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Episodic Non-Fiction Essays For High School

Episodic Fiction: Another Way to Tell a Story

By:Dan Holt, Pen Campbell
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3
Date: Summer 2001

Summary: Using as a model John O'Brien's story "Birds"— in which separate episodes are juxtaposed for the reader to weave together into a story—the writers experiment with this form for themselves and in their classrooms.


About fifteen years ago, Dan Holt read a story that changed the way he looked at fiction.

"Birds," by John O'Brien, was different from any story he'd read before. Unlike a movie or traditional short story, in which elements of the story line are connected by transitions to tell a story in a linear fashion, O'Brien's "Birds" seemed to Holt to be more like a slide show or even a music video. Separate episodes were like individual images juxtaposed to be woven together by the reader into a story. He found the form intriguing and, as writers are wont to do with intriguing forms, decided to try his hand at it to see where it would lead.

At the time, he had two different stories in progress, neither of which was working out: one about a man who, while visiting his parents in Arizona, struggles with the decision of whether or not to leave his wife, and a second story that grew out of a newspaper report about a man whose horse had broken its leg in the desert and subsequently been killed by coyotes. Experimenting with the episodic form, Holt combined these two stories into "Ten Stories About Coyotes I Never Told You." In doing so, he took as a model for his own story one additional element from O'Brien's "Birds" beyond the episodic form itself-that of a repeated motif occurring in each episode.

"Birds" is not really a story about birds. Rather, it is a story about a man coming to a decision concerning himself and the sanctity of life around him. Each of the episodes of the story features a bird, not as a symbol, but more as a repeated motif-perhaps the way Alfred Hitchcock's cameo appearance was featured in each of his movies. Holt used the repeated motif in "Ten Stories . . . ," which, despite its title, is not really about coyotes, though one appears in almost every episode.

Pleased with having solved the problem of the two balky stories, Holt sent "Ten Stories . . ." to Stuart Dybeck at Western Michigan University, who had suggested the O'Brien story to him in the first place. Having sent it with no more purpose than to say "Thanks-I enjoyed the story and fooled around with the form; here's what I got," Holt considered the matter closed. Several months later, however, when he received a copy of a magazine in the mail, there in the table of contents he found his name and "Ten Stories about Coyotes I Never Told You." Dybeck had sent the story on to his friend John O'Brien, who promptly published it in The Great Lakes Review, which he edited.

Since his introduction to episodic fiction, Holt has in turn introduced many others to the form: students in his high school creative writing classes, participants in both invitational summer institutes and advanced institutes at Western Michigan University's Third Coast Writing Project, and participants of the 2000 Festival of Writers sponsored by the Louisiana Writing Project State Network.

Eight Rules About Episodic Fiction I Never Told You

  1. The work involves a dynamic character, one who changes in fits and starts throughout the course of the story.
  2. Episodes vary in length.
  3. Episodes are roughly chronological, but not specifically so.

Following the Rules

First Holt wrote "Ten Stories . . ."; the rules came later when it was time to introduce episodic fiction to his students. In a way, teaching the rules is nothing more than articulating the process of how to take an interesting piece of literature and use it as a model-an effective technique writers have been using as long as there have been stories.

The protagonist/narrator of "Ten Stories . . ." is a man whose marriage has broken up, and his response has been to go home to his parents-and paint the corral. Throughout the story, we share his experiences-though not his thought processes-as he comes to a decision about his marriage. In the end, on his way home to resume his marriage, he views from the departing plane the corral he painted in episode one. At that point, most likely, the title clicks into place for the reader. The "you" in the title to whom the stories are addressed is his wife. These are stories he told her after he returned home.

None of the episodes are very long, and they vary in length from three lines of manuscript to perhaps a quarter of a page. The first three episodes are arranged in roughly chronological order, though one does not precipitate the next. They are not related by cause and effect. Actually, the order in which they are told could indicate simply the order in which they were recalled. The first three are memories about the protagonist's time away from his marriage. Episode four is a flashback to childhood, and the image of the four boys tormenting the old coyote ups the emotional ante of the story. Episodes five, seven, and nine together are the retelling of a single incident, fragmented by the insertion of episode six, "Cheating at Golf" and eight, "Go with God." The last episode follows the others chronologically and brings the reader full circle.

Each of the ten episodes is prose, rich with sensory images. All but episode seven, "Screams," and episode ten, "Chasing Chickens," contain a coyote-as promised by the story title. Seven is the shortest, most intense episode, and, on one hand, there's the least room here for the device of the coyote. Then, too, the missing coyote may heighten the tension of this climactic episode, causing us to glance over our reading shoulder for that "flash of gray." We don't see the coyote in "Chasing Chickens" either, and as the protagonist flies over the desert landscape, he imagines chickens running in circles-chased, we suspect, by the unseen coyote.

In some ways, perhaps the inclusion of the unifying device in episodic fiction is a little like rhyme in poetry-we have to be careful with it and be sure it isn't allowed to take over or muscle us into bad decisions, especially when we're just getting started. That's where the beauty and utility of rule eight comes in. As George Orwell says, "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

So is this a story about coyotes? Is the coyote a symbol, and if so, of what? These questions would undoubtedly come up in a classroom discussion of this story. Rule six says that all episodes should be linked by a common theme. In the first sentence, we have a man reacting to the turmoil in his marriage. We could look at the story as a process, with each episode contributing a piece to the process of the protagonist's decision. The episodes fit loosely together in this way, not always proceeding from each other, but clustering about the common theme of coming to know what we want to do in our own lives.

In the Classroom

One of the attractions of the episodic form is its versatility. While it came to Holt's attention first as fiction, it wasn't long before the form began suggesting itself for use in other types of writing as well. It is a natural for personal narrative, and students who have collected freewriting responses to prompts designed to encourage personal narrative are likely to find a rich collection of possibilities from which to develop an episodic piece.

The form is student friendly in other ways as well. The very nature of episodic writing breaks up the task of the whole piece into parts, encouraging students with their "do-ability." The often troublesome details of transitions and unity of time and place become more manageable when the story is told episodically. The structure of episodes also encourages students to think in terms of scenes in constructing their stories.

As we know, the move from personal narrative to fiction is a short step. Sometimes a student may begin a piece as personal narrative and, with later revisions, turn it into a piece of fiction. Holt points out that encouraging students to search for the roots of fiction within their own realities often yields realistic stories that touch the reader with their authenticity. Even personal narrative, when told episodically, is more likely to be driven by character development than by plot since the episodic story does not consist of a single cohesive chain of events.

An excellent example of such an episodic personal narrative is "It's Not Funny Anymore," written by Andy Myers while he was a student in Holt's creative writing class.

Following the Rules

"It's Not Funny Anymore" follows the rules. The protagonist is a dynamic character, maturing throughout the story. In the first six episodes, the protagonist is most likely between eight and ten, and these episodes have no specific chronology but serve to introduce the grandfather, his humor, and his importance in the boy's life. At the beginning of the seventh episode, the protagonist has become an adolescent, and his growing maturity in the following episodes corresponds inversely to his grandfather's growing frailty. Once the protagonist hits middle school, the episodes, which vary in length, are recognizably chronological.

Andy uses effective language throughout the prose episodes, creating clear and moving images. The episodes are formatted without the numerical labeling or titling of "Ten Stories . . . ." White space on the page separates one episode from the next. The unifying device of a joke or reference to one appears in each episode. While the unifying device is more intrinsically a part of the story than Holt's coyote, the story is not about jokes. Each episode relates to the central theme of the protagonist's relationship with his grandfather and the inevitability of change that time brings to that relationship.

Researching Episodically

At Lake Michigan Catholic High School, students in Pen Campbell's senior English class spend the year exploring issues of social justice. Throughout the year, they read literature and view films in various genres, examining them through discussion and writing. In late January, students choose a research question to investigate in-depth over the next three months. At the end of the year, they present a portfolio of work that includes a visual piece, a traditional research paper, and either a multigenre collection or a piece of episodic fiction, all of which grows from their research.

As they read, discuss, and study various forms, they respond to prompts designed to help them create characters through which they can voice what they are learning about their research topics. Sometimes, the prompt is a piece of literature students use as a model. Sometimes, Campbell offers prompts that have successfully generated personal writing. Students put themselves in the place of someone affected by the topic they are researching, and through those eyes, in that voice, they respond to the prompt. Writing letters or journal entries in the voice of a character often yields excellent material for the students. After collecting a number of these responses in their daybooks, students have a body of drafts from which to choose pieces for further development.

"Through the Eyes of a Haitian Mother: An Episodic Short Story" grew out of Campell's student Katie Imach's research on conditions in Haiti. After reading the work of novelist Edwidge Danticat early in the school year, she became especially interested in questions of a woman's life in Haiti. Katie has taken the episodic fiction form in a slightly new direction by using a variety of narrative forms to create her story.

Following the Rules

"Through the Eyes of a Haitian Mother" is a multigenre episodic story. In the first episode, prose rich with images, the protagonist is introduced in third person. In the next, we hear her voice as she writes a letter to her daughter, and in the third episode, we delve deeper into the protagonist's thoughts and feelings about her life through a poem. The short journal entry of the fourth episode, with its matter-of-fact acceptance, develops our sense of the dreadful realities under which the protagonist lives her life. The final episode combines the third person prose of the first with the protagonist's voice in a poem that ends in prayer.

These episodes may be chronological, though the theme of story around which all the episodes cluster speaks of an endurance that negates the importance of which event came first. In the same way, the change in the protagonist, which we would expect, becomes secondary to the fact that she endures. Her dynamism is grounded in that endurance, rather than in an overt change or epiphany.

The unifying device in this story is more subtle than in "Ten Stories . . ." or "It's Not Funny Anymore." In each episode, a sound of sorrow or of trouble reiterates the theme of the story. As readers, we may not be conscious of these sounds in the same way we become conscious of the coyote or of the jokes in the two earlier stories. Imach's use of sound is an effective use of sensory images, but if the repeated motif blends so smoothly into the story that it isn't noticeable, does it still have a purpose? Perhaps the question it brings is really about the purpose of the coyote, the jokes, and the sounds. Sometimes, the repeated motif serves more as a cattle prod to the writer than as a beacon to the reader. The challenge becomes fitting the coyote in; rising to that challenge, we tax our writing brains, which is always good exercise for us.

Rule seven says if a traditional short story is a movie, moving in a linear fashion from beginning to end, an episodic story is more like a slide show or a music video. "Through the Eyes of a Haitian Mother" does have that episodic, music video feel, and it also has a feeling of authenticity that is present despite the fact that this is not the personal narrative of the writer. The student author is not a Haitian mother, but in taking her research and seeking to see that research as reality through the eyes of a character, she has clearly demonstrated her new knowledge of her topic. And isn't that, after all, why we research-to understand something we didn't understand before?

In the End, It's Still Storytelling

Getting started on episodic fiction is a little like being pregnant. Suddenly, you look around, and, where you never thought a thing of it before, you begin to see pregnant women and babies everywhere. The same thing happens with episodic fiction. As a matter of fact, a number of people have pointed out the similarities between the episodic form and so much of the non-linear communication that is becoming more and more prevalent in our digital age. Internet sites, magazines, and even textbooks present a mosaic of information on each page, encouraging a randomness of order through which students move with increasing adeptness. B no longer necessarily follows A as a matter of course, and episodic fiction reflects that change nicely.

But, in the end, no matter how you get started with episodic fiction, and no matter how you play with it or what new twists and turns you give it, it all boils down to another form of storytelling. And ultimately, that's what matters-telling the story. How you tell it-how you get there-is not as important as the fact that you're telling it. But, as getting there is half the fun, episodic fiction is an incredibly flexible, creative form-and one you and your students will certainly want to try.


While they may not all offer examples that follow our eight rules exactly, the books below may be useful in beginning to think episodically.

Writing with Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres, by Tom Romano (Boynton/Cook, 1995). Filled with ideas and examples, this is a book that encourages an entirely new approach to research writing for many of us.

Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age, by Eliza T. Dresang (H. W. Wilson, 1999).> Check out Dresang's Web site and be sure to take a look at the Book Updates and the archived updates for excellent reading recommendations.

The Good Times Are Killing Me, by Lynda Barry (Sasquatch Books, 1999). A blend of coming-of-age social commentary and a fantastic multigenre research example in "The Music Notebook" section, this book is a gem. It would make a nice pairing with another coming-of-age episodic, House on Mango Street (Vintage Books, 1991), which is also available as an audio book read by author Sandra Cisneros.

In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal, edited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones (W. W. Norton and Company, 1999). This is a marvelous book to use for models of short personal narrative essays.

Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories, edited and introduced byJerome Stern (W. W. Norton and Company, 1996). Another interesting form especially useful in episodic writing is micro or flash fiction. Pieces done in this form are very, very short stories of approximately 250 words and are, in a way, a hybrid of fiction and prose poetry. The book includes excellent examples.

Soda Jerk, by Cynthia Rylant (publisher unknown, 1990). A wonderful little book, an episodic story in poetry of a young man's adolescence in a small town.

Frenchtown Summer, by Robert Cormier (Delacorte Press, 1999). Cormier's own memoir in verse.

Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy, by Sonya Sones (HarperCollins, 1999). A young girl's telling of the title situation in verse.

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse (Scholastic, 1999). A young girl's struggles during the Dust Bowl, told episodically in verse.

About the Authors Dan Holt, a co-director of the Third Coast Writing Project at Western Michigan University and a former Michigan Writing Teacher of the Year, teaches creative writing at St. Joseph High School, in St. Joseph, Michigan, where he is also the advisor for the newspaper and literary magazine.

Pen Campbell teaches ninth and twelfth grade English, speech, and drama at Lake Michigan Catholic High School in St. Joseph, Michigan, and is a teacher-consultant with the Third Coast Writing Project.

Ten Stories About Coyotes I Never Told You

by Dan Holt

I. The White Fence

When our marriage broke up, I went home and painted the entire corral. I don't know why it was so important, but it was. I had to get home and grab a paintbrush and stand in the Arizona sun and paint the corral. I painted it white; so white you couldn't look at it for very long.

"Jesus, is that fence white," my father said.

"Whitest damn fence I ever saw," my mother said.

They stood, arm in arm, framed by a rose arbor. I wanted to cry, they looked so good. They looked so good standing there that I wanted to cry and maybe paint the fence again. After all, I had the time; another coat wouldn't hurt.

"That's true," my father said. "The chicken coop could stand a coat, too."

I heard a coyote yelp in the distance.

II. Morning Ride

There were partridges near the barn, and it was still cold enough that I could see my breath. I kneed Poco's belly so that I could tighten the cinch. He blew hot smoke and danced away from me.

The desert was green that December, and the earth was a rust color, especially with the red sun coming over Hat Mountain throwing a tint on everything. At the end of the graded road behind the barn were two wrecked cars. They were rust color, too.

I took my hands out of my pockets when the sun started to warm me up. I thought that it would be nice just to keep riding, deeper and deeper into the desert. I felt so good about the riding and the sun that I wanted to glide in a walking trot all the way to Mexico.

I caught, out of the corner of my eye, just a flash of gray.

III. Coyotes Are After My Mother's Chickens

I hung around the house, standing in the kitchen, watching Mom wash the dishes. She was talking to me.

"How's your job? Are you happy? Are you going back to her?"

I was sticking a butter knife into the toaster.

"You know that's plugged in."


"You know that's plugged in."

"What's plugged in?"

"The toaster you're sticking the knife into."

She was looking out the window over the sink as she said that, and suddenly she stopped pulling glasses out of the suds and leaned forward to get a better look at something in the backyard. She was standing on her toes and then she said "Shit" and ran to the utility room, grabbing a .22 automatic out of the closet, and ran out the back door.

I followed her and saw her fire three shots at a disappearing coyote.

"I'll get one of them yet," she said.

"When did you start saying `Shit'?" I asked her.

IV. Chasing an Old Coyote

I was twelve when we caught a coyote in the open, four of us chasing a coyote across a dried-out cotton field. He must have been old or sick because he couldn't outrun us. So we kept him in the middle of the field and then tried to run him over until he caught a hoof in the side. He stopped trying to run from us and just sat down in the middle of the field. We kept riding around him, Indians circling a wagon train, but he wouldn't run anymore. I guess he just decided it wasn't worth it.

V. Poco Throws Me

I was thinking "coyote" to myself when Poco jumped sideways. He was jumping and bucking. I pulled his head up and kept him from throwing me, but he kept jumping, first sideways and then he lunged forward, the bit in his teeth. The leather cut into my fingers.


Poco wheeled on his hind legs and reared.

"Son of a bitch."

We went down backward. I jumped to the side; he hit, rolled on his back like one large rocker off a chair.

VI. Cheating at Golf

My dad wanted me to play golf with him on Saturday. The golf course was the only place where he could talk. There was something about sitting on a bench in a lime green cardigan, waiting for two or three foursomes to get off the tee, that really opened him up. He told me the story about the time he and Ed from the shop tried to hit a coyote on the fourth fairway.

I broke 100 that day but cheated a lot. We both did. If there was a tree in the way, we'd move the ball, or kick it out of the rough, or sometimes put the ball on a little tuft of grass so we could hit a wood. Sometimes, we'd even forget a stroke. All in all, we cheated about the same.

"I don't know if I want to go back," I said to him while we were waiting to make our approach shots to the eighteenth green.

"What do you mean, you don't want to go back?"

VII. Screams

He broke his leg when he went down. He kept trying to get up and kept falling down again. His wild eyes looked so large and white. I ran down the riverbed, not wanting to look back at him thrashing in the sand. I didn't know horses could scream like that.

VIII. Go with God

The Mexicans came out of nowhere, out of the desert, just appeared in the driveway. One had a red rag around his head; the other had a hat pulled over his eyes, and they were both soaked from a shower. I found out later that there were others, whole families, hidden not far away.

My father saw them first and walked out to talk to them, his hands stuffed in his pockets. I could see him shake his head and then point across the desert to the west. Mom was holding the .22 and checking to see if it still had bullets. And just like that, they headed across the desert in the same direction my father had pointed, walking under the "Vayas con Dios" sign over the driveway entrance.

"Who are they?" I asked my father when he came back to the house.

"They call them Coyotes," he said. "They bring people to the promised land."

IX. Canis Latrans

I didn't see them until I was almost on them. They were standing like gray plaster statues, so still. I remember thinking that only wild animals can stand that still. I also remember thinking that if I could get close enough, I could see my reflection in their eyes. I picked up a rock and threw it at the largest coyote. He moved just enough so that the rock missed and then he froze again. We stood a little longer: one specimen Homo sapiens, sub species of the order Primate and approximately twenty specimen of Canis latrans facing one another in a dry riverbed in a desert.

Finally, they moved off toward the spot where Poco lay, exhausted.

X. Chasing Chickens

My parents stayed in the departure area until I was in the plane and the doors closed. I looked for our house and found it by looking for Hat Mountain and Winslow Peak, the red tile roof of the house drawing my attention. The empty corral didn't look white from the air. I imagined chickens running in circles in the backyard.

It's Not Funny Anymore

by Andy Myers

In the fall, I used to rake the leaves with my grandpa in his backyard. We would go around the whole lawn raking them from underneath the trees, the bird feeders, and from behind the barn. We would also, very carefully, rake them out of the garden he grew so proudly, which was filled with parsley and rhubarb.

We would rake the leaves in rows across the lawn instead of piles. He always thought that method was the best. He kept me laughing the whole time we raked, telling me jokes that he had memorized from one of the many joke books he had on his shelves. He always told me the same one about the belly dancer, and I could never remember the punch line.

"Ginny, what's a four-letter word for Greek cheese?" My grandpa only asked for help on his crossword puzzles when he absolutely needed it. He did the crosswords out of the paper, and I would work right along beside him in my crossword puzzle book. He bought the book for me for my eighth birthday along with the Book of 1,001 Jokes and Riddles. I would usually finish my puzzles before him, but his were a lot harder.

On the playground at E. P. Clarke Elementary School, out by the Redwood Climber, I told my friends the joke about the four-legged canoe my grandpa had told me the weekend before. I didn't tell it as well as my grandpa did, but the guys still liked it and laughed all recess. After that day, I started telling them all of the jokes and stories that my grandpa had told me. All the ones I could remember that is.

Grandma had sent me downstairs to get the Christmas cookie cutters one Saturday morning before Christmas. Normally I hated to go down to the basement alone because my grandma ran a doll hospital and everywhere you looked there were broken dolls and dismantled doll parts laying around. I wasn't as scared as I usually was this time because I knew Grandpa was down there doing his genealogy studies. The other part of the basement was my grandpa's library. It was filled with tons of old books and newspapers, mostly stuff relating to our family or the Civil War.

I slowly made my way down the steep linoleum steps and into my grandpa's study. I peeked around the corner, hoping he would see me and fire off a joke or riddle, but he didn't. He was sitting behind his old green desk, reading a decayed yellow newspaper. His bifocals were slid halfway down his nose, and he was chewing on a fountain pen; I was shocked at the way he studied that paper. It was really the first time I had ever seen my grandpa not joking or without his usual fun-loving smile. He didn't seem quite the same.

We met my grandparents at church on a rainy Sunday morning in the early part of April. As my grandpa greeted me he said, "Hi-ya Chester ol'top. Glad to see you back. It's been ears and ears, but I still nose ya." As he said it, he touched every body part he mentioned on me. I laughed all through church and asked him to do it about a dozen more times that afternoon.

"Holy mackerel!" My grandpa exclaimed as I hit the wiffle ball over the fence with my big red bat. It was my first home run of the afternoon. It landed in the Burkel's backyard. There must have been a hundred wiffle balls we left in her backyard because my brother and I were always too scared to retrieve them.

My grandpa held my waist as I leaned over the fence to corral the ball. I grabbed it; and as he pulled me over, my shirt got caught on the fence. "Wait, Grandpa, I'm stuck," I said. He replied, "No, you're Myers; I'm stuck." My grandpa's last name was Stuck. I'll never forget how much we both laughed.

In the Upton Middle School cafeteria, I noticed I wasn't the one telling the jokes anymore. It was another boy who everyone thought was hilarious. He told one of the same jokes my grandpa told me. I hated him because of it, but I eventually got over it.

When we opened presents on Christmas Day at my grandparents' house, my grandpa always wore the Santa Claus hat. He would hand out each gift, and when we were without presents, he would re-supply us. That Christmas, my aunt thought it would be funny to wrap one of my presents in a Tampon box. Evidently the look on my face was the highlight of the day.

A couple of months after my grandpa's stroke, my mom visited him. She found a notebook with "Don's Notebook" printed really large on it. In the notebook were some basic characteristics to remember family members by: Andy = oldest, Josh = tallest, Karen = girl. I remember making fun of this notebook to my friends. That's the one joke I wish I could have taken back.

At the beach last summer, my girlfriend told me she liked me because I was always kidding around. She said I was quick witted. I told her I loved her that day. We were together about every single day after that.

A couple of months ago, I came home after being out with Lori around 12:30 a.m. The usual group of guys were over to spend the night. They were mad that I always went with her and never hung with them; I told them I would rather spend time with a pretty girl than sit around my basement making fun of each other. They all agreed with me, and we had a good time after that.

My grandpa was admitted to the hospital again in September. My mom, brother, sister, and I went to visit him one chilly morning after church. He didn't look very well. He was dressed in his white hospital shirt and propped in his bed. I noticed a sign that hung over his bed which read "Legally Blind." I guess it was there for the nurse's sake. I felt like crying as we left his room without even attempting any sort of joke or riddle to make him smile.

Christmas Day a few weeks ago, I saw my grandpa for the firsttime since I had been up to the hospital in September. I was too busy I always told myself, trying to make excuses for forgetting him. I tried to soak up as much about the day with him as I could because I was feeling absolutely awful for neglecting him. I sat in the living room with him as he tried to pet the dog, trying to carry on conversations.

He didn't wear the Santa Claus hat this year. Nor did he hand out a single present. He sat in his special chair with his cane draped over his knee, struggling to open his own presents, often times being the butt of a joke cracked by my aunt or uncle. Most of the time, everyone laughed except for me. I remembered when I used to laugh with my grandpa playing baseball, raking leaves, doing crosswords, and I was not about to start laughing at him.

I stopped over at my grandparents' house the other day to check on them. The three of us talked for over two hours. I could tell that it made their day that I came by. It made my day as well. As I left, I gave them each a hug and told them I loved them. As I grabbed my coat and headed for the door, I turned back and told my grandpa the joke about the belly dancer, the one he had always told me, hoping to get a laugh out of him. I did. He had forgotten the punch line.

Through the Eyes of a Haitian Mother: An Episodic Short Story

by Katie Imach


What scared her the most in the muggy Haitian nights were the sounds-the eerie sounds of the night that bore into her brain and allowed no time for sleep. The sounds that echoed, night after night with their deafening rhythm. They came from so many different places, and yet all had the same story. The story that had been passed on for generations.

Children crying because of lack of food, their stomachs contracting to their full extent. An empty look in their eyes that shows so much agony in one glimpse. A stare that tells of their pain and anguish.

Children crying as they hold their bloody mother or brother in their arms and weep-begging the Lord to make their loved one come back. Such anguish experienced that they close off in their own cocoon, a cocoon of silence which they suffer in.

The sounds of soldiers, with their cocky commands beating down upon the people, the people they are supposed to be protecting, and the ever so frightening sound of gunfire, gunfire, gunfire.

Where are the sounds of laughter? Where have they disappeared to? She tries to remember that precious sound, but it is drowned out by all the others.

Letter to Daughter

Dear Faith,

I can feel that your prayers have been with me. As you have probably heard, the bombing has stopped! The tanks that had come into Port-Au-Prince two weeks ago finally left. Of course, the signs of their presence still remain.

Some buildings have been bombed, many houses have bullet holes in the windows, and wounded people walk the streets, but overall not that much damage has been done. It was a lot worse last month.

As usual, we don't know which party inflicted all this destruction. I don't understand how there can be so much chaos without any ramifications. Aristide tries his hardest, but it's hard to pacify our country. We are all so tired and feel that we can't trust anybody anymore. I want to believe he will make a difference, but I don't want to be disappointed once again.

Do you remember the little boy with big green eyes down the street? The one that was always after Maggie? Well, we attended his funeral today. He got his legs blown off by the terrorists and the hospital was very full, so by the time the doctor was available, he was already gone. His poor, poor mother. This is the second child of hers she lost. The other one she miscarried a few years ago. He was such a promising child-wanted to be a doctor, and would have made our whole community proud.

I'm so happy you finally got out. You have such a great future to look forward to in America. I would have left, but I feel I belong here. My blood is all Haitian, and it doesn't want to depart from its homeland. I don't want to abandon my people, especially at my age. I'd rather have a young one leave because at least they have a hope for a future. Me, I just live from day to day and pray that the Lord watches over our souls.

Take care of yourself and know that your mama loves you. You are making us all so proud.


Story of My Life

I cried when my daughter was born
tears of sorrow
for the life I have brought her into
She doesn't deserve this
No one does

So alone
Sick of the same spiraling circle
of events
that affects every generation of my country
my women

My grandmother and mother
so strong
yet so ignorant to the fact
Things don't have to be this way

Poverty . . . virginity tests . . . abuse
rape . . . depression . . .
Political instability . . .
The story of my life

Scared of walking down the streets at night
and during the day
scared of my own country
punished for being a woman

So many responsibilities,
so little respect

"Tears from my eyes,
made me realize
all the pain inside"

Pain that I had swallowed for so long
a big lump in the throat
that grows and you ignore

I want to be strong
I don't let those tears shed freely
So tired of crying . . .
too tired to cry anymore

Journal Entry

It happened again last night. I woke up to the sound of gunfire and ran next door to Namphy's house, as I always do. I found his wife there, a small shadow curled in the corner, crying, sobbing, her whole body heaving with sorrow. "They took him away," she said. Namphy was taken prisoner by the soldiers. Why? Nobody knows, but he probably won't return. They never do.


This warm and starry night is eerily silent as she ponders her life and this war, which has never ceased to control and limit her. She has never known peace and wonders what life would have been like under different circumstances.

I wonder what it's like to go to sleep,
knowing you'll soon see the light
of a tranquil dawn

I wonder what it's like to let your children play outside,
careless and free,
without worrying you'll never see them again

I wonder what it's like
not to hear the splatter of bullets every day
echoing through the alleys

I wonder if this will end
this insanity
That's all I pray for

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Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker. I went inside for lunch, surely, and at night, of course, but otherwise remained flat on my back on the table. The subject was the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. I had spent about eight months driving down from Princeton day after day, or taking a sleeping bag and a small tent. I had done all the research I was going to do—had interviewed woodlanders, fire watchers, forest rangers, botanists, cranberry growers, blueberry pickers, keepers of a general store. I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it. The piece would ultimately consist of some five thousand sentences, but for those two weeks I couldn’t write even one. If I was blocked by fear, I was also stymied by inexperience. I had never tried to put so many different components—characters, description, dialogue, narrative, set pieces, humor, history, science, and so forth—into a single package.

It reminded me of Mort Sahl, the political comedian, about whom, six years earlier, I had written my first cover story at Time. The scale was different. It was meant to be only five thousand words and a straightforward biographical sketch, appearing during the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential campaigns, but the five thousand words seemed formidable to me then. With only a few days to listen to recordings, make notes, digest files from Time correspondents, read morgue clippings, and skim through several books, I was soon sprawled on the floor at home, surrounded by drifts of undifferentiated paper, and near tears in a catatonic swivet. As hour followed hour toward an absolute writing deadline (a condition I’ve never had to deal with in fifty years at The New Yorker), I was able to produce only one sentence: “The citizen has certain misgivings.” So did this citizen, and from all the material piled around me I could not imagine what scribbled note to take up next or—if I figured that out—where in the mess the note might be.

In my first three years at Princeton High School, in the late nineteen-forties, my English teacher was Olive McKee, whose self-chosen ratio of writing assignments to reading assignments seems extraordinary in retrospect and certainly differed from the syllabus of the guy who taught us in senior year. Mrs. McKee made us do three pieces of writing a week. Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them. But we wrote three pieces a week most weeks for three years. We could write anything we wanted to, but each composition had to be accompanied by a structural outline, which she told us to do first. It could be anything from Roman numerals I, II, III to a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures. The idea was to build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs. Mrs. McKee liked theatrics (she was also the school’s drama coach), and she had us read our pieces in class to the other kids. She made no attempt to stop anybody from booing, hissing, or wadding paper and throwing it at the reader, all of which the kids did. In this crucible, I learned to duck while reading. I loved Mrs. McKee, and I loved that class. So—a dozen years later, when Mort Sahl was overwhelming me, and I was wallowing in all those notes and files—I thought of her and the structure sheets, and despite the approaching deadline I spent half the night slowly sorting, making little stacks of thematically or chronologically associated notes, and arranging them in an order that seemed to hang well from that lead sentence: “The citizen has certain misgivings.” Then, as I do now, I settled on an ending before going back to the beginning. In this instance, I let the comedian himself have the last word: “ ‘My considered opinion of Nixon versus Kennedy is that neither can win.’ ”

The picnic-table crisis came along toward the end of my second year as a New Yorker staff writer (a euphemistic term that means unsalaried freelance close to the magazine). In some twenty months, I had submitted half a dozen pieces, short and long, and the editor, William Shawn, had bought them all. You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed. At last it occurred to me that Fred Brown, a seventy-nine-year-old Pine Barrens native, who lived in a shanty in the heart of the forest, had had some connection or other to at least three-quarters of those Pine Barrens topics whose miscellaneity was giving me writer’s block. I could introduce him as I first encountered him when I crossed his floorless vestibule—“Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in”—and then describe our many wanderings around the woods together, each theme coming up as something touched upon it. After what turned out to be about thirty thousand words, the rest could take care of itself. Obvious as it had not seemed, this organizing principle gave me a sense of a nearly complete structure, and I got off the table.

Structure has preoccupied me in every project I have undertaken since, and, like Mrs. McKee, I have hammered it at Princeton writing students across four decades of teaching: “You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.” Et cetera. Et cetera. And so forth, and so on.

The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with. If something is red and globular, you don’t call it a tomato if it’s a bell pepper. To some extent, the structure of a composition dictates itself, and to some extent it does not. Where you have a free hand, you can make interesting choices. Three years after “The Pine Barrens,” for example, I was confronted with an even more complicated set of notes resulting from twelve months of varied travels with the four principal participants in “Encounters with the Archdruid.” The simplified, conceptual structure ABC/D, which I described in these pages in November, 2011, now needed filling in. There would be three sections narrating three journeys: A, in the North Cascades with a mining geologist; B, on a Georgia island with a resort developer; C, on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with a builder of huge dams. D—David Brower, the high priest of the Sierra Club—would be in all three parts. Biographical descriptions of the others would, of course, belong in the relevant sections, but in the stories of the three journeys the details of Brower’s life could go anywhere. When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story. All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece. I didn’t stare at those cards for two weeks, but I kept an eye on them all afternoon. Finally, I found myself looking back and forth between two cards. One said “Alpinist.” The other said “Upset Rapid.” “Alpinist” could go anywhere. “Upset Rapid” had to be where it belonged in the journey on the river. I put the two cards side by side, “Upset Rapid” to the left. Gradually, the thirty-four other cards assembled around them until what had been strewn all over the plywood was now in neat rows. Nothing in that arrangement changed across the many months of writing.

The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon had several rapids defined on our river maps as “cannot be run without risk of life,” Upset Rapid among them. We were in a neoprene raft with a guide named Jerry Sanderson, and by rule he had to stop and study the heavier rapids before proceeding down them. For several days, Brower and the dam builder—Floyd Dominy, federal Commissioner of Reclamation—had been engaged in verbal artillery over Dominy’s wish to build high dams in the Grand Canyon. They fought all day and half the night, while I scribbled notes. Now,

We all got off the raft and walked to the edge of the rapid with Sanderson. . . . The problem was elemental. On the near right was an enormous hole, fifteen feet deep and many yards wide, into which poured a scaled-down Canadian Niagara—tons upon tons of water per second. On the far left, just beyond the hole, a very large boulder was fixed in the white torrent. . . .

“What are you going to do about this one, Jerry?”

Sanderson spoke slowly and in a voice louder than usual, trying to pitch his words above the roar of the water. “You have to try to take ten per cent of the hole. If you take any more of the hole, you go in it, and if you take any less you hit the rock.”

“What’s at the bottom of the hole, Jerry?”

“A rubber raft,” someone said.

Sanderson smiled.

“What happened two years ago, Jerry?”

“Well, the man went through in a neoprene pontoon boat, and it was cut in half by the rock. His life jacket got tangled in a boat line and he drowned. . . .”

We got back on the raft and moved out into the river. The raft turned slightly and began to move toward the rapid. “Hey,” Dominy said. “Where’s Dave? Hey! We left behind one of our party. We’re separated now. Isn’t he going to ride?” Brower had stayed on shore. We were now forty feet out. “Well, I swear, I swear, I swear,” Dominy continued, slowly. “He isn’t coming with us.” The Upset Rapid drew us in.

With a deep shudder, we dropped into a percentage of the hole—God only knows if it was ten—and the raft folded almost in two.

As we emerged on the far side, Dominy was still talking about “the great outdoorsman” who was “standing safely on dry land wearing a God-damned life jacket!” Abandoning my supposedly detached role in all this, I urged Dominy not to say anything when Dave, having walked around the rapid, rejoined us. Dominy said, “Christ, I wouldn’t think of it. I wouldn’t dream of it. What did he do during the war?” Brower was waiting for us when we touched the riverbank in quiet water.

Dominy said, “Dave, why didn’t you ride through the rapid?”

Brower said, “Because I’m chicken.”

That was the end of “Upset Rapid,” and it was followed in the printed story by a half inch or so of white space. After the white space, this:

“A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra” (Sierra Club, 1954) lists thirty-three peaks in the Sierra Nevada that were first ascended by David Brower. “Arrowhead. First ascent September 5, 1937, by David R. Brower and Richard M. Leonard. . . . Glacier Point. First ascent May 28, 1939, by Raffi Bedayan, David R. Brower, and Richard M. Leonard. . . .”

The new section went on to describe Brower as a rope-and-piton climber of the first order, who had clung by his fingernails to dizzying rock faces and granite crags. The white space that separated the Upset Rapid and the alpinist said things that I would much prefer to leave to the white space to say—violin phraseology about courage and lack of courage and how they can exist side by side in the human breast. In the juxtaposition of those two cards lay what made this phase of the writing process the most interesting to me, the most absorbing and exciting. Those two weeks on the picnic table notwithstanding, this phase has also always been the briefest. After putting the two cards together, and then constructing around them the rest of the book, all I had to do was write it, and that took more than a year.

Developing a structure is seldom that simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins. The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected. They want to draw themselves together in a single body, in the way that salt does underground. But chronology usually dominates. As themes prove inconvenient, you find some way to tuck them in. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, you can move around in time, of course, but such a structure remains under chronological control and can’t do much about items that are scattered thematically. There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure. On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now. After ten years of it at Time and The New Yorker, I felt both rutted and frustrated by always knuckling under to the sweep of chronology, and I longed for a thematically dominated structure.

In 1967, after spending a few weeks interviewing the art historian Thomas P. F. Hoving, who had recently been made director of the Metropolitan Museum, I found in going over my notes that his birth-to-present chronology was particularly unaccommodating to various themes. For example, he knew a whole lot about art forgery. As a teen-ager in New York, he came upon “Utrillos,” a “Boudin,” and a “Renoir” in a shop in the East Fifties, and sensed that they were fakes. Eight or ten years later, as a graduate student, he sensed wrong and was stung in Vienna by an art dealer selling “hot” canvases from “Budapest” during the Hungarian Revolution. Actually, they were forgeries turned out the previous day in Vienna. In later and wiser years, he could not help admiring Han van Meegeren, who created an entire fake early period for Vermeer. In the same manner, he admired Alfredo Fioravanti, who fooled the world with his Etruscan warriors, which were lined up in the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries until they were discovered to be forgeries. Most of all, he came to appreciate the wit of a talented crook who copied a silver censer and then put his tool marks on the original. At one point, Hoving studied the use of scientific instruments that help detect forgery. He even practiced forgery so he could learn to recognize it. All this having to do with the theme of forgery was scattered all over the chronology of his life. So what was I going to do to cover the theme of art and forgery? How was I going to handle, in this material, the many other examples of chronology versus theme? Same as always, chronology foremost? I threw up my hands and reversed direction. Specifically, I remembered a Sunday morning when the museum was “dark” and I had walked with Hoving through its twilighted spaces, and we had lingered in a small room that contained perhaps two dozen portraits. A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself (Fig. 1).

Hoving had been, to put it mildly, an unpromising youth. For example, after slugging a teacher he had been expelled from Exeter. As a freshman at Princeton, his highest accomplishment was “flagrant neglect.” How did Peck’s rusticated youth ever become an art historian and the director of one of the world’s greatest museums? The structure’s two converging arms were designed to ask and answer that question. They meet in a section that consists of just two very long paragraphs. Paragraph 1 relates to the personal arm, Paragraph 2 relates to the professional arm, and Paragraph 2 answers the question. Or was meant to.

Other pieces from that era were variously chronological, none more so than this one, where the clock runs left to right in both the main time line and the set pieces hanging from it (Fig. 2).

Written in 1968 and called “A Forager,” it was a Profile of the wild-food expert Euell Gibbons, told against the background of a canoe-and-backpacking journey on the Susquehanna River and the Appalachian Trail.

“Travels in Georgia” (1973) described an episodic journey of eleven hundred miles in the state, and the story would work best, I thought, if I started not on Day 1 but with a later scene involving a policeman and a snapping turtle (Fig. 3).

So the piece flashed back to its beginnings and then ran forward and eventually past the turtle and on through the remaining occurrences. As a nonfiction writer, you could not change the facts of the chronology, but with verb tenses and other forms of clear guidance to the reader you were free to do a flashback if you thought one made sense in presenting the story.

Each of those ancient structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. I used an Underwood 5, which had once been a state-of-the-art office typewriter but by 1970 had been outclassed by the I.B.M. Selectric. With the cassettes, I used a Sanyo TRC5200 Memo-Scriber, which was activated with foot pedals, like a sewing machine or a pump organ. The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.

The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common. They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative. So I always rolled the platen and left blank space after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology. After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders. One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood. If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

Cumbersome aspects there may have been, but the scissors, the slivers, the manila folders, the three-by-five cards, and the Underwood 5 were my principal tools until 1984, a year in which I was writing about a schoolteacher in Wyoming and quoting frequently from a journal she began in 1905. Into several late drafts of that piece, I laboriously typed and retyped those journal entries—another adventure in tedium. Two friends in Princeton—Will Howarth, a professor of English, and Richard Preston, one of his newly minted Ph.D.s—had been waxing evangelical for months on end about their magical computers, which were then pretty much a novelty. Preston put me in touch with Howard J. Strauss, in Princeton’s Office of Information Technology. Howard had worked for NASA in Houston on the Apollo program and was now in Princeton guiding the innumerate. For a couple of decades, his contribution to my use of the computer in teaching, researching, and writing would be so extensive that—as I once wrote—if he were ever to leave Princeton I would pack up and follow him, even to Australia. When I met him in 1984, the first thing he said to me was “Tell me what you do.”

He listened to the whole process from pocket notebooks to coded slices of paper, then mentioned a text editor called Kedit, citing its exceptional capabilities in sorting. Kedit (pronounced “kay-edit”), a product of the Mansfield Software Group, is the only text editor I have ever used. I have never used a word processor. Kedit did not paginate, italicize, approve of spelling, or screw around with headers, WYSIWYGs, thesauruses, dictionaries, footnotes, or Sanskrit fonts. Instead, Howard wrote programs to run with Kedit in imitation of the way I had gone about things for two and a half decades.

He wrote Structur. He wrote Alpha. He wrote mini-macros galore. Structur lacked an “e” because, in those days, in the Kedit directory eight letters was the maximum he could use in naming a file. In one form or another, some of these things have come along since, but this was 1984 and the future stopped there. Howard, who died in 2005, was the polar opposite of Bill Gates—in outlook as well as income. Howard thought the computer should be adapted to the individual and not the other way around. One size fits one. The programs he wrote for me were molded like clay to my requirements—an appealing approach to anything called an editor.

Structur exploded my notes. It read the codes by which each note was given a destination or destinations (including the dustbin). It created and named as many new Kedit files as there were codes, and, of course, it preserved intact the original set. In my first I.B.M. computer, Structur took about four minutes to sift and separate fifty thousand words. My first computer cost five thousand dollars. I called it a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.

I wrote my way sequentially from Kedit file to Kedit file from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of those files created by Structur could be quite long. So each one in turn needed sorting on its own, and sometimes fell into largish parts that needed even more sorting. In such phases, Structur would have been counterproductive. It would have multiplied the number of named files, choked the directory, and sent the writer back to the picnic table, and perhaps under it. So Howard wrote Alpha. Alpha implodes the notes it works on. It doesn’t create anything new. It reads codes and then churns a file internally, organizing it in segments in the order in which they are meant to contribute to the writing.

Alpha is the principal, workhorse program I run with Kedit. Used again and again on an ever-concentrating quantity of notes, it works like nesting utensils. It sorts the whole business at the outset, and then, as I go along, it sorts chapter material and subchapter material, and it not infrequently arranges the components of a single paragraph. It has completely served many pieces on its own. When I run it now, the action is instantaneous in a way that I—born in 1931—find breathtaking. It’s like a light switch. I click on “Run Alpha,” and in zero seconds a window appears that says, for example:

Alpha has completed 14 codes and 1301 paragraph segments were processed. 7246 lines were read and 7914 lines were written to the sorted file.

One line is 11.7 words.

Kedit’s All command shows me all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece, and tells me how many lines separate each use from the next. It’s sort of like a leaf blower. Mercilessly, it will go after fad words like “icon,” “iconic,” “issues,” “awesome,” “arguably”; and it suggests how much of “but” is too much “but.” But its principal targets are the legions of perfectly acceptable words that should not appear more than once in a piece of writing—“legions,” in the numerical sense, among them, and words like “expunges,” “circumvallate,” “horripilation,” “disjunct,” “defunct,” “amalgamate,” “ameliorate,” “defecate,” and a few thousand others. Of those which show up more than once, All expunges all.

When Keditw came along—Kedit for Windows—Howard rewrote everything, and the task was not a short one. In 2007, two years after he died, a long e-mail appeared in my in-box addressed to everyone on the “KEDIT for Windows Announcement list”—Subject: “News About KEDIT.” It included this paragraph:

The last major release of KEDIT, KEDIT for Windows 1.5, came out in 1996, and we are no longer actively working on major “new feature” releases of the program. Sales have gradually slowed down over the years, and it now makes sense to gradually wind down.

It was signed “Mansfield Software Group, Storrs CT.”

This is when I began to get a true sense of the tensile strength and long dimension of the limb I was out on. I replied on the same day, asking the company how much time—after half a million words in twenty-three years—I could hope to continue using Kedit. In the back-and-forth that followed, there was much useful information, and this concluding remark:

If you run into any problems with KEDIT or with those macros in the future, let me know. You will definitely get my personal attention, if only because I’ll be the only one left at my company!

It was signed “Kevin Kearney.”

Driving to Boston not long ago, I stopped in at Storrs, home of the University of Connecticut, to meet him and show him some of the things Howard Strauss had done. In this Xanadu of basketball, I found Kearney and his wife, Sara, close to the campus in a totally kempt small red house previously occupied by a UConn basketball coach. From my perspective, they looked young enough and trim enough to be shooting hoops themselves, and that to me was especially reassuring. He was wearing running shoes, a Metropolitan Museum T-shirt. He had an alert look and manner; short, graying dark hair; a clear gaze, no hint of guile—an appealing, trusting guy.

Before long, Sara went off to an appointment, leaving us at the dining table with our laptops open like steamed clams. I was awestruck to learn that he had bought his first personal computer only two years before I had, and I was bemused to contemplate the utterly disparate vectors that had carried us to the point of sale—me out of a dark cave of pure ignorance and Kearney off a mainframe computer.

He grew up in New Haven and in nearby Madison, he told me, and at UConn majored in math, but he developed an even greater interest in computer science. In those pre-P.C. days, people shared time on the university’s mainframe—a system that was, in its way, ancestral cloud computing. By 1982, he still did not own a personal computer and could not afford a five-thousand-dollar pair of anything. Apple II had been on the market since 1977 but did not interest him. It was “too much of a toy”—its display was only forty characters wide. The displays on I.B.M. P.C.s were eighty characters wide. His father helped him buy one. Five thousand dollars in 1982 translates to twelve thousand dollars now.

On the mainframe, everyone from undergraduates to programmers used an evolving variety of text editors, most notably Xedit, which was written at I.B.M. by Xavier de Lamberterie and made available in 1980. Kevin Kearney was so interested in Xedit that he bought forty manuals out of his own pocket and offered them to students and faculty. Then, after the new I.B.M. P.C.s appeared, and he had bought his first one, an idea he addressed was how to achieve mainframe power in a P.C. editor. “Xedit was in a different language that only worked on mainframes,” he told me. “Xedit was in mainframe assembler language, almost like machine language.” What was needed was a text editor that mainframe programmers could use on their P.C.s at home. So Kearney, aged twenty-eight, cloned Xedit to accomplish that purpose. Moreover, he said, “You could do some nifty additional things that didn’t exist on the mainframe. On the mainframe you couldn’t scroll. You couldn’t word-wrap to a new line.”

Writing the initial version of Kedit took him about four months, in late 1982. Like a newborn bear cub, it amounted to the first one per cent of what it would eventually become. “There are two kinds of editors,” Kearney continued. “One sees things as characters; Kedit sees it as a bunch of lines. It’s more primitive, in a sense, like keypunches. Each line is like one card.” He said he started with “some things from Xedit plus suggestions from others,” and his goal was “convenient text editing.” After a pause, he added, “I’d rather have Kedit be a good text editor than a bad word processor.” He asked me to take care not to create an impression that he invented much of anything. “What I did was package in a useful way a number of ideas. I.B.M. seemed happy enough with the cloning. There was no hint that they objected.”

At a conference in Boston in March, 1984, Kevin and Sara met Howard Strauss, showed him Kedit, and sought his advice. A month or so later, Strauss telephoned Kearney for more talk, and the upshot was that Princeton bought Kedit’s first site license.

I asked Kearney how many users, nationally and globally, Kedit has now. “Fewer than there used to be” is as close as he would come to telling me, but he said he still gets about ten e-mails a week asking for support.

“Are they essentially all from programmers, or are there other users in the ignorant zone like me?”


Kedit did not catch on in a large way at Princeton. I used to know other Kedit users—a historian of science, a Jefferson scholar. Aware of this common software, we nodded conspiratorially. Today on the campus, the number of people using Kedit is roughly one. Not long ago, I asked Jay Barnes, an information technologist at Princeton, if he thought I was enfolded in a digital time warp. “Right; yes,” he said. “But you found it and it works, and you haven’t switched it because of fashion.” Or, as Tracy Kidder wrote in 1981, in “The Soul of a New Machine,” “Software that works is precious. Users don’t idly discard it.”

Kevin Kearney, who says he is “semi-retired,” hopes not “to see a bunch of orders showing up,” and he asked me to make clear that Kedit was “very much a thing of its time,” and its time is not today. I guess I’m living evidence of that.

When I would thank Howard Strauss for the programs he wrote and amplified and updated, he always said, “Oh, it was no trouble; there was nothing to it; it was all simple.”

For many years in my writing class, I drew structures on a blackboard with chalk. In the late nineteen-nineties, I fell off my bicycle, massively tore a rotator cuff, underwent surgery, spent months in physical therapy, and had to give up the chalk for alternative technologies. I was sixty-eight. Briefly, I worked things out with acetates and overhead projection. Enduringly, I was once again helped beyond measure by Howard Strauss.