Writing from the Armpit

A reflection on origin stories and literary craft


When I was in high school, I lived in Houston, Texas, the armpit of America. Only in Houston can you have 100% humidity, 100 degree weather, 100 AQI, and 100 minutes of rush hour traffic run together without meriting extraordinary comment from the locals.

While I guess I should’ve taken time to appreciate the humor in the absurdity of that city’s perpetual existence, back then, I wanted to take after the great romantic poets whose writing I adored, and whose lifestyles seemed to be even more worthy of admiration. They seemed to have everything I wanted. In their diaries and poetry, they told stories of pressing against the sharp edges of cliffs, and wandering through daffodil and marmot-filled vales, and stumbling into the sea spray of crashing waves. They watched lightning spill out over lakes and emerged from the experience radiant with literary genius.

Unfortunately, the most beautiful, fantastical sights I observed in my daily life were as follows:

– highly reflective puddles

– birds perched on telephones wires during sunset

– flower gardens (but only viewed from indoors, to avoid the mosquitoes)

– flawlessly applied eyeliner

It’s no wonder that a dearth of readily available, deeply provocative and beautiful moments in nature inspired me to become a fantasy author. After all, what’s more escapist than running off to an utterly different world?

The need to salvage even the most trace beauty from my surroundings is something I’ve taken with me wherever I’ve lived since–including definitively gorgeous locales such as Japan, Hawaii, and Colorado. As far as my writing process goes, the impact of my escapist origin story is firm, too: I typically begin crafting my stories by building a deep connection with my setting. The characters and the plot always follow from there, but it is the place that gives them power, and the beauty that I see there–especially when that beauty is escaping from ugliness.

In this way, art imitates life.


Nowadays, as a writer and full-time creative, I can’t stub my toe against a book, a movie, even a video game without spinning into literary critique mode: What kind of story did I just run into? I think; What kind of themes, plots, character arcs, and messages are being promised to me? How intentionally is the author folding all these things together in order to make the story rich and meaningful? 

This is not how I used to be.

The hyper-sharp skill set I gained from my teenage years, desperate to observe anything and everything that could bring me a glimmer of beauty and joy, now is my bane. When I read new books, seeking out beauty, I read everything like an editor. I pause to write notes when I notice how foreshadowing is being used to create a plot twist; I fall out of the story if the transition is too good as opposed to being too awkward.

Can writers appreciate the beauty in fiction and yet still find escape in it? In other words, can they consistently and completely compartmentalise that side of themselves?

Catherine Drinker Bowen tragically and wonderfully, said, “Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences every thing twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.”

What if striving after bettering our craft does stymie our escape through literature?

Perhaps this is why we need to keep writing, not reading—because we are not only writing our character’s way out of trouble, but we’re writing our own way out, as well.

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Humor – Catch 22

Let’s look at a novel you probably read in high school…


Catch 22 is an antiwar novel published in 1961. Though it takes place in WW2, the novel is a satire of postwar America, which was at the time waging a bloody and stupid war in Korea.

Let’s look at chapter 1. We meet the protagonist, Yossarian, in the hospital, where he is heroically pretending to be sick to avoid doing his job.


  1. The novel has a reality that veers from horrifying to cartoonishly silly. Why do we accept it? How does he introduce this world, and its strange rules?
  2. Yossarian is a coward, in a war we culturally think of as heroic. Do we like him, regardless? Why?
  3. Do you use humor or satire in your work? How, and why? To lighten the mood, to make us like a certain character, to connect to the reader, etc.? How is Heller using it, here?
  4. This is a novel obsessed with paradoxes, in its characters, dialogue, plot, and even structure. Which ones stand out to you? What purpose do these paradoxes serve?

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“Medium Warp” by Mike Oliphant

This week, we’re reading Mike Oliphant’s “Medium Warp: Excerpt’s of a Digital Consciousness,” which was recently published in Thin Air Magazine.  Full disclosure, Oliphant is a MUG alum, and it’s fantastic seeing his work out in the world! “Medium Warp” is a very experimental hybrid poetry/fiction piece, so take time to let the story sink in:
Also, Oliphant did an interview with Thin Air Magazine, which might help give context to his flash piece:
“Carmen Maria Machado dubbed herself a ‘form vampire,’ a title which very much resonates with me. Once I have a form in mind, that’s where research comes in. If I want to write a user agreement for the universe and everything in it, then I need to research what one looks like, what language it uses and why.”


  • What’s this story about? How does Oliphant use form to enhance content?
  • Humans will always tell stories. With the evolution of fiction in our digital/internet/coding world, how do you see stories presented in the future?
  • Did this hybrid piece give you any inspiration on ways to play with form in your own writing? Or possibly ideas for crossing boundaries between genres or other forms?


Mike Oliphant received his MFA at Western Washington University, and is Consulting Editor of the Bellingham Review. A portion of his collection Medium Warp was the recipient of the 2018 Gas Station Prize. He was a 2017 Pushcart Nominee and his short fiction and poetry are either forthcoming or have appeared in Isthmus, Psaltery & Lyre, IDK Magazine, Shooter Literary Magazine, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere.


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“Why Your Mother Can’t Drive” by Cinelle Barnes (For Aug 8 Meeting)


“Why Your Mother Can’t Drive” is an essay written by Cinelle Barnes, a Filipino American writer. The Buzzfeed link on her website description reads: “Barnes explores why she does not drive… and explains how her past informs her present.”

Barnes is also author of Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir, which chronicles her experiences growing up in the Philippines, living in New York City as an undocumented immigrant, getting married, and completing her MFA.

1. In an interview with the Charleston City Paper, Barnes says she wants readers to feel like they’re “drowning a bit” when they read her book. Does she attempt this in her essay? Did you feel like drowning? How does she accomplish this?

2. The start of the essay is generic and can apply to any mother or any race and ethnicity. As the story progresses, she gives specifics and drops hints of her childhood trauma. Is this effective in keeping readers engaged? Starting generic and moving onto specifics?

3. What is the purpose of the refrain, “Your other can’t drive?” Does it help the rhythm and pacing of the story or does it get mundane?

4. Stories of trauma are hard to read. Was this hard to read? What made you finish it?

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‘Master & Commander’, Character Introductions


‘Master and Commander’ is the first of a twenty-part book series, published in 1969, by Patrick O’Brian. O’Brian, born 1914, was a successful biographer for most of his life (he wrote a definitive, if sleep-inducing, book on Picasso) before discovering his true love: writing about dudes on boats, at the age of fifty-five.

The first novel, ‘Master and Commander’, was rejected by his longtime UK publisher for being too full of jargon (a fair criticism, as you will see). It was picked up by a US publisher in 1969, where it sold middlingly, before falling out of print for fifteen years or so. He persevered, writing ten more books in the series, through that madness which possesses us, before a publisher reluctantly decided to give them another shot. When they were republished, they exploded in popularity with people who also like dudes on boats, spawning a devoted following (the books are still in most bookstores), and a surprisingly good Russel Crowe movie. O’Brian found commercial success, at age 70.

My question is why? What makes people fall in love with this series, or any series? While the world of the Napoleonic Wars is remarkably well-realized, and the action is excellent, I think most would agree that it comes down to its strong main characters.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter One (apologies, I could only find an excerpt on Amazon). Let’s read up until the scene where Jack speaks to Commandant Harte, which is the scene that ends with the line, “Was it you at the Governor’s, then?”

See the sample here: https://www.amazon.com/Master-Commander-Aubrey-Maturin-Novels-ebook/dp/B006C3Q6GG

  1. The books rely on us wanting Jack to succeed. How does O’Brian attempt to make us like, or at least empathize with Jack?
  2. Dropping the reader into this world reminds me of science-fiction novels, where the early chapters are spent attempting to understand the new rules and language of the world. How does O’Brian use the character’s point-of-view to inform us both about the character, and the world he inhabits?
  3. Similarly, what do you think of the slow pace of the opening? Does it help flesh out the world, before the action scenes, or would it’ve been better served by opening with a bang? Does the book feel old-fashioned?
  4. O’Brian’s limited third-person style is heavily informed by the character’s voice. Later, we will get scenes, and even whole books, from the point of view of Maturin. See this short excerpt from much later in the book: https://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=7976. Great characters must have a consistent point of view and distinct voice: what techniques do you notice O’Brian doing? Are they effective?


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“Ghost Flotilla U-boats: Embarkation”

This week’s published piece is “Ghost Flotilla U-boats: Embarkation” by Susan Matthews, published by Baen Books. Susan is a Rainforest Retreat veteran (although she usually goes to a different session than I do, so I don’t know her very well). Susan wrote to the Rainforest email list:

At Rainforest Session Three this year I wrote the “teaser” scene for my planned “Ghost Flotilla U-Boats” project.  It had U-818 Lachs surfacing in Lake Quinault.  It was fun.
Now my first Ghost Flotilla U-Boats story is available at Baen on-line:  www.baen.com/ghostflotilla
Elevator pitch:  “WWII German U-Boat sees Flying Dutchman, goes down in Arctic Ocean in 1945, surfaces in Lake Superior in 2005.”

From Wikipedia: Ms. Matthews served in the US Army as operations and security officer of a Combat Support Hospital, later worked as an auditor for Boeing and graduated from Seattle University with an MBA in accounting. Her debut novel, An Exchange of Hostages, was published by Avon Books in 1997. It was nominated for the 1997 Philip K. Dick Award and for the 1998 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; it also obtained fourth place in the poll for the 1998 Locus Award for Best First Novel.

  • As a submarine enthusiast, I found the portrayal of submarine life, technical references, etc. to be wonderful environment/world-building details. In case it’s not obvious, it’s very well researched. Did you find the minutiae of submarine details added to the story, or distracted from the underlying themes?
  • Speaking of underlying themes: this is ostensibly an adventure story of soldiers out of time; but really it’s a story of family. How does the author intertwine the stories of Captain Lachs’ two families, one his blood relatives, the other his crew?
  • Genre stories are usually pretty clearly defined as far as story arcs go; establish the world in the first act, have things go terribly wrong in the second act, and resolve the conflict in the third act climax with perhaps a bit of post-climactic wrap-up. Susan seems to follow this structure, but to my mind changes things up a bit, especially in the second and third acts. Discuss.

Enjoy! As always, all comments are welcome.

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“The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link

Kelly Link is an American writer who has written several short story collections; among them, Get in Trouble was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Fiction. This week we’re reading “The Faery Handbag,” from Magic for Beginners. I’ve been on a modern fairytale kick recently, and I’ve always loved Kelly Link. This one stuck with me, and I’m looking forward to discussing it! Q’s below:

  1. What techniques does Link employ to inform our understanding of the narrator, particularly with regard to voice? What did you think of the choice to have Genevieve address the reader?
  2. Link uses clothing + accessories as an extended metaphor. What do you think she is getting at? Why?
  3. How does this story explore responsibility and failure? In what ways does the protagonist fail? In what ways succeed?
  4. What hallmarks of a classic bildungsroman does Link make use of in this story? How does she turn the typical  arc on its head? What do you make of her treatment of love?
  5. The story takes several seemingly unrelated turns (library books, Houdini, etc.). How does Link make sense of the structure and what can we learn from this?


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“The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas

The State of Nature - New Yorker

I stumbled upon this week’s published piece curled up in bed on Sunday morning flipping through The New Yorker. The image caught me — mountains in flames and glasses forgotten on a white counter-top. Living in Santa Barbara, we’ve recently gone through the biggest wildfire in California history. In the middle of December. It’s been said over and over that there is no longer a fire season. Every season is fire season with our changing climate and drought-stricken landscape. Mass evacuations, apocalyptic skies, smoke masks, and emergency supplies: how do we adapt to this new world?

Of course, I dove right into the story — “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas. The story centers upon an ophthalmologist who gets burglarized and searches the flea market called the Thieves’ Market to try to regain her lost goods. Throughout the story, Bordas explores the themes of loneliness, self-reliance and survival in interesting ways. Here are some questions to ponder while reading “The State of Nature”:

  • How do material belongings play into the notion of connection and loneliness?
  • Is it better, or even possible, to survive (the impending apocalypse) in isolation?
  • How does the author play with sight in this story, and being able “see” one another (especially between “state-of-nature guy” and the narrator)?
  • How does the author subtly build up to the reveal about the mother’s secret?

Read up! https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/09/the-state-of-nature

Camille Bordas has published two novels in French. Her first English-language novel, “How to Behave in a Crowd,” came out last year.

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“On the Street Where You Live” by Yiyun Li

Photo-Illustration by Hannah Whitaker from The New Yorker

My turn to choose a published piece arrived and I hadn’t read any short stories I especially liked lately, so I turned to my go-to–The New Yorker–wondering if I’d find something I hadn’t read yet by one of my favorite short story authors, Yiyun Li. Ta da! This week we are reading “On the Street Where You Live,” in which Li explores themes of motherhood and loneliness through a protagonist musing about her autistic son.

YiYun Li is a Chinese American author whose novels and short story collections have garnered numerous awards and been published in more than twenty languages. She is currently a contributing editor to A Public Space.

Questions to consider while reading:

  1. How does Li explore “ordinary” versus “unusual” in this story? Does Becky indeed know what “normal” is?
  2. Becky says, “You can’t share with others who your child truly is.” To what extent do you think Becky knows who Jude truly is? What techniques does Li employ to illuminate this?
  3. Consider the way Li moves from scene to scene, and the way she has framed Becky’s internal monologue with people, places, and events/actions. How does she accomplish fluidity? What effects do these things have on your overall experience of the story?
  4. Li’s commentary on race is subtle but present. How does it complement Becky’s predicament?
  5. When Becky hears William singing, she “felt furious […] at herself too, for being there, a witness to a crime, an accomplice, really.” Later in the story, she is victim to a different–“normal”–type of crime. What is Becky’s crime? How does Li use the moments to underscore the meaning of the story?
  6. Becky says, “The only option was to blunder on through hoping.” Would you consider this story to be hopeful? Why or why not?

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The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin


Ursula Le Guin is a legend in the SciFi world, noted for her fearlessness, progressive themes, deep thinking about utopias, and so on. I haven’t read her YA work, but her SF stuff is terrific. Supplementals about her:

A New Yorker article: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/the-fantastic-ursula-k-le-guin

A speech she gave recently: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/20/ursula-k-le-guin-national-book-awards-speech .

For the next meeting, let’s read the opening of one of my favorite novels, the Lathe of Heaven, about a man who dreams new realities into being.

Here’s a PDF:


Let’s read the first two chapters.

  1. How effectively do the first two chapters set up the world, characters, and main problem of the story?
  2. How does Le Guin establish characters of our protagonist (Orr) and antagonist (Haber)? How does she show Haber’s personality?
  3. How effectively does Le Guin introduce her worldbuilding and science details? Is it necessary to the plot/themes?
  4. If you hadn’t been told this story was ‘Science Fiction’, how would you have categorized it? Does it neatly fall into the genre?

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