Ceremony


A work in progress

A work in progress

Consider this conversation I had with my nine year old today:

“I need some stuff so I can write a letter to my cousins.”

“That’s a great idea. What do you need?”

“Pajamas, purple ink pens, lined paper, a cup of yogurt—no—a carrot so it won’t melt under the blanket, ice water in a bottle, one of the red blankets—the small ones, not the short ones because those won’t cover my whole body, and a fan right over me so I don’t get hot under the blanket, and the flashlight so I can see.”

“Why not leave the blanket off? So you have light and air.”

“No.”

“But if you’re too hot?”

“I have to be under the blanket to write what I’m thinking about.”

“Can you share with me what you’re thinking about?”

“Whatever I come up with while I’m writing.”

A peek at creative necessity

A peek at creative necessity

All of this speaks to her reason for writing, her motivation and purpose, rather than some dramatic flair to be indulged or discouraged (how patronizing, in either event). There is a connection between the significance of the content of her writing and her level of elaborateness: when I ask her to write about the weather, the length of time it takes a bean to sprout in a peat pot, or the way to express decimals in a multiplication problem, she does not discourage daylight or moan for purple ink. In the construction and observance of her (important, personal) writing ritual, she has absolute possession of the idea that her intentions, her emotional investment, and the sanctity and ceremony of her writing are one.

The dailies

The dailies

Pragmatism and hard experience have the tendency to rob creative endeavor, and life in general, of its ceremony, treating any requirement as a sign of something less than seriousness. Hobbyists buy fountain pens, serious writers write in the thirty seconds it takes to microwave cold coffee, bleary eyed because real writing means getting up before everyone in the house, staying up long after they are all in bed again at night, real writers never bellyache, remembering that they are not owed any particular privilege, but they are blessed to be self- denying enough to endure criticism and rejection and bad nutrition and sleep deprivation, not to mention the embarrassing fallout of neglectful hygiene, in order to craft entire novels, two or three sentences at a time while coffee reheats.

So says a barrage of advice aimed from blogs and magazine articles at all those pokey, whiney, self-indulgent writers who complain they are too busy to write. Being me, I don’t respond blossomingly to grouchiness, although I understand the desire to promote realism.

A friend I completely love just sent out this Pema Chödrön quote: “At some point we need to stop identifying with our weaknesses and shift our allegiance to our basic goodness. It’s highly beneficial to understand that our limitations are not absolute and monolithic, but relative and removable.”

It’s a balm, really, to be reminded that I don’t always have to be hard on myself. That I don’t have to feel lazy because I believe that successful writing, or whatever the nature of the endeavor, is better if viewed less as a problem of self-discipline and more as the center of a worthwhile purpose for which I am willing to make whatever room I need in life. I may be thinking about a story I’m working on while the kettle boils, but I am more likely to be sweet talking the dog out of knocking over the garbage can, tying up the tomato vines, answering the phone, finding blankets and purple pens, or a hundred other things that are proportional snugged into stray minutes.

Writing, my core creative purpose, is not proportional to bits of pieces of moments. Writing a story, as I unwind a thread of an idea from the center, is not proportional to reheating coffee.

That’s not to say a story, unwinding, doesn’t find its way into the corners of every act, every thought and dream, but this image seems the other way around to me. The essence permeates, infiltrates the air, the earth, so it cannot be lived around—this is the way I prefer to see writing rather than as the product of insistent multi-tasking. The call is not an imposition, though I’d never claim it’s always comfortable or easily managed.

Like my nine year old, I find I would like to reinstate requirements—time, space, tea—the ceremonial aspects of deep concentration. I don’t always have to squeeze a story in (or out) between lane changes in heavy traffic to prove I’m tough or serious or whatever the emotionally rugged equivalent of serious might be.

I believe that successful writing, or whatever the nature of the endeavor, is better if viewed less as frowning, preaching self-discipline and more as the center of a worthwhile purpose for which I am willing to make whatever time and space I need. Maybe this is only an attitude shift, but it’s one that involves gentling, focusing, opening up—all good indicators, in my opinion.

*   *   * Please feel free to share your own writing or creative ceremonies. What nurtures your process?

Do you have a fort?

Do you have a fort?

Posted in Advice, art, artist, bad advice, ceremony, creative process, creative writing, creativity, inspiration, motherhood, parenting, Pema Chodron, Uncategorized, writers, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Permission


Have you ever heard sage warnings about how hard it is to make it in the arts, about how many dues you have to pay and how unlikely it is that you have the goods (read: talent) to pay them without let down, humiliation, and ultimate disillusionment? Sickeningly, this isn’t bad advice—it’s fairly realistic, and realism makes its own case. But wait: I want to offer you, blogger, poet, dancer, painter, actor, musician, cobbler, whatever it is you do to get your art on, the right to reject wisdom when it is offered as a thoughtful reproof of eagerness in relation to your work.

I just said you should reject wisdom, which probably sounds like I’m in a terrible, depressed place. Actually, I’ve had a good couple of weeks, despite a strange sounding rejection that involved some manner of personalized (nice) though glib (not so nice) regret (okay, but still…it’s a rejection, so not nice, ever). I found out another story was picked up for print, and that a journal in which I currently have a story just won a lovely, shiny award for the excellence of this edition. I’ve learned to cherish these successes and bits of good news because any time you take risks, it stands to reason there will be a trail of failures behind every forward motion. Thankfully, I can always count on the writers I know to put it all in perspective and offer support.

 

robynsusanandme

Find your creative family and love them back.

That’s not unusual, either. Writers—artists in general—can be competitive, cliquish, even snooty. But it’s also true that, on the whole, so far as I’ve seen it, there is room in writing and the creative community at large for happiness, warmth, and connection. I never expected a social dividend from a solitary pursuit, but this is one truth about the arts that no one really tells you—there is freedom in pursuing something you love, and freedom, as a wave of enthusiasm, as the momentum of engagement, as a conceptual permission slip, swamps failure. You can be a worried, insecure, neurotic writer, but you’ll never be the only worried, insecure, neurotic writer, and ultimately we tend to like each other. A lot. And we support the people we like, and their work, with incredible generosity of spirit.

Of course there will be puddles of bullshit on the way to feeling connected and productive. And here is where I begin to fill out your get-out-of-advice-free slip.

I have had, notable among other small clusters of such, two distinct, sharply unpleasant, and weirdly dystopian (personally and purposefully speaking) conversations with conscientious people-I-know trying their damnedest to convince me that writers should-not-must-not submit their writing for the scrutiny of others until some distant point at which said writer (but they always mean you, whoever they are talking to) achieves real writing, real, not false, not all upstarty and raw, not lame or unworthy, but real, in the same sense the velveteen rabbit woke up and realized he wasn’t stuffed anymore after little Timmy died of scarlet fever, or whatever happened in the version you self-edit so you can justify reading that awful story to your own children.

And recently, I’ve heard second hand about a few similar conversations, related with confessional angst by friends or acquaintances after well-meaning advice from people-they-know bloomed into emotional canker.

You may have heard this advice, too, often phrased as food for thought or provided as a quote of some critically lauded writer or artist who happens to hold dear the same concerns: “Are you sure you want to put yourself out there? What if an editor gets a fixed opinion of you before you’ve done all you can to develop your work? What if you are published and you regret what you’ve sent out to represent you? Are you really ready?”

So, though carefully worded and practically tinted, the questions under these questions are, Do you deserve to be a writer? Do you really think it’s prudent to do what you want to do? What if you stink? Wouldn’t that be humiliating for you? Isn’t that scary? Isn’t that silly? Isn’t that vain?

When someone tries to make me doubt the veracity of my own claim to exist and operate with autonomy, I always wonder from where they get their voice of trepidation, their upside down medicine bag of condescending truisms and rhetorical questions. I can only debunk this kind of sidling attack—because that’s what it is, it attacks you at the intersection between your public and private minds, a vulnerable spot because, as conduit, it is open on one end to the state of your ego and on the other to the state of your heart as you grapple at each depth with expression and desire—by asking a rhetorical question in return: Why can’t you sod off faster?

That sounds harsh? Yes, well, I’ve been there, loaded with doubt dropped on me by sage counsel. Here is what I have figured out in that laden state:  Camaraderie, not superiority, is the mark of an adult relationship. The need to parent or school or temper another’s desires or the actions someone takes from the temple of her or his desires is all about the ego of the one giving the advice.

You can grow old, drop dead, and rot with commendable amounts of caution buttoning your words—or whatever form your expression takes—respectfully inside your skin. But that’s a shabby legacy and no fun to live at all. While any work, even done in silence, unobserved, is worth your time by virtue of the benefit of process, if you stick it all under your bed, the effect of all that work is arrested. Art stops. Chilling.

I’m not suggesting you submit first drafts. No slippery slopes, please. You do what you need to do to get yourself and your art ready for daylight. I trust you. I trust myself, too, shockingly.

So there it was, and here it is, the bottom line: I trust you to do your work, to live in discernment of the merit of your work, to create from a place of ambition—not for recognition, but for doing good, solid, meaningful work. And if ambition for recognition happens to be your thing, then I trust you to wear your ardor for glory with style. You do not have to apologize for needing money, for wanting to make money with your writing or art or acting or directing. The only dues you need to pay is the work itself and—if you want to be really above and beyond about it all—the promise to listen to your fellows with empathy and support when it is their turn to talk about their work.

Someone who otherwise loves or likes or knows you but who continually cautions you to hold back, to hold off, may be offering you the best of their wisdom—or they may just be horrible at communicating—but you don’t have to assimilate cautionary tales (except for the one about not texting while driving—don’t do that). You just have to get on with it.

livy's drawing

My daughter, born to art, will be looking for the trail…I have to cut it wide and clear.

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Meto-News


Redivider 11.1Pick up a copy of the new Redivider, issue 11.1 in which you will find my Beacon Street Fiction Prize winning story, “House of Broken Dishes”. I was incredibly freaked out in all the right ways to get this award, only a day after graduation (but also on the same day I took a terrible flu, so there was an element of balance…) because the contest was judged by one of my favorite authors, Amy Hempel.

In this issue you will also find the Beacon Street Poetry Prize winner, “Ode to a Bat” by Kelly Michels, as chosen by the esteemed Heather McHugh.

Shelly and REED at AWPIn May, another of my short stories, “The Problems of Odessa”, will appear in REED Magazine’s issue 67, as the 2014 John Steinbeck Fiction Award winner. I’m planning to make the trip to San Jose to turn up at the Blackbird Inn for the REED 67 launch party, thanks to the generosity of friends who are aiding with travel plans and accommodations while I’m there. I’ve never been to California other than to change planes. I’m crazy excited.

It’s been a great year—graduation, the Beacon Street, Amy Hempel (holy wow), Redivider, The John Steinbeck Prize, REED, AWP, Seattle, Port Townsend, Portland, San Jose… and still four full months left in this first post-MFA year. Now, if I could only find a job…

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Confessional List of an AWP Virgin


1

Dear AWP,

You are a beautiful behemoth. I will ride dozens of your millions of corpuscles and arrive somewhere vital, fixated.

XO,
Overwhelmed Conference Virgin

AWP color ceiling

2

Notes Taken During a Panel

In a central circle, middle of the page: What is the purpose and effect of writing? Ego push vs. call to service

At the end of a branch to the left: What are the talismans of grief, of love, of trauma, of hope? Personal and universal—intimate and archetypal. Dogs/dead dogs/a dog.

In a box under this branch, arrowed further left: Isn’t archetype as personal as it gets? Isn’t the ego more isolating that deep levels of consciousness, interconnected? So…what are the implications for repetition of meaningful image in many works? Doesn’t symbol move across levels of meaning, or is a symbol most effective as it hops from one meaning to another, laterally, within a single, contained layer of consciousness? Onions vs. the knife, again. Yes, through layers. Contained consciousness? (underlined)

Floating in the left margin: Physical artifact calls consciousness—how can you determine what you are calling?

At the end of a branch above the central circle: Metaphor as conveyance—(e.g., cab) denotation to meaning.

In a box above this branch: Back to archetype vs. individual—if it’s truly mine, will it transport you?

On a slanted line branched out from the curve of the central circle on its right: I know this but it helps does it help you? (Yes! she has written.)

Under this, a remark, unattached: “Part of the writing of true experience, grief, love, loss, is tracing the path created to hide the truth from self and others.”

Below the central circle, another circle: Writers are wizards.

Under this: Can we

Upper right margin, in a semi-circle: Brain crush, in love.

On the next page: Why is stability such an issue? Like a credit report for buy-in.

On the page after that: Sex & Love everything is always really about time

3

My legs are sore.

I wish I lived in Seattle

I wish I lived in Seattle

4

Overheard

On the phone at the foot of the second floor escalator in the main hall: It wasn’t declined, it just stopped working. You can’t assume that. Call the bank. Don’t fuck with the website, just call them. I can’t, I have a panel.

At the food court in the Western New England Annex: One woman—Plastic, plastic! Another woman, reassuringly—I think it’s just the lettuce.

On the stairs of the sub-floors of the Western Annex: I was so surprised at how inarticulate he was in front of a crowd. I always thought people who were good at writing were naturally good at speaking.

Leaving Annie Proulx’s keynote: If she was a god, I’d so go to her church.

5

Consensus

“This is like Disneyland if Disneyland sold crack and had crack rides and crack was words.”

Then, from behind him, “That’s so offensive. There are people here who struggle with addiction.”

Low blood sugar view

Low blood sugar view

6

Schooled on the first day. On the second day, glad we had eaten breakfast. We were so glad we stopped to eat lunch. On the third day, nothing helped.

7

Surprise

I like to meet people who know me first by what I’ve written. I like being a story person first and a physical person second. It’s agreeable skin.

8

Dear AWP,

I want you every day. But I cannot leave here fast enough. My best friend and I are both leaving you now, before you’re finished with us, and then we are going to talk about you. It will not be all complimentary. We’ll probably cry. Or sing. Or get drunk, a good combination of potentialities.

Kissless at this point,
Done with your love but still in love

Skybridge full of books: fun!

Skybridge full of books: fun!

9

Upon Reflection: A Set of Proposed Regulations

Presenters might refrain from refuting the purpose of the panel with opening remarks.
Presenters might refrain from insulting other genres.
Presenters might want to use notes.
Presenters might choose to use a stopwatch or any watch, avoiding the need to ask what time it is every few minutes or seconds.

Audience members might refrain from attending a panel in a tightly packed room where close contact is inevitable if they are visibly, contagiously ill.
Tall audience members might remember that personal space is not an entitlement doled out according to gender or knee length. Sit on the aisle if you need extra space. I did. And then if someone comes in with a limp, a cast, a clear need, for goodness sake, get up and let them have your aisle seat without having to be asked in the middle of a presentation. I want to hear every word Kim Stafford says. Even the prepositions.
Audience members might refrain from whispering questions to the presenters that have to be repeated five or six times in an awkward, forward motion, room-sized game of telephone.
Audience members should not argue with presenters or angrily refute their suppositions after the fact. It’s just embarrassing for everybody.

Everyone needs to take turns and be nice. Everyone needs to use deodorant, just for three days. Everyone needs to enjoy everything, even the crappy stuff, because it’s more fun, more enlightening, more inspiring, and more joyful than our day jobs. It is. Come on. It is. It is.

10

AWP, 2015: How Cold is Minneapolis in February?

Snow likes writers

Snow likes writers

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Where O Where Has Metopen Been?


Well, who knew a blog could induce such a sense of obligation? I regret my absence of new posts for the last two weeks, but I was kind of busy.

For the last few weeks, my household has been on a medical goose chase that ended with teams of highly paid doctors shrugging profoundly. The medical perplexity factor is apparently another way of estimating your out of pocket expense.

At the start of this scan-happy conga line, my husband, who has cardiac issues, was concerned that he was having some manner of heart episode. We went to the emergency room, and after many hours and tests were told that he did not have a problem with his heart, but that they had discovered that he had liver cancer. Right away, it sounded wrong, but once that button is pushed, well, it jams just a little.

When tested, re-tested, and re-retested again, it turned out to be something that can’t be figured out but probably isn’t anything at all, but it will need to be watched, because…well…because definitive all-clears are a huge liability. But he’s fine.

In the meantime, our little girl contracted a terrible virus and ended up in and out of the emergency room over several days that were already doomed to be doctor-filled.

All of this stress has taken its toll in various ways, but, other than that first week when we thought my husband had heart-attack-cancer and our little girl had a virus that resulted in vomiting, fevers, hives, and that helpless feeling that drains the light from your very soul, I’ve tried to keep working, moving forward, at times at the end of a spear (jab, write a line, jab, write a line, jab…), but moving. For one thing, my grad school due dates were neither moveable nor optional and on the chance that we were all going to survive our little season of doom, I did not want to have inadvertently defaulted on my degree plan.

This was not the first time that my husband and I have been in a situation of high medical anxiety. In 1999, he called me from his classroom to say that he didn’t feel well. Several hours, phone calls, and ambulances later, I met him in the ICCU of a downtown hospital as a doctor I had never seen before was performing an echocardiogram and yelling, almost gleefully, “My god, man! Look at that, your heart is as big as a ladies handbag! Oh, surgery, surgery immediately!” The doctor looked up at me as I stood in the doorway, struck motionless, and he turned contrite, sheepish: “You must be the wife…well, ah, just having a bit of a chat with your fella.”

The chat led to an eleven hour open heart surgery to correct adult complications related to a congenital heart defect and the latent ill-effects of earlier attempts at surgical therapies. It was a long winter followed by a perfect spring.

We hadn’t really been married all that long, four years at that time. We’d had a bubbly, romantic beginning though somewhat bogged down in graduating college, finding jobs, getting started, and after four years we were just beginning to feel like we might be adults after all. But the stress of that surgery made our permanence as a family real to us. His recuperation was our second courtship.

Every afternoon, I would pick him up for his prescribed exercise after my workday was done to take him to a park down the street from our apartment. It was just a little sidewalky, koi pondy, feed the birdies kind of spot behind some office buildings. I’ve always loved koi, and circling that pond, probably a third of a mile around, was his way back to strength and my path back to a personal center.

The big fish would rise, turn languidly to see what of any color or interest the other side of their watery window could show them, then they would turn as though in a dreamy sleep and sink again into the mulm.

I started trying to paint them. I tried oil paint and copal resin, Liquin, artists’ varnish, acrylic paint, and ready-mixed glazing emulsion. Finally, I settled on acrylic paint and a glazing formula I worked through myself. I still love these paintings—for me, they hold the undulating feeling of the sleeper’s darkness, but folding and mottled with vivid moments of light and aliveness that was that whole healing experience both for my husband and for me.

Latching onto a symbol helps me. Finding a way to translate a rough energy into something visual or worded is the way I process and come through both the good and the not so good of life. Right now, my symbol for these last weeks is just a color. An ear to ear, eye to eye blue-green ocean color that rides in my mind just before sleep and just as I wake. I need to paint it out, or perhaps, to go find a beach where the water rolls that color toward me and my open eyes and there lie down in the sand for awhile. And then get up again and start painting.

_________________________________________________________

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Pirates are Good Teachers: A Critical Rhetorical Review of Donald Barthelme’s Forty Stories


“‘Art must claw at the neck of the bourgeois as the lion does at the horse,’ says the German artist Dieter Hacker, reprising an old, old tune. Absolutely. Absolutely absolutely absolutely.”

In 2009, Donald Barthelme was described as “[...] a dead, twisted branch on the evolutionary tree of American letters” (Lev Grossman for TIME, 2009).  That can’t be right. I will grant that his absurdism, his surreal and un-referenced realities can rewrite the level at which a reader is forced to connect to the word, but I almost always see that as a reader’s problem, rather than the writer’s. He wields an ability to poke fun at the weirdness of art while also skewering the blank minded system that supposes to educate students but which does not itself understand the purpose or content of art. In his world, everyday was a hilariously cruel April 1st. Though he found humor in the impossible burdens of artists and teachers, he never apologized for thinking about art, for teaching it, writing about it. He found art essential to a vital culture and believed that teaching students to think about art was the obligation of all teachers everywhere.

Himself a beloved and respected teacher as well as a prolific and celebrated author, Donald Barthelme, whose major works appeared between 1968 and 1990, has been credited with enlarging the contemporary conception of short fiction. Known for innovation in convention and cross-genre works, Barthelme draws disparate ideas together in mosaic to create dimensionally rich stories that comment on personal relationships, politics, economy, art, and existing and theoretical social and psychological constructs. Though Barthelme treats the complex and abstract as subject and form, the detailed imagery of his writing eases even the most complex arrangement of elements into a natural tone, a palpable realism.

In “Sinbad”, one of several stories in the Forty Stories collection that features a pirate motif, the reflections of a self-effacing teacher who is experiencing a professional assignment outside of his usual, comfortable schema are accompanied by the story of a great and grizzled pirate. While the pirate’s story is far-flung in terms of its immediate impact on plot, Sinbad is nonetheless rendered with solid physicality, as when he first appears, shipwrecked and washed ashore half-drowned: “His right hand, marvelous upon the pianoforte, opens and closes. His hide is roasted red, his beard white with crusted salt” (Barthelme 18). While Barthelme is not necessarily writing a story about a pirate—but rather using the pirate as a fulcrum around which the larger story is geared—Sinbad is not cheated of his reality; he is a bedraggled ruffian with an artist’s touch upon the piano, a man of more than fiction and some depth of history. The teacher, in turn sharing his observations concerning the various forces and façades of academic life, is voiced with the same level of descriptive roundness, as when he describes the feeling of addressing a particularly difficult student dynamic: “[…]they turned in their seats and began talking to each other, the air grew loud, it is rather like a cocktail party except that everybody was sitting down […] a waiter came in with drinks on a tray followed by another waiter with water chestnuts wrapped in bacon […]” (21). Though the business of the moment might be drolly ironic, the vividness of the imagery stages itself so that it wins a bit of literalness; such care goes into crafting the scene that it produces meaning that transcends both irony and absolute reality to deliver an emotional merger of the two principle characters experientially—based upon exacting proofs of their shared tenacity in the face of grittily unfavorable conditions, the teacher and the pirate voyage on.

            The narrator of “Bluebeard”, another story with a pirate motif, is related from the point of view of the old pirate’s seventh wife. Here, a series of surreal circumstances and details are related with the faithful fullness of a competent and observant narrator; the young wife depicts her piratical husband, his secretive demands, and her dalliances with equal exactitude—her meeting with Pancho Villa reads with the certainty of a deposition: “[…] Pancho Villa […] was indeed in Paris […] but I had little contact with him and certainly not yet his lover although he had pressed my breasts and tried to insinuate his hand underneath my skirt at the meeting of 23 July at my aunt Thérèse Perrault’s house in the Sixteenth […]” (85). Though the situation is incalculably strange, her recapitulation rings with rational detail and clear imagery, qualities accustomed to realistic portrayal and thus evocative of that familiar sense of the real. So specifically does Barthelme draw her that even in unlikely scenes in which she imagines driving over Bluebeard’s palace rose bushes in an early model Daimler in order to assuage her husband’s ego (83), the story projects her shrewdness and her husband’s myopic tyranny equally as soundly as the bizarre parade of its impossible hosts.

By the end of her story, the complexity of the wife’s efforts to avoid her husband’s wrath is a legible path through unusual terrain. Eventually, it is revealed that Bluebird’s most secret possessions  are seven decayed zebra carcasses dressed in designer evening gowns, hanging from meat hooks (87). The scene in which this image is revealed is steeply surreal, but the narrator’s anticipation and then her reaction seem perfectly emotionally sound: “My husband appeared at my side, ‘Jolly, don’t you think?’ he said, and I said, ‘Yes, jolly,’ fainting with rage and disappointment….” (87). Juggling a reasonable fear of his unpredictable wrath and the disappointment of discovering his ridiculous and idiotic perversion strikes her with a sense of futility that surmounts the oddity of the picture she has so clearly presented and makes her a woman, again of this world, who has lost her own interests in the shadow of circumstances.

Barthelme’s work is surreal, but his voice is comfortable, brimming with humor.  In the strangest turns and most outlandish environs, he is able to calmly look about and capture with precise pitch of these odd worlds as he unfolds them. This combination of the unreal and the exact, the fantastical and the precise works to create a transcendent sense in which Barthelme can play in relaxed fashion with almost any subject of any depth, and strangeness and normalcy alike are characterized in the company, shaped in the shadows, scrutinized in the details.

References

Barthelme, Donald.  Forty Stories. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, USA, 1987.

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Metonymical Pen: The Facebook Page


For those of you who also like Facebook, I have a Facebook page that I update every so often. If you are interested, you can find Metonymical Pen: Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/MetonymicalPen.

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