On Writing: The Glamour of Grammar


If there was a moment in graduate school that dismayed and hurt me more, I can’t think of anything worse than the day my first seminar paper was returned.

To see that big green F — ironically green pens were used to grade papers because green ink was supposed to be less antagonistic than red — at the top of the page and all those inserted green commas — my paper looked like it had grown a football field. And I was Tom Brady watching the Philadelphia Eagles celebrate their Super Bowl victory while I sat helplessly and forlornly in the middle of the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Defeated not by linebackers and a last-second touchdown pass, but by flawed argumentation and grammar.

I dropped the course immediately.

But, I didn’t let the F end my graduate career, no more than a Super Bowl loss has ended Brady’s career. I refreshed my grammar rereading some basic composition texts and the goat text for most writers — The Elements of Style.

For me then — and since — grammar mattered.

Do you really have to grasp every element of grammar to be a great writer? Spelling seems to be a bugbear for many. There are of course the legends: F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently couldn’t spell and Shakespeare spelled his name six different ways — that, of course, was before spelling in English had become formalized.

And there are, of course, experimental works of genius like the unpunctuated last chapter of Ulysses — but Ulysses is an exceptional piece.

What about commas? Does Cormac McCarthy really know where the commas, or periods for that matter, go in passages like this from All the Pretty Horses:

“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies  …”

And so on for another quarter of a page until the sentence/paragraph comes to a full stop. So what? Does this evocative lyrical piece in McCarthy’s signature Faulknerway style need commas or conventional punctuation? Clearly like Joyce, McCarthy is trying to show us the unconscious flow of the mind, of consciousness, of a dream state in this case. Where, exactly would you punctuate it? Still, if he’s trying to evoke a dream state, why does he keep reminding us this is a dream by repeating the phrase “in the dream”?

And, of course, as you’re reading this post, many of you might ding me for sentence fragments or using colloquialisms like “goat” for “go-to”. And, if you are like a recent editor of mine, you’ll cringe until your spine snaps to see me begin sentences with conjunctions. “And” at the beginning of a sentence particularly bugged him.

Probably as much as I was bugged as an editor when a writer of mine couldn’t name the parts of speech, and yet wrote well. Another writer couldn’t spell well and often wrote cringe worthy sentences, but was a great reporter. She got the details and great quotes. And with some great editing, won an award for feature writing.

Still, for me, grammar matters. The trauma of a green F sticks with me. It makes me check and double-check my copy and makes me fierce editor. All writers should know the basics, as Roy Peter Clark says in Writing Tools.

Even if you aren’t a professional writer, clear, generally grammatically correct writing affects communication no matter the field. At the very least, there is a utilitarian necessity for clear writing.

“Poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money,” Clark writes. “They are blood clots in the body politic. The flow of information is blocked. Crucial problems go unsolved. Opportunities for reform and efficiency are buried.”

— Todd


Current News: Why Anthony Bourdain Matters


Unless you count imaginary trips, I haven’t traveled much, although I hope to do more.

Yet, I feel I’ve traveled the world vicariously through — the rest of this sentence seems unreal to write — the wanderings of the now late Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain, 61, the celebrity chef, writer and host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” died June 8, apparently of suicide.

In the past couple of years, news of celebrity deaths seemed to outnumber celebrities. I’m not much of a celebrity watcher/follower. Of course, I have my Hollywood heroes — Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Frances McDormand, etc. — and certainly as a teen I was obsessed with pretty much everything the band Van Halen did.

But, I didn’t get into celebrity gossip, unless you count the great TV talk shows like the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” as celebrity gossip, or regularly follow TMZ — though that show has begun to warrant some legit breaking news.

The closest thing I suppose I have to celebrity obsession is with writers. I used to collect writer’s obituaries and, when I really get into a particular writer, I will read what I can about him or her. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’d probably find a hint or two I’ve had long love affair with Ernest Hemingway.

In 2016, in particular, it seemed every Hollywood star, every rock star was turning up dead, only two celebrity deaths genuinely affected me as if I’d actually lost a relative or friend — Carrie Fisher, of course was my princess, like she was for many of you. What more can you say about the space princess who was your first movie star crush?

Of course, David Bowie and Prince rank high up on the loss scale, too.

Then, however, came writer Jim Harrison. Harrison died March 26, 2016, sort of the ideal writer’s death, I suppose, if there is any ideal death — at his table, writing in longhand.

I came to Harrison, late, introduced to his writing by my mentor and colleague, Clay Coppedge. Before I ever read a word of Harrison’s prose, I heard Harrison read at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, when he was promoting his collection of essays, The Raw and the Cooked.

This is where I get back to Anthony Bourdain. As any reader of Jim Harrison knows, the man was a gourmand. Harrison took pleasure in food like no other writer I’ve ever read, other than Hemingway (Harrison would have hated that comparison).

Until 2009, I had no idea Anthony Bourdain was such a fan of Harrison’s.

Then, I had become a religious watcher of Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel, “No Reservations.” It became an obsession. In Bourdain, I found a kindred spirit — I longed for adventure; he adventured. He ate, he drank and he loved life. He also wrote well about it and had his own TV show.

It was hard not to love his show and him. I was in the second year of long-term unemployment, edging toward divorce and straining under a savage bout with depression. Bourdain’s joie de vivre was intoxicating, a relief from the darkness crushing against me from all sides, from the high place of my mind.

I made sure not to miss the episode Bourdain visited Harrison in Montana.

“I’m in awe of him,” Bourdain says of Harrison in the episode. It’s refreshing to hear a celebrity say he’s in awe of someone and mean it.

And it’s clear from Bourdain’s book Medium Raw, the chef was in awe of Harrison. Harrison is “the man who has done everything cool with everybody who’s ever been cool, dating back to when they invented the fucking word.”

Like Harrison, what the bad-boy chef —Bourdain was once called the Hunter S. Thompson of celebrity chefs — writer and traveler gave us was authenticity, the kind of thing that seems missing in our world of corporate ken dolls, the kind of thing Bourdain gave his fans, even in a Montana that, as wild as it still is, has also become overrun with CEOs and moguls.

In all of his shows — his most recent was “Parts Unknown” — Bourdain traveled and ate and drank and gave us armchair travelers a touch of depth about a place, the sort of thing you can’t get with ordinary tours. He went to out-of-the-way places, had a love affair with street food and in Vietnam famously ate a bowl of $6 noodles with President Obama.

After Bourdain’s passing last week, all I could post about it was “Damn.”

I hadn’t watched “Parts Unknown” in awhile, but I loved every episode for its touch of authenticity. Plus, more often than not, he’d end up citing a favorite book — in Tangier he recalled Sheltering Sky author Paul Bowles, and probably talked about William S. Burroughs — or he’d somehow work in a line from “Apocalypse Now.”

Just this week, The Atlantic, talks about Bourdain’s authenticity. “The key ingredient of Bourdain’s career was indeed realness.”

That’s what mattered about him. He was a pop culture icon. And yet, he could stand in awe of other icons like Harrison.

He mattered to me, because he showed a life of no fear, and he talked about good food, good books, good music. He wasn’t afraid to be cultured or crazy.

It’s the kind of thing we need now. We need pop culture of the variety of Bourdain and Harrison, even Hemingway and Twain. People unafraid of the world or life. People without borders, because somehow we’ve become a culture isolated and wanting protection through walls.

I’d rather live in Bourdain’s borderless world.

There’s a photo that’s circulated around social media. I found it on a Jim Harrison Facebook fan site. It’s of Bourdain, Harrison and the now late actress Margot Kidder. They are drinking at a bar in Livingston, Montana.

It’s a poignant scene, the kind of thing that makes you wish there were an afterlife, but only if you could hang out at bars with your friends and with great actors and writers and chefs.

It’s the kind of afterlife I hope Bourdain is enjoying.

— Todd

Recommended Reading: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War


51837639Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Mary Roach
W.W. Norton, 2016
Hardcover, 285 pages
Almost three-quarters of a century have passed since some 13,000 paratroopers dropped from the skies over Normandy a few hours before thousands more Allied soldiers would land on the beaches to begin the liberation of Europe from the Third Reich.

Those paratroopers dropped with anywhere from 90-120 pounds of gear, including parachutes, rifles, knives — some dropped with machetes — entrenching tools, flashlights, compasses and maps, packs of rations, and extra ammo and grenades. All this gear was meant to be used to survive anything Hitler’s Wehrmacht launched at them: bullets, bombs and bunkers or panzers, machine pistols and panzerfausts.

On their way down the paratroopers probably prayed not just that their lives and their comrades’ lives would be spared the barrage of flak coming at them, but that they had, on landing — and if they survived that landing — the guts and guns to fight the men firing that flak at them and at the planes that dropped them. We know they had the guts and guns. That’s well-documented.

What we don’t know is whether they worried if their iconic cotton-twill uniforms might survive the blasts of a grenade’s explosion or wick away their body heat as they marched from one Norman farm field through another. These sorts of worries are the meat of research at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts. There, scientists test Kevlar body armor and its variations; they test fabrics to see which cling to the skin in the vacuum created by an explosion, worsening burns, or which cloth lifts away from the skin, lessening the damage the victim might endure.

When you think of military science, you might think of the marvels of engineering that might go into the so far hypothetical F19 stealth fighter or even the strategy and tactics a commander uses to launch a successful campaign.

In Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach explores the sort of military science performed at Natick, the kind that researches the best uniforms that protect the men and women wearing them from “all that modern warfare has to throw at them: flames, explosives, bullets, lasers, bomb-blasted dirt, blister agents, anthrax, sand fleas.”

It’s the unsung, behind-the-scenes science of warfare that Roach puts into the spotlight, the things rarely talked about in history books or heard of on the news, “the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, panic, ducks.”

Ducks? Exactly.

Unless you’re Elmer Fudd, I doubt you think of a duck as something that poses a risk to national security. But “birdstrike,” as the military calls the mass of geese, gulls, ducks and other birds that collide with Air Force jets, costs “$50 million to $80 million in damage and, once every few years, the lives of the people on board.”

The Air Force tests birdstrike — so you’ll know— with an aptly named chicken gun, which hurtles chickens against jets at speeds of 400 mph or more.

Grunt is Roach’s fifth book. I’m currently reading her first, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which explores how cadavers have been used to aid the progress of medical science, and even of military science, as they were in 1893 when Capt. Louis La Garde of the U.S. Army Medical Corps experimented with what’s now termed stopping power of the then new .30-caliber Springfield rifle, firing the gun at a series of naked and unarmed corpses.

With the advent of ballistics gel, the military, as well as law enforcement, rarely use cadavers in weapons testing any longer — the freshly dead, as it turns out, aren’t good test subjects to determine stopping power. The already stopped often don’t react to damage from bullets in the same way the living or simulated living parts made from the gel do.

Actually, one primary task of the military now is to prevent its personnel from becoming corpses. One way to do this is to train medics in gruesomely realistic settings, as the 1st Marine Division does its medical corpsmen at Camp Pendleton. In its combat trauma management course, the Marines find themselves in the midst of a simulated Afghan village when all hell breaks loose during an insurgent attack.

Only, the corpsmen aren’t anywhere near Afghanistan; they are in a movie studio designed to give them the feel of war. Here, they find actors — in some cases amputee Marine veterans — screaming in agony as gouts of movie blood fountain from the same sort of special effects equipment that makes a mess of soldiers on screen. In the background all the while, as the medics tend the wounded, realistic sounds of combat blare out over speakers — audio from the movie Saving Private Ryan.

While these scenes are engaging, Roach gives us her best with the quirky stories ­ — sometimes asides in a chapter — that have the most potential for maximum gross-out factor, as when she turns to the subject of wound care using maggots.

She first encounters the fly larvae in Stiff, where she describes her visit to the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility. There, where forensics researchers study decay in cadavers in the name of law enforcement and solving murders, Roach notes “grains of rice” squirming in a man’s belly button. “It’s a rice grain mosh pit,” she writes with her characteristic sense of humor.

Only, these aren’t grains of rice. They’re maggots, which she decides to give a much more palatable name to — “haciendas”. In Grunt, she graduates to making roses roses and maggots maggots, when she visits wound care researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR).

Maggots eat dead or decaying meat. “When the meat is part of an open wound,” Roach reports, “the act of eating performs upon the meal a kind of debridement. Debridement — the removal of dead or dying tissue — fights infection and facilitates healing.”

The last thing a wounded soldier trying to recover from those wounds needs is infection. Enter the WRAIR maggot therapists, who treat wounds using said fly larvae, to eat away dead, decaying, infectious flesh. These larvae, of course, aren’t grown in the wild but safely cultivated in sterile environments by the therapists — sometimes in home labs.

Having seen maggots at work before, Roach is less squeamish this time around: Maggot therapist George Peck places three of the wriggling larvae on the tip of Roach’s index finger. When they rear up in search of food, Roach likens them to puppets on Sesame Street.

It’s sort of a sweet scene — if you think of the maggots as, say, puppets or playful puppies. Then comes the kicker, when two of the larvae lift their companion up as if in celebration. Peck informs Roach, “They do cannibalize.”

Which, indeed, is what they do.

Roach peppers her book with scenes like this. At once graphic, yet somehow endearing, largely because throughout the book, Roach charms with her voice, a voice that is at once affable and serious. Voice and narrative always make a piece work.

Grunt works because of Roach’s voice and her ability to set scenes like those above. Still,  war is a grave, serious subject, and while Roach’s voice is often charming and witty, she never makes of her subject a frivolous thing.

She tells the story of the people involved in the science of war with humanity and depth, and how their work affects them.

Grunt ends poignantly inside the morgue and mortuary of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, where military autopsies are performed. Roach notes that since “2004, around 6,000 autopsies have taken place here,” all of men and women killed in combat.

Here, autopsies uncover more than the cause of death. They uncover what could save the next soldier’s life. The beefed-up, buff pectorals of many weight-lifting soldiers and Marines, for instance, have caused small needles to miss their mark when medics try to relieve air pressure off of shot-through collapsed lungs. Autopsies discovered this. Now, longer needles are used on buffer pecs.

In the end, however, war is about the dead, the dead young men and women going through the morgue and mortuary, and the question posed by one of the medical examiners, “Was it worth it?”

History shows us it was worth it to land behind the lines of the Norman coast in 1944. Still, it’s a difficult question to answer. Roach leaves us pondering that question with a final image. She sees a stepladder in the exam room: she learns it’s used by autopsy photographers to get perspective, to get the whole body in the frame.

“I guess war is like that,” Roach writes. “A thousand points of light, as they say. Only when you step back and view the sum, only then are you able to grasp the worth, the justification for the extinguishing of any single point. Right at the moment, it’s tough to get that perspective. It’s tough to imagine a stepladder high enough.”

The Business of Writing: Being an Expert on You, or What’s Your Work Style?

downloadMost of my professional writing career has been as a full-time employee, primarily in journalism, but also in marketing and textbook publishing.

For approximately a year, I freelanced full time. I did OK, until my bread-and-butter client went away.

Freelancing full time is scary. And I was live without a net, without any strong understanding of the business side of things. It made working for myself harder than I ever imagined.

Now, I’m back to freelancing part time and I’m trying at the same time to put up the safety net of better business skills under me. One way I’m doing this is through reading and I recently bought Sara Horowitz’s The Freelancer’s Bible to get a better grasp of what I need to do on the business side.

Today, as I was reading a bit of the book at lunch, I came across this passage on working with clients under the subhead “Be the expert on you”: “Even if your client has worked with freelancers before, everyone’s different. Put a page on your website about how you work. Tell your client how you work.”

According to Horowitz, knowing yourself and how you work helps you stay organized. It helps you work with the client about your preferences. How do you prefer to be contacted? When, for that matter, are you available?  How will you and the client work together so you make a good fit?

The passage hooked me because I was recently on an interview for a full time writing gig (hey part-time freelance is great but it doesn’t pay all the bills) and I was a bit stumped when the interviewer asked, “What is your work style?”

I feel I flubbed this question, because I didn’t know quite what it meant. Did the interviewer want to know if I worked fast and accurately? Or how I structured my work day? How did I prioritize? How do I take direction? (I spent an awful long time about how I hated micromanagement.) Did I prefer to take constant direction or did I prefer to get my assignment and prefer to be left alone until it was done? Did I prefer email? Phone calls or in-person communication?

Yes, to all. The interviewer wanted me to talk about each of these things when asked about work style, according to thebalancecareers.com.

The work style question, according to the site, is meant “to decide whether you will fit in well with the company culture and the job. This question also reveals to the employer whether you are self-aware enough to recognize and clearly communicate your work style.”

Answering the work style question also seems a good tool to put into your freelance tool kit. Know yourself and your client gets to know you better.

— Todd

Free Fiction Friday: The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber

First published in 2004 at Pindeldyboz, “The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber” also began as an exercise. It’s one of my favorites, because once I left off from the prompt, I let my imagination roam, connecting images from real life (the beheaded snake) to the characters shaping in my head as I wrote.

The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber

Simon Beachcomber’s life had been most simple and most ordinary, and therefore, most terrible. Simple because he did not work at a stressful job that required much thinking. Simple because he and his wife, Frances Beachcomber, never quarreled, nor did they put forth undo emotions of any kind. Ordinary because he worked an eight-to-five job in an office, behind a desk, underneath a bright fluorescent light. Ordinary because each morning he drank coffee and read the business section of the paper while Mrs. Beachcomber also drank a cup of coffee and worked the crossword puzzle.

Both liked solving crossword puzzles and each evening Mr. Beachcomber would buy a second newspaper at the convenience store on the corner and solve the crossword while Mrs. Beachcomber cooked dinner. After dinner they compared answers. Most of the time they had answered the puzzle correctly.

Then Mr. Beachcomber would read at night before going to sleep. Mrs. Beachcomber, on the other hand, turned in and went to sleep right away.

Every week, every month, every year was the same.

Years, indeed, did pass and Mr. and Mrs. Beachcomber realized they were growing old together. And, Mr. Beachcomber, when he retired, had saved enough money over the years that he and Mrs. Beachcomber could live comfortably, spending their days working crossword puzzles, attending to ordinary life.

A few months after retirement, Mr. Beachcomber began to notice something missing, out of the ordinary, and it worried him greatly. He woke up one morning and realized Mrs. Beachcomber had been misplaced.

She hadn’t left. He just didn’t know where she was. He hadn’t noticed that for the past fifty years Mrs. Beachcomber had been shrinking steadily, until now she was the size of a quarter.

Mr. Beachcomber dressed, put on his favorite, though now unfashionable fedora—he had worn it every day since V-J Day—he buckled his belt, which just the day before he had to punch new holes in because it seemed he was losing weight daily, and fingered some lint in his left trouser pocket (Mrs. Beachcomber clung to his car keys as the cracked nail of his left forefinger scratched the surface of the pocket’s cloth), and he set out to search for his wife. On that first day, there was no luck. He hadn’t driven anywhere, only lumbered around the house.

There had been some excitement, though, when he hacked the head off a chicken snake that had crawled into the garden to digest a mouse. He mistook the chicken snake for a rattler and leveled the garden hoe against its neck, taking the head off in one chop. (And Mrs. Beachcomber always said the hoe wasn’t sharp enough to defend against a snake. He wished she were around to see it.)

After disposing of the snake, he went inside, laid his car keys on the dresser and took a nap. (Mrs. Beachcomber clung to the ring, her legs kicking through the vast gulf between the pocket and dresser, hollering frantically. Oh, if he’d only turn up that damn hearing aid!)

On the second day of his search he looked on his dresser where his keys lay. How odd, he thought, normally those are in my pants’ pocket. Why are they here?

Mr. Beachcomber sat on the edge of the bed, thoughtfully recollecting the actions that led to putting his keys on the dresser rather than leaving them in his pocket. He killed the snake; it could’ve been a rattler. Its head was like a rattler’s. If only Mrs. Beachcomber had been there. Now she might never know. She would have thought him brave.

What else had Mr. Beachcomber done? After killing the snake he saw fresh tomatoes on the vine and thought he’d pick them. Fresh tomatoes would please Mrs. Beachcomber, too. As Mr. Beachcomber stooped to pick each tomato his keys would slide out of his trouser pockets. So, he had them in his pocket then.

He then rubbed his left hip which was sore for some reason. Underneath his fingers he felt a small lump, what he figured was a bug bite (Mrs. Beachcomber had bitten and scratched him) and then remembered that while in the garden he had thought it was his keys that were scratching him, so he came in for a drink of water and retired to the bedroom where he decided to take the keys out of his pocket and lay them on the dresser while he napped.

The heavy key rings fell across Mrs. Beachcomber’s chest. She screamed. The rings had pinned her against the wooden dresser. Before long, her breath was crushed out.

Mr. Beachcomber stepped up from the bed. A scrim of blood and cloth seemed tangled in the key ring. He bent to investigate. There was his wife, the size of a quarter. Her limp, lifeless body.

Dead. Mrs. Beachcomber was dead. Though married to her fifty years, at that moment, looking at that tiny crushed body, Mr. Beachcomber thought he knew nothing about his wife. She was only Mrs. Beachcomber, a woman good at crossword puzzles, a simple and most ordinary thing.

On Writing: Is Writing Hard?


Susan Orlean, journalist and author of The Orchid Thief, once tweeted, “Writing is hard. Writing is hard. Writing is hard.”

I retweeted her. I felt a surge of empathy. Though I’m nowhere near the talent or accomplishment of Susan Orlean — she’s a goddess of great feature writing — as a writer I understood exactly what she felt.

Reading that tweet was also quietly reassuring: someone of her talent experienced difficulties with her writing. Probably at the time I saw the tweet, I was having difficulties with my own writing. Maybe I was trying to put together a marketing document, and trying to make sense of business jargon. Or maybe I was slamming a news story together on deadline. Or maybe I was trying to get imaginary people to come alive on the page in an imaginary world my brain had concocted. Or maybe I was just trying to compose a blog post, like I am now.

Whatever the circumstance — the writing situation, I suppose it’s called — I’m sure I got up from my chair (as I just did) at least 20 times after maybe, maybe writing a sentence. I might have paced halfway across my bedroom with a cup of lukewarm coffee in hand to gather my thoughts and come back to my chair and pecked out a few more words or even a phrase — possibly a complete sentence.

I know for sure that as I was composing this post, I topped off said coffee at least three times. That was much easier than keeping butt to chair and typing. I also consulted my AP Stylebook to see whether or not to capitalize “tweet” when referring to that thing you do on Twitter. You don’t, by the way, capitalize “tweet,” according to the AP Stylebook.

Why have I procrastinated like this? Because, well, writing is hard.

Or is it?

Within 30-45 minutes or so, I’ve written six short paragraphs. I didn’t suffer, I didn’t bleed. About the worst thing that happened was developing coffee breath, and since it’s just me and the cat at home, there’s nobody to offend with it.

But, there is a mythology that surrounds writing — that it takes blood, sweat and possibly tears with an unleashing of fears to do it. And, if you’re not suffering, you’re somehow doing it wrong. And, people, including professional writers, believe the myth.

In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark notes how common and pervasive the mythology has become.

“Americans do not write for many reasons,” he writes. “One big reason is the writer’s struggle. Too many writers talk and act as if writing were slow torture, a form of procreation without arousal and romance — all dilation and contraction, grunting and pushing.”

Building up that myth are writers themselves, as Clark notes, citing an oft-misattributed — usually to Hemingway (talk about the notion of suffering) — quote from New York sports writer Red Smith, “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

The struggle, Clark says “is overrated, a con game, a cognitive distortion, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the best excuse for not writing.”

In my marginal notes next to this sentence, I wrote, “I need to remember this. I think it’s all a matter of confidence.”

And, I think that’s what the real struggle is, it’s with fear, as Richard Rhodes says in his book How to Write, “Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do?”

Fear is the real struggle. It’s what holds me back. Those questions above nag me when I write, no matter the size of the project — a blog post, a feature article, a novel draft. Fear says, “No one is interested.” Fear says, “Have another cup of coffee. Eat a bowl of ice cream.” Fear says, “Why bother to write tonight? You’re tired from your day job. You need to rest. That next episode of ‘Bosch’ looks pretty good. Nobody will care. You won’t make a living at this.”

Fear talks me out of writing. Some days I’d rather do algebra, writing seems so hard. I’ll bet fear talks you out of it, too. I would bet Susan Orlean had some sort of nagging fear when she tweeted “Writing is hard”.

So, no, writing isn’t hard, though it does require hard work and perseverance to master the craft. Fear makes it hard. Fear is a variable in an equation that makes anything a zero sum game.

But, you have a right to write, as do I, Rhodes notes. Why?

“You’re a human being,” he writes, “with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle.”


Free Fiction Friday: About Jake

About Jake is the first science-fiction story I’ve ever published, though not the first science-fiction story I ever wrote. That story is out making rounds at the moment.

“About Jake” appeared online in Bewildering Stories No. 649.

About Jake

“Our baby has slipped into a coma.”

I stared at a stain on the waiting room floor.

“Van? Van! Did you even hear me?”

At the sound of Zelda’s voice, I snapped from my reverie, glanced up. My wife stood at the entrance of the nanosurgery ward like an apparition.

“Van? Are you all right?”

I shifted in the hard plastic dreamsicle-shaded chair. “What about Jake? What have you heard?”

“Baby, I just told you. He’s gone into a coma.”

“When?” I reached up to touch my wife’s arm.

She stepped back from me and looked down the hall. Her jawline was clear and taut, and her cheeks were sunken. A muscle twitched and rolled her lip up in a sneer.

“When,” she said without looking at me. “You’re asking how long he… he…” The words got caught in her mouth. She coughed and looked at the floor.

“How?” I said.

She didn’t say anything.

Bent over in the chair, with elbows denting thighs, I clasped the back of my head like a soldier surrendering and swallowed hard to force back tears.

“It was supposed to be a simple procedure,” I said to the tiles. “It wasn’t supposed to hurt him at all.”

This wasn’t what I wanted for my son. This wasn’t what I wanted for our family when I had agreed to surgery. I wanted a moment with him, just one, with whoever was locked inside his mind.

The surgeon had told us the procedure would be simple: a pinprick behind the ear with a microlaser, and then into the cut she would inject a swarm of biomimetic nanobots. These bots would find their way to Jake’s brain to reconnect misfiring neurons, the cause, it seemed, of any number of neurological disorders, including the type of autism that afflicted him.

My wife, her cheek pressed against the wall, reached out to touch the window. Her fingers splayed over it. She held her hand there for some time before gravity pulled her arm limply to her hip.

“Except everything was supposed to be perfect afterwards. Wasn’t it?” Zelda regarded me again. There was a barely perceptible streak in the mascara on her cheek where a tear escaped.

“It was, though. For a little while,” I said.

An hour after the surgery, Jake recognized us for the first time in his life; before, he had been unable to distinguish between minds separate from his own. I thought we had everything then.

“Mommy? Daddy?” His voice was powder-soft, but he looked at each of us in turn and smiled. Zelda and I embraced him and the two of us wept while Jake chattered our names and poked us both as he repeatedly identified us.

* * *

“So, what do we do now?” My wife turned away from me again and stared through the large picture window. “Just hold onto those memories? That will make everything all right? Is that how you see it, Van? For once, for a few minutes, you get to see your son as normal. That’s what makes you happy.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“That’s what this whole thing’s been about, Van. Making you happy.” She reached up and touched the window again.

“It was to make all of us happy, Zel. All three of us. You, me, Jake. All of us.”

She had her part in this decision, too. Van, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life babysitting him, she said. I want my career back.

She had left her job as a newscaster to have Jake. Any number of times she told me she was ready to go back to work.

It made sense. Jake was difficult at times, more than a normal kid. The unassailable tantrums when you moved a toy car out of its lineup. The inability to talk beyond simple sentences and mewling at age six. The costs of speech therapists, doctors, special schools, etc.

She told me more than once she wished Jake would disappear. I get it. I really do. I went through this. I think my parents wanted me to disappear. They “fixed” me, my low-spectrum Asperger’s. Gene mods, when gene mods were medicine’s cure-all.

I have the surgery scars in my abdomen to prove it. DNA from my dad’s gut neurons to alter mood and the tics in me that made me line my Hot Wheels up in perfect parades and throw tantrums when chaos came. Just like Jake. Only I could talk. And I was cured.

Six months after surgery, I showed no signs of Asperger’s. I passed fourth grade in “normal” classes. Became an ‘A’ student. Then a four-oh GPA all the way through an MBA. Five years out of school, an executive at a financial consulting firm. Instant success.

Except for Jake. Gene mods don’t change heredity, despite expectations. With Jake, I had failed. And now my son was suffering for it.

“You think Jake’s happy now?” Zelda said.

I stood up and started toward her. “Like you give a damn.”

Without looking at me, she flinched and walked away from the window to the end of the hall, where she disappeared through the two wide doors that led into Nanosurgery.

The shadow of a cloud moved past the window over me. I stood alone in the hallway staring at the doors as they shushed closed.

* * *

Zelda and I stood in the cramped room at Jake’s bedside. A ventilator pumped him air. His brain was rejecting the new neural connections.

We stood on either side of the bed holding his hands.

“See how normal this is, Van?” Zelda said. Her voice was toneless, as it had been earlier when she came out to tell me Jake had slipped into a coma. “This is your neuroscience miracle.”

She stroked Jake’s limp fingers.

“You don’t have to say anything,” I said. “Please don’t say anything.”

She stood across from me near the window, and couldn’t see what I did: a pink mix of blood and urine rivered through our son’s catheter and emptied into a plastic box at the foot of his bed. His kidneys were failing. He was dying.

I let go of his hand to ring the nurse.

The nurse came in and I turned to him and pointed at the almost full plastic box. “He’s dying. That means he’s dying, doesn’t it?”

The nurse placed his hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t you and your wife take a break? You both need some rest.”

* * *

Zelda left the room. I wanted to follow her, but stopped. It was clear by the way she shrugged away from me that she wanted to be alone. So, I left her alone.

I rode the elevator down to the first-floor cafeteria. It was dark and empty, except for the brightly lit snack bar. A woman stood behind the register, staring blankly past me into the hospital’s wide open lobby. I went up and asked her where the coffee was. She nodded at the urn behind me. I poured a cup, paid for it, and looked for a place to sit where it wasn’t too dark.

Above the table where I sat, a wall-mounted TV was playing an infovid about the signs of a stroke. I tried to follow it as I sipped my coffee, but all I could get through was the first bullet point:

Numbness or weakness in your face, arm or leg, especially on one side.

Then I lost my concentration. A surgeon in scrubs came in and also bought a coffee. The TV was playing several different programs on a continuous loop, each on a different disease and how to recognize symptoms. When I looked up from my coffee again, it had looped back to the stuff on strokes and the surgeon had left. I knew I had to get back. I dumped my coffee in the bin and waved to the woman at the register.

Upstairs, Jake’s nurse met me in the hallway.

“We just tried to get you on the PA,” he said.

Reflux burned up my esophagus. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“Jake. It’s about Jake. Something I can’t explain.”

He led me to Jake’s room. My wife was there. So was the surgeon. Something dropped inside me at the sight of them. I resisted the urge to go back out into the hallway. To run. To go have another cup of weak coffee in the cafeteria and wish it all away.

I thought my wife was smiling, even though her eyes were red-rimmed from crying.

They looked at me as if they wanted to yell “Surprise!” but Jake wasn’t getting up. He was lying stiffly on the bed, the ventilator rasping as it was before. Clearly, nothing had changed.

“Never seen anything like it,” Jake’s doctor said. “Totally unexpected results.”

I stood, puzzled. “It’s OK. You can tell me. He’s going to die. I know that.”

I looked at my son lying on the bed as if a corpse already. A shimmering, creamy gray tear oozed from the corner of his eye. I turned away and looked at the doctor.

The doctor pointed at the tear. “There, look. See. It’s happening again.”

Whatever the stuff was, it was no longer a teardrop. In a matter of seconds, it had transformed into a shiny film-like death mask over my son’s face. I grabbed the doctor’s shoulder. “Make it stop. It’ll kill him.”

“I can’t make it stop,” she said. “I don’t want to make it stop. And if I make it stop… that’s what will kill your son, Mr. Hogan.”

I let go of the doctor’s shoulder. The substance crawled over Jake’s neck. I couldn’t stand watching any more and tried to focus on my wife.

Zelda stood enrapt, her cheeks shining with tears, as if this moment were an altar call. I couldn’t help but think I saw her body sway. Then I closed my eyes, knowing that was the only way I could keep from staring at my son.

But I felt compelled to look at him. This stuff… it was encapsulating him. He was disappearing. Just like Zelda wanted.

I glared at my wife, then at the doctor. “Do something,” I said to the doctor. “Now.”

“I can’t,” she said.


“They’re protecting him.” This was my wife. Her voice startled me.

I gave her a look. “They?”

“Your little robots, Van.” She glanced at the doctor. “Could you explain to my husband what’s going on? What you said to me?”

“It’s pretty amazing,” the doctor said.

“Please just tell me,” I snapped. “The last I heard, the ’bots… his brain rejected them.”

As the stuff kept growing over Jake, the doctor explained what had happened: the ’bots were rejected, but not by Jake. By a tumor.

“A tumor? How in hell do you miss a tumor?”

“Van, please.” Zelda touched my arm. Childlike, I jerked away from her.

“This stuff,” the doctor continued, “it’s sort of making a chrysalis around Jake. It’s multiplying, growing inside and out, trying to isolate this tumor that’s lodged itself on Jake’s brain with tendrils. That’s what the CT Scan showed. At the same time… Well, we don’t know what the hell’s going on. In truth, as far as I can tell, we don’t really know what the ’bots are doing.”

“Jesus,” I said. “Then what? What do we do?”

The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know, Mr. Hogan. I really don’t know.”

The room filled with a buzz like a swarm of bees. Jake was covered by a luminous mass. I shuddered.

The luminous mass swirled like a tropical storm on a radar screen. Underneath it I could make out traces of my son’s body, his face, his mouth: his lips curled into what seemed a smile.

“So, is he dead?” I asked the doctor.

“All vitals are normal,” the doctor said.

I glanced around. Zelda stood entranced by something flitting about her mouth like dust motes.

Warmth radiated up my forearm. My body tingled as if jolted by a static charge.

Then Jake’s body shimmered as if caught in a staticky gold lamé wrap. This thing had consumed him. All that remained of my son was a pattern of energy.

“I was so wrong about this,” I said. “Wrong about it all. I should have let him live as he was.”

I’m here, Daddy. The voice was powder-soft. Where, exactly, it was coming from, I didn’t know, but it was Jake’s. It seemed to sift underneath the fading bleats of his heart monitor like the soft ring of a xylophone. Come with me. We can play.

I reached out for the voice and felt as if I was suspended between stars, a ribbon of consciousness touching two worlds.

I listened to Jake’s voice, a child’s voice. It drew me to him. Zelda listened, too. I reached for her hand. She took it without looking at me.

Jake was as he should be, whole, alive, and given a voice.

The ’bots formed around us as Zelda and I walked toward Jake, this new child, this new life. We seemed happy, a family, once again, stepping from one world to something new and wondrous.