Category Archives: braids, threads

A novel on memory, story & alibi

A colleague here at Otterbein University, Noam Shpancer, a psychologist, has just hit the big time at age fifty-one with his first novel, The Good Psychologist. Early reviews are positive to raves: Kirkus gave it a starred notice, Alan Cheuse reviewed it on NPR, and the Boston Globe called it “extraordinary” and “a rare gift.” Bought by Henry Holt at an auction conducted by Noam’s agent, the story is about a therapist who’s treating a stripper with stage fright. And it’s about the psychologist’s own complicated love life. Another plot concerns the therapist’s night class at a college where he’s an adjunct instructor trying to change the way students think about thought, emotions, and memory.

The good psychologist deals with story and identity, he announces. And he who deals with story and identity deals with memory. All your events and experiences, all your insights and history, all that is bound and wrapped into your notion of I—it all depends on memory. That’s why it is important to know something about memory processes. Most people know nothing about memory, and if they have any idea, then it is usually wrong. Your own understanding of memory, we may therefore assume, is faulty, and our job is to correct it. He waves his chalk in front of them. . . .

You, the psychologist says, looking over the room, may believe that memory is but a video recording that is documenting the days of our lives as they happen and storing them in the brain’s archives. This is a common assumption and an intuitive metaphor, not lacking in elegance: the brain is a library in which the tales of our times are bound and housed; a beautiful metaphor, but, alas, erroneous and misleading. Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such it is made of storytelling materials: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness. He steps forward with practiced theatricality.

 

Israel edition

 

A stripper did show up years ago seeking Noam’s help for her sudden fear of exposure, he says, but she never returned. Her problem intrigued him. He began to imagine a psychologist with such a client, a psychologist with his own problems, and to think about the man’s quirky students and his pontificating before them. Noam says he wanted three narrative threads and piled up notes and ideas about each before beginning to write. He wrote 1,000 words a day and finished in five months. (Noam also blogs: His “Insight Therapy” is hosted by Psychology Today.)

He wrote the first draft in Hebrew, his native language—he grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and didn’t learn English until he was sixteen—and sold the novel first in Israel. His agent was having a drink with an American agent and mentioned this novel “that might do well in America.” One thing led to another. A play based on the book is being prepared in Israel, and there’s talk of a movie in America.

“It’s all serendipity,” Noam says. “I don’t think of myself as a Writer. My ego isn’t based on this. I have two more novels I want to write. I had a good life and was

 

2nd Israel edition

 

happy.” He adds, “I read mostly poetry, and I write some. I’m a visual person. Instead of reading a novel I’ll go to a museum or watch a movie. . . . This novel is an indie movie.”

He seems a natural writer. I devoured The Good Psychologist in three sittings, admiring its spare language and exposition—“I believe less is more,” Noam says—and was intrigued by the inner life of the psychologist and by the book’s interwoven structure. It’s a literary novel that moves almost as fast as a summer beach book, which is probably why it’s also been sold in Italy, Germany, and Great Britain. As a memoirist I twigged to the enigmatic psychologist’s thoughts on memory and inner narratives.

. . . [N]ow we choose to meet the client with humility and purpose, to try to understand her story. Alas, here we should be beware, because the client will always begin with her alibi, not her story, even though her very presence in your office is evidence that her alibi has been ineffective. We do what we know. And people know their alibi much better than their story; since one’s alibi has daily uses while one’s story—who wants it? Moreover the client’s story, because it is human, contains painful elements, territories of failure and disaster. Naturally she will seek to distance herself from those and keep away others as well, for self-protection, or out of compassion or good manners. And that’s the job of the alibi: to deny, to distract and conceal and in doing so make life more bearable for the client and those around her. So your eventual work in therapy will be to walk the client from alibi to story; from the headline to the event itself. But first, the client’s alibi also allows them to test you.

Test what? the pink-haired girl asks.

Two things: whether you’ll buy the alibi, in which case you’re useless, and whether, if you refuse to buy it, you’ll resent the client for offering it, in which case you’re dangerous.

You’re cynical, Jennifer says.

Not necessarily. Perhaps clear-eyed. The first thing your client says is always a lie in essence, always impure. And this is not to condemn the client. Distorting and hiding the truth are, after all, essential life skills. Thus digging for truth in the context of therapy does not involve rejecting the lie, tarnishing the lie, or getting rid of it, but rather a deeper acceptance and understanding that includes the lie. Therapy is not a journey from lie to truth, from darkness to light, but an attempt to find the right balance between them. That’s why it’s important to grasp the value of the lie and its uses. . . .

The lie, it turns out, is not a bug in our software but a feature of our hardware. And the good psychologist can get to know it, learn its ways.

Of course the Zen-like psychologist seems rather passive in his own life—can he use his knowledge to save the stripper and himself?

The editing process sparked differences between the Israeli and American editions. Noam was amused by his Israeli editor, who said readers would wonder

 

U.K. & Commonwealth edition

 

why the man wasn’t talking to his mother; the editor also found the students oddly passive, maybe stupid. “These are Midwestern students,” Noam laughs. But he made them more complex and contentious, and gave the psychologist a backstory—with parents, albeit dead. His New York editor made him condense the psychologist’s lectures that Noam knew Israeli audiences would savor. “But then she wanted me to change the ending,” Noam says. “She said Americans like resolution. I said, ‘I’ll do anything you want, but not that.’ The ending is the best I can do.”

I hope Hollywood makes a movie of The Good Psychologist—and wonder if I’ll recognize the story at all once the stars and their agents, the scriptwriters and the director, are through. But I suspect Noam, regardless, will just shrug and smile.

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Filed under audience, braids, threads, design, editing, fiction, memoir, NOTED, REVIEW, working method

Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty and faded; their heavy foliage sags, their branches storm-wracked. The other day, looking out my window at the parched lawn, I saw a spatter of yellow leaves twirling above the grass. It was elegiac. I know we’re supposed to love the back-to-school frenzy, but I don’t. And I’ve always hated the end of summer. I couldn’t help but reflect.

Years ago, an author of many books said to me during an interview, “It’s not that I’m talented or hard working, but I can sit there hour after hour. A lot of people can’t do it. They’re smart, talented but just can’t.” I learned to my relief that I could do that, sit there, usually five days a week though often six and sometimes seven. Longer breaks are dangerous: for each day away it takes a day to get back in—vacations can derail a book. My optimum keyboard stint seems to be three hours. If writing is going well, my brains are mush after three; if the writing is hard, I’ve suffered enough. I yearn to be a four-hour man, though. I treasure the memory of one inspired day when I put in eleven hours (I’ve since cut that chapter). I also discovered how much I enjoy solitude. And how, if I did have a whole day, I could pass it happily writing, reading, editing. Such productive bliss is addicting. The day passes in a blur. But, on a really hard day, three hours takes an eternity. Better to switch to editing.

Early on, about that first November, there came a day when I hit a problem I hadn’t faced and didn’t understand—now I see it was dramatizing a particular event, bringing it to life, when I had some memories but some gaps and too few images. I had a little meltdown. I thought I couldn’t write the book, and sent Kathy a despairing email, which she wisely ignored. Then, later in the winter, I ran to my desk each morning to write another chapter. So the average day during initial composition was pretty good. I learned that my page-production speed was about one sheet an hour. Three pages for three hours. Getting four pages a day was, and would be, heaven. But, as someone pointed out, if you faithfully write only a page a day, in a year you’ve piled up 365 pages—a book.

It took me a year and a half to finish, but my first manuscript draft was 500 pages. My goal had been 300; it took work to pare it down. Which reminds me of a rule of thumb I learned in book publishing for estimating the length of a book from its typed or printed-out manuscript pages: Take the number of printed pages and multiply them by .887. So 300 pages x .887 = a 263-page book, which is a nice, optimum-upper length for most publishers. This formula is based on a book with a 6 x 9 size and typical design format.

Five years. If I had a manuscript three and a half years ago, what gives? Well, I’ve rewritten, polished, and cut every sentence, paragraph, and passage many times. And now I’m on my fourth whole-book rewrite. Not to be defensive, but I like Annie Dillard’s rule of thumb: for someone not a genius, it takes two to ten years to write a publishable book. That’s an average of six years, which is what I’m on track for, with luck. I know people who have done it in much less, but if they write more than one book I suspect Dillard’s average will apply. A screenwriter I know said he was almost ruined for life by his first play, which poured out of him right after he got his MFA; it won an award and was produced in London; it’s never gone that way again. And a full-time writer of popular young adult novels told me that after she’d been writing for years a “gift” book just flowed out of her. She said it would have destroyed her if it had been her first book because the others aren’t ever that easy.

I could have shaved years off my process if I only knew then what I know now. I was fifty when I started, and although I’d been an “award-winning journalist,” as they say, and a magazine writer, gardening columnist, occasional essayist, book reviewer, and book publisher, I hadn’t written a book. It’s true that the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write one. Reading helps, but mostly the reading you do while you are writing. On the plus side, I had desire, a pretty good story, notes and ideas, and a strong voice. But I didn’t fully understand dramatic structures, especially classical three-act structure. Trying to figure out how to cut my monster by 200 pages, I read Philip Gerard’s useful Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, which indicates that after your second-act climax, a dramatic narrative should wrap up quickly because its audience is dying to find out what happens in the final act.

I happened to watch the 1953 western Shane that summer and saw it was a beautiful example of classical three-act structure. A mysterious stranger, Shane, played by Alan Ladd, gets hired by a sodbuster, and the bad guys, cattlemen, immediately show up to threaten them—first act climax. In the long second act, Shane befriends the sodbuster’s son and demonstrates his shooting prowess, and when the thugs kill a hapless farmer Shane pummels the sodbuster to prevent his trying to seek revenge, then heads off to fight them himself—boom, big second act climax. In the short third act, Shane rides into town for the showdown, kills the hired gunslinger, played with reptilian menance by Jack Palance, is wounded himself and fades into the hills, to die or to rise again. The climaxes flow from each other, and with a certain rhythm.

I saw that after my second act climax—I get badly injured on the farm—essentially I started the story over again and took my sweet time getting to that third act resolution. As if Shane, instead of going after the gunslinger who’d just murdered, had dawdled and diddled around on the farm, perfecting his plowing.

My next major lesson was realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and the power of dramatized presentation—scenes—to convey experience. Like many a rookie writer, I leaned too hard on summary—and, let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful, and much harder to write. Yep, show don’t tell. Also I wasn’t driving enough narrative threads through the entire book; I did that with the development of the protagonist, me, and with the book’s villain, but not with many other themes. I tended to write each chapter almost as a stand-alone essay. In Chapter Ten, say, I’d introduce a character and dispose of him in a big event, when the reader should have met him in Chapter Two. It’s amazing how readers love you for having them remember what you told them. They’ve seen a character in action, made their own judgment about him, and then, hey, here he is again! Like life. But now I sometimes feel I’m planting little timed-release land mines for readers, and that’s difficult when the first mentions feel thin, as if they’re just being done to set up a payoff. I sit and stare, trying to figure out what’s interesting in a first meeting or a minor event and where it might fit just so in the narrative chronology. Finally, if I can’t solve the puzzle, the subconscious will pitch in to help—after I’ve sufficiently suffered.

In addition to nailing down the balance between scene and summary, the memoirist must reflect. This has been another late and more subtle tweak, this differentiating between the writer now, at his desk, who’s telling the story and sometimes musing on it, versus the character in the story—the narrator’s earlier self—who doesn’t know what’s going to happen or even, sometimes, what is happening. Not wanting to kill narrative drama, I had too little reflection. Memoirs vary widely in their balance among scene, summary, and reflection, but especially in the amount and the nature of the writer’s reflecting upon meaning.

Five years. I tell myself that I must learn to love process because, like life, writing a book is process. I’d never have believed when I started that I could rework for four or five years what took me a year and a half to write. “That’s the fun part,” a writer said, implying ease. It’s true that the raw material is mostly now available, but I’ve found the last two rewrites hard work. Seemingly harder than initial creation—my ignorance was indeed bliss—but it’s getting difficult to remember. I’m more aware of narrative techniques, and more in command of them, but more challenged. Such strong, humble tools still twist in my clumsy hands. I now fully subscribe to the truism that writing is rewriting, though I think an experienced book writer could have done it in half the time or less, in three drafts.

But oh, my sentences! After two years they were better, more fluent and varied. Yet I’ve discovered that I desire them lyrical, every one poetic, and sustaining lyricism has been impossible for me in this long narrative. And to strain for it risks purple prose. So I feel at some level a plodding failure. Sometimes I go to an admired book just to see how plain most of the sentences are—not what I remembered at all—but then I notice their rhythm, their flow. Thankfully I’ve also learned how much I love making, and remaking, sentences. How much difference one or two sentences more, or less, can make in a paragraph. How you see that a passage wasn’t as clunky as you’d feared, but that another wasn’t as soaring. How in time you can hardly tell inspiration apart from perseverance.

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Filed under braids, threads, design, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, editing, film/photography, flow, memoir, MY LIFE, scene, structure, syntax, working method

Unrolling those narrative threads

“We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that’s the thread we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread.”—Paul Auster

A friend who is writing a complex book on evolution has been inspired by watching his artist daughter screen-printing layers of a picture successively in different colors, so that the image gradually emerges organically as a whole. He’s realized he needs similarly to line out his ideas slowly, giving readers the tools necessary to understand his theory’s major revelations deep into the book, as opposed to “describing each of the parts separately in detail, which just doesn’t work.”

Narrative literature must bring readers along, too, and for similar metabolic reasons. Multiple storylines are a commonplace in drama and comedy—watch almost any movie—and sometimes there are current-action threads while past threads move, in successive flashbacks, toward the present: How did that screwed-up guy or gal get there?

I’ve struggled with tugging along more than two storylines, however, in a book-length work. I can keep the main narrative unfolding across many chapters, maybe with a related subplot—a reappearing villain, say—but want to tie off other threads as they arise. Introduce them, wrap them up, get them over with. Snip! This is because I feel I’m already doing a lot in a chapter, and shoving one more thing into it seems to imperil its shapely arc. Sometimes, I think, a thread must be used in a discrete heap. But maybe then it’s not really a thread? And too much of such summary turns narrative essayistic, in the old-fashioned sense—bloodless.

I like narrative, event sequence leading to incidents that culminate in a big incident. But readers need to experience, with the main character or characters, all threads develop if they are going to feel the emotions the writer desires. This is how it happens in life too: ongoing issues and layers of backstory keep moving into the present. Rarely does something arise out of nothing. The car with bald tires wrecked at least partly because you were broke because of your troubled friend and because, two years ago, your dumb brother-in-law got you a deal on those tires, a deal, you learn, that really benefitted him . . .

Unroll all those threads over the course of a larger narrative and, wham, what a payoff the reader receives, when the car wrecks, for all that you’ve shown across 300 pages. It took me an embarrassingly long time to see that leaving out any element from the prior narrative, such as that mendacious brother-in-law, greatly dilutes the climax. His role cannot be revealed and wrapped up when the car wrecks without the reader feeling distanced or cheated.

Feeding the threads out inch by inch is both difficult to do and rich, conceptually and emotionally, for readers. To pull  all the strings, a writer must see clearly his main threads—surely defined as those connected directly to climaxes—and bring them along steadily. There’s much craft and artifice to this, unfolding while steadily and consciously withholding, and readers love writers for it.

An example in nonfiction is Jon Karakauer’s Into the Wild, as well as the movie Sean Penn made from it, which shrewdly dramatizes the book’s twin-story parallel structure. The ostensible main narrative is of Alex steadily dying of starvation in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. There’s a flashback thread, magically vivid in the movie, of his road adventures that took him ever-closer to the bus: he tests himself dangerously by kayaking through whitewater rapids and repeatedly turns his back on promising human relationships. A recurring thread set farther in the past explores his difficult early family life.

It fascinates me how much we get invested in the thread that gets Alex to the bus, when that setting constitutes the story’s present action and is the only thing “really” happening. But the bus is boring compared with Alex’s past adventures on the road, plus his disturbed childhood explains his final wilderness ordeal more than anything. There’s actually very little action in the “now” of Alaska compared with the long physical and emotional journey toward it. And those backstory threads within Into the Wild connect directly to the death of the smart, ascetic idealist who realizes, too late, that he must rejoin humankind for the meaning that he craves. All story elements support the same theme and form a whole that resonates.

Such thematic and event layering works beautifully but doesn’t happen accidentally. It takes work and conscious craft. Even then, there are no guarantees. A novelist once defined a novel as “a book with something wrong with it.” And in her 1989 New York Times essay “Write Till You Drop,” quarried from her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too—the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed.”

So, it appears, I’ve noticed my latest impossible task: driving more story threads through a larger narrative, so that they run along with the main story, without creating a worse problem than what I’ve already got. To fix this flaw I’ve got to pull apart a bowl of spaghetti—making a mess of what I so carefully built. The result may work better but will be a different book, one surely with its own unique blemish.

Yet, Saint Annie promises, “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.”

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Filed under audience, braids, threads, Dillard—Saint Annie, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, structure, theme

Discovery and structure

Whether they’re brooders or plungers, all writers suffer the same problem, how to discover and recognize their good stuff or even to find their true subjects. Writers lament how much material they must produce and then cut. Writing can seem so wasteful, and that’s painful: the useless work! Art seems to rely on having lots to select from, but getting bogged down in the swamp in the middle of the pathless forest can dishearten: Where is this thing going?

For writer Heather Sellers, the key to strong content and to reader and writer interest is structural: she advocates Sellersinterweaving multiple stories. As she points out in “Use Braiding to Layer Your Story Line,” in the current issue (July/August 2009) of Writer’s Digest magazine, this works because it fosters discovery and juxtapositions. And it mimics the way people discuss several topics with each other at the same time.

It also reflects how we think. I realized the other day, while taking a long walk on the bike path with my terrier, that I was thinking about at least three different things. Sellers says she judged an essay contest in which ninety percent of the pieces failed because they concerned one predetermined topic. “No room to wiggle around . . . discover the interesting, previously unnoticed thing,” she writes. “Art relies on surprise. In order to engage the reader (and yourself as a writer), you have to braid. You can’t be confusing, but you can’t spell it all out, either. The human mind, when it reads, needs something to figure out.”

In her current project, a memoir about her neurological disorder that impairs her ability to remember faces, she’s interweaving three narratives with images that refract off each other: childhood, problems from her condition, and her marriage and divorce. “When I tell the story of my Florida childhood, divorce will be in some of the images,” she writes. “Marriage is about recognizing another person, deeply, profoundly.”

Her structure works to discover her material: “[T]he book teaches me what it is about as I write it. That’s the best way to write a book: to follow a structure that allows you to discover wise insights, images, and a natural organization as you go along.” She adds for emphasis: “You need more than one thing going on at a time. And you don’t need to know how everything will work out. When you braid, happy accidents occur . . .”

I intuitively braided my essay “Remembering Paul,” which was a breakthrough for me. I’d been worrying, as I drafted my memoir of farming in Appalachia, how to write about the death of my hired hand. I feared it would feel arbitrary and heavy-handed to just launch into it. One day when I was cleaning out the barn, Paul’s image came to me—it was the first time I’d done that chore without him—and I got a notebook and recorded such memories as they arose throughout the day. My essay was embedded in the present, in the scene of me and my feisty terrier in the barn (he was killing rats) but was intercut with stories of Paul. The main barn setting resonated with loss of its own—my energy, animals’ deaths, disorder and entropy—that was deepened by Paul’s loss and by my seeing what he had meant.

A more instructive essay, and a better one because its past thread is shown so vividly as an unfolding parallel story, rather than told in expository anecdotes, is Sellers’s own “Tell Me Again Who Are You?” collected in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I, edited by Lee Gutkind. Her story of undergoing face-recognition testing in a scanner at MIT is intercut with a narrative in the past of going away to college and finally breaking away from her crazed parents. There’s a lot going on in the essay but it’s always clear where she is physically and in time. A sad motif arises as she calls her husband nightly to report her ordeal at MIT and he can’t remember she’s not still there for a writing meeting. He’s not impaired, just doesn’t care.

Sellers says she uses braiding as a revision strategy, too, believing that simple pieces won’t come to life until they’re “spark fed” complexity with two more braids. And she uses braiding in teaching. She has students take three unrelated topics to construct an essay. Since undergraduates can struggle with one story, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I think the key is her instruction that the elements must “mean a lot” to them. Thematic connections will surprise and delight. Even so, such essays will tend to be segmented—three discrete chunks—and as a reader I prefer stories like Sellers’s memoir essay where one thread is a through-line that provides cohesion in a layered narrative. Her MIT adventure in the story’s present is related to her trials shown in the flashback narrative as an odd little girl with “criminally insane” parents and her poignant first experiences at college, including failing to recognize her date after she returns from the restroom.

Her Writers Digest essay was excerpted from her book on writing, Chapter After Chapter, which is about how to live the writer’s life, in the vein of Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones. But in the middle of Sellers’s encouragement and her rules and her tough-love advice (she’s made all the mistakes herself—has faded away on books and has dud books under her bed), is that amazing chapter about her favored construction.

Braiding is just a term some now use—call it flashbacks, story lines, backstory—but words for the same technique have different implications and can inspire. Someone else’s nomenclature and her examples can help a writer see his true task.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, discovery, essay-narrative, memoir, structure, teaching, education, theme

Noted: Tony Earley

from an interview with Tony Earley conducted by Hattie Fletcher for Nidus

“I can’t write any piece, fiction or nonfiction, until I come up with a metaphor. I hate the idea of writing on only one level. Often just walking around through the world, I’ll see something and think, damn, that is a great metaphor—for what? And so I have a metaphor, but I have no thing to hook it to. And so, a piece usually results when I find I have both sides of the equation. I love metaphor. I like metaphor better than I like narrative. I’m a whole lot more interested in writing in between the lines than I am in what’s accomplished in the lines themselves. Exposition, you know, moving characters through space, getting a character to the airport on time so he can catch the plane —I hate that stuff. I would much rather do a metaphorical construction than character development. . . .

“I’ll have enough of a voice to get started, and often I discover the metaphors while I’m working. I think my subconscious is rapidly trying to connect things, and once I actively start writing then I discover the metaphors in the piece. Usually it’s where I say, this looks like that. And once I’ve had that realization, I can go back through and put in the textual stuff to link them. But often I won’t understand until I’m well into a piece that I have in fact constructed a metaphor, and then I’ll go, there it is!

“I love that moment. When I teach to my students, I call it the “thing” and the “other thing.” The “thing” is what the story is about, and the “other thing” is a parallel narrative, something that looks like the “thing” but isn’t. Like, in my story “Here We Are in Paradise,” there’s a pond that has snapping turtles in it, and the snapping turtles eat these painted ducks, and the people who own the pond, the wife is dying of cancer. So the turtles eating the ducks looks like cancer, but it isn’t. It’s “thing” and “other thing.” And I try to do that in fiction and in nonfiction both. Actually, I think that’s the classic American short fiction template.”

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