Crank the Zappa. For reasons I’d rather not say, my first writing task of the morning: confirm that Dunkin’ Donuts uses an apostrophe at the end of its informal gerund.

It does.


Now, to St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast.

From Blogs to Books

answer-coming-soonI surprised a colleague yesterday with the news that his book would be published today. Ironically the title of the work is Answer Coming Soon.

The author, Dan Whitman, believes his books should be left behind on commercial airlines for the next passenger to come along and read. That humble disposition toward his work is exactly what makes his prose so engaging.

I know this because I’m in the middle of his previous release, Blaming No One: Blog Postings on Arts, Letters, Policy. Each of his essays—they are more than blog posts, frankly, such a nasty phrase—is perched on a distinct moment in time and accented by light swats at the folly of man. Except where a heavier blow will do. Continue reading From Blogs to Books

Writing Prompts, Spellcheck, and Academic Advice

51mb7-k9ztl-_sx331_bo1204203200_There are many, many reasons not to read Flash Fiction Funny while riding public transportation. The first and perhaps best reason is Taylor Mali’s The the Impotence of Proofreading, which will leave you bent over double and wheezing for breath, the workaday passengers all around contemplating the emergency brake at the back of the train.

In examining the pros and cons—mostly the cons—of relying on spell-check, Mali’s story reminds readers that ‘It only does what you tell it to douche. You’re the one with your hand on the mouth going clit, clit, clit. It just goes to show you how embargo one careless clit of the mouth can be.’ Continue reading Writing Prompts, Spellcheck, and Academic Advice

Oh My God, Look at Her Butt

Will Sing win a Golden Globe or other award this season? I hope so.

The soundtrack brought out memories of David Bowie (Under Pressure), Leonard Cohen (Hallelujah), and George Michael. That, and its an inspiring story about overcoming obstacles to realize artistic passions.

So even if on the surface the only thing your kids get out of it is Nicki Minaj as a cartoon rabbit singing Oh my god, look at her butt, its entirely possible they also leave the theatre with some greater appreciation for life’s possibilities.

Keep at it, writers. Follow your goals. Write for yourself if for nobody else. Bring the house down and build it back up again.

Write on.

B.A. East

NovelistEast Photo

Foreign Service Officer

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

B.A. East taught English Lit and Composition in Malawi as a Peace Corps Volunteer, at Brooklyn College Academy in New York, and at the American School of Asuncion in Paraguay. Later he joined the State Department’s Foreign Service, taking assignments in Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Ghana, Mexico, and Washington DC. New Pulp Press released his debut novelTwo Pumps for the Body Man, in March 2016.

Views expressed on this blog are my own & don’t necessarily reflect the views of my employer

Email: chambepeak@gmail.com

Twitter: @hBenEast

Short Stories from the School for Damaged Children

ARE-YOU-HERE-by-Brian-Booker-9781942658122Deep oppression pervades Brian Booker’s collection of seven stories Are You Here for What I’m Here For? (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016). The mood is confining, suffocating, maddening, the writing evocative of a heart pulsing beneath the floorboards of a cabin far from anywhere. Booker awakens—allays—awakens—allays—and awakens again profound tensions: Something is wrong. Everything is ok. But something is wrong.

Prepare to contend with psychic turmoil, ordinary figures sick in unusual ways: “…The bus didn’t come and Francie caught a chill. Then she got sick, lost her legs; they burned her toys in the backyard. She ended up in that school for damaged children, sweet Francie among the mongoloids and midgets…”

Francie’s case is bad enough. And this isn’t even Francie’s story. It’s Gina’s story, Gina who let her sister catch a chill while she—Gina—awaited the attentions of a lifeguard on the last day of summer: “Gina’s mother had never let her forget that day at the pool.”

The collection’s eponymous story relates Gina’s stay, many years later, a grown woman, at a Caribbean resort, her pursuit of escape, a quest for release from the damage of the past. She’s enrolled in Sun Club Be* (don’t expect to be told what the asterisk is for; you’ll have to use your imagination), which as the brochure explains, offers “An experience for our guests whose journey includes a health challenge.” A hotel, she imagines, that is in fact a hospital “attended by nuns in starched habits, a Caribbean breeze blowing in at the window.”

Nothing in Gina’s stay is concretely wrong; rather the malice lies beneath: She couldn’t shake the notion that behind the sunglasses Russell/Raoul had a milky white eye or a ghastly scar. ‘Then we shall see you in the theater,’ the hypnotist declares.

The settings include wide-ranging diversity: a wealthy Langley neighborhood in the shadows of CIA headquarters; a mountain resort for slope-side partying; contemporary seaside towns and long-forgotten histories of remote American settlements. Throughout, Booker’s eye remains as focused as it is true. Regardless of time or place the human condition holds the center, riddled with self-doubt and confusion as the body gropes blindly through the dark, recoiling in discomfort at the unknowable objects it touches.

It’s in this groping that Booker excels. He removes us from group therapy on the committed psych ward and plants us inside the lives and the minds of those committed at a time preceding incarceration. His stories are like glimpses into the broken lives before Chief Broom and Randall Patrick McMurphy and Billy Bibbit appear in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all the terrible realities that drove the Chronics and the Acutes to the hospital in the first place.

Reading this collection feels like holding your breath until you need to breath, letting out a little, a little more, a little more, a little more. Disturbing, unsettling, portentous—then fading all to black.

Oscar Keye Is Dead, Long Live Oscar Keye!

20140213-161543Oscar Keye is dead and I am free: I just delivered my latest manuscript to the publisher. Freedom…

Fiction always begins as escape, a jailbreak, a mad dash for wild, unknown quarters. Fiction itself is freedom, turning the mundane into the extraordinary!

The bones of my being are loose-jointed things hooked by springs and oiled on make believe.

As master of this space I evade boredom: an egg addiction here, an improbable love affair there. Turn a harmless momma’s boy into a vicious boss, his barbershop quartet face photoshopped onto his mug-on-a-mug mug. Swallow the shredder guy’s tie in his equipment and install elevators no one can use.

Oscar Keye’s story, The Artificial Intelligence of Oscar Keye, gave me all this and more besides. I’m grateful. I liked Oscar Keye. But now he is dead.

Oscar Keye was just an ordinary servant, a workaday commuter, a bland victim of his environment. The fiction process turned him into three men at once: fatigued senior manager Howard Graves; Manny Teague, the middle-aged family man who can’t stop talking about his kids; and the bewildered graduate student intern on the fast path to disillusion, Gabriel Dunne. It was Keye who got off the train at Foggy Bottom, but by the time he trudged up the street to his dreary federal office he’d become a trinity. His point of view disappeared, replaced by a dozen perspectives: those who helped and those who hindered, friends and foes, antagonists, meddlers, wise-guys. Beasts.

Despite these inventions, over time the novel sank its claws into me. The novel itself became a prison. Three years on, the novel imprisoned me. Graves’ mysterious Mason Jar of fluids; Teague’s endless childhood fart jokes; Dunne’s quest to “improve government”; these skeletal structures soon became inflexible iron rods, cell bars and prison stripes, locking me into their own vision of life inside routine.

After three years behind those bars I’m free again. Oxygen, deep breaths, I can breath. No longer am I pinioned by the inventions threading the latest work. I’m free to come up with new ones: a food truck; a morning drive time radio host; a boy trapped indoors building fanciful cityscapes out of old shoe boxes?

Anything. I am free to invent, again.

Until the invention, too, imprisons me.

From The Artificial Intelligence of Oscar Keye

Foggy Bottom

Oscar Keye rode backwards on the train. Behind him, in the direction toward which he moved, all of Washington lay in deep fog.

Keye’s eyes returned to the sign: IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. And there, on the stained carpet at his feet: a black bag with no owner.

Read more

Workshop: Stories of Peace

peacecorpsmn_logopcimageWhile the Pols and Poobahs dress in UNGA-wear and head for New York, the Peace Corps Community runs amok in the Nation’s Capitol. Join Peace Corps Writers tomorrow at a workshop for writers in the DC area. The event, part of the annual Peace Corps Connect gathering (celebrating 55 years this year), will take place at the George Washington University from 1-5:50.

  • Spoken Word Storytelling, with Meleia Egger (1:00 – 2:30 pm).
  • Workshop on finding, crafting, and sharing your stories led by John Coyne, co-founder of Peace Corps Writers (2:45-3:45 pm, repeated 4:00-5:00 pm).
  • Panel discussion with published Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) authors led by Marian Haley Beil, co-founder of Peace Corps Writers (2:45-3:45 pm, repeated 4:00-5:00 pm).

Panelists will include:

Floyd Heck Marvin Center
Room 407
George Washington University
800 21st Street NW — at the corner of H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20052

Registration: $10


20 Years On: Peace Corps & Writing

Today’s the day 20 years ago that two score optimistic & good-willed Americans gathered at the 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to begin the most excellent adventure I know, a blend of humanitarian endeavor, mutual group support, and self-reliance in the face of a great unknown.


We were to spend the next 27 months as Peace Corps Volunteers in Malawi, contributing to that country’s education objectives as teachers of English, Math, Science, History, Music, The Bible… Whatever came our way. At the same time, equally, we were contributing to our personal growth, our burgeoning confidence, our ideals and goals we held as emerging citizens of the world.

For me the adventure was a quest to put something exotic into my writing, an admission that the years of scribbling I’d already spent on journals and stories and half-baked novels lacked the insights of worldliness. It was the first time I’d acknowledged to a group of strangers that I considered myself “a writer”. I’m still grateful nobody laughed.

I don’t pretend to have achieved worldliness in the intervening years. But the Peace Corps experience has defined my growth as a writer. From Paul Theroux attending our swearing in, to meeting the trusted writing confidantes I’ve maintained since (these include notorious crime writer Preston Lang), to the broader network of Peace Corps Writers who now review, share, and promote our mutual literary efforts—Peace Corps, more than anything else, has enabled me to push my limits as a novelist.

pcimagepeacecorpsmn_logoThe adventure stays with me, twenty years later, through the friendships forged and maintained, the stories written (shelved or published), and the outlook I bring to almost everything I do—whether guiding public engagement for the State Department or raising my sons with global empathy.

Peace Corps at 20. Thank you, friends. What has the experience meant to you?

Peace Corps Writer Awards for 2016

A few notable works recognized with various Peace Corps Writer Awards for 2016. Next week the Peace Corps community will gather in Washington, DC for Peace Corps Connect to celebrate the agency’s 55 years. Activities will include panels and workshops featuring Peace Corps Writers. More.

The Maria Thomas Fiction Award for 2016 (named after novelist Maria Thomas [Roberta Worrick (Ethiopia 1971–73)], author of a well-reviewed novel and two short story collection, all set in Africa. She lost her life in August, 1989, while working in Ethiopia for a relief agency, in a plane crash that also killed Congressman Mickey Leland of Texas)

Fiction. Set against a wild and haunting landscape, the short fiction in this collection spotlights the struggles of everyday individuals to overcome the ghosts they have inherited from Romania’s communist past. The book won BkMk’s G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, selected by PEN/Faulkner finalist Lorraine M. López, who writes, “Myka’s characters release uncountable fibers, connecting them to one another in the linked narratives, binding them to the harshly beguiling Romania they inhabit and that inhabits them.”

The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience award for 2016 (In 1997, this award was renamed to honor Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965–67) whose Living Poor has been widely cited as an outstanding telling of the essence of the Peace Corps experience.)

Mmarrying-santiago-150arrying Santiago
by Suzanne Adam (Colombia 1964-66)

She hadn’t seen it coming. Her new Chilean husband changed his mind, or, rather, the military coup changed it. Instead of their relocating to her native California as planned, he now wanted to give his country a chance. That was over four decades ago. Raised surrounded by the lush landscape of Marin County, Suzanne Adam hadn’t expected to settle in Santiago, a city of over five million people, where she faced a series of daunting challenges: food shortages, a military dictatorship, heartbroken parents, maids and machismo. After a visit back home, she returned to Chile with a California redwood seedling in her pocket, and together they would push down their roots into that distant soil, where she discovered the truth in Wallace Stegner’s statement: “Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see the world afterwards.”

great-surge-150The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World
by Steven Radelet (Western Samoa 1981-83)

The untold story of the global poor today: A distinguished expert and advisor to developing nations reveals how we’ve reduced poverty, increased incomes, improved health, curbed violence, and spread democracy—and how to ensure the improvements continue.