Buy this today. Great to listen to in the car and share with writer friends.

This is excerpted from my CD, The Writer’s Cave, Why Writers Write What They Do. It is available from amazon for $10. To order click here: 

The Writer’s Cave is now available from amazon for $10.
Click here to order:

The Writer’s Cave, True Stories of Why We Write What We Do, written and presented  by John Lehman




JOHN:  Question: Do writers sleep in coffins?

     In the old days, victims of writers, e.g. readers, were occasionally interred while still in an author-induced deep sleep.  This may have given rise to the myth from gravediggers and others who observed them emerging from coffins and crypts that literary people do sleep in coffins. So the answer is “no,” though a writer may choose to sleep in a coffin for other reasons. I understand coffins are quite dark and very quiet.

 John, excitedly.

     I get this idea for a one-person presentation. A DVD commentary on an Ingmar Bergman film, Persona, suggests that a director/writer is like a vampire. Wow, I think, the writer as vampire.  So I write something up. It begins this way:

     It’s 35 years ago in one of the Slavic countries that gave rise to the legend of vampires in the 11th century. My first wife and I are wandering the streets of Split, Yugoslavia—an ancient Venetian city on the blue Mediterranean with white buildings stacked up its hills.

He turns to the audience.

     Come along with me.

John continues conversationally.

     I’d just left the Army and we are on the first leg of a year’s journey that will take us to Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Portugal and back to Germany.

          Anyway, it’s a warm early fall afternoon and a crowd is gathering several blocks away. With our one-year-old in a carrier on my back, we hurry down the seaside street to see what possibly could be going on.

      There’s the snapshot in my memory that remains. A movie is being shot in front of an old hotel. This is intriguing in itself. But then we look past the actors and cameras and see that the man directing it is none other than…the legendary…

…Orson Welles.

John looks off to their left. His initial enthusiasm is replaced by disillusionment.

     He looks terrible. As wide as he is tall, he’s dressed in a black shirt, black trousers, and a black suit coat that he must have slept in. His hair is greasy and hanging straight over his forehead and his corpulent face is a sweaty, beet red. He seems to be tilting slightly backwards to balance his colossal weight.

     But it is the Orson Welles. Orson Welles directing!

John looks back as if they are seeing the action of the movie shoot.

     A taxi pulls in front of the hotel entrance and as the woman gets out the camera on the other side zooms in, shooting into the interior of the automobile she’s leaving.

       All this is done without any verbal direction. In fact this seems to be more a rehearsal for a scene that will be shot.

       Orson Welles is turning to the cameraman.

       My God, I am going to hear the greatest cinematic genius of all time actually tell his cameraman what to do.

     He says, with that still-sonorous Orson Welles voice coming from deep in his diaphragm as if from the bottom of a huge, empty barrel,

     “Mario, keep your eyes on the camera, these people will steal anything.” 

     That’s it?

     That’s it. Probably no one in the crowd but Pat and I understand English, but we laugh all afternoon repeating the words:

     “Mario, keep your eyes on the camera.”

     And the baby laughs too…so hard and so beautifully…

     … that during the whole rest of the trip if we want him to roll with laughter, we say…

“Mario, keep your eyes on the camera!”


John  returns to his own thoughts. The joy starts to dissolve.

     What an anticlimax, but looking back what could he have said that would be more memorable? For Orson Welles—known as the boy genius because of his early masterpiece, Citizen Kane—making movies for TV in Yugoslavia was probably the low point of his career.  And here was my son beginning his life…with wonderful giggles. My little boy’s laughter was his masterpiece. To his parents, he was “our baby genius.”

 When John begins again his voice is weary, more confessional.

He sighs.

     A nice story, but now, almost 35 years later, here’s why I think it fits the topic, “The Writer as Vampire.”

      As writers, we’re consumed with finding significant “meaning.” We are elated when we think we have that. But then times change. Life moves on. And what is significant changes for us.

     When I sit down to write a poem about the Orson Welles encounter 20 years later, my son is a teenager in the Air Force—neither a “teenage genius” nor an “Air Force genius,” and my wife has left me. So the cheery ending of the little memory doesn’t seem quite appropriate anymore.

      Here are the last two stanzas I come up with:


His shot seemed a curious choice.

When the woman stepped out from

the cab a camera entered through

a door that opened on the other

side. Did it make sense, to film

the empty  space  where  once she

had  been, leaving us to watch her

parting shape from the dark inside?

In twenty years, my wife, herself,

would go, never once looking back

on unedited footage decomposing

in the can.


His face was crimson with broken

veins and greased with sweat; his

voice—that voice—no longer Harry

Lime’s, but the mumbled growl of

Hank Quinlan toward his seedy end. 

What I wanted most that day, was

a shimmering globe to hold forever

dear, instead, in his voice I heard

only shards of broken glass. “Mario,”

he said, “you keep your eyes on the

people or they will steal everything.” 

And she did.


     I like the Citizen Kane snow-scene-in-a-glass-globe allusion, but now, my emphasis switches from watching the camera to “keep your eyes on the people.” Now I had “truth” that fit my current situation.




"Damn this is good!"



      A.         Choosing and developing characters 

  1. pick minimum characters to convey scene
  2. use the questions from the characterization, Exercise 3

(subtext). What is going on underneath the text.  For example, if on the day your sister dies, you are buying a pair of gloves, the subtext of her death would greatly affect the way you felt, even if the action of buying gloves is ostensibly everyday.  A good autobiography is a mirror of the way human beings behave.  The writer’s job is to provide what is also underneath the behavior of human beings. 

  1. give each a purpose in a scene
  2. remember events trigger action, action leads to discovery
  3. use narrative summary sparingly—it is a connector or a door into a scene, never the substance—see your life as a movie (dramatic scenes linked by narrative summary)

    B.         Dialogue “do’s and don’ts


                        1.         point of view for each character (attitude)

                        2.         impression of natural speech

                        3.         use dramatic structure to shape the sequence of

                                    what is said


                        1.         let characters make long speeches

                        2.         put in dead dialogue

                        3.         write dialogue in which nothing is left unspoken

                                    (no subtext)

     C.         Composite voice of autobiography (the person you are today versus the person you were then–both are critical)

     D.         Other techniques worth exploring through your reading of others

                        1.         foreshadowing

                        2.         incorporate external events

                        3.         stretching and condensing        

                        4.         composite characters/scenes

                        5.         changing vantage points

  1. flashbacks (juxtaposition)
  2. altering order to build drama 

 E. Disclaimers (to give you more freedom to tell the truth)

Some names and biographic details in this book have been altered.


    This book is fiction though based upon events that really happened.


 Pick one of your scenes (initial or interim).  Choose a setting that reflects theme and one–like Getting Closer–in which they are physically doing something.  Who are the characters you will use in the scene?  What is the subtext?  What is each striving for? 


 Write the scene.  It helps if the people in it are involved is some kind of activity other than just talking (such as cooking in Getting Closer).  This is a first draft, it is more important to write continuously than “correctly” or artistically.  Write from your feelings, creating a scene that kindles them for you.  Be brutally honest.  You can go back later and polish the result, what you are after here is the raw energy and sharp detail that can’t be added when you edit. 


             “If you tell the whole truth, the complete picture, if you include all sides of a person, the dark and the light, then it is possible to tell even ugly truths about someone without committing character assassination–if your motive is not to condemn but to understand.  It is not the objectivity of the reporter you should strive for, but a human treatment of the truth, a feeling for the vulnerability of human beings.

            “Autobiographic narrative is more than simply remembering on paper.  it is a second chance, a chance to get it right.  Not that you change events, not that you don’t write about helplessly watching your sister drown with all the pain and guilt you experienced, but that this time you are on your own side, even in pain and failure.  Now you can tell the story with insight and find the meaning of the single experience within the context of your whole life.  Remembering one’s suffering from the perspective of acquired wisdom is different from simply replaying it.

            “Autobiographic stories don’t require happy endings, but they do require a reason for being, a purpose, Knowing the end of the story means that even if a painful memory temporarily casts a pall over your present while you are writing it–and it well may–it is only a point in the story, not the entire story.”

                                                                                                –Tristine Rainer



                                                Editing My Wife’s Autobiography

                                                I am a saboteur

                                                behind the lines

                                                eliminating adjectives

                                                adverbs and other

                                                old lovers.

                                                            -John Lehman

In the following excerpt look for:

1. description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge, use of motion, atmosphere—setting mirroring character, conflict or theme (remember “opposites,” especially between characters and within the central character)

2. introducing characters through action (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language)

3. dialogue–emotional subtext (each character in a scene has an agenda) summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden dialogue

4.   realization–reaction, inner response, ie, emotional beat (Getting Closer) different from expository writing (topic sentence then development), the beat, not the paragraph is the unit, and its tempo is the changing intensity of your story.

5. changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or description.

GETTING CLOSER by Frances Metzman (Rosebud #10) 

            I smell the earthy root odor of potatoes boiling on the stove.  Smoke billows upward.  As I lift the heavy pot and drain the water, steam burns my eyes.  My mother’s heavy footsteps thump on the linoleum behind me.  The sound chills my blood.  Turning my head, I see she is only retrieving eggs from the refrigerator.  Although I promise myself not to anticipate the worst, I am jumpy, worried.

            Dumping the potatoes into a mixing bowl, I blink away the sting of heat and add several tablespoons of butter, the sautéed onions and eggs.  I beat it all together with a portable hand mixer.  Adding salt and pepper, I watch as the ingredients are pummeled into a smooth batter.  The odor of melted butter wafts upward.  The filling for the knishes is nearly done, and, so far so good.  No fights that draw blood.

            “You shouldn’t use electric appliances.  The knishes have to be made totally by hand,” my mother says, making a depression in a mound of flour and breaking eggs into it.

            Without the mixer I’d have to stay longer.  I feel my back stiffen.  “This is 1996,” I say.  “Your great-grandmother in Russia would have loved to have one of these.”

            “The woman couldn’t read, and sold bread by the roadside.  They had no electricity.  What would she do with your mixer?”

            I concentrate on a bowl as though I’m inventing a cure for cancer.

            I love knishes, those round, flaky-doughed turnovers filled with pureed potato.  When I had asked my mother to show me how to make them, I’d hoped we’d use the opportunity to declare a truce.  We’ve gotten adept at shouting matches, but in the last year or two I can hardly face her.  I visit as little as possible.  Give it one last chance, I told myself.

            At first, she’d been excited by the prospect; now I see her expression has dulled.  She’s cut me off again.  Why do I feel like an orphan around her?

            My mother excels in the kitchen.  It’s not that she’s nicer, but her obsession with food seems to give her a measure of control over her life.  She commands every utensil within her reach and any hapless human in her way.  Parboiling, braising, steaming, sautéing, roasting and frying are performed like sacred rituals.  I hold out little hope that getting her to initiate me into her hallowed sanctuary will reunite us.  But it’s the last-ditch effort before I turn my back forever.

            A tall large woman, my mother has developed thickening petrified slabs of flesh on her body over the years, kind of like the rings of a cut tree that tell its age.  Yet now she moves like a musical conductor, stewing flour on the board as though bringing a violin section to a crescendo.

            As she rolls the dough flat, each push forward seems calculated.  It’s as though she must duplicate that motion exactly the same distance each time.  I want her to stay in that position since I won’t have to hear the flat slapping, that odd rhythm on the floor that fills me with dread.

            She folds the sheet of dough over her rolling pin and holds it in front of my face.  it is beautiful, evenly translucent and a near-perfect oval.  My sheet of dough has ragged edges and tears in the middle.

            Using the back of a spoon, she runs the filling along a section of dough.  Then she folds the overlapping sides over and seals it by brushing the seams with a beaten egg.  A long puffed tube emerges.  After dipping her hand in a bowl of flour, she cuts off sections with the side of her hand.

            “I cut it this way because the dough sticks together naturally.  Cutting with a knife just makes it fall apart.  You didn’t know that, did you?”

            “No.”  I smack the rolling pin against my palm.  “How the hell would I know that”  You never let me in your precious kitchen.”  And when you give me a recipe, I want to shout out loud, you deliberately forget to tell me the most important ingredient anyway.

            My mother claps her hands together and a cloud of flour dust rises.  “That temper of yours again.  That’s why you’re thirty-five and not married.”

            “Knock it off,” I answer in disgust.  Why can’t I hide my anger?  I feel tired although we’ve only been at it for half an hour.  As I wipe the sweat from my face with a tissue, I

think it’s one hundred degrees inside.  My mother never opens the windows in the summer time.  She prefers to close everything out, even changes of seasons.  I glance at the doors and windows, checking escape routes.

            “I don’t know why you bothered me about cooking.  You don’t eat my food, and you never come for dinner,” my mother mumbles.

            “That’s because your meals are like feeding frenzies.  You’re never satisfied no matter how much I eat.”

            “Everyone loves my cooking but you.  You can never give compliments.”

            When her back is turned, I jab a potato-covered middle finger in the air.  I taste bile at the back of my throat remembering how, as a kid, she forced me to eat every morsel of food put in front of me.  At least those memories keep me thin now.

            Rolling out a new ball of dough, I flip it over the rolling pin, trying to lay the opposite side on the board in one smooth gesture, just like she does.  It slips off, and falls to the floor.  She gives me a wilting look.  Slowly, I pick it up.  My arms ache.

            She’s staring at me.  “You’re just like your father.  You even look like him.”

            “Please, please don’t start that again.  Let’s just have a nice time.  Then we’ll eat the knishes.”

            She’s jumped into bad territory.  My mother dates her unrelenting unhappiness from the time my father left us twenty-five years ago.  That’s when my memories turn ugly, from a mother who asked me how my dad had gone too one who seemed not to recognize me whenever her eyes happened to look my way.

            I fan my face with a towel, recalling my dad’s explanation of why he left my mother for another woman.

            “Your mother, she only gives me food, nothing else.  Nothing for the soul, nothing for the body,” he had grumbled.

            “Sure.  What do you care about me anyway?  Your father left me and so did you.”

            “I have a life, too.”

            “Some life.  Hundreds of dates and no husband.”

            “I think I’d better go,” I say.

            After my father left, my mother talked of suicide.  Day after day I’d rush home from school, watching her closely.  When she went to bed, I’d sit up for hours listening for signs of life.  Only when I heard her toss in bed or heard those heavy, scary footsteps was I able to sleep.  Although she never attempted suicide, she managed to do some pretty destructive things.  I sense her heading in that direction now.

            Untying my apron, I notice flour is streaked all over my hands and shoes.  Stepping behind me, she grabs the apron strings and reties them.  The battle of the apron is on.  The old familiar knot of anger pulls tight.

            “The potatoes need more salt.” 

            “I hesitate, then I pick up the salt shaker.  ” Will you be good if I stay?  I speak softly.

            “Okay,” she says.  “I will.”  She looks remorseful for a moment.  I know she can’t help herself, but I pray for a miracle…