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Q and A

Feb 13, 2018; Stephanie Mackiewicz Asks:

I'm doing an analysis on The Beauty Treatment and I find it interesting that I do not see many reviews with the racial aspect of the story. Katie the B is described as a very well to do black girl indicating she wants to get back to her homey roots. When writing this did you mean this as focus? I picked it out right away.

Dec 07, 2017; Asks:

i smell bad...

Stacey answers:

From sea to shining sea.

Dec 07, 2017; vlad Asks:

Have you ever read Story of the Eye? Some really wild stuff goes down in that one, let me tell you. Really off the chain. It kind of reminded me of your writing, only much less realistic. Anyways, I've realized that you haven't been answering questions here that often anymore, and I really hope you return soon. We miss you!

Stacey answers:

Thank you? I have not read Story of the Eye, at least not all of it. I seem to half-remember starting it once upon a time and finding it tedious, which is hard to believe since it sounds pretty darn racy. It has a wonderful Wikipedia entry which includes, as part of the plot summary, this sentence: ďSir Edmund enucleates one of the dead priests' eyes, and Simone inserts it within her vagina, while she and the narrator have sex.Ē

Oct 16, 2017; jazyln Asks:

what is the story tiffany by stacey richter talking about.? (sic)

Stacey answers:

It's a short story. It can be found in this issue of Spork:

Sep 21, 2017; Gloria C. Asks:

Dear Stacey, I am so sorry to hear about your chronic pain. That must make even everyday stuff challenging. They say that when early humans started walking upright, many of these types of physical problems began (back pain, knee pain, etc.), which you probably know from your interest in cavemen. What do you think is the correlation between being a good writer and a good writing teacher? Can someone whoís just an OK writer be a good writing teacher, or can a great writer be a mediocre teacher? I read that Donald Barthelme never questioned anyoneís storyline, but focused on line editing their language to get that just right, which I thought was interesting.

Stacey answers:

Dear Gloria,

Thank you for the sympathy. Yes, my interest in cavemen extends to the skeleton, and Iíve heard that theory too, about how stressful walking upright is. After mulling it over for a long time, Iíve decided itís probably not true. Weíre not German Shepherds, so heartily inbred that our hips are constantly popping loose. Weíre wild types that evolved over a long period of time, so why should our backs/knees/hips hurt any more than those of, say, elephants? I think itís a disease of modernity, largely caused by hardcore, early use of the chair. Shoes are also a possibility, as are bedsóreally anything we relentlessly do to our bodies that we didnít evolve doingóbut Iím going with hours and hours in the chair, starting at six years of age. I think it leads to a pattern of imbalance in many ways. I also have a cracked and mis-healed vertebra, which makes it worse for my body. Nowadays, I try to change my position as often as possible, from sitting to reclining to standing to kneeling. That helps.

Your question about teaching is interesting and vexing. So much of the quality of teaching relies on the enthusiasm and commitment of the teacher, on their flexibility and willingness to engage with their studentsí workóqualities that donít necessarily track with the quality of the teacherís writing. Teaching well takes a lot of emotional and intellectual energy, and sometimes writers, good and bad, withdraw from that because they need to preserve their mojo for their own work. In other words, not everyone tries, and sometimes good writers find reasons to try even less.

Aside from effort, it's also a matter of talent. I think the deck gets shuffled and people draw different cards. Some people are gifted writers. Others are gifted teachers. Some people get both cards, some get one. Then thereís the problem that some good writers donít understand how they manage to do itótheir sense of language and narrative are a part of their personality, and they donít really know how to explain it. They just do it. Others have to break it down into stepsópotentially a good trait for teachers.

Then again, a little brilliance goes a long way, and given the choice, Iíd probably choose the better writer as a teacher on the off chance she might say something stunning.

I bet those Barthelme classes were interesting. But what if one of his students really needed help with their storyline? A lot of people find it relatively easy to write neat little paragraphs but difficult to assemble them into a narrative. It seems a little self-centered too, you know? Language was what Barthelme was interested in, but maybe some of his students were more absorbed in plot. Then again, itís possible he was useless at plotting and was just doing the best he could.

Sep 05, 2017; titanci Asks:

Your link for the reading of The Minimalist isn't working, just thought I'd let you know. :(

Stacey answers:


Aug 29, 2017; Michael Henry Asks:

Hi Stacey. How are you? As always, your wisdom and encouragement means so much to me. I will have more to say about dating and my social life in October or December. I am going to follow your tips and recommendations.

Here I have a series of questions and problems about writing creative nonfiction, especially the essay. My questions pertain to specific aspects of crafting personal essays. Things I've come up against. I've organized and segmented my post.


There is a through line running through works of fiction - be it a play, novel, TV show. A character who yearns, wants, desires. Perfect. Poetry is defined by sound and silence, density and intensity, metaphor and form. The white space means just as much as the text. I like what Janet Burroway says, Poetry is memorable speech. I like this definition. That's our plot of land. No one can take that away from us.

That leaves us with Literary or Creative Nonfiction. What is our definition of the genre? What is our plot of land? I like what Dinty Moore says, "Writing the personal essay is like chasing mental rabbits." All good. But you realize you have to enact this on the page. This is probably as helpful as saying show don't tell or raise the stakes. Slogans.

In the end, you're always left with the logistics of the work. Point A to B. What is going to appeal to readers and editors? In fiction, characterization, conflict and stakes are pleasurable. But excavating those in an essay doesn't come readily or naturally.

As a genre, the personal essay branches out in many directions. Autobiographical meditation, nature science regional eco writing, lit crit, travel and mores, humor, food. If you look across the Atlantic, the tradition of the speculative and philosophical essay owing a lot to Nietzsche. And there are the physician's or scientist's turned essayist: Lewis Thomas, Richard Selzer, Stephen Jay Gould, F Gonzalez-Crussi, Oliver Sacks. Look at the entry The Essay in America in the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. Anything Goes.

Where do we start? How do we start? Even an outline doesn't present itself clearly, cleanly. An essay doesn't have the same moving parts as a novel or script - plot points, beats, structure. We consider the journey and change of the characters. There will be a pattern of discovery and decision, connection and disconnection. A pattern of change. An essay is challenging because the conflict and change aren't apparent.

Scene construction

I'm having trouble writing about myself, my life and memories. I avoid writing about what's close to me. I've never really even tried or come close to writing about my family, personal life, memories. You know I like writing summaries and brainstorming plots. I go cold. How can we avoid the cold? You don't have the neat plot to fall back on in an essay. How do you retrieve memories? How do you write about the past?

It might be helpful to step back. How do we start from scratch. How to develop from an image, idea, point, memory, question. The development of an essay is different than a short story. You have to elevate the material. How do you tap into feeling and emotion in your writing? When I'm drafting, a lot of the writing just reads like a journaling. It ends up sweeping, broad, general, vague.

Navel gazing

If you're not a well-known personality and especially if you're writing a personal essay, then you have to ask yourself how are you going to engage readers? You can write an essay about an illness, a wedding, a date, a restaurant, the history of main street. But you still have to address the question of why we ought to care. Very early on you have to ask how is your essay going to stand out?

Fiction can be a screen or buffer between the writer and their surroundings, circumstances, relationships. You have to go deep. That's the most challenging aspect of creative nonfiction. What the writer ought to worry about is: What do I want to say? And how am I going to say it? I've come to believe the how is just as important as the what. How can we avoid ďnavel gazingĒ in a personal essay?

Stacey answers:

Dear Michael Henry,

I know youíve read a lot of books about writing, but Iím going to recommend one more to you because itís the only one Iíve found that addresses your questions: what to write about, how to start, and how to know what it is you have to say. Itís called Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writerís Life by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I recommend it with some reservations, because itís long and has a lot of unhelpful parts, but Buhner is nevertheless kind of amazing in his attentiveness to the small details and nuances of both the inner and outer life; heís also written a book about how plants think that has pretty much convinced me that, well, plants really do think, in their own way, if you pay enough attention to them. I donít agree with many of the judgments Buhner makes in Ensouling Language, but thatís bound to happen with someone like him. Heís a true original and an iconoclastic thinker. My theory is that someone would probably give him a MacArthur award if he would just take off his ear cuff and put on a suit. But donít get too attached to his opinions. He will show two examples of prose and identify the best as the worst and vice versa. Heís really into, you know, uplifting shit. I, on the other hand, would argue for the compelling power of specificity, even if itís more of a downer. Also, itís okay to skip the first four chapters if you feel like it.

Jul 24, 2017; Gloria C. Asks:

Dear Stacey, I am a huge, huge fan of your work! Somewhere you said you don't particularly enjoy teaching. Does that include one-week workshops, like at writing festivals, which don't involve a long-term commitment to daily preparation and onerous grading of lengthy student papers? (amateur short story writer here.) Also, what will you be working on next?

Stacey answers:

Thanks Gloria! Yeah, that's not going to happen. I have chronic back pain, which makes traveling difficult. In fact, it makes everything difficult, so I tend to avoid...I don't know....most things? Yeah, what will I be working on next? Good question.

Jul 16, 2017; hot wet trash Asks:

Hi Stacey,

I'm going to abuse the Q&A format by not asking any direct questions and just kind of saying a lot of things I really want to say about "My Date with Satan" in a stream of consciousness manner. I guess I don't have justifiable reason to say them to the author as opposed to some English professor in an actual essay, but fuck it, I'm going to anyway. Of course I would absolutely love to hear any thoughts you have.

I guess I just want to start by saying your story "My Date with Satan" is really precious to me. It's so knowing and well crafted, with all the warm little details like "pert Liza Minelli eyes" and "vaguely dramatic boy." A few posts below below you said you were going for fairy dust, and I think you really managed to. I'll say this at least, it's on a short list of fiction that silences the obnoxious critical voice in my head.

The first time I read it- for a short fiction class by the way- I was just kind of charmed and blown away, and in particular PipiLngstck joined a running mental list of characters, pretty much always female, fitting a certain archetype. This archetype styles herself idiosyncratically.She is nurturing at the level of personality but never at the level of character. She doesn't take anything too seriously and yet manages to be principled, even industrious at times. She's self-possessed, but paradoxically she' missing something basic about being a person, some emotional core perhaps. There's some aching and some awkwardness in reconciling her apparent "completeness" as a person with this missing thing, especially in the context of relationships with men. It goes without saying that she's very smart.

Others characters fitting this archetype include Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless, Summer from 500 Days of Summer, Sasha from A Visit from the Goon Squad and, strangely enough, my TA for intro to ethics last quarter. So basically characters that are often uncharitably labeled manic pixie dreamgirls. (The only true manic pixie dreamgirl imho is Natalie Portman's character in garden state.) PipiLngstck, Clementine and Summer all face the same sort of external conflict of having to brush off men that fixate on them for superficial reasons, i.e. for the aforementioned illusion of completeness. Clementine says it beautifully: ďJoel, I'm not a concept. I want you to just keep that in your head. Too many guys think I'm a concept or I complete them or I'm going to make them alive, but I'm just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don't assign me yours.Ē (I guess this is actually a bit at odds with PipiLngstck, because even though they have the same attitude and behavior towards men, they identify opposite problems: Clementine doesnít want to be made a concept while PipiLngstck doesnít want to be forced to be a ďreal girl.Ē Somehow it feels like theyíre dealing with the same problem though).

Whatís funny for me is I canít figure out if Iím more like these women or the men pursuing them. I mean Iím male, but Iím also gay. I guess the sensible answer is that Iím neither. The best answer is probably that Iím like Charlie Kaufman (writer of Eternal Sunshine)- fascinated by such women in that obnoxiously reverent way, but maybe more sensitive and comprehending than other men (if I may flatter myself). Honestly itís a stupid question to begin with. This is a good place to interject and say sorry if Iíve said anything presumptuous or sexist, or even anything that rubbed you the wrong way.

What I really want to talk about is that bit I mentioned about missing an emotional core. I just read ďMy Date with SatanĒ for the fourth or fifth time, and while it was just kind of funny and thrilling the first time I read it, now Iím seeing the thematic consistency throughout the story. At the center of it is PipiLngstckís grasping for some emotional purity. The paragraph beginning with ďI just wanted to look wholesomeĒ really gave me pause. I certainly dress as out there as PipiLngstck but I think something similar informs my style choices: I wear argyle sweaters, corduroy, felt ties, thick woolen socks (which they only seem to make for womenÖ) and I honest-to-god have a pair of buster brown shoes. Itís definitely about a sense of coziness and love for me, and about being the kind of soft boy thatís capable of being affectionate in a way that I so rarely am. I donít know. Iím not going to even bother to try and turn that into a coherent or relevant statement. Anyway I guess the last thing I want to say is Iíve recently become convinced that I have low grade autism and that part where Ivy eviscerates Kitty (ďWe think she's looking for their feelings. People with her disorder have trouble with emotions.Ē). That honestly made me tear up this last time I read it.

Anyway, if you got this far, thanks for indulging me.

Stacey answers:

That makes sense to me. I think I would really love your outfits.

Apr 14, 2017; Michael Henry Asks:

Hi Stacey, two parts here: a response/continuation of our last correspondence and a question about how to write endings.

You are right about me being verbose. I could easily cut my post from October in half, leaving the points and questions intact. There is a great deal I was leaving out in the post about the escort. I didnít write about the music she asked me to play, my bedroom, the three condoms we went through. I did leave out something that's pertinent. I said that I had a very minor panic attack. Yes. But that wasn't the first time I had a physical reaction like that. I have experienced a number of occasions when I've felt out of breath, very upset, on the verge of sobbing, a slight tightening. Overall moody, foggy. I don't want to be overdramatic. These are just feelings that snuck up on me. It isn't because of health problems.

I have conflicting feelings about the massage parlor service and I visited the website. Iíve thought I should try online dating instead. I would rather go on one date then get forty handjobs. I'd be able to have a conversation. A big piece of me has no desire to ever visit a massage parlor or see another escort. I would much rather be in a relationship. But look at me. I can't carry on a conversation. I cannot explain or understand this because it is incredibly irrational and childish.

Hereís an example. I work out at a gym that's close to where I live. As is typical of most gyms, there are a number of individuals that frequent the place. One is a women close my age. One day she came up to me and told me I looked good and she had noticed I had lost weight. I have lost weight over the past two years although not as much recently. This is mostly due to not taking prednisone.Honestly when she started to talk, I didn't know what to say or do. She was genuinely nice. So I said thank you, mumbling, and we parted ways. Everytime I see her, and I see her a lot, I just nod. I think about how much I'd love to just say something. And I'm certain she has a boyfriend so it wouldn't even be flirting but I can't do it.

I don't suffer from anxiety or shyness. If you asked me to give a speech in front of thousands, I'd have no hesitation about doing it. And I even enjoy public speaking, especially if I had time to prepare. Rejection just isnít a fear or cause of anxiety. I hope to send short stories to journals, online venues, contests. And if the pieces were rejected a hundred times, I wouldn't flinch. But I cannot stand the thought of asking a girl out and being rejected. Just the thought though of starting a conversation is bad enough, let alone the dating aspect. How to explain this? I welcome rejection when it comes writing but not relationships. It's as if I've built up this inability to communicate, flirt, chat.

I also invent stories when I watch porn. I fill in the backstory and the situation of whatís going on in the scene. I really respond to porn when there is a narrative and the girls talk. Straight porn is a real turnoff for me. Itís disgusting, degrading, dehumanizing. I will only watch straight porn if it's the girl dancing or stripping by herself, usually before the intercourse at the beginning. The porn that works for me are girls by themselves or lesbians. I actually love the interaction at the beginning of the scene more than the two girls having sex. I would rather watch gay porn between two men than straight porn, especially if the two guys like each other.

My writing question. How can we write great endings? How do you know where and when to end a piece? You could say the purpose of writing a novel or short story is to write a great ending, to create this world so you can deliver a payload. A lot of writing books say if you are having a hard time composing the end, the problem might be in the opening. How you start shapes and influences how you end. But there could be problems in the middle because youíre building momentum, conflict, stakes. You may have failed to establish a crisis. I donít feel this way, although I wonít go into detail because I would much rather hear about what you have to say about this topic.

How can we improve our endings? Do you know the ending before you write a story? I donít believe youíve addressed these questions before. Do you have any suggestions? Exercises? Best practices? Endings can be difficult, tricky creatures. This is a topic that is woefully neglected. Especially compared to the number of creative writing books out there about beginnings. I do believe endings should aim for the heart.

Stacey answers:

Hereís the best new piece of advice I can give for endings: only write one. Itís tempting to keep ending and ending and ending, and itís a common problem in first books. Iím talking about codas and where-are-they-nows and summing ups and what-it-all-means, delivered over and over in a summing-up tone. (Lab Girl is a recent book that just keeps ending; to a lesser extent, so is Lincoln in the Bardo, though I loved that so much that I didnít mind). Multiple endings take away the power of one. One is better.

Girls: being with people is difficult for you, so donít be so hard on yourself. Itís scary for all men to talk to women they donít know; for men, the fear of humiliation is stronger than the fear of death, or so Iíve read. But please donít worry about panic or anxiety. This is a normal part of life that no one wants to talk about but is always going on, like being gassy. In any given place, at least one person is having a panic attack, or is on the verge of one, or is medicated out of one for the moment, I guarantee it. When it happens to you it sucks, but it sucks more if you have the illusion that itís somehow abnormal or avoidable or unusual.

Practice: I donít know if socializing will ever be easy for you, but I think youíd do better in generalóand that your writing would probably be betteróif you practiced socializing in a low-stress setting. I bet it would be great for you to interact with non-threatening (i.e. old) women, before you try internet dating and the like. I know you donít want to but itís easier than asking someone out, right? Why not join a parks and rec class or a library class in knitting or mah jong or bridge or scrapbooking or crochetówhatever, of these old lady choices, is the least painful to you? You will probably be the only guy. All you have to do is go and keep going. Try to talk to the ladies. Think of it as low-cost conversation practice. If they ask why youíre there, say you want to learn to knit and you want to practice socializing. Theyíll get it and theyíll be proud of you. (I bet you think Iím wrongótry it and see.) Do a little homework. Google ďgood conversation starters.Ē And listen. Listen. Practice listening. Go back and forth, talking and listening. I worry, sometimes, that you might be more about output than input. But itís harder to be anxious when youíre focused on what another person is saying. And, as Dale Carnegie pointed out, people love to be listened to.

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