The best time to do something beautiful
is when you’re supposed to be doing something else.

—From “A Cheerful Death,” winner of the
Gulf Coast short story competition in 2000, reprinted in
Cast Upon the Day (Hopewell Publications, 2007)

Excerpts: Realism & Other Illusions: Essays on the Craft of Fiction

“Torturing Your Sentences: The Brutal Art of Self-Editing”

And while there is a convention to avoid abrupt transitions in fiction, there is much to be said for creative disruption. One of the most memorable sentences I have ever come across flashed almost subliminally into a piece of writing by William H. Gass in The Habitations of the Word — in the midst of a lengthy rhetero-philosophical consideration this sentence suddenly appears: What good has liking olives ever done me?

The lesson from that is: True, avoid confusedly jolting transitions, but do not fear stunningly abrupt departures.

Riding home on the subway once on a hot summer New York City day, I stood nodding by the doors on the F train rattling beneath the East River. My eyes sleepily slipped across the face of a woman standing on the other side of the car, whereupon without prelude or warning, she dropped into a crouch and shouted, “I don’t know who you are! Or who you think you are! But you don’t know me. So keep your eyes to yourself!” I was startled, frightened even, but I shall never forget that woman or the beautiful gift she gave me: a brilliant, passionate bouquet of little sentences, and a lesson in the skillful use of abrupt transition.

—From “Torturing Your Sentences: The Brutal Art of Self-Editing”

“Getting Around the Mind: How I Read, How I Write”

I write by intuition, hoping in a sense, as Faulkner put it, to lie my way to the truth; I bring my mind to it later as Wordsworth spoke of poetry as the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility. But that process of recollection is for me always something of a fight with my mind. I let my intellect into the process as I might admit a dangerous animal into the circus of the fiction — it has its function there, it is powerful and wonderful, but an intellect, as a tiger, is also a dangerous carniverous beast and must be kept in check lest it play havoc in the garden, killing, driving all other living things into hiding.

—From “Getting Around the Mind: How I Read, How I Write”

“What Does God Care About Your Dignity, Victor Travesti?”

Seated on the bench at his back, two women in their late sixties chatted. Rain drizzled from the grey sky onto the pavement and slicked the road.

“It’s sad for all the little boys who wanted to play ball today,” one of the women said.

Let them drown, thought Victor Travesti, watching for his bus.

“And just think of all the families who planned to go on picnics,” the other woman said.

Let them eat grief, thought Victor.

The broad glass face of the bus appeared at the corner. The vehicle slid in alongside the curb, wheezed to a halt, clapped open its doors. Victor Travesti turned and with his arm swept a gallant, imaginary path toward the bus to usher the women ahead of him.

“Ladies,” he said, and bowed to them.

“Such charms,” said one. The other giggled, fluttered her eyelashes, plumped up her thin, red-black hair. “Sidney Omar said my stars showed a tall dark handsome fella,” she said.

“Your Stars Today,” pronounced the first dreamily, with a smile of mystical ignorance.

Victor Travesti winked, poker-faced. Then his strong white teeth flashed as he guided the ladies up the steps of the bus, averting his eyes from the rolling masses of their flowered backsides.

“My mother always said to beware the Latin charm,” the balding red-haired woman said, glancing sidewise and up into Victor’s dark face, which replied with graceful forebearance.

Yes, he had charm. And scorn, too. He knew how much hand to give, and to whom, and how. For the upstart, for the Irish fornicator, two fingers, while the eyes look elsewhere. Full clasp for peers, for men of respect. He had all the tools of a good paysan. His people had been Calabrese. He thought it sad that a man of his dignity should have to ride the public bus with balding old ladies.

—From “What Does God Care About Your Dignity, Victor Travesti?” in Unreal City: Stories

Reprinted in Realism & Other Illusions: Essays on the Craft of Fiction, along with a complementary commentary called “Fortune, Fate, God, Kipling, Robert Crumb, A Broken Radio, and the Father of My Friend Who Tortured Turtles.” Read this commentary at LookSmart Find Articles.