I found a writing textbook called Story Matters in a thrift store here in Ann Arbor. If you are an aspiring writer, I recommend you take a look at it.The bulk of the book is comprised of contemporary short stories and interviews with their authors. There is also a pedagogical section in the beginning of the book, and I am trying to do all the exercises in it. One of the first is to write a story suitable for the “55 Fiction Contest” held by The New York Times, the objective of which is to write a story that has setting, characters, conflict, and resolution in only fifty-five words. Here’s mine:

“…until death do you part?”



“Lori!” said the bride. “Always with you. Not on my wedding-”

“He came … last night … please, listen.”

“Goddamnit, you stupid … sorry, Father. Father, I do.”

“Perhaps…” whispered the priest.

“Perhaps nothing!”

“No one believes her, dear,” said the groom, blushing. “Everything is all right. Now, where were we?”

As I said in my first post, the purpose of this project is two-fold: work and humiliation. The two are in inverse proportion: one rises as the other falls. And as I have done no work for the past two days, I can expect to be utterly ashamed of the quality of this post. I have cheated a bit, which is itself shameful, by including material I already wrote.

When I was squatting in Philadelphia, I had a friend who created a hoax Myspace page for – well, I can’t say, as he has continued the hoax to this day. He managed to convince the roving bands of traveling crusty punks (all of whom, surprisingly, use Myspace) of his clever deception. That my friend had not only created one of the boldest, most outrageous parodies I had ever seen, but managed to pass it off as genuine, inspired me to try a hoax myself. I imagined we could create an entire universe of Philadelphia lore, that, like his creation, paralleled reality just closely enough to convince the indiscriminate reader. I also had an ulterior motive: as a squatter who wished to remain hidden from roving bands of crusty punks, I sought immunity through rumor. I created an alter ego under my nickname, Normal Guy. (You have one guess who it was who gave me that name.) Among other things, Normal Guy is 6′8″ tall, and own a rottweiler named Maxwell who roams Camp freely (where Camp is the area surrounding my cabin) and attacks any person unfortunate enough to cross the nearby train tracks. The deception apparently worked, at least to some extent: the cabin shown on Normal Guy’s page is in fact the cabin of my campmate Pat, and to this day the travellers mistake it for my own, leaving my cabin virtually unmolested.

The following is my favorite of Normal Guy’s writings. It is a poem for his Taiwanese girlfriend, Xiu Ng. (Nice name, don’t you think?) It is the first poem I have written in many years:

Poem for Xiu

No form opens out quite like a woman
your body next to classical chemical texts
in an old library, but they are all
open to the same page. Moth and butterfly – both
come from the worm, but I do not know what
to think of you. My bookshelves are full, and I know
nothing worthwhile. Your body next to mine,
beside the bookshelves. We both come from the same text
and we read back and forth to each other,
each in the same tongue. I’ve read the first page of each
one, every one of these books. But you give
in no order, and I take the pages and fold
them up in a drawer with pencils and odds
and ends. You would never know where to look, so you
ask. And I read you the first page. And we
come together
under the shelf
like children playing a desperate scenario
and we are there now
and we are not leaving.
Not for anything.

You can read the rest of his stuff here: Normal Guy’s page

From the top, I saw the line between the green of the trees and the grey of the sky; I saw other things, and I heard the scurrying of cars below, but did not notice any of it. I did not even notice the line between the green of the trees and the grey of the sky. But I remembered – for no reason I can recall – how much I see and how little I notice, and I missed the way some things used to be and I started noticing. [I did this by remembering what it felt like to notice, and that made me feel that way, and that made me notice; or rather, that was noticing.] First the old brick warehouse that stood only a few blocks in front of the foot hills. It was filled with offices now. I could remember an enormous broken window on the side of that building, three stories above me on Washington Street. It was daytime, wet and cold, like today but wetter. Rain was falling in large drops off the glass shards that remained in the frame. I had never been in Michigan before that day. That was a year ago. Shit, more than that.

I was still noticing. The roads I could see seemed, if I let it happen, like they were right there at arm’s reach, the way they would be if they were on TV, except when you touched the screen you were touching the real thing, not just a picture. The hills made me miss Pittsburgh. I missed everything about Pittsburgh. I heard a car coming up from the seventh level, and I heard it pass right behind me. I was not going to turn around to look at it. If it’s the manager, fuck it. There’s more jobs where this came from. More places, too.


My mornings are like this: Right after I wake up, I put on a pair of black pants, the company shirt and the company jacket, and my boots. I come out of my house and it is cold out. I have brought my bike; I get on and start my ride down the hill. When the cold wind starts blasting it gets all in my eyes and they water, so much that at the bottom of the hill I have tears hanging from my jaw. This happens to me every morning when I go to work. It doesn’t hurt.


“Of course I’m going to call you,” she said. She said, “I’m not going to just drop you like a piece of … shit.” I remember when she said she wanted to know me for the rest of her life.


On my way down to the ground floor, between a pair of adjacent cars, I saw something purple and plastic on the concrete. I held the broom and dust pan in front of me so as to fit between the cars, and from above I could see the thing was a baby’s pacifier. I wasn’t sure I wanted to throw it away. Maybe the family would come back and find it, and take it home and clean it, despite the ambient odor of oil and cigarette butts. I left it there. I can get it tomorrow. (The baby will cry anyway. Babies cry.)


I was on a kind of date with this other girl. Last month sometime. We had met at the coffee place next to the parking structure, and we talked for nearly an hour. She was a student at the university, so probably too young for me. She had beautiful blue eyes that looked French; she looked French altogether, and she was short, which I like. And she had an exceptionally sexy voice. I left the place at the end of my break, but she came to find me when I got off work; she found me to give me her phone number. We had a strange date one night, where I was shy and she was drunk, and after that I called her and she didn’t call me back. Months later we ran into each other again, and we ended up at her house. No electricity; nothing but cold and dark and the rain outside and her bed where we had to touch to be warm.In the morning – after we made out and didn’t have sex, and after she told me she didn’t want to date me – we went to a diner for breakfast. I let her choose, and she chose my least favorite place in town. I used to sit in there drinking bad coffee, wishing I were in a real diner on the coast somewhere. Seattle, maybe. Then I stopped going.

The girl and I started talking, about politics or philosophy; whatever you call the way you think things should be. She’s majoring in one of those save-the-world subjects, like environmental something. She had all those opinions, like how bad war was and the death penalty, and all those other ways that people kill and maim each other. That kind of person, they think that all there is to life is avoiding getting hurt. I said there were things that were worse than violence. Like what, she said. Despair, I said. She told me she thought violence was worse than despair.

In a period of some confusion last month I considered returning to school and finishing my physics degree, and I undertook a review of abstract algebra, just to see if I was up to it. This incited a glance at Douglas Hofstadter’s articles on the Rubik’s Cube in his book Metamagical Themas, which happened to be on my shelf. I was fascinated by the thing. The story of its invention, the elegance of its construction, the sheer difficulty of solving the thing, and the untold number of people , who purposed to solve the damn thing, not to mention my own (lately latent) proclivity for puzzles (and the fact that I had never solved the Cube), virtually forced me to get my hands on one. I found an old Cube in an online auction, still in its original packaging from 1981. When it arrived, I did not immediately scramble it. Instead, I did some experiments – various combinations of turns repeated over and over, which I knew must lead back to the original position eventually. I discovered a few things during these explorations that would later be essential. On one such venture, though, I lost my place and could not recover. I tried intermittently for two weeks to solve the thing, but could only get to a certain point before I was stuck. Then I did something I had read how to do in Hofstadter’s book, something I had been meaning to do since I got the thing – I took it apart. If you have one lying around and have never done so, I encourage you to take it apart. It’s inner workings are surprising and beautiful. And don’t worry – you can do it without breaking it.

After doing that once, I resolved to actually solve it. After two weeks or so of occasional study, I was able, without severe pain, to set everything on the cube back to rights except six pieces – and I was completely lost as to what to do at that point. I would pick it up at least once a day, and, sometimes without moving it at all, set it back down in frustration. It was clear that if I was going to solve it, I would have to scrutinize the exact details of the cube’s changes under various moves, keeping meticulous notes, and try to calculate the solution. But I just didn’t care enough. Solving a Rubik’s Cube was not going to add anything to my life. Solving it would do nothing, I thought, besides cure me of the urge to solve it. It was like a crossword puzzle, or sudoku (I like to call it “sepuku”): in the end, it merely consumes time. Giving up will rid me of the urge in less time that it will take to solve the stupid thing. So one morning, instead of picking up the cube and playing with it as I had every morning for a month, I resigned from the pursuit, and left the cube alone.

But then, in that response, I noticed a pattern in my behavior – although puzzles are not my passion any more, and although solving them may in many ways be a waste of time, the real reason I was quitting was because I did not really think I could succeed. The problem seemed intractable, and I felt I would be wasting time and stabbing in the dark (as I had been, for the most part) endlessly. I knew the puzzle could not be solved by luck, because the number of possible positions was astronomical; you had to figure it out. And without realizing it, I was assuming that I was incapable of it. So about two minutes after giving up on it forever, I decided that I was going to solve the Rubik’s Cube – now. I spent hours – most of the day, in fact – transcribing the effect of a few simple operations in a notation I took from Hofstadter’s article, and calculating combinations. First I discovered a set of moves that “switched” 2 pairs of cubes at a time, but I still had to figure out how to get the cubes back to their home in the right orientation. After many more hours and pages of computation – much of it in a sort of “meta-notation” I was inventing on the spot – I thought I had found the solution. I went to my friend’s house to solve it in front of him. I needed a witness, in case anyone questioned the honesty of my solution method. I sat down, and executed all the turns, exactly as I had written them down; and as I completed the final turns, I saw all the little pieces fall exactly into place … except two corners, on opposite sides, that were in the right place, but turned the wrong way. You might imagine this was devastating, but I was invigorated by how much I had accomplished, and by how powerful a single, confident decision could be. So it was the next day when, after not only refiguring my notation, but also tracking down the errors I had made the previous day, I managed to put Humpty Dumpty back to square again.

The title of this article is no joke – I really did learn about life from solving the Rubik’s Cube. I admit that the following truths were not clear to me until now:

  1. If lots of people have accomplished something, then, no matter how difficult it might seem, it’s not that difficult. Otherwise all those people would not have succeeded.
  2. Self-doubt is sometimes the one and only barrier to success.
  3. Sometimes all you need to solve a problem are the right terms to think in.
  4. If something seems impossible, that only means it is difficult. It may not even be especially difficult.
  5. Most things have already been done. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. (unless you really want to)
  6. It’s worth doing some things, even when you really don’t want to.

And Rubik’s Cube is a perfect example of the following fact: Sometimes you have to undo the progress you’ve made to progress further. That means that holding on to the partial solution is not always – or even usually – the best idea. This is of particular significance in political thought, where people are often unwilling to let go of the smallest gains in the interest of the bigger picture. The people of Michigan recently voted to forbid affirmative action in their state. This was seen as regressive by many, and it may indeed be, but it is clear that, if we are to have the kind of society we want, government-sanctioned discrimination must stop. It is also clear, though, that whenever it is stopped, we can expect more violations of the fairness we are trying to accomplish. So, how do we now “unbreak” what we have broken? Perhaps I should get cracking on group theory…

I must stop wasting time before I waste my life. I am a perfectionist, I fear that I am not a good writer, and I am afraid to show my work to others; as a result, I hardly write at all. I must change this. Thus, I created allworkandnoplay. In my mind, allworkandnoplay is not merely the name of a website; it is a way of working, and a way of living. I have decided that it should be my way of life for this year, 2007. I know that if I follow this way, I will become a good writer; that is, a successful artist. I will not attempt here to specify in words exactly what allworkandnolay means to me, but here are some of the rules I intend to live by:

  1. I will work on a composition for three days and then post it, no matter what state it is in.
  2. I will seek criticism from readers, and accept all that is given.
  3. I will cultivate a mentality that disdains distraction, rather than indulging in it.
  4. When not writing, I will be reading.
  5. I will spend time with others only in ways that will help my goals. This will mean finding many new friends.
  6. No more drinking; no more hangovers.
  7. I will be an artist – it is my calling. There is no alternative.
  8. Save money. Money is freedom.

With this site, I intend to break free of the fear and lethargy that plague me. To do this, I will bring about the things I fear. I fear not criticism, but failure and humiliation. Thus, this site is dedicated to my failure and humiliation, that I might realize my potential as a writer. I encourage you, the reader, to critique my work without hesitation or concern for my feelings. My only request is that your input be thoughtful and intended to help me in my goal of being a better writer.