“When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas . . . But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”

—Philip Guston, paraphrasing John Cage

There are stories that seem to write themselves. They come quickly and easily, and I feel as if someone else — the muse — is responsible for them. This happens rarely. I’m not sure these stories are better than the ones I struggle with, where every word needs to be torn out of whatever place holds words and then planted in the text with scraped metaphoric hands.

And there are stories that partly come easily and partly are a fight. I’m not sure I believe in the classic Freudian subconscious, but I used to say I wrote out of my subconscious. I certainly do rely on instinct, feeling, the irrational a lot. Sometimes entire lines or paragraphs float up out of nowhere. Sometimes there is an image or situation that haunts me. It has to go into the story, though I’m not sure why. This can be a difficult way to write, since I don’t have a plot to rely on. I am feeling my way through the story. Don’t ever write a novel this way. I have written four. It’s a hard, slow process. The good part of it is, I can end in unexpected places.

I did plot Ring of Swords; and planning ahead makes a certain kind of complexity possible. My earlier novels are basically picaresque. I set my characters in motion and they travel and have experiences. It’s a simple kind of story. One damn thing after another.

There are a couple of problems with plots. You can reach a point where you know what the plot tells you to do, but it doesn’t seem plausible. This is when writers say their characters are fighting them. The characters don’t want to do what the plot requires. Then you either change the plot, or you try to figure out why the character would do what the plot requires.

The other problem is, a story that is too well plotted may seem lifeless, as if written by a machine. (I will tiptoe past ChatGPT and actual machine writing.) The writer is doing a job, not exploring an idea or situation.

One advantage of genre fiction is, it gives you a plot: the romance, the investigation, the space war… Then you can concentrate on other things, the stuff that floats up out of your mind, or that ideas that interest you. The genre plot will trudge along and bring the story to its end. Some SFF plots are clearly of this kind: the fantasy quest, the saving the kingdom or the world. They will trudge to their preordained end, long after I have stopped reading. Other SFF plots are a lot more quirky and interesting.

I am not sure that Guston is talking about any of this. But the stories that seem to come out of nowhere feel as if I have left the room and the story is typing itself. I wish this would happen more often. I could come in after a walk and find a complete story on the computer, ready to go out.

There was a period in my 20s when I was mostly writing poetry. Then, starting around the time I was 30, I concentrated on fiction. In a lot of ways, I write fiction the way I write lyric poetry: more or less intuitively. Obviously I have characters, and they interest me, but… In my current story two characters are trapped in a sinkhole. This provides a little drama and excitement. But the situation, the image seems important: the dark hole with sheer walls. I’m not sure the situation is plausible, but then neither are the characters. One is a cat that is six feet tall when he stands on his hind legs, as he almost always does. The other is a small dragon. Both are intelligent and talk. The cat wears clothes. What does the sinkhole mean? I have a certain number of caves in my fiction, which must represent something. Fear of falling? The unconscious? The deep, dark, scary basement of reality? As a rule, I don’t over analyze my fiction, for fear it will lose power if I know what I’m doing. So the meaning of the sinkhole will most likely remain unknown…


I looked up M. John Harrison on the Internet and this led to several reviews, which I cannot now refind. Anyway, one talked about the inability of fiction to accurately portray the real world. (I wish I could find that review.) I was not aware that stories are supposed to accurately portray the real world. For that, we have nonfiction and human experience. What is the function of stories? Entertainment and commentary on the real world. Models that look at certain aspects of reality. I think. I wish I could find that review.

I make up stories as a way of coping with a world that often seems unfair and violent. It is my way of lighting one candle, rather that cursing the dark. Though I also curse the dark.

I also make up stories because I love stories. I made up stories before I could read and write, and told them to my kid brother. It seems to me many (most?) children love stories and make up stories, just as most (all?) kids draw. I am speaking about the culture I know: the US. I can’t speak about other cultures, though stories seem universal. They are funny. They are entertaining. They have morals. They explain the world, rather than portraying it.

Cakes and Gramsci

There is a 104 year old lady who is entering the cake making contest at the Minnesota State Fair. She has won many ribbons and wants to win some more. She attributes her robust age to beginning every morning by thinking, “It’s going to be a wonderful day.” I am going to try this. Once again I quote Gramsci:

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Gramsci and a 104 year old champion cake maker… Models for this era…


I was thinking of the uses of SFF. When I was a kid, the stories told me about police states and nuclear holocaust, which was a lot more honest than 1950s sitcoms. Of course there is escapist SFF and wish-fulfillment fantasies, but the best of SFF is real and — because it isn’t confined by current reality — it can issue warnings and show better alternatives. Good stuff.

Mr. Catt

I have not been keeping up with the posts here. Okay, here is one, lifted from facebook:

Today is a haircut, followed by a visit to a dry cleaners to drop off blankets and a few shirts. Followed by — what?

I could go to a local coffee shop and finish the new Mr. Catt story which is currently scribbled in a notebook in fragments. After that, I will need to input it and revise it. I don’t know how I feel about the story, but it has been fun to write.

Writing it has been slow. Which is fairly typical. I write more slowly than I used to, and I have never been a fast writer. Toward the end of her life Le Guin said she no longer had the energy for writing fiction. I am keeping going, though slowly.

On the plus side, I have written three poems. Le Guin switched to poetry late in life. I think her prose is a lot better. Two of my poems are about grief, since both Patrick and I have lost family members. Gee, that is hard. The third poem is about time travel. I should send that one to Asimov’s.

New Posts

I had to revise my last post twice after posting it, so those who follow me will get three notices of new posts instead of one. I apologize. I wasn’t thinking…


A relative is being taken off a ventilator and almost certain to not survive. So I have been retreating into Old Norse literature (in translation) and have been reading Egill Skallagrimsson’s poem “Sonatorrek,” The Grievous Loss of Sons, which he composed after the deaths of two sons. It is also about the loss of relatives in general. It’s an amazing poem, full of kennings and Egill’s fierce, difficult, grieving personality. He was a terrible man, brutal and violent and avaricious. He starts the poem by saying it’s hard to compose a poem when sobbing heavily and then goes on and composes the poem. Anyway, I ended by writing a poem that riffs off Egill’s poem, and I have to footnote the damn thing, since it has at least one kenning, and a couple of references to Norse myth, also a reference to a theory put forward by an Icelandic volcanologist that the loss of country’s glaciers will result in more eruptions, after the weight of ice is gone from volcanoes.

As for Egill, after he complains that he can’t kill the sea for drowning his favorite son, and says he is giving up entirely on worshiping Odin who has betrayed him, finally ends by saying:

He who does battle
And tackles the hell-wolf
Has given me the craft
That is beyond reproach And the nature That I could reveal Those who plotted against me As my true enemies.

The craft beyond reproach is poetry. I don’t know about the second half of stanza. I think it translates as, Odin gave me wit enough to know my enemies. But Egill was such a difficult person that he was certain to make enemies. They didn’t sneak up on him. Anyway, he is satisfied with the poem, which is considered to be the greatest of skaldic poems, and says he is ready to die. He’s 80 and blind and no longer able to kill people he doesn’t like, so it isn’t as if death will be premature.


Mr. Catt and Posts

I have not posted anything in a month, so now I am making three posts: on language, on pears and on my writing. I am most of the way through the sequel to “Mr. Catt” and am still uncertain about the story. But that is typical. I will show the story to my two writing groups when I am done, make revisions, then send it out and let editors decide about the story.


There’s an orchard that shows up at the Farmers’ Market when the apples show up, late August or September. In addition to apples, they sell small, green, hard, crisp pears. I have a sudden need for small, green, hard, crisp pears. I will have to wait.


As far as I know, the phrase “kidding on the square” has gone entirely out of use. But it’s so neat and useful. I was teasing Patrick and also being serious. “Kidding on the square” is a perfect description.

I mentioned this to friends, and they didn’t know the phrase. I found it in early 20th century fiction, mostly crime novels. Maybe pulp SF as well.