Closing the Gap

Four or five years ago, Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio and television show This American Life, gave a series of talks about storytelling.  David Shiyang Liu made a cool video using part of the original soundtrack two years ago.  Janet Reid recently posted the video on her blog.

And I swiped it:

I’m not entirely sure about the quality of my personal taste, but I do feel better about my first two drawer novels.

Like any other art, writing takes practice.  This is something that non-writers don’t seem to get.

Everyone knows that dancers  and musicians practice for insane amounts of time, and even visual artists are allowed to make models or have sketchbooks or paint practice canvases or run up samples without anyone wondering why.

If a writer’s story or book doesn’t snag an agent’s interest or get accepted for publication, though, then more often than not, the assumption is that the writer simply doesn’t have enough talent  and that the time that it took to get all those words down and edit them—and rearrange them and edit them and delete them and edit them and rewrite them and edit them— and polish them and send ’em out five ten twenty fifty multiple times . . . was all wasted.

The worst part, is that we tend to assume this about ourselves.

Why do we do this?

Why aren’t we allowed to practice?  Why are shitty first drafts allowed, but not craptastic first or second or even third novels?

What’s the rush?

No words are wasted, even the ones we delete because they are the suckiest words in the suckiest order that words have ever been placed since the dawn of making marks on a flat surface and if anyone ever found out we’d done anything so sucky, our lives would, for want of a better word, suck.

Because even after those words are gone—don’t forget to run the shredder, clear your clipboard, empty your recycle bin and check for keystroke software, just to make sure—we know now that they don’t express what we wanted them to, in they way we needed them to do it.

And that gets us closer to finding the words that do, more than anything else will.

We never go back to square one.  Ever.  Not even if our desk drawers are so full of sucky novels they’ve overflowed and we have to write at the kitchen table.

We aren’t wasting our time.  We aren’t wasting our lives.

We’re practicing.

And, slowly—sometimes really #$%!ing slowly—we’re closing the gap.

London underground, mark "Mind the gap".


The Bedtime Adventures of Super Sunny: Superhero Birthday Party!

About three in the afternoon, after Sunny has returned from a costume-themed birthday party and has worked off a truly epic Hulk-colored cupcake by bouncing off the walls like a chocolate powered gas-molecule in a Supergirl costume:

“Mommy?  I want a made up story tonight for bedtime.”

“All right.  Thanks for telling me and please stop jumping on the couch.  What should the story be about?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Okay, tell me when you do and put Toby down, please, honey.  Cats don’t like to pretend to fly.”

“Like elephants?”

” . . . Sure.”

“Oh.  Sorry, Toby.”


Four hours later:

“I want a made-up story, Mommy, remember?”

“Sure.  You know what you want?”

“Quack and Peep.  The episode where they—”

“That’s not a made up story.  That’s telling a tv show.”

“Oh.  Then can I have a superhero story?  No, wait—a superhero birthday story!”

“Okay, um . . .  Once there was a superhero called Super Sunny.  She was five years old—”

“Five and a half.

“Sorry.  Five and a half.  And she had curly pigtail hair.  Super Sunny had been invited to Captain Eamon’s sixth birthday party.  She would have flown over but her Mommy drove her instead.”

“Because she didn’t know her kid was a superhero, right?”

“Right.  Parents never know.  So she gave her present to Captain Eamon, who promised not to look at it with his X-ray vision—”

“What’s that, Mommy?”

(pause for explanation that did not include a discussion of the societal and school rules about the displaying and viewing of underwear until Janie decided to help)

” . . . So, Captain Eamon’s Mommy asked Super Sunny to help with blowing up the balloons while she went inside to decorate the cake—”

“No, cupcakes!”

” —the cupcakes.  And since there weren’t any parents around, Super Sunny used her super breath to blow up all the balloons so they floated . . . Did you brush your teeth?”

“Yes.  See?   <Hwoof>.”

“Okay—ugh, why did I buy you Berry Mint toothpaste?  Never mind.  All the balloons were up and the rest of the super guests started to arrive.  There was BatSophia and Ninja Jack and Optimus Daniel and Spider Tommy and MegaTyler and Bumble-Ryan and . . . uh . . . Jedi Jared, who is Captain Eamon’s big brother.  Was that all?”

“Melissa, but she didn’t have a costume.”

“And Melissa, who came in her secret identity. Right?”

“Right!  Good one, Mommy!”

“Thanks.  So all the super guests played Rescue the Scientists and stick the Bad Guys in the Jail Cell when all of them heard someone calling . . . ?”

“Help, Help!”

“So they all told their parents they had to go potty or get a drink and Jedi Jared said he’d help them, because he’s older.  So he led them through the house to the front yard and all the ones who could fly picked up the ones who couldn’t and they all took off to see who was in trouble.”

“And Melissa was very heavy.”

“But Super Sunny is very strong so it worked just fine.   And they all saw that a train was rushing towards a bridge over the river—but the middle of the bridge was gone!  And the train couldn’t stop!

“Seriously, Mom?  That’s the best you can do?”

“Janie, shush!  This is my story.   Tell it, Mommy!”

“So Captain Eamon held onto the end of the bridge and Super Sunny grabbed his ankles and BatSophia grabbed hers and so on until they made two lines of superheroes over the gap in the bridge—

“Even Melissa?”

“Yes, because she’s a superhero, too, even without her cape.”

“Then why did I fly her all the way to the bridge?”

“Maybe you were being nice?”

“Or maybe she can’t fly—like BatSophia.  Why can’t she fly?  She’s a bat.”

“It’s her symbol, honey—she’s not really a bat.”

“Yeah.  Bats aren’t pink.

“Thank you Jane.  So. . . all the superheroes held on very, very tight to each other and the wheels of the train rode right over them and everyone was saved.”

“We did it!”

“Yep.  And they decided that they had such a good time working together that they’d schedule lots of playdates so they could help more people.”

“Good.  I want a playdate with Ninja Jack.  He has a Playstation.”

I’ll call his Dad tomorrow.  Meanwhile,  back at the bridge, Jedi Jared called the police on his cell phone and stayed behind to make sure no one else tried to cross.   Everyone else went back to Captain Eamon’s backyard and had cupcakes bigger than their heads.”

“Mine was green!”

“Yes, all the cupcakes were decorated with made up superhero flags, and all the real superheroes thought that was really funny and  laughed and laughed and wouldn’t tell their parents why.  And they all had a very good time. The End.  Good-night, honey.”

“And we saved one for Jedi Jared.”

“Right.  The End.”



“Do you know I’m really a super hero?”

“Yes, but I can keep a secret.  Right, Jane?”

“I guess—unless it’s going in the blog.”

“Oh.  Whoops.”


The Bedtime Adventures of Super Sunny: The Great Penguin Rescue (or ‘Snot Funny, Janie)

 Sunny has had a tough couple weeks—she had a double ear infection and has had a bad case of the ick the last four days. 

The bedtime before last, she was stuffed-up,  cranky, overnapped, and just a tad hyped on Children’s Tylenol.   We had books, back rubs, a song, and two drinks of water—but she wasn’t interested in sleeping or staying in bed.

So I brought out the big guns.


 “Super Sunny is a superhero who is . . . ”

(Snerk, sniff, cough)  “Five years old.”*

“And has . . . ”

“Curly pigtail hair.  Like me.”

“Right.  One day, Super Sunny was in bed with a terrible cold.”

“And a feber.”

“And a fever.  But her ears weren’t infected so she still heard someone say . . . ”

“Help (cough) help!”

“So she slooowly got out of bed and put on her bunny slippers and her robe—“

“An’ a tissue.”

“And lots of tissues. And flew slooowly around trying to find the one who was calling for help because she was really tired.”

(Yawn) “And she found a penguin.  Like on her robe.”

“Just like on her robe.  It was a small penguin and the piece of ice it had been standing on had broken off and carried it away from its family.  And it couldn’t swim back because there were walruses in the water who might eat him—”

(from the other side of the room) “Not walruses, Mom.  Seals.”

“Are you sure, Jane?”

“Is this the Antarctic?”

“Uh.  I guess so.”

“Then it’s seals.  And sea lions.”

“Okay.  There were seals in the water—”

“And sea lions.”


“Janie, this is my story!”

“Jeez, sorry. I was just trying to help.

“But it’s my story—“

“So anyway, it wasn’t safe for the little penguin to swim home.  But Super Sunny couldn’t pick up the penguin to fly it back, because she was sick and didn’t have any super strength left—and penguins are heavy and slippery and really cold on the outside.  She thought about flying to find a tree to make a paddle or something, except she was sooo tired . . .  when suddenly her nose tickled.”


“And she said, Ah, Aaaah, Aaaaaaaaah, AAAAAAAAHHHHH . . . ow.  No sneeze.”


“She turned to look out at the ocean and thought about sticking her feet in the water and kicking, like you learned to in swim class, except the water was freezing and


(Story paused for much giggling and unwarranted accusations of scaring small children on purpose, Mommy—and a coughing fit)

“And Super Sunny’s super sneeze blew that piece of ice across the water so fast that the little penguin freaked out and flapped its flippers and screamed, Aaaaaaaauuugggghhhh!!!

(Story paused so two children could pretend to be freaked-out penguins and laugh
—and one could have a coughing fit)

“And the ice hit the land so hard that the penguin and Super Sunny flew through the air and knocked over all four hundred penguins who were waiting there, just like bowling pins. And every single penguin looked up at the sky and said, Bless you.”

(Very long pause for howls of laughter, reenactments, and to work out exactly what four hundred penguin voices would sound like if they said Gesundheit instead)

“And the Emperor Penguin gave Super Sunny a handkerchief to blow her nose—”

“‘Cause she had lots of snot.”

” . . .Okay, yeah, but yuck.  And she flew home very slooowly and took off her slippers and her robe and got into bed—“

“She went potty first.”

“Good idea.  Do you have to?”




“All right.  And Super Sunny snuggled into bed just as her Mommy came in to check on her.  Where did you get that handkerchief with the capital P in the corner?  And why are you hands so cold? she asked.  But Super Sunny was already asleep.  And you should be, too.  Good night.”

“I’ll bet when she woked up in the morning, her bed was full of snot.”

“This isn’t a snot story, sweetie.  It’s a Super Sunny bedtime story.  Go to sleep now.”

(from across the room) “Super Snotball story.”

“Jane-eee.  Super Sunny isn’t a snotball! She’s a superhero girl.(Sniff, cough, snerk)


“Good night, both of you.”

“Night, Mommy.”

“Night, Mom.”


Yes, sweetie?”

“I do hafta go potty.”


Image of Super Sunny doodled by me during a meeting a few weeks ago**  on an old pocket card:

And, no, those weren’t meant to be bunny slippers, but I’ll concede the point.

The rest of the images courtesy of Microsoft.


*Or, actually, “Fibe years ode.”  Please for to imagine the rest of Sunny’s end of the conversation as if it was spoken without any help from a massively congested, tiny, neon-pink nose.  Because it was.

**While at the same time listening very carefully, I swear, to why it’s imperative that we put pink indicator dots on the lower right side of the flyleaf labels while RFID tagging, with the following exceptions. . .

The Bedtime Adventures of Super Sunny: Knotty Necks

Last night at bedtime:

 “Tell me a story, Mommy.”

 “Why don’t you tell me one?”

 “I don’t remember.  Tell me one, pleeeeease?  About Super Sunny.  But make her have pigtails.”

 “Okay.  Super Sunny is a superhero who is . . . “

 “Five years old!”

 “And has . . . “

“Curly, curly hair!  In pigtails!  Like me!”

 “Just like you.  Once day, Super Sunny was, uh . . . let me see . . . um . . . sorry, kid, I got nothing.”

 “She was playing with a toy giraffe.”

 “Okay.  Got it.  Super Sunny was playing with her toy giraffe when her super ears heard someone say . . . “

“Help, Help!”

 “So Super Sunny flew away to see—“

 “No, no!  First she put her toys away.”

 “. . .  Really?”

 “Yes.  She’s a superhero, you know.”

“I do know, but did you know real kids can put their toys away, too?”

(much giggling)   “Stop tickling, Mommy!  Stop it! That’s not in the story!”

 “Too bad.  All right, so Super Sunny put her toys away like every kid should—“


“—and then went flying around to see who needed her help.  She followed the help helps! to a circus, and the ringmaster told her that the giraffes accidentally walked into the high wire and knotted their necks together!”*

 “And one is a baby.”

 “And one was—wait.  Baby giraffes aren’t tall enough to get tangled in high wires.”

“The Daddy gave her a piggy back.  For the circus parade.”

“Oh . . . okay.  So Super Sunny starts tugging at the knots and undoing the tangled wire, but things are so messed up that she ends up tied to the Mommy giraffe!  Upside-down!”

“And her cape was over her head!”  (much giggling)  “Oh, but the littlest one gets scared”

“The baby giraffe was scared and  started to cry.”


“So Super Sunny sang her a song . . . “

“Twinkle, twinkle! “

“She sang Twinkle, twinkle, little star . . . will you help the baby giraffe, too?”

“No.  You can do it.”

“By myself?”


“Never mind then.  The baby giraffe wasn’t scared anymore, and she reached her looong neck to give Super Sunny a nosie kiss.**  And when she did that, she pulled all the knots out!  And everyone was happy.”

“But Super Sunny didn’t fix it—the baby giraffe did.”

“Except they were still all crooked and hunched over  So Super Sunny was the one who straightened out their necks and legs and rubbed their sore muscles until they could move again.***  And then she flew up and stretched the high wire across the circus tent, too, for the acrobats.  Everyone was so happy, the ringmaster gave Super Sunny four free tickets to the circus.

“And the next night, Super Sunny and her family sat in the front row.  All the giraffes stopped by to give her nosie kisses and the acrobats waved to her as they danced along the wire—“

“And blew kisses!”

“They blew nosie kisses?  Yuck.”

“Noo-ooo.  Not nosie ones!  Like this.”  (smack-whoosh)

“Ohhhh.  That’s much better.  And Sunny ate popcorn and hot dogs and cotton candy until she was sick and then she fell asleep on the way home.  It was awesome.

“Mommy . . . cotton candy is too sweet for me.”

“I know.  That’s why you got sick.”

“You’re really silly, Mommy.”

“Yep.  Good night.”

“Good night, Mommy.”

“You can pick your toys up tomorrow, just like a superhero.”

“Mo-OMM.  Shhh!  I’m sleeping.”


*Which is probably one of the reasons real circuses don’t have giraffes, but Super Sunny already rescued the elephants that escaped from the zoo.

** Think Eskimo, not curiosity.

*** My husband:  “Nice save.”

I think good stories do this, too.

If there is a universal scale, I think it also measures narrative.

A scale is a simple thing, but it can be layered and noodled around and enhanced and emphasized into a symphony.

The best stories—the ones that resonate and engage the reader—are based on simple story threads, layered and enhanced and emphasized and twisted.

The fight for justice, truth, revenge, recovery, survival.
(a boy grows to manhood preparing to confront a once-human evil that killed his parents)
(A woman struggles to keep alcoholism and mental illness from consuming her)

The discovery of self–self-worth, self-defense, self-regard . . . Selflessness.
(A woman, called ugly and worthless, stands up to her abusive husband and finds her own path)
(A miser realizes, with help, that he wants to live a better, less lonely life)

The search for companionship, love, friends, belonging, home.
(A soldier forges his small, scruffy band into Napoleon’s nightmare)
(A young woman falls for a sentient robot and teaches it to love her in return)
(a child tries to adjust to living outside one small room)

The drive towards fulfillment–of hope, of rage, of despair, of joy, of peace, of purpose.
(every story ever told)

In the end, or at the start, the best stories are about expectations and tension and fulfillment. The journey and the destination.

And I think that in the right hands, these threads involve us in the same amazing way as a pentatonic scale directed by Bobby McFerrin.

And we’ll follow them wherever they lead.