The Parable of the Good Employee

[The last time I crowdsourced the editing of one of my short stories, I got some very helpful feedback, so let me know what you think in the comments section below!] The Parable of the Good Employee

by Benjamin Gorman


When the employee came into the boss’ office, she found him nearly bouncing in his chair with excitement.

“I’m glad to see you today,” he said. “I’ve had an excellent idea, an epiphany, a eureka moment! This is going to be awesome!”

Her shoulders tensed, and skepticism tightened her stomach. Her job was simple. She delivered food and medical supplies to people who needed them. The people came to the entrance to the tent each day, formed a little crowd or a ragged line, and she carried small packages from shelves to their waiting hands. She always carried a suspicion with her, the sense that her entire occupation was a waste. After all, her boss sat at a desk in an office which was just a separate part of the same tent. He could easily rise from that desk at any moment, begin passing the supplies to the people, and she would be unnecessary. Sure, he wouldn’t smile at the people, but how much are smiles really worth?

Her boss was smiling today, and this made all smiles suspect.

“So, here’s my big idea! Today, when we open the tent, the people will be surprised to find that there’s nothing inside!”

“Like, no food or supplies?”

“No,” he frowned. “That would be terrible. No, they wouldn’t see anything. It would still all be here, but they wouldn’t be able to see it. See, we’ll cover the inside the door with a couple big sheets of black butcher paper. Then, when I motion to you, you’ll run and burst through. They already like you. I’ve seen them smile when you arrive. But today, there will be this little moment of worry, and then you’ll appear, and they will love it. It’s going to be great.”

She thought this idea was a great example of the way stupidity can easily become cruelty. The people wanted their food and supplies, not a show. But maybe she was wrong. They did seem to like her smile. It felt good to hear that her boss had taken note of this. Maybe this wasn’t all bad.

So she agreed to give it a try. The people arrived as they always did. They milled about, waiting for the tent’s door to open. But today, instead of opening it herself, she stood back and watched as her boss unzipped the door and revealed the flat, black, paper wall.

The people did not shout in anger. They did not make any of those up-turning noises of curiosity. The silence was disconcerting.

Her boss, now inside his homemade paper wall, raised a finger for her to wait. He held it up until she could feel a full day’s perspiration already lining her armpits. She held a bundle of food under one arm and a bag of medical supplies under the other. They were not evenly balanced, so her lower back began to ache. Finally, her boss spun his hand, urging her forward.

Obediently, she ran at the paper wall. He’d stretched the two sheets horizontally across the tent’s entrance. Her shoulder tore through the one on top, and her knee pierced the other. She stumbled a bit, and that turned out to be a blessing. As she regained her feet, she smiled and laughed at herself. The people saw this grin, knew they were being entertained, and laughed. Then some polite applause broke out, punctuated by a few claps that seemed more than polite.

She handed the bundle of food and the bag of supplies to the first pair of waiting hands, then headed back into the tent, ducking between the torn paper as she went. Inside, her boss was beaming.

“They loved it! Did you see that?”

She nodded. Yes, she’d seen their pleased reaction.

“So cool!” her boss shouted. “I’m going to go call the higher-ups. They’ll love this story!”

She shrugged and got back to work.

The next morning, her boss was actually standing outside his office as she came in.

“Today is going to be even better. I found this old refrigerator box. I cut it into a single sheet, spread it to the posts, and stapled it. I think, if you run right at the middle, it will tear along the seam and you’ll come exploding out. It’ll be great!”

The show had been kind of cool the day before, she admitted. Why not?

So he opened the tent, made her wait a second, and then motioned to her just as he had the day before. She charged at the cardboard. It did split along one seam. Mostly. The cardboard ripped out from under the staples on one side, so after she was through, half of it hung askew behind her.

The crowd was a bit larger today. It seemed the previous day’s show had become a bit of an event, and people had come earlier to see if there would be more. The larger crowd clapped more heartily when she burst through. She was pleased by the response, but she hoped this would put an end to her boss’s theatrical impulses.

She arrived the next day to find a large piece of drywall blocking the inside of the tent’s door. She rolled her eyes and sighed.

“This is going to be the best one yet!” her boss said.

It certainly produced the most dramatic entrance. Dust and tiny flakes of pressed paper exploded when her shoulder and one arm burst through the drywall. Then she had to punch and kick her way through, each time eliciting smaller gasps and clapping from the crowd on the other side. When she finally fell through the hole she’d made, some men picked her up while her boss removed the drywall so she could perform the day’s distribution. The men nodded at her and smiled, but they also raised an eyebrow each, as though showing approval to an alien, and when they looked back into the tent they scowled and shook their heads.

The next day she discovered drywall again, and she was greatly relieved. Her shoulder was a bit sore from the impact the day before, but she felt she could handle it. If the boss had settled on drywall, she decided she would eventually get used to this new obstacle at the beginning of her work day. It would just become part of the routine. She’d learn to live with it.

“I know you can do this,” her boss said. “You’re the best employee a boss could ask for!”

She picked up the usual bag of food (rice, this time), and the box of medical supplies, and she charged at the wall. When her shoulder hit it and it didn’t give at all, her head bounced into it before she was tossed back onto the tent’s dirt floor. The bag of rice hit the ground and split down one side, spilling in a neat half-mountain.

After a second, she rose, rubbing her head. She wanted to scream a handful of obscenities at her boss, but she caught herself. She couldn’t afford to be fired for insubordination.

“…?” Through the fog of pain, she tried to formulate the question without swearing.

“I reinforced it with a 2x4,” he said. His face was contemplative. “It didn’t work, I guess.”


“Well,” he explained, I thought it would be a lot more dramatic if you broke the 2x4. You know, a giant ‘Crack!’ Wouldn’t that have been cool?”

She just stood there, rubbing her head and squinting.

“Um, so, I guess I should have told you first,” her boss said. “Look, the reinforcement is right in the middle of the door. Just aim for one side of it this next time, and you’ll bust through just like yesterday. It won’t be quite as cool as I’d hoped, but they’ll still like it.”

He turned around and headed back to his office. As he went, she could hear him mumbling to himself. “I guess I’ll just leave this out of the day’s report. It would have been cool, though.”

Because he wasn’t watching, and because her head and shoulder hurt terribly, she chose to kick a hole in the drywall first. Once her foot was through, she kept kicking and tearing at the space until it widened enough to let her pass. She channeled her anger at the whole fiasco into those punches and kicks, and that made her feel a little bit better. By that point, the people on the other side were not impressed. They shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and harumphed at her as they took their food and supplies from her, and they were still frowning for most of the day because her boss hadn’t removed the drywall; she had to duck through the hole she’d created all day long, and it slowed her down.

The next day she arrived to find a brick wall.

Her boss crossed his arms and puffed out his chest. “I had to stay late to get it done. It took me until 2 in the morning. Nobody can say managers don’t work hard, eh? But it should be dry now.”

“How am I supposed to…?”

“You just have to try,” he said. “I’ve noticed that your motivation is flagging a little bit lately. I know we’ve had a few changes around here, and change is hard for some people, but no one expects you to become a miracle worker overnight. Your mid-year performance review is coming up, and I want you to know that you’ll be evaluated based on your effort as much as your accomplishments. That’s how we do things around here. So c’mon.” He clapped his hands once, then rubbed them together. “Show me what you’ve got.”

She pointed at the food. “Do I need to…?”

It took him a second to understand the question. “The food? No, I don’t care about that. You can come back for it once you’ve broken through. No point in wasting it like yesterday.” He frowned. “I did have to put that in the report, by the way.”

She wanted to say something about that, but she held back. No point, she decided. Instead, she walked to the back of the tent, near the door to her boss’s office, so she could get a running start.

She charged the wall and leapt at it. This time she expected the impact, so, though she hit it with her shoulder and hip, she managed to keep her head from smacking against it when she bounced off.

As she lay in the dirt, her boss looked down at her. “I have to say, you are meeting but not exceeding my expectations.”

She got up and tried to brush herself off. “So, um, should I get to delivering the food?”

He frowned. “What is wrong with you? Of course not. Try again.”



Startled by his volume, she ran at the wall and bounced off.

His polished shoes stepped into her field of vision as she lay on the ground. “I can’t understand what I’m seeing,” he said. “This shows a distinct lack of professionalism on your part. Try again.”

She got up. She didn’t bother to try to brush the dirt off. She looked up at his eyes and confirmed the answer to a question she’d been wrestling with. Was he merely an incompetent cog in an absurd machine, or was he a sadist? she had wondered. Now she knew. Yet she stepped back, looked at the brick wall for a moment, and then ran at it again.

This time she did hit her head against it. The muscles in her neck were too tired to stop it from smacking audibly against the bricks. She landed flat on her back and the wind was knocked out of her.

As she tried to suck at the air around her, he stepped over her once again. “And I thought you said you went to religious school. Didn’t the priests teach you anything? It is your moral obligation to obey, and obeying your employer is a demonstration of your fealty to the gods. Now try again. Your eternal soul is on the line here!”

She rolled onto her stomach, then curled into a crouch, her knees pushing her back up, her aching head pressed against the dirt, dust roiling as she gasped for breath.  Then she leaned back and sat up. She tried to stand but fell to one side. The tent spun around her, and she let her head loll as she waited for it to stop. Then she raised her head again, more carefully, and slowly rose.

“Again,” he repeated. Just a whisper this time.

She stumbled to the back of the tent. She knew she’d need the distance to gather speed. Then she leaned forward and let gravity pull her toward the wall, her feet doing more to keep her up than to propel her. At the last second, she leaned to the side, hitting the wall with her shoulder and head. Something in her shoulder moved in an unnatural way, and she could hear the wet, squelching sound over the ringing in her ears. As she fell backwards, she lost sight in one eye, but she couldn’t comprehend it any more than she could the sensation of falling. When she hit the ground, it seemed a comfort.

“You are worthless!” her boss shouted. “If you won’t do it for yourself, and you won’t do it for all the holiness in the heavens, then, by the gods, do it for the people on the other side of the wall. They are counting on you. Don’t you care about them at all? Are you so heartless that you will just lie there while they starve? You disgust me.”

“I’m...trying,” she whispered.

“Trying?” he mocked. “Trying? Get up and do it! It’s not just your job on the line. It’s your professional integrity, your relationship to the gods, your reputation, your very humanity. Break yourself through that wall because it’s your very self that is at stake!”

“I can’t...get up.”

He grabbed her hands and hauled her to her feat. It seemed easy for him, but he pulled with such force that her neck whipped back painfully.

“This is why I’m the boss. When the going gets tough, I have to lift you up. We’re a team, see? Now, on your feet. C’mon. You can do this. I believe in you.” He led her to the back of the tent. “Okay, are you ready?”

“I...I think so.”

“Good girl. Now, 1, 2, 3!”

He pushed her toward the wall. One side of tent seemed a blurry gray, and she couldn’t tell just how far away the wall stood. At the last second, when it filled her field of vision, she stumbled. Unable to turn, she went in head first. There was another sickening crunch, but she was unaware of it.

“Too bad,” the boss said. “She was a good employee.”

Teaser for My Next Novel

MysteryIII know I haven't been posting as often as I ought to. A little teaser: I'll have a new novel hitting shelves this summer! It's too soon to reveal too much about it. It's complete. It's in the hands of my editor now. It's not a sequel to The Sum of Our Gods. Instead, it's a YA dystopia set 100 years in the future. It's terrifying. It's heartbreaking. And, hopefully, it will inspire readers to fight for a better future. If I really put my nose to the grindstone, I'll have this website overhauled by mid-spring, and I'll begin begging famous authors for book blurbs even sooner. This time I will make sure the book is available for pre-order, and I'll let you all know here, on Facebook, and on Twitter as specifics solidify.

So keep an eye out for more information. It's going to be a busy, exciting 2015!

Quick Note on "Finished"

Editing an English language documentMy author friends will appreciate this, and anyone aspiring to write a novel might recognize this, too: Last night, I thought I'd check in with my amazing editor, Wendy Beckman (who I highly recommend long as you don't jump in line and send her a novel before she gets mine). I wanted to make sure she had time in her schedule to edit my upcoming novel because I've finished the first draft. "...finished the first draft."

I couldn't help but laugh at the layers of ridiculousness in that statement.

First of all, the finished first draft is over thirty drafts on my computer, plus a huge document of digital notes and all the handwritten ones. There will be many, many more revisions and edits before Wendy ever sees it, too. Plus, there's the whole concept of "finished." It's never finished. I could spend the rest of my life preparing new editions of the last book, switching a word here, paring down a paragraph there, beefing up a chapter or cutting another. At some point, you have to hold your breath, clench every muscle in your body, and push "Send."

I was lucky. My wife, Paige, gave me the encouragement to push that button last time. This time, I think I'll point her to the computer, leave the house, and have her hit that final button herself, then come back when the emotional dust settles, give her a giant hug, and maybe cry a little bit from relief.

It's never done.

It's never finished.

Celebrate the steps along the way.

Now back to work.

When We Can No Longer Relate: Creating Characters in an Age of Growing Economic Inequality

MoralDisorderI was just reading a short story from Margaret Atwood's collection Moral Disorder titled "The Art of Cooking and Serving." To say the story was beautifully written is redundant; it was written by Margaret Atwood. In this particular story, an eleven year old tosses off a casual complaint about the fact that her parents' cabin doesn't have a refrigerator or a boat for water-skiing. It's not central to the story, but the detail suddenly kicked me out of the narrative and got me thinking about characterization and class. I expect that I am supposed to feel warmly toward the story's protagonist, but this small detail immediately makes me resent her. Her family can afford a second house but she complains about the amenities? I can barely afford one home which is far too cramped for my family, but we can't figure out how to get out from under it and into something more suitable. As an adult, I'm acutely aware that I am lower-middle class in my country (and very wealthy in relation to the majority of the people in the world). I don't think Atwood wanted me to resent the character (an 11 year-old, after all), but my class status makes this difficult. While I'm consciously aware that her childish reaction to the cabin is entirely realistic and understandable, and I can't reasonably expect an 11 year-old to count her blessings against the circumstances of others, I just have trouble relating to her. This one detail has made her feel distant. Not so much that I can't find other ways to connect to her and like her, but more than any single, small detail should affect my relationship to a character.  And, as a writer, that has me worried.  Income inequalityNot too long ago, Americans weren't even allowed to talk about class. The only people who spoke openly about it were the absolute dregs of our society; communists, artists, and academics. To even mention it, we were told, was to try to incite "class warfare." The forbidden nature of the subject didn't change the amount of money in anyone's bank accounts, but it did maintain the illusion of a cultural homogeneity longer than it would have lasted otherwise. At some point, the numbers told a story that all but the most ideological and willfully obtuse could not deny: The rich are getting dramatically richer. The poor are getting relatively poorer. The middle-class is thinning and fraying, like a rope pulled too tightly. There will come a point at which we have two distinct classes in America. There will come a point, at some unspecified time after that, when we acknowledge that fact. When it comes to social policy, I think it's all to the good that we are recognizing this change. Of course, it doesn't mean we can agree on solutions or even on whether it's a real problem. In our political climate, everyone has gone to their corners, of course. There's lots of talk about income inequality, and people are starting to talk openly about capital inequality now, too, though that's still pretty wonky. I could blather on it about it all day, but I won't. Rather than put forth policy proposals about changes to the tax code, as exciting as that would be for everyone, I think it's worthwhile for writers to consider what this will mean for us as we create characters.

Once upon a time, people calmly accepted the fact that their societies were composed of haves and have-nots. In literature's ancient past, the characters were almost all haves; heroic warriors who were also kings, beautiful maidens who were also queens or princesses. When peasants were depicted at all, it was because they were on their way to becoming haves through pluck or twists of fate (and even then they were mostly haves who had been mistaken for have-nots and had to rediscover their true, noble station). 

Readers rarely complained about the over-representation of wealthy characters in literature. That's because poor people couldn't read.

The middle class is a modern invention. The terms wasn't even coined until 1745, and even then it described a small but growing bourgeoisie population. Understandably, these mercantile city-dwellers didn't mind aspirational stories of middle class people becoming aristocrats, and they weren't turned off by stories that gave them glimpses into the lives of aristocrats themselves. As George Orwell pointed out, the middle class always wants to change places with the upper class. The upper class wants to stay where it is. Only the lower class wants equality, because they have the most to gain from it, so peasants might have wanted equality in the form of equal representation in literature, but again, they couldn't read. 

Exporting education to the lower classes is an even more modern invention. In the 1800s, elementary education became available to the (slim) majority of children, and even then secondary and higher education remained closed off to most students due to sexism and racism. Still, though some would point out that correlation is not causation, I am a firm believer that it was the rise of free, public education that created the middle class in America. 

Now we find ourselves regressing, and I wonder about the effect on literature. Once, when a writer wanted to write a story in which social class wasn't a significant theme, she could simply choose to make the characters middle class. Suddenly, it wasn't a story about poverty or wealth. The characters' class was still relevant, still defining in many ways, but it wasn't a signal to the reader that the character was too foreign to be relatable, or was deserving of pity, or was someone to admire or envy. The character had to earn pity or envy or admiration in other ways. 

And this is what worries me. Sure, it's a small concern in the scope of the problems that will arise as income inequality grows, but it's an issue writers will have to wrestle with. If I create a character who complains about the condition of her second home, I need to worry about have-nots feeling what I feel toward Atwood's protagonist in "The Art of Cooking and Serving." Conversely, I don't know how a much wealthier reader might feel about one of my characters who is, say, searching through the Target circular on Thanksgiving night to go bargain hunting on Black Friday. Do very rich people know what that's like? Do they feel pity for people who have to clip coupons? Disgust? Condescending amusement? If the scene of a family going through those circulars was presented as joyous and warm, would a much wealthier person admire those poorer characters or envy their family bonding? I just don't know. I don't know what's it's like to be very rich. I can try to imagine it, but I can also imagine what it might be like to walk on the moon or swim with mermaids. That doesn't mean I'm good at predicting what real astronauts or real mermaids will identify with in my stories.  

Once the middle class has essentially disappeared as a cultural group in the United States, will it even be possible to write characters without every story feeling like it's a story about class? Maybe that's fine. Maybe it's just a part of acknowledging something we should have been openly discussing all along. I'm very curious to see how writers (of novels, screenplays for TV and film, plays, etc.) handle the bifurcation of our society along economic lines. How are writers managing this question currently? How should they be?

Tonight I got to shake hands with Ursula K. Le Guin!

About a month ago, Sherman Alexie swore at me. Tonight I got to shake hands with another of my literary heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin. It's been a pretty amazing time, and it makes me wonder what's next. Will Margaret Atwood slap me? Will Cormac McCarthy kiss me on the forehead? Will the ghost of William Shakespeare appear in my room and command me to kill one of my uncles? I hope not. I love my uncles, but it would be hard to refuse an order from William Shakespeare. At the very least, I would dither, Hamlet-style. UrsulaKLeGuin1For those of you who are unfamiliar with her work, Ursula K Le Guin is probably most famous for her novels Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, as well as her Earthsea fantasy series. She's won the Hugo Award twice and the Nebula Award four times (those are the biggest prizes for science fiction authors). She's won the National Book Award. Tonight I learned that the Library of Congress named her a "Living Legend" for her contribution to American literature. Not too shabby.

She's also an Oregonian, or, at least, she has been since she moved her in 1959. I think that qualifies her sufficiently. She came to the Civic Center in Dallas, Oregon, as part of the Literary Arts & Lecture series. This last year she won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction, and part of the prize if that authors go around and give lectures throughout the state. I could imagine some authors resenting an award that came with an obligatory lecture tour, but if Ms. Le Guin resented it at all, she hid it masterfully.

Ms. Le Guin writes more than just science fiction and fantasy, and she showed off her range tonight by starting with some poetry, beginning with a poem written in sapphic stanzas (a 2500+ year-old form) followed by modern free verse. Then she read us a short story. As much praise as Le Guin has received for her novels, personally, I think her short stories are even more impressive. After the story, she answered questions from the audience. I selfishly asked two, both of which she answered generously, though with a bit less flair than Sherman Alexie. She was funny, sharp, and insightful about the writing process, her tastes, and the industry.

I managed to get a few of her quotes word for word:

  • On archetypes: "It's not like you go looking for them. They come looking for you!"
  • On her writing education: "I read a lot of good books. You learn what's worth imitating."
  • On why she doesn't like complicated thrillers: "I finally learn who done it, and I hardly knew it was done."

After her talk, I made my way to the front and shook her hand before she could get mobbed by people who wanted her to sign their books. She probably thinks I'm a cheapskate, but I would have purchased another copy of Lathe of Heaven just to have her sign it if I'd brought the checkbook or they'd taken credit cards. I fought off the urge to tell her that I do have copies of her books in storage. That would have sounded like a back-handed compliment as much as a desperate defense, anyway. Instead, I just shook her hand. I'm sure she's already forgotten the moment, but I will treasure it and brag about it to anyone who will listen or read a long and frustratingly inconclusive blog post.

Review of Divergent

Divergent coverToday I read Veronica Roth's Divergent. All of it. In one day. I'm not a fast reader like my wife or some of my colleagues, so that feels like an accomplishment to me. My verdict is ...mixed. The fact that it's a remarkably fast read doesn't really win or lose the book any points for me. I've torn through books before because they were so good I couldn't put them down. I also read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code very quickly, rolling my eyes every time he described Audrey Tautou's character as "incredulous," which was about 400 times. Roth's writing is certainly better than Dan Brown's, but that compliment feels more like an insult than I intend.

The world of Divergent is genuinely interesting and engrossing. I love dystopias, and the use of factions based on virtues is interesting. Calling the factions "factions" is a bit on-the-nose, but I can forgive that in YA. The choosing of the faction, though cliché, is also forgivable in a YA coming-of-age story. Whether it's the sorting hat or the Reaping or the shooting of a first deer, these moments are dramatic and speak to a longing in our culture for distinct coming-of-age rituals which we lack. I get that, and Roth handled that part just fine even if it wasn't unique. The protagonist, Tris, isn't sure whether she belongs in Slytherin Dauntless or Hufflepuff Abnegation, wrestles with the decision, and ultimately chooses a faction only to find that they are all flawed and none fit her perfectly. It works, and if it ain't broke ...well, a bit more creativity would be nice, but I can handle it.

Here's what is broken and which must be fixed. The narrator, Tris, is a gawky, accident-prone, scrawny, pretty (but not too pretty) girl who thinks she is ugly. Since she's the narrator, we are only exposed to her beauty by reading about all her self-doubts and then recognizing that they don't fit with the reactions of the boys around her who find her attractive. I can forgive Roth for drawing from the archetypal coming-of-age myths, but do we need another Bella Swann or Katniss Everdeen? Katniss is better than Tris in that she has confidence in her hunting ability and her role as the provider for her family. Tris has more pride than Bella Swann, but she even feels guilty about that pride. At least Tris doesn't have to get knocked-up by a guy who is more than a hundred years old on their honeymoon in order to discover her own self-worth by becoming a mother. Can we please stop telling teenage girls that, in order to be likable, they have to have unrealistically low opinions of themselves? This trend can't be good for anybody.

It's difficult to read around a protagonist who is unlikeable, but the other characters kept me going. Tobias/Four, the love interest, is genuinely interesting and somewhat complicated, at least until his unswerving adoration of Tris becomes clear. Then he just becomes a realistic swooning teenage boy, and that's bearable, too. Considering his backstory, he could have been a lot more insufferable in his brooding. Points for Roth on that.

And why present tense? Writers, listen to me! Present tense is great for action sequences, so I can see why it appeals to people who are setting out to write fast-paced, action heavy books. If you have any sense that the time period covered by the book will extend for any prolonged period of time, resist this temptation, especially if the book is written in first person. Learn from Suzanne Collins' mistake. After a second reading, I have grown to like Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games book, but I completely understand why it gets such mixed reviews from my students. In The Hunger Games trilogy. the first book happens over the course of a handful of days, so the present tense works. The second book happens over the course of a couple weeks, so it works, but slightly less well. The third covers a much longer period of time, but Collins couldn't switch because she'd painted herself into a corner. Unless you can maintain the urgency of an action scene for the whole series (which would probably be exhausting for the reader and would lead to a lot of blunt exposition at the expense of more beautiful prose), don't make this mistake. Better yet, write the thing in one tense, then rewrite it in another and see which works better. I suspect that, most of the time, you'll find that the demand for intensity is overbalanced by the fact that we naturally tell stories in the past tense in our daily lives, so this compulsion to haste leads to a stiff, awkward writing style.

The most interesting element of Divergent is the mystery of how this seeming-utopia is breaking down and what that says about the virtues which under-gird it. We really only get to see that starting to play out in the last third of the book, so I'll read the sequels to see if the series gets deeper into those questions of values and motivations. Also, my wife says Tris gets more likable. Color me skeptical. Still, I have to remind myself that The Lightning Thief, the first book in the Percy Jackson series, was painfully derivative of Harry Potter, but the series found its own way in the second book and ended up being pretty great by the end. Maybe the Divergent trilogy will find its own path and break free from some of the more well-worn elements of YA fiction in the second and third book.

Divergent-2014-Movie-Poster1I admit I'm very curious to see how they handle the severity of the book's violence in the film, so I'll be checking that out, too. My prediction, a largely bloodless version of a bloody, savage story. Hopefully my low expectations will cause me to be pleasantly surprised. Those who've seen the movie, are the directors really bold enough to make the audience sit through multiple beatings that continue until one of the participants is an unconscious, bloody pulp? I would respect that for both its faithfulness to the book and its audacity, but it doesn't sound like a lot of fun, and it would certainly upset some parents. How far do they go? Far enough? Too far?


Review of Watership Down

Watership Down CoverToday I assigned my nine-year-old son, Noah, to write a short review of the book he’d just finished. I explained that this wasn’t just busywork. It’s actually a good way to collect one’s thoughts about a book after finishing it. Well, tonight I finished Richard Adams’ Watership Down, a book that had been on my “I really should have read that a long time ago” list for many years. I guess it’s time to walk my talk.

If you are one of the three or four people in the English-speaking world who, like me, managed to miss this book, allow me to give you the basics. It’s about rabbits. It’s a remarkably subtle blend of anthropomorphization and well-researched naturalism. It draws heavily on great human epics about heroes and journeys and battles.  Essentially, a character named Fiver is Cassandra (the character in Greek mythology cursed to always tell the truth but never be believed), but his brother, Hazel, does believe him and takes a group of rabbits on a journey. Hazel turns out to be Odysseus, only instead of returning from a war to his beloved wife, he’s using clever tricks to get his rabbits to a new warren. Then there’s Bigwig, the old warrior who is brave enough to stand up to the monstrous tyrant who wants to destroy the new warren. I guess that makes him like Achilles or Beowulf, but in his defense of the warren on Watership Down, he’s more like Hector bravely willing to give his life for Troy and his brother’s honor. No, that’s not quite right, either. Anyway, they are all great characters who deserve to have their stories told to many generations of rabbits and humans.

One of the things that struck me was Richard Adams’ insistence that the book is not an allegory for any human events. I think he’s being totally honest that he didn’t intend for any allegory, but that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s a testament to the human need to create stories, just as the rabbits of Watership Down tell one another stories (beautiful stories interspersed throughout the book), that we connect this story to our own experience whether the author intends for us to do so or not. When General Woundwart, the leader of the opposing warren, comes to Watership Down and rejects the offer of peace out of fear and obsession, I couldn’t help but think of times I’ve made similar (though less deadly) blunders based on pride and a need to save face. I also thought of all the human wars started due to the same base motives. It’s not comfortable to discover a connection between my own failed attempts to maintain control in situations where I should have sought a win-win and times when whole nations flung themselves at one another because leaders made the same blunders on catastrophic scales, but that’s just the kind of connection that these non-allegory epic tales of adventure can produce if we are willing to let them.

Though I told Noah it was fine to spoil the ending in his own notes, I won’t do it here in a public forum. Suffice it to say that the ending was entirely satisfactory in that it resolved all the issues but made me wish Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig could get caught up in another series of adventures so that I could spend more time with them.

The writing is masterful. It’s always difficult to know how much to describe the natural world in a human story, and too often writers allow themselves to wax on and on about the movements of clouds and the play of sunlight through leaves fluttering in the wind without any thought to the fact that the human characters in the story don’t give a flying photon, and thus the readers don’t either. In general, these are prime examples of the darlings that must be killed. But in Watership Down, the descriptions of the natural world are direct products of the characters’ interests and their immediate sensory impressions. Just as a description of the direction of the wind is entirely relevant in a story about sailing ships, a description of scents on a breeze really matters in this book because it matters to the rabbits. That’s a good reminder for writers; if the reader cares about the characters, he/she will care about what the characters care about. But if you spend too much time on trivialities that are unimportant to the characters, the reader will not only lose interest in the story, but may cease to like the characters, too. I’ll be giving that more thought as I revise thanks to this novel.

Do not continue to make the mistake I made for so many years. Grab a copy of Watership Down posthaste.

...after you get a copy of The Sum of Our Gods, of course.


Tonight, Sherman Alexie said, "Fuck you!" to me!

Sherman AlexieI totally deserved it. Some background. First of all, getting to hear Sherman Alexie speak is a privilege for anybody because he's a supremely talented speaker. It's a bigger deal for me because he's in my Top Ten. Those aren't the ten writers I enjoy reading the most, though I thoroughly enjoy reading Mr. Alexie's work. Saying he's one of my favorite writers, though true, feels too much like saying, "I'm on Team Sherman!" Bleck. No, my Top Ten are the writers whose work I respect the most because they are masters of their craft. The roster of the Top Ten sometimes changes, but he's been a consistent member since I was 17 and read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Some of the other writers are dead. Some are alive, but recluses, like Cormac McCarthy, so I don't expect I'll get to hear them speak anytime soon. One member is dead and he was an asshole, so I'm not sure I would even have wanted to hear him speak. I might be paraphrasing, but I think Stephan King said something about how Earnest Hemingway was an asshole, but he was also a motherfucking genius. If Hemingway asked me to go out drinking with him I would demure because I know he would get me drunk, challenge me to a boxing match, impugn my masculinity until I agreed, and then beat the tar out of me. On second thought, I would still say yes and be grateful to have the chance to be beaten up by Hemingway. On third thought, I'd say no because I'd be too creeped-out if a dead guy asked me to go drinking. Nah, I'd still say yes.

Anyway, back to a member of the Top Ten who is less likely to beat me up (I'm still wary of you, Margaret Atwood!). I've heard Mr. Alexie speak before at the Portland Arts and Lectures series, but I didn't ask a question. I told myself that I was letting the high school students have that opportunity, but really I was too star struck. Tonight, I girded my loins and jumped for the mic when the time came.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven CoverThen, like a douche, I tried to make a joke about how I was still reeling from the news that this is the 20th anniversary of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a book I read when I was 17. I wanted to explain that the book was hugely important to me because it was one of the first things I'd read that taught me that good writing can punch you in the gut. Up until then, I'd read classics without the ability to put myself into another time and place and fully feel how impactful they were to the audiences of their day. I also read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi that were wonderful, but which were largely vacations from my life, not books that openly challenged me. (That's not a knock on fantasy or sci-fi. I just hadn't yet found books like 1984 or The Year of the Flood that pack a wallop.) Somebody put The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven into my hands when I got to college (some friend in the dorm, not one of my profs. It was too new to be canonized yet) and I found that short fiction and poetry, especially the poetry, could knock the wind out of me. I thought Mr. Alexie might take particular pleasure in the knowledge that his writing delivered a beat-down to a suburban white kid, but he'd also appreciate that it carried his images into my classroom, into my own writing, and into crevices in my brain where they have resided for twenty years and show no signs of vacating.

Of course, by pointing out that the twentieth anniversary made me feel old, I couldn't help but imply that Mr. Alexie is even older. So, before I could try to shoehorn all that praise into a short preamble to my real question, he said, "Fuck you!"

Now, this was great for a couple reasons. For one thing, I'd brought a group of my high school students. They absolutely loved watching a great writer tell one of their teachers off. On the bus on the way home, they kept asking, "Can we tell people what he said to you in school tomorrow?"

I shrugged. "You'd be quoting, so I guess it's fine as long as you put it in context and cite your source. Always cite your sources."

20140220_170715The other reason why this was so great was because it was Sherman Alexie and he was saying it to me. A couple weeks ago, as a fluke, I had my name drawn out of a hat and had a chance to go meet a couple of the Portland Trailblazers. It wasn't just a handshake/signature affair. We got to participate in a mock practice. Their great new center, Robin Lopez, who is listed at seven feet tall but struck me as more like eight, was kind enough to swat one of my attempted layups into the stands. That's what this felt like. Having Sherman Alexie tell me, "Fuck you!" was like having an NBA player swat my weak shot into the stands.

It didn't register at first. I'm not particularly prurient when it comes to language. Words are tools. They have no moral weight. When the right tool for the job is a four letter one, then it should be used. When any word, no matter how innocuous it might seem out of context, is employed to hurt someone, it becomes a "bad word." Even then, sometimes a bad word is also the right word. This casual attitude about so-called "swear words" is a bit dangerous for a school teacher. After listening to Mr. Alexie speak, I almost said that the revelation about the book's age made me "feel fuckin' old," and that would have been a bad slip-up in front of my kids. (They would have loved it, but I probably would have gotten hell from a parent or two.) When Mr. Alexie said, "Fuck you!" I not only wasn't offended; I was relieved. Standing up in front of a room full of people might be de rigueur for him, but there were a lot more grown-ups in that room than I am used to, and he made me feel like we were just two guys talking. Sure, he's the literary equivalent of an NBA seven footer and I'm the literary equivalent of ...well, I have one novel published, so I guess I'm the literary equivalent of the fan who jumps out of his recliner to shout at the TV sometimes. Still, he was talking with me, and that was very cool.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian CoverAfter that, I stumbled my way through my question. He used to stutter, so that's probably why he was patient with me. I asked him about how difficult it was to edit the beginning of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, a description of poverty and its psychological effects that is so carefully crafted and effective that I think every politician and policy-maker should have to read it to even be considered for office.

"Where do you teach?" he asked.

Now that really freaked me out. After all, this was a guy who had just said, "Fuck you!" and if he didn't like my question and had decided to light me up, I was about to give him a huge opening.

I told him. "Wow," he said. "They have some good teachers at Central High School." This is true. I'd ridden on the bus with some teachers who are better than I am. But I got the impression he was talking about me, and I will accept that praise (uncomfortably, as always).

Then he answered my question. His answer was generous, too generous for me to recount completely. He said that he'd edited that particular portion of the book probably 50 times. Then he demonstrated how one finds that sweet spot where a story manages to hit home without being preachy. You read that correctly. He demonstrated. On the spot. He told a story about the time his family got their first toilet. They didn't have indoor plumbing before, and, when they got it, it was magical. He had us all laughing as he talked about the mythic men from Sears who carried it in, and how the family drew straw to see who would get to use it first. He was the first Alexie to use the first Alexie toilet. Once he had us all feeling amused and included, he showed how the story can pivot in a natural way, grab us by the guts, and twist. He told us about how, when he was little, he was so scared that his dad would disappear on another bender that, when his dad would go into that bathroom to sit on that toilet, Sherman Jr. would go down the hall and sit by the door, knocking, just to make sure his dad was still home.

Bam! That's how it's done.

After demonstrating, he reminded us all that a lot of the editing process comes from reading. That was a good reminder for this English teacher. I always tell students how important it is to read often in order to become a better writer, but I forget to tell them that they need to read in order to become better editors, to analyze their own work and measure it by what has been successful in the writing they enjoy. I will make a point to share that with the students in my creative writing class tomorrow, though I know I won't do so half as well as Mr. Alexie did tonight.

To sum up, iIn just one evening, Mr. Alexie made me a better editor, a better writer, and a better teacher (and probably a better father, a better liberal, and a better white person, if I'm totally honest). To him, that's probably just like every other fucking day, but, to me, it was one helluva night.

War Dances CoverBut I didn't get to tell him how much I loved War Dances.





Review of Heathers

Heathers CoverOne of the authors of a story in the collection Heathers (published by the Pankhearst Writers Collective) offered me a review copy, and I thought, “A book of short stories written by adults for teens about teens. Uh-oh.” In the world of indie-publishing madness and self-important MFAs too concerned with style to say anything of substance, I opened this book with no small amount of hesitation and a deep well of cynicism. Would it be some earnest but misspelled, ungrammatical mess, or would it be the bastard child of Raymond Carver and Franz Kafka telling teens that their young lives climaxed on the first page and had no resolution? Sure, the editors had the good taste to pick a great epigram from Margaret Atwood, and the introductory essay was so good I will be sharing some of it with my teenage students when I explain why YA literature is not just good but vital to surviving adolescence, but could Lucy Middlemass and E.R. McTaggart pick stories to cash the check that essay was writing? The proof is in the pudding and all that.  

I was hooked from the very first story. Wow.


Here’s what this collection gets so right: Teenagers are not monsters. I know this because I teach them every day in my high school English classes. They are not one hundred year-old vampires. They are not the know-it-all brats who aggravate their parents on TV sitcoms. They are human beings. My ninth graders are squirrelly and hyperactive sometimes, but that’s a function of their age, not a judgment of their character. I have to remind myself of this occasionally. They are people, complicated and imperfect. If you don’t love people and all their multifaceted and sometimes ridiculous struggles, this book is not for you. Find something where the characters are amalgamations of a few interesting traits with no soul underneath. But if you, like me, are inspired by the way people strive in the face of an onslaught of suffering and find hope and love where none should reasonably exist, this book is for you.


Shizuyo, in Simon Paul Wilson’s “Sushi,” is more than just the new-kid-in-school archetype. She’s a real person who has fallen in love with the wrong girl and has pissed off the wrong bully. Barbara, in Karen Eisenbray’s “Hat,” isn’t the alternative loner who needs a make-over to win the popular guy. She’s a girl who has been turned invisible by a witch and needs a magic hat to allow the kids at her school to see her (and to allow her to see them).


Real teenagers are not all heroes, any more than they are villains. Some are kind and others cruel, some are shy and others outgoing, and some are good while others are jerks. And then there’s Pete in E.R. McTaggart’s “Girls, Interrupted,” who reminds us that some are kind of douche-y but still have very real feelings they hide under a proto-frat boy suit of armor that is just as real.


This collection is full of characters like this. There’s the girl who is about to learn the perfect thing on the London subway train in Lucy Middlemass’ “Metro,” and the 19-year-old fatherless heroin junkie who is about to learn the exact opposite in PS Brooks’ “Chairoscuro.” There’s the girl who can weave through every defender on the basketball court and every distracting through in her head in Layla Harding’s “On the Line.” And then there’s Trevor, the autistic boy simply trying make it through a week of junior high in Evangeline Jennings’ “Walking to School,”… …oh, just spending time with Trevor will make you ache for him, make your guts twist with a sympathy that can never be empathy…


The only real question I had when I was halfway through the collection was: Should I buy one copy for myself or six copies for all the teachers in my school’s English department?


I’m buying six.


Heathers was released on Amazon in print and Kindle version on December 14th. Get your copy (or six) here.



(The Central High School Creative Writing Club is writing stories for the "1000 Prompts, 1000 Dollars" Contest. Here's our first entry.) "Memory"

Cassie Lawsonby Cassie Lawson

(Inspired by Prompt #10 in the "Memory" category, here.)

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to stop the tears from flooding my eyes. I slammed the door behind me and slid to the floor, my back against my bedroom door. I wrapped my arms around my knees and sobbed. My phone rang, an annoyingly happy tune chirping at me. I picked up my crappy flip-phone and threw it against my wall. I heard his steps as his loud, heavy footsteps down the hall as he paced after me. He tried to open the door, but I braced against it.

“Kit, just listen to me—please—I can explain. It wasn’t what you think.” His voice sounded sad. Sad for being caught¸ I thought bitterly.

“How?” I wailed, “You were singing her our song! I saw the look on your face.” My voice broke, remembering what I had seen. My boyfriend, Ryder, was a musician who worked at the local coffee shop. I decided to stop by his work between classes, so I could surprise him during his break, but I saw him with another girl. They were sitting on a leather couch and he had his guitar on his knee.

If Heaven and Hell decide/ That they both are satisfied/ Illuminate the "No"'s on their vacancy signs/ If there's no one beside you/ When your soul embarks/ Then I'll follow you into the dark,” he sang the chorus of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” strumming gently on his guitar. The girl had her hand on his knee and as he sang, he gave her the look. The look when his grey eyes looked gentle, and his smile was soft. The look he got when he thought of us being together forever. The look he had when he loved someone. The look. I dropped my coffee when I saw him, my heart shattering against the floor in time with my latte. Everyone—including Ryder and the girl—turned to look at me. When our eyes met, I turned around and ran straight out of the café. I didn’t stop running until I reached our apartment four blocks away, ignoring his shouts.

As I sat in my room, the sun blazed high in the sky and bird chirped out the window.  I glared at the sky through tear blurred vision. Why was it always sunny in this damn town? It should be raining. From behind the door, I heard Ryder’s knees hit our hardwood floor and I could imagine how he looked right now. He sighed and I pictured him running his hand through his shaggy black hair so his bangs were out of his eyes. His shoulders were probably slumped, he always slumped his shoulder when he got upset. I heard his hand gently thump as he rested it against the door. “Kit, please…”

I was surprised by the pain in his voice. He sounded hurt and sad. I wiped the tears from my eyes. Gandhi once said that forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. I took a deep breath and scooted back. After a moment I opened the door to find Ryder and I looking eye to eye. Normally, he is a good foot and a half taller than me, but when he is slumped over I’m only a few inches shorter. He slowly looked up from his hands. Tears streaked his cheeks, some still clinging to his thick black eyelashes.  “Kit,” he said, his voice breaking. He reached towards my hands, which I had placed in my lap. I pulled them away quickly, as if his touch would burn me.

“What?” I asked bitterly, glaring at him through my tear-soaked bangs. “Explain yourself.” After I avoided his hands, another tear fell.

“Please, just listen to me. Please. Will you listen to a story before I explain? Trust me, I can explain everything.” I nodded and he closed his eyes. “Do you remember the day we met? Because I remember that I had gotten a job at the café my junior year—I needed to pay for school and all, I didn’t have scholarships like you—and I hated it. It was always the same people, stuck up girls pretending to be artists or boys who wished they were in a band. Day in and day out, I made black coffees and foofy drinks for college students that just called me ‘coffee guy.’ But then you came around. Instead of the scent of coffee, you smelt like green apples and your roommate’s clove cigarettes. I still remembered that you called me by name. You ordered a caramel frappe on the first rainy day of the school year. All the other girls were whining about the weather, but you shone. The chilly rain brought beautiful color to your cheeks…” He paused, and raised his fingers to my cheek. He hesitated, and then let his hand drop to his lap. “ You looked beautiful. When you began coming in regularly, I was ecstatic. I began pulling extra shifts in order to work whenever you were there. Do you remember the first time you heard me play?”

I nodded. He and his band played a late night show at an apartment complex that all of the art kids decided to rent together. We had our own little community, sectioned into the poets, the musicians, the painters, and the sculptors. I didn’t move into my room until the second week, when I realized that I hated the party girl roommate I had. Elly and I met in Creative Writing 201, a sophomore class I got special permission to get in. It was after our first poetry slam that she invited me to be her roommate.

“Well, it’s just that my boyfriend and I just split and I’ve been looking for a new roommate. You seem like you’d fit in with the indie kids. Unless you’re an axe murderer, I’d be happy to have you for a roommate. Oh yeah, you don’t smoke, do you?” I shook my head and Elly grinned, putting a clove cigarette between her lips. “Good. My ex used to always steal my smokes.”

Ryder’s band sang a bunch of cover songs by famous punk bands. I remembered him from the café, but I didn’t know he was a singer. It turned out that he lived in the complex four doors down from me. That was the night I finally felt like a college student. I hung out with Elly and a few art majors. I recognized many of them from classes and the café. Elly introduced me to Alec and Jace, brothers who were named Alexander and Jason, but decided to shorten it just as Elizabeth and I, Katherine, decided to become Elly and Kit. We danced with them and sang along to Ryder’s band for what felt like hours. When the sun began to rise Ryder’s band was replaced by Elly and Alec DJ-ing from their iPods.

“Hey,” Ryder said from behind me, offering me a Monster Energy drink with a smile on his face. “I didn’t know you lived her. Or are you just hanging out with a friend?” Then his smile began to falter as he added, “Or maybe your boyfriend?”

“No boyfriend, just my new roommate Elly. I didn’t know you sang Ryder. You were amazing!” Ryder grinned and looked down at me. He bowed, his black bangs fell down and when he looked up at me, they covered his right eye. He took my hand in his and kissed it. I giggled at the goofy, yet sweet gesture.

“Caramel Frappe Kit, will you do me the honor of this dance, and if the night goes well, maybe we can see each other somewhere other than the café?” I nodded, my lips curling up at the ends, without clarifying which I was answering. After we started dating, Elly told me that she had seen us together and that was why she played “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”

Time seemed to stand still as Ryder placed his hand on my hip. He gently took my hand and I placed my lace-gloved hand on his shoulder. He pulled me close, and the scent of coffee beans and boy engulfed me. He was warm and with our chests pressed together, I feared he’d feel my heart racing. The party around us disappeared when I got the courage to look up. I could see my hazel eyes in his grey eyes, as we stared at each other.

“You’re absolutely beautiful, Kit.” Ryder whispered into my hair. I blushed and looked down. That was the first time anyone outside of my family had ever called me beautiful, and coming from him I almost believed it. It was like he could read my mind because he lifted me up and held me around the waist as we swayed to the music. “And it’s okay if you don’t believe me yet. Because I’d be happy to spend every day proving it to you.”