Take a Rest

On Saturday, I sat down to write something for this website, but nothing came. I also felt a tendonitis-like pain in my right wrist. The pain was probably due to weeding I’ve been doing in my yard. My husband kindly wrapped my wrist in bandaging, which had an immediate, beneficial effect. I don’t know what led to my blank mind. What a fool’s day.

Ticket to an entertaining evening with the writer Sybil Schreiber who read from Safranhimmel.

In the evening, we went with my youngest daughter and her partner to a reading by the Swiss-German writer Sybil Schreiber. She delivered one of the best readings I’ve ever attended. Witty, charming, and clever, she worked without a moderator, discussing with ease the premise of her latest collection of short stories, Safranhimmel. She read sections from the collection and answered questions about the work and her writing life. Actually, in recognizing how slow a question session can take to get rolling, who awkward an audience can feel about asking her anything, she wrote out several questions on cards which she pinned to the undersides of random seats in the theater. My daughter got one, “Wieso heisst das Buch, Safranhimmel?” – but a woman behind us asked about her choice of title before my daughter had a chance to. Never mind.

We left, happy to have attended the reading and discovered a new voice to follow. Her trick with the question cards delighted us. How clever! Someone in the audience asked if Safranhimmel would be out in English, which got me thinking about trying my hand at translating fiction from German to English. I’m experienced with translating work-related copy. Wouldn’t it be fun to explore applying my creative-writing skills to translating creative copy?

Here, I’ll stop. My wrist demands I take a rest from typing, which is all right. Of course, all sorts of ideas about what to share today came flooding in as soon as I decided not to think about what to write—so here we are. I didn’t intended to muse this month, but I have. And I’m pleased. Creativity thrives on a clear running source of ideas. Although I may experience a few obstacles in the flow of my creativity, I’ve never stayed blocked for long.

A local beaver dam. As long a there’s flow, a few obstacles to writing simply alters the terrain.

The Zinger Still Zinging

We all know the fun of collective nouns. A murder of crows! A parliament of owls! A lying of pardoners!

Kathy Fish, seasoned teacher and writer of brilliant flash fiction, lures us into her “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” (which appeared in Jellyfish Review in 2017) with what reads like an innocent vocabulary romp. Some romps are pure fun, some combine fun with a lesson. Kathy Fish’s 135–word romp is a lesson in social commentary.

The story ends with a zinger. Not a twist, which once was the aim of most flash-fiction writers. No, it ends with one of the art form’s best ever zingers. Where Kathy Fish ends her story will send shock waves through your marrow. I don’t exaggerate and I won’t elaborate. Read it.

Read it for its impact. Once you recover, go back and look at the rhythm she creates by using a simple switching of nouns and noun phrases. One precedes the other; switch. Note her use of single-sentence paragraphs. For punch. And how, once she’s lured us into the fun complete, and mesmerized us wither her use of rhythm, she lands the ending. Whomp.

Wrestling with a Rogue Sentence

Recently, I participated in a flash-fiction writing workshop that ran for three weeks. Each week, the workshop participants were assigned to a new instructor and small group. Each instructor gave the participant groups a daily theme, readings, and a writing assignment. We could share our work within our small groups and hand in one assignment draft to our instructor for feedback at the end of each week.

Now, I’m revisiting each story I generated, taking a fresh look at what I produced. There’s often a great discrepancy between my excitement for a new story and how exciting the first draft actually reads a few weeks later.

Last night, I revisited one of the first drafts from the workshop. I recalled patting myself on the back for such a “tight” draft, writing that wouldn’t need too much “polish” to finish. Wrong. I had a story with too many complexities for its size. My main character struggled with two external conflicts and two internal conflicts. One particular line within the story generated positive feedback from my workshop group, which made it feel vital to the piece. Wrong again. It happened to be the one sentence that introduced the character’s second internal conflict—that one complexity too many. Because the sentence had generated positive attention, I tried reworking the story to fit it and ended up running the story right off of its tracks.

Identifying the rogue sentence, a “darling” that has to go.

There’s a trick to know when a sentence jumps out because it’s key to the story’s intent or because it’s rogue.

If you’ve ever been advised to “cut your darlings” and not really understood what a “darling” is, think of this kind of situation: a strong, but rogue, sentence, a sentence that introduces a complexity the story doesn’t have the capacity to fulfil or a level of lyricism or description that feels out of sync with its surrounds. A “darling” may be a sentence you cannot believe you came up with. You may feel unwilling to admit the threat it poses, to pull your reader out of your story’s flow, away from your story’s intent.

I ended up cutting the sentence because it led my reader out of the story that wanted to emerge. Stories can do that, tell you what they want to be about, but you’ve got to be willing to listen. Listen, and sacrifice what you want for what the story wants.

For the time being, I’ve set aside my rogue sentence. Actually, it might make the first sentence of a new story. And I like that idea.

Do you have a “darling” tale? Or a story that isn’t quite coming together? Could there be a “darling” at fault? A sentence that introduces unnecessary complexity or shifts narrative style?

I’d love to hear your story about wrestling with the rogue.

Mid-Month Surprise Reveal

So, we’re halfway through January! Time for the surprise I promised. What I have in mind is to share and discuss a story each month. I’ll start with a piece of flash fiction, “Quail,” by Vicki Xu and published by Split Lip Magazine.

“Quail” is set in a Chinese supermarket. Buried in its opening is a hint of a buried regret. Aunty Li, the story’s main character, has “learned to find comfort in” the jumbled Mandarin of Chinese expats living in America. But hearing a snatch of childhood dialect, pure in form, sets off lush, full-sensory memories, and in a moment, we see the contrasts between present and past, an artificial and a natural environment, that reveal the pretense of Aunty Li’s “comfort.” Set among “neat aisles,” where everything is compartmentalized, shelved, and far removed from its place of origins, Aunty Li’s separation from place, community, language, mother, daughter, and self is exposed. A quiet, unassuming moment feels volcanic, and we’re left imagining its seismic repercussions.

“Quail” perfectly illustrates flash fiction’s power of compression. Reading this precisely crafted moment set off seismic waves within me. Who doesn’t have, like Aunty Li, regrets in life? Our regrets might involve a relationship, a job, or the dull routines consuming our day-to-days. Consuming time itself. Perhaps we regret inaction or some bold move. Like Aunty Li, we might counter the stress of experiencing regret by creating a false sense of contentment and convincing ourselves that we find comfort within it.

Reading Vicki Xu’s “Quail,” what did you feel? Is there something in your life that could trigger a memory with the power to create seismic waves? Try to express that moment and imply its repercussions in fewer than 300 words.

Fly Like Evel Knievel

One time, years before I knew anything about physics, I was pedaling my bike down a sloping stretch of our suburban street and I saw a single brick lying on the pavement. Construction was ongoing in the neighborhood, and builders’ trucks shed things regularly, like ropes, a thermos, or a leather glove. I imagined hitting that brick and flying through the air a là Evel Knievel, the stunt motorcyclist shown on TV recently, jumping fifteen Ford Mustangs.

I pedaled faster, gaining speed, and a roaring crowd filled my ears. A news reporter narrated my approach moment by moment. I pedaled faster. Harder. To fly higher.

(Source: Davey Cooms, “CW Classics: The Sum of All Evel – First Look”, Cycle World, December 10, 2007. )

I hit the brick, and—yes!—I flew.

Oh boy, did I fly.

This is the beginning of story: in a familiar landscape, something is different. Oh, look! A brick. Add some form of what if to that difference and you take off. What if I hit that brick going full speed on my bike?

I will fly.

A familiar landscape can be just about anything, particular or abstract. The street you once lived on, live on now, or one you’ve been imagining and visiting since childhood. It can be memory evoked. Kept it simple or add layers of complexity. Here I am, an unremarkable Caucasian woman in her sixties, walking down a busy street in Zurich, Switzerland, thinking random thoughts in Swiss-German, when I smell steaming white rice. Fresh pineapple hits a wok sizzling with garlic, onions, and pork. Time and place shift. I’m twelve years old, in the center of Tainan, Taiwan, surrounded by the buzz and horns of local traffic and conversations in Taiwanese. A dog barks. A street vendor scrapes a wok with a metal spatula. The wok releases the scents of garlic, onions, pork, and carmaelizing pineapple. What if that vendor opens a rice cooker, fragrant steam escaping, and a kernel of rice screams for help?

(Source: David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty Images)

Remember that brick lying in the street? I was going Top Speed when I hit it. And sure enough, I flew.

Right. Over. My handlebars.

Is that a story? Not quite, right? But it’s change powerful enough to incite a story. Add layers of What ifs and see what happens:

What if a little girl’s boarding a school bus the day after she rode her bike into a brick? She’s sore and  ashamed of the Band-Aids covering her nose, upper lip, and chin. What if a boy on the bus sticks out a foot and trips her? Or what if she so enraged she beats up the mean boy? What if her class crush stops her instead, just before she trips? Or what if she falls on her wounded face and sees, huddled beneath the seats, a dog-faced creature with pointy ears and hair that grows like a flame from the top of its head? She smiles and feels herself immediately transformed and transported . . .

Take an event from your childhood. Add layers of what ifs and see where they might lead you.

Secondhand Treasures

Several months after I finished graduate school, I cleared out my apartment, giving treasures away, boxing up what I wanted to keep, and selling the rest at a yard sale. Not that I’d owned much, but possessing less felt refreshing, and I recalled a former roommate who owned only what he could pack into his green 1969 Rambler. I also recalled his favorite possession, something I’d found for him at a yard sale, a coffee machine with a clock. He could set it to brew minutes before his alarm went off. He’d step out of his room, hot coffee waiting. Another roommate in that same house had worked as a seamstress for the San Francisco Opera Company. She’d bring home sacks of clothing she’d harvested from the overstuffed racks at Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul’s. Elbow deep in castoffs, she’d rip apart seams and reshape the old, removing bulky shoulder pads, shortening hems, or adding borders reminiscent of Seminole patchwork patterns. Sometimes, she’d tie-dye her cotton finds—or reverse-dye them.

Much of what I sold at my yard sale had been bought at yard sales. I prized a 1920’s floor lamp which a pleated silk shade. The owners had been given it as a wedding present, and they sold it to me with tears in their eyes. They were being moved into a retirement facility, downsizing. I’d transformed other pieces—a table, coffee table, and sideboard—with licks of paint and stencil work. We didn’t use the term “upcycling” then, but that was what I was doing. When I cleared out my apartment, I gave away my stenciled furniture to a friend who’d admired my work.

Sadly, the Swiss don’t hold yard sales. And they don’t really do bargains. Certainly not like North Americans do. The rare “flea markets” come closest to our yard sales, but the best places to find secondhand treasures in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland are the Brokis. The prices in these thrift shops would shock any bargain-hunting North American, but I’ve made peace with them. Had to.

When furnishing our first apartment, my husband and I trawled the Brokis. We found a pair of handmade beds made of Arve, Swiss pine. Most likely, they’d originated in the Alps. My father-in-law, an amateur furniture maker, claimed the set to be the handiwork of someone skilled but not professional. When we moved to France, we adopted most of the furniture that’d belonged to my husband’s grandmother. The family had planned to haul it all to their local Brocki until we stepped in. The grandmother’s father had been a furniture maker, and the household of furniture had been his wedding gift. Giggling like pirates, Markus and I made off with a booty: the dining and main bedroom sets. Solid oak.

The 1920’s family piece that I hope stays in the family.

Other treasures we’ve gleaned from Brokis include four paintings. Two were painted by artists renowned for their work as graphic designers, W. F. Burger, of a view to the Italian border on Lago di Lugano and a 1945 pastoral scene by Arthur Emil Bofinger. One is by K. Jordi, a skilled watercolorist I find no online information about, and another is a naïve work of a WWI German war scene. The naïve piece could hang in the Museum of Bad Art; nevertheless, I love it.

I’m certain former owners would be surprised to find their old treasures in my possession. Who knows where each will find themselves next? And our daughter in Los Angeles? She can’t wait to trawl LA’s secondhand shops with us.


On the last day of September, a sunny and warm day, I drove to St. Gallen to pick up a friend being checked out of the hospital there. He’d undergone surgery and had asked if I’d please drive him home so he wouldn’t have to navigate public transportation on crutches or call a taxi; he knows I like getting out and about.

Kantonsspital St.Gallen

A coffee aficionado, he treated me to an Americano and conversation at his favorite café. We caught up and resisted every urge to plan—jettisoning talk about Thanksgiving 2020 and forays to Turin.

Kaffeehaus in St. Gallen on Linsebühlstrasse.

At his place, in Liechtenstein, I pulled out a jar of Bols Genever I’d infused for four weeks with wild blackberries. He’s also a bit of a cocktail maven, and I’d considered throwing in an overnight kit in case I couldn’t resist being plied with drink—but there was work to consider, and I didn’t want to presume packing my laptop, so I didn’t. His mix, one part infused Bols, one part Jensen’s gin, and lemon tonic water, worked. It worked well. We nursed the drink, nibbled on slices of pecorino, and discussed at length what might take the mix to the next level, settling on a sprig of basil. Just as well, we didn’t have basil. I hadn’t packed that overnight kit, mind.

Liechtenstein, above Vaduz from an August visit. Looking at the Mittagspitz and the Rhine Valley, the highway running through.

Heading home well after it’d grown dark, I turned onto the highway onramp. A near full moon peeked out from behind the rugged and handsome Mittagspitz peak, and I gasped at the beauty and surprise of the moment. I wanted to stop and savor the scene and especially what it evoked in me, pleasure, appreciation, and thankfulness for the shores Chance has washed me upon.

Onramps are no place to stop. Only for an emergency should you separate yourself from a highway’s function. So, with a dose of regret, I found my place in the flow of traffic, set cruise control, and enjoyed my journey home as best I could. Highways may not be about pausing to connect or reflect on beauty and blessings, but friends are.