Selected Craft Posts

Welcome to the Selected Posts page.

After nearly nine years of writing short craft essays on my author’s website, I thought I would highlight some of the more popular posts, so that readers could have easier access to them. I’ll also be posting craft essays that have appeared in other venues, such as The Millions and Assay.

If the excerpts here of any of these essays interest you, SIMPLY CLICK ON ANY OF THE BOLDFACED TITLES BELOW and voila!, you’ll be taken to the full craft essay.



Not many people know this, but Shakespeare never divided a single play into five acts. As Mark Rose notes, “In Shakespeare’s lifetime not one of his plays was published with any division of any kind.” And yet all his plays, as we know them today, go hummingly about their business from curtain rise and act one on through to act five and curtain close. These divisions were added to the plays many years after Shakespeare’s death.
So if our greatest playwright never tinkered with five acts (or any acts), what sort of structure did he use to shape his narratives—surely he didn’t simply scribble away?



I once played a video of The Ways Things Go (by the Swiss conceptual artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss) for one of my graduate-level writing workshops, offering the opinion that it contains a wealth of narrative strategies that anyone might care to study. Fischli and Weiss manage, in a huge warehouse space, to construct an odd, elaborate structure made of everyday objects that, once set in motion, takes nearly a half hour to unwind, as principles of physics and chemistry create relentless forward motion. It could be a novel.



We build our books in much the way different species of ants construct their underground homes, with an astonishing variety of invention. And so the shape of our stories and poems and essays become personal mirrors that reflect our secret selves.



If you don’t know the work of Pessoa (oh but you should, you should), here’s a little capsule description. Pessoa lived most of his life in the first half of the 20th century (he died at the age of 47 in 1935), and he was a poet who didn’t write poems as much as he created poets, who then wrote poems. Basically, Pessoa invented his own internal literary salon, consisting mainly of poetic voices that he dubbed heteronyms: more than pseudonyms but less than actual people. He gave them not only names—Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, and Bernardo Soares were his primary creations—but also biographies, astrological charts, personalities and physical features, even individual signatures . . .



Originally published in The Millions.

Let’s say your family has given you…a sweater. A common enough gift, but it’s a terrible, perhaps even an evil sweater. The combination of clashing colors resembles several things you might have once stepped on, in a nightmare. Worse, it doesn’t seem to fit. There are three arms, each one a different and incorrect length, and no hole for the crown of your head to peek through; instead, a round empty circle in the back gapes open about halfway down your spine. What to do with this?



Originally published in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

Memory—imperfect, fluid, sometimes hazy—waits for us to return and re-return, to examine and re-examine what at first we cannot see. This, I think, is one of the great interpretive tasks of the nonfiction writer, and of the memoirist especially: we are collectors not of memories so much as those memories’ shadows, so that we might recover, through their nurturing darkness, the hidden meaning of our lives.



When I was a graduate student at City College and studied with Donald Barthelme, I remember him urging me during one conference to consider writing a novel—probably because at the time I mainly wrote prose poems that barely extended into the territory of the short story, and Don always liked to mix things up a bit. The very idea, though, alarmed me. I couldn’t imagine ever writing any single thing that continued into hundreds of pages, and my squeaky timid protest to Don’s suggestion was, “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

His response surprised me. “Whenever I begin a novel,” he said, “the beginning never stays at the beginning. It ends up in the middle, or near the end. It never stays put where I started.”

I’d always assumed that one began a novel by starting on page one and slogging through to the last sentence, so this revelation served as some relief to me . . .



Every morning when we wake up we’re already plotting out the day ahead. And very often the schedule we hope to follow doesn’t quite work out that way, we have to be ready to make adjustments to the world’s unpredictability. And these are baby-step adjustments we must learn in order to adapt to the larger unfolding course of our lives. So we know how to plot a narrative, and we understand its potential fragility as well.

But plot isn’t simply a “and then and then and then.” Mere event in fiction can be as enervating as nothing happening at all. That craving to know must be messed with. And that brings me to the subject of suspense.



Ever wonder why you can find your way to a distant location in town, even if you only know a few, if any, of the names of the streets on the way? Erik Jonsson, in his book Inner Navigation: Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, claims that we all create “cognitive maps.”

“Navigation is knowing where you are and how to get to where you want to go. In an unfamiliar area this means that you have to use a map and compass to find your way. But if you know the area you need no such help. You know where you are, and you know how to get to where you want to be next. It is all in your head: you have a ‘map in the head,’ a cognitive map to go by.”

Once we come to know a place, we develop an “inner compass,” that turns with us, so that no matter where we’re facing we don’t get disoriented; we can find our way.

First impressions, spatially, indeed count. And this reminds me of that crucial moment in any short story or novel: the opening paragraph.



Have you ever discovered that, while speeding along on a highway, you’re actually ten or fifteen miles from when you were last conscious of driving? You had entered into a zone of the imaginary, perhaps shaping a conversation with a parent, or a child, or a sister, or a spouse, none of whom were present in the car with you. Or perhaps you were attempting to rewrite something you had done in the recent past. Whether we’re driving, walking down a city street, or sitting on a couch in the middle of a party, we often settle into mental spaces where we construct private dramas. Sonic Youth got it right, we are indeed a Daydream Nation . . .


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