Tag Archives: short story writing

Dreams of automatic writing and the first paragraph of another failed short story.

10 Nov


At 20, I experimented with what Yeats called automatic writing, using my left hand. I bought into the idea that each hand corresponds with the other side of the brain, so using my left hand would bring the right side of my brain around. I got some strange results. The notion is that, unfettered by social conventions or the burden of consciousness, the unconscious would produce startling and creative ideas. It mostly works. There’s a mystical side to it, if you want—Yeats believed that he was communing with the dead, at one point—but for me it was a way of circumventing some of the blockage of my culture and childhood. I did this for a few months.[1] I filled half a little notebook with it. Memory distorts, but I have a recollection of a shift in my dreams.

I have a notebook, somewhere in my archive, with these left-handed scribbles. I do remember one day writing about the earth being hollow, existing as an incubator for a giant octopus. Weird.

There’s something liberating about writing something you know no one will read. Something comes loose; there’s a sense of freedom, and freefall, that unpacks the brain.


I carried the idea of automatic writing with me for years. But I let the practice of it die out. I instead began turning to my dreams for inspiration.

I’ve always been a vivid, if disturbed, dreamer. I sleepwalk. I cry out. I, reportedly—on at least two occasions—sleep with my eyes wide open, staring out into empty space. One time I dreamed of a professor stabbing a necklace with a toothpick at a cocktail party; the necklace had a tiny vampire yoked to the chain like a locket. Another time I dreamed my father was some bull god from ancient Sumer, hiding out in Pensacola. Throughout my life I’ve awoken in severe, stomach churning fright.[2]

On multiple occasions I’ve started stories (or ended them) with images and ideas given to me while asleep.

One of these is titled “Red Giant, White Dwarf.”

The germ of it came from a peculiar nightmare. The dream went like this:

I was in my apartment, in the kitchen, and I had the strangest sense of being watched. I went into the bedroom, down a long hallway, but there was no one. I searched in the bathroom, but didn’t open the shower curtain. I went back into the living room, but it was just the stillness and the furniture. But the feeling wouldn’t go away. Then a friend came over. He was scared. He needed to confess something to me. His hands were shaking. He started to tell me something about the water and then shoved me down behind the couch and put a finger over my mouth. “Shhh,” he said. “There’s a dwarf in the cupboard over the refrigerator. He has a gun.”

I tried—with middling results—to use this as a starting point for a short story. I had a character tell his friends that he couldn’t get over the feeling that he was being observed. They ignore his fears until he disappears. It reads like a mystery, and it’s pretty good, too, until the penultimate scene where I have two characters go to Subway. God.

Despite appearances to the contrary, I had progressed as a writer at this point, having written a few hundred thousand words of fiction, and read years of the world’s great literature every night. The problem wasn’t my style, but my subject matter and my lack of focus. I would finish a story or novel and then move on to a new one. I didn’t spend the hard time with the edits. I didn’t massage the tone of my sentences, the tone of my stories. I wrote in bursts, did a little rewriting on the sentences, then slunk back to my cave until another burst of energy hit.

Anyway, I had absorbed Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson and Don DeLillo, as well as more David Goodis and the good pulp writers like Robert Howard[3] and H.P. Lovecraft[4]. I was in a lean, muscular phase. Here’s the first paragraph:

It all started when Robert disappeared. His friends knew he was an alcoholic, that he didn’t like to be confronted about anything, that he slept with a white trash whore over on the west side of town. But when he disappeared they became worried.

It’s ten thousand words and I never submitted it anywhere. One friend read it, said he thought it was pretty good. It is pretty good—I reread some of it just tonight—but I put it away, moved on.


I don’t believe in automatic writing, or magic either, but there is an alchemical process that occurs when writing novels. Every writer who addresses the subject says something similar. Halfway through writing a novel, the story begins to flow out of your fingertips; the characters begin to resist your directions; the plot begins to radiate a kind of kinetic glow. When this happens, the rest of your life begins to lose shape, all the problems and worries are smudged away. It’s wonderful, and one reason why so many novels feel like the writer has lost the thread of the plot. Usually, h/she has.

It’s a hard feeling to describe—it’s akin to drunkenness—and in its absence, when the hard work of re-reading and rewriting and editing appears, there’s a slight ache. I often fall into a depressed state after finishing a first draft. I used to tell people it’s because I’d been living with the characters and I miss them, but that isn’t really true. It’s that rushing feeling of my body taking over, where my brain seems to slink down my arms through my fingertips, where my brain feels hardwired into my imagination and not the other way around, and then the crash of the second to minute to hour to day to week to month to year of fretting and worrying and striving in this world.

And the magic is gone; only hard work remains.

[1] Years later I created a persona—misanthropic, perverted, and sex- and film-obsessed—to write from, another way to get around the obstacles of the psyche.

[2] This still happens. For the last three years I’ve had reoccurring nightmares, of Simone suffocating in a pillowcase in the bed, and I’m powerless to get her out in time. I usually awake with my hands in the pillow, near hyperventilation. It’s unpleasant.

[3] He’s sensational.

[4] He’s problematic.


First line of a failed short story: Sadness in Unending Time.

24 Oct

After Midas, I floundered.

People had responded to my little novella. The head of a book publisher read it and clearly was interested in a longer form. I was writing movie reviews for the free paper in town and meeting more and more writers. I met poets and novelists of some repute. I shook hands with agents and publishers and editors at conferences, galas and banquets. I felt like I was on my way.

But I struggled with finding a basic rhythm. I couldn’t settle in on a writing medium. I didn’t like writing by hand; I was easily distracted when writing on the computer; my typewriter was a manual. I tried all three. I wasn’t comfortable. I kept starting and stopping projects. Nothing grabbed hold. I was hitting my head on my lack of life experience. I was writing about writing—and books and writers and so on, the labyrinth of solipsism that so many writers fall into.

I also tried my hand at short stories. Writers who say short stories are more difficult than novels should be shot. They aren’t. (Maybe George Saunders or Steven Millhauser or alice Munro could make this argument.) But, they are a different form, and one I never quite got a handle on. My early stories were too simplistic, morality tales without any real moral. The best of these was my rewriting of Job.[1]

Because I was also trying to break into comics. It seems a bit silly now, but as I was writing novels and stories I was also trying to learn the craft of writing comics. Comics were my first love, really, and with the explosion of new adult-oriented comics—Sandman, The Invisibles, and so on—I felt the pull. I wrote half a dozen treatments; I met with different artists; I plotted, formatted, and slaved. I wrote query letters to Marvel. I even wrote about two issues’ worth of a comic biography of Dostoevsky. Nothing doing. Then my dad introduced me to an artist who was in his forties. We exchanged emails. He was a devout Christian, but militantly so. He said in one email he had no patience for “weak, mealy-mouthed Christianity.”  He was a very fine artist, though, so I tried my best.

So I rewrote Job, in a modern setting. Despite some problems, the story sort of works. As I envisioned it as a comic, I loosened up the prose a little. I borrowed from Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison and even Alan Moore in some of the devices.

I worked on this story for a long time. I sent the artist the prose version and he promptly cut off all communications with me. People are strange.

Here’s the first line of the story that I—embarrassingly, really, as it’s a bad, faux portentous title—titled Sadness in Unending Time:

“The radio wailed Jim Morrison’s deep voice asking to light his fire as Keith shook his head awake.”

As a side note, up to this point I was still using my friends and family for the characters’ names. Robert and Jeff and Chris and Keith, my closest childhood friends and my cousin—these were the main characters. People who had wounded me often had their names co-opted by the villains. Who says writers aren’t petty?

[1] I’ll get into some of the others in another post.