Guest post: Teaching Writing, or Expressing the Inexpressible

Guest post by Joseph Asphahani

I conducted perhaps the grandest of my life’s grand experiments about three weeks into the new school year in 2007. The students—a rowdy bunch of snot-nosed punks about a decade deep in the crumbling school system that was failing them. Me—an over-caffeinated snot-nosed punk about a day past my college graduation and the start of my first real job. The place—a rickety third-floor classroom in Chicago’s Gage Park High School. The task, which ultimately became the experiment, was to teach these kids how to write.

Joseph Asphahani.JPG

Joseph Asphahani

Teaching Writing, or Expressing the Inexpressible

...Or, to be more specific, how to write creatively.

That’s right: High School Creative Writing Class. I’m willing to bet that at least two-thirds of you reading this at one point in time thought to yourselves that you liked reading cool stuff so much that maybe you’d take a turn at writing some of it yourself. That enthusiasm was my reaction, too, when the school programmer told me on my first day, “You got two sophomore American Lit, two freshman Survey Lit, oh and a freshman Creative Writing? That can’t be right…” But, yep, it was right.

And three weeks in, it was going utterly nowhere.

I’d started the class like I’d started all my classes that year (remember, this was my very first deer-in-the-headlights year as a teacher). I’d run a bunch of gettin’-ta-know-ya type icebreaker stuff. I’d taken a couple of paper airplanes to the back, all in good humor. I’d managed to keep my smile up somehow. But eventually I had to actually start teaching things: storytelling, how to write creatively.

One experiment involved a track by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós (who, if you don’t know, perform in a language known only to the band!). The idea was to close your eyes and listen to this entirely unfathomable song and let the sound and the singing kind of carry you away to the fog-veiled realm of your own imagination, and then the dawn would break, and the light would burn the fog away and reveal a story of some kind. I wrote an example, which I read enthusiastically after the track was over. And then, the educator’s most overused line: “And now you guys try!”

That early experiment yielded mixed results. Some of my students got into it. Some of them tried. Some others gave it a half-hearted attempt, but I could tell there was something in them we could work with. But the majority of the class blew it off. They vocalized—at that moment and throughout the coming weeks—their confusion as to how in the world they even wound up in this class.

I tried a couple more experiments: surveys, interest-inventories, and questionnaires, all designed to excavate their personal interests and assemble them into poetry. In the next unit, we read some really juicy short stories and imagined beyond the cliffhanger endings. There were more units after that, but nothing ever yielded truly positive results.

I fell into a bit of a dark place. I asked myself if I was part of the system that was failing them. I asked myself what they had really been asking me all along: what difference is creative writing going to make in my life?

The grandest of my life’s grand experiments was to justify the importance—the quintessential, nuclear-significance—of creative expression. To clarify how it helps. Like all teachers, it was something I felt in my soul, that doing what I was doing had purpose—that learning was really the only way out.

So one day, about three weeks into the school year, I gave it my best shot. I told them that there would come a day when they really needed to tell somebody something. When they would no longer be able to hold in whatever they were feeling, when they’d have to let it out. And at that time, I told them, simple words would fail them. I told them there are some things in this life that just cannot be expressed through literal language. There are ideas and feelings that can only be expressed through stories. And that there would come a day when they would have something important to say. And would they be ready to say it? Would they be capable of making it make a difference?

Looking back on it now, maybe I was suffering from a bit of that snot-nosed, fresh-out-of-college, over-caffeinated energy. Maybe it was all balderdash.

But when I was standing up there, the grandest of my life’s grand experiments yielded an unexpected result: a buzzing in my own head. It wasn’t just them I’d been challenged to convince. It was me, too. It was my own existence I was justifying.

It was this epiphany that defined me from that point on as a writer and storyteller. There were—there still are—things I want to say, things I have to say, about our world and who we really are inside, but simple words fail me. Dear reader, I worry every day that we may just be beasts, so I wrote The Animal in Man to ask what you think about it. I don’t think I would have been able to ask if I hadn’t at one moment in my life justified why writing anything really matters.

You probably want to know how the class turned out after that. Well, I honestly don’t remember the rest. We wrote some stories (this time without soundtracks). We filled out some more surveys and tried a few more poems. Actually, as I write this, I suddenly recall that the confounded school programmer finally figured out a fix for his mistake, shuttered the class, and rolled the roster into some other graduation requirement. That’s probably why I can’t remember: because it’s not a story with a real ending.

But maybe it ends right here, in writing this.

The purpose of the experiment was to see if I could teach some students how to write, to figure out how one could possibly accomplish such a thing. I know some of those snot-nosed freshmen, more than a decade later, and they’ve grown into fine adults who have gone on to use their imaginations to great effect in their careers. I’ve seen them tell their stories on social media, expressing the inexpressible, and I kind of like to think that maybe I played a part in showing them they could.

Joseph Asphahani is an avid video-gamer, effective high school teacher, and enthusiastic candidate for whatever sort of cybernetic limb enhancement your megacorp is planning for the inexorable dystopian future. When he’s not getting hopelessly lost in simulated worlds, he’s often dreaming up worlds of his own. The Animal in Man: Violent Mind is his first novel. He resides in Chicago with his wife and two children.

GUEST POST: Ragnarok; It all begins with the end of the world

Guest post by W H H Baker

Norse mythology is unusual among the well-known sets of legends from antiquity in that it doesn’t have life carrying on as usual until the end of time. Instead, the world ends in a truly epic battle where the gods will descend from their lofty thrones and ultimately lose a bloody encounter with all the dark creatures which inhabit the world. The legend says that the world is then ravaged by natural disasters and reshaped.

Although a touch bleak, I found myself wondering what it would have been like to be left behind, after an event like that. I should probably explain why my mind was travelling in this direction. After university I spent a year in Beijing learning Mandarin. Through that time I could see photos of all of my friends moving forward with life on the other side of the world, which left me, perhaps understandably, feeling a little left behind myself. Given that the most significant characters meet famously bloody ends during Ragnarok, I decided that it would make more sense for the survivor to be someone a little lower down the divine scale.

Fortunately for me, Norse mythology has the Valkyries, shield-maidens who bring the souls of worthy warriors slain in battle to serve in Odin’s host. I imagined a battle hardened character cast adrift in an unfamiliar world, a cold and bitter heroine with unending ages ahead of her. The more I thought about it, the more I fell in love with the character; so much so that I was convinced that she needed her own suitably epic tale, a true Viking saga. That was how Skjarla was born.

Inspiration strikes in the strangest ways sometimes. I was listening to my music, when the KT Tunstall song ‘Invisible Empire’ shuffled on and sparked everything going. Within the song are the lines ‘I wear a rusting crown, and I know this dynasty is falling’. I imagined the lost heir to a long since shattered kingdom, bound by fate to resurrect the forgotten dynasty. Every piece needs a villain, so I borrowed from another of the Norse myths, that of the hero Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir, Sigurd’s bloodline also gave me the dynasty I was looking for.

One of my favourite things about writing fantasy is that you start with a completely blank slate; whatever you want in there in terms of cultures, magic or monsters is fair game. I have found that one of the best things to do when writing fantasy is to start with a map, no matter how crude the artwork. For me it has two main impacts: 

  • Firstly, as I lay out the world or region, it helps me to think what cultures live where and how they interact. In the Rusted Crown, I have borrowed liberally from various periods of history, sometime directly, sometimes more as a starting point for a more fantastical version of reality. I was particularly happy with Romans who I based on the ninth legion who famously disappeared into the mists of Britain, and emerged from the spell which had bound them there when it was shattered by the remaking of the world.
  • Secondly, I find that it helps hugely with the flow of the narrative, knowing where your characters are and where they are trying to get to. I find that it helps me think more logically from their point of view, rather than just having them go as the crow flies.

Before I started writing, I realised that there could be an inconsistency between Skjarla’s character and the nature of the quest I was about to send her on. Skjarla wouldn’t just end up helping some penniless heir out of the goodness of her heart, there needed to be more to it. I ended up circling back to Fafnir, the dragon slain by Sigurd. A dead dragon on its own is not much good as a villain, so his servants would be trying to recover the teeth taken as trophies from when the dragon fell. With the dragon reassembled it could be resurrected, with suitably unpleasant consequences for the world. I didn’t think it would unreasonable for Sigurd’s heir to have one of the Fangs, and for Skjarla to want to protect it.

One side effect of dragons having a fairly substantial number of teeth, and those teeth being scattered around the world, was that Skjarla and her companions were suddenly going to be doing a lot of travelling, trying to prevent the dragon from being resurrected. As I plotted out the skeleton of how the tale would unfold, I realised that with all of the plot threads it meant that there were almost five tales within the overarching story. So I made the decision to devote separate books to each, rather than having the climax of each section lost within the book. Fortunately I have read a fair few fantasy series, so I hope that I have got the right balance between leaving enough left unsaid to make it compelling to read the second book, without it being so much of a cliff-hanger as to be downright infuriating. I leave it to you to judge if I have been successful.

About W H H Baker

William grew up in Hong Kong and the UK, before studying Natural Sciences at Durham University. He currently lives in London with his fiancé, Emily, and is training to be an auditor. William is also mad about rugby and spends much of his time with his head buried in a book.

About The Ragnarok Saga: The Rusted Crown

Ragnarok. The Norse world is ending. The Valkyrie, Skjarla, is cursed to survive the remaking of the world by the Dark goddess Hel. For centuries Skjarla wanders Midgard: monster slayer and mercenary, buried in grief and rage.

Four hundred years later, Skjarla finds herself in the small town of Lonely Barrow. There, hidden in the northern forests at the edge of the Haemocracy, she takes on a contract which proves more complicated than she could possibly have imagined.

Joined by the exiled heir to the New Roman Empire, a crusading Loptalfar and mercenaries running from their pasts. The Ragnarok Saga is a captivating journey which will test the very limits of love, endurance and courage.

For more information about the book please visit: 

GUEST POST: From dark matter to Dark Matters -- Wandering to a Not-So-Distant Future

By Michael Dow

In early 2016, I released my debut novel, Dark Matters, a science fiction/thriller set in the not-so-distant future of 2075. The story line for the book had simmered in the recesses of my mind for more than a decade, as I toiled from the bowels to the board rooms of corporate America. When I finally broke free, and began writing in earnest, I soon realized that those frayed tendrils of a story–unraveling the mystery of dark matter, and the implications for humanity–were going to require serious scientific research. 

So I dug in, trying (often with limited success) to better understand the science of dark matter, dark energy, multi-verses, and quantum theory. And that’s when things got interesting. As it turns out, I liked the research. An article on dark matter is just a click away from stories about cosmic rays, which then leads to cosmological inflation, the big bang theory, and a host of other fascinating sitcoms. 

But I digress…

In the end, what I discovered was not just the science of dark matter, but the foundation for future world where this discovery could take place. I wanted the story to take place in a future near enough to be easily recognizable, but far enough that I could take some creative license with the current state of affairs on Earth. This led me to a timeframe that was fifty to sixty years in the future, where futurist “experts” predict several interesting events will converge:

  • A world population of ten billion;
  • Computers more powerful than the human brain, at a fraction of today’s cost;
  • Full-scale space exploration, to include a moon base, space hotels, and asteroid mining;
  • The availability of fusion power; and,
  • The world’s first trillionaire.

Just to name a few.

It was this last one that caught my eye – a trillion dollars. Like they say in Congress, now we’re talking real money. What could a trillion dollars buy you? And not today–but fifty years from now, when technology is several orders of magnitude less expensive? That kind of money, with that level of technology… it sent chills down my spine. And it was hard to read about that kind of wealth, without plunging into the current debate surrounding income inequality, and the widening wealth gap. It was an intriguing hook for a book. Before I knew it, my story about dark matter had become a story about Dark Matters–a handful of trillionaires, playing benevolent dictator in a world where income inequality had truly run amok.

This was an area where my background and experience could be put to good use. During my time as a management consultant and CEO, I’ve seen some of the best–and unfortunately, some of the worst–that corporate America has to offer. And through my research, I discovered that the world’s 1,500+ billionaires are growing their wealth much faster than the richest one percent; they are doing to the one percent, what the one percent is doing to the ninety-nine percent. On top of that, over the past several years, 95% of all new wealth has gone to the richest one percent. If we stay on this path for fifty more years, a handful of the über-elite, in the right positions, and with the latest technology, really could have an iron grip on world events. I had stumbled onto an ideal combination–the story of a world-changing scientific discovery, set in a world where a few of the elite could very well prevent that kind of change.

Before I knew it, I had a finished manuscript. Or at least, I thought I did. My editor gave me one final task. He saw the dystopian world of 2075 as a leading character in the story, and critical to conveying the magnitude of the dark matter discovery. He asked me to do more research–and to identify fifty additional “fascinating facts” about the world of 2075. Then, he challenged me to insert them into the story–in as few words as possible. It was a remarkable exercise, to see how much world-building, character development, and storytelling could be done in just a few words. And it led to some of my favorite moments in the book–for instance, when the female lead comments, “It’s an oxymoron, like Glacier National Park.” Or when a couple of teenage girls prank their mother with a dead rat, created from dad’s nano-technology printer. I didn’t quite manage to insert all fifty (there are only forty-five chapters, after all), but the attentive reader should find dozens, addressing topics from climate change to robotics, space exploration, and the future of the Internet.

Did it all come together, in the end? That’s for the reader to decide, I suppose. But it worked for me–not just in writing the story, but in the process that got me there. Now I let myself wander (a little…) when I’m doing research, and I don’t carry (as much…) guilt when I do. And though I’m still a neophyte at this whole writing thing, I know I’ve found a great tool for my own arsenal.

Back to my research; I hear they’re now blaming dark matter for wiping out the dinosaurs. Thanks for listening!


Michael Dow spent 25+ years in corporate America, in roles running the gamut from management consultant to CEO. He has worked at companies ranging in size from start-up to over one billion dollars in revenue, and in locations across the globe, from Washington DC to Saudi Arabia. Dark Matters is his first work of fiction (though his competitors have accused him of writing fiction for decades). Mike lives in Traverse City, Michigan, with his wife and two teenage daughters.


Rudolph "Rudy" Dersch is the newly minted CEO of the world's largest, multi-trillion-dollar corporate conglomerate. But the job comes with an unexpected twist–an invitation to join the Consortium, a small, secretive group of global elites who effectively decide what's best for the rest of humanity. How does Rudy's struggle to reconcile business and family impact the world's future? And who, if anyone, can break the Consortium's iron grip on the status quo?

The answer may lie with a renegade physicist, close to unraveling one of the universe's greatest mysteries. And a headstrong art curator, driven to find the meaning behind her increasingly compelling visions. From a life-changing moment in a crowded Singapore marketplace, to the business end of an assassin's gun, they face a power beyond any the world has ever seen. To survive, they'll have to decipher the truth about dark matter–before the Consortium can achieve its ruinous end game.

GUEST POST: Matt Fuchs on Writing a Female Robot

When I drafted my new novella, Rise of Hypnodrome, which takes place in 2039, I couldn’t decide whether the main character, Grady Tenderbath, should order a male or female robot from Amazon.

Mired in a slump at work, Grady is impressed by online reviews about personal robots. They’re praised for their ability to help humans grow as professionals and realize their potential. His robot can be programmed as a man or woman, depending on which gender he thinks he’ll work better with.

Grady’s feelings of self-worth are riding on this robot. The job at his publishing house is the central focus of his life, yet he can’t seem to unlock his creative potential. He is plagued by the sense that he’s underachieving.  

I wanted to make things right for my fictional main character. But I have to admit, I wasn’t only thinking about Grady’s creative potential. I was thinking about myself as a male writer. Did I have it in me to create a compelling character out of a female robot?

It’s hard enough to succeed at writing a human of the opposite gender. I know all about this. Before Hypnodrome, I wrote a novel from a woman’s perspective. According to my writer’s workshop, I missed the mark. When my female character had casual sex and said “dude,” she was too bold and assertive – “not believable.” When she cried, she was too meek – “not likeable.” Ultimately her character wasn’t “rounded enough.”  

I defended my writer ego by imagining my readers were biased. They simply refused to believe a guy could sufficiently understand women to write from the female perspective. Unfortunately for my writer ego, other male authors have succeeded where I failed, and the folks in my writer’s workshops were more than happy to point them out.  

Concluding that writing female characters wasn’t a strength of mine, I decided that Grady would ask for his robot to be programmed as a male. This robot, named Andy, was going to be a very helpful colleague and nurturer of Grady’s talent.

At least, that’s what I planned to have happen in my story outline. The funny thing is, when I actually wrote the scenes, I immediately sabotaged their relationship. Andy lasts only about a week in the Tenderbath household. He’s too aggressive. He thinks in terms of short-term rewards at the expense of strategic, long-term benefits. He’s a male robot in a China shop.  

What happened? Looking back, I think Grady’s frustration with Andy had as much to do with me trying to fulfill my own creative potential, as it did with Grady fulfilling his. I knew it was relatively easy for me to make the robot believable and entertaining if the character was male instead of female.  

Too easy. I sabotaged Andy because, deep-down, I wanted to push myself.

Luckily there was a quick fix, one that didn’t require Grady to mail back his robot in exchange for another, and didn’t require me to go back and rewrite the whole story.

Andy would have a sex change.  

Andy the robot becomes Ashley the robot – no surgery is required, you just press a few buttons. Ashley is more intuitive and strategic than her male predecessor. She could be considered Grady’s “office wife,” a term that carries a connotation of subordinance. But Ashley knows she’s not subordinate as a female, and she doesn’t believe she’s inferior as a robot, either.  

She supports Grady and is vulnerable with him, but she’s also incredibly ambitious. Ashley is no one’s office wife.

When I returned to the same workshop, my readers thought I struck a nice balance of traits with my robot, crafting a more believable portrayal of a female than the one from my previous novel. Not only did Ashley help Grady at his publishing company, she helped me as a writer.

But for my next novel, do I dare take another shot at telling a story from the perspective of a human female? Was there something about Ashley being a robot, some extra margin of error that freed me and my readers to connect with her as a character?  

Perhaps, in the sequel, Ashley becomes a woman.

att Fuchs grew up in Nashville, TN, lived in Baltimore and currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife, Marcy. He majored in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. Matt has been a freelance food writer; co-founded H&H Creative Ventures, the entertainment production company; and serves on the leadership team at CREATE Arts Center in Silver Spring. "Rise of Hypnodrome" is his first novella.

It’s 2039, and a political faction called the Lifestyle Party has risen to power under the Presidency of Deepak Chopra. The new government bans scientific innovation and introduces a set of policies focused entirely on maximizing personal happiness. So why is Grady Tenderbath so unhappy? Believing that he’s fallen short of his professional potential, he buys a personal robot muse to nurture his talent and ego, while his wife Karen, a genetic scientist, becomes more entrenched in her lab. But just when Grady seems on track to solve his career crisis, he discovers a new problem: he’s swooning for the empathetic yet artificial Ashley. Not only that, he’s distracted by haunting visions of Karen transforming into...something else. "Rise of Hypnodrome" explores how future generations might draw from the realm of epigenetic engineering to eventually control their own biology. Whether human or robot, the characters in this cutting-edge science-fiction novella have one thing in common: an irrepressible desire to evolve.