Bob Gillen

the magic of storytelling

Mannequin Monday – If I Knew the Way

Mannequin heads

Here we are at another Mannequin Monday. Dressing the page this week with words of yearning, searching. Homesick for our place in the world. “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”


1. This Week’s Reading:

I read Sarah Ruhl’s poem “Homesickness” in Narrative magazine.

photo of writer/poet Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl, from her website

2. Discussion:

Sarah Ruhl’s poem touches a nerve. She moves us beyond the usual understanding of homesickness. The yearning for a place I once inhabited. She takes it to another dimension. “The endless desire to be at home in the world.” To belong somewhere. To fit in. To find my place. My tribe. My community.

It reminds me of several quotes. One from Moby-Dick: “It is not down on any map; True places never are.”

And another from The Grateful Dead: “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”

And a third quote from Twyla Tharp’s new book, Keep It Moving. Talking about auditioning for the Radio City Rockettes early in her dance career, she says: “What it came down to with me and the Rockettes was my unwillingness to join the line. The line is where you lose your identity and your independence.”

Yearning. If I knew the way…the line is where you lose…

3. This Week’s Reading/interview:

In the Adobe Create online magazine there is an interview with photographer Joe Pugliese, titled “On the Edge of Failure.” Pugliese is another person who did not “join the line.”

Famed photographer Joe Publiese
Joe Pugliese, credit Joe Pugliese

For a time Pugliese took photos for a newspaper. “Photojournalists are very creative, but I wanted to do more experimental things, and with the deadline of a daily newspaper there was no time and I didn’t have any kind of lighting support or anything. It showed me that I liked photography, but I didn’t want it to be a news-gathering device. I wanted it to be an interpersonal experience.”

“When I started in photography, some of my most satisfying results were because I was 100% screwing up. I didn’t have any formal training—I didn’t have a single class—so it was all about book learning and trial and error, and the trial and error was so exciting. I keep that in my mind when I’m shooting and am tempted to say, “We need to stop and fix this.” Instead, I keep going just another minute to see what the mistake looks like. I find excitement in the fact that I don’t really know how it will come out.”

Pugliese is an avid bike rider. “In mobile photography… it’s pure joy. It’s color, it’s graphic elements, it’s the way the light looks. I’m not sure how it informs my portrait work, but it certainly informs the graphic design part of my brain that I want to keep honed. And it reminds me that there’s joy in photography. I have a sense of joy when I’m doing a portrait session, but it’s a serious joy, it’s an endeavor.”

On the edge of failure: “I do a lot of things as a hobby where I have knowledge of the upper echelon of that thing, but I can’t achieve it; for example, I do a lot of amateur baking, things like French macarons and soufflés that are absolutely fail-heavy. But there is redemption in that failure, of thinking I knew how to do it but even following directions I can’t do it. It makes me practice self-kindness. It’s okay. You’ll make another batch and it’ll probably be better. I have to take that feeling into all creative jobs because if you feel like you can’t fail, then you’re probably not really pushing yourself. You really should feel that you’re on the edge of failure all the time. Because that’s where progress is made.”

And isn’t that a motivation for good writing, to feel we are on the edge of failure all the time.

4. My Current Writing:

I’m sharing one of my stories from an online course I took at the University of Iowa.


Bob Gillen

I have no words, no words, no words. I cannot speak… of this….of anything. No speaking. No words. 

I sit on the floor, with my back against the wall. A wall painted black. Black wall. My eyes see it all. The stage. A wood floor. A stool lying on its side. A bottle of water tipped over. Spilled on the floor. Water. Wet floor. The men stand around Maurice. Not Maurice. Not anymore. Dead Maurice. Dead, dead. Not moving. Gone.

I can see them. See them touch him. One, the theater manager, looks around. No one but a policeman standing there. He goes through pockets. Maurice’s pockets. Fingers pull out folded bills. Maurice got paid before we went on for this last show. Paid in cash. The fingers thumb the bills. Some into the manager’s pocket. No. No. That’s our money. He slips bills to the cop. The cop nods, glances around. Money. Gone.

I was talking when Maurice fell over. Fell off the stool. My eyes were fixed on him. He was sweating. Dripping from his brow. Maurice never sweat. No stage light was hot enough to make him sweat. He sweat enough for it to fall on my leg tonight. And then he was gone. I saw the light go out in his eyes. Dead eyes. Dead. What will I do now? Do now? No more words.

I hear the cop speak. Does he have any family here? The manager shakes his head. Maybe upstate New York. I’m not sure.

That’s right. Ithaca. The college town. That’s where we live. Maurice and me. Used to live. There’s no one else there. She left three years ago. If the theater manager had listened to Maurice’s act, he’d know. Maurice talked about it constantly. Only in the act. Only on stage. Never anywhere else. She was gone. Just a joke now. Good for laughs.

I’m not laughing. Not now. No laughs from my lips. My lips. I can never speak of this. Can never find the right words. Any words.

The policeman asks, pointing at the sign on the stage wall, which one was he? Maurice or Milo? The manager says, Maurice. If the cop was observant, he’d have known. Maurice. Dressed in a tuxedo. French cuffs. A black bow tie. Pearl buttons on his shirt. Maurice. What else could he be named?

image of a black beret

The cop continues. So that’s Milo? He points at me. A finger pointing down at me. He wags his finger at me. I sit and stare back. Me in my navy pants, black and white striped shirt, black beret. The manager nods. Sawdust for brains? Yeah, that’s Milo.

What do you want to do with him? The cop points, points, at Maurice. At the body. The manager shakes his head. Him dying on stage cleared the house, I hear him say. I guess you can call an undertaker.

Yeah, the cop says. As soon as the coroner shows up, they can take him. Get him out of here. Let you close up. Tough night, huh?

You have no idea, he says. This cornball act brought in a lot of folks. Who bought a lot of drinks. They were good for that.

Good for that. Good. Get the room filled up. Push drinks. Drinks. Maurice didn’t drink. That made it easier for me. Easier to do my part of the act. Easy for me to say what he was thinking. Easy for me. Easy. Not any more. What do I do now? Where do I go? With Maurice? There’s no Maurice and Milo, with Maurice dead.

The manager throws a soiled tablecloth over Maurice’s body. I can’t see his face now. His face. The face I worked off of almost every night. We worked steady. Like the manager just said, we are, were, a real cornball duo. But we pulled them in. Just about everywhere. Rare when we didn’t fill a club.

Tomorrow night we’ll be in Phoenix. No we won’t. Not now. Decent club. Played it a dozen times in the six years we’ve been working together. Working together. No more. Milo. Who will come to see Milo. Who will feed me the words? Cue me? Set me up for the killer line, the punch line, the big joke. With his tux and tie, some reviewers called Maurice a Dean Martin. The straight man. The man with the cigarette. The glass. Maurice’s glass held iced tea. He checked it every night before we went on. No mistakes. No slip ups. Tea. Every night, tea.

Maurice is dead. I saw him go. In a moment. Not even the blink of an eye. Looking at me. Dead on the floor. Gone. Over. It’s over. Where are my words? I have no words. No words. My mouth is still. I am numb. I can’t speak of this. What will I do? Will someone take me in? Take me in, in, somewhere. A place to go.

The cop points at me again. What about him? Send him with the undertaker, the manager says. I have no use for him. Let the undertaker figure it out. If he wants to get paid, he’ll try to find a relative to cover the funeral. The burial.

The cop steps toward me. Leave me alone. Don’t touch me. Bring Maurice back. Back. Reverse it. Tonight will be a do-over. Can’t we do that?

The cop picks me up. Dumps me next to the dirty tablecloth. Next to Maurice. Not Maurice. Pretty heavy for a dummy, the cop says. He looks at me. Nothing to say now, huh?

Mannequin Monday – Dressing the Page

Mannequin Monday. A day to dress the blank page. To fill the empty screen. To chip away at the block of stone. To shape the blob of clay.

Mannequin faces

The mannequin’s purpose is to be draped by the dresser. Blank media exists for the artist. Let’s fill and shape, let’s make art, with our words, our visions, our hands.

Every week I will post a story I have read, a bit of discussion on the story, another reference to a podcast, article, or interview, and then an excerpt from my current writing. The outline will mimic the structure of several online fiction courses I have taken with the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. I hope you may find inspiration here.


1. This Week’s Reading: 

Narrative magazine – “Befriended” by Shaily Menon

2. Discussion:

photo of author Shaily Menon
Author Shaily Menon, Narrative Magazine

A simple act of befriending a young boy has consequences for a scientist ten to twelve years later. The scientist tracks a group of monkeys in a rainforest in India, studying their eating habits. She goes out into the jungle daily from her base camp, always accompanied by her tracker. One morning, as a drenching rain soaks the jungle, the tracker refuses to go out with the scientist. She ventures out alone. What drives her is the motto of grad students – “Give us data or give us death.” She finds a boy of about nine or ten following her in the forest. They strike up a limited conversation. She does not speak Tamil. Nor he English. Over time he often follows her as she tracks the monkeys.

When her project is complete and she is returning home, the boy begs to go with her. She agrees to bring him to stay with her parents for one year, to educate him and provide a service to her parents. After a year he returns to his own family. All go on with their lives.

Ten years later the boy, now around nineteen, calls the scientist out of the blue. They talk briefly. Again, they lose touch for several more years. Another call. The young man’s father is in need of cardiac surgery. The scientist makes arrangements for money to be wired to help with the medical expense.

I won’t reveal the ending.

The story is told from the scientist’s first person point of view, speaking to the young man. You followed me. You spent a year with my parents. You returned home. You called me. Thank you for calling. So good to hear you are well.

We never hear the scientist’s name. Or the boy’s. It’s a conversation between two people. No need for names. A story devoid of description. She is not talking to us, the readers. She speaks to him. Directly.

3. This Week’s Podcast/Interview:

Several years ago I posted on my blog Creating Story about urban underground photographer Steve Duncan. Duncan has spent years exploring and photographing urban underground arteries that include New York City’s subway and sewer tunnels, as well as the Paris and London underground.

Duncan was afraid of the dark.

In a 2010 interview in Columbia Magazine, Duncan said, “I figured if I could venture alone into this dark and terrifying tunnel, I could be proud of myself. There was the sense that if I didn’t push through with it, I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye.”

photo of urban underground explorer Steve Duncan
Steve Duncan Portrait, Sacha Maric, Brooklyn

What a great metaphor for writing. Afraid of the dark. Moving into the underground. Pushing through. And looking yourself in the eye when done. 

4. My Current Writing:

Steve Duncan has inspired part of Tessa Warren’s brother Ryder’s psyche. In my upcoming Surfrider, Tessa talks to Kelsey, one of Ryder’s friends from film school. Here’s a draft of the conversation:

Kelsey thought for a moment. “It’s all about story.”

“What is?”

“Film. It’s story. Storytelling.”


“If I know you, you’ve watched Ryder’s films many times.”

Tessa smiled. “Hundreds.”

“Do you recall the one he shot in the New York subway tunnels?”

“Sure. One of my favorites.”

“What was the story?”

“The conversation with the woman who lived in the tunnel. The one who had lived there for years.”

“That’s the story everyone sees.”

“What else is there?”

“What you don’t know. What you should be able to sense.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Ryder was terrified in those tunnels.”

“He was?”

“Oh yeah. He grew up out here in LA. Wide open. Light. Breezy. Lots of sun and space. Most of your houses don’t even have basements, right?”

Tessa nodded. Where was this going?

“New York is a great city, don’t get me wrong. I grew up there. I was used to the dark side. Basements, alleys, subway tunnels, tunnels under the rivers. Blackouts. Ryder didn’t know that.”

“But he lived there for four years.”

“He did. But he would never walk through an alley. Never walk down a narrow street or a dark street. He would walk around it. He was never comfortable with the subway. He often walked where he had to go. Sometimes preferred a bus.”

“But he did that movie.”

“That’s my point. If you watch that film closely, you realize first that of course he himself is not on screen. What you don’t see is what he is feeling.”


“He went down into those tunnels alone. In every case he was trespassing. It’s illegal to be in there. He started out talking to homeless people up on the streets. The ones in the bus and railroad terminals. The ones who slept outdoors over the sidewalk steam grates.”

Kelsey paused.

“The woman he talked to in the tunnel…he met her up on the street. He worked on building trust with her. Would bring her coffee. Talk to her. She told him, you want do a story, come see where I live. Where a lot of us live.”

“And he did?”

“He followed her into the tunnels. The blackness. She had no flashlight. She knew the way. Told him not to use a light. He followed her in the pitch black. For a long way. Where she lived is an isolated part of the subway system. She would not let him turn on his camera light till they reached her alcove, hidden in a maze of tunnels.”

Tessa shivered involuntarily.

“I talked to him later when he came back. He was filthy. He was shaking. He took a long shower. We sat and talked about it. He had been terrified. He had to face his own fears. Face down his terror.”

Tessa thought of the film she had watched so many times. Began to sense the tremor in his voice as he spoke with the homeless woman. Began to imagine the blackness beyond the camera light.

“The story, Tessa, is deeper than what you see. There is an art there. Ryder was a telling a story, sure. A story of the homeless woman. But there was the story of him getting the footage. The story of facing up to fear. Confronting oneself.”

A Card on Mother’s Day

Here’s another short story I wrote for my online writing course through the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. The program offers excellent feedback from other participants. So worth it!

I hope you enjoy it.

A Card on Mother’s Day

You shouldn’t have wasted your money on flowers. They’ll only die

Mom tells me that every Mother’s Day. This year I want to say, So will dad.

I hesitated at their front door. I don’t want to do this.

I fingered the bouquet of red carnations and the bag in my hands. Rang the bell. Turned the knob. Always unlocked. I stepped in. Mom came down the hall. “He’s not good.”

I nodded. “These are for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” I handed her the carnations. She offered a thin smile. “I’ll find a vase.”

I followed her to the kitchen. 

“Go say hello. Your dad’s awake.”

I walked to their bedroom. Dad lay in a hospital bed. Shrunken. Pale. Eyes closed. 

“Hi, dad.”

He opened his eyes. Nodded slightly.

I took a corsage and a card out of the bag. “I got these for you to give mom. Can you sign the card?”

Dad shook his head. His eyes glazed over.

“Okay, I’ll sign for you.” I pulled a pen from my shirt pocket, opened the card. 

To My Wife on Mother’s Day. 

I signed the card, Love, Bill. I had already written Dear Mary across the top of the card.

I stuffed the card in the matching yellow envelope. Left the card and the corsage on the side of the bed, next to dad. “I’ll get mom.”

I returned to the kitchen. “Dad needs you for a minute.”

Mom wiped her hands on a dishtowel and went back to the bedroom.

I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat at the table. Stared out the window. Took in a deep breath. Not good.

A while later mom came back to the kitchen, her eyes wet. “Thank you for doing that for him.”

She busied herself preparing supper. A light meal. Shrimp cocktail, potato salad, deviled eggs. “I doubt he’ll eat anything.”

After we ate, mom’s close friend Angela stopped by. With a crumb cake from the local deli. My favorite. We sat in silence eating the cake and drinking coffee.

Afterwards, I told mom I’d be back in a little while. I went out for a walk. A long walk. All the way to the edge of town, to the park that bordered the bay. I circled the park till well after dark.

When I got back to the house, Angela met me at the front door. “Your dad is gone.”

I nodded. “How’s mom?”

“Having coffee. Do you want to see your dad?”


I walked back to the bedroom again. The Mother’s Day card stood on the night table. The corsage was on her pillow. 

I stood looking down at my dad. My dad’s body. His empty eyes. With an index finger I gently closed his eyes. 

The doorbell rang. Moments later two undertakers stepped into the bedroom. They said nothing. I moved aside, walked back to the kitchen. Mom sat at the table, Angela next to her, holding her hand.

Mom looked up at me. “He’s at peace now. No more pain.”

I nodded.

“See if the undertakers need anything.”

As I approached the bedroom, I heard the zip of the body bag. I stopped. They came out of the room. I met their eyes. Nodded.

I walked ahead of them to the front door. Held it open for them. Stood in the doorway. A dark moonless night. 

I watched them carry the body bag to their van. I felt a single tear ooze out as they drove off.

I stared into the darkness.

I Had the Cancer in the 1980s

I am in the middle of an online writing course offered by the University of Iowa. The course is a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from the International Writing Program (IWP) there. The course is titled: Hidden Meanings: Creative Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Facts.

This will be my second writing course with IWP. I find them to be very challenging, but the feedback from other course participants is excellent. Serious, thought-provoking, supportive.

Today I’m posting the writing assignment I submitted for lesson three: all about “the line between what we remember or know and what really happened.” I attempted to tell a story from two points of view. Comments are welcome.


Megan steered right out of the hospital parking lot and edged into the flow of traffic.

“Where can I drop you?”

“The Starbucks down the street from my apartment.” Her brother Adam touched the laptop case on his lap. “I have a blog post to write.”

She nodded.

“Mom looked better today. Her color is coming back.”

“Yeah,” Adam said. “One of the RNs said they may let her out by Friday, if her kidney numbers continue to improve.”

The two drifted into silence for a few minutes.

At a red light, Megan turned to Adam. “I was thinking about those days when I was getting chemo treatments.”

“It’s been, what, seven years now?”

She nodded. 

A tear slid down her cheek. “You were there for every one of my treatments.”

He smiled. “You’re my kid sister.”

“Remember the day I got stuck talking to that foreign woman in the waiting room?”


 “I think she was from eastern Europe. She had an accent.”



“She was from Hungary.”

“Okay…whatever. Remember the grocery bag full of bills and receipts she had on her lap?”

Adam nodded.

Megan said, “You buried yourself writing in your notebook. The woman turned and started talking to me.”

Adam laughed. “I remember it well.

“She kept fussing with the bag of papers. Said she had to get all her bills straightened out.”

“I remember.”

It was Megan’s turn to laugh. “I kept nodding and looking to the nurse to call me inside for my treatment. The woman would not stop talking to me. Rambled on about having her own business somewhere.”



“She owned a transmission shop in Hollywood. For years. Said that cast iron transmissions were stronger, but they had to reduce weight on the cars, so they began making them out of aluminum.”

“How do you remember this?”

He patted his laptop case. “It’s all here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“While she was talking to you, I was writing down what she was saying..”


“Writing research. I have used that story at least six times in all the writing courses I’ve taken.”

Megan eased around a bus on the street ahead of them.

“You mean, while I was talking to that lady, you were writing down our conversation?”

“Yes…but it wasn’t much of a conversation. She did all the talking.”

Megan laughed. “You’re unreal.”

He opened his case and pulled out an iPad. Opened to a file.

Budapest 1956
Credit: Calgary Herald

“Here it is. She was from Budapest. Left her country in 1956 when the uprising occurred. She didn’t say, but I’d guess she came across into Austria. Then immigrated here to the States.”

Megan shook her head.

“She had the transmission business for over 25 years. Said she never had any trouble with accounting till now, with all her medical bills. What she actually said was, ‘I know how to run a business. This, I can’t figure out.’”

“Seriously, I can’t believe you have all that in writing.”

“I’m a writer.”

“I thought you made it all up.”

“Most of it…but I listen, observe, take notes.”

“That woman seemed like a tough old bird.”

“She was sick.”


“Another quote: ‘I had the cancer in the 1980s. I beat it. The cancer is in my bones now. It has been for almost three years. I am 65 years old. Born in Hungary. Left when the revolution started. We escaped through the woods at night. Farmers helped us. There were tanks firing in the streets.’”

“I wonder if she’s deceased now.”

“Could be. It’s been a while. I imagine bone cancer can be pretty nasty.”

Megan smiled. “I only remember that she was a nuisance. I was sick and had no interest in listening to someone drone on.”

“She was up on her technology.”

“What do you mean?”

“She told you about her Internet usage. ‘I miss Hungary, but I would never go back. I Skype with my cousins there every day. They are old, and I am teaching them how to knit.’”

“That’s really cool.”

Megan pulled to the curb near the Starbucks. 

“Thanks for the ride, sis.”

“Any time, bro. Someday soon you’ll sell your writing. Then you can afford a car.”

Megan drove off. Said to herself, Afford a car…and finish paying off my medical bills.

OFF-ROAD Launch Day

I am thrilled to say my young adult/crossover novel is now available on Amazon Kindle. Off-Road is an adventure short read that will appeal to both enthusiastic and reluctant readers. Three teens set out to make a film about an off-road race in the searing heat of the Mojave desert. What started as a fun adventure turns into a road full of obstacles and threats.

Off-Road book cover image

I like to compare the story to the adventures of another group of teens in Virals, by Kathy Reichs. And perhaps Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet too. Young people trying to find their way, to survive, to discover where they fit in this world, to articulate their voices.

I hope you like it. Comments and reviews are racing, short read, Mojave Desert

Every Noun Should Be a Verb

“I love a good verb. In fact, I think all nouns should be verbs.” So says bio-architect Neri Oxman. She leads a creative team in MIT’s Media Lab, where they research and develop structural building elements from natural materials.

Neri Oxman

Of verbs, Oxman says, for example, the word Nature should be Naturing.  Mother Nature, as in Mothering Nature, who is crying out for our love.

Bio-architectural creation at MIT Labs in Cambridge, MA
A Creation of Neri Oxman’s Team at MIT’s Media Lab

You can see a documentary on Neri Oxman’s work on Netflix, as part of the Abstract series. The series features documentaries on creative individuals influencing our world.

All nouns should be verbs. Life. Or Living. Health. Or healing, being well. Book. Or booking, reading, learning. An appropriate thought-point for a writer/creator. Keep it moving.

This is the kind of thing that inspires me to write. Take a concept – make every noun a verb – and make it move. Breathe life into it. Inject it with action. 

Brian Grazer

I am reminded of Brian Grazer’s book, A Curious Mind. Grazer talks about some of the films he and his partner Ron Howard have made with their Imagine Entertainment company. The films seek to: develop character, discover flaws and strengths, overcome emotional injuries to become a full person, leverage limits into success.

Moving from static to dynamic. Moving beyond the millstones that hang on our necks. Moving. Moving. Moving. Nouns in motion.

We are all nouns working at being verbs.

A Pinpoint of Light

What I’m reading

Last week I read William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. A terrific read! I’m no book reviewer, and I’ll leave it to you to do a search for one. There are many, I’m sure. But here are a few of my thoughts. The story is set in the summer of 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. In Minnesota, four young orphans – three boys and a little girl – run away from an oppressive institution and set out by canoe for St. Louis and what they hope will be a new home.

Along the way they face loads of obstacles, meet up with interesting characters, and find much of what they were looking for.

Book reviewers and critics have compared Krueger’s book to The Grapes of Wrath and Huckleberry Finn, true Americana stories. Here’s what I think. I don’t like comparing a book to another. They all stand alone, in my mind. Of course, similarities abound in the book world. And of course, writing coaches will encourage authors to find comparable books to align their own with, to help attract readers.

A number of years ago, when my wife and I were starting out on our writing careers, we flew from New York to Nashville to interview David Malloy. Malloy is an award-winning record producer. We spent time with him in his studio. He proudly introduced us to a young singer/songwriter, Anthony Crawford, whom he was helping get started in the world of country music. Malloy played tracks for us from the music they were working on. 

I commented that I liked his music. I said that his voice and style reminded me of another established country singer (whose name I have forgotten). Malloy came down hard on me. Don’t compare a singer to another singer, he said. It’s an insult. Each one stands (or falls) on their own.

Good advice, I think. Sure, it’s easy to compare, to find similarities. But for sure, let each artist stand on their own.

Krueger’s book, to close, offers a gleam of hope, a pinpoint of light, in what has become an increasingly dark world. A book well worth reading. A book destined to find its own place in American literature.

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