Take a sensitive or finicky character and send him or her on a grimy journey, to an interesting place where that person is threatened or imagined they are threatened by a passenger in a train, bus, plane or taxi. Or take three characters who have as little in common as you can think and place them in the same cab or the same row of seats. As you raise the sense of danger, intersperse the action with details of the travel—waterfalls, coyotes, smell of burning garbage, whatever.


Motivation and More Exercises

Motivation—like characterization and plot—must emerge gradually in your story. You must back up the protagonist’s discoveries with believable characterization. The character not only must be capable of doing the necessary acts, but also must be capable of having the necessary motivations. so you must set up your characters and their traits from the beginning of the story and build them throughout the plot in such a way as to support their personalities, the required motivation and the plot.

A. Write a dialogue of a couple of pages in which one person tries to seduce another. Make the seducer a fairly unlikely candidate for the job. Give strong motivation to your characters and this will intensify their speech. A dialogue that is motive driven is easier to write than a dialogue that has no apparent mission behind it. The stronger the reason for someone’s talking, the more likely it is that you can drive the dialogue meaningfully.


B. Write a dialogue in which two people argue intensely about something, and in the middle of the quarrel let them discover that they are both wrong. There had been some misunderstanding that in the quarrel gets exposed and settled. Then write the dialogue of reconciliation.


C. Write a discovery dialogue. Two people are celebrating their good relationship, and in the middle of the memory session, a piece of information surfaces and totally upsets one partner so that a furious quarrel ensues.


Its words may be simple in the extreme, as in the stories of Hemingway. His story vocabulary has been estimated at about 800 words—that of an average high school sophomore.—Paul Darcy Boles



Thought or emotion crosses the line into plot when it becomes action and causes reactions. Until then, attitudes, however interesting in themselves, are just potential, just cloudy possibilities. They’re static. They’re not going anywhere. No action, however dramatic, is plot if the story would have been about the same if it hadn’t happened at all. Any action, however seemingly trivial, can be vital and memorable if it has significant consequences and changes the story’s outcome. Plotting is a way of looking at things. It’s a way of deciding what’s important and then showing it to be important through the way you construct and connect the major events of your story. For the reader to care about your story, there has to be something at stake—someth8ing of value to gain, something of value to be lost. “Wrestling” in short story writing means something specific happening: two strong forces are meeting, one of them triumphing over he other—for better or for worse. These may be “external” or “internal” forces or both.

 External conflict—hero versus villain, man versus the sea, etc.—if it ever aspires to more than routine melodrama soon becomes internal conflict. Internal conflict, conflict within an individual always devolves into a matter of choice. How will the protagonist choose or decide? The outcome must be made to depend on the character’s will: the outcome of plot must have some relation to character. The sort of suspense created by conflict is what Jessamine West called “willy wonty,” the reader’s uncertainty about whether a character “will” or “won’t” commit an act, decide a matter, do a deed, marry the girl or let her go. It is the suspenseful reaction at its simplest. But to be effective the situation of the conflict must be developed so that the forces or values on each side are more or less balanced. Tension in a story consists in something unresolved. Setting up something to be resolved and then prolonging or postponing the resolution of it is one way of putting tension in a story.

 A scene is one connected and sequential action, together with its embedded description and background material. It seems to happen just as if a reader were watching and listening to it happen. It’s built on talk and action. It’s dramatized, shown, rather than being summarized or talked about.


At the Edge by John Lehman 


In that moment, as he stood in the kitchen

garbed in a Black Watch plaid bathrobe

with his two spindly legs sticking out of it,

I thought, I could have done much better

than this. He was attempting to crack an egg

into a flimsy poacher. Then, he put his hand

on a loaf of bread, and there was something

exquisite about that hand. I saw the hand that

made love to me, the hand that had planted

tulips with me. This man is not a god, but

a person who can fight things through. And

on this anniversary as I asked myself do I stay

or do I go, finally I knew.




Evening Exercise

Construct a character from one aspect of your personality (not the dominant one). Make this trait the main motive force of the character’s feelings and thoughts. If you are shy, for example, construct a character who is much more shy than you. This character should be different from you in most ways-age, occupation, appearance. Now describe his behavior in several social situations, interacting (or avoiding interaction) with several relatives, strangers, his doctor, his therapist and acquaintances.

CoJournaling Exercise

Use the composite character based on one of your personality traits from the earlier exercise and make him or her talk in the first person. Use a voice that is not quite yours but that’s not too alien to you—perhaps your brother’s or sister’s voice, if you can hear it in your head, merged with yours. Now let the character tell us why he or she committed an abhorrent deed. Maybe she seduced a neighbor’s son or didn’t give medicine to her dying mother.         

Basics of a Scene

 Each character  must have a “Goal” for the scene, and an “Action” they are doing.

If the emotion is not something you have experienced yourself use an “As If.”

The Emotional Beat

Whereas description captures the outer world, inner responses in a scene give a reader access to intangible thoughts and feelings.  In an attempt to appear objective, many firsthand writers omit character responses and their writing is spiritless.  Emotions and insights are like the close-up shots in a film.  Without them an audience feels disconnected, at too far a distance…

 In narrative, a beat is the unit of the characters’ state of being which leads to the next unit.  If you studied composition in school, you were taught to write essays and papers by the logical development of ideas.  You were taught to have a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph, to develop your main idea, paragraph by paragraph, and to draw a conclusion at the end.  The basic unit of development was the concept of each paragraph.

That’s not how you do it in narrative.  Yes, as in exposition, you want a development of your subject by units.  You don’t want everything to be a blur, a jumble.  But in narrative, the basic unit of development is the beat, not the paragraph.  So you have chapters, scenes and within the scenes, beats.  Each beat is a micro-realization of the state of awareness of the feelings and thoughts of the characters, which evolve beat by beat by beat.                                               


Return Bout

Jack Lehman

      I am entering a boxing ring, he thought to himself as he walked through the door of the inner office and saw Mr. Samuels at his desk busy about little tasks, all of which were more important than interviewing him. Each of us, in our own way, is showing the other that he has been trained for this moment; but I know something he doesn’t. Only one of us will leave this ring with his reputation intact.

     “Now—Jack Bursey, isn’t it?— sit down, please.” Samuels waved the older man toward a chair in front of the desk. Only when the visitor had been seated did Samuels bother to look up. The room was uncomfortably warm for the first of April and there was the smell of an overripe banana.

     “Before we begin, let me give you a little tip. The format of your resume is outdated, and you have left off crucial dates. Senior applicants sometimes do this in the hope that it will minimize their age. It accomplishes just the opposite. It tells me you think you are too old for the position.”

     The interviewee chuckled to himself. If he had had any hesitation before coming in here, if he had worried he might sympathize in some way with this conceited administrator, those feelings were gone. Good. Let the round begin.

     “Have you actually had any experience working for a high-tech? I don’t see that among all the other ‘achievements’ you’ve listed.”

     “Only one…”

     Samuels looked dismissive.

     “…which you might find interesting.  T.C.P.” 

     Samuels’ head shot up as he said, almost involuntarily, “I worked there.”

     “I know.”

     “You can’t be John G. Bursey?”

     “Oh, but that’s exactly who I am.”

     Samuels’ face went red and a line of perspiration appeared along the top of forehead. Samuels thought the other man’s face looked vaguely familiar. Suddenly, his comfortable, square office seemed to be contracting. He could hear the tick of the battery operated wall clock, the distant rumbling of the ventilation system. On his desk the chrome paper-clip holder, the letter opener, his antique stapler seemed dazzling in the ray of sunlight coming in through the half open window blinds.

     And then he was back. Perhaps Bursey didn’t know anything about that incident at T.C.P. Perhaps he himself was only imagining the worst. Perhaps.

     “But that was then, and this is now,” the job candidate smiled.

     “Yes, yes, of course.”

     “Though…” The older man let the word hang in the air, and for Samuels the room again began to spin. “…I would feel a bit more comfortable sitting in your leather chair behind your desk, rather than in this vinyl, reception room chair.”

     “Yes, of course.” Samuels smiled as if the other had made an interesting though irrelevant observation.

     “No, I mean it. We will now switch positions. You will sit where I am in this molded plastic abomination, and I will sit where you are.”

     The younger man looked in astonishment as Jack Bursey rose. The man was serious. This was ridiculous. But… Samuels slowly got to his feet.

     “Now that would be stupid, wouldn’t it, young man?” the man’s eyes bore into Samuels.

     They both sat down. End of the first round.

     “Let me tell you something about myself that’s not on that résumé. It’s also why I’m here today,” the visitor began as if the two had met seated next to each other on a long, evening airplane flight.

     “Look, Mr. Bursey, I would like to hear what you have to say, but I just don’t have the time right now. If you are the John G. Bursey of T.C.P., you are way overqualified for this job anyway. No. You’re just not right for this position. Thank you for coming in. It has been an honor, as they say. Your time is valuable. Thank you. Good day.”

     “Being president of a large corporation can be anti-climactic in a way.” the phlegmatic older man pressed the tips of his fingers together and briefly closed his eyes. Samuels swallowed. This was not going to be quick or easy.

     “When you start a company you work eighty hours a week, doing whatever job you have to in order that things are done and done right. Then to sustain growth you suddenly realize that you have to bring others in to take over. The same one-man drive that got the company off the ground at the next stage starts to work against its success. So you delegate and try not to micro-manage the folks you have given responsibility to.”

     Samuels said nothing.

     “All of a sudden you’re dealing with board members and investors instead of people who do the real work. They ensconce you in a corporate headquarters downtown with a polished conference table and view of the city skyline. But the company is you, as much as a son or a daughter is you. And when someone betrays that, passes off some corporate resources as his own. Borrows against those resources…”

     “Listen, Mr. Bursey, I had my problems too. I had a daughter who was sick, a wife who was unhappy, debts.”

     “Even if he gets caught and to save face the company covers for him and lets him leave as if…as if he had done his job.  No, it still hurts years later. And when you retire and have nothing else to lose, you think, why not clean up the little affair? Why not see justice is done after all? Even if it is a small thing. Even if it doesn’t matter to anyone at all except to that person who listed his T.C.P. experience so prominently on his résumé that he got an even better position at another high-tech firm.

     The older man sighed.

     Jeffery Samuels felt as if he had aged 20 years in the last three minutes. His vision was blurred and his ears suddenly felt blocked with wax. He tried to sit up straight. He could smell the acrid odor of perspiration through his new Men’s Warehouse suit coat.

     “What do you want?” Samuels’ voice was barely audible.

     “I want the job.”

     “But why? Surely you make much more from your retirement plan and your stock options than this basic position could ever pay?”

     “Not that job. Not the one you have advertised. I NEED JUSTICE. I WANT YOUR JOB. You see, Samuels, I do covet your leather chair.”

     After a moment Jeffrey Samuels began breathing again. Wait a minute, he thought. What can this guy do. He can’t make me resign. There is nothing on my record that indicates any wrongdoing. This is all a hoax. I fell for it, but I don’t have to. I’m not down yet, and I am certainly not out.

     “All this is very interesting, Mr. Bursey, but entirely beside the point. I have no intention of giving up my position and, even if I should, there is no reason in the world that you would be hired to fill it. We have one opening and I am sorry to say that you are not a candidate for it. You’re just not right for this position. Any further discussion is out of the question. Please leave or I will have my assistant call Security and they will escort you out of these offices.

     End of the middle round.

     The other man smiled but did not move.    

     “I’m serious, Bursey, go.”

     “Oh, I’m leaving, but I think there is one last little piece of information you should know. It’s just a small detail. Maybe it will matter to you, maybe it won’t.”

     “What. For God’s sake tell me and get out.”

     “It’s just that T.C.P. has purchased this company.”

     Samuels stared at the cherubic-faced little man. Was he actually wearing a plaid lumberman’s jacket over his shirt and tie?

     “That’s impossible. I certainly would know it if that were true.”

     “Not necessarily. You see the take-over was kept relatively quiet. Part of the deal so insiders wouldn’t start buying up stock beforehand. But by tomorrow it will be in the papers. And by Friday you’ll be out looking for a new position. This time, I dare say, without such sterling references. For, besides feeling that little wrongs should be set right, I know that people do not easily change character. If someone were dishonest in one position they probably would be dishonest in the next.”

      That wasn’t completely true of Jeffrey Samuels.

     And with that Jack Bursey slowly pulled a cigar out of an inside pocket and rose from his chair.

     “How can I put this?” he said turning one last time toward Samuels. “You’re just not right for this position. That’s it. Samuels, you’re just not right for this position.”

     As soon as the door closed, Jeffery Samuels went to the closet and took out his two attaché cases. He was not guilty of fraud, as he once had been, but there were certain irregularities that he would not want anyone looking into. For example, advertising job positions that did not exist to keep looking busy and important in his position as Head of Human Resources. The current owner might never suspect, but his old employer would be only too ready to investigate. He would clear out the contents of his desk, max the company credit card and head for California. The hell with it. By the time they caught up with him he’d have assumed a different identity or be dead. Since his divorce, things had been slowly deteriorating for him anyway.

     As Jack Jackson walked past Samuels’ receptionist and headed to the bank of elevators, he pulled a packet of matches out of his pants pocket to light his cigar. He’d been a mail clerk at T.C.P. when the real John G. Bursey had still been its president. Now Jack was retired. In those days he’d delivered mail to Jeffery Samuels in-box. Four years, without so much as a “hello” from Samuels—the same person whose name he’d recently recognized as contact on a help-wanted ad. Once this Samuels had yelled at Jackson in front of the old mail clerk’s fellow workers for dropping a letter as he hurried about his rounds and Samuels had later gone out of his way to insure the Jackson hadn’t received a necessary raise. That had been ten years ago. Jack Jackson would be the first to admit that he had never been very fast. But he was resourceful, kept his ear to the ground and wasn’t above whiting out dates and re-photocopying an old Bursey résumé he’d Xeroxed long ago. Jackson never forgot Jeffrey Samuel’s vindictiveness. Now he could.

     Jack Jackson left feeling like a champ.


Something Must Happen

The prime test of whether you have a story or not is that you find in every completed story an explosion—muted, perhaps, delayed sometimes, or completely shattering—something which explodes and thus changes the status quo. Somewhere, either at the beginning, middle or end, there is an explosion in which all parts of the whole are expelled from an existing pattern—the lives of the characters are jolted from their rhythm, chaos is produced in their universe, and out of this upheaval, “that kind of person going through that kind of experience,” the creative skill of the author must find or imply some sort of solution. Thus the writer, before he or she begins to write, must anticipate, and comprehend this explosion, and then, without being guided by anything but his own inner logic, create—or suggest—new order from the old. An explosion can be many things, the breakup of a marriage, the beginning of love, the death of an old man, each can create its own chaos, provide its own solution.

Explosion may be used in three ways. One can begin with the explosion. It may begin with calm and existing order, proceed with rising intensity to an explosion at the center, working back to a new order at the end—which is never quite the same as the old. Or one can withhold one’s ammunition to the very end, as in Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery, when the stoning begins and the full meaning of the preceding ages bursts upon the reader, who is then left to reassemble the parts for himself.

     Once you start to write your story, the next important thing is to finish it. Writing is as simple, and as difficult as that. An incomplete story is no story at all, while a piece of writing with all its faults can be a story if brought to some related end. There is no substitute stage in one’s development as a writer for finishing what you have begun.


Always have two or three story ideas you could work on.
Always have two or three story ideas you could work on.

Truth—The Story Idea

Theme—Four Questions

  1. Is it your story to tell? Can you make it your own? Most often dynamic story ideas won’t be things that you already know and have settled. Settled things make for explanations not for absorbing fiction. Instead, they’ll be situations or people or memories that are troubling you, things you want, for yourself, to work out and understand. Is this something I really care about, something I partly understand, something that seems to want working out.
  2. Is it too personal for readers to become involved with it? You want what you say to reach and move a reader. You want to share exploration. Some experience is too close to us to do this. A second criterion should be: Can I work with this idea in a caring but uncompromising way to make it meaningful to somebody else.
  3. Is it going somewhere? Plot is a verb. Does your idea divide itself into a vivid opening, one or more specific developments and a solid ending. Can you put these in terms of scenes with a minimum of explanation. Does it have a plot or do I have to create a plot for it?
  4. What’s at stake? Is there something quite specific and vital at state—not just to me, but to one or more of the characters involved? Ideally you should be able to express the core plot in a sentence or two, in about the same space and style as program listings in TV Guide. If this sounds original, fine; if not, don’t worry. Nothing is original. It’s in the telling and in readers’ reactions that it becomes unique. There are always new readers and readers who weren’t ready for this when they read something similar to it before.

Exploring Story Ideas           

Story Idea Possibility Exercise (The Sun)

Mothers and sons (fathers and daughters)

Living alone


Visiting relatives

Fears and phobias


Cleaning up


Too close for comfort

Can’t win for losing

The bedroom


Class/Individual Examples

story idea



Do 3 of your own, plus settings and characters for each (share) 


The theme of a successful story is inseparably embedded in the action taken by the characters. There are two types of action: fixed action and moving action. Fixed action is a pattern of behavior that shows character. However with moving action something happens, however slight, that won’t happen again. It is assumed that the events of moving action will take place only once and that whatever happens to the character as a result alters or moves him or her in such a way that the person will never experience or do the same thing in exactly the same way. Moving action alters fixed action. 


“Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that mankind has invented yet. For the air and iron, fire and spit of our daily mortal adventure there is nothing like fiction: it makes sociology look priggish, history problematical, the film media two-dimensional and the National Enquirer as silly as last week’s cereal box.”—John Updike

CoJournaling Exercise

Describe in some detail an older person you know fairly well. Look at the person’s situation and personality in a way that is more psychological or sociological than literary. 

Next try to imagine how that older person came to be that way. What happened to him or her? Now imagine a scene (a couple paragraphs) that show this happening. Track back to the moment when the subject started to become the way they are now, and present it as if it were happening before us.

 1.Evening Exercise (this should be three to six hand-written pages)

Construct a story as a series of three casually related events, and present each event as a scene. For example, show a woman who has lived for pleasure alone and who, therefore, compromises her family, fortune and happiness. Under extreme duress—nearly on her deathbed in a hospital, from a disease—she realizes how different her life could have been. From this central “epiphany,” the character decides to change. Either she dies, and the change is only a spiritual one, or she recovers and tries to reverse the damage she has don. Perhaps she succeeds and becomes happy—its best not to make that decision before you write, but in the midst of the events as you detail them.

 Art is a lie that makes us realize truth—Picasso

Significant Detail

If we carefully inspect our experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind. We read a few words at the beginning of a book or the particular story, and suddenly we find ourselves seeing not words on a page but a train moving through Russia, an old Italian crying, or a farmhouse battered by rain. We read on—dream on—not passively but actively, worrying about the choices the characters have to make, listening in panic for some sound behind the fictional door, exulting in characters’ successes, bemoaning their failures. In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to the imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as thought they were real: We sympathize, think and judge. We act out, vicariously, the trials of characters and learn from the failures and successes of particular modes of action, particular attitudes, opinions, assertions, and beliefs exactly as we learn from life…

     Whatever the genre may be, fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind. We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous—vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they’re dreaming, and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion. The chief mistake a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream

             —John Gardner, The Art of Fiction


Want to write a short story? Get plenty of rest.
Want to write a short story? Get plenty of rest.

“A short story is something that can be read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime.”—Stephen Vincent Benet


   The short story has gone in and out of fashion, but the form itself offers writers a unique opportunity to sharpen their tools. Many of our greatest writers, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Henry James were masters of the short story (as are contemporary writers, such as Joyce Carol Oats, John Updike, Lorrie Moore and Charles Baxter). There may not be the money in a collection of short stories that there is in a novel or autobiography, but they are a form readily publishable in over 4,000 smaller magazines that can provide leverage for eventually getting a longer work published.

   And there’s another advantage to the short story. A novel or piece of book length nonfiction is a world complete in itself. A short story is more like a spotlight that shines on a crowd of people. We see what is there but also know there are things to the right and the left of the spotlight that we can’t see directly. These are the events with the characters of the short story that happened before it began or that will happen after it the words on the page are over. As writers we have to plant clues for the reader and we depend upon that reader to create what isn’t expressed. It’s this partnering with an audience in the creative process that is invaluable for other types of writing. They depend upon it, but nowhere (except perhaps with poetry) is it more essential than with the short story. The secret of good writing is to get your reader actively involved doing the work for you. Writing short stories shows us how to do that. And a workshop setting with each of us providing feedback is one of the best ways I know to see how well we are doing this. The words are important, but the story takes place beneath the words, in the imagination of the person who reads it.

   I will begin with a series of very brief writing exercises. As we progress we’ll take what we learned from them to the structure of a full piece. This example will provide lessons you can apply to stories you’ve already written or to ones you plan to write. Don’t worry about the content of the exercises or whether or not you write well on demand. The important thing is what you get from doing them. If they trigger some subjects for future work, all the better, but that’s a bonus not necessarily their purpose.


   If your goal is to grant wishes to your readers, disturb them or transport them, the short story is a great vehicle, but be warned, the good ones seem easier to execute than they are.  

     We’ll begin by looking at the source of story energy (the art of engaging readers) and story design (plot concept and its various forms). Then, while writing individually and working on a story together, we’ll apply techniques of scene, point of view, sequence and discovery. Through a close reading of some contemporary examples, we’ll explore how the use of turning point, emotional dynamics and setups/payoffs to effectively order and link scenes so they build to crisis, climax and, ultimately, revelation for the reader.

   There are two basic types of short story depending upon whether they are driven predominantly by:

1. Character

2. Plot 

Both utilize scenes. The elements within scenes include:

            Dynamics between characters


            Motivation for each character


            Actions of each character

            Then there is the relationship of the scenes themselves to the whole:

            Story structure

            Point of View of the narration



     Scope: How is a short story different from a novel? For the reader? For the writer? 

     The first thing is to accept the fact that if a novel is a landscape, the short story is a close-up. You must choose subjects with narrower scope—such as an event, a moment in time, captured as if by accident.



Anatomy of a Story

by Jack Lehman 

     How much detail should a writer include, what makes dialogue interesting, should there be a twist at the end of a short story? The answer to these questions is that you need to go deeper than these stylistic matters. Back to the underlying reason this is a story that has to be told.

     “I’m not Bill, I’m Roland, his son.”

     “I’m sorry I didn’t realize how much you’ve grown since I last saw you. I’m John, Bill’s uncle. You look a lot like your dad.”

     “He’s around here someplace, doing something for the wedding.”

     “Good, good. I drove in from Wisconsin for this and…well it’s been a while since I’ve seen any member’s of my brother’s, your grandfather’s, family.”

     “You were my grandpa’s brother?”

     “Yes, still am. I mean he’s no longer alive, but I am. I just haven’t seen anyone for a while, being out of town and all, like I said.”

     And I knew that was the case for Bill as well. He lived in Cleveland where he was a fire fighter. Ironically, his was the last family wedding I had attended. My daughter and I had driven to it from Madison, Wisconsin, and stopped off in Ann Arbor on the way. I had gone to graduate school there and she was considering doing her post graduate work at the University of Michigan as well. Now Bill and his wife had been divorced for many years and his two children lived with their mother.

     That was the curious thing about weddings. We go to them to be inspired, to praise everlasting love between a man and a woman. But what about second marriages like this one of my niece I was now attending in the forest preserve of a Chicago suburb on a late Friday afternoon in June? As I was to look at the front row of chairs set up by the gazebo for our side of the family, I could see that most who were sitting there were divorced, separated or the children of parents no longer together. Fortunately most of them had little tasks to perform: take care of the rings, make sure the place cards on the dinner tables inside were correctly assigned, practice a wedding toast or help the bride get dressed.

     I didn’t see Anne anyplace before the ceremony. I guessed she was preparing for a grand entrance. As to the groom, he was anybody’s guess. There were men in suits gathered at various spots throughout the garden. Any one of them would do.

     OK, what attracts me to this subject? Being uncomfortable about a setting in which everyone seems to know one another and have something to do, except me? That, even more than why people join together and split apart, seems to be the answer. Creating a story gives me control over a situation I didn’t have in real life. But now the characters and scenes are free to lead me beyond. I don’t know where. That is what is exciting to both reader and writer, because in fictionalizing the situation, it is possible some deeper truth may emerge. Curiosity and risk become driving forces.

     I thought about the tall gangling boy who had stood before me, wanting to get free.

He looked like Bill, and Bill (when he came around the corner as we were talking) looked like a younger version of me. My own adult children, as well as my deceased older sister’s sons and daughters, had not been invited, and my second-wife and I had been in the midst of a major disagreement. She’d decided not to come.

     Because I wanted to take pictures, I slipped to the side of the chairs and dutifully, after an interminable wait of electronic keyboard music, captured the big entrance, the rising for prayers led by a friend-of-the-groom’s-family minister, and some quick words by an attractive female judge in requisite full-length robe. Then it was time for the exchanging of vows.

     Anne: “I remember the afternoon at the country club meeting this man who’d been playing tennis with some of my friends.”

     This was nice. Personal, real.  But then, behind the pianist, through the bushes, I saw the face of someone who probably had not been invited—Anne’s former husband.

     “I realized, here is the man I had been looking for all my life, the man I was meant to be married to.”

     There was a loud crack. Like a gun. But it wasn’t a gun, it was thunder. The sky covered over and the world turned ominously black. The judge hurriedly wrapped up the proceedings. Within minutes the bridal party, attendant family and guests, robed judge, friend-of-the-groom’s-family minister and I were scurrying through the rain like a gaggle of geese toward “The Grove” bungalow-like reception hall where a beef and chicken buffet would be served. The ghost of the former husband—real or imagined—had disappeared.

      Plot has moved forward. The setting mirrors the suppressed inner conflict of the narrator. So what? What’s in this for me? the reader asks. Or for me, I, as writer, also wonder. Why continue. But discovery in a short story is a vertical rather than horizontal thing. We don’t find something new, but rather how elements of the story that didn’t seem to be connected at first, now start to fit together.  

     It was only when I saw the wife of my brother, Ted, and her sister that I suddenly knew. The sister, was grey, overweight and bent. Talking too much, I could tell even from a distance. I had known her first when we were both sixteen. She had dark eyes and had had black Italian hair she wore in a Bobbie cut. She’d been popular— active in school and church activities—and I, well I was a rather introverted nerd. But that connection wasn’t what struck me. It was that my brother was not there. Often we invoke those who have passed on, as if they were present in some way. Anne had about her father when I went through the reception line and talked to her. But what really surprised me was when Anne’s sister, Sarah, introduced me to her youngest daughter.

     “This is your grandpa’s brother, my uncle. Uncle John.” And then to me, “Oh, I forget she was born after Dad died. She never knew him.”

     There is a wonderful photograph I remember of Ted, his wife and all of all his young children, striding toward the camera, like the Kennedy’s or something. Then he had died. Ten years earlier than even he had expected.

     Suddenly I was my brother returning. A stranger. And life had moved on.





Many miles to go before I sleep.
Many miles to go before I sleep.


Some give us birth, some give us children, but it’s gypsy women in the night who adorn our male bruises with tattoos. 

Why I’m Telling You This 

I’ve always thought that organizing and re-organizing books is a pretty good metaphor for life itself. Remember the first time you did it—placing the large picture books on one end and the smaller ones, like Beatrix Potter, on the other. As we grow older we keep only those that still hold a piece of ourselves and add others full of mystery (like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew), adventure (Call of the Wild) and even young romance (and here I have to defer to my wife’s Anne of Green Gables). Words replace pictures as we travel back in time or forward out into space. “Once a reader, always a reader,” proclaims the masthead of a pulp magazine from the ‘20s. 

Then the day comes when we merge our personal collection with that of another. Over the years these books weather moves, suffer damage from mildew in basements or are even lost when we lend some to friends who don’t return them. When that happens we feel it more personally than a missing casserole dish. A book can be replaced, but for sentimental reasons we seldom do it. And perhaps that’s how love is lost, for inevitably the day comes when we must separate what is ours from what is hers (or his), decide what is me and what is, after all, someone else.           

Perhaps you have a book that once belonged to your mother or father. For me it is one called How to Draw Anything. My dad, who was an aspiring painter, prized it and referred to it often. Don’t we secretly hope that someday after we are dead one of our children or one of our friends will hold a book that was part of us and take it home, make it live on in his or her life? But, that’s not why I’m telling you this. There’s more to sharing our stories than books.           

This happened to me twenty years ago. I had been fortunate to have a half- dozen poems published over a period of a year and a half. My nephew who was an adult living in Chicago heard about this and asked me to send him some of my poetry.  I xeroxed a number of poems and sent them off. A month later he wrote that he’d enjoyed them well enough, but that he was very surprised when his mother (my sister) came over one night and spent a couple hours in an easy chair reading them…one in particular. I instantly knew which poem this was.  

When I was about fourteen my sister and her husband were expecting their third child. They had decided to name it “John” if it were a boy.  At that age I took this to mean they were naming the baby after me. The baby was born, right before Christmas. It was a boy. Unfortunately it lived for only a few days, then died.   Everyone gathered at my parents’ home for Christmas Eve. Ordinarily my sister who was sixteen years older than me, would have been in the middle of the celebration, she was very gregarious. That night she didn’t feel like it so she sat in an easy chair in my room as I worked on a model railroad building. I didn’t know what to say. I still wouldn’t; but years later when I wrote a poem called “Autobiography” it was this experience that was one of its central images. And now years later, through writing, my feelings expressed in that poem reached her. No publication in a magazine could possibly compare to that.           

Several years after my nephew’s note, I invited my sister to participate in one of my writing seminars. She had been a journalist and I thought it might get her writing again. When it came to the point where I talk about showing your work to others and trying to get publishing, I thought to myself, Should I include this anecdote I usually told about this autobiographic poem. My sister and I had never discussed her child’s death directly. Well, I decided to go ahead and recount the story.  When I finished all eyes turned to her, they knew she was my sister. She said, “You know, it wasn’t that you didn’t say anything, the trouble was that no one said anything.” I was so happy she had seen that poem. That she knew we did care, even if we couldn’t say it. Later in the year, at another seminar, a woman called out, “My God, I had a baby, named John, who died and no one would talk about it either.”  

We’re all friends,…who just don’t know each other. Sharing our stories is a way in which we do. Thank you for coming tonight and listening to mine. I hope they remind you of some of your own stories that you might otherwise have forgotten. Stories you make your own, that you can tell others. Little scenes with a direction and meaning, at least for you; in which you take risks that test the boundaries of who you are. In some mysterious way stories and poems, yours and mine, help us to understand our world and guide us forward. Perhaps they are, after all, the handouts for a satisfying life that we though we never got.  

Slowly at first, then with gusto 

And remember…

 All you  need  are suds,  suds, suds
are all  you  need. All  you  need  are  suds  (all
together  now). All you need  are suds  (every-
body). All  you need  are suds, suds, suds  are
all you need.”


Darkness, then the lights come up on an empty stage. John enters from stage right, bows and waves good-night.   



If Poets Did Useful Things 

It’s dark. People need to be places,

yet the Poet Transportation Authority

busses lurch, wild-eyed and empty,

down half-deserted streets, drivers

muttering, “ And miles to go before I

sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”