Writing the “Tell”

Here’s a writing exercise that focuses on that key element of writing:  the “tell.”  The tell is that moment when people tip their hand and you can see their plot, their strategy, their ax to grind. Tells exist in poker (that clearing of the throat).  They exist on the witness stand (the tapping of the foot).  We have observed them among our friends (that look of annoyance that comes in a blink of an eye).


Great tells exist in gesture—gestures like a man sitting down as a woman stands before him—a clear sign that in a Henry James novel, which takes place in Victorian England, the man is carrying on an affair, that the two have come to a point where they have dispensed with the formalities, that he feels he no longer needs to stand up when a lady is in his presence.  This exchange is witnessed by Isabel Archer in Henry James’s great novel Portrait of a Lady and it is in this moment that she realizes that she has been tricked by her husband Gilbert Osmond and his older lover Madame Merle.   They were only after one thing:  her great and sparkling inheritance—a diamond solitaire against a black velvet gown.

Great tells can also exist in obsessions—opaque signs of darker stiller waters.  Great tells are moments of intuition—the tarot pack on the table of life.  We can look to fiction for fine examples, but when we look to our own lives, we learn so much not only about our craft but ourselves.  I’m going to unpack a tell from the anecdote of my own life and maybe it can give you something to work with when you work on your own work.


One of my friends is getting rid of her family encyclopedias—or at least trying to get rid of them—if her mom will let them go.  She’s about to go to Europe for 2 years, to flit about France and Germany, so that her egghead husband can do complex mathematical research.  And so she has been putting her life in order—selling stuff and visiting friends.  She’ll be gone a long time on a great adventure.  And now she is in La Jolla at cottage by the sea, looking at the accumulation of life and wanting to put some order to that world, too.  There are so many objects that amass like barnacles on the slow-moving ship in a home that has been kept in the family for generations.


So she put out a desperate call to her wide network of friends—friends who might france_germany_locatorcherish these artifacts, which now are so quaint in this age of Google.  For her, they represent a simpler time of America’s midcentury—the easy luxuries of mass-produced knowledge and TV dinners.  A time when America’s rising dominance after the successful prosecution of a World War, meant that every house could afford these books bound in the gold and red that is supposed to simulate the fine Moroccan leather of a country gentleman.

My parents had a set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas.  They were a gift from our church sponsors after we arrived to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War.  And they were for years prominently displayed above the den television next to a bust of the Statue of Liberty bedecked with a strand of fake pearls.


One of my most poignant memories comes from the Brittanicas when my father attempted to explain the difference between a Coup de Grace and a Coup d’etat.  He reached for those trusty Encyclopedias and showed me the entry, featuring a black and white photo of a man who had gotten a bullet through the head as the final act of kindness in a massive take-over.

“A Coup de Grace can be a part of a Coup d’etat.  But a Coup d’etat does not always involve a Coup de Grace.”  He pronounced the word “Grace” the French way, not the way that my school teacher did, butchering it into the French word for “Fat.”  I think that at some point, he drew me a Venn diagram to drive home the point, showing the way in which two very distinct things can overlap at certain points but remain completely different.

President Ngo Dinh Diem, shaking hands with Eisenhower

President Ngo Dinh Diem, shaking hands with Eisenhower.  He would later be deposed in a coup d’etat.

It would take me many years to realize why this distinction would be so important to my father, why he would reach for those high-up-on-the-shelf Encyclopedias.  I never asked him.  We don’t really talk of such things.  It seems too morbid, too somber.  But I can guess.  And my guess is that it was because so many Coup D’etats had been the natural consequence of my father’s adult life—a life in a war zone that had come as a result of French Colonialism.  My father, a military man of more than modest rank, probably knew people who knew people for whom the Coup de Grace would have been the denouement of a Coup D’etat.  And a Coup D’etat probably meant the possibility of advancement—maybe demotion—or death.

The Coup de Grace upon the battlefield would have been a generosity—a bullet to the head that would relieve a friend or foe of his suffering.  My father did his military studies in the United States and trained in the graduate institution that produced all the great generals—Eisenhower, Petraeus, Powell.  And the first thing you see when you walked through my childhood home was his diploma—a diploma that signified that he had completed a course of study for which a Coup de Grace was an honorable thing and a Coup d’etat was a conceivable operation, the mechanics of which you studied in order to possibly one day enact it.  And so my father’s teaching me this basic lesson in the horrors of war—a lesson that he delivered with much patience and kindness—was also a tell of sorts:  a sign that the ghost of a life that he had left behind was still with him, even if he was a new man in a new world.  Even if in civilian life, he was just an accountant.

Is this a Coup de Grace?  Or is it an execution?

Is this a Coup de Grace? Or is it an execution?

So here is your task:  Design a tell.  Do it in the form of a dialogue—a tic, an obsession.  It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a dialogue about shooting somebody in the head.  It can be as simple as an obsessive discussion of beekeeping or horseracing or veganism.  Look toward those moments in your own life where you figured somebody out in the small gesture that lays bare their strengths and their frailties.  But in the process of returning and returning to the topic, make that tell tell something telling about its teller.

Writing Exercise : How To Get Away With Murder – The Flashforward

“How To Get Away With Murder” is a hit television show that is legal procedural, soap opera, and mystery—and it’s narrative-candy:  it’s like a long-lasting gum…a good chew, bursting with tons of flavor.  I’ve been binge-watching it through its two season run and the question on my mind is how it keeps holding my interest…how I can chew and chew and not spit that wad of rubber-nothing out my mouth.


The show follows a sassy black law professor, named Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and her multicultural team of first year students—the black guy, the gay guy, the latina princess, the hard-around-the-edges-pretending-not-to-be-poor-mixed-race-country-girl-from-the-bayou.  There’s even a token white boy, who is of course a stereotype of privilege—the son of a judge who is from Kennebunkport.  Each of her students vie for a trophy—a figure of blind Justice holding her symbol, the scales–a prize that gets them out of taking an exam and into her good favor.

Each episode involves the team solving a murder of some sort and saving a client, usually in a dramatic court room presentation of evidence in which the charismatic Annalise Keating—barely restraining her emotion—exonerates her clients before a grand jury.  Needless to say, there is all sorts of un-reality to this show.

Tthe show  has its faults:  it is actually quite conventional and very quickly moves from legal procedural into steamy soap opera—the very thing I despise the most.  Still, I was riveted.  I kept binge-watching.  And I kept binge-watching.  And I wanted to know why.  And I think I know why.  And the reason why is this:  the show has the novel element of the flash forward:  We get snippets of an unfolding crime that is the master plot that the season is building toward—the sun—which is the solar system around which all the planet of lesser crimes revolves.

We get to see a murder unfolding but we only see parts of it, up-close.  The trophy banging upon a head.  Blood.  A hand.  Bits and pieces of confusion:  a shovel digging a shallow grave.  A panicked voice, whispering ohmygodohmygodohmygod.

Each episode opens with this flashforward.  Each flashforward follows the same design but is different.  So there is more information revealed—a dance of the seven veils.  Tantalizing.  Teasing.  Inviting.

This kind of device holds your interest well after the novelty of melodrama and soap opera and Perry Mason showboating begins to wear on your interest…and make you want to spit out that gum, which long ago should have lost its flavor.

Novelists have long exploited this type of device.  We see it as the italic openings to books—flash forwards that seem to make a promise of how the novel will reach its moment of climax.  And in this moment, the writer is using something like a pick up line:  accosting us, like a stranger on the street, with the promise of dinner and a date and an adventure on a vibrating motorcycle along a bumpy road that will end in the woods with a postprandial smooch.


Some of the great postmodern writers—writers like the African American genius Toni Morrison—use it at the beginning of every chapter.  The short italic opening—the repetitive opening that initiates each chapter of The Bluest Eye–involves a repetition of a series of lines–a Dick and Jane narrative that all little kids learn in elementary school.

Such a narrative gets progressively jumbly…then jumblier…then jumblier…the words mashed together to display the disorder in the life of a girl whose world is falling apart.  And so we begin to get a sense of how the world of the protagonist will fall apart…and we wait to see exactly how this will happen.

So here’s a suggestion for your next writing project:  Write a flashforward for your book.  Write it as an italics opener—that moment when Babe Ruth points his finger out the park and spits out the cud he’s been chewing in his mouth before preparing to hit that home run into the grand stands.  This opening just might hold your reader’s interest longer.

But ultimately, it can be a tool that only serves to sharpen your focus:   You can always take it out later if you don’t like it.  Putting those italics in might be exactly what you need to show you where you need to go:  your focal point, your climax, your sacred promise to the reader who is your solar system—your one and only—the sweet focus of pleasure that lives at the center of your mouth.

Writing Exercise: Brexit

“Exit, pursued by a Bear”

—–Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale, Act III, Scene 3


Brexit just happened—that decision by the UK to leave the umbrella of the European Union.  The decision is a consequential one, and already there have been wild fluctuations in the world markets as the British pound has hit a 30 year low.  Over night, the UK’s credit rating has fallen.  Jobs will most likely disappear.  Brits will now have to get a visa and go through customs when they travel to the new “abroad” which is the continent.  And it is altogether possible that this will spell the end of a United Kingdom, as Scotland pushes to secede from the union.


On the bright side for Americans, interest rates will not go up and, therefore, we find ourselves in a position to overextend ourselves on a house we can hardly afford.  Of course, we also may lose that job that allows us to pay for the house.  Why?  Because the dollar is so strong that it means nobody can afford to buy the products we make.  Soon there will be lay-offs and defaults on mortgages nationwide.  Me:  I’m not thinking about any of that.  I’m busy planning a vacation to the UK so I can go shopping at Harrods!

Brexit has made me realize that fiction depends so much upon exits:  their consequences, intended and unintended.  The complications are where it’s at.  And Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction—“exit, pursued by a bear”—resonates across the centuries because our imagination is pitched toward the emotional meanings of an exit:  fear, loathing, absurdity.


Perhaps this is why the reporting of Brexit has become so much cloaked within the many metaphors of the exit:  exits are part of the way we are hard-wired to see the world.  Take a look at the headlines.  Brexit is a break up of a marriage—an abusive relationship come to an end, a terrible fall from grace in which man is forever cast out of the Garden.

So here is your task:  find a moment for an exit in your story.  It can be at the beginning, middle or end.  But perhaps to make this exercise work best, you should put it front and center.  Think of this moment not as an everyday exit but as a Brexit.  Think of all the ways it can have unintended consequences, how it can rear its ugly head.  Think of the people who benefit from the backdoor—those carpetbaggers who will show up at the Harrods of somebody else’s life and loot their shelves.  Think of the ways a Brexit also metes out its ironic punishments—the way that same carpetbagger will return home to a house repossessed and nowhere to store all the many treasures that they have carted off from that fabled department store far far away.

Writing Exercise: Friend from the Past

The other day, I got caught up with a friend—someone I used to talk to every night on the phone for an hour or two.  It had been three years and, somehow, she had dropped out of the scene.  There were reasons, of course—none of it acrimonious…you just drift away.  So, I was happy to get back in contact with this person and sift through some of the surprising updates, the personal baggage, the professional losses.  A lot happens over the course of three years.

It got me to thinking about reunions in general, both in life and literature.  And my mind drifted to other reunions—less pleasant—where people from your past show up and you discover that they have taken a totally different path:  My best friend in elementary school, for instance, is someone whom I remember with much fondness.  He just showed up at my house one day on his bicycle and asked me to go bike riding, and after that, we were inseparable.  He will always be frozen in my mind’s eye as that chubby kid on a bicycle.


But when I finally saw him again a few years back, I realized that he was an altogether different person, that life had been hard for him, and time had not treated him well.  I knew that even as we sat at the dinner table, exchanging pictures, that we would never be more than friends in the past tense:  the bike of our lives had taken us in such different directions.

Literary reunions are interesting because they function like a deus ex machina—they can move the plot forward, they can introduce new information, they can bring about complication, they can develop antagonisms.  Literary reunions distill the vague disquiet—the subtle joy—you might feel upon catching up with a long lost friend and turn it into a fruity, full-bodied cocktail:  a Moscow Mule that will knock your socks off and kick you in the groin.


The conventional literary reunion comes in the form of the long-awaited friend who is the final goal—the repository of sentiment.  We see this in the Color Purple, for instance; Celie is waiting for her sister’s return and we are waiting right along with her; and her sister’s return is about love and loss; it is precipitated by a series of lost letters; then, a triumphant return.  This is followed by an embrace and a good long hard cry.

This is a formulaic way to utilize the reunion and it can have its limitations:  it can lend itself to cliché.  Why?  Because this is how our mind is programmed to see a reunion: as the end point.  So only in the hands of a great master—someone like Alice Walker—can we have a reunion fall at the end and still be rescued from the mine-field of the stereotypical.



So, here is your task.  Find a story where you’re stuck, plot-wise—a story that has stalled.  Then, have a figure from the past knock on the door, write an e-mail, send a telegram, drop a note.  What does that character want from you now?  What will she impose upon the landscape?  What crazy bike ride will she take you on?

Writing Exercise: What Would You Do If You Won the Lottery?

I’ve got powerball fever. The jackpot is well over 800 million dollars—that’s clams, smackers, duckets. Me: I never play the numbers. Every once in a while for a birthday, I’ll buy some scratchers on a lark. But everybody’s got their eyes on the prize right now, especially in this time of extended recession. So this morning, I made breakfast—a calzone–and walked down to the liquor store, while that sucker was cooling.

At the liquor store, there were two women paying for a pack of cigarettes in loose change. “It’s up to 800 million dollars now, right?”
“I don’t know. It changes by the hour,” said the husky Armenian gentleman behind the counter. “You can check it up on your iphone.”
“I don’t have an iphone. That’s what I’d get first. An iphone.”

I bought three chances–three sets of random numbers–at two bucks a piece. Then, I went home and discussed a future with 800 millions dollars in hand with my wife as we munched on calzones with fork and knife.
“The first thing I’d do is leave this neighborhood. As soon as everybody here found out that we have money, we’d be sitting ducks.” That’s true. Our house is quaint and charming—a craftsman—but a security risk. “Then, I’d move to a better neighborhood.”
“I’d move to the ocean—maybe Santa Monica.” I was born by the ocean and grew up by the ocean.  For a brief part of a long distant childhood, I was a surfer. It’s only as an adult that I told myself that I hated the Westside of Los Angeles—the ocean side.  It was filled with shallow superficial people who snorted coke on their dining room tables and abused their maids.  But now, confronted with all this imaginary wealth, I knew that I would move back to the rich douchey side of town in a heartbeat. I am such a sell-out.
My wife had grander plans: “I’d buy a house in San Francisco, New York, Hawaii, Paris.”

Hawaii House
“What about Chicago?”
“Fuck Chicago.”
“Yeah, fuck Chicago.”
“Then, I’d buy a house for my parents.”
That’s when I started to worry. If she started throwing money around like that, we would soon be bankrupt. People would ask for more and she would not be able to stop herself. And what about all these houses. We would have to hire somebody to take care of them when we were not there and the cost would be prohibitive. What if those people stole from us? Or threw wild parties?
“I’d hire a management agency,” she said calmly, resolutely.
“You know that money doesn’t come to you in one lump sum. It comes in installments.

You can’t just throw away the money like that.”
“Well, what would you do.”
“I would buy a new car. But not a douchey one like those 700 series BMW’s every creep drives in LA. I would buy a low-key car but have it fully loaded—maybe a Tesla or a Volvo but a special edition.”

We finished our meal by filling out the back of our lottery ticket with both our names. Then, we took pictures of it alongside our i.d.’s, just in case somebody broke into our house and stole it. That way: we would have proof that the ticket was ours when they tried to cash it in.
So here is the exercise—an exercise in character development: Identify a character you are having a hard time getting a sense of. Have her win the goddam-mother-loving-finger-licking lottery. And try to have her imagine what she would do.
The sky’s the limit with this exercise and the crazier the better. People become other people when they win their money. But in becoming other people, they are also expressing the true essence of who they are. Did you know one of the most recent lottery jackpot winners did with her 188 million dollars? She forked over 12 million to bail out her boyfriend who was in jail on drug and weapons charges. Sheesh.

Happy Christmas and A Merry New Year: A Writing Exercise Done Backward

My wife is a foreigner—an immigrant from Korea who came to the United States for her master’s degree, married a local, and decided to stay.  And so, like Gulliver, who travels to distant lands where people are freaky–too short or too tall–she often finds the habits of our Great Country a little bit eccentric.

South Korea

This makes me, by default, her cultural interpreter—her tour guide:  the one chosen to explain the strange ways of the North American hominoid.  Far from being a hassle, it actually is an education.  You see, cultural insiders often take a million things for granted—things like a liberal exchange policy at any store you shop at (never in Korea where you will be screamed at), or unlimited napkins at the fast food joint (you only get one), or walking in the house with your shoes on (the most sinful defilement).

Topping the list is the fact that she doesn’t get my taste for campy Christmas movies:  those movies like A Christmas Story or Trading Places that I watch every year.  “Those people are so ugly,” she tells me.  “I don’t like to look at them.”


“Baby, that’s exactly what is so appealing about the anti-Christmas story—the thing that cuts against expectation.”  But how do you explain that to a cultural outsider?  Well, you actually have to dig deep into yourself and ask some hard questions and first explain it to yourself.

You see, Christmas—the commercial Christmas–was an invention of the Victorian period.  It is that period of mass-production, of industrialism when all sorts of nice stuff from cheap gifts to cheap furniture, became the norm.  It is the period of capitalism reaching full stride.

But it was also a period of severe fragmentation—of disruption, of unrest—the time when folks were swept from the countryside into the cities; a time when things fall apart and the center does not hold; so the memory of an idealized ritual—a readymade thing called CHRISTMAS–was necessary to make a nation always on the verge of crisis, come together like a quivering pudding fresh out of the oven.

Before the modern CHRISTMAS, people wrote actual letters.  After CHRISTMAS, they bought mass-produced prints by Currier and Ives–beautiful prints of the Christmas life that they could never really have.  And these became the template for poor people to entertain upper-middle class fantasies of domestic perfectness that everybody could attain for a dime.  Remember that line from that old Christmas sleighbell song:

“It’ll be nearly like a picture print by Currier and Ives

These wonderful things are the things we’ll remember all through our lives.”

Notice the word “nearly”?  The approximation of an approximation of an approximation? This kind of imagery formed the template for the avalanche of crap that would follow…the Norman-Rockwell-Miracle-on-49th-Street atrocities.

Reproduction of a Currier and Ives Stamp

Reproduction of a Currier and Ives Stamp

The anti-Christmas movies are about our failings to match up to that vision—our entrapment within a world dedicated to making us good workers.  Yes, there is A Christmas Story and Trading Places but they are only off-shoots of a mightier branch:  You have darker masterpieces like David Sedaris’s amazing Holidays on Ice (where he plays an elf at a mall) or Augusten Burroughs’s even darker You Better Not Cry (where the autobiographical author has a one night stand with Santa).

Trading Places

Trading Places

So here is the task:  take a holiday—any holiday—and turn its expectations on its head.  Import a gothic element—a note of ugliness that befuddles the arrangement of tinsel.  Get nasty and imagine how you could really shock and perplex and befuddle your relatives on this sacred cow holiday.  I swear:  the writing will take care of itself, because if there’s one thing we love that makes us all True Blue Americans:  we love to hate holidays.

Writing Exercise: Fucking with Sentimentality

Be forewarned:  this is a tough exercise–one of my toughest–mainly because it is based on mastering some high-level conceptual material.  But if you often fantasize about getting into an MFA program, you will quickly learn that those famous writers in their turtlenecks will force you to master this concept and get rid of this sin:  the sin of SENTIMENTALITY.

Sentimentality is the gratuitous exploitation of emotions—the kind of stuff that pulls at your heartstrings, the kind of stuff that prompts you to cry or beat your chest:  the image of a mother holding a child in a run-down shack–that is textbook Sentimentality.


The great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung despised Sentimentality.  And his indictment of it rested on the idea that it was hypocritical:  masking a disturbing violence that sits like a bloody imp feeding upon the soul of humanity.

Confused?  It’s best to illustrate Sentimentality with an example:

Recently, I’ve been getting these memes—short narratives distributed through Facebook—that are incredibly Sentimental.  One recounted the story of a teacher who mistreated a student because he was a misfit–poor, dirty, withdrawn.  The misfit gives her a gift—some perfume and a bracelet with missing rhinestones—and the teacher laughs.  It is only later that the teacher realizes the kid is  giving her his very best present. The punchline is this:  both perfume and jewelry belonged to his recently deceased mother and we suddenly realize that the teacher is a total bitch who should be slapped in the face and frog-walked before the tribunal of the world so that she can be mocked and hooted at.

Teddy Stallard

Of course, nobody in this story is real—not the student, nor the teacher.  What is real is the story’s enduring popularity.  The story was first published in 1974 in a religious magazine and has been edited, redacted, reworked, adapted, rearranged–all so many times that we know it has hit a nerve. What is real is the incredible violence that sits baring its teeth at the center of the story.  In fact, Carl Jung might say that it testifies to a certain kind of blood lust in all of us.

Why?  Ultimately, the story is about making an example out of people.  And the hypocrisy is that one powerless member of society (the kid) is exchanged for another (the teacher) who becomes a whipping post for moral outrage– the dog we kick for shits and giggles.

Sentimentality appears everywhere in our lives because it is mass-manufactured.  It is “kitsch”–cheaply produced and ready for mass-consumption.  If you’ve ever purchased a picture of a soldier kissing a girl as he returns from war, you have invested in a piece of Sentimentality based on a brew of patriotism, heroism, romanticism.  Such images are simply excuses to hide our true intentions—the glee that we feel in the violence enacted upon people in foreign lands and the violence we will enact on these “heroic” young men who are simply pawns of international diplomacy.

Aren't We Glad We Dropped the Bomb on All Those Fuckers?

Aren’t We Glad We Dropped the Bomb on All Those Fuckers?

In Misery, we see how that master of horror turns sentimentality into a commentary of the crippled writer.  If you recall, a famous writer, not unlike Stephen King, is captured by his adoring fan, Annie Wilkes,  who holds him prisoner.  This fan has a fantastic collection of little ceramic figurines–sentimental displays–arranged in perfect order.  And when the author-figure tries to escape her clutches, he accidentally disarranges her little assemblage and she goes buck wild.  She literally cripples him.


For the MFA workshop, Sentimentality is bad.  But this is not to say that Sentimentality is bad in general—or even something absolutely to be avoided.  If you are a copywriter in an advertising agency or a preacher at a pulpit or a politician on the campaign trail, Sentimentality is incredibly useful. In fact, if you are writing genre fiction—detective, romance, true crime—Sentimentality is a useful tool if you know how to manipulate it.  Sentimentality is the bazooka that we carry in the knapsack of our hearts to pillage and maim and destroy while still looking human.


Poster advertising an International Philosophy Conference on Kitsch & Sentimentality. Yes, this is a field of study!

So here is the task:

  1.  First, meditate on your favorite image of Sentimentality.  If you don’t think you have one, you are wrong:  they are the images that cause tears to come to your eyes.
  2. Then, Google that image.  Why?  Because it’s easier to study–to dissect–a concrete image that stands immediately before you.  Try to figure out how the sentimentality plays you like a piano–how it turns on the waterworks and manipulates you.
  3. Finally, use that image as a launching point for a vignette that utilizes sentimentality to manipulate emotions.

This is a tough exercise.  It may take some work.  But I guarantee you that it is worthwhile: you will learn something about Sentimentality from the inside out. You will know what the bazooka is like when you hold it in your hands.   And if you leave with nothing else from this exercise, you will at the very least learn about the kind of fiction that those turtleneck artsy-fartsy types don’t like in MFA programs.




National Novel Writing Month: Thanksgiving Writing Exercise

We’ve all had to suffer through this ritual:  sit around a holiday table and testify about the things we are thankful for, things we cherish in our lives.  Then, like Pavlov’s dogs, we are rewarded for our participation with the opportunity to grub down on a steroid-bird and a quivering lump of dye-infused cranberry jello.

Thanksgiving Contest - What Are You Thankful For?


I am grateful I have a job.

 I am grateful that my family is healthy and alive. 

I am grateful that Johnny came back from the war with all his precious limbs intact.

This is a touching exercise but it always seems so empty to me—a tin can you listlessly kick down the echoing tunnel of your mounting depression…because, you see, here is the paradox of Thanksgiving:  Turkey Day is the gateway to the entire season of dislike and ungratefulness, of dread and claustrophobia, of anxiety and powerlessness.  But we are all required to smile and play joyful in our scratchy snowflake sweaters as if we were lobotomized inmates in a very strict looney bin.


Thanksgiving is one of those times when Americans are MOST likely to self-medicate on booze.  Thanksgiving is THE moment when Americans feel like they’re losing ground to their neighbors and their over-ambitious nativity scene.  It is the red letter day when we are MOST likely to climb into the satin coffin of credit card debt.


Thanksgiving is also that box on the calendar when you gird up our loins to confront those people whom you reluctantly call “relatives.”

It is the time of year when you might see that uncle who molested you and flash back to the smell of Jim Beam on his breath during those late night visits to “tuck you in.”

Or that long-distant cousin–the religious fanatic–who used to kick your ass every day after school and then warn you to keep your filthy rat-trap mouth shut or else, God help you, you will really get it. 

Or the spinster aunt who snuck away with your boyfriend behind the wood shed and returned to the dinner table with leaves in her hair and hay on her back. 

Thanksgiving is the time when we spend weeks researching the jiu jitsu moves to bust out during the dread moment when polite family discussions suddenly veer into the octagon of politics—that time Uncle Rudy spouts off about the place of women or minorities or homosexuals.


Yes, the true reality of Thanksgiving is not the glaze that lies on the surface of the ham but the meat that once belonged to a pig raised in the squalor of confinement—a poor animal living with the fact of death, the stench of suffering, the odor of sitting in your own poop waiting to be taken to the slaughterhouse.  So with this in mind, here is the exercise:

Instead of thinking about what your character is grateful for—her accomplishments, her aspirations, her desires–think about what she loathes, what she absolutely detests.  What sends her off the cliff?  What makes her nervous system fill with the adrenaline of dread?  What makes her hand itchy enough to grab grandma’s wedding cutlery and stick it in the ever-loving eye of Uncle Rupert–that first class child molester and blowhard–whose fact of existence is a blight on humanity?


Start off with a list of grievances that are as sweet as frosting and as refreshing as peppermint candy canes.  Build it out into a ginger bread house of anxieties, of resentments, of traumas, of secret-hurts.  Then finish it off with the ideal revenge fantasy—the witch pushed into the oven screaming in agonizing pain as her skin burns to a charred crisp and her eyeballs pop out of the sockets of her head.


Let’s make this point absolutely clear:  This is not a sadomasochistic exercise.  This is not my condoning violence.  And no, you should not maim nor kill nor bludgeon those strangers you call “relatives.”

Rather, this is fundamentally an exercise in negative space—an exercise that defines a picture by what it is not.  In doing so, we are able to understand what is really inside the inside of the picture of your story:  the characters, the situation, the plot.  And as such, it allows us to see things in an entirely different light that challenges the ways we are compelled to see.

Why?  Because we WANT to see things as we WISH to see things.  And we WISH to see things as other people tell us we MUST see things.  We are all Pavlov’s dogs licking at the plate after the dinner bell has rung.

As a result, we often default into a list of empty desires, of echoing tin-can-cookie-cutter platitudes that we kick around.  But answer me honestly:  Who hasn’t wanted to confront an abuser, to flip over the dinner table, to storm out of the room and come back with a semiautomatic blazing cold hot lead into the hearts and souls of the so-called “friends and family” who have wronged them?

Not me.  I’m a veritable angel.  And I am grateful that I am alive and not in jail.  But YOU…I know I’m not as sick and twisted as YOU.  YOU are capable of anything.

Writing Exercise: Debt Crisis of 2013

We are on our fourth day of the DEBT CRISIS OF 2013 and, guess what, everybody is reading:  The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post.  The stock market may be tumbling and our credit rating may go down the tubes, but the silver lining is that literacy is on the rise.  Even if folks are not reading, they’re focused on the one thing that matters: the story.

stock market crash

And this got me thinking about a writing exercise based upon a what-if:  What if that well-oiled plot you’ve been polishing like a souped-up week-end sports car suddenly hit a snag?  Wouldn’t that make for a better story?  Wouldn’t that keep your reader chugging along?

Of course it will.

But that’s not how we learn to write.  We are taught to care for our characters whom we often think of as our own children.  Plots, we are taught, are well-oiled machines that our children simply glide through as they make their way through the stages of life.  Aren’t all children gifted and perfect and sweet?


Henry Fielding, arguably the first English novelist, gives us the prime example of the great plot: his hero Tom Jones moves from adventure to adventure as if he were a literary hobo hopping trains.  But we often forget how well he gets out of snafoos.   And this comes from the fact that he gets out of them so well.

Tom Jones

More contemporary:  McGyver—that guy is consistently put into a jam and somehow extricates himself from a ticking time bomb with paper clips and a toothbrush.  There are reasons why both of these narratives are serialized—doled out in installments.  Their plots must always involve a major fuck-up.  And we love to see (with a childish pleasure) the way a knot becomes un-kinked.

Let’s bring this closer to home and talk about my favorite subject:  myself.  I’m at the point in putting to bed the great adventure of this mystery novel and, as part of this process, I am starting to think about the design of another project—a travel narrative based around my time bumming around third world countries:  it’s a narrative that will allow me to cover a space of roughly 5 years, three of which are spent gallivanting abroad. And as I cast about for interesting material (there is just not enough space to include it all) the incidents that rise to the surface come in the moments when I feel I am trapped, when I have nowhere out, when I have to make do with my wits.

The time I ran out of money in Rio:  I showed up to a bar in the bohemian quarter, stood a few strangers a few drinks, and boldly asked if anybody would rent out a spare room.

The time my wife was turned away as we crossed the border from Peru to Ecuador:  we simply smuggled her in a secret compartment of a chicken bus among similar fugitive souls—young, undocumented Peruvians praying on their rosaries in a darkness illuminated only by lighters that stayed on only long enough to burn their fingers– and, a month later, threaded our way through the Kafka-esque immigration authorities in the capital, Lima, Peru.

The time I was cheated by a tourism agent in Bangkok:  I simply showed up to the office (where everybody covered up for her denied any knowledge of her whereabouts or any relationship to her business) and, taking them at their word that they did not give a rat’s ass about her business, I called them on their bluff; I walked off with the credit card machine, holding it hostage until I got my money back.  Yes, the police were involved.

credit card

These are moments that present a problem and demand a fix.  They also say many revealing things—both flattering and damning—about who I am:  my character.  And they will keep a reader more interested than a description of a mountain or a harbor.

So here is the task:  if you are living under the sequester and have any empathy for the deep inconvenience it has wrought in the lives of the very real humans across America who now cannot get the most basic things done, design a scenario that is equally as shameful, equally as terrible, equally as degrading.  Then sit back and watch how your character gets out of that one.

Writing Exercise: Channeling Nostalgia


“A little voice inside my head said:  ‘Don’t look back, you can never look back.’”

————Don Henley, “Boys of Summer”


This line comes from one of those great hits that define a moment of my youth:  1984.  The year that Orwellian catastrophe was supposed to rain down upon us.  The year I turned lucky number 13. I was to become a teenager and, oh, how I waited for it with my nose pressed up to the dark, plate glass of the future. Lucky 13

Becoming a teenager meant soon becoming an adult; becoming an adult meant that I could eat candy for breakfast and chocolate ice cream for lunch; becoming an adult meant that I could go to an R-rated movie, legally.  1984 arrived…and I still had to get through half of it—I was a July baby—before I could suddenly ascend to the status of teenager.

Orwell 1984

This song lyric returns as the caption to the snapshot in the yellowed newsprint of the tabloid where I am forever my own personal star.  There:  I see myself at the arcade that was torn down to build a mall.  There:  my bicycle—red as a dragon—zips through the gridlock of Westwood Boulevard.  It is a mighty time—a time when I feel both big and tiny—I am growing.  I am constantly hungry.  That song, I want to forever hold that moment of not looking back.  I want a voice to tell me: you can never look back. I know I will run away some day. I will be forgotten.  I will burn brightly and quickly.  I will never turn into a pillar of salt.


So this never looking back is also about looking forward.  And every time I hear it, I look backward at me looking forward:  the endless reflection, my life—an Escher print.


So here’s the task:  characters are always looking forward and we are trained to have them look forward—that is the point of a plot, pushing one and all forward.  But the best characters in fiction have always looked backward.  Think Proust.  Think Marquez.

Who can forget this line that opens up A Hundred Years of SolitudeMany years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.  Even if you don’t remember it, even if you’ve never read it before, you will remember it now.  It is the nostalgia—the looking backwards—that haunts and magnifies the big-ness that is in that little line.


What does your character look back to?  What is the one memory that he holds dear?  What does he keep wrapped in the heart of his hearts like a rosebud?  Now, write out a little vignette of that memory, one that captures the loss, the grainy black and white quality, that that memory—a stuttering lightbulb—flashes before the mind’s eye.  I guarantee you:  this will get your story—a red bicycle zipping through lanes of traffic–going, going, gone.