Updated first chapter of “The Four Senses”

Here is a revision of my Three-Day Novel from 2013. Your comments and critiques are very welcome.


Chapter One

“Do you think I am blind?” I snarled. “Do you think I am deaf… and dumb… and, what, totally senseless?”

Jennifer shrank back, pressing her scrawny body against the bones of the chair.

“Of course not, Prof. Woods!” the tiny freshman whined.

“Look, Jennifer,” I growled. “I don’t want to teach you how to be a better criminal, but seriously! You copied an entire essay off the internet and dumped it in the center of a page. You didn’t even bother to change the font and spacing. I mean, there are blatantly obvious hyperlinks in it! Blue and underlined and everything. Did you think I wouldn’t even see that?”

She wound her ankles about the metal skeleton and started to sniffle. I lunged for a tissue box, dropped it, and fumbled with it in her general direction. As she took it, one of my hands moved to pat her shoulder, then paused in the air. I sighed, and my hand dropped in exhaustion, my shoulders sagging under the weight of another useless effort. Jennifer was supposed to be my success story this semester. I recalled her writing sample, months ago: the nonsensical sentences, random punctuation, vague clichés, and superficial ideas. I felt, in my sluggish body, the long hours we had spent together in this yellowing office, laboring over comma splices and in-text citations. Her progress had been tangible, marked by miles of red ink and piles of rewrites. Just last week, just minutes before the plagiarism, she was on the brink of learning to write an essay.

What a waste.

“Come on, answer me,” I barked. “Tell me what in the world you were thinking. Why did you do it?”

She dabbed at her dripping nose and started to mumble something about “didn’t understand the assignment… last minute… deadline… panicked…” Her squeaky-toy voice rose up towards a wail as the end of her little nose reddened. “And you’re such a hard grader and I never know what you are looking for and nobody ever taught me to write in high school and I’ve had such a hard semester, my boyfriend broke up with me and my car didn’t work and you wanted too many sources and I don’t even like to read…” All the time this gargantuan run-on poured out of her mouth she was crying, wiping her snuffly nose alternately on the tissues and on her pink sleeve, and whining higher and higher up the musical scale. Soon, I thought, even dogs wouldn’t be able to hear the high pitch.

I lifted my hand. “OK, stop. Just stop. I understand that you were scared. It’s not really your fault.”

She wriggled and looked up at me under mascara-smeared lashes.

“I know they never taught you anything in high school. Believe me: I know.”

I thought of the high school where I had taught for one nightmare of a year: a year that nearly landed me in either the psych ward or my grave (not sure which is worse). Those kids had six English teachers in four years, and the Seniors I inherited had never been assigned a five-paragraph essay in their lives.

“It’s not your fault they didn’t teach you to write. You were just a little rat in a maze.”

“A—a little rat?” she gasped.

“It’s a metaphor. A comparison between two—oh, forget it. You’re just a pawn in a big broken game. That’s a metaphor, too. I’m mixing them. Never mind. It’s the whole stinking system. For nearly your whole education you’ve been taught only artificial formulas, tested on meaningless skills, and everyone was forced to stoop to the level of the lowest common denominator—” I saw her eyes had glazed over. “Anyway, you knew what you did was wrong, so why did you do it?”

“I just hoped I wouldn’t get caught!”

“Jennifer,” I intoned, “getting caught has nothing to do with it. You still damage your soul whether anyone finds out about it or not. Do you want to grow up to be a felon?”

But I broke off, scoffing at my pompous hypocrisy. Wasn’t I only a game-piece rigged up to teeter on their chess board, too? Who was I to scold this sad little girl?

“It’s a huge messed-up game, and they’re just playing with you, and with me, too.”

Suddenly my perspective shifted, and we were no longer Professor and Student, sitting demurely in an academic office. Instead, I saw us from above, from a great distance and a great height. Look at us. Me, dressed up in a second-hand suit, wearing glasses, a kid putting on a costume and pretending to be Teacher. Jennifer, with all those little zippered bags and backpack, notebooks and three-ring binders all color-coordinated, play-acting the Student. Pathetic. Neither of us adult enough to stop acting and get down to the real work. I wondered: Does anyone ever feel like they’re grown up, or is everyone pretending? Are we all little rats in a maze? I peered up at the convex magnifying lens of the recess lights, and crouched under bodily fear of the drop-ceiling tiles full of little indented eyes. Who was experimenting on whom? Who is prying open the lock-box of my skull, while I probe Jennifer’s brain?

“Whatever,” I muttered, shaking off the unlikely glimpse. “I have to report you.”

She looked about twelve then—maybe I did too—in cheap clothes, against a cruel chair.

“It goes on your permanent record. And you fail the course. It’s such a shame: you were going to make it, before you decided to commit a federal offense!”

Her eyeliner trickled down her face.

“You did this to yourself, Jennifer. I tried my best with you. All I can hope is that you will do better next time and have success in… whatever you do with your life.”

Jennifer had her hands over her ears.

I swiveled away. She started packing up all her pink Staples specials inside one another, zipping up pockets, cases, and bags, then slunk away. Yet another failure.


The afternoon turned rainy, and I stood in a glass-walled conference room, staring in at myself. Listening to what only I could hear: the ever-present ringing of my ears, the sea-shell muffle of the pulse in my head. The building breathed and muttered in its midday sleep. Who was I? My unfocused eyes doubled again my double reflection in the mist-smeared windows, and I felt very strange in my clothes. I was convinced I was a fake. I dream I am real, and I act like a grownup walking through a job in the world. Are we what we see and sense?

What is sense, anyway? I reached out my hand to the glass. Cool on the fingertips; patter in the ears; many nameless colors weeping past; scent of paperwork, scent of dust; flavor of failure in the mouth of my ambition. That’s a metaphor. A comparison. A mixed one. Never mind. Does everyone find it impossible to see what they see, feel what they feel? I nursed again my secret ache: a deep longing for someone to talk to about how hard it was to see what I saw, feel what I felt, hear what I heard. Does anyone think this way? Somebody must have written a book about sensory perception and creative expression.

I remembered a writing teacher who trapped me in a hallway after class, pressed her fingers against my hand, and got in my face. “What does that feel like?” she had hissed. “Tell me what it feels like. Not your thoughts, but your senses. Describe it!” I shrank into silence. “Speak up!” she barked then. “Give me some descriptive words! What do you feel?” Cold and trembling, I stuttered, “Uh, warmth? pressure?” She nodded. “That’s a start. Now, when you write—when you write about playing the piano, or patting a kitten, or making out with your boyfriend—” I pulled away from her, my unkissed lips dry and burning—“make me feel it. I don’t want to read about thoughts. I want to feel what you felt.”

But whenever we feel something, the sensation withdraws to a distance and seems to hide itself behind itself. How can I write about what I sense if I can’t even sense it when I do? What is a perception, anyway? If it is bound to time, then when does it happen? I see a word on a page; I glance away. In what fraction of a second did I see it? You can halve the time, then halve again, and again, forever. How do we ever travel from point A to point B? The mind is a womb, dark and silent. In it, maybe everything is imaginary. Is this world even real?

At one of the scuffed tables, I sat down and scribbled in my journal. As I scrawled, I strained my eyes to record everything they saw around me. I reached out with every sense, searching for anything I could perceive and trying to process the perception. But it didn’t last. Everything flows away in the stream of time. Maybe I would write a poem about the five senses, or however many there are. Maybe I would even write a novel. It could begin: “The senses all work together in happy harmony.” How does that work?

How does sight work? I see somebody’s eyes, and he sees mine. Our eyes “meet,” or that’s what people say. How do they do that? It’s shocking. Doesn’t anyone know how shocking that is? How do eyes reach across a room? When two people’s eyes “meet,” what stuff is touching? When I meet someone, I put out my hand, our hands shake, and our skin touches. (My unheld hand was cool and dry in its loneliness). When I look at somebody across a room, what matter, what material substance, comes out of my eyes and comes out of his, to touch in the middle of the room? How do eyes touch across a space? If it is light that touches my eyeballs and then flashes across the room, how does it stay separate from the light that is all around, in the air, in the room? Whatever it is, it must happen ahead of time—like, the stuff must leave my eyes before I look, in order to get to the middle of the room at the same time as his, to merge halfway, and then make it back to my eyes again at just the moment that we think we “see”! That’s insane. It seems like a weird kind of predestination. Something foresees that we will see. That’s a bit too deterministic even for me!

What is a writer to do? And how can I teach students to write if I cannot write myself?


But the time had come, as the walrus said, to speak of many things, like getting to class on time…. That’s not what the walrus said, but I had only twenty minutes left to print a handout and copy it before I went to face what was left of my dwindling class. I put away my journal.

My phone chimed in my pocket. I pulled it out and read:

From: Aurora Dunne>
To: Cassandra Woods >

check this out!
April 12, at 3:05

Hey, Cass, I’m in the airport, just catching up on emails here during a layover before I fly out on the last leg of my trip home, and stumbled on something you’d like. Have you seen this fiction blog?


Really impressive writing. All these different voices, different tones and styles as if all the different characters wrote the various posts, yet there’s a kind of story weaving through as you go along. And it’s got a wild premise. I’m guessing this kind of online fiction is the way to go in the future–kind of reader-generated, to some extent, like the old choose-your-own-adventure stories. You know, like “Three of Swords,” or even 50 Shades started out as a blog. Let me know what you think. You should jump on this kind of stuff and write online blog-novels and make millions!

OK, I’m on my way home from–well, I can’t say where I’ve been, but you can guess if you look at the headlines. Uprisings. Genocide. The worst place to be right now, if you live there; Americans are still OK. But it was ghastly: bodies in double rows down all the corridors of the hospital, and mostly children. I took pictures and will tell you all about it. I’ll call you!

Whew. What do you say to that? That’s Aurora for you.

Aurora Dunne. She swirls past me in her own glorious whirlwind, tearing around the globe, saving the world, and binding wounds, impervious to it all. From our earliest childhood friendship, when we took music lessons together, she won all the competitions while I forgot the piece halfway through and made a fool of myself on stage. She could ski; I fell and broke my ankle on the bunny slope. She got poetry published in the school paper without even revising, while I thought of myself as a “real writer” and never finished so much as a sonnet. She painted, drew, danced, rode horses, swam on the school team, played soccer….. I lay around my house reading novels. She was a guy magnet from Middle School onwards, while I had only one squalid heartbreak to my name. Then she started studying medicine, and found the meaning of her life.

Oh, Aurora. She can save lives with one hand and package them up like neat lab experiments with the other. She was in Haiti right after the earthquake, sawing off legs with back-room carpentry tools, without anesthesia. I got a newsletter in the mail with pictures that I couldn’t stomach. She was in New Orleans almost before Katrina had finished pouring in floods of filth, following around after the teams that spray-painted body counts on doors, working her way around the Superdome with pathetic supplies for the displaced thousands. She was in Japan after the tsunami; I don’t even know what she was doing there, but I assume she was evaluating the severity of radiation exposures. How much horror can one person see? I have seen nothing, and yet I limp along with a wounded mind. What is her mind like inside? Maybe living a life of service heals the broken brain.

I wonder if I will ever grow up.



Meeting Report May 2011

Although Ekphrasis has been meeting monthly all year long, I have not made the time to write up reports of the meetings. First of all, I’ve had more than I can do keeping up with the interview series I’m doing with contemporary artists, my writing for Curator, my teaching, and the million other wonderful projects that keep a semi-freelancer busy; secondly, summaries of workshops are probably pretty boring to read. However, Ekphrasis meetings have been and are going to be quite different this summer. We’re dedicating each session to one person’s large-scale work. The upcoming meeting is advertised here; please come if you are in the area! What follows is a report of our most recent meeting. Enjoy!

On Tuesday, May 31, from 3-6pm, members of Ekphrasis and the general public gathered for a reading of “The Jesus Story” by Elizabeth S. This was a collection of oral meditations on the excellencies of Jesus. Each section, or meditation, began with “Once upon a time, there was a man named Jesus, and He was beautiful.” It then proceeded to mention an attribute of Christ’s, and then riff off of that attribute to show His beauties of character and action. Some of the attributes were typical: nearness, righteousness, servanthood, love, and peace. There were also roles, such as husband and brother. And there were sections whose themes were surprising: ugliness, danger, and shame, for instance. In each section, Elizabeth strove to offer images that were fresh, original, and memorable, sometimes delivering an unexpected twist on the nature or expression of an attribute.

During the reading (for the first 8 sections, until our technology failed), we also recorded each section onto audio CD. Indeed, this piece originated as a kind of bedtime-story meditation, designed more for listening than for reading.

As Elizabeth and I talked about genre (“What do we call this piece?”) and as her father spoke about the similarity of this work to some of Jonathan Edwards’s meditations on the nature and work of Christ, I thought of something remarkable. We had been wondering whether Elizabeth had inadvertently invented a new genre with this work. Well, in a way. But I think she’s actually revived a very ancient and long-neglected genre: the Medieval mystical meditation. Her work seemed to have distant echoes of the writings of Julian of Norwich, or others of her ilk, who spent years and years, pages and pages, just meditating on the excellencies of Christ. Their work often sounds strange and uncomfortable to our 21st-century, post-Enlightenment ears. The ecstasy of these saints is often expressed in semi-sexual language, or with a vivid earthiness and sense of embodiment outside our comfort zone. Elizabeth’s work did a little of this, forcing us to ponder how Jesus’ body looked on the cross, what love of Him really entails, and how sacrifice might operate on a daily basis.