Category Archives: Surrealism


fountain-pen-writingAnother odd fiction….

Joan writes with invisible ink.

She started when she was young. Her secrets should be lost, she thought, and once she’d spilled her emotions, words’ effectiveness ended anyway. In the beginning, she never returned to her pages except to assure they’d faded and, sometimes, if they didn’t, she sought an unnoticed patch of sunlight to erase them.

Friends and family watched Joan march parades of words through her notebooks, the prose dropping like a curtain line after line. When she was a teenager, her father counted notebooks on the shelves in her room, called her “His scribbler,” and pleaded.

“What stories you must have told by now—why won’t you let us read?”

Joan stared at the page and pretended to recite what she found there, all of her speech invented, all of it strange and estranging. Her father listened as well as he could as long as he could but soon found reason to leave. Joan hid her notebooks after that.

Though she needn’t have. They were empty. When she left for college she discovered she could refill the earliest books and did, again and again, wondering whether she followed the actual ruts of what she’d written before or how these thoughts might echo earlier ones. Nothing seemed fresh, and, try as she might, her dreams of novelty disappointed.

Her husband was the one who encouraged her to become an actual writer. By then she’d stopped refilling notebooks, but her family told stories of Joan’s late hours poised in a puddle of light at her desk, her pen pirouetting. For their first anniversary, her husband bought a fountain pen, sturdy ink labeled “archival,” and several blank books with pages opaque as canvas and suitable for sails.

Joan started immediately, and the habit came back like breath. Soon, her husband fell asleep to her scratching. Moons presided over tidal confession.

He wanted to hear what she was saying to her blank books, but, through an odd alchemy, something in Joan’s mind and hand invaded the pen and transmuted the ink. Permanence, it turned out, didn’t arise from circumstance as much as routine. What she’d written the week before disappeared as it always had. She kept books closed to preserve words, but—in light or darkness—they slipped from sight. Joan cried. The tears washed pigment from the page.

For some weeks, she traced the trail of prior days’ signs, but her hand cramped, her mind quit. Shadow overtook her. In its wake, little remained.

So Joan pretended again, speaking invention instead of reading. Blank books gathered in plain sight, but her husband, respecting her privacy, stopped asking.

Then Joan only sat at her desk, studying her husband’s sleep and dreaming what writing might mean, imagining her words honored by attention, their sounds real, important to more than her.

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Filed under Allegory, Ambition, Blogging, Diaries, Doubt, Fiction, Identity, Journals, Metaphor, Parables, Silence, Surrealism, Thoughts, Voice, Words, Writing

Over: A Fiction

sleeping-handsomeIf the play ended, no one knew it.

Two characters dozed—or the actors pretended to doze—and dialogue slowed to the sort of dripping that holds no rhythm or pattern. Figures standing or sitting in the tableau mumbled and moved fitfully. Maybe they were prompting each other to speak according to the script, but maybe they were just talking, mostly inaudibly. No one left the stage, and the lights remained on it.

By now, many in the audience had walked out, but a surprising number stayed, sitting in the dark and happy enough to waste time doing so. They watched half-heartedly. Some whispered to neighbors, some dozed in parallel with the characters, and others stared at their programs or amused themselves with the devices they’d carried in.

If they’d paid, they might expect more, but no one did pay. They wandered into the theater believing they could be amused or, at the very least, less bored. Though they understood no great actor would appear in a play with no prayer of profit, they hoped for something better than amateur, anything noteworthy. Their standards for “noteworthy” were low. Their hopes hadn’t been disappointed or fulfilled. Something might yet happen.

In the third row, house right, a professor mused instead of watching. He stifled an urge to chuckle as his mind circled grand philosophical questions, like “What makes something a play?” and “What constitutes a theater?” and “What does it mean to pretend?” He’d worked his way into two or three important discoveries, he felt, and decided to write them down when the play was over.

If he’d aired his insights, the yawning sweeping back and forth through the remaining audience might be even more contagious. His sort of interest is rare for a reason, and the people didn’t stay in their seats to answer any question they could articulate. The inertia holding them came from their lives, which—little different from this play—drifted there awaiting the impulse to drift elsewhere.

No one noticed, but an actor who appeared to be dozing died, so—in a way—something had happened. However, he passed unaccompanied by any dramatic sign, and the actors and audience had stopped expecting anything of him anyway. They’d have to watch in a different way to notice. They no longer thought about consequence because it was a play—the professor might say it’s all a play—and therefore nothing material.

Outside the day was dying. Purple curtained rain clouds hung over snippets of horizon visible between buildings. The sun, still wielding hidden influence, threw light as from under a closed door, and pedestrians quickened at intimations of danger. The air weighed more, full of anticipation. The rumble of thunder sounded like rolling boulders and, even in the theater, some heard it.

They shifted in their seats, determined now to stay, to wait it out.


Filed under Allegory, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Kafka, Laments, Meditations, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Play, Satire, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Surrealism, Thoughts, Worry

Radical Revision of a Story, “Room”

r_gal0207-520x477Today, not a post so much as a process…

At a workshop I attended recently, the teachers took us through various stages of revision, each designed to unveil shrouded intentions in prose. For each stage below, I’ve created instructions along the lines of my teachers’ suggestions and offered a response to those instructions. It’s an odd but fruitful practice. The numbers after each passage are word counts.

1. Original: Write something narrative and evocative in 250 words or less. Don’t overlook events but think about tone as well—what are you saying about setting, character, perspective? Look for ways to make those elements clear.

Landmarks of travels return unmoored—clock faces without towers or fountains flowing into unnamed, unremembered squares. The unbordered public spaces contain a room where detail persists down to scrolled brows of an armoire, badly beveled baseboard corners, one window perpetually fogged, but the city beyond is pure space, a vacuum without memory.

Which makes him wish only for here, the objects and weather about him now. He collects his hat, a walking stick, and sack and opens the door. He knows the throat of the hallway, the stairs, the lobby of mailboxes and chance half-smiles. Outside, the sun is strange. It glares like someone caught in a crime, and no shade or hat brim or hand spares him its resentment. Streams of the similarly stunned flow against him, but they have the conviction of their purpose. They jostle each other and him because they can’t pass on narrow sidewalks. He weaved through such crowds as a younger man. Now his steps go and stop, granting no wished movement of his own.

At the corner, he hears his name used like a club. He knows the object of the blow is someone who shares his name—he knows no one anymore— but can’t help feeling the word’s weight. Inside, he could almost forget he has a name. On the street, everyone is someone else, and everyone breathes someone else’s air.

If it weren’t for food, he’d leave the town to them. He wishes his room might be food enough. 249

2. Erasure: Now print the original and black out words, sometimes making the language more efficient but also collapsing one moment into another. Eliminate at least one-third. Be sure to look for conversation between separate sentences.

Travels unmoored—clock faces, fountains flowing into unremembered squares. His room persists down to scrolled brows, badly beveled corners, one window fogged. The city beyond is pure space, a vacuum without memory.

Which makes him wish only for the objects and weather about him. He collects a hat, walking stick, and sack. He knows the throat of the hallway, stairs, the lobby of half-smiles. Outside, the sun is like someone caught in a crime. No shade, hat brim, or hand spares resentment. Similarly stunned flow against him. The conviction of their purposes jostle on narrow sidewalks. He weaved as a younger man. Now steps go and stop, no movement of his own.

At the corner, he hears his name used like a club. The object is someone who shares his name but he feels the weight. He could forget he has a name. On the street, everyone breathes someone else’s air.

If it weren’t for food, he’d leave the town to them, his room food enough. 167

3. Further Erasure: Abandon the original sense entirely to discover tone in diction and syntax. Look for hidden surrealism. Attempt to reduce by half.

Clock faces flowing into unremembered squares, a room down to beveled corners, the city pure space, a vacuum.

He collects hat, walking stick, and sack. He knows the lobby of half-smiles. Outside, the sun is caught in a crime. No hand spares resentment. The conviction of purpose jostles on narrows. He goes and stops, no movement his own.

He hears his name used like a club against someone but he feels the weight. He could forget his name. Everyone breathes someone else’s air.

If not for food, he’d leave town to them. 94

4. Derangement: Reverse the last version of the original passage, if not by word by word then by phrase. Where possible, erase more.

He’d leave town to them if not for food, forget his name used like a club. No movement is his own. Purpose jostles on narrows. No hand spares resentment. The sun, caught in crime, half smiles at his sack, walking stick, and hat, the unremembered squares flowing into clock faces. 50


Filed under Aesthetics, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Play, Revision, Solitude, Surrealism, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

To Continue

mouth_speaking_by_naraosga_stockHere’s another odd 20 minute (or so) fiction…

He continued, not with the speech he planned but with a test. He wondered how long his audience might listen. He began conventionally enough—a joke to loosen them up and gain their acceptance, an anecdote familiar and just a touch strange, like food you think fresh that nonetheless gives off a whiff of earthy decay. Most laughed, only a few uncomfortably, their heads tipped too far back, their eyes clenched.

He meant to tender their common humanity, the currency of every soul present, but he also meant to say he wasn’t of them exactly and soon might turn on them. When he began to twist his words, to tighten his syntax into baroque skeins of language, their attention relaxed. He started to confess—tales of indiscretion too complicated to follow and yet too plain not to feel. He unreeled a scroll of shame, and some people looked up from their laps. Some looked down. They crossed their legs. They angled away.

Yet, at three quarters of an hour, most remained. Some, elbows on knees, tilted forward as if the slightest provocation might lift them and send them to the exit.

“I’m apt to cry at odd intervals,” he heard himself say and then made good on the statement, choking as he trudged through halting incoherence. One or two people slipped into the aisle.

“I want to say what I’ve always meant to,” he said, and more faces, pained with civility, glanced back at him. Some offered sympathy, so he directed his stare toward those, curling his lip as if somewhere between cackling and tears.

The small fraction still there couldn’t stay much longer, or, of necessity, they’d remove themselves some other way, listening to internal alternatives, lists of tasks unperformed, conversations revised, fantasies.

Next came a long deconstruction of everything he’d said so far. He doubled back to explain his opening joke as if they’d been too dull to understand and had only laughed not to be left out. He insulted himself by critiquing every loose trap he’d set. He repeated himself nearly exactly, just differently enough to enhance their now mutual agony. He could be quite savage and was quite practiced at it. Were he nice he might have spared them, as—now—when they turned woeful eyes in his direction, begging for mercy.

Never has anyone spoken so long for so little purpose and with so little pleasure. He told them so, but many had gone, sighing to lead the way. The audience thinned to just a few stalwarts and a few curious. A child remained and watched him as if he were a circus act hypnotizing in its mystery. For that child, he felt some warmth and paused between sentences to give him a sliver of a smile.

Someone thought to clap then, someone who must have hoped to force him to conclude. But he shouted over the gathering noise. Their anger followed. Some shouted “Get off!” and others hurled more complicated messages. He blocked them out. He continued.

Almost two hours in, he saw a few sleeping forms and no eyes at all. As they woke and stumbled out, as the auditorium finally emptied entirely, he kept talking, barely listening himself.

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What He Was

ku-xlargeOkay, so this is an strange little story. I found an odd entry on Wikipedia and decided to crawl inside it…

Like any delusion, it was borderless and stretched from a single moment to subsume reality. He couldn’t say when he became glass, only when he discovered he’d always been.

Glass has different, sharper angles, and he’d always felt them. Only recently, however, had he begun to fear, worrying a bone might erupt from his thigh at sitting or standing too quickly. He didn’t picture his glass skeleton as you might think, like sticks of pure ice or crystal. Instead he felt gray inside, every piece jagged, poured or shaped with tongs instead of blown and stretched from fiery blobs. His parts would never refract light but absorb it, mixed as they were with ash and air. Their dull translucence came closer to brittle metal than prisms.

They might splinter at turning or lifting his hand to eat, and he sometimes wished they would. He wanted proof. Every time he tried to explain the truth only he knew, his father’s impatience glowed a little whiter. He threatened his son with beatings fit to remind him how different flesh and glass are. His father said he meant one day to cure him of pillows, of clockwork caution, of resignation, of paralysis. If his father’s blow came without warning, he’d be happier, as the surprise would save him from shattering when he braced himself.

His mother preferred reason, cooing reassurance. He couldn’t be glass, she said, because she’d carried him and would’ve sensed it. She told him how he’d slipped from inside her, more rubber than glass, and how, bathing him, she’d wondered at his rounded knees and elbows, his head like an unpicked gourd. He couldn’t convince himself nearly as easily as she could convince herself and wouldn’t bear her trying to touch him or come near him.

The doctor blamed his schooling, pressures he couldn’t bear and so made real and physical. The priest said he needed to place God before himself, that his illness arose from self regard replacing faith he’d abandoned. His friends stopped thinking of him, and there was no woman to love a glass man.

The days spent in bed stretched forward and backward, and he dreamt of a stream that might run harmlessly around him, washing away clay that wasn’t glass and revealing him as only he saw he truly was. He wanted to be seen. He wanted to be known at last.


Filed under Allegory, Anxiety, Depression, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, Kafka, Laments, Metaphor, Parables, Parenting, Prose Poems, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Surrealism, Thoughts, Worry

Not Worth Saying

iPhone+Instagram+Photo+Library+Card+Due+DateHere is the last (at least until I write more…) of my 20-minute stories.

I talk too much. It always happens. At first people hear me, and then I’m a sound. The refrigerator, air conditioner, and a thousand household machines speak daily, but people stop noticing them. The brain turns their volume to silence.

Everyone tells stories about having odd uncles with grubby secrets, about the car breaking down somewhere unlucky, about being mistaken for a more important person. I am a collection of these narratives, a library book with old due dates stamped inside the back cover, phrases and words underlined in faint pencil. If you knew me better, you’d remember I’ve used this metaphor before, in just this context, with just this timing and emphasis.

People who do know me tell me to stop, stop now. They’ve heard it, they say, and then I leave off rifling through my memory looking for relevant remarks that might pass as new. None of it is new. Life echoes infinitely, I’ve learned this.

I’m not sure when my catalog of anecdotes filled. Maybe around the time my wife left. She said I should get a dog that would have to listen, but instead I talk to her chair. Though nothing really helps me imagine her interested, after I drink enough, I try. The stories roll like boulders beneath a glacier, and I dream of them deposited in a field, incongruous and dramatic. I like to think of my wife’s smile before those last grim stages, before her face formed a rictus of pain whenever I opened my mouth.

Since she left, I’m alone. My car drives itself to and from work, and I’m a passenger. Colleagues are pulsing clock parts, whirring, rocking, or inching forward as demanded. Meals and sleep are processes. Time is territory so familiar as to be invisible. I blink and discover another day, season, or year.

And, sometimes, when evenings grow long, I bear down with this pen, hoping to force something new from my mind but only come up with this same account of my trouble, the only trouble I know, my most recent—that is to say, my last—discovery.


Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Kafka, Laments, life, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Play, Sturm und Drang, Surrealism, Thoughts, Voice, Worry

About Bob

5200159769_33ab841800_zAt a recent writing workshop I attended in Ohio, our instructor led us through a number of fruitful exercises, including the 20-minute stories popularized by McSweeney’s. I’ll be sharing the results for my mid-week posts over the next month or so. These stories have been edited since I wrote them, but minimally… particularly this one!

WARNING: These are strange. Please don’t worry about me.


Bob rubbed chicken fat under his arms. It was something he’d always done and never said so. Since he’d married Claire, he’d thought repeatedly about confessing. “Listen Claire,” he’d say, or “By the way, Claire,” or “Claire, you want to hear something funny about me you don’t know?”

Claire was his first, his only love. They met one moonless night at the Dairy Queen lot. She dropped the chocolate-coated dome of her cone to the asphalt and cursed a streak of colorfully jimmied words. Then she spied him leaning on the hood of his car.

She looked at him dolefully, “Fate cooperates once again to bring my dismay, alas.”

Because she’d spent her last dollar, he bought her another ice cream, and they talked. As they conversed he felt the ooze at his sides like loosening worry. He noticed the smell for nearly the first time.

“I could really use some fried chicken,” Claire said, idly.

Chicken fat does nothing for perspiration, nothing for hygiene in general or well-being. Bob didn’t even regard it as fetish anymore, just routine.

7:35 am: chicken fat.

After marrying Claire, however, he created a ritual. The tub of fat needed obtaining, needed hiding. It’s application needed timing and perfect privacy. Every day Bob feared discovery.

Though he succeeded in decreasing the amount, he couldn’t do without chicken fat altogether and told himself every marriage should have secrets. “It’s my mystery,” he whispered to himself.

The day Bob came home to discover Claire’s dresser drawers open and empty, he ran first to his clandestine spot under the sink, but there it was, the tub of chicken fat still hidden, its contents untouched.

Bob cried for a time at the kitchen sink before relief flooded in.


Filed under Allegory, America, Anxiety, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Gratitude, Identity, Laments, Love, Metaphor, Play, Surrealism, Worry, Writing

The Muse As Dreamer

All of this is a continuation of the lie, but if I am consistent in it, approximates the truth in its effect.

Franz Kafka, diary entry, May 11, 1916

Here’s a dream from high school: knowing beyond doubt my strategy for running cross country races was all wrong, I hit upon a new plan—drop to my belly just as Coach fired the gun and scramble on all fours, alligator fashion, through the three point one mile race. And bang, it worked. I was instantly 500 meters in the lead, feeling remarkably smug and saurian. I’d never felt such exhilaration before.

Then doubt crept in. The pack gradually—agonizingly—caught up to me and, when I finally abandoned my hope and stood to run like a human, I found myself in my own race, no other competitors about, striding through a labyrinthine hotel remarkably similar to the Chateau Frontenac in Old Quebec. I stopped to study the carpet. The shade of red wasn’t right.

Needless to say, I never finished.

The particulars of that dream amused athletes I used to coach—it could be they just enjoyed my imitation of a running alligator—but I could never express how unfunny and compelling that dream originally was. When we tell dreams we recall the absurd and comic detail and forget that, at the time, the dream’s logic, doubts, and certainties were absolute. The stuff of dreams often moves us to retell them, but we can’t communicate their absurdity entirely.

When my wife tells her dreams, she sometimes “cleans-up” plot lines to put odd details in clearer contexts, but, to me, the true part of the dream is its bizarre form. I always ask for the dream exactly as it happened.

Early surrealists, led by André Breton in his Manifesto in 1924, tried to reproduce dream structure in poetry. They valued automatism (automatic writing) as a sort of dictation from the subconscious. “If thought is liberated from the dictates of reason and from moral and aesthetic strictures,” Breton wrote, “it may achieve a form of expression beyond the domains of hitherto recognized artistic expression.”

At the time his advice probably sounded dramatic, but it’s become familiar. Even homespun poets like William Stafford warned, “Intention endangers creation” and, “any time we adopt a stance that induces an analytical feeling, we may be subverting what art depends on.” Intentionally avoiding intention seems an impossible contradiction, but, every once in a while, even in a sonnet or haiku, the dream happens.

In Writing the American Crawl, Stafford said poetry is like a car trying to start on ice, where the ice is the interface between writer and reader. He said a writer can only gain “traction” by using “statements that do not demand much belief, easy claims, even undeniable progressions without need of authority. No solicitation of the reader’s faith.” Poems balance surprise and familiarity—Emily Dickinson called it “amazing sense”—with structure as well as imagery. Ordinary imagery can be quite surreal.

How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? …Two, one to hold the giraffe and the other to fill the bathtub with brightly colored bicycles. So goes the joke, but surrealism doesn’t live at the opposite extreme from Stafford, groping for something pointedly alien, intentionally outlandish. The structure as well as the contents create dreams.

Beyond that brilliant oft-quoted first line of “The Metamorphosis” (“When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”), it’s a fairly ordered tale. Its success rests with its structure as much as with that dramatic first choice.

Kafka wrote in his diary in 1921 that “All is imaginary—family, office, friends, the street, all imaginary, far away or close at hand,” and to me he writes best when he believes it. In his diary, reality is infinitely pliable. He says, “the truth that lies closest . . . is only this, that you are beating your head against the wall of a windowless and doorless cell.”

Mighty depressing. However, the broader sense of this statement, the feeling of inescapability, seems essential to art. Things are as they are because they have to be. Intentionally trying to invent that necessity pits your fabrication against the subconscious. Dreams suggest you’ll lose.

Once I dreamed the packages strewn about a room contained all the important statements of historical figures. No one else noticed them, but I spent the whole dream desperate to protect them and preserve what they held. But they had no bows or ribbons and weren’t easy to stack up in my arms. No one else seemed to care. They were invisible to everyone else. If I were awake, I would have asked, “Then are they real?” In the dream, nothing was weird about their existence. The only criterion for reality was belief.

“Whatever care the mind takes to isolate itself,” Marcel Raymond says in Baudelaire to Surrealism, “it cannot help being fed by elements originating in the external world.” In writing about the mind, we have no means of expression but words of this world and, hence, can’t entirely avoid intention. The secret surrealism tells, however, is that a mind ready to accept both the content and structure of the unconscious interferes as little as possible.

If the muse is a dreamer, let’s not wake her to explain herself. Let’s not trouble her by assessing the eccentricity of her night babble. Let her sleep. Record the movement of her closed and ever-shifting eyes.

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