On The Second Sex: “Myths: Dreams, Fears, Idols” with Rae Bryant

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” —Simone de Beauvoir

The Abridged Feminist Biography of Simone de Beauvoir with Cameos by Jean-Paul Sartre and Other Men

Simone “le castor [the Beaver]” de Beauvoir was born in Paris, France, in 1908. When she was twenty-one, she went to the Sorbonne to study philosophy and the art of sexual politics with her contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre. “She was the youngest agrégée in French history,” taking second in exams only to Sartre’s first place. There is ongoing speculation as to who truly deserved the first place, but she continued to have sex with Sartre anyway. She even had sex with the people he was also sexing. It can be agreed by many scholars and critics that Beauvoir had a lot of sex.

In 1943, she saw published her first major work, a novel titled She Came to Stay. She dedicated the novel to Olga, a seventeen-year-old protégé with whom she was having sex and Sartre wanted to have sex but was rejected by young Olga and so he seduced and had sex with Olga’s sister, Wanda. A side note, for kicks: At the end of She Came to Stay, “the Beauvoir character murders the Olga character” (Menand).

For many years, Beauvoir continued to have sex with many people, not so much Sartre, anymore though, they wrote many letters back and forth about the sex they were having with other people  and the sex they imagined with other people. At some point, Beauvoir was dismissed from her teaching for having too much sex and writing about sex and socialism and women and equality and incomes of their own. The Nazis did not like her. Thankfully, neither the Nazis nor academia dismissed Sartre for having too much sex or socialism. That, of course, would have been ludicrous.

In 1949, Beauvoir saw published The Second Sex, written while Sartre was in a relationship with his latest lover, Vanetti, a French woman living in the US and to whom he proposed marriage. According to Louis Menand in his New Yorker article, “Stand by Your Man: The Strange Liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir,” this did not please Beauvoir, even though she was already having sex with Nelson Algren. Menand speculates that Sartre’s proposal to Vanetti was a “final push” against Beauvoir’s femme sensibilities, even though, Beauvoir had already rejected Sartre’s marital intentions years ago. An ongoing debate. The first US translation of The Second Sex was in 1989 by Howard Madison Parshley, a zoologist specializing in entomology and an avid fan of Beauvoir’s original text, though, his 1989 translation receives continued criticisms from Beauvoir academics as having cut too much of the text and leaving out too many female writers and their original citations. In 1983, “Margaret Simons informed [Beauvoir] . . . of the specific changes in the American text [and] Beauvoir responded . . . ‘dismayed to learn the extent to which Mr. Parshley misrepresented me'” (Gilman).

The Second Sex was criticized as pornography and placed on the Vatican’s list of forbidden texts, but nonetheless, became a bible of modern feminism. Four years after the first publication of Second Sex, a not-so-good translation appeared in the states. In 2009, “a far-more-faithful, unedited English volume was published, bolstering Beauvoir’s already significant reputation as one of the great thinkers of the modern feminist movement,” (Biography) sex and all.

Beauvoir was a preeminent thinker, writer, modernist feminist, a French resistance fighter, a U.S. Vietnam policy condemner, an abortion rights and women’s equality activist, and yes, she was a woman who had sex.

She died in 1986 and now shares a grave with Sartre in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Let’s just reflect, for a moment, on this.

In her fierce intellect and courage, we find in Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophies and actions not only the feminist ideals of the twentieth century but also ongoing gender ideologies to come. Let us end on perhaps her most famous words, On ne naît pas femme: on le devient. “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (2009).

The Second Sex: On ne Naît pas Femme: On le Devient

“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (2009).

“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” (1989).

In the 2009 translation of The Second Sex, the translators address la femme in the “Translator’s Note”:

One particularly complex and compelling issue was how to translate la femme. In Le deuxième sexe, the term has at least two meanings: “the woman” and “woman.” At times it can also mean “women,” depending on the context. “Woman” in English used alone without an article captures woman as an institution, a concept, femininity as determined and defined by society, culture, history. Thus in a French sentence such as Le problème de la femme a toujours été un problème d’hommes, we have used “woman” without an article: “The problem of woman has always been a problem of men.” 

Beauvoir occasionally — but rarely — uses femme without an article to signify woman as determined by society as just described. In such cases, of course, we do the same. The famous sentence, On ne naît pas femme: on le devient, reads, in our translation: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” The original translation [1989] by H. M. Parshley read, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”

What significance, if any, might this divergence in translations mean if viewed critically through a feminist/gender lens?

The Second Sex: Phallus-Plowshare and Woman-Furrow

In the 1989 translation:

He wishes to conquer, to take, to possess; to have woman is to conquer her; he penetrates into her as the plowshare into the furrow; he makes her his even as he makes his the land he works; he labors, he plants, he sows: these images are old as writing; from antiquity to our own day a thousand examples could be cited: “Woman is like the field, and man is like the seed,” says the law of Manu. In a drawing by Andre Masson there is a man with spade in hand, spading the garden of a woman’s vulva.8  Woman is her husband’s prey, his possession. 

8. Rabelais calls the male sex organ “nature’s plowman.” We have noted the religious and historical origin of the associations: phallus-plowshare and woman-furrow. (1989)

The passage to which the #8 footnote refers:

Formerly, he was possessed by the mana, by the land; now he has a soul, owns certain lands; freed from Woman, he now demands for himself a woman and a posterity. He wants the work of the family, which he uses to improve his fields to be…. (1989, 78)

In the 2009 translation:

He wants to conquer, take, and possess; to have a woman is to conquer her; he penetrates her as the plowshare in the furrows; he makes her his as he makes his the earth he is working: he plows, he plants, he sows: these images are as old as writing; from antiquity to today a thousand examples can be mentioned. “Woman is like the field and man like the seeds,” say the Laws of Manu. In an André Masson drawing there is a man, shovel in hand, tilling the garden of a feminine sex. 12 Woman is her husband’s prey, his property. 

12. Rabelais called the male sex “the worker of nature.” The religious and historical origin of the phallus-plowshare — woman-furrow association has already been pointed out. (2009, 170-171)

The passage to which the #12 footnote refers: 

Formerly he was possessed by the mana, by the earth: now he has a soul, property; freed from Woman, he now lays claim to a woman and a posterity of his own. He wants the family labor he uses for the benefit of his fields to be totally his, and for this to happen, the workers must belong to him: he subjugates his wife and his children. He must have heirs who will extend his life on earth because he bequeaths them his possessions, and who will give him in turn, beyond the tomb, the necessary honors for the repose of his soul. The cult of the domestic gods is superimposed on the constitution of private property, and the function of heirs is both economic and mystical. Thus, the day agriculture ceases to be an essentially magic operation and becomes creative labor, man finds himself to be a generative force; he lays claim to his children and his crops at the same time. (2009, 86-87)

Andre Masson and Toyen

In the Second Sex, Beauvoir 

Masson, André. Le génie de l’espèce (The Genius of the Species). 1942, drypoint and engraving, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Toyen. Dívčí sen II (A Girl Dream II). 1932. zincography and aquarelle, The ART Gallery, Chrudim.

Woman as Siren: Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

Detailed and Alternatively Stylized Scene with Multi-Sensory Focus

In Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? the Odyssey turns Appalachian. In this scene, we have concrete details: women washing clothes and singing their enticing lullaby, the men dirty, sweaty, travel worn, a stream, rocks… In this alternate telling, the sirens physically interact with the men. The sirens are beautiful, their song sweet.

Aside from the auditory representations, both the second and the third film adaptations of “Odysseus and the Sirens” are faithful representations of the first stick figure summary. The stick figure summary, though successful in allowing the viewer to focus on the auditory, leaves a great deal of detail out if one is writing a literary scene, though, the stick figures would be perfect for a light summary rendition on YouTube, and the simplicity can be enjoyable. 

It is the writer’s job to balance sensory detail and summary within the narrative. Both are necessary in creating a well-developed narrative, and the summary sections can be effective ligaments for the bones of the narrative, the more detailed and immersive scene work. But consider which of the above adaptations stay with you longer? Which of them transports you more thoroughly? 

Redneck Feminism in Good Ol’ Boy Land: Phallus-Plowshare and Woman-Furrow in Popular Culture

This section will become its own lesson, but for some reason, came to me while reading The Second Sex, again. Ahem.

Put your boots on and get ready to dance. As “Boys ‘Round Here” opens, we see a long, green convertible round the street corner and making its way toward the camera. Shelton sings “Red red red red red red redneck…” as the long convertible pumps up and down, plowing the asphalt. Then Shelton makes his way to the same corner, but coming the other way, driving his big red truck. On the bumper is a phrase: “Well with others.” He parks and begins pumping and plowing the asphalt, mirroring the long convertible’s motions. Shelton and the men in the convertible — speculated to be rappers but are actually actors playing the part in the video — exchange admirations for each others’ pumping and plowing of the asphalt. They are all smiling wide at their vehicles pumping and plowing the asphalt street.

Cut to Blake Shelton reclining in a chair on his porch, boots kicked up and leaning on the porch rail. Pistol Annies stand to the side, one of them, Miranda Lake, his wife. Consider their position to Blake Shelton as he reclines on his chair, drinking his beer on the porch.

Later, during their focal scenes, they are positioned and costumed with a great deal of care. As with all great film, and yes, music videos, positioning and costuming of “characters” means a great deal in the subtext of the scene or sequence. What does the positioning and costuming of Pistol Annies represent for you as the viewer? Furthermore, in the below lyrics, you’ll find Pistol Annies’ backup lyrics. What response is conjured in you, as the viewer and listener?

Also, how might Marxist and critical race theories play significantly within the contexts of this video?

“Boys ‘Round Here” Lyrics

Songwriters: Craig Wiseman, Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins

Red red red red red red red red redneck
Well the boys ’round here don’t listen to The Beatles
Run ole Bocephus through a jukebox needle
At a honky-tonk, where their boots stomp
All night what? (That’s right)
Yeah, and what they call work, digging in the dirt
Gotta get it in the ground ‘fore the rain come down
To get paid, to get the girl
In your 4 wheel drive (A country boy can survive)
Yeah the boys ’round here
Drinking that ice cold beer
Talkin’ ’bout girls, talkin’ ’bout trucks
Runnin’ them red dirt roads out, kicking up dust
The boys ’round here
Sending up a prayer to the man upstairs
Backwoods legit, don’t take no shit
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit
Aw heck
Red red red red red red red red red red redneck
Well the boys ’round here, they’re keeping it country
Ain’t a damn one know how to do the dougie
(You don’t do the dougie?) No, not in Kentucky
But these girls ’round here yep, they still love me
Yeah, the girls ’round here, they all deserve a whistle
Shakin’ that sugar, sweet as Dixie crystal
They like that y’all and southern drawl
And just can’t help it cause they just keep fallin’
For the boys ’round here
Drinking that ice cold beer
Talkin’ ’bout girls, talkin’ ’bout trucks
Runnin’ them red dirt roads out, kicking up dust
The boys ’round here
Sending up a prayer to the man upstairs
Backwoods legit, don’t take no shit
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit
Let me hear you say
(Ooh let’s ride)
Through the country side
(Ooh let’s ride)
Down to the river side
Hey now girl, hop inside
Me and you gonna take a little ride to the river
Let’s ride (That’s right)
Lay a blanket on the ground
Kissing and the crickets is the only sound
We out of town
Have you ever got down with a
Red red red red red red red red red red redneck?
Do you wanna get down with a,
Red red red red red red red red red red redneck?
Girl you gotta get down
With the boys ’round here
Drinking that ice cold beer
Talkin’ ’bout girls, talkin’ ’bout trucks
Runnin’ them red dirt roads out, kicking up dust
The boys ’round here
Sending up a prayer to the man upstairs
Backwoods legit, don’t take no shit
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit
Red red red red red red red red redneck
(Ooh let’s ride)
I’m one of them boys ’round here
(Ooh let’s ride)
Red red red red red red red red redneck
(Ooh let’s ride)
Well all I’m thinkin’ ’bout is you and me, how we’ll be
So come on girl, hop inside
Me and you, we’re gonna take a little ride
Lay a blanket on the ground
Kissing and the crickets is the only sound
We out of town
Girl you gotta get down with a
Come on through the country side
Down to the river side


The Dixie Chicks took some heat for the satirical song and video, “Goodbye Earl.” Have they gone too far? How does the satire in this song and video compare to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal? How do they use chiaroscuro in tone and context to heighten the impact? Does it change your view of the song, at all, to know that it was written by Dennis Linde?

“Goodbye Earl”

Songwriter: Dennis Linde

Mary Anne and Wanda were the best of friends
All through their high school days
Both members of the 4H club, both active in the FFA
After graduation
Mary Anne went out lookin’ for a bright new world
Wanda looked all around this town and all she found was Earl
Well, it wasn’t two weeks after she got married that
Wanda started gettin’ abused
She’d put on dark glasses or long sleeved blouses
Or make-up to cover a bruise
Well she finally got the nerve to file for divorce
And she let the law take it from there
But Earl walked right through that restraining order
And put her in intensive care
Right away Mary Anne flew in from Atlanta
On a red eye midnight flight
She held Wanda’s hand as they worked out a plan
And it didn’t take ’em long to decide
That Earl had to die, goodbye Earl
Those black-eyed peas, they tasted alright to me, Earl
You’re feelin’ weak? Why don’t you lay down and sleep, Earl
Ain’t it dark wrapped up in that tarp, Earl
The cops came by to bring Earl in
They searched the house high and low
Then they tipped their hats and said, thank you ladies
If you hear from him let us know
Well, the weeks went by and spring turned to summer
And summer faded into fall
And it turns out he was a missing person who nobody missed at all
So the girls bought some land and a roadside stand
Out on highway 109
They sell Tennessee ham and strawberry jam
And they don’t lose any sleep at night, ’cause
Earl had to die, goodbye Earl
We need a break, let’s go out to the lake, Earl
We’ll pack a lunch, and stuff you in the trunk, Earl
Is that alright? Good! Let’s go for a ride, Earl, hey!
Ooh hey hey hey, ummm hey hey hey, hey hey hey

“Speak to a Girl”

Songwriters: Blake Anthony Carter, Dave Gibson, Joseph Spargur
She don’t give a damn ’bout your Benjamin Franklin’s, she wants Aretha
She don’t really care how you’re spending your money, it’s all how you treat her
She just want a friend to be there when she opens her eyes in the morning
She wants you to say what you mean and mean everything that you’re saying
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you get with the lady who’s worth more than anything in your whole world
You better respect your Mama, respect the hell out of her
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman and that’s how you speak to a girl
She don’t give a damn ’bout your pride or the lies that you’re hiding behind
She just wanna feel that you’re real, that she’s near to the man that’s inside
She don’t need to hear she’s a queen on a throne, that she’s more than amazing
She just wants you to say what you mean and to mean everything that you’re saying
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you get with a lady who’s worth more than anything in your whole world
You better respect your mama, respect the hell out of her
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you speak to, speak to her
That’s how you speak to, speak to her
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you get with a lady who’s worth more than anything in your whole world
You better respect your mama, respect the hell out of her
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman and that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl

Plows and mules in Their Eyes Were Watching God


“Naw, Ah needs two mules dis yeah. Taters is goin’ tuh be taters in de fall. Bringin’ big prices. Ah aims tuh run two plows, and dis man Ah’m talkin’ ’bout is got uh mule all gentled up so even uh woman kin handle ’im.”

Logan held his wad of tobacco real still in his jaw like a thermometer of his feelings while he studied Janie’s face and waited for her to say something. (Huston 766)

“Come to yo’ Grandma, honey. Set in her lap lak yo’ use tuh. Yo’ Nanny wouldn’t harm a hair uh yo’ head. She don’t want nobody else to do it neither if she kin help it. Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!” (Hurston, 556-557)

“You behind a plow! You ain’t got no mo’ business wid uh plow than uh hog is got wid uh holiday! You ain’t got no business cuttin’ up no seed p’taters neither. A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo’self and eat p’taters dat other folks plant just special for you.” (Hurston, 809)




Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Vintage  Books, 2009. 

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley, Vintage Books, 1989.

Blake Shelton. “Boys ‘Round Here.” Based on a True Story…, Ten Point Productions, Inc., 2013, YouTube, youtube.com/embed/JXAgv665J14.

Dixie Chicks. “Goodbye Earl.” Fly, Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 1999. YouTube, youtube.com/embed/Gw7gNf_9njs.

Gilman, Richard. “The Man Behind the Feminist Bible.” The New York Times, 22 May 1988, nytimes.com/1988/05/22/books/the-man-behind-the-feminist-bible.html. Accessed 4 Sept. 2017.

Masson, André. Le génie de l’espèce (The Genius of the Species). 1942, drypoint and engraving, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Menand, Louis. “Stand by Your Man: The Strange Liaison Between Sartre and Beauvoir.” The New Yorker, 26 Sept. 2005, newyorker.com/magazine/2005/09/26/stand-by-your-man. Accessed 2 Sept. 2017.

“Simone de Beauvoir: Journalist, Women’s Rights Activist, Academic, Activist, Philosopher (1908–1986).” Biography, 28 Apr. 2017, biography.com/people/simone-de-beauvoir-9269063. Accessed 2 Sept. 2017.

Toyen. Dívčí sen II (A Girl Dream II). 1932. zincography and aquarelle, The ART Gallery, Chrudim.


Place as Emotional Arc Within the Novel



Welcome back! This is our last lesson for the “Novel II: Setting as Three-Dimensional Canvas” workshop. This week, we are going to return our attentions to the settings’ impacts, contrasts and reflections of characters and the emotional resonance this creates. We will use the tracking, mapping and coding draft and outline you did last week in order to focus on the emotional arcing of your novel. Our reading and viewing this week will focus both Swamplandia!


Reading as a Writer

Swamplandia! (Opening Paragraph)
by Karen Russell

Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one— to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’ s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. Four times a week, our mother climbed the ladder above the Gator Pit in a green two-piece bathing suit and stood on the edge of the diving board, breathing. If it was windy, her long hair flew around her face, but the rest of her stayed motionless. Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered— our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights— and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother’s body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.


For Discussion

What do words like “sharp moon” and “star-lepered” conjure emotionally? How do the descriptions not only conjure emotional atmosphere but also irony? For instance, have you ever thought of stars as resembling leprosy? How might the irony of this setting and the strategic word choice heighten narrative tension?


Writing Assignment

Choose a scene within your novel. The opening scene would be good, but if you have another scene and setting on which you’d like to focus now, let’s focus there. Please complete the following for submission:

1. Identify the setting words. Include all the senses. If you’ve not covered all senses, revise so that all the senses are subtly represented. Be critical. Consider how the details are given organically within the text. 

2. Identify any details and descriptions that present an ironic effect that conjures an emotional response within the reader. For instance, in the Russell excerpt, “star-lepered” is an ironic choice of description for the sky. It stands out due to this. Where the reader would assume a dreamy sort of futuristic and infinite emotion when studying a star-filled sky, the word “lepered” conjures illness, death, decrepit flesh, the stink of it rotting away, the numbing effect of the disease on the body. This juxtaposition of battling “star” and “leper” create an immediate rise in narrative tension even before the reader fully explores the depths of the analysis. It is a quick and unique setting detail that creates an atmosphere and emotion of anticipated tragedy, death, rotting away. An entire novel can easily center on this single suggestion within a single hyphenated detail. The reader asks, how will this come to pass? Gators? Whoah. In the first paragraph, Russell packs all this emotion and anticipation within a single hyphenated word describing the setting, “star-lepered.”

Likewise, in the above film clip from Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, birds are chirping, hospitality shared, all while “The Jew Hunter” happily interrogates the host. The contrast between rural, French countryside hospitality, and Nazi sets immediate tension. The reader asks, when is this going to turn? The moment the “big pipe” comes out, it is apparent that the viewer’s anticipations are soon coming to pass. When the viewer sees the eyes looking up between the floorboards, the righteous and persecuted below, the genocidal Nazi war criminal above, the irony is further explored. The hidden family may have been set in an attic rather than below the floorboards. Every detail speaks volumes.

Where, in your chosen excerpt, have you exacted such a unique, ironic and emotional detail? How can you further explore this within your excerpt? Now do it. The trick is to write it but not overwrite it. Remember your minimalist techniques.

3. Repeat the above considerations for each setting you’ve created within your novel. Use your mapping outline to locate and focus on each setting individually. Consider and revise as many of these individual settings as you can within this week’s lesson. Choose the setting/scene, 1000 words or less, you would like to submit for feedback this week and submit to the below forum.


Submit for Individualized Feedback

Please use Universal Manuscript Guidelines when submitting: .doc or .docx, double spacing, 10-12 pt font, Times New Roman, 1 inch margins, first page header with contact information, section breaks “***” or “#.”

Deconstructing Dark Humor & Catharsis in “Emergency”

We are going to explore Denis Johnson’s short story, “Emergency,” from his collection, Jesus’ Son. You might have already read this work. Great! Multiple readings of a work are essential in “reading as a writer.” As we read “Emergency” this week, we are going to deconstruct the aesthetics and craft techniques that make this story such a beloved American short story favorite. It has been included in many “Best of” anthologies and published in The New Yorker, among other journals. The above film clip is the section titled “Emergency” from the film Jesus’ Son, based on Denis Johnson’s story collection of the same name. 

In this lesson we will study how dark humor and heart-stopping drama work hand-in-hand to create empathy, “reader complicity” and catharsis in literary narrative. You are also going to write a short narrative and submit/upload it to the below forum where individual members of the class will give brief feedback. I will give more detailed line and end notes by the following Sunday deadline, 6 pm, in the same forum. This will be our general schedule each week. No need to log in at particular times. All assignments, feedback, discussion responses and submissions are deadline based. Sunday, 6 pm. I am always available for any questions and needs. I look forward to working with you and reading your words!

Reading Assignment: Deconstructing “Emergency”

We are going to read “Emergency” several times (text below). Read first for enjoyment, if you’ve not read it before, or remembrance, if it’s been a while. For your second read, I want you to print a copy and keep a pen or pencil handy. Look for the following and mark them as you find them. (We will all share similar reactions and also have different reactions to different sections. This is okay and one of the most wonderful aspects of reading text as opposed to viewing film, though both are fantastic media and often work well in tandem.) You might find that you want to focus on each individual consideration in separate readings.


Mark the following

  • Laugh out loud funny. (This could be a smiley face or LOL. Whatever works for you.)
  • Dark humor. (Mark separately the moments when you are laughing under your breath. You don’t feel right about it, but it’s still funny. You might use “DH” to indicate this.)
  • Cringe moments. (Mark moments that make you cringe or “look away.”)
  • The moment in which you are hooked. (Mark it with a star or some other symbol. When is the moment in the story when you feel confident that you will finish it because you want to rather than because it was assigned. It’s okay if you don’t have this moment. In this case, consider why you haven’t connected.)
  • The pinnacle. (Mark each moment you feel is the climax of the narrative, the heightened conflicts. You might find that you assume a climax but find that there are higher pinnacles later in the story. Mark them all.)
  • Circle the character you most care about. (This doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist. This should be the character you are most interested in following as the narrative continues.)
  • Identify the highs and lows. (Mark the lowest or quietest point in the narrative. The moment when everything seems fine or stable. Also mark the pinnacle. The ultimate moment of conflict. Consider how this forms a conflict spectrum within the story.)
  • Mark each setting. (Each time the setting changes, mark it.)
  • Notice the quirks. (Make a list of each strange and quirky habit of each character. Character quirks are often what make them most memorable.)
  • Make a note on how the close of the story reflects the opening. (A closing in which the ending reflects the opening and brings its readers back to the start in some way is excellent. This creates a “framework” and cyclical structure, letting readers know that the narrative has “folded” into itself, encouraging readers to go back to the beginning and continue the narrative individually, creating more opportunities for catharsis. 


by Denis Johnson

from Jesus’ Son
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
Tobias Wolff Interview with TNY, Reading of “Emergency”

I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess. This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera, looking for Georgie, the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.

He was running over the tiled floor of the operating room with a mop. “Are you still doing that?” I said.

“Jesus, there’s a lot of blood here,” he complained.

“Where?” The floor looked clean enough to me.

“What the hell were they doing in here?” he asked me.

“They were performing surgery, Georgie,” I told him.

“There’s so much goop inside of us, man,” he said, “and it all wants to get out.” He leaned his mop against a cabinet.

“What are you crying for?” I didn’t understand.

He stood still, raised both arms slowly behind his head, and tightened his ponytail. Then he grabbed the mop and started making broad random arcs with it, trembling and weeping and moving all around the place really fast. “What am I crying for?” he said. “Jesus. Wow, oh boy, perfect.”

I was hanging out in the E.R. with fat, quivering Nurse. One of the Family Service doctors that nobody liked came in looking for Georgie to wipe up after him. “Where’s Georgie?” this guy asked.

“Georgie’s in O.R.,” Nurse said.


“No,” Nurse said. “Still.”

“Still? Doing what?”

“Cleaning the floor.”


“No,” Nurse said again. “Still.”

Back in O.R., Georgie dropped his mop and bent over in the posture of a child soiling its diapers. He stared down with his mouth open in terror.

He said, “What am I going to do about these fucking shoes,man?”

“Whatever you stole,” I said, “I guess you already ate it all, right?”

“Listen to how they squish,” he said, walking around carefully on his heels.

“Let me check your pockets, man.” 

He stood still a minute, and I found his stash. I left him two of each, whatever they were. “Shift is about half over,” I told him.

“Good. Because I really, really, really need a drink,” he said. “Will you please help me get this blood mopped up?”

Around 3:30 a.m. a guy with a knife in his eye came in, led by Georgie.

“I hope you didn’t do that to him,” Nurse said.

“Me?” Georgie said. “No. He was like this.”

“My wife did it,” the man said. The blade was buried to the hilt in the outside corner of his left eye. It was a hunting knife kind of thing.

“Who brought you in?” Nurse said.

“Nobody. I just walked down. It’s only three blocks,” the man said.

Nurse peered at him. “We’d better get you lying down.”

“Okay, I’m certainly ready for something like that,” the man said.

She peered a bit longer into his face.

“Is your other eye,” she said, “a glass eye?”

“It’s plastic, or something artificial like that,” he said.

“And you can see out of this eye?” she asked, meaning the wounded one.

“I can see. But I can’t make a fist out of my left hand because this knife is doing something to my brain.”

“My God,” Nurse said.

“I guess I’d better get the doctor,” I said.

“There you go,” Nurse agreed.

They got him lying down, and Georgie says to the patient, “Name?”

“Terrence Weber.”

“Your face is dark. I can’t see what you’re saying.”

“Georgie,” I said.

“What are you saying, man? I can’t see.”

Nurse came over, and Georgie said to her, “His face is dark.”

She leaned over the patient. “How long ago did this happen, Terry?” she shouted down into his face.

“Just a while ago. My wife did it. I was asleep,” the patient said.

“Do you want the police?”

He thought about it and finally said, “Not unless I die.”

Nurse went to the wall intercom and buzzed the doctor on duty, the Family Service person. “Got a surprise for you,” she said over the intercom. He took his time getting down the hall to her, because he knew she hated Family Service and her happy tone of voice could only mean something beyond his competence and potentially humiliating. 

He peeked into the trauma room and saw the situation: the clerk—that is, me—standing next to the orderly, Georgie, both of us on drugs, looking down at a patient with a knife sticking up out of his face.

“What seems to be the trouble?” he said.

The doctor gathered the three of us around him in the office and said, “Here’s the situation. We’ve got to get a team here, an entire team. I want a good eye man. A great eye man. The best eye man. I want a brain surgeon. And I want a really good gas man, get me a genius. I’m not touching that head. I’m just going to watch this one. I know my limits. We’ll just get him prepped and sit tight. Orderly!”

“Do you mean me?” Georgie said. “Should I get him prepped?”

“Is this a hospital?” the doctor asked. “Is this the emergency room? Is that a patient? Are you the orderly?”

I dialled the hospital operator and told her to get me the eye man and the brain man and the gas man.

Georgie could be heard across the hall, washing his hands and singing a Neil Young song that went “Hello, cowgirl in the sand. Is this place at your command?”

“That person is not right, not at all, not one bit,” the doctor said.

“As long as my instructions are audible to him it doesn’t concern me,” Nurse insisted, spooning stuff up out of a little Dixie cup. “I’ve got my own life and the protection of my family to think of.”

“Well, okay, okay. Don’t chew my head off,” the doctor said.

The eye man was on vacation or something. While the hospital’s operator called around to find someone else just as good, the other specialists were hurrying through the night to join us. I stood around looking at charts and chewing up more of Georgie’s pills. Some of them tasted the way urine smells, some of them burned, some of them tasted like chalk. Various nurses, and two physicians who’d been tending somebody in I.C.U., were hanging out down here with us now.

Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand.

The talk just dropped off a cliff.

“Where,” the doctor asked finally, “did you get that?”

Nobody said one thing more, not for quite a long time.

After a while, one of the I.C.U. nurses said, “Your shoelace is untied.” Georgie laid the knife on a chart and bent down to fix his shoe.

There were twenty more minutes left to get through.

“How’s the guy doing?” I asked.

“Who?” Georgie said.

It turned out that Terrence Weber still had excellent vision in the one good eye, and acceptable motor and reflex, despite his earlier motor complaint. “His vitals are normal,” Nurse said. “There’s nothing wrong with the guy. It’s one of those things.”

After a while you forget it’s summer. You don’t remember what the morning is. I’d worked two doubles with eight hours off in between, which I’d spent sleeping on a gurney in the nurse’s station. Georgie’s pills were making me feel like a giant helium-filled balloon, but I was wide awake. Georgie and I went out to the lot, to his orange pickup.

We lay down on a stretch of dusty plywood in the back of the truck with the daylight knocking against our eyelids and the fragrance of alfalfa thickening on our tongues.

“I want to go to church,” Georgie said.

“Let’s go to the county fair.”

“I’d like to worship. I would.”

“They have these injured hawks and eagles there. From the Humane Society,” I said.

“I need a quiet chapel about now.”

Georgie and I had a terrific time driving around. For a while the day was clear and peaceful. It was one of the moments you stay in, to hell with all the troubles of before and after. The sky is blue and the dead are coming back. Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fare bares its breasts. A champion of the drug LSD, a very famous guru of the love generation, is being interviewed amid a TV crew off to the left of the poultry cages. His eyeballs look like he bought them in a joke shop. It doesn’t occur to me, as I pity this extraterrestrial, that in my life I’ve taken as much as he has.

After that, we got lost. We drove for hours, literally hours, but we couldn’t find the road back to town. 

Georgie started to complain. “That was the worst fair I’ve been to. Where were the rides?”

“They had rides,” I said.

“I didn’t see one ride.”

A jackrabbit scurried out in front of us, and we hit it.

“There was a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel, and a thing called the Hammer that people were bent over vomiting from after they got off,” I said. “Are you completely blind?”

“What was that?”

“A rabbit.”

“Something thumped.”

“You hit him. He thumped.”

Georgie stood on the brake pedal. “Rabbit stew.”

He threw the truck in reverse and zigzagged back toward the rabbit. “Where’s my hunting knife?” He almost ran over the poor animal a second time.

“We’ll camp in the wilderness,” he said. “In the morning we’ll breakfast on its haunches.” He was waving Terrence Weber’s hunting knife around in what I was sure was a dangerous way.

In a minute he was standing at the edge of the fields, cutting the scrawny little thing up, tossing away its organs. “I should have been a doctor,” he cried.

A family in a big Dodge, the only car we’d seen for a long time, slowed down and gawked out the windows as they passed by. The father said, “What is it, a snake?”

“No, it’s not a snake,” Georgie said. “It’s a rabbit with babies inside it.”

“Babies!” the mother said, and the father sped the car forward, over the protests of several little kids in the back.

Georgie came back to my side of the truck with his shirtfront stretched out in front of him as if he were carrying apples in it, or some such, but they were, in fact, slimy miniature bunnies. “No way I’m eating those things,” I told him.

“Take them, take them. I gotta drive, take them,” he said, dumping them in my lap and getting in on his side of the truck. He started driving along faster and faster, with a look of glory on his face. “We killed the mother and saved the children,” he said.

“It’s getting late,” I said. “Let’s get back to town.”

“You bet.” Sixty, seventy, eighty-five, just topping ninety.

“These rabbits better be kept warm.” One at a time I slid the little things in between my shirt buttons and nestled them against my belly. “They’re hardly moving,” I told Georgie.

“We’ll get some milk and sugar and all that, and we’ll raise them up ourselves. They’ll get as big as gorillas.”

The road we were lost on cut straight through the middle of the world. It was still daytime, but the sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge. In this light the truck’s hood, which had been bright orange, had turned a deep blue.

Georgie let us drift to the shoulder of the road, slowly, slowly, as if he’d fallen asleep or given up trying to find his way. 

“What is it?”

“We can’t go on. I don’t have any headlights,” Georgie said.

We parked under a strange sky with a faint image of a quarter-moon superimposed on it.

There was a little woods beside us. This day had been dry and hot, the buck pines and what-all simmering patiently, but as we sat there smoking cigarettes it started to get very cold.

“The summer’s over,” I said.

That was the year when arctic clouds moved down over the Midwest and we had two weeks of winter in September.

“Do you realize it’s going to snow?” Georgie asked me.

He was right, a gun-blue storm was shaping up. We got out and walked around idiotically. The beautiful chill! That sudden crispness, and the tang of evergreen stabbing us!

The gusts of snow twisted themselves around our heads while the night fell. I couldn’t find the truck. We just kept getting more and more lost. I kept calling, “Georgie, can you see?” and he kept saying, “See what? See what?”

The only light visible was a streak of sunset flickering below the hem of the clouds. We headed that way.

We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.

Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in, man!”

“The drive-in . . .” I wasn’t sure what these words meant.

“They’re showing movies in a fucking blizzard!” Georgie screamed.

“I see. I thought it was something else,” I said.

We walked carefully down there and climbed through the busted fence and stood in the very back. The speakers, which I’d mistaken for grave markers, muttered in unison. Then there was tinkly music, of which I could very nearly make out the tune. Famous movie stars rode bicycles beside a river, laughing out of their gigantic, lovely mouths. If anybody had come to see this show, they’d left when the weather started. Not one car remained, not even a broken-down one from last week, or one left here because it was out of gas. In a couple of minutes, in the middle of a whirling square dance, the screen turned black, the cinematic summer ended, the snow went dark, there was nothing but my breath.

“I’m starting to get my eyes back,” Georgie said in another minute.

A general greyness was giving birth to various shapes, it was true. “But which ones are close and which ones are far off?” I begged him to tell me.

By trial and error, with a lot of walking back and forth in wet shoes, we found the truck and sat inside it shivering.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

“We can’t go anywhere without headlights.”

“We’ve gotta get back. We’re a long way from home.”

“No, we’re not.”

“We must have come three hundred miles.”

“We’re right outside town, Fuckhead. We’ve just been driving around and around.”

“This is no place to camp. I hear the Interstate over there.”

“We’ll just stay here till it gets late. We can drive home late. We’ll be invisible.”

We listened to the big rigs going from San Francisco to Pennsylvania along the Interstate, like shudders down a long hacksaw blade, while the snow buried us.

Eventually Georgie said, “We better get some milk for those bunnies.”

“We don’t have milk,” I said.

“We’ll mix sugar up with it.”

“Will you forget about this milk all of a sudden?”

“They’re mammals, man.”

“Forget about those rabbits.”

“Where are they, anyway?”

“You’re not listening to me. I said, ‘Forget the rabbits.’ ”

“Where are they?”

The truth was I’d forgotten all about them, and they were dead.

“They slid around behind me and got squashed,” I said tearfully.

“They slid around behind?

He watched while I pried them out from behind my back.

I picked them out one at a time and held them in my hands and we looked at them. There were eight. They weren’t any bigger than my fingers, but everything was there.

Little feet! Eyelids! Even whiskers! “Deceased,” I said.

Georgie asked, “Does everything you touch turn to shit? Does this happen to you every time?”

“No wonder they call me Fuckhead.”

“It’s a name that’s going to stick.”

“I realize that.”

“ ‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.”

“I just said so. I agreed with you in advance,” I said.

Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them. It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember now is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up. A mist covered everything and, with the sunshine, was beginning to grow sharp and strange. The bunnies weren’t a problem yet, or they’d already been a problem and were already forgotten, and there was nothing on my mind. I felt the beauty of the morning. I could understand how a drowning man might suddenly feel a deep thirst being quenched. Or how the slave might become a friend to his master. Georgie slept with his face right on the steering wheel.

I saw bits of snow resembling an abundance of blossoms on the stems of the drive-in speakers—no, revealing the blossoms that were always there. A bull elk stood still in the pasture beyond the fence, giving off an air of authority and stupidity. And a coyote jogged across the pasture and faded away among the saplings.

That afternoon we got back to work in time to resume everything as if it had never stopped happening and we’d never been anywhere else.

“The Lord,” the intercom said, “is my shepherd.” It did that each evening because this was a Catholic hospital. “Our father, who art in Heaven,” and so on.

“Yeah, yeah,” Nurse said.

The man with the knife in his head, Terrence Weber, was released around suppertime. They’d kept him overnight and given him an eyepatch—all for no reason, really.

He stopped off at E.R. to say goodbye. “Well, those pills they gave me make everything taste terrible,” he said.

“It could have been worse,” Nurse said.

“Even my tongue.”

“It’s just a miracle you didn’t end up sightless or at least dead,” she reminded him.

The patient recognized me. He acknowledged me with a smile. “I was peeping on the lady next door while she was out there sunbathing,” he said. “My wife decided to blind me.”

He shook Georgie’s hand. Georgie didn’t know him. “Who are you supposed to be?” he asked Terrence Weber.

Some hours before that, Georgie had said something that had suddenly and completely explained the difference between us. We’d been driving back toward town, along the Old Highway, through the flatness. We picked up a hitchhiker, a boy I knew. We stopped the truck and the boy climbed slowly up out of the fields as out of the mouth of a volcano. His name was Hardee. He looked even worse than we probably did.

“We got messed up and slept in the truck all night,” I told Hardee.

“I had a feeling,” Hardee said. “Either that or, you know, driving a thousand miles.”

“That too,” I said.

“Or you’re sick or diseased or something.”

“Who’s this guy?” Georgie asked.

“This is Hardee. He lived with me last summer. I found him on the doorstep. What happened to your dog?” I asked Hardee.

“He’s still down there.”

“Yeah, I heard you went to Texas.”

“I was working on a bee farm,” Hardee said.

“Wow. Do those things sting you?”

“Not like you’d think,” Hardee said. “You’re part of their daily drill. It’s all part of a harmony.”

Outside, the same identical stretch of ground repeatedly rolled past our faces. The day was cloudless, blinding. But Georgie said, “Look at that,” pointing straight ahead of us.

One star was so hot it showed, bright and blue, in the empty sky.

“I recognized you right away,” I told Hardee. “But what happened to your hair? Who chopped it off?”

“I hate to say.”

“Don’t tell me.”

“They drafted me.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yeah. I’m AWOL. I’m bad AWOL. I got to get to Canada.”

“Oh, that’s terrible,” I said to Hardee.

“Don’t worry,” Georgie said. “We’ll get you there.”


“Somehow. I think I know some people. Don’t worry. You’re on your way to Canada.”

That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?

After a while Hardee asked Georgie, “What do you do for a job,” and Georgie said, “I save lives.” 

Writing Assignment

You are going to write your own “Emergency.” Keep the word count to 1,000 words or less. It is okay if you prefer to rework a story or draft from an earlier workshop as long as you are open to changing the narrative as needed. You will submit this narrative to the below forum by the upcoming Sunday, 6 pm.

  • Choose a single scene from the short story or a few scenes.
  • Recreate the setting as one of your own. Use a setting you know well. It must be a setting other than the setting in your scene(s) from “Emergency.”
  • Replace the characters with amalgamated people you know. Don’t copy a single friend or family member. For each character, choose three or more people you know or knew and then smash them altogether and make composite characters.
  • Center the conflict on one of your greatest fears, and spin the fear into humor. One technique some writers use to turn fears to dark humor is to reread great examples, master writers, who wrote your fear well and humorously, without losing the darker drama of the conflict. Denis Johnson is a master at this. Another technique, if you are a film lover, is to re-watch films and clips that explore your fear in humorous ways. Make sure to immerse yourself in this fear as humor sufficiently as you write the narrative. Allow yourself time and drafts to write your fear in serious context at first, if needed. You can build the humor in a second draft. And remember, dark humor has a wide spectrum. Your dark humor can be subtle or brazen. Follow your instincts.


Discussion Assignment

Briefly share with us your deconstruction of “Emergency” and the aspects that are most interesting to you and your own work. Choose one to three aspects. For instance, you might share how cringe moments affected you as a reader and that you’d like to incorporate more of this or less of this into your own work. Or you might choose to discuss how the ending reflects the opening and why this is a good study for a story you wrote two weeks ago, etc. 

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  • Submit your work for developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, editorial assessment and more at Reedsy.com, where hundreds of experienced, awarded writers and editors are ready to read your work and help you make it the best it can be.