Author Archives: Greg R. Fishbone

Life and Art and Patterns and Mess

I read an article I read on the Publishers Weekly website called “Why Life and Writing are Inseparable” by Amie Barrodale, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

The thing that struck me first and drew me in was that the article opens with a discussion of writing, drops a rambling sentence of personal bombshells into the narrative, and then picks up the writing topic again without missing a beat. The result is jarringly familiar to anyone who has ever tried to combine life and writing, or life and illustrating, or life and any other creative endeavor. And especially so as I write this toward the end of a school year, which combines the chaos of life with the artistry of teaching.

Barrodale conveys the life/art balance through the structure of her story more effectively than if she’d used words alone, and at the same time establishes the importance of structure and subtext in her writing.

The article goes on to describe Barrodale’s early writing as having a focus on craft, until she found herself shifting to stories from her own life for the larger part of her career. We then find ourselves shifting from this brief focus on craft to a story from Barrodale’s life that takes up most of the remaining bulk of the piece.

And once again, in an entirely different way, I was struck by the author’s remarkable use of structure to support her theme. Much like concrete poetry, in which a poem about a fish might be shaped like a fish, Barrodale’s story about her life was actually shaped like her life—and can there be any better way to show the inseparability of life and creativity?

The story part of the article tells of Barrodale’s experiences carrying bowls around a Tibetan cave during a meditation retreat. She focuses on rules and norms, and how it felt to be in disagreement or conflict with other practitioners of the bowl-carrying arts.


Like most readers of the article, I’ve never been on a meditation retreat to a Tibetan cave, so I have no personal stake in the theory or politics Barrodale is describing. Readers can approach this story without the baggage we’d bring to a similar story about writing, or illustrating, or whatever creative endeavor we’re most experienced with and passionate about.

Which seems to be entirely the point.

A story about bowl-carrying techniques among cave-dwelling meditation practitioners can serve as an effective metaphor for any artists fumbling in the dark with the traditions and strictures of their craft. So what seems at first to be a tangent away from writing actually becomes the meat of Barrodale’s thesis about writing. Yet again, she uses structure rather than words to support the idea that writing and life are inseparable.

I thought the resulting essay was by far the most carefully, deliberately, and effectively structured article I’d ever read. But as a counterpoint, an irate reader in the comments section berated the author, editor, and publisher alike for releasing what she saw as an entirely unstructured article that “reads like someone journaling.”

Althrough we read all the same words, we read two very different articles.

From my perspective, the comment writer missed the most important aspects of the piece, as if looking at a fish-shaped poem and seeing only a random jumble of words. And from her perspective, she might say that I imposed an imagined structure on the article where none was actually intended.

Where I saw a pattern, the comment writer saw a mess.

Thinking about how the same article can be read and interpreted so differently by different people revealed the final puzzle piece in my quest to understand the connection between life and art.

Life is messy, but human beings are wired to extract patterns of meaning and importance from that mess. As creators, we seed our work with those same patterns and hope for the best. When a pattern resonates with a reader’s messy life experience, it feels true and a powerful connection is made. But a reader who does not connect with that pattern, no matter how artfully arranged, will only see the mess.

We may think we’re building stories with characters and plot, lines and color, structure and theme, but on the most basic level it’s all just patterns and mess.

Just like life.

What Would President Julie Do?

My nine-year-old daughter and I have a game we play during car rides where we pretend to host a radio talk show. I do the voices of Frank and Joe and sometimes Wanda–don’t ask. My daughter does the voice of Julie.

During the last campaign season, Julie ran for president against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and we had a lot of fun discussing various issues. After Election Day, Julie declared herself the winner and we’ve been rolling with it ever since.

One of President Julie’s first acts was to bury the Treasury Department underground and mark the spot with a giant X, because that’s what you do to keep your treasures safe. Her most current infrastructure project is a subway system that will connect to every house in the country so that people can get to work or school without worrying about traffic.

President Julie has named Joe, her fellow talk show host, as her Ambassador to Mexico. To make sure Joe doesn’t mess up our foreign relations too badly, she’s built a structure called “White House Junior” next to the embassy so she can keep an eye on things. Julie is learning Spanish in school, so she not only has lots of good advice for Joe but can help him with the lingo. In the interest of boosting morale among the embassy staff, President Julie recently moved both the embassy and White House Junior to a beach on the Mexican Riviera.

Meanwhile, Frank has had a series of unsuccessful postings in a variety of government agencies but hasn’t yet found a place where he can make a positive contribution. And Wanda is just Wanda–don’t ask.

Julie’s administration is working out well so far, although Julie sometimes worries that being President of the United States will interfere with her other career as a rock star.

As I listen to the political news from back in the real world, the question I find myself asking is, “What would President Julie do?”

To my ears, “Bury our most valuable building underground to keep it safe from pirates” makes about as much policy sense as “Build a wall to protect our coal industry from immigrants.” But then, as a spokesman for the Julie administration, I’m a little biased.

The second question I find myself asking is, “What does politics have to do with the stories we share with our children?”

The answer I’ve come up with is a personal theory that politics is actually a genre of storytelling. Where many classic stories begin with “Once upon a time…” political stories begin with “Imagine a world…” This would make politics a sister genre to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, all under the banner of speculative fiction.

Picture this:

A wandering storyteller comes to town. He takes to the stage. People gather around to listen. The storyteller smiles to form a connection with his audience. He waves his arms and hands for emphasis and speaks in a calculated cadence, repeating key phrases to punctuate his story. “Imagine a world where all the solar farms have been torn down and your children are working in a coal mine! It will be so amazing. So amazing. So amazing.”

This particular town’s economy was built by the coal industry. All the third-generation coal miners and their families applaud and nod approvingly. The storyteller has earned their five-star Amazon rating as well as their vote.

Then the wandering storyteller packs up his wares and moves on to the next town, over in farm country, where he tells that audience to imagine a world where international trade is negotiated by a real estate mogul.

Politics is storytelling because raw story is a form of raw power.

With the right stories, told to the right people, in states with the right number of electoral votes, a good storyteller can rise all the way to the top, becoming our Storyteller in Chief, a title we should totally be using to describe the awesome responsibilities of the presidency. A single story from our president can start a war or prevent it, plunge the economy into a recession or save it, provide hope in a time of need and solace in a time of tragedy–while an alternate story can cultivate hate and fear. A single story can reshape the world.

But politicians aren’t the only ones who can harness the power of story.

In the next town over from me is a boy, about the same age as President Julie, who is worried about his grandparents. The boy’s grandparents live in Iran, and the boy worries that he might never see them again, because a powerful storyteller has been telling a story in which people who share the same nationality and religion as the boy’s grandparents are scary and threatening.

The boy’s stories are true to life, told in the honest voice of a child, based on his lived experience. In the boy’s stories, his grandparents would only ever threaten to provide hugs, kisses, and home-baked cookies. I like the boy’s story better, and so does President Julie.

People who hear the boy’s story won’t be so easily sold on the politician’s story, and here’s why:

All genres develop conventions and shorthand over time. In the genre of science fiction, we no longer have to spend several pages explaining how a starship can travel faster than the speed of light–the reader just accepts it and we can move on. In the genre of political stories, “Imagine a world…” has become our modern shorthand for the original version, “Imagine a world, exactly like our own world, but in a hypothetical future where some aspect of government policy has changed…”

As the consumers of these stories, it’s important for us to push back when they cross into alternate genres. If a purportedly-political statement instead starts with a world that differs from ours in an important way, we’ve moved into the genre of fantasy. If the government policy relies on an alternate science than we one we know, we’ve moved into the genre of science fiction.

In the genre of political stories, the ones that will have a positive impact are the ones that start with the world as it is and lead us through a practical and pragmatic plotline to a better place that our world can become. Filling that genre with more voices and more stories, especially the stories of young people, can only make the entire genre better and stronger.

In this case, the boy’s story rebuts and undermines the story coming from our Storyteller in Chief. The one story contains a truth that reveals the flawed foundation upon which the other story has been built.

When we help the boy tell his story and get it out into the world, we can give the storyteller’s audiences a new perspective from which to “Imagine a world…”

And if we give our children a better connection to story today, we won’t have to keep wondering what President Julie would do. Hopefully someday we will find out for real.

Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sporty sci-fi novels from Tu Books and Spellbound River Press. He is the proud father of two potential future Storytellers-in-Chief.

Eleven Questions about Stranger Things

My problem this month was having three topical ideas and only time and space for one blog post. So I did the 2017 thing and held a Twitter poll. Just like I’ve always wanted to.

Given a choice between my New Year’s resolution to write a non-fiction book proposal, or my take on authorship responsibilities in the Age of Donald Trump, Twitter users overwhelmingly voted for something about the Netflix series, “Stranger Things.”

There will be spoilers. If you haven’t watched the series yet, it’s well worth your while to get the initial free-month subscription to Netflix and binge these eight episodes, with no financial obligation to keep Netflix for as many future seasons as this series is going to run. Although you will want to, because that’s how they lure you in.

The strangest thing about “Stranger Things” is that everyone comes away from it with some number of questions. Rolling Stone had eight. Business Insider had nine. Time magazine had ten. But weirdly, nobody had eleven questions, because wouldn’t eleven be the most obvious number of anything associated with this show?

I have eleven questions and my first is:

1. What happened to all those missing questions?

My theory is that they were taken by Teen Vogue, which has lately been flexing some serious journalistic muscle under the leadership of Elaine Welteroth. TV‘s list has 35 questions about “Stranger Things,” which is enough to cover their own set of eleven plus the lost questions from about a dozen of those slacker publications. You go, Teen Vogue!

Luckily, Teen Vogue isn’t asking their questions from the all-important middle grade author’s point of view, so there’s still room left over for me to ask things like…

2. What middle grade novel is most like “Stranger Things?”

There is no one right answer, but I’ll give you my suggestion at the end of this post. In the meantime you can start mulling over your own choices to discuss in the comments section.

3. What does a middle grade author think about the use of 80’s nostalgia in “Stranger Things?”

I’m so glad you asked!

In 1983, I was about the same age as Mike and his friends. I played Dungeons & Dragons like Mike and his friends. And I mean just like Mike and his friends–really badly, with dice often ending up on the floor. I even had pewter figurines of monsters and wizards like Mike and his friends, until my mother read somewhere that they had a high lead content and banished them from the house.

The opening scene was highly nostalgic for me personally, but probably just reminded everyone else of the D&D scene from E.T.

What impressed me most about D&D in Stranger Things was that it doesn’t just serve as pop-culture window dressing. D&D actually moves the plot forward and makes the story more plausible.

A campaign of 10-hour D&D sessions has linked these four players with a bond of friendship, mutual understanding, and respect. They know how to work together toward a common goal and they have an enviable knowledge of monsters, psionics, and the possibility of travel between planes of existence. When adventure comes calling, these kids are fully prepared!

Just as my friends and I were also ready to spring from our D&D table at a moment’s notice to combat real-world forces of evil. Or to go on a snack run. Whichever seemed more urgent. Oh, the nostalgia!

4. What can middle grade authors learn from “Stranger Things?”

World-building and foreshadowing! And as an added bonus, we get both of these lessons through Stranger Things by way of Dungeons & Dragons.

Every good Dungeon Master has to be a master of world-building, because monsters can only exist within an ecosystem of monsters, constantly fed by a stream of unlucky adventurers. The failed adventurers of past D&D campaigns also create the game’s economy, by stocking treasure chests with their pocket change and belongings. And finally there’s the dungeon itself, which must follow logical rules of construction allowing it to fit snugly on a single sheet of graph paper.

Having mastered these skills, is it any wonder why so many D&D players go on to write novels, screenplays, or Netflix original series?

I’m hopeful that the story world of the Upside Down will establish and maintain its own inner logic over time. Is it an alternate Earth that was once identical to ours or has it always been such a mess? Has it been conquered by aliens or did the monsters evolve there in a shadow ecosystem? Were there people who built the alternate structures we see or do the demogorgons mimic human architecture in some kind of cargo cult?

I expect the monsters will make sense and come in a variety of species. The glowing egg that Hopper and Joyce run past on their way to the demogorgon’s lair may or may not hatch into another demogorgon, but it definitely will hatch into something.

And just as the demogorgon from Episode One’s gaming session foreshadowed the first season’s monster, I’m betting that the campaign boss from the last episode’s gaming session was also meant as foreshadowing.

My Monster Manual is packed away somewhere, but I suspect the thessalhydra is like the creature from Greek mythology that grew back lost heads and limbs, becoming more powerful even as Hercules hacked it into bits. You wouldn’t want to, say, chop off its foot in a bear trap, because it would then likely just grow extra limbs that make it run faster than before. And you certainly wouldn’t want to, say, blow it apart into a million tiny pieces, because each piece would have the ability to regenerate into an entirely new creature.

[Edit: I just found my Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual II! It seems the thessalhydra has one big nasty mouth surrounded by a bunch of snake heads. If you cut off a snake head, it takes a whole twelve days to grow back, so pff. But once per day, the big mouth can shoot out a wad of acidic saliva, so that’s pretty cool. Hey, is anyone else up for a D&D campaign?]

Of course it’s possible the next season of “Stranger Things” will move beyond D&D into another form of 80’s nostalgia. I’ll note that Will and Dustin both seem to be receiving Atari 2600 game consoles for Christmas, so I fully expect Pac-Man, Missile Command, Space Invaders, and Asteroids to have an outsized impact on future plotlines.

5. What’s your favorite 80’s movie reference in “Stranger Things?”

“Stranger Things” evokes several movies of the 80’s including the bike chase from E.T. (1982), the child-swallowing wall-portals from Poltergeist (1982), and the floating ash from The Day After (1983). But for me, the most important is Firestarter (1984) as the source of Eleven’s nosebleeds and so much more.

Firestarter is the film adaptation of a 1980 Stephen King novel by the same name, in which a shady government agency uses an experimental drug on study participants, resulting in two of them having a daughter with psychic powers. Which might sound familiar…

“Stranger Things” telegraphs this story through Eleven’s flashbacks and Hopper’s leg-work to find Eleven’s mother. But when Hopper and Joyce visit the mother, they’re in for a letdown as it turns out she’s permanently checked out of reality and is entirely irrelevant to the plot.

Or so we’re very intentionally led to believe.

With so much groundwork laid, my bet is that the rest of the Firestarter plot is being held back for a future season. In both stories, a parent has a super-powered child taken away by the Cold War-obsessed government agency that created her, and that parent goes catatonic for a while afterward. But in Firestarter at least, the father’s apparent catatonia is a ruse to trick the government agents into letting down their guard for a rescue attempt. Similarly, Eleven’s mom may also be a whole lot more with-it than she’s letting on.

If so, is she going to drop her carefully-honed facade for two random strangers who come knocking on her door? I don’t think so!

Most interestingly, in Firestarter, the mother and father also developed lower-level powers from the pharmaceuticals they were given. So could Eleven’s mother also have as-yet-undisclosed abilities? If so, what might they be?

6. Is Eleven still alive?

I have no doubt that we’ll see Eleven again.

In the last episode, Hopper leaves a bundle of holiday food in a metal box in Mirkwood. With the inclusion of Eleven’s favorite kind of waffles, that food can have only one intended recipient.

This can’t be the first time Hopper is filling this cache with food because the box has been there at least long enough to develop that layer of snow on top. And it can’t just be blind hope that Eleven will find this box, because the cache is clearly empty when Hopper arrives. Someone or something has taken whatever food he’s left before, and Hopper doesn’t seem surprised. He leaves food, he comes back, the original food is gone, and he leaves more–that’s his routine because he an Eleven have a standing arrangement.

So the real questions are, why is Eleven hiding in the woods, why is Hopper helping her, and who else knows that she’s there?

7. What other theories do you have about Eleven?

On a symbolic level, with a shaved head and numbered arm-tattoo, Eleven has the general appearance of a Holocaust survivor. Which makes me wonder whether gray-haired 1980’s-era Dr. Bannon might have once been a 1940’s-era Nazi scientist. One who specialized in ESP research that would be helpful in Cold War espionage, but with experimental methods too unethical to be carried out in the open. He’s not old enough to be a Dr. Mengele, but about the right age to have been apprentice to a Dr. Mengele.

Flashbacks make it seem like Eleven was born and bred to be a psychic spy, but if so, why are her language skills so underdeveloped? If she’s meant to listen in on intercontinental conversations, she should have been drilled on Russian and Mandarin at least. Her room should be littered with flashcards from a dozen languages, but instead she’s barely mastered English, and her lack of language doesn’t seem to be due to a learning disability. Her speech is consistent with someone who’s grown up in isolation without an adequate vocabulary, not even for such important concepts as friendship. We can see how smart she is and the struggle she has putting complex thoughts into her limited selection of words.

Is she meant to be a weapon? We don’t see any evidence that the Electric Company is providing the training and disciple to hone her skills and keep them under control.

It seems more like Dr. Bannon and Company want to understand Eleven’s powers, possibly to replicate them, but that she as a person is expendable. They don’t just fail to give her a name, they deliberately take away the name her mother intended for her.

In exploring Eleven’s powers, they probably didn’t expect her to be both telekinetic and clairvoyant, and they certainly wouldn’t have expected her to be able to access parallel worlds. When that happened, they just went with it, with disastrous results.

So it’s possible that Dr. Bannon and his cohort are more incompetent than they are sinister but they also believe their original core mission, whatever it is, enough to justify kidnapping infants, burying mock corpses, installing mass warrantless wiretaps on US citizens, and conducting unauthorized human drug trials.

8. But why is she called Eleven?

Perhaps Eleven was given a number in order to dehumanize her. She’s a tool being used by a U.S. government agency during the Cold War era, so it makes sense that the staff of the Electric Company would be encouraged to not see her as a person or get too attached to her. Except that Dr. Bannon does get attached, either because Eleven refers to him as Papa and draws him pictures, or because he really is her biological father.

He’s just not winning any Parent of the Year awards.

But why Eleven unless at some point there were at least ten more just like her? And why the tattoo? When you have eleven students in a class, regardless of whether they have names or numbers, you don’t need tattoos to tell them apart. Not unless they are literally identical. Which makes me wonder about the state of the art in cloning technology, circa 1971.

Another possibility is that the initial study had ten participants including Eleven’s mom, and that they were all given numbers to preserve their anonymity. Under serious dosage of experimental drugs, they might have been unable to interact with the staff or to properly identify themselves, so tattooed numbers were used instead. When an eleventh test subject was somehow…conceived, she was given the next number up and a matching tattoo so the experiment could continue for another generation.

9. Is Barb still alive?

She’s gone. Eleven said so. Move on.

10. Are Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler the most oblivious parents ever, or what?

Their son has a psychic friend living in the basement. Their daughter has multiple boys going in and out of her bedroom window. The children have dinner-table conversations that whoosh over both parents’ heads. Nobody questions why so many Eggo waffles have gone missing. The parents have no idea their son is wandering the woods at night, or that their daughter is popping through dimensional portals, or that she has a gun.

Even as federal agents are surrounding the house, Mrs. Wheeler is just gabbing away on the phone, so yeah, I’d say they’re kind of oblivious.

11. What Are You Looking Forward to in Season Two?


Hopper has at least two: his knowledge that Eleven is alive; and the details of his deal with the Electric Company. Will also has two: one is that he’s coughing out Upside Down slugs; and the other is that he’s uncontrollably flipping between worlds.

My theory on that, in the metaphor of the acrobat and the flea, is that Will has become a flea. And that he’s possibly been infected with Upside Down parasites or baby demogorgons. Remember, the official cover story is that Will dove into the quarry, nearly drowned, suffered a coma that was misdiagnosed as death, and was buried and then exhumed in time to save his life when the “mistake” was detected. He would have been checked out by medical professionals, but maybe Upside Down organisms don’t show up in the standard tests.

The Electric Company still has secrets, and if my Firestarter theory pans out, Eleven’s mother will also have at least one big secret as well so I expect a season of major reveals, one after another.

2 (revisited). What middle grade novel is most like Stranger Things?

For me, it’s The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978). There are no monsters or telekinetic powers but there is a mystery approached by independent teams using different methods and following different clues. That’s the structural framework on which Stranger Things is also built.

In Stranger Things, Joyce investigates the blinking lights and strange phone calls related to her son’s disappearance in a scientific manner, hanging more lights and trying to communicate, remaining completely rational while outwardly seeming to suffer an emotional breakdown.

Hopper does his own style of hardboiled investigative work, including library research, following leads, getting inside the Electric Company, and keeping an open ear and remarkably open mind.

Jonathan and Nancy equip themselves with weapons and explosives like they’re going to war.

And Mike, Dustin, and Lucas use their knowledge of D&D lore, walkie-talkies, biking skills, and one special psychic friend to have a ridiculously grand adventure.

For most of the season, these teams don’t even realize how they’re overlapping their efforts and chasing down each other’s leads. It’s a whole lot of fun to watch.

What middle grade novel most reminds you of Stranger Things? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and thanks for watching!