Four Chord Fiction: A Better Understanding of the Genre Born from Workshop Clichés

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I finally came up with handy name and metaphor for the genre of fiction MFA programs and creative writing workshops seem to produce: Four Chord Fiction. You see, it’s like formulaic pop music where the musician plugs in a few unique elements into a set structure and out of the other end of the machine comes an audience-pleasing pop song. That’s not to say there is anything universally bad about a pop song, but understanding pop songs and the way they manipulate the listeners’ impulses requires recognition of the formula. In the same way, the workshop system indoctrinates young writers with four clichés (“Write what you know”; “Find your voice”; “Show, don’t tell”; “A character must want/learn/change, etc.”) and out of the other end of this machine comes a story with four corresponding elements (Domestic Realism; Naturalistic Free Indirect POV; Meandering Detail; Iceberg Conflict/Joycean epiphany) engineered to please, in this case, a much smaller audience: the workshop.

In fairness, this is an understanding of the workshop clichés and genre that can aid any writers who likes to write that way: understanding it as a genre is much more honest and helpful than treating the clichés as inviolable truths. But I also wanted language to critique the genre, the clichés, and the teaching technique for those, like me, who utterly disdain it.

As with pop music, part of the value of the Four Chord Story is that anybody can create a basically pleasing piece of fiction without a lot of legitimate work, just a lot of simple techniques that disguise themselves as work, and readers can critique Four Chord Story within the narrow bounds of the genre and the clichés without putting much effort into considering whether these clichés actually apply or if the clichés are even true to begin with. However, like a pop song, a Four Chord Story really should grate on the nerves of anyone with an understanding of the mechanisms at work. In both cases, if you like the Four Chord Story or not, lack of awareness of these mechanisms serves no one.

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I’ve struggled in the past to explain how my experiences in writing workshops were entirely useless to me – because the workshops seemed to all be teaching a genre I was uninterested in writing, whether or not the workshop leader was brutal or kind (and I hate to critique the kind ones but I have to confess they were all equally useless) – but the problem was the genre had no convenient name. I sometimes call it the “workshop cliché story,” but this genre need not necessarily come from an actual workshop, just exemplify the same clichés. The genre is sometimes called, in a self-congratulatory manner, “literary fiction,” but “literary” is egregiously inaccurate and unhelpfully broad (and placed in opposition to the even broader and less helpful and less accurate name “genre fiction”). In my opinion, “literature” functions in precisely the opposite way. Literature challenges conventions and clichés, exemplifies excellence and virtuosity within a full range of possibilities, etc., while the Four Chord Story functions merely to please in the easiest way possible. Literature creates, innovates, fosters originality, and so on, but Four Chord Fiction actively discourages creativity in many forms and depends on preset structures and story elements far more frequently and pervasively than so-called genre fiction. Hypocritically, this version of “literary” fictions sets itself in dialectic opposition against “genres” like science fiction with exponentially more originality, creativity, vitality, and intentional violation and deconstruction of expected generic elements than Four Chord Fiction could even allow.

The other major distinction between literature and Four Chord Fiction which troubles me deeply in explaining the difference (a problem which proper naming helps me resolve) is that anybody could write a Four Chord Story, and “literature” implies a level of elite virtuosity. It’s by far the easiest type of story to write. I can appreciate this egalitarian principle without necessarily liking the result. I love Tristan Tzara’s concept of creating a poem by cutting words out of a newspaper and arranging them at random partly because that obliterates poetic elitism, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily like every poem that results from cutting up a newspaper. I support on principle any democratization of art. However, the more significant problem here in democratizing the fiction process is the tie between Four Chord Fiction and creative writing education which seems to be the place of this genre’s birth and proliferation. While elitism may be a problem society, a school is designed to set the elite level as a goal for any student (equally, democratically) to reach while not alienating or dehumanizing anyone who fails to reach that level. An educational system can affirm inherent equality of all students while retaining the elite level as a goal for all students without hypocrisy; an educational system designed to foster mediocrity in the name of egalitarianism fails in its most basic purpose. The writer in a writing class should train like Rocky in all of his Rocky montages (working class underdog everyman striving with great physical difficulty and passion for a goal far beyond his present skill level) with the writing-teacher-equivalent of Burgess Meredith barking “Do it again! Do it better!” until our writing muscles bulge with Apollo-Creed-beating perfection. Whether or not Rocky beats him is irrelevant, but that is the goal of the training montage. But Four Chord Fiction is like Burgess Meredith handing Rocky a TASER and saying, “This is how you beat Apollo Creed, and since beating him is the only goal, this is the only tool you’ll need,” and nobody ever pointing out how this is a cheat and a complete misconception of the purpose of training. It’s like going to finance school and only learning about credit default swaps (I’m hardly knowledgeable enough in finance to make this metaphor work, but Four Chord Fiction makes me scared that literature built on such a hollow structure is bound for a collapse like the Great Recession). It’s like going to a math tutor who says, “Look at the answers in the back of the book, and do everything else on the calculator.” It’s like teaching students how to use the grammar check on their computer instead of actually teaching them grammar. It’s not real training. But these metaphors are inadequate because they imply a definite rule system, and this would run counter to another major criticism of creative writing education, that there can be and should be no objective rule system in artistic expression.

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Thus, I arrived at four chord songs as the perfect metaphor. This music metaphor appeals to me partly because I have throughout my life been surrounded by fans of indie music or art music or classical music who complain they can’t enjoy pop music because it is overly simplistic and formulaic and repetitive. Music experts know the tricks that allow any musician, irrespective of any legitimate creativity or originality or skill, to make a piece of music which casual fans will enjoy. Full disclosure: I got this idea from an Axis of Awesome video called “4 Chords,” and any formulaic pop song structure could work just as well, but that video thoroughly demonstrates how any musician could plug in new lyrics to essentially the same song and make something basically pleasing. Mix and match these four chords, insert various other components, and you get “Someone Like You” by Adele or “Take Me Home, Country Road” by John Denver or “Sparks Fly” by Taylor Swift or “With or Without You” by U2 or “Let it Be” by the Beatles or “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins. These songs seem superficially quite different, but a music expert can hear the underlying structure. While I appreciate learning about this perspective, I am no music expert myself and couldn’t explain it any more thoroughly than that. I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant to the flaws and clichés in popular music. The songs I picked as examples are songs I like. This hopefully proves my total honesty and attempt at fairness since nobody pretending to be cool and smart would admit to loving “Sparks Fly” as much as I love “Sparks Fly.” I’d even call “Let it Be” one of the greatest songs ever. That’s a safer position in terms of coolness, but I’d rather remain in an ignorant world where “Let it Be” really can be one of the greatest songs ever. You might also consider Prince and David Bowie who both died this year. Both were lauded in their many eulogies as creative geniuses and many of their most beloved songs are pop songs, so this clearly demonstrates pop music is far from universally bad. My point is that if writers use the cliché components I describe, that does not necessarily mean they are bad writers. They could be like Adele whose virtuosity compensates for any structural deficit, or they could be like Prince whose monumental creativity forced something unoriginal to metamorphose into something entirely original.

But here’s the problem: if I went to music school and all I learned was how to play a four chord song, I’d be pissed. If I wanted to start a rock band, I’d study “Let it Be” to figure out how it was made, but I wouldn’t need to go to school for that. If I wanted to be the next Beethoven or Arthur Schoenberg, I could go to school to learn the essential structural components beyond this singular form. The level of expertise necessary to be the next Beethoven would require extensive study and training even if my aim was to break it down and create something entirely new like Schoenberg. My hypothetical Four Chord Music School would be even more problematic if it had no way to teach me anything about Beethoven, if it was designed to only teach students how to create this one type of song (no matter how good or how superficially different these songs might seem), to even imply that Beethoven was a bad musician because he didn’t fit the four chord formula – this would be egregious educational malfeasance, yet we tolerate it from fiction workshops and programs.

Here are the four structural components, or “four chords,” that make up the clichéd workshop story paired with the cliché advice at the root of the component, set up like a listicle since creative writing classes, in my experience, are more like “tips and tricks” listicles than anything legitimately called education. I also deconstruct each chord to examine what is really behind it and present an alternative version that works much better in understanding how a story works.

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Chord 1: Domestic realism

Cliché: Write what you know.

A better understanding: “Write what you know” is the most insidious, anti-imaginative advice that proliferates workshops despite the monumental evidence of its falsity. The other three chords have relatively redeemable bits of advice at their core, but “write what you know” is a parasite, sucking creativity out of all other aspects of writing as well. I’m trying to be fair with Four Chord Fiction, but it’s hard to be fair with this one. It perhaps aids new writers in mining material for stories, hence the four-chord-based over-simplification: no need to imagine anything or put much work into the creative process if the material exists already in “what you know.” It becomes further problematic when the story material outside of this very limited range is deemed implicitly unfit for writing. By implication, if we should write what we know, we shouldn’t write what we don’t know. That would eliminate the vast majority of good writing. Writers would then no longer exercise their imagination, and fiction would become a sub-species of memoir. Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good, and it certainly doesn’t mean those who choose the more difficult option (e.g. making stuff up) are wrong to do so. Instead of following clichés, it’s much more important to recognize the stimulant value of story elements, and understanding the mechanism behind “write what you know” could, possibly, hopefully, fairly render it legitimately useful. First, the framing effect – taking any real object or event and simply reframing in the context of fiction – has a basic stimulant value, and writers can train themselves to recognize objects and events with optimal stimulant value the same way photographers develop an eye for compelling pictures. Those who disseminate this advice/lie/misconception “write what you know” may simply derive more stimulation from the framing effect than others. The subjectivity inherent in recognition of stimulant value is what gives art such variety, so limiting the possibilities of this variety to a single effect that happens to work better for some than others is counterproductive to teaching writing. Also, certain particular story components could benefit from application of “write what you know”: characters, for example. Applying this advice to plot is bound to limit a story to the blandest components, but applying this to character could aid in fostering empathy. I prefer to rephrase the advice “Write who you know, but write whatever you enjoy.” It’s important also to note that readers may reject signs of overt manipulation (most of the Four Chords seem to be aimed at eliminating signs of overt manipulation as if that is the only problem in a story). Audiences might reject some plot twist that comes off glaringly as a trick (which is ironic that this advice is essentially a trick meant to counteract a trick), but that’s why it’s important to free characters and events from conscious manipulation, to let them be and live and interact like hypnogogic hallucinations. Writers can train themselves to think in this way, but the comparative uselessness of “write what you know” is no substitute. Perhaps realists can help other realists by saying “write what you know,” but most great imaginative writers of any type, realist or not, will say “Characters write themselves.” In direct contradiction to this cliché, a writer can find great delights in not actually knowing everything about a character and discovering moment by moment places your character can lead you far outside of your knowing.

Chord 2: Naturalistic Free Indirect POV

Cliché: Find your voice

A better understanding: Crafting prose to enhance one’s own authorial voice is where much of the hard work of writing resides, so a scheme to make writing overly easy would seem to fail here, but the Four Chord concept of voice and prose present two contradictory notions that provide writers the same effortless cheat as “write what you know” and give writers the false impression of actually having done valuable work. “Find your voice” seems like it’s guiding writers toward originality, but that soon meets the supposed rights and wrongs of prose – for example, dishonestly favoring concision over euphony. “Find[ing] your own voice” matched with “writ[ing] what you know” leads to narrators who are simply speaking like the writer speaks. This avoids the legitimate effort of creating compelling narrators and is a stimulation cheat similar to the framing effect: any writer speaking honestly is going to be compelling at the base level. Any character or narrator based write-what-you-knowingly on the writer or the writer’s acquaintances is going to be nearly as empathetic and complicated as the actual person and requires the writer to little more than accurately frame. Readers may enjoy a narrator with a naturalistic voice the same way they enjoy a conversation. Chord 1 and Chord 2 effectively extract the effort and creativity out of plot, voice, prose, and character – a feat so impressive, no wonder it’s so popular. But why do so few people complain about the laziness of such overly simplistic advice? That’s where the direct contradiction of “find your voice” functions effectively to mask the laziness. It turns out that “your voice” is inadequate since an Ernest Hemingway-like or Raymond Carver-like concision is apparently the only valid voice any writer can have, and there is a whole swath of tips-and-tricks and lightweight exercises a writer can apply to any prose to make it sound like Hemingway or Carver, get rid of compound sentences, get rid of repetition/redundancy/parallelism, get rid of passive voice, get rid of essentially everything but nouns and verbs, etc. But this is not creative work. This is busy work. The computer programs I use to write will sometimes convert “&” to “&” and it takes a lot of necessary work to convert all of those to “and” (especially since some of them seem to be random conversions of entirely different formatting quirks), but I would never call this the hard work of beautifying prose. The Carverization of prose is hardly much different, but it may trick naïve writers into thinking effort has paid off with sharpener sentence. In fairness, maybe they did sharpen a sentence, but it’s in the same way a beginning guitar player comes up with a chord progression that sounds kind of like the Beatles after a lot of practice: the dopamine hits get them hooked on this type of practice, but this does not equate great musicianship. The bigger problem of this sort of busy work is it aims for robotic conformity, not the originality “find your voice” implies. I blame the workshop system for this since a workshop is structurally designed to foster this variety of conformity and not to foster legitimate originality partly because of the various social forces inherent in the workshop itself (as all social interactions foster conformity as the easiest, most painless choice) matched with the need for ease of transmission of supposed advice and ease of identification of supposed problems. It reduces the infinite variety of possibilities of voice development to a single choice: concision. Concision is fine in certain circumstances, but I often (in the legitimate hard work of prose crafting) find myself choosing between concision and euphony and falling more often on the side of euphony (as most great writers who are not Hemingway or Carver or any of their children (it’s a delight to imagine those two in the act of breeding) choose euphony over concision), but concision is appealing to the workshop system because it comes with its own Buzzfeed-like tips-and-tricks listicle that is (overly) easily disseminated. I imagine a clever programmer in the future creating a Carverbot 5000, running student prose through the system and producing the same concise and monotonous prose that finally causes the workshop system to collapse. Here’s a personal example: I remember when I came to the realization that I like strings of compound sentences, and I especially love coordinating conjunctions and the euphony of long lines. This is an example of a writer discovering his own voice which “find your voice” is supposed to celebrate. To develop my own voice, I would explore the proper placement of coordinating conjunctions to optimize the euphony of the long line. This discovery happened before I ever entered a workshop. However, without fail, someone in every workshop told me I used too many coordinating conjunctions. The only response I could give is that I like coordinating conjunctions and that I’m going to keep them. The exchange was as time wasting as someone saying, “I like pickles.” Well, I don’t like pickles and never will. I could have used all that time wasted in disseminating false objectivity to invent more monsters. Then there’s the matter of POV. Writers could use objective third, omniscient third, close third, second person, first person, and so on. Great writers can also shift back and forth between various POVs. But the Four Chord Story only uses one: close third – actually, only one species of close third called free indirect (eliminating such non-concise contrivances as “he thought”). I exaggerate, of course, because sometimes Four Chord Stories use first person (based on the illusion of legitimate voice finding) but extract that a slight step into third person (based on the illusion of legitimate crafting) and you get free indirect. The idea seems to be: find your own voice, choose any POV, use it consistently, but there is only one good POV, and that is free indirect. By the end of my MFA experience, it seemed like all I had learned was to write with a consistent POV since I knew all the other clichés already. I can’t really call this something I learned since it’s just plain wrong – read any story by Kafka (“Sorrows of a Family Man” uses four POVs in one page) or any work of fiction published before Carver, and you can easily prove how wrong this is – but the whole program seemed to be desperate to teach this to me. Based on other so-called teaching, the only acceptable POV that I must, must, must use consistently is free indirect, but this makes sense considering the pyramid-scheme-quality of the whole system: it’s like saying, “This system requires you to cheat, but we can’t actually tell you to cheat, so you just have to arrive at this conclusion by working out all this contradictory advice.” Full disclosure: I use free indirect most often in my stories, but I feel lazy doing it because it is so easy to generate empathy that way while maintaining the suspense and focus which first person can undermine. I wish I could accomplish the same thing with a different POV – I idolize Harold Pinter and other playwrights for their ability to accomplish this with a pure objective third POV – but admittedly my fixation on free indirect is a character-based bit of bitterness related to stereotypes of my so-called genre. I use a lot of tropes from magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, anime, comic books, etc. I could just imagine if I took on the challenge of objective third, some misguided stereotyper might say, “Of course you use objective third because you are writing science fiction which has flat, allegorical characters and requires narrative distance.” Everything about that claim would be so enragingly wrong and could occupy a dozen other ranty blog posts (most relevantly and enragingly: the character complexity of so-called literary/more accurately Four Chord Fiction is hypocritically accomplished by the laziest possible means), I’d have to be ultra-delicate with my objective third to be the champion of character complexity in all of my so-called genres. Instead, I favor the characters over the POV challenge as a proud and sentimental character father. But at least I do it consciously.

Chord 3: Meandering detail.

Cliché: Show, don’t tell.

A better understanding: In my experience, “Show, don’t tell” is the most pervasively dogmatic of all workshop clichés. This is due to the magical way in which it seems to make a story pop. Like the other elements in Carverian tips-and-tricks listicles, spotting the “show[ing]” and the “tell[ing]” is a fairly simple technique to transmit in a workshop setting and can easily trick the young writer into thinking this is real work and learning. But it’s only a trick, and it can easily slip into hollow dogmatism – resulting in strings of meandering detail – unless the writer understands why it works. The legitimate effect at the core of this cliché is the relative stimulant value of concrete images compared to abstractions. Compare these two descriptions: “He was embarrassed.” “His face went red as he averted his eyes.” The first (“tell[ing]”) is a relatively unstimulating abstraction, and the second (“show[ing]”) is relatively stimulating series of concrete images: an object, a color, an action, etc. Consciousness of the relative stimulant value of abstraction and concrete images is a great place to start for young writers, but “Show, don’t tell” narrows that consideration down to small percentage of the multitude of choices between abstract and concrete. A writer could validly choose to skip useless details to get more quickly to a story beat, to gloss quickly over necessary exposition for the sake of timing, to effectively employ abstraction for the sake of ambiguity or mystery. But, no, the dogmatism of the cliché implies that concrete description is always the right choice. This leads to narratives utterly packed with concrete detail with seemingly no purpose other than to fulfill this inviolable doctrine. Concrete detail may be intrinsically stimulating without any purpose other than its own value, but the more of this purposeless detail you pile into a story, the more its stimulant value becomes blunted. Let’s say I was giving a meta-narrative of my own present process, I could say, “He paused to think of what to say next. Then he continued typing.” This is too abstract to have much stimulant value. Compare this to the following description: “He took a sip of black and bitter coffee from his blue cup and put it back on the desk, the thud of the heavy mug muted by a homemade paper coaster. He looked at the broken blue stapler beside the computer monitor. Soon he heard again the rattle of his own typing.” Relative to the abstraction of “He thought of his next line,” the concrete detail is more stimulating, but if I pile on more purposeless description, I blunt the effect: “He had a white and yellow pencil beside the keyboard.” So what? That pencil is hardly beautiful, and my plain description hardly endows it with beauty, so why describe it other than dogmatic adherence to cliché? How does that description advance the story or reveal anything about the character? I could point out that I keep a broken stapler on my desk because I hate to throw anything away, and I like the translucent blue as it catches the window light. That would reveal a lot about me as a character, but that white and yellow pencil does nothing. I have no association with it, and I don’t even know where it came from, and it’s just not pretty, no offense to white and yellow pencils. It creates no stimulation, and it has no place in my story. I would be the last one to argue that art ever needs an end point value or that that should be the sole reason for a story element’s existence. I’m thoroughly untroubled by detail with a purely aesthetic value. For example, a writer can further enhance the stimulant value of a concrete detail with consciousness of poetic euphony. For example, if I used those details in a story about my inability to throw away broken staplers, I would keep relatively unrevealing details like “black and bitter coffee from his blue cup” partly for the visuals but partly for the alliteration and the iambic rhythm. Following that with the “white and yellow pencil” continues the iambic rhythm to the point of rendering the sentence bland with the mechanical repetition of detail and rhythm. It would be utterly counterproductive. This consideration of euphony can also be an effective counterargument to another clichés nearly as dogmatic: “Kill your darlings,” a cliché at the level of inarticulate offensiveness with “Write what you know,” as it seems to encourage the elimination of all story elements not purely purposeful, yet it seems to lack the dogmatic efficacy of “Show, don’t tell,” so Four Chord Stories become more commonly populated by purposeless detail than euphonious “darlings.” Better advice is to turn everything in your story into a darling so that editing becomes a choice between two darlings and not a process of destroying that which you love for the sake of a conformity to some false rule system. Euphony and concrete detail can be two “darlings” a writer must choose between. I run across this constantly because of my addiction to adverbs. I mostly overuse the word “mostly” for the sake of rhythm (this is part of recognizing my own voice, a voice which throws in many gratuitous mostlys, and precisely the process that the conformist, anti-adverb Carverization of narrative hypocritically works against). For example, I might change the above line to “black and mostly bitter” to break up the artificiality of the alliteration, but “mostly” is an abstraction. Recognizing that “mostly” lacks the stimulant value of a concrete image but may enhance the poetics of the line, I must choose which “darling” best enhances the stimulant value of the line as a whole. In this case, consciousness of the interaction between story elements is far more effective than the narrow focus on “show[ing]” and “tell[ing].”

Chord 4: Iceberg Conflict/Joycean Epiphany

Cliché: A character should want/strive for/do/learn something; good characters end the story by changing or coming to some epiphany.

A better understanding: To give young writers simple tricks to improve their characters, especially as it relates to story structure, workshops often give an extraordinarily simplified version of principles championed by the two Modernist darlings of workshopping: Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce (but only the Joyce of The Dubliners). Certainly, beginning writers may write passive characters unconsciously as much as they write passive voice sentences unconsciously. Writers are often passive and introspective people, and being a beginning writer in a workshop only heightens this, so if they “write what they know,” they’ll often write passive, introspective characters. So telling young writers that good characters are also introspective but still strive for something gives young writers a license to write about this highly internalized characters and give a simple fix to the characters’ bland passivity, enhancing the character’s vitality in the simplest way. Furthermore, workshops justify this oversimplification by claiming Hemmingway supported the same technique with his “Iceberg” theory: the conflict, according to this interpretation of the “iceberg,” happens under the ocean surface. Hemmingway, furthermore, is cool and active and tough and confident, so no wonder he becomes the heroical darling of passive introverts. But if conflict is internalized, how do you actually end the story? For that, workshops turn to the other oversimplified, overly narrow sliver of modernist technique: the Joycean epiphany. Instead of the artificial external conflict that ends with a fight to the death, a character must learn something and change. This also helps resolve the difficulty of determining an active drive for characters with internal conflicts: their drive is the drive to learn. They’re driven to overcome some misconception. They’re driven to change. A lot of supposed creative writing instruction books read a lot like self-help books, so no wonder the characters seem so thoroughly like the embodiment of self-help pop psychology (another metaphor I considered before Four Chord Fiction is self-help vs. legitimate psychotherapy). This self-help version of Hemmingway and Joyce is a poor understanding of characters on so many levels rooted in the same oversimplification and false dogmatism of the rest of the three chords. You could easily disprove it by naming any number of great characters who fail to conform to these standards. Taking the Four Chords as absolutes seems to disqualify half of all literature that came before Hemmingway, and certainly these standards of good characters seems to apply to only about half of all good characters ever. One of my all-time favorite characters is Dorothy Gale, a very active character, certainly, but she embodies all internal desires in external actions, and by the end (in the book version which I like better than the movie version) she learns nothing and she has not changed a bit. Workshop dogmatism implies that Dorothy Gale, despite being beloved by millions, is just not a good character. I would certainly never argue against internal conflict since interiority is vital to the stimulating vicarious experience, but the dogmatism seems to place internal/external as a binary choice, implying stories with external conflicts must lack internal conflicts. That’s pure nonsense. Claiming all good characters must learn something is even more egregious nonsense. Epiphany is one of many choices in character and plot development. Beyond that, the gross simplification of Hemmingway and Joyce does Hemmingway and Joyce a disservice. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Hemmingway or Joyce. In fact, I hate most Hemmingway and Joyce stories. I spent a lot of time in workshops “learning” the supposedly inviolable truths of Hemmingway and Joyce, wondering why I was supposed to write like two writers I really hate. Was I supposed to hate my own writing? It made no sense. My favorite modernist fiction writers are Franz Kafka and Daniil Kharms, and the failure of Kafka and Kharms characters to ever learn anything enhances the mysterious quality of the stories. Hemmingway characters, for their part, may have the Icebergian internal conflicts but very rarely ever seem to learn or change. One of the few Hemmingway stories I can tolerate is “A Clean, Well-Lighted” place, and the power of the characters in that story is in their routine intransigence. Furthermore, epiphanies in Four Chord stories tend to have these very simple and obvious lessons – as simplistic in their stimulant effect as structuring every pop song with a bridge at the end – that are patently un-Joycean in their simplicity. What do the characters in The Dubliners actually learn with their epiphanies? It’s hard to identify in a single statement, and the power is partly in the ambiguity and complexity. Simplification of epiphanies as something identifiable is another effect of the workshop structure. In my experience, much of the workshop time was spent on useless “I don’t understand why” statements. If a reader in a workshop has a limited amount of time to read a certain amount of stories, the false impression may be that difficulty to understand something is a flaw. Joyce, despite the reverence, would fail to get very far in the workshop structure, a system designed, intentionally or unintentionally, to encourage conformity and clarity and discourage experimentation, difficulty, ambiguity, etc. – the precise qualities that garner Joyce so much praise (even though I’m reluctant to admit it as a Joyce hater). Beyond this, the two worst effects of the Iceberg/Epiphany simplification are to reduce character drive to a singular, identifiable goal and to misplace the value of the story in its endpoint, at the completion of that goal. A better way to approach character is to identify characters’ paradoxical drives and to recognize the story as a disruption of stasis. Beginning writers may start by identifying characters’ internal drives, but to make the character far more compelling, empathetic, complicated, potent, etc., writers should also identify the exact opposite: the paradoxical drive that runs directly counter to the first (relatively superficial) drive the writer identifies. This could be opposition between an internal drive and external actions, or this could be two directly contradictory internal drives. It’s easy to see how much more effective this is in understanding a wider variety of stories than the Iceberg/Epiphany simplification: Dorothy Gale only ever wants to go home, and her external actions are driven by this, but paradoxically, she also grows to love the friends she makes in Oz, rendering the completion of her quest more complicated (certainly not a lesson or change, by a potent endpoint nonetheless). Gregor Samsa may desire the return of normalcy, he may desire to fulfill his responsibility to his family, but that life also sucks, and he likes being a monstrous vermin. The waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted” place may superficially want a clean, well-lighted place as a refuge, but he also believes in “nada” and recognizes all temporary comforts are useless. Character paradox has such intrinsic vitality, I would recommend that as the starting place of any story for any young writer. If you can’t think of a story, imagine a character, imagine what he/she wants, and identify the opposite drive. Likewise, in starting a story, the writer should recognize that the story gains vitality by the disruption of stasis. Epiphany or change represents only one type of return to stasis. In a traditional heroic story with external conflict, the hero starts in a story world in peace with citizens upholding morals designed to maintain stasis; then a villain enters this environment and disrupts the stasis; the hero then defeats the villain to cause the story world to return to stasis. Similarly, Dorothy gets lost (disruption of stasis) and must return home (return to stasis). No epiphanies are necessary for this type of story. A story with internalized conflict, like the Four Chord style of realism, starts with the story world in a similar sort of stasis. There may be pre-existing internal conflict numbed by some realistic routine. Say, for example, the main character is in a bad marriage, but she has learned to live with it. Then there comes an inciting incident that disrupts the stasis. Say, for example, the dumb husband says something he doesn’t realize is emotionally abusive. How can that story end? She comes to the realization that she has to leave him, thus establishing a new stasis. Epiphany works for this set up, and an effective way for this type of character to return to stasis is to change, but that fails to prove there is any necessity for universal application.

Workshops seem to promote the notion that this is the only valid way to create a good story, and the only trajectory of a good character. In reality, this is a paint-by-numbers method of story creation. It clearly works for many people, and many people love the end results of this paint by numbers method. I may rail against this method because it limits the imaginative possibilities of fiction, stunts the evolution, kills experimentation and originality, etc., but that is merely what I value in writing. After all, formulas in pop music result in perfectly good songs for listeners who don’t care as much. Great performers like Adele, Prince, David Bowie, and, yes, Taylor Swift can take the formula and make it something original, dynamic, exciting, vital, beautiful, etc. However, I wouldn’t expect music schools to teach students this type of music. That would be ridiculous. And writing schools that promote this same sort of simplistic formula are equally ridiculous.

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You’re Not That Special

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For the 2100, June 27th, 2014

Secret Hero, soon before realizing she was one of 2100 of the same human, posted a sign that said, “Needed by the Needy” in front of her DJ booth. “Needed by the Needy” was the title of her mix tape, and the excuse would be advertising this mix tape, but also this was the motto she wanted to plaster on everything as new subtitle to Secret Hero. She put “Needed by the Needy” sat in front of her turntable like a name for it, like knights name horses. The turntable functioned as an exteriorization of this defining power. People shouted at her, she’d tap her earphones. Shrug her shoulders. She’d mouth “Can’t hear you.” It was a loud club, and her job to make it loud and make everyone deaf to everyone else. Nothing she could do. No interaction. Sorry, humanity, out of luck. Keep spinning.

But “Needed by the Needy” was also a hobby in her off hours, as pride driven as big game hunting. The way she’d prey on the Needy Ones developed from simple drink buying. They’d sit at the bar, converse with her. More like converse at her, as unidirectional as dancers shouting up at her DJ booth. Early on she tried to say with her eyes, “I’m using you purely for the self-importance dopamine, so shut up,” but they’d keep yammering. When later at the turn table they tried to talk to, the pain when she pretended she didn’t even see them was delicious.

The problem with this variety of dopamine addiction is the effect wears off too easily. When the simple drink buying failed to feed her like she needed it to, she started the friendship racket. She’d single out the most pathetic ones and say, “You’ve been coming to the club so much I feel like you’re my best friend.” The look in their eyes like witnessing paradise, for Secret Hero this was better than a megahit of any drug. She didn’t do drugs, and she didn’t even drink, but she couldn’t imagine simple consumption could equate to destroying lives.

In the middle of the friendship racket, she’d tell herself over and over as her predatory mantra, “Pretend to Care.” That’s what she was best at. She was the queen of Pretend to Care. If she could have two mottos they would be “Needed by the Needy” and “Pretend to Care.” She’d watch them crumble as they failed to reach her pedestal or get her real attention or know her outside of this. Soon the black ocean when Secret Hero, through force of pure will power, would turn these fake friends into pure nothingness. The total crumbling, from head to toe to soul to will to live, man, it was tasty.

There was this one guy named Arthur she used to know in high school (and she used to know everything about people then) but now not so much and everything she used to know and care about was jettisoned into a waste incinerator in her soul fueled by pure hate. This Arthur guy wanted to meet after this long set for drinks. It’s not like that, he told her. He’s married, he told her. He just wants to catch up, blah blah blah. Turns out after a couple times of Pretend to Care, they’re all of a sudden best friends, and he’s there every night. This would be her masterpiece, almost too delicious.

It got better: his wife beat him, scratched his face until it bled, and Secret Hero was the only one he had in the world who’d listen. He’d come in with scars up and down his body, bruises and black eyes, one time even a broken pinky. “My wife has a bad temper.” Who cares what the ogre’s name was, the more monstrous his stories and scars, the more monstrous Secret Hero imagined her. She delayed and delayed the final breaking, like a great tease artist, but when she cut the tie, ignored him like a nonexistence, it was a masterpiece.

Maybe he killed himself, maybe left his wife, who cares? Secret Hero saw herself as a herd-thinning wolf, killing the weak. If she ever did drive any of her victims to suicide, all the better for the gene pool, but she never cared enough to do follow up research.

But then she swallowed the wrong prey with Eve Eeny. She had the crazed look of a crab snapping but delicate otherwise. When Secret Hero saw that look in her eyes, she wondered if she could finally drive someone to orgasmicly commit suicide right in front of her. Eve Eeny tried to signal “We need to talk,” but Secret Hero was smarter than that (as she was smarter than most things). Later at a picnic table behind the club smoking a secret cigarette (her lone substance addiction she would always only ever do alone and kept secret from everyone for no real reason), Eve sat down beside her. Secret Hero wanted to scream but swallowed it. She’d already hooked Eve with her indifference, and displays of legitimate fear would ruin her hard work.

“Sorry to scare you,” Eve said.

“You didn’t.” Secret Hero looked around for weapons just in case. This could be the karmic consequence of her consuming friendship victims, one wacko she didn’t even know offs her in a back alley.

“It’s just I have…There’s things you need to know.

“Like what?”

Then Eve said, “We are the same person.” She left it at that as if that was clear.

“I don’t follow.”

“We are the same human being.” That didn’t clarify as she only changed one word. “We were born simultaneously. There are 2100 of us. We’re having a reunion.” She gave Secret Hero a flier. “The 2100,” it said. “Reunion of the Co-Born.”

“I don’t understand any of this,” said Secret Hero, giving up the mystique of superior knowledge for the sake of better understanding. Her gut, normally used for optimal predation, told her that this Eve lady was being genuine, and there was some connection between them she couldn’t quite place. “What do you mean we are the same person?”

Eve said, “Do you covet the regard of others just so you can reject them because you get a high?”

Secret Hero said, “Who doesn’t?” as if this was a common practice.

“That’s kind of our signature move. I do it with ghosts. Man, the heartbreak on a rejected ghost, unbelievable.” She was clearly a crazy person, but still Secret Hero wanted to know more.

She wanted to go to the reunion of the 2100 if only to solve the mystery of its existence. She made a mixtape for the occasion called “Myriad Stolen Night Cars,” decided to bring her boombox in her backpack, just in case demonstrating a singular skill could give her any advantage.

For many years, Secret Hero had worked on isolating this one pure sound she heard in a dream. She spent hours every day on that one note. She wondered if isolating this pure sound was her life’s mission, why she’d been given the fuel of misery. In the small part of herself that regretted all her destructiveness and delight, she wondered if this elusive purity could compensate for anything she’d done.

Most of the people at the 2100 reunion (and Secret Hero had noticed only the humans at first) remained isolated with those judgmental eyes Secret Hero must’ve given everyone. Imagine a meeting of vampires who are only capable of interacting with victims. The first step is to find the weak and open. To prey on an equal parasite would be a contradiction to the essential principles of soul destruction. But outside of this, there was nothing there, the 2100 were too untrusting of nonvictims (in this way “bestfriend” was less a lie and more complicated than the prey ever understood).

Eve Eeny was somehow different. This distrust seemed absent. This may be what real kindness looked like, but Secret Hero would never fall for it. Eve introduced Secret Hero to two friends (or “friends,” who knows?) sitting at a table together unlike anyone else there. “This is Dr. Havelock.”

Secret Hero said, “What are you a doctor of?”

Dr. Havelock said, “Just a doctor.” Good one. No hierarchical comparisons plus mystery plus she could go crazy on you any minute. Secret Hero regretted not thinking of that.

Eve said, “Show her your zombies.”

Dr. Havelock said, “Okay but brief background: are you familiar with the singer John Denver?”

“Yes” and Secret Hero rolled her eyes. They were both slipping into subtle habits of soul crushing. She tried to stop herself, certain the other versions of herself must know her tricks.

Dr. Havelock said, “John Denver has tiny people living inside him. Or used to. When he died, I dug him up and stole his tiny people. I made them all zombies.”

She was crazy. They all were crazy. But then Secret Hero saw the first proof that maybe there was a little more to this than some mass mutual insanity. Dr. Havelock pulled a breath mint can out of her pocket and dumped the contents on the table. Zombies. Tiny zombies. Hundreds of them stumbling all over the table as Dr. Havelock gently wrangled them. “I love these guys.”

“I named them all after sitcom characters. There’s J.D. and Dr. Cox. This is Donna and Donna (Donna Reed and That 70s Show).” And so on.

Eve introduced her to another friend: “This is June Einstein.”

June said, “I’m a world traveler. I develop relationships with buildings that become sentient.” She started showing wallet photos of her world travels and the sentient buildings as if anybody cared. “I started out with movie houses, gas stations. Boy those waitresses were pissed when I brought the restaurant home. Here’s me with the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

Secret Hero said, “That seems painful.”

June said, “I’m sure he’s still recovering.”

“I’m glad you three are nice,” said Secret Hero. “This whole concept seemed like a terrible idea. Who would even propose this reunion? I mean knowing what we’re like. I mean you bring together a lot of people who define themselves as special and above everyone. What’s the point?”

Eve said, “It is possible to get over this sickness of our shared being. I used to have a ghost addiction, and I’m over it.”

Secret Hero said, “That can’t be common. The only purpose I would imagine for a meeting like this is kill us all. Whoever planned this wants to kill us so she could be the last remaining special one.” With this declaration, Secret Hero may have won the table. Just being a DJ seemed so far below creating tiny zombies, Secret Hero needed something beyond them. She’d be smartest by pointing out what seemed to be an obvious murder plot (but she saw obvious murder plots everywhere). They were silent. They changed subject. There was nothing else to do. “So I hear the monsters and superheroes are coming up soon.”

They spent the following half hour sharing techniques like a professional conference: “My favorite technique is the intervention. I corner the prey and tell him just how wrong and weird he is for his own good.” At “for his own good” the whole table howled with laughter. The old Pretend to Care line. “We should mail each other all our techniques.”

Then it was time for the parade of monsters and superheroes. They came into the convention center accompanied Led Zeppelin music. They probably thought they were original. Superheroes mostly chose “Kashmir.” Monsters mostly chose “When the Levee Breaks” or “I Got a Girl Who Can’t be True.” Most of the superheroes and monsters were males, surprisingly.

There was one called The Wound with a gaping chest wound. The Wound sort of created an “i” with a split through the body from the sternum all the way down so he had long legs and too many joints.

There was one called The Ring who had a shimmering gold ring inside of which everything was indelible and inviolable. Anyone who blasphemed that scared ring was cursed to deteriorate into nothingness to a barrage of “How. Dare. You.” Say, for example, The Ring placed a random fork inside the sacred circle, and even if you joked “Let’s outlaw spoons,” The Ring would say, “How. Dare. You.” and made the blasphemer collapse into a tiny ball until soon there was nothing left. Secret Hero’s table saw this happen. “Serves him right.”

Then there was one called Schadenfreude who was all gray scraggly stone in monstrously strong gorilla proportions. Schadenfreude had porcelain fangs and strapped on his back a sword and a hammer bigger each than most humans present. All his old man wrinkles had humans inside them engaged in trench warfare. “I love Schadenfreude,” Dr. Havelock said and gave a wink like this love was the worst variety. “He’s a Promusaurifex like John Denver. That means he has tiny people inside him.”

Secret Hero said, “But we’re all the same person. That seems incestuous to love yourself like this.”

“Loving ourselves is kind of the whole point of our existence,” said Dr. Havelock.

Next the Lava Popes entered to “Misty Mountain Hop,” the obviousness of which became clear when they formed a lava mountain. Lava Popes were very literal. An army of popes made of lava erupting from the ground. One wall collapsed. But it seemed like a work, like the wall had been gimmicked to collapse this way. All the lava that splashed them was cold. “It’s only bodily fluid. Pretty gross,” said Eve. They formed a mountain so tall, they also disintegrated the ceiling.

Then Secret Hero saw something far above them descending like a meteor. She guessed this is the one who gimmicked the ceiling for this entrance. “My guess is this flying self would be the murderer,” Secret Hero said pointing upward to the meteor.

“That’s the Mountain of Screaming Mako Sharks,” said Dr. Havelock. He was another literal one, a man shaped giant of black stone filled with sharks. The screaming seemed to emit a sonic blast that scattered members of the 2100 to atoms. Witnessing the death of multiple selves hardly elicited any emotions, and Secret Hero was shocked by how cold she had become. She was right about the murder. She loved being right, but she hated being right. The Lava Popes were wiped out first. They collapsed into cave-like wounds. The Wound and Schadenfreude fought valiantly, but they had little defense against the sonic screams and inevitable atomization.

Secret Hero suddenly found herself jealous of this miraculous heroism. If only she could be like that. Of all the feelings she could have felt at this moment, jealousy was the most surprising.

The Ring put the ring around herself and made herself indelible. Secret Hero could understand this.

Secret Hero ducked behind a table with Eve and Dr. Havelock as if this could do anything to save them (June skipped out when business got real).

Eve suddenly started laughing. She said, “‘All the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!” and I’ll look down and whisper “No.”’’” Eve laughed an even louder and crazier laugh. “Somebody had to make that reference,” she said before dissipating as atoms along with Dr. Havelock.

As Secret Hero ran away and ducked into the kitchen, she remembered a story Arthur told her during her friendship racket and the Pretend to Care. He and his wife were going to see Watchmen with some friends. The wife wanted to sit near the aisle because of bladder problems. When the two friends arrived, Arthur stood to let the two friends have the aisle seat, and the wife in rage dug her claws in so deep she drew blood all the while smiling. Four beads of blood remained on his arm even later when he saw Secret Hero. She refused to save him like she refused to save anybody.

Now she put her mixtape in her boombox and fast forwarded to the pure note she found. This was her purpose. Stop the Mountain. Save the 2100. But it didn’t do anyting. Maybe she had to get closer, hold the pure note aloft against the sonic screaming. Maybe it did little good to hide away in the kitchen now. She looked at the door going into the ballroom and the door going out to safety. She could get away so easily, out to a world where there was no more 2100. Except maybe a handful of survivors who would know better now than to have a reunion. Then there was the Mountain of Screaming Mako Sharks who may seek her out some day, but she was so small. Why would he care? Why would he put the effort into finding little her?

The choice was simple really. She tucked her boombox under her arm and got the hell out of there.

Erzsebet Foldi

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For the 2100, June 27th, 2013

Secret Hero discovered at a young age she could make her little lavender plastic record player play just by wanting it enough. “Everything is nothing if you got no one,” she heard it play and then it stopped. Secret Hero was frightened when this happened the first time.

She decided to want it again. Long silence. Long staring. Then the record player gave a slow demon mumble, then, “You came walking in,” slow mumble, then “the real thing.” And so on.

“Oh my God,” she said. She looked down out of her window at the other kids playing across the street. It was hard to get them to do anything by wanting and this relationship with a lavender record player was so much more rewarding. The distance away from the kids felt good. The cold wood of windowpane felt good, far better than human play. She crouched in the corner so no other kid would see her and kept wanting music, wanting it and wanting it over and over until she played full records this way.

Secret Hero as an adult DJed in a lot of clubs, including a singles dance club called Guys and Dollys owned by a sentient teddy bear named Struggles. He told Secret Hero he built the club for her, but he was always saying ridiculous things like that to make her laugh.

“This club was here long before I met you,” she told him.

“I willed it into existence because I knew you needed the perfect place.”

At least it had her beloved elevated DJ booth to keep her above the terrible dancing people and their sweating hairy human bodies. She could stand back in most shadow like the entity the music turned her into.

But then Struggles did his dumb dances and made her laugh, invited her onto the floor to dance as well. She would never ever come, but Struggles might be the only one to make that happen.. Their whole friendship was this laughing denial.

Then one day while Secret Hero played her set, she saw Struggles came in with his three hulking bodyguards in fuzzy coats the deepbruisepurple of pimps. Those bodyguards were in truth all fuzzycoat and muscle from top to bottom. They had no necks or faces or any other sign of humanity but stood a head and a half taller than all other patrons. Sometimes seeing the fuzzy pimp coat heads was the only way Secret Hero knew Struggles was in the building. He was so small he drowned in the ocean of dancing people. She wondered if he started those wacky dance circles only so people could finally see him and he could be in the center. Or maybe it was only so Secret Hero could see him. One bodyguard pointed to Secret Hero, and then he pointed menacingly to the loft behind her. Struggles had never been mad at her in all the years she’d known him, but this seemed like angry pointing.

She extended her set as long as she could reasonably get away with. The uncertainty of what an angry Struggles would be made Secret Hero want to delay the experience, but soon her time ran out.

The glassed loft behind the DJ booth, built to be her lone retreat, was set up like a second bar. They sometimes used it for private parties, even a little elevated turntable for her to play, plush couches all around, now creepy in its emptiness in contrast to the crowded club. Struggles sat in a booster seat at a small table and lifted his whiskey glass with both of his tiny teddy bear paws. Since his insides were only plush, this made him wet and stinky. The khaki colored fur of his chest, dark and whiskymatted, could’ve lit on fire easily if Struggles decided to pretend to smoke. He was made of more burnable stuff than humans. “Secret Hero, come in and sit,” he said. “Want some whiskey?”

“I don’t drink.”

“I know, but boys can dream,” he said with the random creepiness of someone who imitates humanity.

“You’re not a boy.”

“Indeed.”

Struggles tapped his fuzzy paw against the table, a nervous tic or a method a tougher guy might use to make a menacing sound in the silence, but the table patting did nothing. “So…been busy lately? Still DJ down at the Mouse Factory after hours?”

“What’s this about, Struggles?”

“You think this is about something? Does it have to be about something?”

“You took me off the stand. I’m guessing it’s not to chat.”

“We used to chat. We used to have long chats. Is it so unusual I’d want one now?”

“…Yes.”

“Fine. It’s about the tapes. I sent you tape after tape after tape, and you didn’t respond.”

“And you don’t know why?”

“Of course I don’t know why.”

“Seriously?”

“Should I?”

“You wanted me to do music for your rap career…”

“Is it so wrong to want a rap career?”

“But you called yourself St. Rapes.”

“You see, it’s like Saint Rapes and Street Rapes and Strapes, like strafes and stripes. Because I strafe over other rappers. Also, I like stripes, and I can wear stripes in my performances.”

“Yeah, but on the tapes you say stuff like ‘St. Rapes raping across the countryside.’”

“So you listened to the tapes? That’s wonderful.”

“You’re missing my point.”

“You don’t like my word play?”

“No, I don’t think rape is funny.”

“Why didn’t you go by Struggles? That’s a fine rap name.”

“Struggles is my given name. That’s awfully hypocritical of you quote unquote Secret Hero quote unquote. Nobody knows your given name.”

“It’s Erzsebet Foldi.”

“Oh…I didn’t know that.”

“You never asked.”

“Oh. I thought I knew you a long time.”

“No problem. Not a lot of people care to.”

“I don’t think you know how personae work in performance. As St. Rapes, I’m a douche. I’m arrogant and stupid because that’s hilarious. Rape is wrong, sure, whatever, but in my St. Rapes persona, I don’t know that. I act like I think it’s cool. That equals hilariousness.”

“I really can’t be friends with you if you think that’s true.”

Silence.

“Oh…I didn’t realize…it was like that.” He was trembling. He liked to pretend he was drunk when he drank, but this was involuntary. “That’s not a big deal. I…I make friends so easily, I can hardly keep them all straight. I sometimes even forget we’re friends. My best friends are these three guys. They’re Cuddle Monsters. They’re only golems you buy at the store. But inanimate objects only come to life if you give them love so they must love me, right?”

“I don’t think it works that way.”

“Me and the Cuddle Monsters, we have long conversations you wouldn’t believe.”

“Cuddle Monsters have no faces and no mouths and ears.”

“I didn’t say it was two sided.”

Silence.

“Look, I’ll do the music for you if you do one thing for me.” She pulled a book out of her satchel and handed it to Struggles. “It’s called Teaching Men Not to Rape.” Struggles had difficulty holding it in his little paws. He said, “Condescending title. Like all men rape and need to be taught not to.”

“We use it at the crisis center.”

“Why? For you to feel superior?”

“Write a song based on these ideas, and I’ll help you make the music.”

“That would turn St. Rapes into the wrong kind of asshole.” Secret Hero stared at him with the sort of cold severity she hoped one day could cause legitimate combustion. Struggles, in a weird sort of terror, said, “That’s…okay, I’ll do it.”

Secret Hero knew he would. She wanted to say, “After that, climb on the roof and jump off. After that, climb in a blender, push on.” He’d do it. She only wanted him to do this because it would be the most satisfying way to humiliate him.

Like the idiot he was, Struggles opened the door separating the loft and the club and shouted above the music: “Party in the Champaign room! My bff is still my friend!”

He put a record on the player in the smaller room that competed psychotically with the music in the bigger room: “Baby when I met you I found a peace unknown, I set out to get you with a fine tooth comb.”

The whole room, she suddenly realized, was amazingly the same lavender as her childhood record player.

“Stick around,” Struggles said. “We can hash out the song details and our practice schedules and all that.”

She did stick around, but she sat in a booth alone as Struggles danced with a hundred people he essentially paid to like him, nearly as humiliating as the blender image. Struggles tossed money and pretended to be drunk because he so needed others to think this meant something.

The afterparty lasted so long only sleeping people remained on couches and Struggles alone dancing with Cuddle Monsters. Secret Hero in the same spot all night found herself slipping into sleep when music got slow and quiet and dancing got repetitive.

She woke up when she felt Struggles humping her leg. She kicked him across the room.

“I’m drunk,” he mumbled in his heap.

Secret Hero stood and walked away without saying anything.

Struggles shouted after her: “Just gonna leave like that? You know what your problem is?” She stopped and waited to hear what her problem was. She didn’t know sometimes. But he had nothing. He staggered in his pretend. Or maybe she’d just kicked him that hard.

“Well?”

“No, seriously, you know what your problem is? You’re frightened. Too scared to be you. That’s why I’m your only friend. Because I can’t hurt you, and you’re too afraid of hurt to have any other type of friend. I’m just somebody you can stomp on and he keeps coming back for more stomping. You have to think you’re better than me to feel okay at all. When you squeeze all the evil joy out of me you can get, you drop me like a dry husk, some lonely pathetic shit you used to know. The problem is you’ll always be afraid and you’ll always think you’re too good for me or anyone like me and you’ll never feel. And you’ll never love because assholes who only care about their own fears can never know how to love!”

“Are you done?”

“I think so.”

“You can keep the book. I hope you read it.” She left. She didn’t come back to that club.

She thought about Struggles every once in a while only to laugh. He called every day for the first week, but then he stopped and never called again.

She liked to ride the elevator to the top of the tallest building in the city at a height where the sky looked lavender, stand back in the concrete corner of the observation booth, feel all the cold of it. In this way, Secret Hero was able to make things okay, at least in that moment.

The Good Thing

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Brian got the hero bonus at his station in a slow year for fire danger and bought his soon-to-be fiancée a unicorn. Joanna Levesque had told him long elaborate stories of her own father’s abandonment (“he used to come home bloody knuckled, but I never knew what he did for a living, but he took us on these RV trips up in the mountains until one day the RV was gone and everything he had was gone like some magic act,” and so on, and she’d always be crying at this point). She told him all about the unicorn-and-dollhouse set that stood in metonymically for the dirt bag abandoner (“The only thing he left behind was this empty ‘Usury-the-Ware’ brand dollhouse, a one of kind, and a single unicorn, but I made these paper knights to ride in on the unicorn to fulfill the destiny of the imaginary no one inside the dollhouse. We lost them all later in the fire,” and so on).

So Brian knew the only acceptable proposal was to ride a unicorn. In fact, she directly ordered it. “The guys down at the station would rag me no end if I did something like that,” he told her as a way to teasingly keep that future from existing.

But he was raised to always do the good thing, and that meant making loved ones happy over all else. If he couldn’t bring himself to do this unmanly unicorn riding today, he could keep delaying as long as possible.

But then he noticed a unicorn farm near the station, and a unicorn cost exactly as much as the hero bonus. It seemed like destiny did the deciding for him

Brian hired a Peter Cetera impersonator to sing “Glory of Love” (their song) while he rode into the scene (Joanna surely assuming the Peter Cetera impersonator was the extent of Brian’s romantic gesture) dressed in his rented knight costume on his unicorn (whom he named “The Good Thing” under racehorse naming principles). Her shockface in seeing this whole set up, real unicorn included, would soon double in intensity when he knelt down and pulled out the ring – and double again when he told her they owned the unicorn. He unfolded the paper with his proposal but still fumbled (he had never been so nervous): “You are vibrant, transcendent, and astonishing. I can’t wait to embark on this journey together,” and so on.

But Joanna’s face was not the sort of shockface he hoped for.

Then he realized she was looking behind him at the unicorn. Brian turned around and saw blood dripping from the Good Thing’s mouth. The Peter Cetera impersonator had no head and stumbled this way and that, spurting blood out of the gaping hole where his head used to be until he fell and filled a red puddle at the unicorn’s feet. The Good Thing kept chewing dispassionately like he hadn’t just bitten a dude’s head off.

Joanna said, “I don’t know how I should feel about this.”

After the Peter Cetera impersonator tragedy, Brian and Joanna didn’t see each other a long time. Brian considered staging some new elaborate proposal as an apology, but a girl who’d break it off because he bought her a unicorn who just happened to bite a guy’s head off – who could’ve seen that coming? – maybe she wasn’t a good girl. But then there was the matter of how to care for the beheading monster (whom he now only called the Thing because he could no longer bring himself to call it the Good Thing). He kept it leashed outside of his trailer in the yellowing hay field, but it refused to eat the sparkle daisies all the farm supply stores sell as unicorn feed, and Brian couldn’t let it starve to death.

“What’s your deal? Do you only eat human flesh?” Brian said because he was very lonely and had to say all his thoughts out loud these days.

The unicorn didn’t answer and only stared at him like it could never die.

He spent nights on the phone to the most horrible places trying to get deliveries of human flesh. “I’m a good guy,” he kept saying over and over to people who couldn’t care less.

“You want to hear a crazy thing,” Joanna said to him one day over the phone. “That Peter Cetera impersonator, you know the one who got his head bit off by the unicorn, he was kind of a murderer. He was a serial killer, actually, called Ondcain hiding out in a stupidly elaborate way. Your unicorn must’ve known that because of the magic of purity…or something. Isn’t that amazing?”

Brian realized the Good Thing wasn’t an evil monster after all (despite the pounds and pounds of human flesh Brian fed it on a daily basis) and Joanna, who had watched a unicorn bite a man’s head off, only needed time to shake off the awfulness of the vision. Maybe Brian was the bad one for thinking anything other than this. He had to make things right with a new proposal.

Brian bought that dollhouse Joanna called one-of-a-kind, the Usury-the-Ware brand, and he knew enough bad people now he could find any rare thing he wanted. He held his hands over her eyes and led her to the room where he had the dollhouse wrapped in a bow and the tiny knights riding unicorns all set up.

But when he said “Surprise!” they both saw the room covered in headless neighborhood songbirds and the dollhouse smeared with blood in a place that might be the mouth if dollhouses had faces. One thing was for certain: the dollhouse had become some evil predatory creature and decapitated a hundred songbirds. Of course.

Brian said, “You gotta be kidding me.”

Joanna said “Is it bad that I’m super into this?”