Bob Gillen

the magic of storytelling

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Mannequin Monday – You Need an Idea

Mannequin Monday – You Need an Idea

Another Mannequin Monday. This week we look at shaping ideas into tactile form. Sculptor Steven Whyte works from his studio in Carmel, California. Molding clay into sculpture. Dancer Twyla Tharp speaks of her creative process. Shaping movement into dance. “Scratching” to find ideas to kickstart the creative process. And I include a bit of my own writing, a story I am currently “scratching” at, looking for the truth in my characters.

This Week’s Reading and Discussion

Today we’ll “read” the sculpted form. Sculptor Steven Whyte maintains a studio in Carmel, California. One of his recent works is Comfort Women: a memorial erected at the St. Mary’s Square in downtown San Francisco “to remember hundreds of thousands of Asian women…who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops during World War II.”

In Whyte’s Facebook bio, he says of himself: ” I am primarily a sculptor of people. A historian, recording a likeness and creating characters of yesterday’s community and today’s society for tomorrow’s viewer. I manipulate clay to found into bronze for the consideration by an audience, in the home, the street and the gallery. ” Check out Steven Whyte’s Facebook page. You can find images of Whyte’s work there. Every one of his pieces radiates strength, power.

Steven Whyte

His Facebook page further says: “The production of art is based on the fundamental struggle to liberate and express a captive vision of creativity. For Steven Whyte this struggle takes on an added element. More than the mere rendering of a visual image, each time Whyte begins to work with his clay he attempts to produce a presence enriched with distinct personality, spirit and vitality.”

I think that last sentence says it nicely: “…a presence enriched with distinct personality, spirit and vitality.” One can easily apply that to writing. Well-written characters create a presence enriched with distinct personality. Plot and setting provide a framework for a story, but it is the characters that in-spire the story with life.

This Week’s Podcast/Interview

I’m in the middle of reading Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life. I like Chapter 6, Scratching. Tharp describes scratching as a habitual routine of looking for “something.” Looking for traction to keep going. Searching for ideas to get her creative process started.

She opens the chapter this way. “The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark, random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.’ It’s not enough for me to walk into a studio and start dancing, hoping that something good will come of my aimless cavorting on the studio floor. Creativity doesn’t generally work that way for me. (The rare times when it has stand out like April blizzards.) You can’t just dance or paint or write or sculpt. Those are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however minuscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.”

Twyla Tharp. The Washington Post

The concept of scratching characterizes how I often put one of these blog posts together. I’m looking to link a few pieces of fiction, bits of story, notes on artists I know or have recently discovered. And I pick at lots of stories, art, interviews, writings…until connections come together.

My Current Writing

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for a course from the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. I wrote the full novel, Buried Lies, in third person POV over five years ago. I then re-wrote it as a play and put it up on Amazon Kindle. I’m now “scratching” at it, re-writing it again as a novel. Struggling to find the truth of the characters in the story. In this excerpt I experimented with changing to first person POV:


It’s been four days since the funeral. Since Clare buried her Patrick. Sorry. Since we buried our Patrick.

My bag is packed. I have nowhere to go. But I’m ready. Clare doesn’t want me here.

Patrick chose me. I know that. Know it as sure as I know my own name. Yes, I admit he loved her. But he was so conflicted in the short time I knew him. 

We met a few months ago, entirely by accident. One Friday we were both in the same subway car riding home after work. A couple of jerks stood over me. Kicking my leg. Shoving me. 

I saw a man who looked like a construction worker stand up. He put his tool bag on his seat. Stepped over to where I sat. “You know these two?” he asked me. I shook my head no. He grabbed each one by the back of the neck. Squeezed hard enough to put them both on their knees. I thought they were going to pass out.

When the doors opened at the next station, he told them to get up. He walked them to the door. Waited till it started to close. Shoved them hard out onto the platform. Before they could find a breath, the train was moving out of the station.

I bought him a drink to thank him. A quiet little bar I knew, nearer to my place than his. Conversation was awkward, but I worked hard to keep it going. We met every Friday for a while. It was the highlight of my week. No, it was my week.

My job laid me off in mid-December. Merry Christmas! I was already a month behind on my rent, thanks to transmission work on my eight-year old Chevy. Patrick told me he could finish the work he had been doing on his basement by early January. He had planned a rec room for his son. He would make it a small apartment. He wanted me to move in. I was thrilled. “How will you make this work? I asked him. He shrugged. “You can be my cousin. Over from Ireland. Looking for work.” 

It had been a sub-zero January night. I had moved in the week before. We should have waited. Should have told Clare first. I was downstairs in the basement apartment. Small, cozy, not well lit. I was waiting for the cold spell to break before I looked for a job. I wanted to pay rent, carry my weight. Clare’s washer and dryer took up a small corner of the basement, but we managed to dodge each other most of the time. A few nights a week I ate dinner upstairs with them. I loved seeing Sean. Their two-year old. Loved watching Patrick play with him.

Clare came home early that January night from a church bible study meeting. Apparently they cancelled it when almost no one showed up because of the bitter cold.

Patrick had come downstairs with two cold beers. He never came downstairs. Not when Clare was home. And she was almost always home. 

Only one lamp lit the basement. I was wrapped up in a blanket on the daybed. Trying to read but not caring about the story at all. He held out a beer to me.

I felt a smile break across my face. He pulled the blanket aside and crawled under with me.

Oh God, I can remember what I felt. Warmth. Tingling. Anticipation. For a few minutes we talked about how he couldn’t justify this… this… love? He was conflicted. Torn. An Irish, Catholic, construction worker. Married. With a son. Living in a traditional blue collar neighborhood. No room for infidelity.

I put a finger to his lips. “Hush,” I said. I kissed him. He pulled back. Looked deeply into my eyes. I saw longing. I saw fear. He leaned in and kissed me back.

I felt his hands caress my neck. My ear lobes. I shuddered.  The wonderful first touches.

We hadn’t heard Clare come home. She must have looked around the house upstairs without finding Patrick. The door to the basement had been open. 

I heard a scream. Looking over Patrick’s shoulder, I saw Clare halfway down the stairs. Still wearing her unbuttoned coat. We were shirtless under the blanket. Patrick leaped up, tripping on the blanket. I pulled the blanket back. 

“Patrick! Jesus Christ! What the hell is going on?” 

Mannequin Monday – Adventures in Filmmaking

Mannequin Monday – Adventures in Filmmaking

Welcome to another Mannequin Monday. Today we dress the naked form, the blank page, with both words and moving images. A quote from author/painter Huguette Martel’s graphic story, Adventures of a Would-be Filmmaker: “When I die, and if there is life after death, I want to finally be able to walk in very high heels.” And in this week’s interview, camera operator Georgia Packard encourages any filmmaker to emulate Ansel Adams in walking around their subject from all angles before shooting. Read on.

This Week’s Reading

Here is a delightful graphic story by author/painter Huguette Martel titled Adventures of a Would-be Filmmaker. Again, I thank Narrative magazine for posting the story.


Huguette Martel, Narrative Magazine

In Martel’s story, a woman in her seventies, a painter by profession, decides to make a film. It’s now or never, she tells herself. In applying for film school, she must submit a synopsis of a film script to the admissions committee. She submits three different script proposals. All are rejected.

The woman is French by birth, an immigrant to New York City in her late teens. She is also a Jew who lost her father in the Holocaust. The admissions committee tells her: Avoid the Holocaust. Avoid old people who are dying. Watch out for production costs.

Her first submission is humorous. They reject it. her second, quite serious. Again, rejected. The third synopsis focuses on a series of film trailers. Rejected.

For each script proposal she paints pictures and suggests film scores. All the images are moving, delightful, poignant. Supporting the script. For example:

“When I die, and if there is life after death, I want to finally be able to walk in very high heels.”

Painting by Huguette Martel

The character is telling us, this is my life. I can’t help it if a committee thinks aging and the Holocaust and film trailers are overdone. This is all I have. It is me. I offer you vignettes of my life. I am someone who does not know the rules of baseball. The smell of goat cheese brings me to tears. I love animals. I can’t wear high heels. I lost my father. In the Holocaust.

This is a thoroughly entertaining and moving story. See more of her illustrated stories in The New York Review of Books.

This Week’s Podcast/Interview

Several years ago I had the privilege to interview camera operator Georgia Packard for my website, The Filmmaker Lifestyle. The one note that has stayed with me is something she said she learned from Ansel Adams: observe your subject. As a kid, Packard took a summer class with Adams.

Camera Operator Georgia Packard, Hiro Narita GP

“Ansel Adams was such a wonderful mentor,” Packard says, “teaching me pre-visualization in his still photography. We would go out with a pin-hole ‘camera’ shoebox with only one exposure. I knew I had to get it right the first time! I walked around my subject looking high and low, moving far left and right before releasing the cap.”

The lessons stayed with Packard. “I still do that on my film sets, watching where the actors move and often from where the director is watching the scene. This works really well when there are two cameras shooting the scene together so I can offer up my camera’s position.”

My Current Writing

In the vein of adventures in filmmaking, here’s a playful, teaser zine I made for my next book, Surfrider. In it the teen film crew, Tessa, Eric and Lyndie, find themselves caught up in drug smuggling in Malibu. Murder, too. And a plot to destroy an historic landmark. Coming soon.

Mannequin Monday – The Spirit Pauses

Mannequin Monday – The Spirit Pauses

This week we dress the mannequin, the bare page, with words of peace, of mindfulness. Words of comfort in a time of stress. A moment for our collective spirits to pause.

This Week’s Reading

I discovered the (very) short stories of Lydia Davis this week on Quite enjoyable. Here is an excerpt from one titled Fear:


headshot of author Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis, NPR

Nearly every morning, a certain woman in our community comes running out of her house with her face white and her overcoat flapping wildly. She cries out, “Emergency, emergency,” and one of us runs to her and holds her until her fears are calmed. We know she is making it up; nothing has really happened to her.

See for more of Davis’s stories, and other intelligent fiction. Thanks to for posting the story.


In the story Fear, a woman runs from her home screaming “emergency.” An event that happens regularly. The kindness of her neighbors comforts her. I like, too, that the neighbors don’t attempt to talk her out of her feelings. They simply comfort her. Acknowledge her feelings.

The storyteller states: Don’t we all feel the same at times? On any given day, any one of us is poised to run screaming down the street. Running and screaming “emergency.” Isolation. Fear. Anxiety. Mental health issues. Constricting boundaries.

And the storyteller reminds us that we have the ability within ourselves to calm the feeling of madness. Or we have people close to us who will hold us, calm us, comfort us. Davis’s story, as short as it is, hits us right in the gut. Yeah, it’s tough out there. And yeah, we’ve got what we need to deal. A strong message in such a brief story.

This Week’s Podcast/Interview

With so many across the country, indeed across the globe, frightened, anxious, isolated, even quarantined, Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn offers us all a tip on restoring equilibrium. On creating a moment of mindfulness. See for more. Here are several excerpts from Walking Meditation:

Thich Nhat Hahn, PlumVillage

“It is possible to walk in freedom and solidity, and to arrive in the present moment in every step. Wherever we walk, we can practice meditation.

“Walking in meditation means to walk in such a way that we know we are walking. We walk leisurely, enjoying every step. We become aware of the contact of our feet with the ground, and the flow of our breathing. We set ourselves free from our thinking—our regrets about the past, our fears and anxieties about the future, or our preoccupations in the present. We become 100% present with every step…

“I have arrived, I am home” means: I don’t want to run anymore. I’ve been running all my life, and I’ve arrived nowhere. Now I want to stop. My destination is the here and now, the only time and place where true life is possible.”

Thich Nhat Hanh  

My Current Writing

This week I offer not so much a sample of my own writing, but a link to a brief earlier blog post of mine: Creating Story May 2015: The Spirit Pauses.

In the post I shared a quote from a tweet by playwright J.P. Shanley @johnjpshanley:

image of wave receding at beach

When the tide goes out, the ocean pauses. The spirit is similar. Remember. The tide will resume, and recover the lost ground. Depend on it.

Shanley reminds us that, like the ocean, our own spirit will pause when it needs to. It then resumes. Recovers lost ground. Quiets the scream we hold in. Calms the anxiety.

Time for a walk on the beach. A hike in the woods. A stroll on a garden path.

Mannequin Monday – My Enemy Became My Teacher

Photo of a mannequin head

Mannequin Monday

Welcome to another week as we dress the blank page, fill the canvas with color, shape the block of clay. This week is all about the face of the enemy. The face of awareness, of forgiveness. The enemy as teacher.

This Week’s Reading

This week I read a story in Narrative magazine titled Bangana, by CJ Hauser. The story opens: “I commute to war five days a week in a station wagon the color of an egg.” 


Photo of author CJ Hauser, Narrative magazine
CJ Hauser, Narrative Magazine

A fascinating story. The main character has been a female fighter pilot in the Afghan war, flying F-16s on numerous missions. That changes when she gives birth to her child and returns to the same war as a drone operator. She now works out of a building in Virginia, spending all day, five days a week, monitoring potential hostile activity at locations in the Middle East.

In this story she watches over a warehouse in the middle of nowhere. She monitors an old man in a house near the warehouse, tending to his meager garden and his goats. The drone can clearly pick out his face. She looks for what is termed Pattern of Life Analysis (PLA). What looks normal. What does not. The not may draw down fire from an armed drone. The old man does nothing to draw attention to himself. Things change when vehicles suddenly appear at the warehouse. Passenger faces known to be hostile. She will need to make a response. She hesitates. Is the old man also the enemy?

This Week’s Podcast/Interview

Photo of artistic director Tom Magill
Tom Magill, ESC

“Meeting my enemy in prison changed my life.” Back in 2013, I interviewed Tom Magill, artistic director for the Educational Shakespeare Company in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Tom commits his life to reversing a pattern of violence in Northern Ireland. He uses drama and film to heal the trauma so deeply rooted within criminal justice and mental health settings.

Tom himself grew up with firsthand experience of violence and prison life. Violent behavior landed him in prison in the early 1970s. Assigned to deliver food trays to other prisoners, he one day braced himself to enter the cell of an avowed enemy, Frank Stagg, accused republican IRA member. Tom prepared himself for hostility. He was ready to kill.

In the cell he found Stagg, emaciated and half-starved, in the midst of a self-imposed hunger strike. Tom came face-to-face with his enemy’s weakness and vulnerability. “Any anger I had for this man turned to compassion.” Stagg told Tom to stop wasting his life. “My enemy became my teacher.” 

Photo of actors from the film Mickey B, faces hidden in masks.
Cast members of Mickey B, ESC

Tom now uses filmmaking as a transformative tool in creating patterns of peace. His company’s first feature film, Mickey B, used Macbeth as the story line for a film script using actual inmates in an Irish prison. See the trailer here: Mickey B.

Prospero’s Prison is the followup feature film from the Educational Shakespeare Company. Tom continues his work in changing patterns of violence to those of peace.

My Current Writing

Here’s an excerpt from my novel Off-Road. The film crew, Tessa, Eric and Lyndie sit in the school lunchroom on the first day back to school. Their friend Terrell, in counseling for anger management, confronts a fellow student who taunts him over his sister, a wounded Iraq veteran.

I Can’t Hear You

Summer vacation ended Tuesday. A sea of uniforms, khaki bottoms and white, navy and green polo shirts, filled the school lunchroom. Shouts. Hugs. Backslaps. Laughing.

Tessa sat at an empty table. Fumbled with the lunch she threw together for herself that morning. Hiding the bruises on her face. Bruises that were now a bright purple. Makeup forgotten in the rush to get out the door and catch the bus. 

For the last two years she had spent every lunch period in the library. Away from all her classmates. Away from her school world. Crying. Watching Ryder’s films on her phone. Memorizing them. Dialogue. Images. Camera movement. Composition. 

Alone. Always alone.

She was about to get up and go to the library when Lyndie eased up and sat down next to her. 


“Hey back.”

Lyndie leaned in. “You still pissed at me?”

Tessa shook her head. Peered over at Lyndie.

Lyndie continued, “Sorry I called you a princess.”

Tessa shrugged.

“Good. We need to put that behind us. We have a film to finish.”

Tessa managed a weak smile. “Deal.” She turned to Lyndie. “Can I ask you a favor?”

“Shoot.” Lyndie spooned yogurt into her mouth.

“My mom is still in Chicago. Won’t be back till Thursday.”

“Want me to stay over?”

“Would you?”

“Sure. I’ll bring my bass. We can fool around with background music…if they don’t load us up with homework.”

Eric walked up to their table. “I just got a text from my dad, Tessa. It’s an update from the rangers at the Bureau of Land Management.” He held up his phone for her to read.

BLM called. Camera not recovered yet. Sorry.

Tessa shrugged. “No surprise there.”

As Eric spread sriracha sauce on his turkey sandwich, he said, “I did a search on—”

“What’s up?” Terrell slammed his tray down next to Eric.

“Hey, Terrell,” Eric said.

“Hey, dude.” He reached over to Eric’s tray and grabbed a couple of fries.

Lyndie watched Eric cut his sandwich in half with a plastic knife. “You know, real men don’t eat cut sandwiches.”

Eric looked confused.

Terrell laughed, high-fived Lyndie.

“Did I see you in AP English?” Lyndie asked.

Terrell nodded. “A lot of reading this year.”

“So how was your summer, Terrell?” Eric asked, chewing on his sandwich.

“Not bad. I got to see my sister Shantell in Brooklyn for a few weeks.”

“How’s she doing?” Eric asked.

He shrugged. “Better. You know, getting around. Public transit’s better in New York. She can get to the VA hospital more easily. Can’t drive yet. They’re working on getting her a prosthetic leg.”

Three boys, all seniors, walked by the table. Stopped to stare at Tessa. One spoke. “Girl, who messed up your face?” Tessa put a hand over her cheek. Then he saw Lyndie’s head injury and Eric’s finger splint. “Wow, you guys are a mess.”

He turned his attention to Terrell. “Dude, I hear your sister still hasn’t got her fake leg.”

Terrell looked at him, eyes blazing. The boy turned to his fellow seniors. “I’ll bet that slows up her love life.”

Terrell spun around, shoving his lunch tray across the table.

The senior took a step backward. “Just kidding, man.”

Terrell jumped up, grabbed the boy’s shirt, and shoved him across the floor. The boy regained his balance and came at Terrell. 

Eric called out, “No, Terrell!”

Too late. Terrell threw a left fist at the boy, caught him square in the nose. Blood gushed down his white shirt. He fell to the floor, clutching his face.

Someone at a nearby table yelled, “Fight!”

Terrell leaned in. “Nobody talks about my sister. She’s got more balls than you’ll ever have. You ever serve in Iraq, asshole?”

The boy scuttled backwards away from Terrell.

Eric and Tessa stood up. Took hold of Terrell’s arms. Tried to pull him back. He shook them off.

“You didn’t answer me.” Terrell bent over. Face to face with the boy on the floor. “You serve in Iraq? You see combat? I can’t hear you.”

The boy shook his head. Blood ran onto the floor.

A teacher, one of the phys ed coaches, ran up. “Ellis, step away. Now!”

Terrell stood and moved back. Hands held high.

The teacher knelt down by the injured boy. He touched the bloody nose. “Not broken. Just a lot of blood. You’ll be okay. Come on, I’ll take you to the nurse.”

Terrell boomed, “I’m not finished with you,” as the two walked away. 

The school principal, Mr. Hearn, appeared, accompanied by a security guard. 

“Mr. Ellis, my office. Now.”

He turned to Tessa before he walked off. “What happened to your face, Ms. Warren?” Before Tessa could answer, he spied Lyndie and Eric. Stared hard at all three.

“I am guessing whatever you did to one another happened before school opened today. But it may be indicative of behavior we do not tolerate in this school. I want you in my office too. Now.”

They followed him out of the cafeteria. Behind them, students stood on lunch tables, phones in hand, recording the incident. 

A janitor began mopping blood up off the floor.

As they walked behind the principal, Eric whispered, “Wow, Terrell’s in deep shit now.” 

“So are we,” Tessa said.

Lyndie nodded. “Terrell’s already on probation from the trouble last year.”

“He told me he’s been in mandated counseling since then,” Eric said.

“What happened to his sister?” Tessa asked.

“She drove over an IED. Improvised explosive device. They almost lost her. The other soldier in the truck killed instantly. Soldiers in another Humvee got her to medics right away. They saved her.”

Tessa shuddered. And I lost my brother.

Off-Road is available now on Amazon.

Mannequin Monday – Opening Lines

Mannequin hands

Hi. Mannequin Monday again. Dressing the blank page. Making art. Welcome back. I love a good opening line. Pulls you right into the story. One of my favorites is the first sentence of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The entire story is set up in the one line. The old man will endure in spite of obstacles and pain. 

Opening Lines

This Week’s Reading

This week I read In That Time, a short story by Richard Bausch, featured in Narrative magazine.


Head shot of author Richard Bausch
Richard Bausch, photo Jebb Harris

Richard Bausch opens his short story with the line: “Back in late June of 1949, when I was twelve years old, I spent a morning with Ernest Hemingway.” The line grabs the reader right away. Someone spent a morning with Ernest Hemingway. Tell me more.

Visiting Cuba, sent on an errand to buy a newspaper for his father and stepmother, the boy encounters Ernest Hemingway in a small cafe. What follows is a momentary bonding between boy and author. And when it’s over, the boy has discovered that Hemingway is fluent with fiction, even in his everyday conversations.

In his awkwardness, the boy blurts out to Hemingway, “You killed a lion.” That sparks a conversation about Africa and big game hunting. The boy says he wishes he could travel to Africa and hunt lions. Hemingway talks of killing a water buffalo with a bowie knife. They talk of the war. Hemingway says he has killed many enemy soldiers.

Later in the conversation, the boy begins to realize all of what Hemingway has told him may not be entirely based on fact. “Suddenly I wanted to ask him if the things he had told me were true. I knew that I would not do so, but I also understood that there had been no stabbing of a charging water buffalo with a bowie knife, nor any killing of a hundred Krauts.”

At the end of the morning, after the boy has witnessed Hemingway also talking to several reporters, then to the boy’s father and stepmother, he says of Hemingway: “I had a sudden sense of what the whole morning had cost him, the strain of being who he was in that place and at that time, the world as it was then, keeping up with his fabrications. And I’m convinced that I knew, somehow, sudden as a spark and a dozen years before it happened, how his life would end.”

This Week’s Podcast/Interview

picture of filmmaker Shawna Baca at the camera
Shawna Baca, Filmmaker

Shawna Baca, a self-taught filmmaker, in an interview with me several years back, talked of making a story breathe life. “I considered myself as a storyteller, not necessarily a writer. Even though I wrote my own material, what I gravitated to more than the material was the intention or purpose of the story and how we were all emotionally influenced by that story.”  She went on to say, “… writing a good story is key but then knowing how to make that story breathe life is the magical part that makes each filmmaker unique in his or her own right.”

Knowing how to make a story breathe life. That’s what it’s all about.

My Current Writing

The opening line of my book blurb: “One phone call jolts young Tessa Warren out of her black-and-white, home-alone life.”

Listening to Dan Blank’s podcast conversation with author Leigh Stein, I sparked on something Stein mentioned. In marketing her current fiction title, due out in June, she thought she’d like to try creating a zine she could share with potential readers. It gave me the idea to create a zine of my own, a digital version, to help publicize my YA novel Off-Road. Since I don’t have Photoshop, I used Pages to build a basic two-page ezine. The result is below. My MacBook Pro is ten years old, and I can’t upgrade past El Capitan, so my methodology is limited (frustrating?). I managed to get the ezine from Pages to Photo as a JPEG, then into Facebook and Twitter. I like it, and I’ll experiment with more later on. Maybe even create a larger ezine to use as a bonus for signing up for my newsletter.

Enjoy your week. Don’t forget to make art. And make your story breathe life!

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.”

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