Saturday, May 25, 2013


NOTE: This is Chapter Four in the short book I am writing about why and how we write stories from our lives. 


Facing Our Monsters
There are dangers and rewards when it comes to mining your past for the stories of your life. As I’ve said (perhaps more than enough), a story requires conflict, so as you look for good stories to tell about your youth or your younger years, you’re likely to come across a few monsters that you have tried for years not to think about.
I walked out of my mother’s house in the middle of an argument, and I never saw her alive again.
My wedding went sour when I saw how happily my new husband and my old friend were dancing together.
I trained all summer for the Grand Masters Chess Tournament, only to be knocked out in the first round by a geeky teenager.
I should have given my son the bicycle of his dreams.
There you have themes for potential stories about guilt, anger, disappointment, and regret. These four monsters (and others just as ugly) lurk underneath all of our beds, waiting to take over our dreams. Should we continue to smother them with denial? Well, if it works to do that, fine. But maybe it’s time to face those monsters.
How? Psychotherapy? Sure, but remember that as a writer—a writer of your life stories—you have a cheaper, more creative, more enjoyable way to slay the dragons.
Remember that all good stories require conflict, so cash in on your sour memories. Remember too that loss is one of the things that has made you an interesting persons. Also remember that you’re not alone, and your readers will be on your side, because they’ve ridden in the same rocky boats.
Another thing I can promise you: facing your monsters and turning them into well-written stories will not harm you. Just as in a dream, even the worst nightmare, you never feel physical pain, when you’re writing a story, even the saddest story ever told, you will not break down. You may even find a way to make peace with the enemies under your bed.

Sweet Dreams
If you’re like most people, you have some memories that bring you guilt, anger, disappointment, and regret. But most people also have memories that bring them pride, reconciliation, love, and peace. You may, and should, write stories about these experiences too. You deserve the pleasure.
Wait a minute. How can you write an effective story with no conflict?
I didn’t say no conflict. Look a little harder at that memory and you’re likely to find that self-esteem came after you faced a challenge to your pride; reconciliation implies overcoming difficult differences; love is what redeems loneliness (more about love in the next chapter); and peace is often hard-won.
Sure, celebrate your sweet dreams in your stories. Show them as victories over the human condition. Never forget the human condition. Don’t be afraid of the dark.

Make ’em Laugh
No doubt your memory has a file stuffed with true stories that still make you laugh, and that get funnier every time you tell them. Write them down, and laugh as you embellish them with your comedic style. Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Write funny, and readers will beg for more. About this rib-tickling subject I couldn’t be more serious.
And, on a serious note, here are three rules for writing humorous life stories.
1. Humor is a response to pain. Face the fact that humor bubbles to the surface through a soup of sorrow, suffering, cruelty, loneliness, and anger. Don’t believe me? What humorous writer makes you laugh the loudest? Woody Allen? Nora Ephron? David Sedaris? Read their stories again and notice how much their humor is based on neuroses, love gone wrong, and family dysfunction. If you have another favorite comic, use the same test, and you’ll get similar results.
You shouldn’t be surprised that humor comes from pain. The Buddhists have it nailed: the human condition is suffering. The good news is that humor lightens the load and gets us through. A little laughing gas can make you enjoy the drilling of a tooth.
2. Humor must engage the brain. Remember, writers, your stories do not come with a laugh track. Writing sheer slapstick won’t satisfy your reader, and it won’t be worth the time you spent writing it. You may trade on the familiar, but make the story your own by being original, being honest, and avoiding gimmicks and clichés. A lot of humor depends on surprise and on irony. I discussed irony in the last chapter; reread that and make irony your tool for sophisticated humor.
3. Humor should serve a higher purpose. We may tend to consider humor fluff, lightweight, as unnecessary as M&Ms, as disposable as Kleenex. Well, a funny can be as forgettable as all that, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re going to retell a funny story from your life, find a story that matters, that contributes to human thought and might make the world a tiny bit better.
Bonus rule. Having reread my last sentence, I’m compelled to add, “Lighten up.” Yes, humor, in spite of its painful origin, its intellect, and its moral purpose, should be fun. To entertain is to serve a higher purpose. So make your stories fun to read, enjoy writing for the fun of writing, and while you’re at it, practice the fine art of laughing at yourself. Go ahead and embarrass yourself. You’ll be a winner if you do.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Meet William Doonan

This week I’m honored to have as my guest blogger William Doonan, a writer of mystery novels and stories, as well as an archeologist, a professor, and a very pleasant, funny guy. I know many of you are familiar with his work, which includes the Henry Grave cruise ship mystery series, as well as American Caliphate. If you know his work, you’ll agree with me that Bill Doonan is a highly entertaining writer, a real storyteller.

As I do routinely for these blog posts, I asked Bill to tell us what he feels about the Joy of Story. Here’s what he has to say. In the process, he tells the story of his adventure e-publishing his newest novel, The Mummies of Blogspace9.

Thanks, John, for having me on your blog, and thanks to your readers for reading. I’ve been thinking a lot about story-telling recently. As a college professor, I find myself telling stories every day; to illuminate concepts, to break the ice, and to build community. I can’t imagine a life without story.

I’ve written several books and dozens of short stories. I’m a mystery writer at heart, I’ve come to realize. But I’m an archaeologist by profession. And my most recent opus The Mummies of Blogspace9 draws on both of these facets.

It’s a fast-paced, genre-bending mystery involving an ancient pyramid (where I had the privilege of working for five summers) and a number of undead conquistador mummies (whom I have not yet encountered but suspect are real).

I worked really hard on this story, first as a serialized novel on my blog, and then, after meticulous rewriting, as a novel onto itself.

It’s a taut, high-stakes epistolary thriller about a team of archaeologists who inadvertently dig up more than they bargained for. Demons of antiquity are not easily amused, nor are those who’ve sold their souls to protect them. The Mummies of Blogspace9 will fill your heart with terror and with glee (but not at the same time, because that would be very strange, and also pointless).

You’ll laugh out loud, cringe in fear, and shake your head with delight. Here are some plot elements you might enjoy:

      undead mummies;
      very attractive protagonists who you will develop crushes on;
      carefully-chosen fonts;
      delightful full-color, high-resolution illustrations.
Here’s a blurb from one of Leon’s posts (Leon being a protagonist):

“None of us knew what was at stake. And that’s the thing about archaeology— you never know what you’ll find when you start digging into an ancient pyramid. Maybe some burials, mummies even. But surely not a five hundred year-old secret worth killing for.

Had I known at the onset that seven weeks later most of my friends would be dead, I would have left Peru in a heartbeat. But of course I didn’t know that.

“I didn’t know that a demonically-possessed Spanish Grand Inquisitor would haunt the crap out of us, or that a pair of undead conquistador knights would help us find the secret to putting down walking mummies.

“And surely, I wouldn’t have just sat around had I known that something was watching from inside that pyramid, some malevolent force that could animate the dead.

“But it’s all true, as you’ll come to realize.”

The Mummies of Blogspace9: Horror has a new URL

It’s an e-book, and that isn’t everybody’s thing. I get that. But I wanted to try something different, and this format allowed me to play around with illustrations. So if you have a Kindle, have a look. If you don’t, you can still see some fun things for the bargain price of 99¢. Here’s a link to peruse, gawk, or buy:

William Doonan is a mystery writer, archaeologist, professor, and purveyor of fine silk carpets. For more information about his work, visit

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Yes, You May!

Here, one week late because I was on the road last weekend, are the stories I received in response to my challenge: write a story with the last line, or the title, or the theme, “Yes, You May.” Thanks to the contributors for some fine short-short-short stories!
Remember, I present this feature on my blog every month, usually on the first Saturday of the month. The invitation is open to everyone.
Here are the rules:

1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot, and conflict.
4. The deadline: the first of the month.
5. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to:

Next month’s challenge: Write a story with this first line, or last line: “Take your hand off my knee,” said the Duchess.

Now, may you read the stories sent to me for this month of May? Yes, you may! Here they are:


by C. L. Swinney

My grandmother lived across the country in Wisconsin. I was lucky to see her once a year. Along with her time, her blueberry muffins were priceless.
She was the kindest lady I’d ever met. As years passed, I could tell she was not well, yet she tried to hide it. Some days, she barely moved.
Last time I saw her, I remember a muffin tray on the counter. I looked at her, she smiled at me. I sheepishly asked if I could help her make some.
She replied, “Yes, you may.”


by Jerry Giammatteo

On May 22, 1977, I graduated from St. John’s University. Having been an A to B-plus student all my life, I had never considered it a great accomplishment. I always expected to graduate.
To Mom, however, seeing her only child graduate was a huge event. Her health was failing. A month later, she was diagnosed with advanced stage colon cancer and was given less than a year to live.
At the party afterward, the band began with a slow number. Without hesitation, I approached Mom. “May I have this dance?” I asked.
Beaming, she replied, “Yes, you may.”


by John F. Nolan

She was an English teacher under arrest for DUI.
Accustomed to being obeyed, she tried to take charge.
“Release me from these handcuffs or I’ll sue you, Officer,” she ordered.
“No, handcuffs are for your safety. Can I have your DOB?” The cop asked.
“May I have your DOB?” She corrected.
“I want to use the ladies room,” she demanded.
“No, you might escape.”
“I have to go now,” she whined.
“You had better let me go, Officer.”
She stood, spread her legs and wet her pants.
“Now, may I use the ladies room?”
“Yes, you may!


by Elaine Polson Shiber

As he was walking by Ben’s Place, he saw her sitting alone at a table by the window, and stopped in his tracks to stare at her.
He paused, and then slowly walked in the door and hesitantly stood by her table. She didn’t see him at first, but then, after a minute or two, she looked up and smiled.
When he finally worked up the courage, he said, “Why would a woman as beautiful as you ever consider dating a man like me?”
She thought briefly. Then she murmured, “Why not?”
“May I ask you?”
“Yes, you may.”


by Phyllis Povell

Shari was stirring the pot on the stove when two-year-old Brianna came into the kitchen.
“Can I have some M&M’s?” she asked.
“Not before dinner,” her mother answered.
Perhap, two minutes passed when Brianna was back again. “Can I have some M&M’s?”
“No. I told you not before dinner.”
The third request was made in a whining voice, “Please can I have some M&M’s?”
A hard stare with no reply made Brianna slink away slowly.
Brianna appeared in the kitchen again. “Can I have some M&M’s, please, please?”
With a heavy sigh, Shari said, “Yes, you may.”


by Donna Weinheim

You put me on your bed naked and
You admired me when we first met
You made me wear clothes way too big
You made me laugh made my favorite food
You taught me how to drive
You protected my apartment with no front door while I worked
You danced for me sang for me
You told me to take typing in college so I could get a job
You demanded a son-in-law
You passed in the night and made me cry
You never asked me if
You could I would have told
You yes you may.


by Christine Viscuso

When I was in the second grade, Robert, a classmate, asked me, “May I kiss you?”
All I could say was, “Ugh!”
Thirty years later, I was working at an insurance agency. Larry the Oilman stopped in the office. I breathed in the stench of oil as I put away customers’ files. Leaning over the file cabinet, he asked, “May I kiss you?” I suspected he had a crush on me. Not wishing to hurt his feelings, the answer I thought of was, “Larry, what would your wife say?”
He sighed. “I was hoping you’d say, ‘yes you may!’”


by June Kosier

I was in kindergarten and I asked to be excused to go to the bathroom. Going down the hallway I encountered the Pastor. “May I bless you, my child?” he said to me.
I quickly replied “No, you may not.”
He asked, “But why child?”
“Because I didn’t sneeze, Father,” was my answer, and I continued to the girl’s room.
When I got home, I got a lecture about blessings and being thankful to get one. I would have been thankful to know how my mother always found out about my blunders when we didn’t even have a phone.


by John M. Daniel

I caught up with her in the health spa parking lot and grabbed her arm. She clenched her fist, crying, “Why did you invite me here?”
“Midsummer madness,” I said. “Didn’t you like the moonbeams? The baths? The loft?”
“I was hoping for something more substantial.”
“We discussed that,” I said. “I’m married, remember?”
“I don’t mean commitment,” she said. “I just wish you wanted to know who I am.”
“Who are you?”
“I rest my case.”
Touché. “So may I assume that’s it for us?”
As she drove away, I heard her shout back:
“Yes. Yes, you may.”


Coming soon: 
Next week this blog will feature guest poster William Doonan, who is one fine and funny fiction writer. Don't miss it!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

No post this week...

I am not posting on my blog this week, because I'm traveling and far away from my computer. I'll be back next week, May 11, with a collection of 99-word stories contributed by volunteer writers. The theme for May is "Yes, You May," and I'll be accepting contributions until Monday, May 6. I invite and encourage you to send me a 99-word story with that theme! Pls send by email to