How to Read The New Yorker

6 May


Step 1: Look at the cover

Isn’t it pretty?

A quaint watercolor painting of moneyed urbanites enjoying cappuccinos at a sidewalk cafe. You can almost smell the fresh-baked croissants.

See, The New Yorker doesn’t just slap a photo of some obscure, insanely villainous world leader on the front cover, and call it a day. The New Yorker commissions artists to create original content for its distinctly milquetoast covers, week after week. They’ve been doing it for a century.

I assume, but have not confirmed, that these artists are paid actual legal tender for their services — up to and including one hundred U.S. dollars!

Step 2: Skim for cartoons

The best part of The New Yorker, as everyone knows, is the cartoons. They’re pretty great!

Here, for instance, is a cartoon from The New Yorker’s most recent issue:

New Yorker cartoon

“I don’t know. It’s like it’s too quiet after we sacrifice a politician.”


But not all New Yorker cartoons are as expertly rendered (or vaguely racist). Some of them, if we’re to be honest, are about as sophisticated as cave drawings. How and why these cartoonists are selected for publication — when roughly nine-tenths of New York City’s population (all figures estimated) is comprised of wildly talented cartoonists — is just one of The New Yorker’s many beautiful mysteries.

Step 3: Look at the Table of Contents

First page, motherfucker!

Unlike basically every other magazine on the planet, The New Yorker doesn’t make you sift through six hundred pages of perfume and jewelry ads, just to figure out what the fuck is inside that week’s issue. The New Yorker’s Table of Contents is on the very first goddamn page, every goddamn time.

That’s The New Yorker’s promise to you.

Step 4: Browse “The Talk of the Town”

These are short, breezy, weirdly focused, slice-of-life vignettes about various NYC characters: bored heiresses, taxi drivers, cocaine dealers, art gallery owners, and other low-level criminals. Read a few that appeal to you, until you’re sufficiently bored. Proceed to Step 5.

Step 5: Read “Shouts & Murmurs”

A “humorous” one- or two-page pastiche that is not nearly as funny or as witty as what you will find (for free) over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency or Barrelhouse’s Stupid Idea Junk Drawer. Sometimes it’s written by Steve Martin, or Woody Allen, or another faded comic visionary who stopped trying forty years ago.

Step 6: Read “Briefly Noted”

You’ll have to skip towards the end of the magazine, to a section called “The Critics,” for this. Here you’ll find a list of four newly-released books appealing to some incredibly narrowly-defined niche interest … followed by a few sentences of passive-aggressive, backhanded praise, inspiring you to earmark them in your Goodreads “Want to Read” e-shelf. (Spoiler: You will not actually read them.)

Step 7: Read some fucking poems

Daily life provides precious few opportunities to enjoy some truly off-the-wall poetry — so here’s your chance to fill that cultural void. Usually there are two poems — one by Anne Carson; and another by some random, world-famous poet whom you’ve never heard of.

You’re not really supposed to “enjoy” the poem; in fact, the poem may even frustrate and enrage you. Feel that burning sensation behind your eyeballs, where your ocular nerves meet your forebrain? That means the poem is working!

Step 8: Ignore the fiction

If you are a writer of fiction, such as myself, you may be tempted to consume The New Yorker’s short fiction — prime facie — as a kind of obligation. This is a mistake. Fiction is just one of several things The New Yorker does sorta-well. It’s no better — and is often worse — than the rest of its longform fare.

If you’re looking to be “turned on” to a fresh, emerging young voice in American letters — think again! The New Yorker uses a revolving stable of inexplicably famous authors — guys like Martin Amis, Don Delillo, T.C. Boyle; and gals like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates — to populate the middle section of the magazine. (If, on the other hand, the story is written by one of your favorite authors — someone who actually bothers to tell you a coherent, suspenseful story, like Rachel Kushner, Amelia Gray, or Stephen King — then go ahead and dive right in. It’s Stephen King, y’all!)

Point is, you don’t have to read the short story to be a “good” New Yorker reader. (Indeed, the truly enlightened New Yorker reader only messes with the fiction if there is a compelling reason to do so — such as, some guy you went to business school with somehow managed to con Deborah Treisman into publishing his story, and you really need that hate juice to fuel your own sad and pointless and flailingly unsuccessful artistic enterprise.)

Step 9: Pick ONE long article to read

Myself, I’m partial to New Yorker profiles. They’re the tits! I have read thousands of New Yorker profiles, and not one of them has been bad. The best New Yorker profile ever written is probably Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” from 1943 … but they all sort of follow that same New Journalism model, taking as their subject a person you admire, and gradually making you feel sad that person exists.

But maybe you’re more interested in foreign affairs, in the petty machinations of brutal warmongers from “across the pond.” In that case, the “Letter From [insert sand-swept hellhole here]” series might be your bag!

Or, you may be a sports-watching kind of guy (or gal), in which case, proceed directly to “Annals of Sport,” and learn about the rise and fall of Canada’s all-time great curling champion (or whatever).

It’s your movie, man!

But — and I cannot stress this enough — you only get ONE. So choose wisely. Because, as we shall see in Step 10

Step 10: Throw out the magazine

“But,” you are no doubt saying, “this magazine has been so lovingly, ably produced, I think I should like to read ALL of it, from cover to cover.”

Well, I invite you to go ahead and try it, you dangerous psycho. But I guarantee that a very specific sequence of events will follow:

While you’re dicking around with the rest of The New Yorker’s LONG ASS features, the next issue of The New Yorker will drop through your mail slot. You’ll set that issue aside, fully intending to read it in due time … and before you know it, another issue will pour into your house — SPLAT! — and the issues will just keep accumulating — on your nightstand, on your coffee table; in weird places like inside your coat pockets and behind your cat’s litter box — and become a real fire hazard.

You will feel like a failure, a charlatan, and a hoarder. Trust me on this.

The proper way to read The New Yorker is to accept that you will not be able to read the whole thing before the next one arrives — and that’s okay! Don’t beat yourself up about it! Strong as it may be, RESIST the temptation — which, in my experience, stems from some misplaced sense of literary do-goodism — to read The New Yorker in its entirety. It can be done, sure — but if you’re a normal, barely-functioning white guy (such as myself), you will find that there are bills that need to be paid, and food that must be prepared and consumed, and small, domesticated animals that need to be dressed up in costumes and photographed and posted to your Instagram, for all the world to marvel at.

All kidding aside, the point of The New Yorker is to act as a supplement, or surrogate, for whatever half-finished book you’ve been studiously avoiding — like that thousand-page biography of Andrew Jackson you were roped into buying — or any number of obtuse, doddering John Updike novels that some coked-up editor saw fit to publish, back in the Seventies.

To recap: Cover, cartoons, Table of Contents, short features, no fiction (unless you really wanna), poems, ONE LONG ARTICLE, wastebasket.

This is your formula for successfully consuming the world’s finest literary periodical. (You’re welcome.)

Or you could just be a Harper’s guy … but that’s a whole different can of worms.

Related: Top Hats and Monocles




Teacher’s Pet

15 Mar


In every classroom I have ever been in, there have been two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Type 1 was the kid who always had to hand in everything first. Whether it was a homework assignment, or a test — this student made sure she was the first to complete her work, believing this signaled to the teacher (and to the rest of the class) that she was the most prepared for the task at hand; that she could breeze through the material like it was second nature; that she was so confident in her studying habits and her natural intelligence that she didn’t even need to check her work.

Type 2 was the kid who always checked his work. This student was often among the last to hand in his test — but not because he was unprepared, or rushing to finish the last few questions. Often, this student was actually the first to finish the test; he just didn’t see the point in running up to the front of the class to slap his bluebook on the teacher’s desk, just to be first across the finish line. To this student, it seemed evident that a certain amount of time had been allocated for the task, and that no bonus points were to be given for using the least amount of that time. At the end of the day, the only metric for academic success was how many questions you answered correctly.

Both types of student were — unfailingly — straight “A” students, academic rock stars. Successful at the game of grades. They just had different ways of going about their success.

*  *  *

I was never a very good student. Neither the first to hand in his paper, nor the one who was furiously scribbling as the clock wound down — I was somewhere in the upper-bottom half of the academic bell curve. Mediocre. Above-average intelligence, yet always falling just short of the level of which I was capable.

This confused and frustrated me, but it absolutely drove my parents nuts. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t keeping up with the other “smart” kids in my class. Was I lazy? Spiteful? Easily distracted? Was I myself a disruption to the class? They would rake over my report card for “clues” to my poor performance, and demand to know what the problem was.

I had no answers. It wasn’t like I was some dumb kid. I didn’t have dyslexia, or A.D.D. I was a precocious reader, who devoured Mark Twain and Conan Doyle; by the time I was 12, I’d read pretty much every Sherlock Holmes and Tom Sawyer story. I was the kid who was reading The New Yorker under some tree while the other kids were playing street hockey. By the end of summer vacation, I actually craved the structure of school, and looked forward to going back. I loved reading, and drawing, and learning—

And school supplies! Every year, it was the same giddy routine: I’d go with my mom to the five-and-dime and fill up a shopping basket with spiral notebooks, looseleaf paper, legal pads; packs of markers and mechanical pencils; “wild-card” items like rulers and protractors; and of course, Trapper Keepers. (The trick was obtaining a Trapper Keeper with a suitably colorful and weirdly psychedelic design, preferably one that broadcast your unique personality to the rest of the class.)

With these gleaming new supplies came the promise of Academic Accomplishment — of being a good student, a good son. Yes, I was going to get it right this year; I was going to get organized; I was going to be the kid who handed his work in early; I was going to hit the books, pound the pavement, keep my eyes on the prize, and bring home First Honors.

But then the school year started, and … well, things happened. The plan fell through; the wheels spun off of the machine. I never could get organized. The binders I’d lovingly labeled, the spaces I’d allocated for each subject, went increasingly unused; my homework assignments and handouts never quite found their way into the proper folders and partitions. I was the kind of student who was always scrambling to find my papers, crumpled and torn, and sometimes soggy, in the bottom of my bookbag. If I could find them at all.

As the year progressed, and I fell further and further behind, it became a matter of academic survival, of wheezing to the finish line. By the end of the year, my parents were relieved if I simply passed all my classes. They rarely even looked at my final report card — just wanted to know if I was being left back. Another summer; another plan to get better. I never did figure it out.

*  *  *

I mention all of this because it’s once again story submitting season, and I’m reminded of all the little ways I underachieved in school. My failure to take encouragement, and criticism, in equal stride; my lifelong inability to get organized. You see, I want to have a system in which I wake up early, make a pot of coffee, sit down at my desk, and use some sort of spreadsheet software to track my submissions, and keep a log of editors’ responses, capitalizing on occasional words of encouragement. But my brain just isn’t wired that way, and no dosage of caffeine or nicotine or ginseng or Aderrall will reprogram me into either of the two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Believe me, I’ve tried.

*  *  *

This rejection slip from Yemassee offers several “clues” for successfully placing your work in the journal. You can be persistent — submit and submit and submit. You can read the damn magazine (this is what I would suggest) or order a sample copy, if you’re a cheapskate. At the very least, you can look at the writing they feature on their website, and maybe even address your cover letter to the appropriate editor. You can keep your ear to the ground and enter a contest, when one pops up. These are things a successful writer would (and should) do.

But that sort of success seems academic to me. It’s padding for your transcript; a showy, falsely-earned thing; a feather in your fedora. I would actually advise against submitting work to any magazine you don’t read at least semi-regularly. It’s bad form — and possibly bad karma. Worse: it never works.

My point is that it makes no sense to want to place your work in a magazine you’ve never read; to strive for membership in a group you know nothing about. It’s like the kid who scrutinizes the test’s instructions for five whole minutes, looking for some performative edge; who writes a long essay where a short answer will do, leaving no stone unturned, and gets the “A” through sheer force of diligence and drive. Or the girl who turns her work in as early as possible, to earn brownie points from a teacher who is hungover and couldn’t care less. In the end, no one cares about past publications, the editors you’ve worked with, your pedigree — they just want to be knocked out by your writing. (Even George Saunders, I’m pretty sure, has his trunk stories rejected from the big markets, from time to time.)

I also no longer submit stories simply on the virtue of my having completed them — or because they crossed the finish line under a certain word count. There are stories I “finished” ten years ago that still aren’t finished. There are stories I’m really proud of, but are nevertheless imperfect, or structurally fucked — and which I have no interest in un-fucking. Stories I want to salvage but simply can’t. There are stories I’m quite pleased with, but that don’t belong in either academic journals or commercial magazines — that occupy that awkward space between genre and literary — the kind of stuff Saunders and Kelly Link and Dan Chaon write. Stuff that might never find the “right” audience. And that’s okay. Who cares? Maybe I’ll self-publish those stories, or post them to Medium. Maybe I’ll print them out and give them to friends, when the mood strikes me, or leave them in coffee shops for punks and hobos to find. Or maybe they’ll just live on my hard drive until a tree falls on my car while I’m driving to work and my laptop is donated to some underfunded school district and a kid with peanut butter in his teeth pulls one up at random and thinks: “I can do better than this.” Maybe I’ll win a posthumous O. Henry Award. You never can plan these things, can you?

The Donald Trump Fairytale

10 Mar


I’m basically unemployed now, and so I spend a lot of time reading on the couch with my cat.

One day my girlfriend came home from work with some old, dusty books in a bag. She had stopped at the Salvation Army to browse for the usual fare — busted furniture, costume jewelry, knickknacks for our puppet shows — and had found a complete set of Journeys Through Bookland, a collection of children’s stories from 1909.

I have always loved rare books — particularly antique children’s books. Fairy tales, L. Frank Baum stories, illustrated copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Pinocchio Under the Sea — these things excite me. (I am, after all, a strange man, who no longer drinks.)

So when my girlfriend told me she’d only had enough money to get the first three books in the set, and needed forty more dollars to go grab the rest, I gave her the money immediately.

The first book was beat to hell, but the rest of them were in pretty good condition; in fact, it seemed as if whatever spoiled runt who had once owned these books had gotten incrementally bored with the collection, or else had simply outgrown them. The last four volumes — ten in all — were in nearly mint condition.

I made a pot of coffee, started leafing through the collection — and soon made a fascinating discovery.

Midway through Volume II of Journeys Through Bookland was a version of “The Golden Touch,” written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The similarities between this classic tale and the rise of Donald Trump as a politician were almost cosmically striking.


The story begins:

Once upon a time there lived a very rich man, and a king besides, whose name was Midas …

This King Midas was fonder of gold than of anything else in the world. He valued his royal crown chiefly because it was composed of that precious metal. If he loved anything better or half so well, it was the one little maiden who played so merrily around her father’s footstool. But the more Midas loved his daughter, the more did he desire and seek for wealth.

Right off the bat, we get a STRONG whiff of Trump. The love of riches and gold; the obsession with his own daughter; his trademark “royal crown” — could that be his glorious, blow-dried red mane?

Also: In Hawthorne’s version of the fable, King Midas’s daughter’s name is “Marygold.” An unusual, made-up name — just like “Ivanka.”

When little Marygold ran to meet him with a bunch of buttercups and dandelions, he used to say, “Pooh, pooh, child! If these flowers were as golden as they look, they would be worth the plucking!”

What a total asshole. His little girl brings him flowers, and all Midas can do is denigrate her for wasting her time, for failing to bring him gold — literally calling the gift shit.

At length (as people always grow more and more foolish unless they take care to grow wiser and wiser) Midas had got to be so exceedingly unreasonable that he could scarcely bear to see or touch any object that was not gold.

This sentence has “Donald Trump” written all over it. Not the insane desire for riches — no, that is to be expected. I’m speaking of the part about necessarily growing more foolish, in the absence of actively acquiring wisdom and knowledge.

Trump, like Midas, has become almost aggressively stupid as the direct result of his lack of curiosity about the world around him — a problem exacerbated by his complete faith in his own remarkably poor judgement. Vaccinated against the disease of doubt, you might say.

Midas called himself a happy man, but felt that he was not yet quite so happy as he might be. The very tip-top of enjoyment would never be reached unless the whole world were to become his treasure-room and be filled with yellow metal which should be all his own.

Here we get to the meat and potatoes of Trump’s decision to run for President: to make the whole world his “treasure-room.” Psychologically, the kind of person who enters politics to “give something back” is also the kind of person who is humbled by the opportunity to get obscenely rich; indebted to the nation that made his wealth possible. But we get none of this from Trump (or, for that matter, from Midas). In fact, we get quite the opposite.

In those days, when the earth was comparatively a new affair, it was supposed to be often the resort of beings endowed with supernatural powers, who used to interest themselves in the joys and sorrows of men, women, and children half playfully and half seriously.

What Hawthorne is setting up here, in his own clumsy, flowery way, is that Midas is about to get a visit from a heavenly creature — in some versions, a ghost; in others, an angel. Hawthorne opts, in his telling of the story, for a more secular angle, calling the being a “stranger.”

The stranger gazed about the room, and when his lustrous smile had glistened upon all the golden objects that were there, he turned again to Midas.

“You are a wealthy man, friend Midas,” he observed. “I doubt whether any other four walls on earth contain so much gold as you have contrived to pile up in this room.”

“I have done pretty well — pretty well,” answered Midas in a discontented tone.

My God, he even talks like Donald Trump.

At last a bright idea occurred to King Midas. It seemed really as bright as the glistening metal which he loved so much.

How perfect. He’s about to make the worst decision of his life, and in his mind, it actually glows gold.

“The Golden Touch!” exclaimed [the stranger]. “You certainly deserve credit, friend Midas, for striking out so brilliant a conception. But are you quite sure that this will satisfy you?”

“How could it fail?” said Midas.

“And will you never regret the possession of it?”

“What could induce me?” asked Midas.

More arrogance from Midas. His terrible idea cannot fail — simply because it is his idea.

Note the stranger’s impish appeal to Midas’s vanity, the way he baits him with flattery. He is really fucking with the guy.

Whether Midas slept as usual that night the story does not say. Asleep or awake, however, his mind was probably in the state of a child’s to whom a beautiful new plaything has been promised in the morning.

The stranger has literally conferred upon Midas magical goddamn powers, and yet, to Midas, they are no more than a “plaything.” Hmmm…

Looking more closely, what was his astonishment and delight when he found that this linen fabric had been transmuted to what seemed a woven texture of the purest and brightest gold! The Golden Touch had come to him with the first sunbeam!

Oh, so he turned his bedsheets to gold, merely by sleeping between them. Huh.

What follows is a sequence of gold-oriented mishaps straight out of a Billy Wilder screwball comedy. Among the things Midas inadvertently turns to gold, simply by walking from his bedroom to the breakfast table: the bedposts, the window-curtains, a book, his robe, a handkerchief his daughter had given him, the balustrade to his staircase, a door latch — and all the flowers in his daughter’s garden.

At last Midas puts on his glasses, to gaze upon the golden aftermath of his clown act; but, of course, the glasses turn to solid gold. Whoopsies!

It struck Midas as rather inconvenient that, with all his wealth, he could never again be rich enough to own a pair of serviceable spectacles.

“It is no great matter, nevertheless,” said he to himself, very philosophically. “We cannot expect any great good without its being accompanied with some small inconvenience. The Golden Touch is worth the sacrifice of a pair of spectacles at least, if not of one’s very eyesight.”

Just listen to what this crazy bastard is saying. Midas is actually suggesting he would rather go about as a blind man than lose the agency to have his wealth balloon exponentially. (Just as Trump would probably rather gouge out his own eyeballs than only be kinda-sorta rich. Regular rich — like the Bushes.)

This next passage is not really relevant to the Midas-as-Trump theme; I include it only because it is a rare example of Hawthorne trying to be funny:

What was usually a king’s breakfast in the days of Midas I really do not know and cannot stop to investigate. To the best of my belief, however, on this particular morning the breakfast consisted of hot cakes, some nice little brook trout, roasted potatoes, fresh boiled eggs, and coffee for King Midas himself, and a bowl of bread and milk for his daughter Marygold.

That is some dry-ass humor.

Anyway, you can guess where this scene is heading. More screwball comedy: Midas puts a hunk of bread in his mouth, and it turns into a solid gold nugget. He can’t chew it. One can’t eat gold! He sips his coffee — and it turns to molten gold, burning his tongue. Ouch!

This is what passed for wild humor in 1909. I suppose it is better than Disney fart jokes.

To do Midas justice, he really loved his daughter, and loved her so much the more this morning on account of the good fortune which had befallen him.

You know who else really loves his daughter? This guy:


Now that you’ve irrigated your eyes with bleach … back to the story:

It was not a great while before he heard her coming along the passageway crying bitterly. This circumstance surprised him, because Marygold was one of the cheerfulest little people whom you would see in a summer’s day, and hardly shed a thimbleful of tears in a twelvemonth.

She’s pissed about the flowers, you imbecile! A whole garden of flowers you senselessly transformed into little metal statues. The same flowers you chided her for plucking, because they weren’t made of fucking gold. (As a former English major, I can tell you that this is called: foreshadowing.)

(Also, Hawthorne could really use an editor. “Cheerfulest,” “thimbleful,” “twelvemonth” … these are not real words, man.)

When Midas heard her sobs he determined to put little Marygold into better spirits by an agreeable surprise; so, leaning across the table, he touched his daughter’s bowl (which was a china one with pretty figures all around it) and transmuted it to gleaming gold.

What a fucking moron.

“Ah, dear father!” answered the child, as well as her sobs would let her, “it is not beautiful, but the ugliest flower that ever grew. As soon as I was dressed I ran into the garden to gather some roses for you, because I know you like them, and like them the better when gathered by your little daughter. But — oh dear! dear me! — what do you think has happened? Such a misfortune! All the beautiful roses, that smelled so sweetly and had so many lovely blushes, are blighted and spoiled! They are grown quite yellow, as you see this one, and have no longer any fragrance. What can be the matter with them?”

“Pooh, my dear little girl! pray don’t cry about it!” said Midas, who was ashamed to confess that he himself had wrought the change which so greatly afflicted her. “Sit down and eat your bread and milk. You will find it easy enough to exchange a golden rose like that, which will last hundreds of years, for an ordinary one, which would wither in a day.”

This is the first (and only) intelligent thing Midas says in the entire story.

“I don’t care for such roses as this!” cried Marygold, tossing it contemptuously away. “It has no smell, and the hard petals prick my nose.

Starting to think this girl is retarded. (Not a judgment on Ivanka.)

Perhaps this was all the better, for Marygold was accustomed to take pleasure in looking at the queer figures and strange trees and houses that were painted on the circumference of the bowl, and these ornaments were now entirely lost in the yellow hue of the metal.

Yep — definitely retarded.

“I don’t quite see,” thought [Midas] to himself, “how I am to get any breakfast.”

A family of geniuses, this one.

And truly, my dear little folks, did you ever hear of such a pitiable case in all your lives?

Certainly not.

Here was literally the richest breakfast that could be set before a king, and its very richness made it absolutely good for nothing.

That is quite an astute (albeit much belabored) point, Hawthorne.

The poorest laborer sitting down to his crust of bread and cup of water was far better off than King Midas, whose delicate food was really worth its weight in gold.

During one of Trump’s many bankruptcies, he is rumored to have been walking with Ivanka down Fifth Avenue, when he saw a homeless man rattling a cup. He turned to his daughter and said: “Right now, that guy is worth eight billion dollars more than me.” True story! (Note: this story is almost certainly not true.)

Then, with a sweet and sorrowful impulse to comfort him, [Marygold] started from her chair, and, running to Midas, threw her arms affectionately about his knees.

Oh, Jesus.

He bent down and kissed her.


The victim of his insatiable desire for wealth, little Marygold was a human child no longer, but a golden statue!

Didn’t see that one coming.

Yes, there she was, with the questioning look of love, grief, and pity hardened into her face. It was the prettiest and most woeful sight that ever mortal saw.

The blank, beautiful stare of an ex-model — definitely getting an Ivanka vibe here.

It had been a favorite phrase of Midas, whenever he felt particularly fond of the child, to say that she was worth her weight in gold. And now the phrase had become literally true.

Had I produced this kind of writing in my junior-year Creative Writing class, my professor would have brained me with a chair leg.

It would be too sad a story if I were to tell you how Midas, in the fullness of all his gratified desires, began to wring his hands and bemoan himself, and how he could neither bear to look at Marygold, nor yet to look away from her.

No, no, by all means go with that ending. I like that ending. Fuck these people.

While he was in this tumult of despair he suddenly beheld a stranger standing near the door.

Oh great, this guy again.

“Ah! so you have made a discovery since yesterday?” observed the stranger. “Let us see, then. Which of these two things do you think is really worth the most — the gift of the Golden Touch, or one cup of clear, cold water?”

“Oh, blessed water!” exclaimed Midas.“It will never moisten my parched throat again.”

“The Golden Touch,” continued the stranger,“or a crust of bread?”

“A piece of bread,” answered Midas,“is worth all the gold on earth.”

“The Golden Touch,” asked the stranger,“or your own little Marygold, warm, soft, and loving, as she was an hour ago?”

“Oh, my child, my dear child!” cried poor Midas, wringing his hands.

You’re not gonna believe this, but the stranger offers to reverse the curse of the Golden Touch if Midas can prove that his heart is pure and true. He does this by openly weeping at the demon’s cloven feet. Impressed, the demon says:

“But you appear to be still capable of understanding that the commonest things, such as lie within everybody’s grasp, are more valuable than the riches which so many mortals sigh and struggle after.”

Talk about a golden parachute! (I’ll see myself out.)

What follows is some nonsense about Midas going out to a stream with a clay pot, and bathing in the water, thus purifying himself. He is told to fill the pot with water from the stream, and to sprinkle the water over all of his gold, turning his gold to rocks. As he does this, all of the objects he’d turned to gold that morning — including his daughter — are returned to their previous state.

The story ends with Midas bouncing his grandkids on his lap, many years later, noting the golden color of their hair and saying:

“And to tell you the truth, my precious little folks … ever since that morning I have hated the very sight of all other gold save this.”


That’s a nice moral. I am not even being facetious.

But I doubt things will work out nearly as well for Trump (or for us) as they did for old King Midas. The man seems utterly disdainful of the “commonest things,” incapable of producing a single thought unshaded by the ruthless acquisition of power and wealth. Save the intervention of some heavenly apparition, it looks as if Trump will almost certainly win the Republican nomination for President, and keep failing upwards, keep spinning bullshit into gold. It may well be that he restores our reputation as a global economic beacon, and builds his dreaded, steel-plated, barbed-wire-laced Wall … but you may be surprised to find — as Hawthorne once knew — that what glistens under the Sun does not always signify wealth, and that the flowers of our democracy have transformed as those in Marygold’s garden — shining but ugly, with thorns that prick your nose.


Suggested Post: The James Patterson Writing MasterClass

21 Jul

^^^This “suggested post” has been popping up on my Facebook newsfeed for the past few weeks. As you can see, it’s an advertisement for a writing “MasterClass” taught by one James Patterson, author of some 147 novels, none of which you have read.

Who is James Patterson? Well, I am glad you asked. Surely you’ve seen his slender glossy novels lining the shelves of your favorite big-box superstore and thought: “That right there looks terrible.” And also: “Boy, that guy must be rich as nuts.”

Indeed, according to Wikipedia, “his novels have sold more copies than those of Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined.” That’s a lot of duckets!

Whatever bots Mark Zuckerberg has at his disposal have apparently scoured my internet searching habits and, in an attempt to advertise at me, reduced them to my three primary interests: books, vodka, and celebrity culture. Surprisingly accurate! What a world we live in.

Thus, the James Patterson Writing MasterClass. The comments section to the Facebook ad is a veritable who’s-who of internet yahoos. It consists almost entirely of five distinct groups. In descending order of representation, they are:

  • People who fucking LOVE James Patterson (overwhelming majority)
  • People who can’t scrape together the $90 fee to take the class … but really want to
  • People who seem to think they are talking directly to James Patterson (subset of first group)
  • Trolls who would like to remind you that James Patterson employs a ghost writer for most, if not all, of his books
  • Garden-variety crazies

A sampling of comments:

Should the objective be writing a best seller? How about an imaginative, well constructed, well written, stimulating, well researched, engaging book?

Hey, can we not?

Is it okay if I skip the class and just write purely for the sake of art and not the pursuit of millions in the bank?

That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.

He is one of the worst writers.

No fucking way I will take your class.

Step one: don’t actually write it yourself

This is my favorite author of all time!

super cool to see this offer. I’m inspired!

^^^This person is inspired to write — just from seeing the offer!

I wish I could express the thoughts/plots in my head on paper.

for some eason, I ws always told i should write i always thought about novels but never cookbooks ,just nrver could decide on what so i didn’t dumb

^^^This person graduated cum laude from the James Patterson Writing MasterClass.

Your awesome James Patterson!!!!!

Five exclamation points.

There isn’t anything I’d like to do any more than this!


Thought about signing up. But I don’t feel comfortable taking classes from someone who doesn’t write his books. I’ve done research and yup … He doesn’t write his books.

Hey there, Internet Inspector Poirot, I’ve got news for you: Not only does James Patterson not write his own books … he probably doesn’t even teach his own fucking class!

James Patterson is financially enlightened.

Can someone take his class in the fall? Does it have a time limit when you can enroll?

It’s a craven money grab, not an accredited college course, dipshit. YOU ARE NOT MATRICULATING.

I appreciate that, Sir, but I got to find my own voice. Thanks, though.

I wish I had the guts to try the course!

You must write the best outlines ever for all those people to help you write those books !

Awesome backhanded compliment. I actually “liked” this comment.

you know i only read your books but i can only read when I’m on a cruise. can you pay for me to go on another three week cruise to whereever so i can read the 4 books i have from you? lol I could read in the car but i always have to drive.

^^^This person is like a breath of Spring blowing up from the south on an otherwise cold winter’s day.

love his books i have almost all of them !

(Personal note: When sending a text message, I often do the same thing with my exclamation points. For some reason, they never quite look right in the iPhone speech bubble, sitting there right next to the last letter of the last word of my poorly socially timed, albeit emphatic declaration, all skinny and creepy and shit. End of side note.)

what’s it cost?

Ninety U.S. dollars.

May I have a scholarship?

Doubt it.

Sounds good to me.




I need to take this class! I am living a nightmare of a true crime story that needs to be told. Stalking by twin brother predators, double homicides, wrongful arrest, brain injury, 9 years and still fighting for justice. Florida Politics. I believe the only way I will get help is to write it since media is also controlled! I did create a FB page about it, the murders and wrongful arrest was aired on MSNBC that part of it is on youtube. I understand it is tough to do the true story but wow are there many ‘names’ to this story which is why I am not getting any help despite children who should be protected and predators with a history of violence.

Holy shit, man. Someone get this person a Kickstarter. “Twin brother predators.” “Florida Politics.” BRAIN INJURY. I actually went to this person’s YouTube page. She is not joking. Just … holy shit.

If these are the people one meets upon taking the James Patterson Writing MasterClass, then sign me right the fuck up. These are the people I must reach with my writing. These are My People.

And James Patterson is my high holy messiah. James Patterson has hacked the writing code with black magic and “old man monkey strength.” James Patterson’s pen is a machete he uses to slice through the Amazonian bookselling trade like so much nasty ragweed. Long live James Patterson and his ubiquitous, execrable books. I wish I could give him all of my money.

(Cross-posted at my Kinja blog)

Screaming Demons

11 Mar
"a murder" 11x14  acrylic on canvas

“a murder” 11×14 acrylic on canvas

*  *  *

“Since it seems my mission for the day is to waste your time while you feed the men, I might as well tell you about the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me.

“Twelve years ago I was living in Pittsburgh, working odd jobs, just Kerouac-ing around. I was what you might call a ‘jack of all trades.’ But most people — including myself — would probably just call me a junkie.

“I knew all the street people within a twelve-block radius of my crash pad in South Side — most of them were gutter punks, kids from the suburbs — ‘spangers,’ we used to call them — but I also knew all the real street people, people like the Red Hat Lady and Tank Boy and Vinnie the Vet, people with nowhere to go, nothing to do but stand on bridges and scream their demons out into the shapeless grey sky.

“We used to have a soup kitchen on Forbes, just below the 10th Street Bridge, but the churchies complained about the urine on the sidewalk and had the place killed. Shut down the abortion clinic on Penn Ave. too. Gotta love these ‘new Christians.’ Can’t feed a man in the street, but they sure can tell you what to do with your baby cave.

“So one day I’m coming back to my flat with a cup of coffee and I see this woman sitting on my stoop, an old skunk of a woman with black hair down to her feet and a thick stripe of white down the middle. I’d never seen her before. She had a bad stutter. ‘D-d-d-d-do you h-h-have any p-p-p-pennies?’ she said. Now, I knew I didn’t have any change on me. But I had some paper in my pocket. I took out a five-dollar-bill and stuffed it in the old woman’s dress. ‘Here’s five dollars,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup. It’s going to get pretty cold out tonight.’

“It took her a few seconds to register what was happening. ‘Th-th-th-thank y-y-y-you, th-th-th …’ she started to say, and I made a little wave and turned to enter my apartment; and just as I put the key in the lock, I heard, clearly, these three words: ‘Thank you, Johnny.’

“I heard it clear as anything. The stutter was gone, but there was something else, too. It wasn’t the same voice. It had a deeper register, there was this creepy certainty to it. I turned around to face her. The cataracts had cleared from her eyes. She was looking right at me. And she said it again, in that same lucid voice: ‘Thank … you … Johnny.’

“It was my mother. It was my mother. My goddamn dead mother was speaking to me through this homeless woman who’d appeared on my doorstep out of the blue, and suddenly I was sure of it. The old woman shambled off down the street, but I didn’t go into my building — not then.

“Instead, I took what was left of my coffee and walked twelve blocks — that’s how long it took me to shake off this feeling of dread. And during that mile-long hike through the rougher parts of the city, I tried to reconcile what had just happened with my sense of reason, to make sense of it within the context of objective reality. And what I came up with, in the end, was that the woman had said, ‘Thank you, honey,’ and I’d simply misheard her. Sound travels in funny ways through the fog of human perception, and when you factor in all the interference from microwaves and radio towers and cell phone signals, when you think about all those poor, confused birds and their erratic flight patterns, all the aborted thoughts and miscarried prayers that are floating around up there, taking all of this into account, it’s a wonder we are able to communicate with each other at all.

“Maybe I did hear her right. Johnny’s a pretty common name; maybe she called everyone Johnny. But that doesn’t explain the cleared-up cataracts … or how she lost the stutter … or why her voice changed

“You know, this other time back in Pittsburgh, I’m at this party tripping on acid and I couldn’t handle it and I went into the basement to drink a beer and be alone. And as I’m sipping on my beer, the basement door opens, and two feet start coming down the stairs. Boots. Patent leather. Laces all the way up the side. And I think to myself: ‘Those are the devil’s shoes …’ And just as I completed the thought, literally as I thought the word shoes, the two feet turned and trotted right back up the stairs. As if the person who was wearing the shoes had heard me. Which of course was impossible, as I hadn’t actually said anything. And when I went back up to the party there were squatters and buskers and spangers and junkies and all manner of pipefitting riffraff, but no one with shoes matching the ones I’d seen clomping down those squealing wooden steps. Not even close, bub.

“I’ve heard it said that every horrible and charitable thing you’ve ever done in your life, you’ve done it to yourself. I don’t really think that is true, but sometimes, when I’m within shouting distance of sober, I can see it.

“But then it goes away. Nothing lasts forever, I guess.

“Thank you for the soup.”


A Hallowe’en Poem

28 Oct

long road_charcoal

The Preacher of Pumpkin Patch Lane

by Martin Slag

 *  *  *

The Preacher of Pumpkin Patch Lane had terrible things on his brain.

In a town just a few miles south of obscure
Between Sandalwood Beach and Blueberry Shore
And also in the middle
of Nothing

There was a clearing in the forest
Surrounded by foxglove and stone
And a pumpkin patch
The land made fertile by a nearby bog
Scorched in the shape of an oval
From a U.F.O. landing some hundred years back

Where under a Hunter’s Moon
And floodlights with batteries as big as barns

Through clean black air and rustling vineyards
And over the ghost-whine of baby raccoons

The preacher spoke

His pasty face caked up with make-up
Fat body squeezed into his
Trademark powder-blue suit
And patent-leather shoes
That slithered and glistened like some alien metal

And the people listened

They listened with mirth as he sang, spit, spun
Told tales of the uncommon and the uncomfortable
He spoke of death and depression
As if these were old friends
Owing him large debts
Of droughts and famines and earthquakes and tsunamis
He warned of werewolves and warlocks and zombies
Of dark winds and other dread things

He gave them recipes
He taught them new math
He showed them how to set their clocks
So that it was never midnight
And how the wizards made their foul chowder
Using goatsmilk as a base (one must never allow
Their children to drink from the tits of a goat)
For this—it was well-known—was another ingredient
In the Conjurer’s vile broth

He told them which part of the rhubarb to eat
And which parts were deadly poison
And which parts were merely awful
And where to put this and where not to put that
And what kind of nip to feed to your cat
And also how to tell if your tomatoes were ripe
And when to tuck your children in at night
And what you could put in your pipe—and how to smoke it

“Do not let your wives indulge in tattoos,”
Said this creature in the blue suit
And shiny black shoes,
“Or else they will run off with warrior-dwarfs
And their children will fall from the womb
With heads like turnips”

“Protect your lot,” he said
“With red paint to stave off rot
Slay your livestock once each season
You don’t want to give wolves a reason
To kidnap your pigs”

He went on like that for a while
Never cracking a smile
Standing on the stump of an old fat Oak that he may have cut down himself

Until, as bats emerged from their caves
There arrived a woman named Hester
Wearing only one shoe, and a nightgown
And though she was obviously mentally ill
The crowd did not move to molest her
As she split the congregation like a drill cutting into a board

And there—
Where the preacher gave his sermon
Hands raised in praise
By witness of the sanguine moon and the
Baseball-stadium lights—

The woman stepped onto the stage

“Assault!” cried a man in the audience
As the crazy woman reared back her arm
To strike the poor preacher

“I said what I’d do if you came here alone,”
Said the woman in the lily-white robe
“I’d flog you in front of the village—I said it!
These people aren’t your playthings
Although I give you credit
For putting on this hypnotic display
Your sermons are more fun than monkeys at play
But lacking in some utterly crucifiable way
For if they only knew
What ridiculous things you do
In your hours away from the stump”

“Left alone in the world you would barely survive
For an hour—and yet
You’ll tell all the world how to care for their pets
And what color paint to use on their barns
But you can’t even pick up your own room
You haven’t yet learned how to operate a broom
Nor mastered the toilet, the shower, the stove
Or the kettle—how could you?

“You’re only five”

The villagers came forth to challenge the woman
“He saved us from eating wizard’s pudding,” they said
“And from boiling the leaf of the rhubarb—
Without him we’d all be dead

“He taught his elders history
And our children manners
He helped us salvage our crops
And restored our appreciation of cats
And got us to string up that weird schoolmarm
Who was involved in all manner of wicked’ry”

“Superstition!” cried the woman,
“The stuff of a child’s bad dreams
Of wet beds and thrashing, moon-lit screams
You ought to be shamed for encouraging him
You all know my son is a simpleton

“It isn’t so hard to take care of your plants
One hardly needs prayer circles, potions, chants
You need only science, and patience
And care
You preen them, you feed them, you sprinkle their roots
With chemicals to make the fruit grow fat
And when the rain comes you allow them to drink—
Did you think it was any more mystic than that?

With that the woman stepped into the switchgrass
And led her son home by kicking his ass

In the Winter there came a freeze
Like none the village, or the world, had seen
And yet no one starved—his mother was right

They were only pumpkins

But without any witches or wizards to fear
The people stopped slaughtering their steer
And slicing up their pigs
And milking their goats
And pulling their crop
And feeding their cats
And smoking their pipes
And tending their plants
Until there was nothing left in the village
But rhubarb

Months, seasons slipped by
Then years
The Moon made its cycles
Some starved; others thrived

The preacher returned to the village
One Hunter’s moon
His face full but not fat
Blond hair turned jet-black and grown out
To fall beneath his shoulders

He’d come here on a lark
On leave from University—wanting to see
What had become of his pulpit

The baseball lights were covered in moss
Inhabited by thirsty birds
Making them look like huge metal scarecrows

The foxglove was gone, and so were the stones
Having been picked clean by robbers
And would-be assassins

The steamy bog with its bullfrogs remained and
So did the raccoons, and the caves full of bats

The stump was rotted out and caked in bird scat
Though he stepped onto it anyway

His tiny powder-blue suit was stashed away
In a box in an attic in an old house in the middle of Nothing
The patent-leather shoes that were once his prize
Having been lost in a flood and sent down Main Street
On a massive trash-strewn wave

He opened his mouth to speak
For the first time in fifteen years
In a voice that only the bullfrogs could hear

And he himself heard nothing

In a town just a few miles south of obscure
Somewhere west of Blueberry Shore
In a clear in a wood over which banshees once flew
And dark winds once blew
Now, splashed across the forest floor
Was a sea of roots and calcified chutes
Vines of pumpkin which grew
And still grew
But blossomed no more

Art & Words copyright Ernesto Barbieri 2014

Creature Comforts

13 Oct

“Faust” by William Henry Margetson (1885)

(I was asked by Grey Matter Press — who published my story “Wombie” in their fantastic Equilibrium Overturned anthology — to blog about the nature of evil, and how it relates to my writing process. Be sure to check out the work of my fellow contributors over at the Grey Matter blog.)

*  *  *

It is said that if you want the reader to dislike a character in a story, make him harm an animal.

Classic example: Man comes home from work, kicks the family dog. Pretty bad — but is that really the best (or worst) we can drum up in our collective imaginations?

We harm animals every day, after all — we stomp spiders, swat flies, shoot at squirrels when they invade our strawberry gardens; we are complicit in the murder and torture of animals simply by breaking eggs into a pan and frying some bacon; we do all of this before breakfast.

We harm each other, too — by backbiting and gossiping and bullying. With words and with weapons — by carpetbombing huge tracts of desert for no good reason. All the little acts of unkindness we do to each other, all those times we were too busy to say hi to the bum on the street, or to pick up the phone and call a sick relative. All the horrors of all the wars being fought for the rich. A thing called scaphism which I dare you to look into. Racism. Duplicity. Genocide.

And yet the swiftest, most accessible route to eliciting a feeling of “evil” in the reader is the old punt-the-puppy trick.

* * *

“The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” — Jonathan Franzen

I have two rules for writing. The first rule is that a book is not a static, solid object; not an ornament on a shelf, not a collection of pages bound by leather and twine. It is a thing of motion, with a revving engine behind it. Sometimes with the whole force of nature behind it: a hurricane. A thing swapped easily between friends, and among cultures, passed down through generations as if by osmosis. For a book to succeed, it has to move.

The other rule involves a Creature.

* * *

The Creature is the road disappearing beyond the horizon. It is the thing the story is chasing. It is the wonder to the endeavor, the mystery, the magic. It is the horror hiding in the closet. The shark swimming underneath the surfboard. The Creature may just be a general sense of menace, encroaching upon the lives of bracingly bland people, such as you will find in Franzen’s The Corrections or Alice Munro’s better stories. In David Cronenberg’s film The Fly — still one of the greatest influences on my writing — the Creature is an actual creature named “Brundlefly” … but the caves of literature are painted with the faces of rawer, and yet somehow more grotesque creatures, creatures with names like Fagin, Lear, Voldemort, Mephistopheles. Character and conflict are all good and fine, and sometimes even dandy, but the Creature is why we really turn the pages. Why we keep our foot on the gas. Why we plow through the bridge rail. Why we drown.

* * *

“My definition of evil is unfriendliness.” — Muhammad Ali

(Not lost on me: that the man who said the above quote was paid to punch other men in the face, in a rather unfriendly fashion.)

But evil is not a punch to the face, or a bullet to the brain, or a man sleeping with another man’s wife, or murdering his best friend, or selfishness or avarice or psychopathy or even unfriendliness.

Evil is indifference.

Indifference to the sad, paunchy man who comes to work every day and does his job and does it well and eats shit from his coworkers and boss, and then goes home and polishes his guns. Indifference to the girl with a bow in her hair that makes her feel pretty for five minutes before her father comes along and snatches the bow right off the top of her head, and crushes it under his boot. Indifference to all the things we crush under our boots, merely by walking along.

All of which is to say that if you want the reader to dislike you … be indifferent to her. Fail to seduce her. Ignore her, for even one sentence, one second, and she will go away, because the opposite of love, in the end, is not hate; and the opposite of good is not evil: it’s indifference.

* * *

The Creature in my story “Wombie” is a large, goofy-looking rodent with an unknown organism growing inside of it. Our protagonist is a man named Dr. Ethan Sarvas, whose task it is to identify the parasite, and to take radical action once he realizes its horrific intent. He does this not out of professional obligation or even a vague sense of duty to his own species, but out of sheer dumb curiosity. Which is to say: out of love.

I like doing this — giving my characters impossible problems that they have to solve for me, and handicapping them with cynicism and cowardice. I’m partial to broken characters who find themselves acting bravely at the absolute worst moments. I enjoy putting them into the lobster pot with snakes and spiders and scorned lovers and loaded weapons and apparitions from beyond, and cranking up the flame. I even harm some animals in the process. I do this because to spare the creature, to treat it gently, to euthanize it prematurely, would be to rob the reader of the gift of Caring — and what could be more sinister than that?

Buy the book:


Pitter Patter

31 Aug

mothers day_1


Like a lot of folks who survived the Great Depression, my grandmother squirreled things away. When she died two months ago, we found it in her basement, the spoils of a life spent pinching pennies and canning homegrown vegetables: handmade baskets that were used to sell apples on dusty roads in the 1920’s; moldy newspapers announcing the murders of JFK and RFK, the assaults on Pearl Harbor and Manhattan; all the letters and cards that I’d written to her over the years.

The mindset of the hoarder is vastly at odds with the psychology of the Modern Person, which dictates that things should be hastily prepared and consumed, photographed and posted to social media, and then forgotten as a sneeze is forgotten. The Collector’s Disease spreads to those who manically stumble upon it, and in the end it takes someone ruthlessly sober (like my mother) to relegate the memories to the fire pit where they belong. Fortunately, my father and sister were around to salvage the best of the plunder, much of which now sits on the hood of a broken-down Mercedes-Benz in my parents’ garage.

Among the pages and pages of sepia-toned, sentimental swag is this Mothers’ Day card I made for my grandmother as child:

mothers day_2

Text reads:

Some beans have some
strings to tie them on things.
but what smells so quer?
Because corn is no less or
more then one enormous ear.
but why could it be that
if potatoes have some eyes
then why could it be?
that they are burid under
dirt where it’s to dark to see?

As you can see, the piece starts out with a delightful bit of nonsense involving beans with strings (“to tie them on things”) which is almost certainly a play on the word “stringbeans,” which was my favorite vegetable at the time. Then, I blow open the nose holes with: “but what smells so quer?” — note the vaguely Middle-English spelling of the word “queer,” channeling Chaucer — only to immediately move on to ears and eyes, reflecting on the irony that stalks of corn, while clearly unable to hear, are called “ears”; and potatoes, blind and buried, nonetheless sprout “eyes.” The poem suffers from an over-reliance on the word “some” for cadence; and the ruminative “why could it be?” — repeated twice, as if for double effect — is a bit hamfisted … Still, the message of the poem is clear: This is a meditation on vegetables, and the angled windows of perception through which we view and experience them.

I am told that I was probably six or seven years old when I created this masterpiece, and that sounds about right, although it seems to me that the sophistication of the poetry is totally incongruous with the crudity of the drawing.

Yes, and what about that drawing? There’s not much to comment on here, unfortunately, aside from the ever-present, ever-horrifying Sun With Teeth. For some reason, I drew my grandmother with a black eye. No explanation for the bunnies. I think the dog is my sister.




*  *  *



 My mother wrote this in the sixth grade — March 22, 1962, to be precise. It reads:


Pitter-patter goes the rain,
Up against my window pane.
Oh! how I would like to stay at home,
And play with my dolls, their hair I would comb.
But today I know I must go to school,
The schoolyard will be like a big swimming pool.
Strong gusts of winds will be blowing about,
And I’m sure my umbrella will turn inside-out.

It would seem my mother’s gift for high-flown language and stock imagery was conferred onto me, perhaps even encoded in my DNA.

*  *  *

Some twenty-five years later I got it in my head that I should try my hand at poetry and submitted a long narrative poem called “The Preacher of Pumpkin Patch Lane” to New Orleans Review. The poem was about a boy who was once a small-town sensation as a fire-&-brimstone preacher, who returns to town as a college student only to find his “trademark powder blue suit” tucked into a box in his parents’ attic, and his former pulpit — once lit by “baseball stadium lights” — now dark and overgrown with weeds. They sent me this:

New Orleans

Pitter patter, goes the rain.


Pancakes and Waffles

26 Mar







All art copyright Ernesto Barbieri 2014

Consider the Mousehole

6 Nov

Step 1:

Start with two shapes. They’re odd shapes; they aren’t really ovals or semicircles. They look almost like gravestones, don’t they?


Step 2:

Move the shapes further apart, and set the shape on the left at an angle. Notice how the shape on the left — despite being the exact same dimensions (1 in. x 1 in.) as the shape on the right — looks slightly smaller when tilted to this angle. Isn’t that weird?


Step 3:

Take the straight line from the shape on the right (Shape 2) and shift it upward just slightly. And since the shape on the left (Shape 1) appears unfairly smaller than Shape 2, let’s compensate for that by taking the same-length line and bending it around the side of Shape 2, to give it some heft.


Step 4:

Draw a line through the bottoms of Shapes 1 and 2. This gives our picture perspective, depth and connectivity.


Step 5:

Add some circles and dots.


A picture is coming into focus. Shape 1 is a wedge of cheese, and Shape 2 looks kind of like a mousehole.

Step 6:

Don’t those circles and dots look a bit too neat and clean? Rough them up a little. And take a bite out of the chunk of cheese. You’ve earned it.


Now pause.

What do we know from this picture? What can we deduce?

Well, we know there is a mouse, who lives in a hole in the wall, and that he likes cheese. We can also see that he isn’t super crafty, as he’s left a trail of cheese crumbs leading directly through the front door of his home. Or maybe there’s a predator in the vicinity — a cat? an owl? — whose mere existence causes the mouse to frantically take what he can get, and then to scamper back to his hole as quickly as possible. Perhaps the mouse lives in constant fear of this predator, and doesn’t have time to cover his tracks when stealing a morsel of cheese.

And who put the cheese there in the first place? That’s quite a conspicuous place to put a piece of cheese, if you ask me, right there next to a mousehole. Maybe someone — the owner of the home, most likely — deliberately left the cheese out on the floor to lure the mouse out of his hole so that he could be murdered with a broom. This would mean there are two predators in the mouse’s environment, both of them trying to trick the mouse into doing something incredibly stupid yet vitally necessary for his survival. What a terrifying and action-packed life this mouse must lead!

Step 7:

Now draw a third shape (Shape 3) above and to the left of Shape 2 (the cheese). It’s the same as the original two shapes, but oriented horizontally. What on earth could this third shape be doing there?


Step 8:

Draw some straight lines around Shape 3, boxing it in to the corner.


Can you guess what Shape 3 is? If you guessed the lower half of a wall outlet, you guessed correct!

Step8bCongratulations, you win nothing.

Step 9:

Look away from the picture for a few seconds, maybe take a minute. Maybe take an hour. Eat a salad, watch some football. Check Facebook. Then come back to it with fresh eyes.

Something is “off” about the picture. It’s not properly scaled. The wedge of cheese should be bigger. There’s no real foreground, no sense of motion or depth.

The picture is flat.

Fix it.


Step 10:

Put down pen.

Now go back and look at each image from Steps 1 through 9. Forget, for a moment, that they are “steps” in a narrative sequence, and try to evaluate each picture on its own merit.

Then tell me: Which is the most compelling image?

*  *  *

I’d argue that the most compelling image is the one from Step 6. That’s the one that got me thinking about the mouse, and the soulful life he must lead, and the insults to his existence that he must face every day. I also like the white space above the two dominant images, how it hints at a larger world that the mouse is not a part of, a world that is both dangerous and empty. But then, I am a strange man who drinks alone, and there is no right answer to this question. Most people probably determined that the final image was the most compelling, and that’s cool. Some people might even like the first image best, seeing in it something ominous and beautiful and blank, the twin tombstones of a married couple, two deaths not yet etched out in granite. It’s not something we have to argue about, because finding the exact most compelling image was never the point of this exercise.

*  *  *

The point of all of this is to write good fiction. I’m not talking about the kind of fiction taught in MFA programs and published in The New Yorker, treacly and strained, like ketchup passing through a coffee filter. I’m talking about the kind of fiction that people might actually freely consume, and share with their loved ones and friends. You know, like Stephen King writes. And Alice Munro*. And before them: Dostoevsky.

(*Important Note: Alice Munro has been published many times in The New Yorker.)

I think what you do is you begin with two characters, or two places, or two ideas, or two random animals, a mouse and a piece of cheese, whatever. Make them relatable but set them apart from one another, create some distance between them. Give them depth so that they aren’t one-dimensional; or rather, allow the depth and true nature of each character to spontaneously reveal itself. Connect these characters in a meaningful and focused and honest way, a kind of straight line bisecting their otherwise errant trajectories. More details about these characters will emerge, further clarifying the dissonance between them, the horrible choices they must face, the consequences of making or not making those choices, until it becomes clear that they are not just random objects passively inhabiting the same line; they are at war with each other; and through this second layer of detail the real story may be discovered.

Which is just a crafty way of saying that there ought to be some sense of menace to your work. It doesn’t have to be as cinematic or intrusive to the plot as a sadistic ex-husband or Voldemort or an alien robot dinosaur (although that would be cool); in fact the “menace” may never be seen or even alluded to; its existence may be merely implied.

What is absolutely vital is that something more is at stake than the psyche of your main character. There must be some mystery, some horror, some wonder to the endeavor, an opportunity for the reader to use his or her imagination, to fill in the blanks, as it were.

Because really, in the end, who cares if a mouse gets a piece of cheese?

*  *  *

When all of this is done, you may add to your story color and shading and all the finishing touches your heart desires, knowing that you’ve built your story on solid ground, and are well on your way to creating polished, professional-grade fiction (you’re welcome). Now it is time to share your work with the world. Send your story to your legions of rabid fans, of whom you have precisely one, and she is your mother. Email it to your ex. Try to fishhook an agent with a sharp and colorful query. Put it in an envelope and send it to a magazine. And wait for the money to fall out of the sky.

Keep waiting.