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by Ellen Santasiero | April 4, 2023

Photo by Ajin

Last month I participated in a twenty-four hour “playfest,” which meant I agreed to write a ten-minute play in eight hours, overnight. I know. Crazy is as crazy does.

Of all the positive outcomes of that experience, one stands out. It was afterward when one of the actors in my play said, “I get what you were doing with the bag of chips.” (O, to be understood!)

The play is set at a Very High Tech startup that caters to its Millennial employees’ basic needs for catered lunches, on site acupuncture, and egg-freezing.

So, my protagonist, twenty-nine-year-old Nate, has on his desk his drink of choice and a bag of chips. Nate is a brilliant coder and team leader working on a Very Important Project that will change the world, utterly. Except he’s failing. He can’t get the program to run. So the Big People Upstairs (who are, of course, the same age as Nate) add a new member to Nate’s team: a boy in his late teens, a Wunderkind, just as Nate once was.

At first, Nate resists the young coder and his fresh ideas, but eventually he accepts that the kid is, in this case, a better coder than Nate himself, and that he should and will capitulate to the kid’s superior knowledge and skill. That’s all well and good for Nate, but how does the audience know that he’s had this internal realization?

Enter bag of chips.

Before Nate asks the kid, “Whaddya got?” he crosses the room with the bag of chips and—wait for it—proffers the open bag to the boy so he can reach in for a handful.

You get the picture. A crunchy olive branch, a salty peace offering, that kind of thing.

Even in the mind-numbing novel of ideas, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which I’m reading right now for reasons best explored in a different post, objects sometimes do the talking. The story’s protagonist, Hans, loves to smoke a cigar after meals. He’s addicted to cigars, in fact. One of the tiny internal shifts that Hans experiences—one that will allow him to stay at the sanatorium in Switzerland and not return to his former life at sea level—is made visible to the reader when Hans notices that the cigar doesn’t taste as good as it usually does (it tastes bad, even), and tosses the cigar into the edelweiss, never to be seen again.

“No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams in 1927, which is just another way to say, no things in your story without a job to do.

Objects are just waiting for us to give them a job to do in our stories. And, they’ll work for free, with no expectation of lunch, catered or otherwise.

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Updated: Jun 17, 2023

by Irene Cooper | March 6, 2023

I went searching for a recent tweet by a writer I admire, and couldn’t find it. Fittingly, the tweet mused on the suggestion that everyone has been writing the same human dramedies—the same histories of trauma and triumph—for eons, each from a slightly different perspective. As with many tweets, it can be read (at the very least) in two ways: that there is nothing new under the sun, and we (especially we who fancy ourselves creative) only replicate rather than innovate; conversely, that we are indeed snowflakes, made up of the same stuff but in awesome, infinite arrangement. Additional possibilities abound, of course. Some are cheerier than others.

I say fitting, too—that I couldn’t locate the thought in the 24/7 textual Indie 500 that is Twitter—because Michael and I will this week head to the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) to rub patched elbows with twelve thousand of our fellow writers. Twelve thousand people will sit on and in front of panels that will discuss writing concerns including voice, genre, education, and the ever-shifting landscape of the publishing industry. As both writers and instructors of The Forge, a creative writing program, we have a good deal of skin in the game. This year our Superbowl is in Seattle, a virtual home field.

Once upon a time I had a conversation with a judge in Reno, Nevada, a place where you might as well tell the truth. It was a friendly chat, nothing law-bound, in which I’d said there was a time I thought I’d be a public defense attorney in NYC. He said public defense was a hard row to hoe. He himself had run a notoriously successful firm with scandalously wealthy clients. He suggested I go back to school. “There is always room at the top,” he said.

I recognized the quote—purportedly a response from Daniel Webster when he was cautioned against becoming a lawyer—he was advised (by people who meant well, we shall presume), that the field, in the early nineteenth century, was saturated. The idea of a “top,” even to the synapses in my young-twenties brain, even in 1986—the year before Wall Street glamorized rather than vilified abject greed—felt wonky. Wonky, but prevailing, like a March wind whipping the Nebraska plains.

It would be another three decades or so before dancer, choreographer, educator, and visionary Liz Lerman would give me language for my ambivalence regarding “top” (and the implied “bottom”). Lerman founded and developed Critical Response Process, a dialogic alternative to creative workshop models that traditionally silence the artist. She also wrote a collection of essays called, Hiking the Horizontal, which her website says, “offers readers a gentle manifesto to bring a horizontal focus to bear on a hierarchical world.” Neither a top, nor a bottom, then, but a horizon of indiscernible end. Of boundless access and possibility.

AWP is a curious event: Twelve thousand introverts crushed together under one roof, twelve thousand hearts pounding with ambition, twelve thousand and more perspectives on a single moment. No recollection or interpretation will be the same as another.

This AWP, I think I’ll leave the sky to the stars, is what I’m getting at. I want to listen to some stories, marvel at the poets, and stare across Elliott Bay, through the inevitable mist, to the infinite horizon, where I know there is room for me and my work.

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Mike Cooper | February 7, 2023

When we tell a story, even a “true” one, we have a beginning and an end. “One day…” eventually rolls into “…and so, that’s what happened’ (or, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I have to say about that”). We look at a story as a “slice of life,”—a moment in the cosmic timeline, an experience where someone (possibly ourselves) saw the world one way, and then something happened, and now it’s seen a different way. The impact and meaning of a story depend on where we end it. It’s where and how we leave our readers/listeners. The story can end with a “happily ever after,” or with our character staring out at the snow that is falling, falling, and falling “upon all the living and the dead.” It can end in chains, or the release of chains. It can end in true love, triumph, or the deepest loss.

But it is still only a moment. How do we capture the truth of life? Isn’t that what we’re after? Where is our beginning? An amoeba crawling from the primordial ooze? The Big Bang? The birth of God? And where is our ending? How could we even speculate?

This is, I think, why we write: in order to capture the whole picture, the meaning behind our happiness and suffering, the reason we push on, the understanding of our impermanent permanence. This involves acute speculation and introspection on our experiences, and most people aren’t interested in going there. The writer is a philosopher, a logician, a truth-seeker, a theorist, a dreamer. We look to other writers for their insights, we lean over the page or the keyboard and make an attempt to explain w-h-y.

As far as I know, no one has come up with the definitive universal truth. So we approximate it, hint at it, catch a glimpse of it as it walks past our window, stand next to it on a crowded bus. The end of the story, of the good story, leaves us (and our reader) on a trajectory toward discovery—the open-mouthed, chin-scratching, finger-in-the-air, “I had it on the tip of my tongue” moment that keeps us going, and thinking, and wondering, and trying to figure this whole thing out.

Jackson Browne says it quite well in the song “The Road and the Sky”:

When we come to the place where the road and the sky collide,

Throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide.

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