Saturday, August 25, 2012


I’m in the midst of reading The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner’s big, sprawling, beautiful novel, which was published in 1943, when Stegner was thirty-four years old. I’ve been reading this book for a couple of weeks now, and I’ll still be reading it a couple of weeks hence. That’s partly because I have so little time for reading, but more because I’m a terribly (or wonderfully) slow reader. Furthermore, the better the book the slower I read it. I savor each word, to hear it as I read. And when I read an especially beautiful passage, such as one of Stegner’s many descriptions of the American Western scenery in all the seasons, I enjoy the luxury of slowing down and rereading whole sentences, whole paragraphs, whole scenes.
I won’t write a review of The Big Rock Candy Mountain here, because the book has already been reviewed by the best of critics and countless scholars; anything I could write would read, in comparison, like a high school book report. But I will say that The Big Rock Candy Mountain shows handsomely the hardy, lawless frontier spirit that survived into the twentieth century, after the West had supposedly been tamed. It is a book of vast opportunity, incurable dreams, and reckless adventure, worthy of the West itself.

I was a student of Wallace Stegner’s in 1968. At that time I was twenty-seven years old, and he was an elder statesman at fifty-nine. Those statistics fascinate me now, because I’m now seventy years old and still trying to learn to write. What’s more, I’m presently learning to write by reading a book that Wallace Stegner must have been writing in his late twenties and early thirties, when he was less than half the age I am now.
 One thing I learned from Stegner back in 1968 is that writing should have consequence. It should be important. That seems now to go without saying, but back then on college campuses, the favorite fiction writers, the ones that many students admired and imitated, were clever, entertaining, but in the long run inconsequential writers like Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, and Terry Southern. When shallow student work of that stripe showed up in our seminar, Mr. Stegner kindly, politely pointed out that cleverness was not enough. As he pointed out, “You can’t nail a custard pie to the wall.”
Well, if I’ve caught your interest, and if you agree that a novel needs to be important to be great, then read (or reread) The Big Rock Candy Mountain. It’s no custard pie.

p.s. This is my second blog post honoring Wallace Stegner. An earlier tribute appeared February 16, 2011. For more thoughts about this fine teacher and great writer, see:

Saturday, August 11, 2012


“Fate” is a one-word tautology. Doris Day, that smooth-talker, told us all about it: “Whatever will be, will be.” Fate is the inescapable future, depending on the undeniable present, which is built of the unchangeable past. We can’t change our fate; we can only discover it. We may affect our future, perhaps, by quitting smoking or by driving drunk, by studying hard for the LSAT or by quitting IBM in a huff, but when we do that we’re only acting as an agent for fate.
Whether we bring about our fate by exercising free will, or whether it’s all written in stone, or on the wind, doesn’t really matter. It’s gonna happen. I don’t know if the stars and planets have anything to do with fate, but I’m guessing probably not. Is fate just a sequence of silly accidents that pop and fizzle throughout time and space? I don’t think so. I also don’t believe there’s a Big Dude in the sky charting it all out with a quill pen and papyrus, or may stone tablets, or maybe a golden abacus with pearl buttons, or maybe a giant Excel spreadsheet, spread out all over the firmament. Is fate merely the inevitable result of how a bunch of vulnerable dominos were set up sometime during the Big Bang, so that how we fare and how we die are just the consequences of the laws of chemistry and physics, constant and fair throughout the universe? Who knows? Who, for that matter, has time to care?
Fate is a fact of life, the way of the world, and the human condition. But these definitions are too limiting, because the inevitable and interconnected march we’re all on, plodding or racing into the future, also affects other living beings; other gasses, liquids, and solids that may not contain what we self-importantly call life; and other places in the vast universe, hot spots and cold spots where change may be wildly different phenomena. Fate happens out there, too.
Was fate established by an intelligent designer? Nope. Fate just is, always was, and, chances are, always will be. Whether or not it is propelled by intelligent design is a giant can of wriggling worms that I don’t care to open.
Fate is a matter of fact.

Moving on, fate is also an essential ingredient of the man-made microcosm of existence that we call fiction. We writers have every right to call ourselves the creators of our model-size universes. And we plot our stories using intelligent design. Or if we’re not plotters, we at least hold the reins intelligently. And we get to rewrite and revise, which is something even the mythical Big Dude can’t do.
However we think of fate when we talk about the real world, we can get better handle on it when we make up our stories, based on how we understand the laws of fairness and irony that define the stories in human culture.
The concept of fate is essential to storytelling and fiction writing. And one thing to know, one rule to follow or disobey at your own peril is: Dire predictions come true.
This is true in drama: Chekhov told us that when a rifle is hanging over the fireplace in Act One, that rifle must go off before the final curtain comes down. And when rifles are discharged on stage, someone’s going to get hurt.
The rule works in movies, too. If a character you love starts to cough from some illness, you’d better get out the Kleenex, because chances are that character won’t live long enough to read the credits.
Fate was essential to Greek tragedy. When an oracle tells King Laius that his infant son will one day kill him, he and his wife cripple the child and leave him to die on a mountaintop. Does the infanticide work? No way. The kid grows up, comes back to town, unwittingly kills his dad, and I won’t say what he does to his mom.
In the fairy tale, when the spiteful fairy godmother predicts that the infant princess Briar Rose will, on her sixteenth birthday, prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall asleep for a hundred years, there’s no point in the King’s ordering that all the spinning wheels in town be burned. He’s be better off shopping for a good mattress.
And when the soothsayer advises Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March, he’s not really telling Caesar to call in sick on the fifteenth. What he’s saying is, “Dude. Better get your affairs in order, because come the sixteenth, you’ll no longer be wearing sandals.”

So, in fiction as in fact, it’s pointless to try to outsmart fate. The house always wins. To buck fate is to engage in hubris, and the penalty for hubris is always a most unwelcome irony. The so-called Higher Power named Fate shrugs and thunders, “Told ya so.” Of course in real life we can’t help fighting to survive (as we usually should); and because our fiction is about the human condition, our characters are likely to try to beat the odds, even if all they can hope for is a temporary respite.
There is a big difference, however, between human fate in fiction and human fate fate in fact. The fate of a character in a story ends with the words “The End.” An extension is allowed in the event of a sequel, and of course as long as the story remains in print or remains on shelves or on the Internet, the character’s fate is still accessible and knowable, but that fate is a done deal. The character may rest in peace.
In what we like to call “real life,” a person’s fate does not end with the words “rest in peace.” Death is part of the fate of each of us, but it rarely means the story is over. Because most of us, for better or for worse, are entitled to, or saddled with, an afterlife. No, the afterlife of which I speak has nothing to do with pearly gates and golden slippers, or with brimstone and pitchforks. The afterlife that is part of our lingering fate is made up largely of memories stored by friends and family; of tales told about us if we’re in any sense famous; and of DNA passed along for generations to come, for as long as human beings populate the planet, which may sound like quite a spell but is only a blip in the time span that is eternity. The point is: our lives may end but our presence remains and dwindles for a long time before it fizzles and whimpers into oblivion.
I think what makes us writers write and wish to be read is to keep our fates in progress for a while after we die. And why do we write as beautifully as we can while we are still in partnership with our fates? That’s probably the moral to this discussion: we all, willy-nilly, leave tracks in the sand. We don’t want to be remembered for ugly, obnoxious, lazy, antisocial tracks that stink of plastic litter, broken glass, and shit. No. Let us be remembered for having given the world something of value. If we have any influence over our fate, let it be this.

Note: This essay first appeared in the literary magazine Black Lamb.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ugly Ducklings and Princesses on Parade

For this month’s blog post, I invited writers to send me 99-word stories inspired by fairy tales, either “Cinderella” or “The Ugly Duckling.” I also asked that the stories be to some extent autobiographical, based on some change in the writer’s own life.
Some delightful stories came in, and they’re posted below. Read and enjoy!

Your next assignment:

Imagine a special place you like to go, a place that has much meaning for you. Write a story about going to that place, and being surprised to find someone there whom you haven’t seen in a long, long time.
Use your imagination, and remember that in a story something has to happen. How will this meeting change you, or the other person, or both of you? And don’t forget: good stories thrived on conflict!

Deadline: September 1, 2012



by Marie Rose Elias 

Being an old fashioned romantic, I thought marriage was forever…wed at 22 and soaring with hope. Leaving with 2 kids in elementary school was reality.
At 35 I married again. He became aloof soon after, barely noticing much when the kids were grown and gone.
I woke him from his nap and asked him to move out, planning never to marry again. Freedom was blissful. I happily danced every weekend, responsible for no one but myself. I was like a butterfly.
At 48 my perfect dashing prince was sent. We danced far past midnight at our enchanted magical wedding


by Denise Dreany

The swans were powerful men, thick breastbones, broad wings. I was with the ducks, mawkish, complaining.
“No point in sticking your neck out,” they said.  But secretly I thought, “Isn’t that what necks are for, if you were born with one that was long and slender?”
“No point flapping your wings.”  But what if your wings were aching to spread? What if the agony of not soaring was greater than the comfort of belonging?
My eyes opened and I saw their necks were short, their courage small.  I looked at myself and saw a black mask and silver wings.  


by Rita Kushner

Dear Cindy,

We were fifteen and sixteen when Prince tried the glass slipper on my adorable tiny size 4½ foot.  Through the sixty-five years of our marriage he has uncomplainingly paid for my countless purchases of red ballet slippers, rubber galoshes, leather walking shoes, and fashionable high-heeled alligator boots.
My prince lives with my shoe fetish of miniature shoes on the cocktail table, display cases of collectible slippers on the bedroom wall, calendars of shoes.

Now, child, you must determine whether your prince will happily love you ever after when your foot no longer fits into that glass slipper.


by Rita Kushner

Only ugly duckling book-worms wore eye-glasses when I was eight…chubby me…shapeless unruly hair.  Ugh.  The books in the library, butterflies in cases in the museum compensated.
Then came along handsome, bespectacled Swan.  We mated and begat a flock; two wore contact lenses.  My senior skin was besmirched with smile wrinkles and well-deserved worry lines. Bad hair turned white and matched Swan’s feathery white beard.
         Swan took me under his wing and we flew over the world.  Now with writing pad, and his block of wood and carving knives, we hope to continue to glide healthfully every after.


by Elaine Polson Shiber

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Ella.  She lived with her parents and her big sister Stella. Stella was mean to Ella, teasing her and making her cry.
When Ella started school, though, she laughed because her teachers liked her, her friends liked her, and she was smart. 
Much later she married a handsome man and they had two beautiful daughters. Then three perfect grandchildren arrived.  One sad day, Ella’s husband died, so to banish her tears she married another handsome man.
Ella and Stella became friends at last and they all lived happily ever after.


by Jerry Giammatteo

All agreed he was ugly. Kids teased him. Girls ignored him. He never got invited to parties. Saturday nights were spent home.
He disappeared after school. Nobody thought about him. Life went on, taxes paid, babies born. Nobody knew what happened to him. Nobody cared.
There was a twenty year reunion; King, Queen, Valedictorian, and the “in” crowd present.
A gasp ensued. An elegant looking gentleman walked in. On his arm was the most gorgeous woman in the room. Everybody stared in shocked recognition. They were the perfect couple.
A hint of a condescending smirk appeared on his face.


by June Kosier

I used to be a dialysis nurse and had to be at work early in the morning.
 I would throw on old jeans and a tea shirt and put my hair in a ponytail.  At work, I would change into blue scrubs provided by the hospital.  We all looked like Smurfs.
Then came the night of the Kidney Foundation Ball and  I had a chance to change from an ugly duckling or at least a “plain Jane”  into Cinderella. 
When my date said “Wow!” I said to him, “Yes, I clean up nicely, don’t I?”


by James A. Ryngala

He was always considered overweight, or "husky," as they used to say.  He had tried almost every diet  that was out there with no avail. It also did not help his self-esteem that he was near-sighted and had  to wear glasses. 
Finally school was over and he could start anew in college.  Unfortunately, nothing changed.  
After graduation, he got a good paying job with benefits.  He joined a gym and got Lasik surgery. He lost all the weight, toned up his body and got rid of the glasses.  At his fifth re-union, he wasn't ugly duckling anymore.