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In the early nineties (it might have been 1992, but it’s hard to
remember when you’re having a good time) I joined a rock-
and-roll band composed mostly of writers. The Rock Bottom
Remainders were the brainchild of Kathi Kamen Goldmark,
a book publicist and musician from San Francisco. The group
included Dave Barry on lead guitar, Ridley Pearson on bass,
Barbara Kingsolver on keyboards, Robert Fulghum on man-
dolin, and me on rhythm guitar. There was also a trio of
“chick singers,” à la the Dixie Cups, made up (usually) of
Kathi, Tad Bartimus, and Amy Tan.
The group was intended as a one-shot deal—we would
play two shows at the American Booksellers Convention, get
a few laughs, recapture our misspent youth for three or four
hours, then go our separate ways.
It didn’t happen that way, because the group never quite
broke up. We found that we liked playing together too much
to quit, and with a couple of “ringer” musicians on sax and
drums (plus, in the early days, our musical guru, Al Kooper, at
the heart of the group), we sounded pretty good. You’d pay to
hear us. Not a lot, not U2 or E Street Band prices, but maybe
what the oldtimers call “roadhouse money.” We took the
group on tour, wrote a book about it (my wife took the pho-
tos and danced whenever the spirit took her, which was quite
often), and continue to play now and then, sometimes as The
Remainders, sometimes as Raymond Burr’s Legs. The per-
sonnel comes and goes—columnist Mitch Albom has replaced
Barbara on keyboards, and Al doesn’t play with the group any-
more ’cause he and Kathi don’t get along—but the core has
remained Kathi, Amy, Ridley, Dave, Mitch Albom, and me
. . . plus Josh Kelly on drums and Erasmo Paolo on sax.
We do it for the music, but we also do it for the compan-
ionship. We like each other, and we like having a chance to
talk sometimes about the real job, the day job people are
always telling us not to quit. We are writers, and we never ask
one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.
One night while we were eating Chinese before a gig in
Miami Beach, I asked Amy if there was any one question she
was never asked during the Q-and-A that follows almost every
writer’s talk—that question you never get to answer when
you’re standing in front of a group of author-struck fans and
pretending you don’t put your pants on one leg at a time like
everyone else. Amy paused, thinking it over very carefully,
and then said: “No one ever asks about the language.”
I owe an immense debt of gratitude to her for saying that.
I had been playing with the idea of writing a little book
about writing for a year or more at that time, but had held
back because I didn’t trust my own motivations—why did I
want to write about writing? What made me think I had
anything worth saying?
The easy answer is that someone who has sold as many
books of ﬁction as I have must have something worthwhile to say
about writing it, but the easy answer isn’t always the truth.
Colonel Sanders sold a hell of a lot of fried chicken, but I’m not
sure anyone wants to know how he made it. If I was going to
be presumptuous enough to tell people how to write, I felt
there had to be a better reason than my popular success. Put
another way, I didn’t want to write a book, even a short one
like this, that would leave me feeling like either a literary gas-
bag or a transcendental asshole. There are enough of those
books—and those writers—on the market already, thanks.
But Amy was right: nobody ever asks about the language.
They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons, but
they don’t ask popular novelists. Yet many of us proles also
care about the language, in our humble way, and care pas-
sionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper.
What follows is an attempt to put down, brieﬂy and simply,
how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how
it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language.
This book is dedicated to Amy Tan, who told me in a very
simple and direct way that it was okay to write it.
This is a short book because most books about writing are
ﬁlled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included,
don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it
works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I ﬁg-
ured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.
One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of
Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. There is little or
no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course it’s short; at
eighty-ﬁve pages it’s much shorter than this one.) I’ll tell you
right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements
of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composi-
tion is “Omit needless words.” I will try to do that here.
One rule of the road not directly stated elsewhere in this
book: “The editor is always right.” The corollary is that no
writer will take all of his or her editor’s advice; for all have
sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. Put another way,
to write is human, to edit is divine. Chuck Verrill edited this
book, as he has so many of my novels. And as usual, Chuck,
you were divine.
13I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club. Not
just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of
the vernacular, but by its totality—she is a woman who
remembers everything about her early years.
I’m not that way. I lived an odd, herky-jerky childhood,
raised by a single parent who moved around a lot in my ear-
liest years and who—I am not completely sure of this—may
have farmed my brother and me out to one of her sisters for
awhile because she was economically or emotionally unable to
cope with us for a time. Perhaps she was only chasing our
father, who piled up all sorts of bills and then did a runout
when I was two and my brother David was four. If so, she
never succeeded in ﬁnding him. My mom, Nellie Ruth Pills-
bury King, was one of America’s early liberated women, but
not by choice.
Mary Karr presents her childhood in an almost unbroken
panorama. Mine is a fogged-out landscape from which occa-
sional memories appear like isolated trees . . . the kind that
look as if they might like to grab and eat you.
What follows are some of those memories, plus assorted
snapshots from the somewhat more coherent days of my ado-
lescence and young manhood. This is not an autobiography. It
is, rather, a kind of curriculum vitae—my attempt to show how
one writer was formed. Not how one writer was made; I don’t
believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-
will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment
comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means
unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at
least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those tal-
ents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe
that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.
This is how it was for me, that’s all—a disjointed growth
process in which ambition, desire, luck, and a little talent all
played a part. Don’t bother trying to read between the lines,
and don’t look for a through-line. There are no lines—only
snapshots, most out of focus.
My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—
imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus
Strongboy. This was at my Aunt Ethelyn and Uncle Oren’s
house in Durham, Maine. My aunt remembers this quite
clearly, and says I was two and a half or maybe three years old.
I had found a cement cinderblock in a corner of the garage
and had managed to pick it up. I carried it slowly across the
garage’s smooth cement floor, except in my mind I was
dressed in an animal skin singlet (probably a leopard skin) and
carrying the cinderblock across the center ring. The vast
crowd was silent. A brilliant blue-white spotlight marked
my remarkable progress. Their wondering faces told the story:
never had they seen such an incredibly strong kid. “And he’s
only two” someone muttered in disbelief.
Unknown to me, wasps had constructed a small nest in the
lower half of the cinderblock. One of them, perhaps pissed off
at being relocated, ﬂew out and stung me on the ear. The pain
was brilliant, like a poisonous inspiration. It was the worst
pain I had ever suffered in my short life, but it only held the
top spot for a few seconds. When I dropped the cinderblock
on one bare foot, mashing all ﬁve toes, I forgot all about the
wasp. I can’t remember if I was taken to the doctor, and nei-
ther can my Aunt Ethelyn (Uncle Oren, to whom the Evil
Cinderblock surely belonged, is almost twenty years dead),
but she remembers the sting, the mashed toes, and my reac-
tion. “How you howled, Stephen” she said. “You were cer-
tainly in ﬁne voice that day.”
A year or so later, my mother, my brother, and I were in West
De Pere, Wisconsin. I don’t know why. Another of my
mother’s sisters, Cal (a WAAC beauty queen during World
War II), lived in Wisconsin with her convivial beer-drinking
husband, and maybe Mom had moved to be near them. If so,
I don’t remember seeing much of the Weimers. Any of them,
actually. My mother was working, but I can’t remember
what her job was, either. I want to say it was a bakery she
worked in, but I think that came later, when we moved to
Connecticut to live near her sister Lois and her husband (no
beer for Fred, and not much in the way of conviviality, either;
he was a crewcut daddy who was proud of driving his con-
vertible with the top up, God knows why).
There was a stream of babysitters during our Wisconsin
period. I don’t know if they left because David and I were a
handful, or because they found better-paying jobs, or
because my mother insisted on higher standards than they
were willing to rise to; all I know is that there were a lot of
them. The only one I remember with any clarity is Eula, or
maybe she was Beulah. She was a teenager, she was as big as
a house, and she laughed a lot. Eula-Beulah had a wonderful
sense of humor, even at four I could recognize that, but it was
a dangerous sense of humor—there seemed to be a potential
thunderclap hidden inside each hand-patting, butt-rocking,
head-tossing outburst of glee. When I see those hidden-
camera sequences where real-life babysitters and nannies just
all of a sudden wind up and clout the kids, it’s my days with
Eula-Beulah I always think of.
Was she as hard on my brother David as she was on me? I
don’t know. He’s not in any of these pictures. Besides, he
would have been less at risk from Hurricane Eula-Beulah’s
dangerous winds; at six, he would have been in the ﬁrst
grade and off the gunnery range for most of the day.
Eula-Beulah would be on the phone, laughing with some-
one, and beckon me over. She would hug me, tickle me, get
me laughing, and then, still laughing, go upside my head
hard enough to knock me down. Then she would tickle me
with her bare feet until we were both laughing again.
Eula-Beulah was prone to farts—the kind that are both
loud and smelly. Sometimes when she was so afﬂicted, she
would throw me on the couch, drop her wool-skirted butt on
my face, and let loose. “Pow” she’d cry in high glee. It was
like being buried in marshgas fireworks. I remember the
dark, the sense that I was suffocating, and I remember laugh-
ing. Because, while what was happening was sort of horrible,
it was also sort of funny. In many ways, Eula-Beulah prepared
me for literary criticism. After having a two-hundred-pound
babysitter fart on your face and yell Pow, The Village Voice
holds few terrors.
I don’t know what happened to the other sitters, but Eula-
Beulah was ﬁred. It was because of the eggs. One morning
Eula-Beulah fried me an egg for breakfast. I ate it and asked
for another one. Eula-Beulah fried me a second egg, then
asked if I wanted another one. She had a look in her eye that
said, “You don’t dare eat another one, Stevie.” So I asked for
another one. And another one. And so on. I stopped after
seven, I think—seven is the number that sticks in my mind,
and quite clearly. Maybe we ran out of eggs. Maybe I cried
off. Or maybe Eula-Beulah got scared. I don’t know, but
probably it was good that the game ended at seven. Seven
eggs is quite a few for a four-year-old.
I felt all right for awhile, and then I yarked all over the
ﬂoor. Eula-Beulah laughed, then went upside my head, then
shoved me into the closet and locked the door. Pow. If she’d
locked me in the bathroom, she might have saved her job, but
she didn’t. As for me, I didn’t really mind being in the closet.
It was dark, but it smelled of my mother’s Coty perfume, and
there was a comforting line of light under the door.
I crawled to the back of the closet, Mom’s coats and dresses
brushing along my back. I began to belch—long loud belches
that burned like ﬁre. I don’t remember being sick to my
stomach but I must have been, because when I opened my
mouth to let out another burning belch, I yarked again
instead. All over my mother’s shoes. That was the end for
Eula-Beulah. When my mother came home from work that
day, the babysitter was fast asleep on the couch and little
Stevie was locked in the closet, fast asleep with half-digested
fried eggs drying in his hair.
Our stay in West De Pere was neither long nor successful. We
were evicted from our third-ﬂoor apartment when a neighbor
spotted my six-year-old brother crawling around on the roof
and called the police. I don’t know where my mother was
when this happened. I don’t know where the babysitter of the
week was, either. I only know that I was in the bathroom,
standing with my bare feet on the heater, watching to see if
my brother would fall off the roof or make it back into the
bathroom okay. He made it back. He is now ﬁfty-ﬁve and liv-
ing in New Hampshire.
When I was ﬁve or six, I asked my mother if she had ever seen
anyone die. Yes, she said, she had seen one person die and had
heard another one. I asked how you could hear a person die
and she told me that it was a girl who had drowned off
Prout’s Neck in the 1920s. She said the girl swam out past the
rip, couldn’t get back in, and began screaming for help. Sev-
eral men tried to reach her, but that day’s rip had developed
a vicious undertow, and they were all forced back. In the end
they could only stand around, tourists and townies, the
teenager who became my mother among them, waiting for a
rescue boat that never came and listening to that girl scream
until her strength gave out and she went under. Her body
washed up in New Hampshire, my mother said. I asked how
old the girl was. Mom said she was fourteen, then read me a
comic book and packed me off to bed. On some other day she
told me about the one she saw—a sailor who jumped off the
roof of the Graymore Hotel in Portland, Maine, and landed in
“He splattered,” my mother said in her most matter-of-
fact tone. She paused, then added, “The stuff that came out
of him was green. I have never forgotten it.”
That makes two of us, Mom.
Most of the nine months I should have spent in the ﬁrst
grade I spent in bed. My problems started with the measles—
a perfectly ordinary case—and then got steadily worse. I had
bout after bout of what I mistakenly thought was called
“stripe throat”; I lay in bed drinking cold water and imagin-
ing my throat in alternating stripes of red and white (this was
probably not so far wrong).
At some point my ears became involved, and one day my
mother called a taxi (she did not drive) and took me to a doc-
tor too important to make house calls—an ear specialist.
(For some reason I got the idea that this sort of doctor was
called an otiologist.) I didn’t care whether he specialized in
ears or assholes. I had a fever of a hundred and four degrees,
and each time I swallowed, pain lit up the sides of my face like
The doctor looked in my ears, spending most of his time (I
think) on the left one. Then he laid me down on his examin-
ing table. “Lift up a minute, Stevie,” his nurse said, and put a
large absorbent cloth—it might have been a diaper—under
my head, so that my cheek rested on it when I lay back
down. I should have guessed that something was rotten in
Denmark. Who knows, maybe I did.
There was a sharp smell of alcohol. A clank as the ear doc-
tor opened his sterilizer. I saw the needle in his hand—it
looked as long as the ruler in my school pencil-box—and
tensed. The ear doctor smiled reassuringly and spoke the lie
for which doctors should be immediately jailed (time of
incarceration to be doubled when the lie is told to a child):
“Relax, Stevie, this won’t hurt.” I believed him.
He slid the needle into my ear and punctured my eardrum
with it. The pain was beyond anything I have ever felt
since—the only thing close was the ﬁrst month of recovery
after being struck by a van in the summer of 1999. That pain
was longer in duration but not so intense. The puncturing of
my eardrum was pain beyond the world. I screamed. There
was a sound inside my head—a loud kissing sound. Hot ﬂuid
ran out of my ear—it was as if I had started to cry out of the
wrong hole. God knows I was crying enough out of the right
ones by then. I raised my streaming face and looked unbe-
lieving at the ear doctor and the ear doctor’s nurse. Then I
looked at the cloth the nurse had spread over the top third of
the exam table. It had a big wet patch on it. There were ﬁne
tendrils of yellow pus on it as well.
“There,” the ear doctor said, patting my shoulder. “You
were very brave, Stevie, and it’s all over.”
The next week my mother called another taxi, we went
back to the ear doctor’s, and I found myself once more lying
on my side with the absorbent square of cloth under my
head. The ear doctor once again produced the smell of alco-
hol—a smell I still associate, as I suppose many people do,
with pain and sickness and terror—and with it, the long nee-
dle. He once more assured me that it wouldn’t hurt, and I
once more believed him. Not completely, but enough to be
quiet while the needle slid into my ear.
It did hurt. Almost as much as the ﬁrst time, in fact. The
smooching sound in my head was louder, too; this time it
was giants kissing (“suckin’ face and rotatin’ tongues,” as we
used to say). “There,” the ear doctor’s nurse said when it was
over and I lay there crying in a puddle of watery pus. “It only
hurts a little, and you don’t want to be deaf, do you? Besides,
it’s all over.”
I believed that for about ﬁve days, and then another taxi
came. We went back to the ear doctor’s. I remember the cab
driver telling my mother that he was going to pull over and
let us out if she couldn’t shut that kid up.
Once again it was me on the exam table with the diaper
under my head and my mom out in the waiting room with a
magazine she was probably incapable of reading (or so I like
to imagine). Once again the pungent smell of alcohol and the
doctor turning to me with a needle that looked as long as my
school ruler. Once more the smile, the approach, the assur-
ance that this time it wouldn’t hurt.
Since the repeated eardrum-lancings when I was six, one
of my life’s ﬁrmest principles has been this: Fool me once,
shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three
times, shame on both of us. The third time on the ear doc-
tor’s table I struggled and screamed and thrashed and
fought. Each time the needle came near the side of my face,
I knocked it away. Finally the nurse called my mother in
from the waiting room, and the two of them managed to
hold me long enough for the doctor to get his needle in. I
screamed so long and so loud that I can still hear it. In fact, I
think that in some deep valley of my head that last scream is
In a dull cold month not too long after that—it would have
been January or February of 1954, if I’ve got the sequence
right—the taxi came again. This time the specialist wasn’t
the ear doctor but a throat doctor. Once again my mother sat
in the waiting room, once again I sat on the examining table
with a nurse hovering nearby, and once again there was that
sharp smell of alcohol, an aroma that still has the power to
double my heartbeat in the space of ﬁve seconds.
All that appeared this time, however, was some sort of
throat swab. It stung, and it tasted awful, but after the ear
doctor’s long needle it was a walk in the park. The throat
doctor donned an interesting gadget that went around his
head on a strap. It had a mirror in the middle, and a bright
ﬁerce light that shone out of it like a third eye. He looked
down my gullet for a long time, urging me to open wider
until my jaws creaked, but he did not put needles into me
and so I loved him. After awhile he allowed me to close my
mouth and summoned my mother.
“The problem is his tonsils,” the doctor said. “They look
like a cat clawed them. They’ll have to come out.”
At some point after that, I remember being wheeled
under bright lights. A man in a white mask bent over me. He
was standing at the head of the table I was lying on (1953
and 1954 were my years for lying on tables), and to me he
looked upside down.
“Stephen,” he said. “Can you hear me?”
I said I could.
“I want you to breathe deep,” he said. “When you wake
up, you can have all the ice cream you want.”
He lowered a gadget over my face. In the eye of my mem-
ory, it looks like an outboard motor. I took a deep breath, and
everything went black. When I woke up I was indeed allowed
all the ice cream I wanted, which was a fine joke on me
because I didn’t want any. My throat felt swollen and fat. But
it was better than the old needle-in-the-ear trick. Oh yes.
Anything would have been better than the old needle-in-the-
ear trick. Take my tonsils if you have to, put a steel birdcage
on my leg if you must, but God save me from the otiologist.
That year my brother David jumped ahead to the fourth
grade and I was pulled out of school entirely. I had missed too
much of the ﬁrst grade, my mother and the school agreed; I
could start it fresh in the fall of the year, if my health was
Most of that year I spent either in bed or housebound. I read
my way through approximately six tons of comic books, pro-
gressed to Tom Swift and Dave Dawson (a heroic World War
II pilot whose various planes were always “prop-clawing for
altitude”), then moved on to Jack London’s bloodcurdling ani-
mal tales. At some point I began to write my own stories. Imi-
tation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics
word for word in my Blue Horse tablet, sometimes adding my
own descriptions where they seemed appropriate. “They were
camped in a big dratty farmhouse room,” I might write; it was
another year or two before I discovered that drat and draft were
different words. During that same period I remember believ-
ing that details were dentals and that a bitch was an extremely
tall woman. A son of a bitch was apt to be a basketball player.
When you’re six, most of your Bingo balls are still ﬂoating
around in the draw-tank.
Eventually I showed one of these copycat hybrids to my
mother, and she was charmed—I remember her slightly
amazed smile, as if she was unable to believe a kid of hers
could be so smart—practically a damned prodigy, for God’s
sake. I had never seen that look on her face before—not on
my account, anyway—and I absolutely loved it.
She asked me if I had made the story up myself, and I was
forced to admit that I had copied most of it out of a funny-
book. She seemed disappointed, and that drained away much
of my pleasure. At last she handed back my tablet. “Write one
of your own, Stevie,” she said. “Those Combat Casey funny-
books are just junk—he’s always knocking someone’s teeth
out. I bet you could do better. Write one of your own.”
I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea, as if
I had been ushered into a vast building ﬁlled with closed
doors and had been given leave to open any I liked. There
were more doors than one person could ever open in a life-
time, I thought (and still think).
I eventually wrote a story about four magic animals who
rode around in an old car, helping out little kids. Their leader
was a large white bunny named Mr. Rabbit Trick. He got to
drive the car. The story was four pages long, laboriously
printed in pencil. No one in it, so far as I can remember,
jumped from the roof of the Graymore Hotel. When I ﬁn-
ished, I gave it to my mother, who sat down in the living
room, put her pocketbook on the ﬂoor beside her, and read it
all at once. I could tell she liked it—she laughed in all the
right places—but I couldn’t tell if that was because she liked
me and wanted me to feel good or because it really was good.
“You didn’t copy this one?” she asked when she had ﬁn-
ished. I said no, I hadn’t. She said it was good enough to be in
a book. Nothing anyone has said to me since has made me
feel any happier. I wrote four more stories about Mr. Rabbit
Trick and his friends. She gave me a quarter apiece for them
and sent them around to her four sisters, who pitied her a lit-
tle, I think. They were all still married, after all; their men had
stuck. It was true that Uncle Fred didn’t have much sense of
humor and was stubborn about keeping the top of his con-
vertible up, it was also true that Uncle Oren drank quite a bit
and had dark theories about how the Jews were running the
world, but they were there. Ruth, on the other hand, had
been left holding the baby when Don ran out. She wanted
them to see that he was a talented baby, at least.
Four stories. A quarter apiece. That was the ﬁrst buck I
made in this business.
We moved to Stratford, Connecticut. By then I was in the
second grade and stone in love with the pretty teenage girl
who lived next door. She never looked twice at me in the day-
time, but at night, as I lay in bed and drifted toward sleep,
we ran away from the cruel world of reality again and again.
My new teacher was Mrs. Taylor, a kind lady with gray Elsa
Lanchester–Bride of Frankenstein hair and protruding eyes.
“When we’re talking I always want to cup my hands under
Mrs. Taylor’s peepers in case they fall out,” my mom said.
Our new third-ﬂoor apartment was on West Broad Street.
A block down the hill, not far from Teddy’s Market and
across from Burrets Building Materials, was a huge tangled
wilderness area with a junkyard on the far side and a train
track running through the middle. This is one of the places I
keep returning to in my imagination; it turns up in my books
and stories again and again, under a variety of names. The
kids in It called it the Barrens; we called it the jungle. Dave
and I explored it for the ﬁrst time not long after we had
moved into our new place. It was summer. It was hot. It was
great. We were deep into the green mysteries of this cool new
playground when I was struck by an urgent need to move my
“Dave,” I said. “Take me home I have to push” (This was
the word we were given for this particular function.)
David didn’t want to hear it. “Go do it in the woods,” he
said. It would take at least half an hour to walk me home,
and he had no intention of giving up such a shining stretch of
time just because his little brother had to take a dump.
“I can’t” I said, shocked by the idea. “I won’t be able to
“Sure you will,” Dave said. “Wipe yourself with some
leaves. That’s how the cowboys and Indians did it.”
By then it was probably too late to get home, anyway; I
have an idea I was out of options. Besides, I was enchanted
by the idea of shitting like a cowboy. I pretended I was
Hopalong Cassidy, squatting in the underbrush with my gun
drawn, not to be caught unawares even at such a personal
moment. I did my business, and took care of the cleanup as