Monthly Archives: February 2014

“Baby and Me” on Story Shack Magazine

My short-short “Baby and Me” has been published on Story Shack Magazine:

This is a daily flash fiction site along the lines of Every Day Fiction, except that publisher Martin Hooijmans (@thestoryshack) offers an amazing and unique additional feature – an artist to provide an illustration for your story!

How cool is that? What an opportunity for writers and artists who have never even met to collaborate on a project! In addition, I was fortunate enough to be paired with award-winning artist James Brown (@jb_illustrates), whose style, I thought, really went well with my piece:

James’ bio:

Slightly obsessed with picture books, James enjoys writing and illustrating his own. He would love to see ‘Marlon’s Amazing Moustache’ and ‘Mum’s Having a Monster’ on bookshelves so he can dedicate them to his baby daughter, Eliza.

He illustrates for Baby London magazine and Stew Magazine for Curious Kids. James came third in the Illustrate It 2013 picture book competition and is one of five illustrators to win the SCBWI’s Undiscovered Voices 2014 competition.

It’s wonderful, really, what the internet has done for artists, talented folks who might otherwise have been relegated to the status of starving for the sake of art. It’s easy to forget about the people behind all those drawings and photos and images you see every day on the web, but they’re there, toiling away with their pencils and crayons, digital cameras and graphic design software.

And let’s not forget about the publishers who engage artists like James and writers like me to generate all of these millions of pages of content enjoyed by billions of people (and the occasional pet) all around the globe. So kudos to Martin for putting together a very neat website – I wish him the very best of luck with it!

James Brown,

James Brown,

* * *

“Baby and Me” is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $0.99 Kindle, $5.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.


The Dubious Witness: Does New Research into the Functioning of Memory Make All of Human Recollection Unreliable?

This week I read two seemingly unrelated news stories. One was inspired by the recent accusations made by Dylan Farrow against Woody Allen. In this article that appeared today in The Daily Beast, author and researcher Cara Laney argues that “It’s Shockingly Easy to Create False Memories.”

As you likely recall, there were a number of scandalous cases of alleged child sexual abuse in the 80s and 90s, some of which sounded unlikely to have really occurred. Pedophiles are comparatively rare, and because of what they do, they usually operate in absolute secrecy. Collusion among pre-school teachers in sexually abusing the children in their charge therefore sounded a bit far-fetched. This case and others like it seriously called into question the reliability of children as witnesses, and furthermore suggested that it was possible to influence kids, through the power of suggestion, into believing something really happened even when it didn’t.

A few days ago, I saw this article on Science Daily: “Your Memory Is No Video Camera: It Edits the Past with Present Experiences.”

A forthcoming study in the Journal of Neuroscience will detail how researchers discovered that “memory is faulty, and how it can insert things from the present into memories of the past when those memories are retrieved. The study shows the exact point in time when that incorrectly recalled information gets implanted into an existing memory.”

According to the results of the study, memory does not merely record what has happened to us; rather, it serves as a tool for our adaptation and survival:

“Our memories adapt to an ever-changing environment and help us deal with what’s important now… Memory is designed to help us make good decisions in the moment and, therefore, memory has to stay up-to-date. The information that is relevant right now can overwrite what was there to begin with.”

In other words, it is not only children who are unreliable witnesses; we all are. We are all capable of rewriting the past to suit our present needs, even though at times it may be difficult to uncover the reasons why we should prefer one recollection over another.

I’m not going to attempt to decipher the truth of the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen case; only the two of them will ever know whether the allegations are true. Or will they? If the new research into the functioning of memory has been interpreted correctly, it is actually possible, however unlikely, that neither of them will recall with accuracy what the exact nature of their relations were. Certainly it’s plain to see that if Woody Allen did commit these abuses, he would have solid reasons to rewrite his memories of them. It’s just as easy to suppose, given the filmmaker’s well-documented relationship with Soon Yi, that Dylan Farrow could have shaped her own childhood memories to reflect that knowledge.

What is truly terrifying about this is that not only can we no longer rely on the testimony of others; we can’t even rely on our own. Suppose that Dylan Farrow does have false memories. Her pain is no less real because of that. In fact, her pain is undoubtedly greater, because the truth of what she has said has been called into question. Even if her recollections are accurate down to the smallest detail, we can’t ever be sure of that because we know now that this is not how memory works.

The implications for eyewitness testimony are mind-boggling. The depositions of witnesses have long been known, of course, to be subject to vagaries that can’t always be explained by fear of consequences, imperfect recall, or acts of self-interest. Now the whole system is called into question. If Ms. Laney is correct, witnesses can be led to lie under oath merely by being asked the right kinds of questions, testimony that will not be false because the person giving it will believe it to be true. There may be such a thing as an objective “truth,” but it is of little use to us if we can’t know what it is.

Which leads me to wonder whether we need a new approach to our search for truth when it comes to human memory. The rewriting of memories is supposedly not random, after all; it is presumed to be an adaptive feature of human behavior. So perhaps if we wish to uncover the reality of a recollection, what we need to do is assess the adaptive purpose of internally reworking the memory in question. Certainly there could be value in reconfiguring or perhaps even repressing a painful memory if it permits us to move forward with our lives. But isn’t it also possible that we might mentally recast a bad experience to make it more terrible than it was? For example, if you got into a car accident because you were driving too fast on a rainy night, mightn’t your memory actually amplify the terror you felt when you heard your tires screeching and saw the guardrail closing in? Wouldn’t it be possible that you would remember the pain of that broken leg as being ten times worse than it really was? Because increasing the horror of that memory is going to help you to survive; in the future you will drive more slowly when it’s dark and wet.

There may, in fact, be good reason why isolated stories regarding verifiable child abuse, taken from the news, have led to rashes of such accusations. In a backhanded way, this process of reworking memory may be protecting our children. Because a child who believes that he or she was abused while alone with a caregiver – even when he or she wasn’t – is going to learn something from that: adults can’t always be trusted. And the sad fact is, sometimes that’s a lesson a kid needs to learn.

Which brings me to one final thought – is the brain’s ability to rewrite memories in any way related to certain mental disorders such as anxiety and PTSD? Conditions that are triggered by real-life happenings are clearly heavily dependent on the sufferer’s recollections of those events. Do people who suffer from nervous disorders do so because they have more intense memories of traumatic events, or because they lack the ability to reconstruct those events in their minds into kinder, gentler forms? One thing is certain. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the role that memory plays in shaping us as human beings and determining the course of our lives. Memory defines who we are and who we think we are; it is an integral part of the peculiar fiction of being human. 

Brother No More: Story Share Literacy Project

What an amazing, fantastic, wonderful idea!

This was my first thought when I heard about the Story Share Contest. A product of the collaboration of a group of partners, including Benentech, CAST, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Orca Book Publishers, Motivate, and Jabico Enterprises, the goal of the contest was to amass a library of short story books for teen and young adult beginning readers. Stories for beginning readers are created in Tar Heel Reader, while those at the intermediate (3rd or 4th grade level) are placed in the Hoku library.

What makes the Story Share concept special is that its focus is on collecting works that contain subject matter of interest to teens and young adults, but which are written for a lower reading skill level. How brilliant is that? It seems so obvious now, but it never would have occurred to me how difficult it must be for an older person who is trying to learn to read to find reading material that actually interests them. I mean, Dr. Seuss is great. The Berenstain Bears are great. But if an eighteen-year-old is stuck reading books like these just because those are the kinds of books that are available for people at his or her reading level, they’re rather rapidly going to lose interest, which is no way to encourage young adults to learn to read.

Anyway, as soon as I heard about the contest, I knew I wanted to write something for it, and the story-book I’ve linked to above was the end result. Brother No More is a dark but ultimately uplifting tale of a young adult drug dealer with loose gang affiliations whose twelve-year-old sister is accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting. The hero, George, copes with Mary’s death not by seeking revenge on those who killed her, but by secretly seeking to undermine the very system that makes it possible such tragedies to occur.

I won’t kid you – it was no mean feat putting this story together. First of all, it ended up being over 7,200 words, which is quite a long short story by any standard. Second, it took a great deal of effort to make it work for a lower-level reader. Fortunately, the Hoku guidelines are pretty informative about how best to ensure that the target audience will be comfortable with your writing. For example, you’re supposed to construct short, simple sentences without multiple clauses, and use words of no more than four syllables. Using short sentences was easy enough once I got the hang of it. It actually came out somewhat flash fiction style, I would say – without a lot of fancy verbiage, and no unnecessary modifiers. The vocabulary was tougher. Unless you’re an elementary school teacher, it’s difficult to know what kinds of words would be recognizable to a student at the third or fourth grade reading level. And besides that, your readers are not going to be eight- and nine-year-olds, but teenagers. They probably have decent speaking vocabularies; they just don’t necessarily know what those words look like on paper. So chances are good you can get by with somewhat more sophisticated language than you would use in an actual children’s book, even though on paper the reader is at the same skill level.

Thematically, too, I felt it was important to speak to the audience on a more adult plane, within limits. For instance, I would not have elected a loose, fragmented style of writing, or chosen a topic that was too subtle, simply because I would worry that if the reader had to struggle to understand it, they might think it was their comprehension that was at fault and not the complexity of the writing or subject matter. Encouraging a reader to stretch their limits is one thing, but pushing them to the point of frustration accomplishes nothing. However, I didn’t think my particular story ran into this problem. A couple of times I decided to change the details of a scene because I couldn’t get my point across without using words I thought might be too advanced. But that, of course, is part of the challenge!

The other challenge for me was in the formatting and the use of images. The formatting is the only aspect of the Hoku book design that I would complain about, because it is not compatible with Word and you can’t simply copy and paste from one to the other without having to reformat. This is a serious problem, because editing within the Hoku format isn’t practical, which means you basically have to write and polish the story in Word and then re-create it, a few paragraphs at a time, in Hoku. I totally understand why they use the format they do – in the end you really have a product that looks like a book rather than a text document – but it was time-consuming. I spent nearly four hours just transferring my file onto the ninety Hoku pages so that it would display properly. Someone needs to call up Bill Gates and see if he’ll create an app for that.

The design tools, however, were quite easy to use and went a long way towards enabling the writer to create a polished, nice-looking digital book. Adding images was especially simple, as the individual pages have blocks set aside for pictures and you just click whether you want to add an image on that page or not, and you can upload straight from there. They naturally encourage the use of images, which are certainly simple enough to acquire nowadays even if you’re not artistic (which I’m not). I did take my own photos, though. I actually would have liked to use more images, but since I was worried about how long my story was going to be – 100 pages was the limit – I didn’t want to risk having to reformat the whole thing all over again if I went over.

Anyway, formatting issues aside, creating my story was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I actually really enjoyed the special challenge of writing it, and I’m looking forward to completing a sequel – and possibly another after that – in the next few months. I do hope, though, that I’ll get some kind of feedback on whether the readers like my story or not. With over 500 entries submitted, I’m not foolish enough to get my hopes up on winning a prize in the contest, but it would be nice to get some opinions on my story-book before I start writing more like it. I can really sort of see this becoming a long-term thing for me – my author pro bono work, if you will. I’ve always thought that if I had a lot of money, I’d like to donate it to a library. Well, here I can actually help to build the library. And in the end, I suspect that will be much more satisfying.

You can find out more about Hoku, Tar Heel Reader, and the Story Share Contest at or on Twitter @StoryShareCntst.

Cover Image for Brother No More

Flash Fiction: Night Falls

My short-short “Night Falls” has been published in Every Writer’s Resource:

I originally wrote this short-short for last year’s Flash Fiction Chronicles “String of 10” Contest. The premise of the contest is a list of ten randomly generated words and a suggestive theme. You’re supposed to use at least four of the words and your interpretation of the theme to create a story of no more than 250 words. Here was the prompt for last year’s contest:

I want to put a ding in the universe. –Steve Jobs

I decided to use all ten words – I figured that was part of the challenge – and I interpreted the Steve Jobs quote quite literally. The result was “Night Falls,” an interesting if somewhat bizarre little piece that’s totally unlike anything else I’ve ever written. Guess that proves that writing prompts really do provide creative inspiration!

If I have time, I’d like to write something for this year’s contest, too. I may have to compromise on the ten words this time around, though. It’s hard to imagine a 250-word story in which “bookmark” and “catastrophe” both appear.


I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom. -Anatole France

The deadline is February 4th. I’m looking forward to seeing how other writers tackle the premise. For that matter, I’m interested in seeing how I’m going to tackle it!

Night Falls Moon and Stars