Saturday, June 23, 2012



My last post, two weekends ago, was a tribute to my first and best writing teacher, Nancy Huddleston Packer, who taught creative writing when I was an undergraduate at Stanford in the early 1960s. I didn’t write a blog post last weekend, because I was in Palo Alto at the time. Susan and I attended a party at the Stanford Faculty Club honoring Nancy Packer and celebrating her new story collection, Old Ladies, which we have just published.

It was a delightful party, and it was fine to see Nancy surrounded and congratulated by so many friends of many years. Her children, novelist Ann Packer and political journalist George Packer, both delivered warm tributes.

At one point during the party I was glad to get a chance to recount to Nancy and a couple of her friends a moment in the classroom, fifty years ago.

To illustrate a point she was making, Nancy was summarizing the opening of Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants.” A man and a young woman are sitting at a table outside a train station in rural Spain. They’re having a beer while they wait for the train. Hemingway spends a paragraph describing the countryside, mentioning the hills across the fields, on the other side of the Ebro River.

Nancy paraphrased an early exchange in the couple’s dialogue, which I’ll quote here from Hemingway’s original story:

         …[The hills] were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
         ‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.
         ‘I’ve never seen one,’ the man drank his beer.
‘No, you wouldn’t have.’

At this point Nancy doubled up her right fist, then she doubled up her left fist, then she set her mouth in a forceful line, and she slammed her knuckles together.

To be honest, I don’t remember exactly which point Nancy was illustrating, but it was a point well made. She could have been showing us that:

1. A story has to hit the ground running;

2. Any good story is a story about relationships;

3. Any good relationship story is about the conflict in that relationship; or perhaps:

4. It doesn’t take a whole lot of long words to show conflict in a story.

And another thing I learned from that lesson: Nancy Packer didn’t tell her students the point she was making.

5. She showed us.

For more information about Nancy Packer’s new book, Old Ladies, see

Saturday, June 9, 2012


—from her proud publisher and grateful student

When I got serious about being a small-press publisher in 1985, establishing a small press eventually called Daniel & Daniel, I had a number of assets going for me: some publishing experience with Stanford University Press and Capra Press; bookselling experience mainly with Kepler’s Books of Menlo Park; and my partner, eventually named Susan Daniel.

Another asset that helped Susan and me get the company off to a good start was that I had friends in the Stanford writing community. During our first few years, under the imprint John Daniel & Company, we published books by a good number of Stanford-related authors, whom I had met during my undergraduate years and later as a fellow in the Stanford Creative Writing Program. These included Janet Lewis, Mary Jane Moffat, Constance Crawford, Charlotte Painter, and eventually Maclin Bocock and Albert Guerard. All of them highly respected writers, all of them good writers, writers to be proud of.

Of all the Stanford authors we’ve published, though, the one I’m proudest of and fondest of has been Nancy Huddleston Packer, who also happened to be my best and my favorite teacher while I was an undergraduate there, fifty years ago. The stories I wrote for her classes were no good whatsoever, but I kept taking the classes anyway, unwittingly getting my worst work out of the way early.

Mrs. Packer didn’t lecture, but the wisdom about writing that she threw out on the table during her read-and-critique sessions was life-changing for me. I can’t say she made me a better writer immediately, but I quickly learned why I liked some writers better than I liked others. So she made me a better reader, anyway. And what I was learning about writing also amounted to lessons about life.

For example, Mrs. Packer let her class know that a story’s plot isn’t just a sequence of events, but is a chain of consequence. A makes B happen, C is caused by B, these together produce D, and so on until the payoff, the climax, which by then seems inevitable and unavoidable. This domino theory of fiction, I realized, was true of life itself. Knowing that didn’t keep me from making a passel of mistakes in life, but it helped me see life as a literary art form.

For another example, Mrs. Packer told us an essential ingredient of any elegant story is irony. I won’t elaborate on that, except to say that I have thought of Mrs. Packer often when life has thrown me an ironic curveball.

Later, when I was a fellow in the Writing Program, by which time I was allowed to call her Nancy, she asked me one day how my writing was coming along. I had been wrestling with the third draft of a story I was writing, and I told her I was finally learning how to rewrite. “Good,” Nancy quipped. “That means you’re finally learning how to write.”

About Nancy Huddleston Packer

Nancy Huddleston Packer is a literary figure well known to and much admired by a large and prestigious community of writers. As a director of Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program and a close associate of Wallace Stegner, Packer influenced and cheered on some of America’s best emerging writers. She also had a strong influence on her own children, best-selling authors Ann Packer and George Packer. Meanwhile Packer also built a writing career of her own, publishing short fiction in numerous important magazines and literary journals, including Harper's Magazine, The Reporter, Women's Studies, Sewanee Review, Epoch, Cold Mountain Review, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly, North American Review, Kenyon Review, and many others. She is also the author of five published collections of stories: Small Moments; In My Father's House; The Women Who Walk; Jealous-Hearted-Me; and Old Ladies, published this month by John Daniel & Company.

About Old Ladies

The protagonists of the eleven stories in Old Ladies, Nancy Huddleston Packer’s new fiction collection, may be “old ladies,” as the book’s title suggests, but they are by no means stereotypes. They are, in fact, remarkably different from one another.

Although more than half of them are widows, one is a happily married writer of children’s books, another is a happily unmarried academic, and a third is a revenge-seeking divorcee. Some of Packer’s women are weak, but more of them are strong, stronger than their grown children think they are or than their former lovers want them to be.

As the characters in Old Ladies are different, so are the stories. No two have the same subject, theme, or situation. Some of the stories are funny, especially in the way old people cope with aging and come up with inventive solutions. Other stories are filled with loss, loneliness, and the prospect of dying. Many of the stories have that mixture of grief and humor that comes with the accumulation of years.

Whether funny or sad, Packer’s writing is always strong, solid, and entertaining. Her stories hit the ground running, develop in a chain of consequences, and move quickly to their satisfying end. And one thing these “old ladies” have in common is that their creator makes us care about every single one of them.

And now a word from our sponsor.

Old Ladies, by Nancy Huddleston Packer, can be ordered by your local bookstore or directly from the publisher. For more information, see

For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nancy Packer will be featured on West Coast Live, broadcasting from Yoshi’s in Oakland, on Saturday, June 9, at 10:00 a.m. West Coast Live; on KALW 91.7 from 10 – noon. I think you can listen live or get a podcast..

Nancy will be signing her new book at Books, Inc., Town and Country Village, Tuesday, June 19, at 7:00 p.m.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Here it is June, and June is bustin’ out all over with 99-word stories. Back at the end of April I issued an invitation on my blog, “The Joy of Story,” to send me 99-word stories with the theme “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and I’m pleased that so many people took the challenge and sent me their works. I am especially grateful to Eileen Obser for passing the invitation on to her students. Many of the stories I received were thanks to Eileen and her followers.

The stories I received are posted below. Read them and enjoy them!

The rules of the game, as stated in my invitation, were as follows:

• One story per writer per month.
• It has to be a story. (Something happens to somebody.)
• The story must have exactly 99 words.
• All rights to the work remain the property of the writers, although I have no way of policing or enforcing that.

As you read the stories below, you’ll find that some of them are not really stories. Some of them are not exactly 99 words long. Not all of them pertain to June. Now I don’t mean to scold, but if you decide to send me stories in the months to come (because I intend to keep this thing going as long as it works), I urge you to stick to the theme, craft your stories to fit in exactly 99 words, and above all: they have to be stories! What is a story? Simple: Something happens to somebody. In other words, they need character and plot.

“Something happens” means plot. A story without plot is like a meal without food. “…to somebody” means character. All stories are at the basic level about people, about the human condition. Something happens to somebody. What happens? The character, during the course of the story, must change.

I’ll lecture no more.

Here’s the challenge for July: Write and send me, by email ( a 99-word story with the following title: “Fireworks.” What does that word mean to you? Great relationship? Rotten relationship? Crime? War? Beauty in the night? Tell me a story…
Deadline: July 1, 2012!

And now, as promised, JUNE IS BUSTIN’ OUT ALL OVER!

by Earl Staggs

Lefty hoisted the heavy bag over his shoulder and stepped out the door of
the house he'd just robbed.
         "Police! Freeze!"
         Lefty froze.
         "Set the bag down nice and easy.   Put your hands behind your head."
         Lefty thought fast.  "Let's work this out. I know you cops take a free donut once in a while.  The stuff in that bag is worth at least two grand, and
five hundred of it can be yours.  Biggest donut you ever had."
         "I don't take donuts, dirtball, and there's something else you don't know about me."
         "What's that?"
         "This is my house."


by G. Thomas Gill:

If I could write a song for you, this is what I’d say,
I’d tell you how a glimpse of you can take my breath away.
To have you wake beside me, at the dawning of each day,
I’d say I love you.

The easy way you laugh aloud while watching children play,
The rhythm of you breathing when your dreams take you away
The color of your eyes is like the seas off St. Tropez,
I’d say I love you.

I know it’s all been said before, a thousand different ways,
By a million different men, from Tampa to LA
I don’t care if it sounds trite, don’t care that it’s cliché,
I’d say I love you.


by Jerry Giammatteo                 

Early June and the pool was crowded. Here came the femme fatale of Lake Intrepid.
She was built and knew it. Men stared and even the women gawked at her tiny bikini with the halter top that looked so insufficient to hold her. She dove into the pool. Everyone was aware that she was there.
Unfortunately for her, the halter could bear no more. Unbeknownst to her, she climbed out of the pool with only half a bikini remaining – the bottom half. As everyone smirked, she left sashaying her hips. 
Moments later her scream pierced the placid summer air.


by Marie Rose Elias

         Praise  time when  doors open for wild-eyed kids to run free with imagination and anticipation.  New life abounds, opening eyes to wondrous delight, exciting hearts and pleasing senses in scores of tradition.
Come alive beaches for  throngs packed…laughing, coconut aroma filling the air. Applaud  ice cream trucks slowly making way through neighborhoods soft music playing alerting…tantalizing! Praise true love! Every young lady longing to marry during this most popular sixth month.  Hail color…gardens lush  with  array of bloom in vibrant hue and intoxicating bouquet. Sing! Dance!  Come alive Summer!


by Ann Bruno

The roses were in bloom, the lawn was beautifully manicured, and it was Father’s Day.
         June Bosch was pregnant and due to give birth on June twentieth. However, she gave birth on Father’s Day, June seventeenth. To everyone’s surprise June delivered triplets. Her father had  recently passed away and appeared to her in a dream. He told her to buy a lottery ticket with the numbers 6111.
         Tom Bosch purchased a ticket with the numbers given. You can imagine how shocked they were to have won the lottery.
         June and Tom were truly blest and were bursting with joy.

 by Rita Kushner

         Welcome June…you own a worthy name.
          June, waitressing at the bagel shop counter, smears extra cream cheese on my breakfast bagel, and neighbor June serves vodka Jello shots at parties.
          Son Glenn was married in June, under an inspiring sunset overlooking the bay. Grandson Chris celebrates his June birthday on Father's Day with my two grand great-granddaughters.
          June, you were named after Juno, the beautiful goddess of marriage and childbearing. We have followed all your tenets, so burst forth majestically, favoring us with brides and babies, blue-bells and berries and peaceful people towards building a wondrous world.


by Michael Mendillo

     How could a goddess be named Juno? It sounds so masculine. Most ancient Roman female names end in an “A” or “E”, but “O,” how odd.
         Oh well. She was known as the goddess of marriage, fertility and the guardian of women. Since most marriages occurred at a specific time of the year, it stood to reason that to commemorate her and those events, that time of year would be named in her honor.
     It seems to me, Juno’s not doing a very good job these days; maybe it’s time to rename the month and honor someone else.


by James A. Ryngala

         Growing up from that age of twelve to eighteen, June was a mixture of dread and delight.  It was the ending of one school year and the beginning of summer vacation.  The first two weeks always had finals and then also the Regent Exams before finally ending with summer break.  Oh, what fun we all dreamt of over the summer.
         Of course, as an adult, this has all changed.  As a parent you worry about how your kids will do on their tests, and then what are you going to do with them during their recess?
         Sucks getting older.


by Elaine Polson Shiber

         I’ve been watching June.  I saw her get married in
August and by November she was pregnant.  She’s happy.
         In January, she glowed.  By April, she showed. Suddenly it happened.  By June, we agreed:  June is bustin’ out all over. 
         First her belly.  Her puffy face.  Her fat ears.  By July, her bust was bustin’.  We went to the beach.  Her legs.  Omigod, now her toes.  She started waddling like a duck and looked so funny we had to laugh.
“Lemme outta here!”  
         August brought baby Billy.  Now June is bustin’ out all over…with love.  


by Theresa Nicol

         Paige wondered what death would be like, as she had for months. She grew up believing in heaven but did she? Still? Now?
         This moment felt like it should be more profound, like her thoughts should be clearer. Actually, her mind was quite blank. She was aware of her pain but felt light, as if floating in a bubble.
         The Good Shepherd Hospice was secluded and peaceful. Her bed was turned so her eyes faced the window. Despite the limited view, Paige knew that June was busting out all over.
         She also knew that she was ready to die.