successful exercises, and the painful nature of open mic poetry readings in bars.

You can see exercises and the instructions for the new exercise here:

Stephen McClurg teaches and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. After winning the National Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Contest, he spent a week writing haiku for the Washington Post‘s blog. In the past he has published articles, essays, reviews, short stories, poems, and comics in newspapers, journals online and otherwise, and appeared in the anthologies You Ain’t No Dancer and Voices from a Safe Harbor. He has written and composed music for award-winning short films, art installations, and dance.

Exercise #4

Write a scene in a setting that is likely to be quite familiar to your readers (supermarket, dormitory, classroom, movie theater, suburban house, etc.) but that is unfamiliar, strange, outlandish, or outrageous to the central character. Let us feel the strangeness through the character’s eyes.

The Outrider Podcast is available on iTunes and Stitcher. You can also listen at my website (

First Saturday Catch-up

Finished Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I kind of needed that. I generally don’t like an intrusive narrator who comes in and addresses the reader directly, but here it worked and added something to the book. The narrator’s acknowledgment of the reader and the inherent invented-ness of his characters, I think, put the focus on the – this’ll sound boring – pedagogical aspects of fiction while also adhering to the basic direction for all writers to be entertaining and interesting. Definitely deserves its status as a classic – and a second read . . . . . Someday.

Still plodding through Narrative Discourse (again) by Gerard Genette, and taking notes (again). Genette, Michael Ondaatje, and Walter Murch were big influences on me in grad school, and really changed my writing. Or, rather, changed what I expected from my writing. I couldn’t have finished The Evolution of Shadows without the ideas and examples provided by that trio.

Got a flotilla of galleys in June that will be jumping my queue so that I can maybe get the writers on the podcast this fall. The Lower Quarter, by Elise Blackwell; Thicker Than Blood, by Jan English Leary; American Copper, by Shann Ray; and Dreams of the Red Phoenix, by Virginia Pye. Now, since I’ve had Blackwell and Pye on my to-be-read list for earlier work, I’ve also plucked up Blackwell’s Unnatural History of Cypress Parrish, and Pye’s first novel River of Dust, both of which I’ve been meaning to read, but, of course, that’s not how things work, is it?

I have a stockpile of unread books because, well, you never know when the world will end.

Spent a week plowing through the Netflix original Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston. It’s very funny, and very human, but . . . it’s narrow despite being a show about two women dealing with their husbands leaving them for each other. Strange and fun to see Sheen and Waterston playing gay, but I wondered why they didn’t try to find a pair gay actors to do it. Of course, maybe there’s something to that casting in a kind of meta-commentary way. Cast a pair of straight Boomer actors who are comfortable pretending to be gay and maybe someone realizes there’s nothing to be afraid of there. Social class, however, is the only real problem I had with it. To me, there is nothing about that world that isn’t a kind of upper middle class fantasy.

Watched the Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. It’s very fascinating, and I need to watch it again because first, the subject matter is very dense and, second, because Slavoj Zizek has, for me anyway, a difficult accent. I have to listen intently to anyone with an accent for a good while before I can pick out the pattern and make sense of the way they make familiar words sound unfamiliar. The movie is a long, cinematic treatise on the fantasies that make up our various belief systems. I may have to pick up some of his work in English, add it to my long list of books to be read.

My only addition to my music collection in June was the 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight by Frightened Rabbit. Their song “Fast Blood” had been popping up on my Pandora feed, and I became obsessed with it.

Here’s a live version recorded in Madison, WI

Podcast News
This is the summer of inactivity on the podcast. Had some big plans that didn’t, or haven’t worked out. Being a one-man operation in the middle of nowhere means I’m often thwarted by my own emotional pendulum, and the logistics of it all.

Thankfully, Stephen McClurg has remained steady, so there has been a consistent, monthly show to keep the feed active. I’ve been enjoying the The Laboratory shows immensely, which might be why they’re running long, and why we keep talking for hours after the recording stops.

Writing & Submitting
I’ve missed my deadline for finishing “Far Nineteen,” but, of course, I’ll keep plugging away.

Submitting things is always so . . . fraught with anxiety . . . That might be the best way to describe it. I’ve always had a problem asking for help, and asking to be considered for anything. Asking an agent to consider representing me, or an editor to consider publishing me, is a lot like asking a woman to consider dating me. In the last 17 years, I’ve had two women who’ve dated me and one editor who’s published me. Every agent’s rejected me.

I used to say that I had a tiny nugget of talent, but I was going to polish that nugget until it shined. Can you polish something full circle? Right back in to dullness?

Random Thoughts
The idea of learned helplessness has been on my mind a lot lately. This is a behavior where someone has mistakenly learned that they cannot control or escape negative or unpleasant situations and that they must simply endure them. The false belief that they’re helpless then becomes so ingrained that, even when an escape is easily available, they can’t take advantage of it. It can happen to anyone if they have experienced the right kind of defeat, abuse, or loss of control and if it’s paired with the right kind of attribution style.

There is a very good, very detailed episode of You Are Not So Smart that covers learned helplessness (article with links here).

I’ve been thinking about it a lot in relation to two things in particular: writing query letters (or, rather, NOT writing query letters) and dating.

A lot of the problems with learned helplessness arises out of a person’s attribution style. If someone tends to attribute the cause of their pain to themselves and if they believe that the reasons are internal, stable and global – that is, the defeat, abuse, or loss of control is their own fault, that it will always be that way, and that it will happen in every aspect of their lives, then they can very easily find themselves in a situation where the means of escape, of relief, are right there in front of them and they can’t bring themselves to take advantage of it.

People locked in poverty and homelessness struggle with learned helplessness, but then so too do affluent people in abusive relationships or bad jobs. And, learned helplessness doesn’t apply just to individuals, it can apply to social groups and communities. Those in control, the politically powerful, the wealthy, often take advantage of and reinforce learned helplessness in order to maintain whatever status quo is to their advantage.

I once had a conversation with a man who tried to convince me that the poor wanted to be poor and unhealthy because those were the choices they made. If they wanted healthy food options, better jobs, and so on then they just had to decide that’s what they wanted – the facts that they might not have a car, that they lived in a “food desert” and didn’t have access to adequate public transportation didn’t matter. He seemed to believe that if a poor person would simply decided to be healthy, then they’d find a way to trek a mile or more from their home to a suitable grocery store, and trek the mile or more back home laden with healthy perishables instead of hoping down to the convenience store on the corner or the MacDonald’s a block over (all the while being told by society that it’s the poor person’s fault for living in a part of town without a decent grocery store when it was the grocery store’s decision to pull out f the poor neighborhood). Of course, he was a well-to-do white man from a well-to-do family who had, quite possibly, never had an opportunity closed off to him. He’d never heard “No” on a frequent and consistent basis and so essentially never developed an internal attribution style. Maybe he had an internal attribution style when it came to something else, but certainly not when it came to economic set-backs.

I’m naturally inclined to blame myself first, to ask what it was that I did wrong. My rejected queries all tend, I assume, to be my fault and not the agent’s fault. Form rejection letters don’t do a good job a circumventing that habit – and, of course, that’s my fault. See? When I’ve gotten a few personalized rejections, even if the content was baffling, it actually helped. Looking back on it, probably the best personalized rejection I got for The Evolution of Shadows was from an agent in Colorado who told me that present tense literary fiction didn’t sell. It was – and still is – a bullshit reason, but it allowed me to attribute the reason for my rejection to that agent and not something I did, which, in turn fired up that other dark side of my personality, the “I’ll show you” side. Over the years, I’ve begun to be more and more grateful to that agent, and to the other agent who told me that the book had a haunting, lyrical quality but that she didn’t know how to sell it.

But, I can’t keep relying on others to short circuit my tendency to blame myself for rejections (both literary and romantic). I have to find a way to do that myself and so, un-paralyze myself.

And Cat.

Dawn in the Office

First Saturday of June: Catch-up

Damn, May was a long month.

This past month I took a bit of a detour.

I’ve been reading John Ashbury’s collection of poetry Quick Question. You would think that it wouldn’t take me so long to finish a book of poetry but there’s something strange and fascinating about these poems. I end up reading a few and then dwelling on them. I put the book aside, try to digest the poems I’ve just read, the strange images that Ashbury has created and what they’ve triggered in my own imagination.

So, yeah, I like it. I like being forced to take time with the things I’m reading. This is why I don’t put much stock in the number of books read in a given time, but rather in their quality and their impact.

Have been reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It had been on my radar for years… decades, in fact, but I think I’d been intimidated by it. That was a mistake. I should have read this book earlier in my life.

I’ve started rereading Gerard Genette’s classic Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, and its follow-up Narrative Discourse Revisited. Genette’s book was the theoretical cornerstone of my master’s thesis. I enjoy discussing meaning in literary works, but, as a writer, I’d much rather understand the mechanics of building meaning. Learning and thinking about the way manipulating time, perception, repetition, and so on can create depth, tension, and empathy is useful. Back in grad school, we used to say “Plot happens” with much the same tone that gets applied to the phrase “Shit happens.” We also used to say that dramatic tension can exist between two people sitting quietly in a room. Outward momentum, action, is – I almost hate to say it – easy (or easier). Every character has a desire, and plot is the tension created as they try to get what they want and run into obstacles, get distracted, fail. During the Spanish Civil War, Robert Jordan wants to blow up a bridge, but there is the in-fighting in the guerrilla band, the Fascists, his budding romance with Maria. Jack Duluoz wants sneak away to Big Sur to write in a cabin in the woods, but is sidetracked by his fame, reputation and alcoholism. Back in the early days of thinking I was going to be a writer, I got a lot of advice out of Writer’s Digest. It was foundational kind of advice, broad, almost pedantic in a way. As I remember it, most of their advice was based around the old adages of “show don’t tell” and “write what you know.” Great advice for beginners, but limiting to the more advanced writer.

Re-watched a few episodes of the X-Files because, well, apparently there’s a six episode mini-series coming out soon and I was a pretty devout X-phile once. Not quite as obsessed as my ex-girlfriend, Rebekah, but I never missed an episode, even when I didn’t have cable back in the days before streaming video.

Also knocked out the British produced Netflix original series Scrotal Recall. Shockingly off-color title, but the shows are damn funny and sensitive. I hope I can find someone with whom I can do a one night party to-do list that include jumping out of a moving car.

Caught Star Wars fever after the release of the new trailer. To satisfy the itch, I have been watching the animated Clone Wars series. There are a lot of throw-away episodes put there to fill space and entertain the kids. Then there are the ones that feed into the canonical storyline. I’m a geek. What can I say?

My listening always fluctuates. Thankfully, there is finally an alternative radio station in Wichita. Sadly, it’s a Clear Channel owned station, but still . . . it’s better than the smattering of classic rock, pop-country, “urban,” latino, and religious radio stations that clog the airwaves around here. So, I’m finally hearing songs by band that have been around for a while but weren’t being played around here. Bastille, Big Data, and, unfortunately, Hozier (fuck that band – yes, there’s a story).

Every once in a while, I go on a kind of nostalgia trip: in this case it’s with HUM… if you missed out on this band in the mid 90s I’d recommend searching them out. You can get their stuff still on iTunes. The song “Stars” off their album You’d Prefer an Astronaut was their biggest hit; however, their follow up album Downward is Heavenward is, perhaps the most perfect album I’ve ever heard.

Podcast News
Working on lining up a few guests. I know I’ve said this before, but part of the problem with being your own producer, scheduler, and “talent” is that sometimes things take longer than expected. My once stable release schedule has fallen off, but I’m still doing the podcast. Going to keep doing it as long as I can produce something that feels good. The Laboratory episodes with Stephen are going well, and you can look at the results here. The episodes appear in the regular podcast feed, if you’ve subscribed. Or you can check out an episode here.

I’m thinking of doing some other things to fill space, and also differentiate my content from podcasts like Brad Listi’s Other People, or John King’s The Drunken Odyssey, both great literary podcasts.

Working on getting interviews set up with Steve Heller, Sarah Bagby (owner of Watermark Books in Wichita), Elise Blackwell, Virginia Pye, and a few others.

Writing & Submitting
Plodding along with the usual material. That’s the thing with writing novels: not much changes over the course of a month, even a long one like May. I’m still hoping to have a draft of Far Nineteen finished by the end of this month.

Random Thoughts
On June 4th, I attended the Rebecca Makkai reading at Watermark Books. She’s gotten a lot of praise from the establishment, been published by Penguin, etc. You can read about her and her books here. She’s solid in that Writer’s Digest, Iowa Writers Workshop mode that seems to dominate the American literary landscape. It means she’ll have a long career full of accolades, but I’ll remain unmoved by her prose, which, to me, when I heard her read, sounded rather . . . banal. That might be too harsh of a word though. Safe might be better. However, I don’t want to spend this space trying to skate some thin line between trying to avoid slamming a writer who is someone’s favorite writer while explain why I bought her books, then immediately gave them to my mother who will like them.

What struck me most, however, and may actually have an echo with my kind of “meh” feelings is this: during the Q&A section she was asked about the writing community in Chicago, where she lives. On one level she made it sound very much like the kind of writing community that I want to be a part of: events, cocktail parties, get-togethers, meet-ups, whatever you want to call them where writers get to know each other. And then she said something that saddened me: when she and these writers get together they don’t talk about the craft of writing – ever. They gossip. They talk about their kids. He explanation of this was that “all of them teach” and since they talk to their students about “craft” they don’t want to talk about it with each other.

That was disappointing to hear, especially for someone like me who truly enjoys talking about craft – the mechanical how-to of a story. What technical moves did someone make to get a certain effect, how can I learn it and apply it to the story I want to tell next? I still talk craft with my friend Laura, even though she’s not writing much anymore. I’ve tried talking craft with non-writers, but that usually goes badly because it is often the more complex questions of craft that can help a writer discover the simple answer to the question “what is the story about?”

I’ve been a student writer. I’ve been a creative writing teacher (formally and briefly while still in grad school, and informally whenever I’ve critiqued other writer’s work), and I’m a published novelist who, during the revision process of all of my novels (the published one and the unpublished ones), has leaned on “craft” to structure and shape my early drafts into drafts that achieve (I hope) certain desired effects. At each stage of my writing life, the questions of craft have been paramount, but have also changed.

Early student writers are learning how to solve basic questions of craft, questions that are addressed in class with about as much detail as they are addressed in magazines like Writer’s Digest. Student writers are often still struggling with control of Point of View, with basic scene structure, questions of plot, and characterization, with “finding their voice” (a dubious exercise to begin with) and since they’re generally dealing only with short stories, they’re not addressing the bigger, novelistic questions of craft that deal with longer structural issues, sequencing, shifts in time and place, with distance or multiple focalizations. As a writer practices, gains experience, the fundamental craft questions fade. We know how to solve them and do it almost out of habit. That habit is the first step to boring. To me at least, that means it’s important to discuss the more complex and advanced questions of craft with other experienced writers in order to help keep us on our toes, keep us learning and developing. If our discussions of craft constantly revolve only around the basics, it seems out thinking about them can become rote, stagnant. Maybe some writers find that kind of monotonous cycle of discussion exactly the kind of thing to spring them out of old habits, but I don’t see that happening a lot.

It seems to me that writing in American is suffering because our so-called “major” practitioners are stuck talking the basics all the time and not really challenging themselves or each other. We’re taking “safe” risks by trying to write about seemingly sensational things (rape, race, politics, etc.) but not taking risks in the ways that we present those stories and so our moral risks are lost under a blanket of banal language and habitually familiar methods of storytelling.

The Laboratory #3

This month’s Laboratory started off with a sad trombone, as Stephen went off in the sticks with his version of the exercise, and I completely dropped the ball, finishing a paragraph and two sentences. But that, of course, didn’t stop us from having a great conversation and saddling ourselves with another exercise. We ended up talking about Gerard Genette, Scientology, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Milan Kundera, The Lord of the Flies, a TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the concept of Flow – something I really needed to watch.

You can see our finished, and our unfinished, exercises here:

Stephen McClurg teaches and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. After winning the National Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Contest, he spent a week writing haiku for the Washington Post‘s blog. In the past he has published articles, essays, reviews, short stories, poems, and comics in newspapers, journals online and otherwise, and appeared in the anthologies You Ain’t No Dancer and Voices from a Safe Harbor. He has written and composed music for award-winning short films, art installations, and dance.

Exercise 3:
One page. According to Henry James, a writer wrote a novel from a glimpse of a seminary students’ dinner party. Write a scene of a story from a glimpse you have had of a group of people–in a cafe, zoo, train, or elsewhere. Sketch the characters in their setting and let them interact. Do you find that you know too little? Can you make up enough–or import from other experiences–to fill the canvas?

Objective: To find out if you can make much out of little. If you can, great. If you can’t now, don’t worry, you might later, or you’ll have to get your stories from other materials.

Check: Can you visualize these people further? Can you begin to hear at least one person speak? If not, go back and find a way of talking that might fit one of the people in the group, and carry on from there.

The Outrider Podcast is available on iTunes and Stitcher. You can also listen at my website (


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