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Describing The Elephant: Part 1

In 2017 the Temenos Journal published my first creative nonfiction essay. I’m reproducing it here. It’s called “Describing The Elephant.” It’s a long read and often painful, but there is hope at the end, just like all good stories. I penned this introduction:

Asked if the Jedi were real, Han Solo haltingly confesses that he once doubted it. “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is — it’s true. The Force. The Jedi. All of it. It’s all true.”

“Describing the Elephant” challenges the reader to accept that the supernatural is real and all that assertion implies. Denying the paranormal is easy for anyone who hasn’t experienced it. For those of us that have, we struggle to relate what we’ve seen, heard, or felt.

I was not looking for another world, nor did I think one could exist. Without asking, I was granted a fleeting glimpse of something I cannot fully describe. I am a blind man holding the tail of an elephant, powerless to know the animal’s true, full form. But I know the beast exists. It’s real. It’s true. All of it is true.

Describing The Elephant

by Thomas Farley

In 1985 I went to work for a company called John Gray. After five short years, I left the company with enough life lessons learned to last all my days. And despite a terrible tragedy, I learned the greatest truth anyone could know: that a world exists outside of what we see and feel, that a great power beyond our senses is alive and breathing.

I moved to Davis, California in 1985. I came to live with a girl I was very much taken with. Naturally, I needed work. My school and work background were in plants and I applied to two nurseries before winding up at a landscape contractor called J.E.G. A nice woman named Rebecca interviewed me, and I think she was overwhelmed by my intensity. I had just completed a semester long course at U.C. Davis called Arboriculture, and I would talk to anyone at any time about plants. Rebecca said they’d call if something opened up. The next day they phoned and brought me in. They put me behind a mower.

I thought my plant knowledge made me more valuable than a day laborer, but I happily took the job. I liked these people and this was a large company. Possibilities existed. Owned by John Gray and Jim Stromme, J.E.G. Enterprises was a landscape contractor with a small maintenance arm. On my own time, I started coming in weekends to help out. Two years later I was their commercial maintenance superintendent, a fancy term for a commercial gardener. I ran two crews and we did a lot of work.

John Gray was a dynamic and garrulous individual. He was over six feet and carried his weight well. His build reminded me of a major league ballplayer just past retirement. He had a temper that ignited and faded quickly. Some thought him a frat boy who never grew up. I always had a new joke for him and he appreciated that. He treated his wife poorly and I resented him for it. He allowed mistakes if you were trying to do the right thing. And he was very loyal.

John’s partner, Jim Stromme, was the epitome of a hard-working contractor. Tall, deeply tanned and muscular, Jim was an authority on everything about landscape construction. You learned when he talked. A very supportive boss, he was always telling us to make a decision and then move forward. I never socialized with Jim, but we went to many trade shows and drank heavily. He’d give you time off if you had a personal problem. And he wouldn’t ask why.

The last time I saw Jim was on a late October morning in 1988. I think it was Tuesday, the 25th. Jim was getting into his work truck, one as big and sensible as himself. (We loved our trucks at John Gray.) He was in a bad mood that morning and sounded a little depressed. Not unusual for Jim. He said something bitter, but I can’t recall what it was. I do remember what I told him though, something uncharacteristic for men in a construction company. “You know, Jim, you and John are the best bosses I’ve ever had.” He did a double take, his head turning around as he got into the truck. I can still see that last look on his face, one of puzzlement or being confounded. How hard it is to read people. He drove out of the yard and I thought nothing of the matter until the next day.

Continues ——>

John Gray and Jim Stromme

Link to the e-version where you can read the entire story. Requires Flash: (external link — enable Flash)

Thoughts on writing UC Berkeley Extension Workshop Uncategorized Writing tips

A New Creative Nonfiction Workshop at Berkeley Extension is Now Enrolling

David Rompf is once again teaching a creative nonfiction workshop through Berkeley Extension. Instruction starts January 23d and runs through April 17th. At this blog I’ve written several times about creative nonfiction as a genre and my experience with the course.

I’d recommend the workshop to anyone considering broadening themselves as a writer. If you’re not sure you’d benefit, look through the main textbook: The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. It’s edited by Phillip Lopate and is published by Anchor Books. 1995. In many libraries. You’ll see the kinds of essays you’ll be discussing and writing about.

UC Berkeley Extension’s Voices Blog just posted a nice overview of the course, featuring comments from me and from the instructor, David Rompf. Click on the link below. I’m happy to answer any questions I can about my experience with the workshop. Just e-mail me.



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And a Glenlivet To Go

A rainy night in San Francisco, the kind of persisting rain that paints the streets even blacker. Puddles everywhere along Clement Street, the “New Chinatown” as the San Francisco Chronicle called it. Although Chinese lived and worked on the street, there were plenty of places a round eye could go to feel at home. San Francisco’s best thrift store was on Clement, along with a two-story used bookstore called Green Apple that was ripe with reading. See’s Candy was a must stop because they gave out free chocolate samples every day. The Yin Xing Food Company welcomed everybody. They had things you never knew people could eat.

If you braved Saturday night crowds you could be in and out of bars and clubs of all descriptions. The music from Nine Inch Nails poured out of one club, Reznor’s downbeat lyrics not realizing that we had met Y2K and gotten through it. But you could find Depeche Mode records at another club if you wanted the 8o’s. Depeche Mode. What was the song? “I’m taking a ride with my best friend. . .”

Anyone who saw the pair might think them a couple. Perhaps. They were laughing, pointing at people, wandering in circles, going nowhere and having a wonderful time doing so. They just got off a noisy bus from North Beach. She had bought him a lap dance at the O’Farrell. He bought her a lap dance. Now, they talked about the attractive college volleyball player they wanted to stalk. They tippled on several miniatures, not bothering to hide their drinking in public. Theirs was a relation built on indulgence. Permission. And single malt Scotch.

Tracy spotted the pair the same time her friend did. A man and woman getting out of a white Volkswagen Cabriolet, with the woman exiting the driver’s side. Obviously, her car. She, driving the boyfriend around. These two passed a flower shop, still open, and walked into the restaurant next door. Tracy’s friend pointed out the problem. The man walked by a flower shop and didn’t buy his date anything. Tracy’s eyes narrowed. Years ago, Tracy was a Revlon Cover Girl and had been to New York City more times than she could count. She had been emboldened by the City. But San Francisco was different. San Francisco demands a particular panache.

She bolted into the florist and bought a big bouquet. Armed with a dozen carnations and roses, she walked into the restaurant and confronted the couple, now sitting at their table. Her friend waited nervously, peering through the window as Tracy shook the flowers at the man, all the while lecturing him. His date was a picture of smiles and delight. After giving the girl the flowers, Tracy marched out.

“I told him he was good looking. But not that good looking. That he’d needed to try harder.” And then they laughed and walked down Clement Street, hand in hand, just to hold hands, with the rain coming down and the music pouring out. Thinking of Scotch.

I wrote this quick quip for the fourth assignment in the Writers Studio fiction and poetry workshop I am taking.  Criticisms below. This is the kind of good feedback you’ll get if you take one of their courses. I’m having difficulty understanding each assignment’s goals, however, although I am working quite hard to adhere to them; the fault is mine.

Assignment goals:

Using third person narration, describe a place, describe people, and describe a main character. Refer to a particular era in time.



What a great moment when Tracy (drunk, carefree, bold) buys the bouquet, marches into the restaurant and gives the guy a good talking to! And what an efficient bit of storytelling to have Tracy sum up the scene to her friend with three simple lines of dialogue – very cinematic.

You’re definitely enlisting aspects of the Strout here, giving us an overview of the place, using a conversational narrator who knows the place but has a broader perspective than the inhabitants, viewing the inhabitants of the place through the eyes of others, and gradually zooming in on a particular set of characters in a particular time period (love the mention of Y2K, which seems so quaint now!).

But, as another commenter noted, a lot of Huntington slipped in to the narrative – my sense is that each week you start your assignment still heavily influenced by the previous one. I’m thrilled to see you internalizing all these styles and narrative methods, but I do think that sometimes you make your task harder by not studying the week’s excerpt really closely and trying out its approach. What I mean is that Strout begins by creating a little intrigue and a time frame (that summer Mr. Robinson left), which focuses the story and sets up readers to expect a mystery of sorts. I do get some mood from the start, a strong sense that San Francisco is a kind of feast for the tourists – the book store is “ripe,” the chocolate is free, and there are exotic offerings for the adventurous.

I also wanted to point out the fact that the material you choose tends not to be the most natural fit for the techniques the assignments ask you to try out, and I’m not sure if you do this on purpose or if it happens somewhere along the way as you feel out each story. That is, last week the assignment asked you to tell a story via a series of “snapshots” of people in a certain state of mind, with absolutely no back story. Instead you wrote a story about an unfolding relationship that required a fair amount of back story and required a fair amount of time spent in the thoughts of one of the characters. This week the task was to work with a single place (which you did beautifully) and to zoom in gradually to one locale and then to one character in that locale, which is quite different from what you did. I think maybe you ran with the idea of showing us one set of characters through the eyes of another set, and this you did like a pro (but note that with your focus on so many different things at once, I don’t learn anything at all about Tracy’s friend).

Keep in mind that I don’t want to stifle your imagination! It’s doing its job very well, as you keep coming up with these unusual scenarios. But I think it might be a worthwhile task for you to work even more closely from the excerpt, even going line by line to see how the author set up the story or poem.

Image of a rainy Clement in the Outer Richmond from:

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Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell

I left Boris at my room and went down to the pawnshop. When I got there I found that it was shut and would not open till four in the afternoon. It was now about half-past one, and I had walked twelve kilometres and had no food for sixty hours. Fate seemed to be playing a series of extraordinarily unamusing jokes.

Then the luck changed as though by a miracle. I was walking home through the Rue Broca when suddenly, glittering on the cobbles, I saw a five-sou piece. I pounced on it, hurried home, got our other five-sou piece and bought a pound of potatoes. There was only enough alcohol in the stove to parboil them, and we had no salt, but we wolfed them, skins and all. After that we felt like new men, and sat playing chess till the pawnshop opened.

At four o’clock I went back to the pawnshop. I was not hopeful, for if I had only got seventy francs before, what could I expect for two shabby overcoats in a cardboard suitcase? Boris had said twenty francs, but I thought it would be ten francs, or even five. Worse yet, I might be refused altogether, like poor Numéro 83 on the previous occasion. I sat on the front bench, so as not to see people laughing when the clerk said five francs.

At last the clerk called my number: ‘Numéro 117!’

‘Yes,’ I said, standing up.

‘Fifty francs?’

It was almost as great a shock as the seventy francs had been the time before. I believe now that the clerk had mixed my number up with someone else’s, for one could not have sold the coats outright for fifty francs. I hurried home and walked into my room with my hands behind my back, saying nothing. Boris was playing with the chessboard. He looked up eagerly.

‘What did you get?’ he exclaimed. ‘What, not twenty francs? Surely you got ten francs, anyway? Nom de Dieu, five francs — that is a bit too thick. Mon ami, don’t say it was five francs. If you say it was five francs I shall really begin to think of suicide.’

I threw the fifty-franc, note on to the table. Boris turned white as chalk, and then, springing up, seized my hand and gave it a grip that almost broke the bones. We ran out, bought bread and wine, a piece of meat and alcohol for the stove, and gorged.

After eating, Boris became more optimistic than I had ever known him. ‘What did I tell you?’ he said. ‘The fortune of war! This morning with five sous, and now look at us. I have always said it, there is nothing easier to get than money. And that reminds me, I have a friend in the rue Fondary whom we might go and see. He has cheated me of four thousand francs, the thief. He is the greatest thief alive when he is sober, but it is a curious thing, he is quite honest when he is drunk. I should think he would be drunk by six in the evening. Let’s go and find him. Very likely he will pay up a hundred on account. Merde! He might pay two hundred. Allons-y!’

We went to the rue Fondary and found the man, and he was drunk, but we did not get our hundred francs. As soon as he and Boris met there was a terrible altercation on the pavement. The other man declared that he did not owe Boris a penny, but that on the contrary Boris owed him four thousand francs, and both of them kept appealing to me for my opinion. I never understood the rights of the matter. The two argued and argued, first in the street, then in a bistro, then in a prix fixe restaurant where we went for dinner, then in another bistro. Finally, having called one another thieves for two hours, they went off together on a drinking bout that finished up the last sou of Boris’s money.

Boris slept the night at the house of a cobbler, another Russian refugee, in the Commerce quarter. Meanwhile, I had eight francs left, and plenty of cigarettes, and was stuffed to the eyes with food and drink. It was a marvellous change for the better after two bad days.

Literary Magazine submissions Thoughts on writing Uncategorized Writing tips

Every Writer Needs An Editor (Or Two Or Three)

No good piece gets published without help. Friends advise but they are generally too kind to comment truthfully. What’s really helpful is someone who doesn’t know you, who isn’t invested in your feelings. Further, after broad strokes are applied in a revision, you need the persnickety help that only comes with an editor, sometimes a team of editors.

Let’s step back. I first started on my Temenos published essay (internal link) by writing it as a final assignment in a creative nonfiction course. My instructor liked it and recommended I try to to get it published. He offered some suggestions and I carefully considered his  remarks.

Here begins the long editing process. Note how he pays me a compliment first, which I think is essential to preserving any writer’s ego:

You’ve written a wonderful, painful, engrossing essay: your best piece submitted in this course.  It’s a gripping and difficult story, and you tell it with narrative energy driven by a clear, crisp, muscular prose.  I think of Orwell’s famous saying about good prose being like a clear windowpane.  Yours is pristine.

I think you could publish this essay, after some minor changes, in a literary magazine like “The Sun,” “Creative Nonfiction,” or–perhaps even better–“Bellevue Literary Review,” which focuses on broad topics of health, illness, mind and body.

Then he gets down to specifics, all of which I agreed with. I revised my essay as close to his suggestions as possible. I even changed the title, which was originally called “Your Mother’s Voice.” The instructor’s remarks would make more sense if you read the first draft of the essay (internal link), but let’s pass on that for now. He commented:

First, in the pivotal scene about the telephone call, you may need to clarify what Rebecca actually heard.  When I first read it, I thought she handled a normal phone call and then was reacting to your unusual behavior and exclamation.  So, did she understand that something was wrong with Jim but didn’t want to say anything yet because the facts weren’t clear? Or did she not understand what his son was saying?  One clarifying sentence may do the job.

Second: after finishing my reading, I looked at the title again and wondered if it is THE best title for your essay.  I’m not convinced that it is.  It doesn’t seem to clearly encapsulate the core experience and questions.  Give it some thought as you revise.

Third (and this is less critical but still worth considering): Is there an iconic or universal story out there involving a premonition of bad news that you could include/refer to (in just a couple of sentences) in order for readers to think about your experience in the context of another? My sense is that it would lend context and further depth for your discussion of the paranormal.

Now, we come to the persnickety editing I talked about. My writing style is fairly spare, with as few commas and words as I can get away with. Not everyone is keen on this. Did you catch that last sentence? Most people would say “Not everyone is keen on this approach.” But I am always axing words.

To take a look at what the Temenos staff contributed, click on the next link. It will call up a Word file (internal link) with the suggestions they made. There are dozens! This is a real benefit of being published by a literary magazine. They will take the time to work with you to produce something that satisfies the writer and the reader. I accepted all of their revisions en masse. I’m not a diva, I am not self-publishing and I am not in love with all those commas. I want the piece to succeed. Every writer needs an editor.

Literary Magazine submissions Magazine article Poetry Thoughts on writing Uncategorized Writing by others


Poets&Writers is to the literary writing community what Writers Market is to the commercial writing community. The two sites overlap in their mission here and there but the comparison mostly holds.

Our mission? To foster the professional development of poets and writers, to promote communication throughout the literary community, and to help create an environment in which literature can be appreciated by the widest possible public. (external link)

If you’re not finding an outlet for your writing in the commercial world, check out Poets&Writers. Their database claims 1,200 literary magazines. And it’s free to access. A tremendous resource.

Thoughts on writing Uncategorized Writing tips

Updates and Enlightments

I’ve been working on a 2,000 word article for an outdoor magazine. Last night I submitted my first draft of that article to the editor. I say first draft because an editor will always want changes and in my experience those changes always produce a stronger article.

An editor knows their magazine better than anyone and a writer should always keep that in mind. As writers we should not fall in love with our writing. Writing is something malleable and the editor and the readers of the magazine always come first.

In editing down the manuscript, trying hard to reduce it to 2,000 words, I kept passing the sentence below. I liked it very much. I thought it explained a great deal in just a few words. So I didn’t edit it. Until the last draft in which I removed it entirely. It simply did not fit into the rest of the article but I kept denying that because I liked it. Are there entire sentences, not just words, that you can remove from your writing?

Reclamation districts are local entities paid by member property owners to maintain levees, canals, sloughs, pumps, and other infrastructure that protect farmland.

My poetry and fiction workshop at the Writers Studio (internal link) is in its second week and is proving to be interesting and challenging. Consider our current exercise:

Create a third-person narrator who’s observant and maybe witty, and have that narrator follow a character on his/her daily rounds. The character doesn’t have to be going any place special – the laundromat or the post office will do fine, as long as your character is reacting to something that’s already happened and as long as your narrator is tuned into the character’s mood. . . .

This is so far afield of my normal writing that I might as well be on the moon. In nonfiction magazine and newspaper writing there is little place for such creativity – we focus on the facts and not anyone’s mood, unless their mood and temperament come out in quotes. Or, if we have five thousand words to play with in The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, or Rolling Stone.

Sticking with who, what, when, where, why and how is always the best approach. My past editors would all agree. But who knows? It’s possible that at the end of this course I might be able to incorporate some of its ideas into my nonfiction writing. For now, I must get back to that exercise.

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My Essay In The Latest Temenos Journal is Out

The Temenos Journal has published my first creative nonfiction essay. It’s called “Describing The Elephant.” It’s a long read and often painful, but there is hope at the end. Just like all good stories. I penned this introduction:

Asked if the Jedi were real, Han Solo haltingly confesses that he once doubted it. “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is — it’s true. The Force. The Jedi. All of it. It’s all true.”

“Describing the Elephant” challenges the reader to accept that the supernatural is real and all that understanding implies. Denying the paranormal is easy for anyone who hasn’t experienced it. For those of us that have, we struggle to relate what we’ve seen, heard, or felt.

I was not looking for another world, nor did I ever think one could exist. Without asking, I was granted a fleeting glimpse of something I cannot fully describe. I am a blind man holding the tail of an elephant, powerless to know the animal’s true, full form. But I know the beast exists. It’s real. It’s true. All of it is true. (external link — enable Flash)


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Creative Nonfiction and Literature Further Defined

I’ve wrestled with the definition of literature in previous posts. As well as trying to define creative nonfiction. 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction, gives us this definition which, when broadened, could include literature as well:

The best definition we’ve heard so far for “creative nonfiction” comes from editor and writer Lee Gutkind: the word “creative” in “Creative Nonfiction” “refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner.” Instead of making things up, a creative nonfiction writer simply makes ideas, people, events, and places that already exist more compelling through the use of imagery, scene, form, dialogue, setting, characterization, plot, and detail.

Some people object to the term “creative nonfiction” and prefer the term “literary nonfiction,” or prefer to simply refer to various kinds of writing by their subgenre: narrative journalism, lyric essay, personal essay, nature writing, etc.

Literature, therefore, might be artistically done writing that employs “imagery, scene, form, dialogue, setting, characterization, plot, and detail” to their best use. What 1966 calls “literary craft.” It does all seem a bit fuzzy. But we can work on it, producing nonfiction and fiction that aspires to something more than mere reporting, something that produces not just writing, but fine writing.

My thoughts on creative nonfiction (internal link)

What is literature? Part 1 (internal link)

1966: Creative Nonfiction Journal (external link) Site may no longer be active.

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Temenos Journal Is Publishing My First Creative Nonfiction Essay!

The Temenos Journal – light up the unconscious – will publish my first piece of creative nonfiction in their Summer 2017 edition. This essay was the last paper I wrote for the UC Berkeley Extension creative nonfiction workshop I took last year.

Temenos is based out of Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. The journal has been publishing for 17 years. As they put it,

The Greek word “temenos” refers both to the ancient Greek concept of sacred space and the Jungian ‘safe spot’ where one may bring the unconscious into the light of consciousness. Our mission is to bring to light works that are engaging, memorable, and fearless.

Okay. I’m not sure my essay measures up to all that, but I am thrilled to be appearing in a literary review. Eight other journals and reviews rejected the piece, but my essay has finally found a home. I’ll be working on edits with their staff soon and I’ll keep you informed.

What is creative nonfiction? (internal link)

Temenos (external link)