Craft Essays

Self-Awareness & Self-Deception: Beyond the Unreliable Narrator (A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft, anthology, Trinity University Press, also in The Writer’s Chronicle)

We refer to reality as if it were tangible--a geographical location or an absolute and identifiable state--but writers often arrive at the reality of the world of their story, if ever, as a kind of byproduct of the characters' everyday self-delusions.

The term "unreliable narrator" suggests that unreliability is a special category and that most narrators (and people) are clear-sighted, rational, and honest. Even a fairly casual consideration of an ordinary day, however, let alone a crisis, suggests otherwise; there's substantial narrative interest in the chaos of the "normal" human mind. It's a little scary, even for people who consider themselves to be recklessly truthful, to count the number of lies (social lies, kind lies, self-serving lies, small semi-truths to avoid long explanations, and outright lies) we tell. Often, we don't allow ourselves to know when we're lying. It's even scarier to look back over the decisions we've made and to try to remember what made those choices seem so smart or so necessary. So one aim in our ongoing project of writing and reading is the passionate desire to get an accurate view of reality.

More >

Mystery vs. Confusion (CRAFT)

In writing fiction, we’re always looking for ways to manage the release and restraint of information, introducing our characters and situations while avoiding the dreaded exposition junk pile at the beginning (many of us do have a great fondness for exposition junk piles when they’re intriguingly full of bright objects). When we’re writing the first draft of a story or novel, the process can feel like an unsettling dream: we’re attending a party in the dark. Is it a funeral? A wedding? The birthday party of an old friend or enemy? What are we doing and why? We fumble around trying to figure out who else is in the room as we trip over the furniture and bump into walls.

When we finally find the light switches, we feel such joy in discovering who the characters are and what they’re up to that we may be tempted to try to recreate for our readers this sense of being utterly lost, followed by the delight of figuring out what’s happening.

We may also fear that we’ll lose our readers’ fragile attention if we don’t create enough of a sense of mystery. Sometimes we fear this so much that we make every element of a beginning mysterious, so that readers have no idea who the characters are, what’s happening, what matters, or what they should be focusing on.

More >

From Research Notes for Hungry Ghost Theater (Necessary Fiction)

My new novel, Hungry Ghost Theater, began when I was avoiding a novel I kept writing and rewriting. That other novel changed dramatically — a pair of sisters turned into friends and then lovers, Quakers morphed into drag performers, and drinking problems migrated from character to character — but it didn’t really seem to get much better, though my friends and early readers tried valiantly to encourage me.

From time to time, I put it down and wrote stories and short plays about a half-Jewish family of performers, scientists, and activists, idealists who couldn’t live up to their own visions. Robert and Julia, a brother and sister who run an experimental performance company; their middle sister, Eva, an affective neuroscientist; Eva’s wild nearly grown children. And then their parents, people whose lives they touch, other performers, patients in a locked psychiatric facility. I began to feel as if these people existed somewhere: it was my job to find them and bring them over an invisible, semi-permeable barrier to introduce them to the world.

More >

Politics and the Imagination: How to Get Away with Just about Anything (in Ten Not-So-Easy Lessons) (Dedicated to the People of Darfur: Writings on Fear, Risk, and Hope, anthology,  Rutgers University Press, also in The Writer’s Chronicle)

The Pleasures of Hell (The Writer’s Chronicle)

Teeming with Villains & Villainesses, or, Taking Sides (The Writer’s Chronicle


Cristina Henríquez, Book of Unknown Americans (San Francisco Chronicle)

Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (San Francisco Chronicle)

Edan Lepucki, California (San Francisco Chronicle)

A Classic Nightmare: On Emily Fridlund’s  History of Wolves (The Millions)

Dubravka Ugresic, The Ministry of Pain (The Believer)

Stacey D'Erasmo, Blood, Breath, Bone, String: A Seahorse Year (The Believer)