The Case of the Unsaved Document


spaceIt happens more often than you care to admit. You type a computer document, save it, revise it, and save it again, then exit, only to return and find none of the changes are saved, or, more distressingly, that you are unable to find the document at all. You might have indulged a Where-the-fuck-is my-document-I know-I saved-it moment, or considered medication for Alzheimer’s. But before you go postal on Microsoft or commit yourself to the hospital for the typographically challenged, consider this.

You may have fallen victim to the Parallel Universe Syndrome (PUS), a hypothesis, posited and currently undergoing study by Dr. K. L. Davidson professor of English and the absurd. Davidson contends that there is a little known command reached by random key punching, which clicks you into a parallel universe, where you did indeed follow correct document-saving protocol. However, the save button clicks you back to your own universe, where you promptly exit, none the wiser. Meanwhile, all your revisions are still in that parallel universe, unsaved, unwashed, and unshriven.

While this revelation doesn’t actually help you save changes to your documents, it at least preserves the possibility that you are not necessarily technologically inept, or teetering toward dementia, though Davidson has been accused of these things in both the personal and professional arena.

Davidson has been able to repeat experiment results for PUS, though never on purpose.

She is confident that once she discovers the configuration of the PUS command, she will be able to program the shift key to reconcile multiple realities with one click.



Metaphor Writing Prompt 2


Jonquils_and_English_Leaves (1)Here’s a prompt I got from Discovering the Writer Within: 40 Days to More Imaginative Writing by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane.  It won’t generate a poem or a whole piece like my synesthesia exercise, but it will produce a clever line or two for an essay. I don’t make a big distinction between similes and metaphors in this exercise, though I think they have different emotional impacts. (Metaphors, without the inter-mediation of the word “like” are more immediate, atmospheric and magical, hence better for stories of that nature. Similes are better for essays, but work fine in stories, too.)

Step 1: Put a line down the center of your page and fold in half.Then write down a random list of abstract concepts.  Then flip the page over and write down an equally random list of concrete things that you can see, taste, touch, hear or feel (try not write things that relate easily to the first list). Like so:

Abstract/General Concrete/Physical






Cayenne Pepper


Dirty sneaker



Bitter cucumber tip

Step 2: Next, fill in the blanks of this sentence below  using one word from the abstract side and one word from the concrete side.

____(abstract noun)_________ is (like)____(concrete noun)__________.

When you do this, don’t pick things that match — pick something that seems oddly mismatched or is truly random.  This is important, because metaphors have more power when they take big leaps. If the leap is too small, there’s no snap. If the leap is too big, it’s called a conceit (which is a no-no for some — but I’m not a big nay-sayer).

Step 3: Now write a sentence that helps to explain.

For example:

  • Love is like cayenne pepper.  A little bit goes a long way.

Here’s one a student wrote years ago:

  • Love is like going to the moon.  It takes a long time to get there, but when you do, the earth looks very different.

Give it a try and have fun. Please feel free to reply with surprising outcomes.


Synesthesia, Metaphor and Oranges



  1. In a recent interview with The Collagist, I spoke about how metaphor is the core magic of writing. For many, metaphoric thinking comes naturally, but more and more of my students have difficulty going there. Here’s a foolproof way to fall backwards into metaphor, and if you’re trying to overcome an addiction, it can be a good substitute high. 
  1. Acquire an orange or other fruit. Don’t do this from memory. Get the physical thing. Describe it physically using all five senses:

Look at it and describe it in extreme physical detail.

Touch it and describe.

Squeeze and chew it, listen and describe.

Smell it and describe.

Taste it and describe.

  1. Next write all the things you associate with this fruit: smell, color, taste, etc. This is a a very quick exercise where you do very little thinking and choosing, you just blurt. Don’t worry about whether it makes any sense. The definition of brainstorming is that no idea is wrong or stupid. Put it all down whether it makes sense or not, but keep coming back to the fruit and branch out from there.
  1. Answer the following questions to create metaphors. You are now being asked to free-associate like in question 2, but to go one step further…keep free-associating until you find a truly unusual correspondence between two things which on the surface are very different, but which in some essence are similar. In other words, brainstorm, but don’t always chose the first thing you come up with. Keep brainstorming until you find a certain resonance between the physical sense of the orange and the animal or thing you are comparing it to…when you find the right word, you will literally feel a sense of release or expansion in your body, an internal “ah” where the feeling and the words reverberate with each other and make each other seem bigger or more rich. If you don’t experience any of this, don’t worry, just be silly.

a) How does the smell move inside your nose?

b) If the smell was a kind of animal with a distinctive movement, what kind of animal would it be?

c) How does the taste move inside your mouth?

d) If the taste was a world event (a party, a war, a rally, a nap), what kind of event would it be?

e) What kind emotion is the color of this fruit?

f) If this fruit was a building, what kind of building would it be?

g) If you went inside this building, what would it be like?

h) If this fruit was a kind of weather, what kind weather would it be?

i) If the feeling or texture of this fruit was a certain habitat (beach, forest, desert, suburb, city), what kind of habitat would it be?

j) When you take the skin and bend it next to your ear, what does it sound like?

k) If this fruit were an instrument, what would it be and how would it sound if you played it?

l) If this orange was a form of locomotion, what would it be (a plane, a train, a flying dragon) and how would it feel to ride it?

See, who needs drugs? All the benefits and none of the side-effects.

  1. Now look at all this mad scribble, and pull out the best parts. Fashion some kind of statement about this in a paragraph or three, making sure that it is full of surprising images and physical descriptions and associations.

      5. Now see if you can fashion this into a poem. Start with the sensory information and       try to end with a leap or discovery. Here’s something I wrote from it: 


This strawberry is my daughter’s pursed red mouth

that my husband fell into the day she was born

and never recovered from.

This strawberry is a song in my mouth

full and soggy as a French horn

A cellar’s cool respite on a hot

summer’s day.

This strawberry is a furry heart, the ripped

valves of my sister’s,

The dark, blind love between my siblings that

never blooms

This bruisable flesh,

this gravity’s center,

this Tibetan temple with no doors

guards secrets

attained only by





Why Quirky Lit is the New Cool


When one of my best friends got an agent who sold her novel, I asked her if she’d recommend my writing. The agent asked her to characterize my work and she called it “quirky.” At the time, I took it as a put down. But as time went on, however, I noticed more and more book jackets describing the content of their books as quirky. When you Google search quirky books, here’s a small sampling of what comes up: Douglas Adams’ The Hitchkiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and more recently, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and Karen Russel’s Swamplandia! Quirky has become a literary subgenre. Google shows that the use of the word skyrocketed around 2010. A quick search of books with the word “quirky” in the title delivers more than 900 results. Some bookstores even have a Quirky Reads shelf. The term seems metamorphosed from bad to good.

So what exactly does it mean when applied to literature?

Google dictionary says: characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits. Synonyms are eccentric, idiosyncratic, unconventional, unorthodox, unusual, strange, bizarre, peculiar, odd, outlandish, zany.

Well, no wonder I felt insulted.

My oldest friend from 4th grade says I am decidedly unusual. I suppose I’m unusually honest. I’ve never understood why people hide their hurts, fears and flaws. We all have them. All people deep down are full of oddities, quirks, and unexpected turns. Maybe what quirky really means is authentic. Instead of putting up a conventional façade, quirky lit celebrates how people really are. Maybe that’s why its popularity is growing. In a world where big businesses homogenize and mass-produce everything, where commercials scream attention to glossy surfaces, people are getting hungry for the beautifully, wonderfully, strangely deep down.

Lessons From a Mouse

Tilly sucking kitten formula from a paintbrush my daughter holds.

Tilly sucking kitten formula from a paintbrush my daughter holds.

I was cleaning out a closet in our summer cabin at the end of a dirt road, pulling aside boxes and vacuuming up mouse turds, when I looked at the shelf below and saw a baby mouse clinging to a white plastic bag.

Every year we have put out poison for them when we leave for the winter, regretting their death by dehydration, but finding the alternative infestations of our clothing, mattresses, towels and pantry unsustainable. Last year, on the advice of a friend, we bagged all our cloth items and left bags of mothballs here and there. No poison. This worked better than poison, which may have been luring them in just to kill them. Usually the place was overrun with mouse turds, now there were only few.

I must have shaken this baby out of a cloth, but I couldn’t find the nest or its siblings. It had fur, but its eyes were still sealed shut. My guess is that it was about a week old.

I had a debt to pay for all that poison, so I showed the baby to my 14-year-old daughter, knowing she would melt and want to keep it. Bucky Goldstein’s Deer Mouse Ranch website gave detailed information on how to care for orphaned mice. It’s a dicey proposition at best. And if we succeeded, we’d have two cats, a dog and a deer mouse.

Usually, I leave injured or baby animals where they are, figuring nature’s plan is better than anything I could cook up.

But I rationalized that it would be a good time for a life lesson. My daughter Tess was about to enter high school and was looking forward to meeting boys. Nursing a baby mouse would act as a form of birth control.

The mouse’s head was no bigger than a child’s fingernail. Out in the country after most stores were closed, we had to settle for nursing her with very expensive infant soy formula purchased at the gas station mini-mart. Cows milk can kill them. The website said to feed the baby every two hours with a syringe or a fine-point paintbrush. You have to warm the formula in a bowl of hot water, hold the wiggly baby firmly but not so firmly as to crush it, then introduce the paintbrush into its mouth without getting it up its nose; respiratory infections can be fatal. After you feed it, you have to stroke its belly to stimulate digestion and probe its little anus with an ear swab to stimulate bowel movements. Then you have to keep it in an aquarium at an even 80 degrees. We had one of those back in our city house from our last adventure with gerbils, but for now, she stayed put in a little basket of fluff. We named her Tilly, after Matilda, a voracious mouse orphan on the website videos. Matilda means warrior maiden.

Our Tilly was a much fussier eater than her namesake. She squirmed, clamped her mouth shut, raised her head and refused the baby formula. It was astonishing how difficult it was to hold this baby that was no bigger than a child’s thumb.

By morning, Tilly had shrunk some and her tail looked segmented, a sign of dehydration, according to Bucky’s website. Back in civilization, I rushed out at 6 a.m. to buy Pedialyte, something you give your children when they are dehydrated from diarrhea. Tilly took it! Her little body knew what it needed and overcame the alien lemony taste. She grasped the brush with her tiny hands and sucked the bristles halfway down her throat. As soon as the pet store opened, I rushed out to buy raw goat’s milk and kitten formula, then went home to mix and warm them for the next feeding. She ate the formula, too. Dehydration abated, she began to move around more energetically, no longer staying in the tiny basket I’d placed her in. Her hairless belly skin was almost transparent so you could see her stomach fill with milk, and later you could see the dark waste in her intestines.

She grew stronger for a few days, and began to crawl around the cage every two hours when it was time to eat. My daughter, Tess, doing most of the feedings, was better at it than I was. Tess herself had been a fussy eater in her infanthood. She was a tiny baby and had trouble latching on, and when she finally learned, she developed colic. After much stress, engorged breasts and much handwringing and baby fretting we discovered she couldn’t digest cow’s milk, which goes directly into breast milk.

At six months, Tess was a weepy, wiggly, energetic and easily frustrated child, so I admired how calmly, firmly, yet gently this graceful 14-year-old grasped the mouse and, with a look of concentration, plunked the brush into Tilly’s mouth. If Tilly squirmed too much, Tess would put her down, take a deep breath and pick her back up again with a more confident grasp. I stood at the ready with a chopstick, adding one drop of milk at a time to the brush so that we didn’t have to struggle with getting Tilly to latch again. Tilly sometimes fell asleep nursing, and Tess had to prod her gently to wake her up to eat. Sometimes Tilly would bite down on the brush and hold on with her baby teeth, and Tess would have to stroke her tummy until she let go. Her body knew clearly what it wanted and what it didn’t want as its needs changed, now formula, now Pedialyte, now formula.

When Tilly was done eating, she’d curl in a ball in the palm of our hands, her full belly nearly as big as her head, and sleep, making the tiny clicking sound that Bucky’s website informed us is the equivalent of mouse purring.

Tess did the first half of the night feedings, then I gave Tess a six hour spell to sleep while I took over 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. feedings. Tess and I were both exhausted by day three. I remembered sitting up at night nursing Tess, scribbling crookedly in a journal balanced precariously on my knee, delirious with exhaustion, panic, love, and grief over my own lost independence. It’s an obsessive state of mind where you’re acutely aware that a fragile being’s life is depends on you. No matter where you are or how much you need a break, all you can think about is, what time is it? Where’s the baby. Is she okay? How had I kept it up for a year and a half?

Now it was taking the energy of two huge human beings to keep this tiny mouse alive, and all the while, we knew that a mouse mother could do a much better job with much less energy. Was this the lesson we were to learn, that when you go against nature’s order the input and output of energy is completely out of whack?

Somewhere along the five-day journey, Tilly began to weaken and become fussier and more resistant to eating. She began to fall over more when she tried to walk.

The last night, I spent an hour at each feeding trying Pedialyte, and different concentrations of formula and goat’s milk, but I could only get Tilly’s belly about half full. At the 3 a.m. feeding, I went to bed, knowing my daughter would probably sleep through the 5 a.m. alarm. I decided it was okay. I was pretty sure Tilly was dying. At 7 a.m., Tilly barely stirred when I picked her up, but she started clicking as she curled in the palm of my hand.

I woke Tess gently and told her I thought Tilly was dying, but that she was happy right now in my hand, and that I thought we shouldn’t bother her any more. Tess wouldn’t hear of giving up. She sat down and plied the brush, and at first it seemed to be working, but halfway through the feeding, Tilly died.

What was the lesson? Maybe we didn’t keep the cage warm enough (I had a thermometer and a light bulb shining down on it, but the temperature varied between 77 and 83 degrees. Maybe the formula wasn’t quite right. Maybe we let her get too dehydrated and she got organ damage. Maybe the mother had ingested some of the mouse poison we used to put out the year before (I still find caches of it here and there). Or maybe Tilly was just a number in the normal infant mortality rate for mice. Trees put out thousands of seeds to grow a few trees, frogs lay thousands of eggs. It is just nature’s way.

Maybe the lesson was that if I find another orphaned mouse, I’ll leave the room for an hour and wait to see if the mother is in the process of evacuating the litter and is coming back for it. We certainly won’t put poison out in the cabin again.

But what will I do if the house in the city becomes infested with mice, as has happened once before? Would it be less cruel to let my cats take care of the problem? I don’t think so. Perhaps I will put out mousetraps that snap their little necks quickly instead of causing them to die slowly of dehydration from poison. I’ve heard it’s just as cruel to catch them in a “Have a Heart” trap and put them out far enough away that they won’t return, because they usually starve or freeze to death. Whatever I choose, it will be another in a series of contradictory drives we call life.

I don’t know what it all adds up to, all I know is, for a few days, we lived very closely with a tiny beautiful being, saw her organs working under her transparent skin, heard her click-purring in our ears, and felt her tiny feet and hands press against our finger tips.

Writing and the Reverse Gravity of Waterfalls

Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park

Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park. This fall has steps.  Wedding Veil, which I’m talking about below, doesn’t but is a thinner trickle.

My husband, Charley Brown, mugging for the shot.

My husband, Charley Brown, mugging for the shot.


When you get into the crevasse of a mountain’s waterfall, there seems to be some kind of reverse gravity that sucks you up into its breast. I was reminded of this recently as my daughter and I scrambled over boulders up the tiers of the Wedding Veil waterfall in Yosemite National Park, California last month. You have to place your hands and feet carefully on the rocks and leverage your weight as you climb up into one pool, then in the one above. You strategize the best path to take, lest you climb into a spot you can’t get down from, and with each step and hand hold, the view changes and new plans have to be made at a moment’s notice. The activity is mesmerizing, fatigue falls away, and you climb faster than you should, driven to get up to the top by physical magnetism.

It’s a lot like finishing the definitive rewrite of a novel, which I did recently. As you get closer to the end, the drive to finish overtakes you, even as the fear of finishing fights you, and you find yourself spending all day, writing, writing, writing. Of course I’m not finished, finished. Still have to ask my writing group and other friends to read and give feedback, still have to tinker with sentences here and there, and proofread several times for errors. But the big work is done. Feels good and a little scary. Unlike climbing to the base of a waterfall, where you sit and bask in the mist and power of falling water, you get to the end of a novel and feel a little lost, as in, what now?

Find a different waterfall to climb, I guess.

Talking Writing and Big Lucks


I’m Illusion water flower 3pleased to announce two recent publications: a darkly humorous story, “Life in the Margins” at Big Lucks, and an essay, “How Not to Become a Writer” at Talking Writing. The latter was written in tribute to Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer,” and was a finalist for the humorous writing advice contest hosted by TW. Please visit these sites, leave comments and browse other excellent content.

I very much enjoyed working with my editor at Big Lucks, An Tran, who gave an excellent critique and good reasons for the critique. Working together, I believe we improved the story. Below are his answers to my questions about the magazine.

  1. Your “about” page says that Big Lucks wants to be like a “nuclear submarine” that helps literary lifeforms that lurk in “the unlit depths of the ocean…breach the repetitive ebb-and-tide…” of, one assumes, the literary surface. What does that mean to you?

Submarines are fascinating in that they are, more or less, wholly self-sufficient communities submerged in the sea. We don’t think about them much, but they are there. And, in isolation, communities develop their own unique cultures. We want to bring up what is often overlooked; we want to take chances and give voice to those that don’t fit into more traditional stylistics found in literature today.

  1. John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction was famed for shaping an entire school of science fiction by sounding a call for a particular aesthetic and then selecting those who adhered to his ideas. Other editors try to keep their finger on the pulse of the literary zeitgeist of the times and select works to represent it. Most editors today will say they just pick what moves them and don’t adhere to any particular aesthetic. Which role more closely describes your approach to editing Big Lucks?

 Our one rubric is: does this excite us? We aren’t looking for a specific aesthetic; we don’t want to be boxed in that way. If a piece is experimental or avant-garde, great! If it’s traditional, great! What matters is if it’s well-crafted, emotionally resonant, and reveals something about ‘truth’ that we hadn’t considered before, or presents itself in a way we haven’t seen before.

 Our editors all have unique tastes and personal biases; one of us might bring something to the group that we’re really excited about, but something falls short for the others. But when we all get really excited about a piece—no matter what style it comes in—we know it’s more than just good, because it transcends personal tastes or one individual’s stylistic preferences. When we agree on a piece, it’s magical, because we’re all excited and all on board.

  1. We know that people do things in patterns even when they think they are not. Looking back on your past issues does the magazine have an aesthetic or a pattern that tends to show up either by unconscious or conscious design?

I think any patterns one might observe are more indicative of cultural shifts in literary aesthetic as a whole and less of any conscious or unconscious factors in the selection process. We choose works that resonate on many different layers, works that accurately reflect the rich complexity of being human and being alive in the early 21st century. If there is a cohesiveness to that resonance, it is because (we hope) there are experiences and modes of expression that speak to this time and this culture with greater relevance and intensity than do others.

  1. In the early 20th century when modernism was budding, the world population was only 2 billion. There were literary stars who were generally recognized, like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway and William Faulkner. As the world reaches a population of seven and a half billion, with more than 600,000 books being published a year, it gets harder to see the literary movements and stars of this era. Could you speak about the literary patterns or movements budding today in your neck of the woods? How is the literary world different today than it was in the twentieth century?

Prior to the 20th century, most literary artists were sharing their work in smaller communities, with the stylistics appreciated by the aristocracy being vastly different from the stylistics enjoyed by commoners. The 20th century of English literature was an outlier in human history, as far as the consumption of literature is concerned, and even still there were many many contemporary writers of the time that published, gained moderate popularity, and then faded into obscurity as time went on.

It is typically only fiction writers that have any ideas of ‘stardom’ through writing, so this kind of conversation can be alienating to poets, essayists, playwrights, screenwriters, etc. I think, more and more, writers are letting go of the idea of some kind of central celebrity or realm of prominence, are growing more happy with just having their work out there and consumed at any public scale. This is a good thing; it’s the way it was meant to be.

  1. How has Big Lucks changed since its inception?

The masthead has definitely gone through some changes. The presentation too. We moved from a print journal to an online model and have gone through a number of different designs in order to facilitate a deeper reading experience. And we opened up Big Lucks Books to an incredible reception. In many ways, it’s all stayed the same: we are interested in bringing daring, innovative and powerful work to a wider public and we are pursuing all of the ways we can think to most effectively do this. But that central idea has certainly blossomed into something I don’t think Mark and Laura, who founded the journal, could’ve conceived of when it all began; certainly, I couldn’t have conceived of this when I was first brought on board.

  1. How would you describe the relationship between Big Lucks and Big Lucks Books?

Big Lucks Books is the natural culmination of the journal’s original aim. Through it, we can bring incredible works that don’t fit in well with other publishers to a much wider audience. Poetry books, chapbooks of flash fiction, novellas and works like these are often produced as complete visions, but represent tremendous risk to traditional publishers. These works are often too long to be included in a journal and are considered too short to stand alone, but they are often works that must stand alone and something very valuable is lost if the work is padded to a greater length or reduced to a shorter one. We take amazing works of literature and make it public; that is what we do and who we are, whether we do this through the journal or through pressing books.

Spontaneous Combustion, Music, and other forms of Play


Karen Russell

After her mother spontaneously combusted on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, Fallon turned her head, saw herself reflected, beautiful and male, in the face of her older brother Ovid and fell in love.

This is the opening line of my novel-in-progress The Ciphery, where the main character tries to figure out how a person can ever trust herself in a world where reality is a matter of perception and the improbable has already occurred. I hear the opening line to the tune of Pink Martini’s “Le Premier Bonheur Du Jour”.

In a former post, I said I would periodically post links to music from the playlist Ciphery theme music. Though I understand that many write while listening to music, I can’t actually do it for long, because hearing is my dominant mode of information processing, and my attention goes to anything audible first. However, music is a quick way to get back in touch with where one has left off, while it pleasantly promotes theme and tone continuity.

As I write this post, I’m at the Associated Writers and Writing Program Conference 2015 in Minneapolis, MN. Just listened to Karen Russell’s keynote address, “The Paradoxical Usefulness of Non-Utilitarian Motion AKA Play.” It was far too brilliant for me to absorb every word (especially after getting up at 3:30 to catch a plane to Minneapolis and listening to sessions all day), but the gist of it was that play – which by definition has no purpose and is done for its own sake– has a transcendent, revolutionary, and healing purpose. And that’s what we writers do.

She gave an example of how stroke victims heal more by trying to simulate the motions of a virtual dolphin than by repetitive goal-oriented movement. The seemingly random motions of a flailing baby wire our brains for language, and the air-bubble rings that dolphins make, for no other purpose than to have fun, distinguish them as having superior intelligence. She said play is the seedbed of all language and that it can’t be reduced to its effects, hence the paradox. We play to play, which makes us better writers. And, I might add, as soon as we play to get better at writing, we cease to play.

She said much more, but that’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll post a link to the written version, if she posts it.

I also attended a GREAT panel called, “Nerd Novels: Exploring Worlds of Knowledge in Fiction,” led by Peter Mountford, Jean Hegland, Michael Byers and Susan Gaines and another great session on the uncanny with Kelly Link, Steve Stern and Karen Russel, where I became aware of the magical realist oriented Small Beer Press, and I attended a session on why fairy tales continue to haunt us. More on all that in a future posts.

AWP was fab as always. The bookfair reminds you that the creativity thrives under the radar of “the market.”

XO to everyone!