News and Musings

Upcoming class at the Grotto—come geek out with me!

Do you love words and sentences? Does finding the right word or phrase make your heart skip a beat? Then this class is for you.

THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT: Sentence-Level Style and Editing

Good writing functions on many levels simultaneously. Tone, suspense, character, imagery, and subtext combine to make a story compelling, whether it’s flash fiction or War and Peace. We tend to think of these elements within the context of a whole—a story, essay, or novel—but to deliver that package, the pieces—the words, phrases, and sentences—need to work hard for us. When should our sentences be lean and mean, and when would a languid, lyrical flow be best? When can a single word say it all, and when might a paragraph-length sentence lead the reader deeper into a place or time or character? When is repetition annoying, and when does it add power? Why should you care about musicality in writing? And how can you learn to see your own work more objectively so that you can make all these decisions?

In this class we’ll explore sentence-level style and self-editing techniques through analysis, discussion, in-class exercises, and optional homework. Bring a piece or pieces of writing (fiction or nonfiction; no poetry) you’d like to work on and share, and be prepared to play. Revision is fun!

For more information and to enroll:


Truth will out—or not

I’m writing this on the eve of a conference I’m going to, The Latest in Longform: The Berkeley Narrative Journalism Conference. I didn’t have to think twice when I signed up for it a few months ago—what’s not to like about a day of discussing the state of literary nonfiction with a bunch of heavy-hitters in the field? I’m as excited about it as I ever was, but I’m going there tomorrow with a specific concern lurking in the back of my mind. What is truth in nonfiction, and how do we know we’ve found it?

I’m wondering this in the context of two recent events, one large-scale and one personal. The large-scale one is the death knell being sounded for National Geographic by its new owner, Rubert Murdoch. Among the many exalted, dedicated journalists who have been handed pink slips, some are fact-checkers—those unappreciated, hardworking ferret-outers of the truth, gifted in the areas of persistence and patience. This would be bad news in any circumstance, but in a world in which anonymous persons can spout ignorant, inaccurate, biased opinions—and worse, present them as facts—without providing a shred of evidence that there’s any validity to them, losing even a single fact-checker means less likelihood that, as Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, truth will out.

Photo of Launcelot Gobbo in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE from

The personal event was my fact-checking of a story written by a good journalist. Thinking I simply needed to clarify a few things, I called the person who’d been interviewed; in the course of our conversation I found that there were more inaccuracies than I’d thought. Had the piece been written by a novice, or a sloppy writer, I might have chalked the inaccuracies up to writer error. And I wish I could. What’s more worrisome than a sloppy writer who will be “saved” by a good editor and fact-checker is the suspicion that the writer and I heard different things from the source—not necessarily because the source said different things, though that’s possible. And certainly we know that memories can be faulty and fleeting. What’s worrisome is how much of what the source said might be interpreted differently by writer and fact-checker—and why should it stop there? If the Writer heard A, and Fact-Checker #1 heard B, then might not Fact-Checker #2 hear C? Does that mean Fact-Checker #3 should be deployed, and what if that person validates some of what Fact-Checker #1 found and some of what Fact-Checker #2 found. How many fact-checkers (and time and money) does it take to get at the truths contained in a single story? Now magnify that by the uncountable pieces of information that screech by our eyes and ears every day. How can we possibly keep up?

The state of the planet depends on the decisions we humans make, and these decisions are tough enough even when we have a fine array of facts to consider. It’s crazy-making to think that these decisions are being made in the absence—or near absence—of truth.

What does this mean? I have no answers for you. Maybe I’ll find some tomorrow.


I heard some sad news recently: a brilliant man has closed his acupuncture practice due to illness. The loss of his genius as a healing artist is profound, and I grieve for that, and for the fact that he likely is suffering. It’s possible that death isn’t far off. This man—I’ll call him Dr. A—has the kind of genius that to me sets him apart from the merely super-intelligent; his mind seems to function on a different plane. His quirky sense of humor, his intuition, his nonchalant utterings of “Oh, I can fix that”—all things I remember vividly, though my main interaction with him took place 25 years ago.

What I’m realizing, though, in thinking about this man, is how he opened my eyes to a way of thinking I’d had no exposure to as a child and young woman. I grew up in a household where conventional thinking reigned. Illness sent you to doctors who practiced Western medicine; there were no other options. It seems odd to me now, since my family’s lineage can be traced to uneducated people in tiny villages in Italy who laid bricks and mended nets and worked wood or the land, that these people who probably were superstitious and very close to the natural world did not pass on what I imagine would have been a more fluid sense of existence. Perhaps they did, and my branch of the family somehow missed out on it. But it wasn’t until my first acupuncture treatment that I learned that Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers and that there are other ways of perceiving and thinking about the world than the ones I grew up with. I don’t mean different opinions, political bents, religious beliefs—I mean different ideas about the nature and potential of the human mind and body.

Dr. A is very much on my mind, but I take heart in the words my new doctor said to me yesterday. Listening to my pulses, he asked, “Do you practice any kind of art?”

“I write,” I said.

“It would be good if you could make more room in your life for art.”

I looked at him, startled. It’s the kind of thing Dr. A would have said.