25 Women to Read Before You Die

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Author Archive: "Stephen Dobyns"


I should confess that I have a fault or difficulty or issue that has always mildly complicated my life. I am, at the same time, quite shy and a showoff. It's like being a world-class figure skater living in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Over time the shyness has lessened as has, perhaps, the desire to show off, but they still exert their force. Unfortunately, showing off is an insistent stimulus and if it can't express itself in one direction, it will express itself in another. That said, I should add that writing novels, short stories, poems, and journalism provide wonderful chances to make a display.

Many writers will find within themselves both clown and philosopher, meaning not either/or but a range of behavior. A writer can be many things, but first of all he or she must be an entertainer. Once the reader has opened a book or read a title, the writer has to find ways to make him or her keep reading. Much of this is based on surprise: things happen that the reader hadn't expected. Sudden horror and sudden humor offer great opportunities for ...

To Save One’s Life

Writing is a unique way of thinking that allows a writer to come upon ideas that he or she wouldn't have otherwise discovered. Some writers sit quietly waiting for inspiration to appear; others don't wait but simply begin writing and eventually, they believe, inspiration will occur. They describe things or remember things or argue things, as they wait for the ideas to take off on their own. This is like pushing a car to get it started.

Rainer Maria Rilke, when he couldn't write, would go to the Paris zoo, take out his notebook, and describe an animal, like a panther or swan. This was around 1905 or 1906. As he wrote, his dominating idea gradually took over and the real poem began, which, in this case, was driven by his fear of being confined. The panther or swan existed only as pretext to get someplace else. They stopped being the ends and became the means. They became metaphors.

Any metaphor is an idea. The aphorism "hangs a padlock on his zipper; calls himself good" gives a simple picture about which we ask a question: Why does he call ...


You see, I don't believe the world exists, as silly as that seems. I'm not convinced that my warehouse of definitions actually explains or identifies anything. It's like the old question: Is the blue I see the same blue that you see? I have my plans and expectations for the next hour, but who knows what will happen? Way back in 11th grade, I read a novel in which the narrator says that it takes 8 minutes for the light of the sun to reach the earth. So we might be basking on the beach for 7 minutes and 59 seconds, then in the next second turn into ice cubes.

Yes, I realize this is unlikely, but it's not one hundred percent impossible. There is still a nano-fraction of possibility that the sun might in the next moment blink out. When I was 17, this was a revelation. It meant that certainty couldn't exist until the event or object or whatever in question was past. Even as I write it's possible that the sun might have flared out four minutes ago, and I have only four minutes more to ...

Ten Bucks at Least

So what is a blog? Isn't it the place where a writer tries to convince a reader that the writer's two cents are actually worth a buck and a half, a place where the writer can sprinkle his or her minutiae with glitter, a place to say things that one wouldn't dare say to a person face to face? Although I've never, until now, written a blog, I am sure I would be no different. Should I relate the incredible narrative about how I brush my teeth? Left, right, up, down — surely it mimics how the moon affects the movement of tides. Is this where I tell the story of how 60 years of hitting a space bar with my thumb — both on a typewriter and a computer — has led to arthritis, which is only one more example of how I suffer for my art?

It seems that human progress has advanced only to provide Coleridge's sailor with one more venue to tell the wedding guest about that damn albatross. Fire wasn't discovered to provide warmth and cooked meals to flea-scratching savages but to give ...

Unpleasant Discoveries

The Burn Palace is my 21st published novel. There are also six novels that remain unpublished and, I expect, will continue to be unpublished. Three were the first novels I wrote and three are from the past 15 years. I say this not to brag but to attempt to articulate the words "how strange" because now, at 72, those novels constitute a life. They are elaborate postcards from the past.

I also have other books published over that life: stories, essays, and 13 books of poems. In addition, my collected journalism would fill another six good-sized volumes. Again, I think, how strange. Ninety-five percent of this work has been done alone in a room. Monks, I expect, spend less time in isolation than do writers. No matter how much a writer might protest, the circumstances of his or her life tend to make them outsiders — stubborn outsiders. My first dozen years of hard writing contained little more than drivel, but I had to forgive myself for writing it before I could move forward.

Historically, many writers, when they've finished a book, have hurriedly traveled to interesting places. And ...

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