Write what you know: at once the best and worst counsel offered to the aspiring fiction writer. It is insufficient, if not too smug and certain, too limiting, and possibly counterproductive. But still…it’s necessary.

Of course, on occasion, even the author isn’t certain what is truth and what isn’t, and our bookshelves are well-stocked with phony memoirs and “true” novels.

Still, it’s difficult to argue with a confident writer creating stories from a familiar, felt place; the authenticity can be forced or faked, but any sentient reader sees through it. Thus, Melville was not (merely) imagining what it’s like on a whaling ship; Thom Jones was not fabricating being on the front line in Vietnam; On the other hand, two of the greatest novels of the 19th Century featured female characters written by men (Flaubert and Tolstoy), and although Martin Amis was never an obese movie producer, the inimitable John Self endures as one of the more confident and convincing character studies in recent decades.

There are myriad examples of writers utilizing the one-two punch of imagination and audacity to inhabit people and places they could never locate on any mental map. How, exactly, to account for that? (Perhaps imagination and audacity are sufficient, particularly once inspiration and discipline are added to the mix. The rest must—and should—remain mysterious and inscrutable.)

Sometimes (and not often enough) the subconscious has its own ideas, and the story follows. Although these thunderbolts often lead to dead ends (and multiple drafts), it’s the exceedingly rare times when the story seems to write itself many writers live for. You can’t count on these miracles, and experienced scribblers know enough to never seek them, but receive them and earn them.

I’m honored that the excellent literary journal Arkana published my story “Red State Sewer Side” this week. Perhaps because it so obviously does not derive from personal experience, I’ve had several friends ask me where this piece of fiction came from. Often, the origin of a story can be as simple as a title that demands an effort to justify or explore it (this is the case with my story “Come and Get My Gun”); other times it’s a single line of dialogue or description that arrives, unprompted, and you work your way forward from there (“He waits,” from “Waiting Room.”). A lot of times it’s not secretive or sensible; inspiration strikes (or it doesn’t) but the best stuff happens when the writer isn’t entirely sure what is happening or, when it’s finished, how it came to be written.

(One observation: I believe the young writer invariably writes, unconvincingly, about things she doesn’t know, or too convincingly about the (boring, cliched, sophomoric) things he does. With much practice, a ton of failure, imitation, a lot of reading, ceaseless rejection, and persistence coupled with delusion, the writer matures, and perhaps a distinct style is developed.)

Speaking for myself, I’ve noted that the batch of short stories I’ve written these last few years feature people and perspectives far outside my scope of lived experience, and provide perspectives (older widowed men, mothers, younger boys) I can’t claim to represent with authority. But they are informed by this repeated pattern of reading, writing, and observing. And not just eyewitness appraisals of day-to-day life, but an active and ongoing dive into what’s happening—on the surface and beneath the façade; so that politics and history are inseparable from motivation. And there’s a common thread, which some of us were taught to find and deconstruct during grad school, that might better illustrate how people in different times or places have common (and in some instances, very different) desires or fears or obsessions.

I wrote a great deal of political commentary during the decade of Bush’s second term and Obama’s first term, and—somewhat against my will—I felt compelled to think my way through the surreal aftermath of 2016. But, coincidentally or not, I made a conscious, if inevitable decision to cut back considerably on writing about politics and current events. Not because this is not important and necessary work, but it has a short shelf life, there are always people who do it better or with more passion, and mostly because it is, ultimately, unsatisfactory on aesthetic levels. Put simply, anyone with the ability or impulse to write fiction owes it to themselves to channel their concerns in more creative ways. As such, I’ve put some of that energy into poems and short fiction. Even if the audience for this material is much smaller and the immediate gratification is diminished, I find I’m able to revisit this work and it remains fresh, and should remain readable (by myself; by others) a year, or ten, or more from now.

“Red State Sewer Side” started as a title (for a poem that never got written), and sprang to life from a single image, a video clip of sorts via a vivid and disturbing dream. I woke up and it was right there: a young boy, at least ten and no more than fourteen, in a fist fight. He is winning the fight, but he’s afraid. He’s afraid because he’s surrounded by other kids he doesn’t know, and the hostility on their faces suggests they’re all more than willing to jump in and assist their classmate. He understands that even (perhaps especially) if he “wins” he is still going to be the target for a type of violence he’s never experienced and can’t understand.

This is certainly not anything I’ve ever experienced, but something I needed to make sense of: the vision of young boys not merely happy and entertained (boys will be boys, and who doesn’t recall the collective glee that greeted a locker room brawl?), but reinforcing, on some instinctive level, that this violence is necessary, a statement, and something they’re accustomed to enforcing—in their own way.

Here is how that scene is depicted in the story:

Being taller, he used his jabs to keep the other boy away, able to handle his opponent without difficulty. But, just as he’d seen at recess, the boy was wiry and relentless: he kept coming, and it took a lot to put him down. And he wouldn’t stay down.

In D.J.’s experience, after a while—usually quickly—the other kid would want to shake hands, or say “uncle,” or cry. This one, he understood, wasn’t shaking hands, wasn’t going to say “uncle,” and looked like he’d never shed a tear in his entire life. In fact, it appeared as though he were genuinely enjoying this.

It unnerved D.J., and even as he kept landing blows, he began to feel afraid. The faces all around him, at once eager and scornful, made it seem like someone might jump in at any moment.

(It’s worth noting that three characters in this story, D.J. and the boy he fights, Breece, along with a minor but important character with the nickname “Cakes,” are an homage to the great West Virginia writer Breece D’J Pancake. In particular, his brilliant and disturbing story “The Scrapper” surely informed this one on some subconscious level. The way Pancake depicts the muted anger and antipathy of Appalachia works on purely artistic levels, but also provides illumination—as our best art does—into places and people we may otherwise have little hope of understanding. And that’s where, inevitably, politics and our current president (how we wins, who he appeals to, why, etc.) inevitably comes into the picture.

“Red State Sewer Side” is one of a handful of stories that attempts to interrogate the why behind the how, the who behind the what. The (unpublished) collection, entitled That’s Why God Made Men offers an unvarnished look at life in 21st Century America, and some of what that entails, with a particular focus on the causes and effects of toxic masculinity. The working title, taken from one of the stories, summarizes themes that recur throughout: the pressures and tensions of so-called adult life, and the ways men grapple with them, often without success. Issues such as alcoholism, violence, competition, family/marital relationships, and the inexorable fear of (and/or confrontation with) death, abound, and many of these stories live in that slow implosion of coping, and often failing, as well as those who refuse to succumb. The stories, while not topical by decision (or calculation), nevertheless address issues oft-discussed, or not discussed enough, in mainstream print: gun violence, the recent history of coal country Appalachia, sports-related concussions, illegal immigration (and the jobs many of these ostensibly unwelcome folks are obliged to do), homelessness, and the inability of men to honestly connect or communicate.

In addition to the embedded links, above, many of these stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines, and can be read here.

Link to Red State Sewer Side, via Arkana. See video of the story being read by the author, below.

Red State Sewer Side, by Sean Murphy

It started right away.

The looks, which, by now, D.J. had come to expect. But this time, and from the moment he walked into the classroom, there was a hostility in some of their eyes—the girls as well as the boys—that he was unaccustomed to.

Still, he knew the drill. This was his third school in three years. He’d learned the routine the way anyone in his situation must: anticipate, even accept the curiosity, the distrust, the time required to make a friend or two, eventually, prove he was okay. Then, it was a gradual process of becoming more or less assimilated.

In some ways, he’d discovered, being the new face amidst kids who’d mostly grown up together could be an advantage, especially with the girls. They were typically friendlier, even interested in who he was, where he came from.

And he had a story to tell. His father’s job had taken them to three states in four years, something his mother called their “Apple-Asian Tour,” whatever that meant.

My father’s an efficiency expert, he would explain, even though he had no idea what his dad actually did. He knew it was something important, something that would impress. Even as a sixth-grader, he understood you didn’t get to call yourself an expert; that’s something other people called you.

He was, he’d come to appreciate on some instinctive level, normal in all the required ways (not dumb, not too smart, able to go steady with the girls he liked), still too young to understand these are the ways males without paychecks measure themselves.

Cognizant of these things, he was disappointed when no one offered him a seat in the cafeteria. But he was not completely surprised. Somehow, his mother had predicted this. She was usually the one most excited about the next location, the new adventure, but this time it was different, and he’d noticed. When she noticed that he’d noticed, she tried to act the way she usually did, but it was too late and that made it worse.

“It might take a while longer,” she said the night before, “These kids may not be quite what you’re used to.”

Unsatisfied, and vaguely uneasy, he asked her to explain.

“Well, there probably aren’t a lot of new students each year, like at those other schools you’ve been to.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I think most of these kids have known each other…they’ve lived here all their lives.”

Isn’t everywhere like that, he’d wanted to ask, but he noticed again that she was acting different.

Before bed, he tried again with his father.

“Isn’t that the way it would be for me if we’d never moved?”

“Just remember what we talked about,” his dad said. “Be polite and don’t look for any trouble. But don’t be afraid to assert yourself.”

His dad had never said anything like this, and it confused him. It made him want to talk about it more, ask questions he couldn’t quite articulate. His father changed the subject.

“I wonder what kind of basketball team the high school has,” he said.

As he stepped out of the shower that morning, D.J.’s father saw his wife was already awake, dressed. She was worried.

“It’s just business,” he’d said, for the hundredth time, the night before.

“Thank god, the unions are dying,” he said, hanging the towel on the door.

“It’s still going to be bad,” she said.

“Yes. But layoffs are unavoidable, even at companies that have been around forever.”

“I know, but here it’s just…I mean, what else are these people going to do?”

“There’s training, there are programs…”

“There’s unemployment.”

“Yes, there’s always that.”

The playground, at recess, was his chance, and D. J. was happy to take part in the football game. Basketball was his best sport, mostly due to his recent growth spurt, which his mother had called a “pre-empty strike on puberty,” whatever that meant.

Somehow, his father had guessed the kids would favor football. Of course, basketball was more of a cold weather, indoor sport.

Still, he knew this was his opportunity to make an impression, to introduce himself, without words. It was touch football, but his classmates were rough, some of them coming at him especially hard. No problem, he was prepared for that. But even when the action was elsewhere, they were relentless. There was one he identified right away as a problem; there was always one, every time. A smaller boy, aggressive, who kept shadowing him, making contact after the plays. It was obvious he was the leader, and none of the kids were calling penalties, so D.J. started taking it to him. No choice but to give as good as he got, like his father always said to do.

It didn’t work. The kid was tough, quick, determined. D.J. was used to being able to impose his will, using his size to his advantage. This kid kept coming back, his hands flying everywhere, way too close to D.J.’s face. He waited until the kid caught a pass, then tagged him up high, accidentally on purpose forcing him to the ground. The kid landed hard, but was immediately back on his feet, fists raised.

“Okay you motherfucker,” he hissed.

“Kick his ass, Breece!” someone shouted.

D.J. was taken aback, not only by the language (there were bad words, there were bad words, and then there were off limits words), but the eagerness with which the other kids formed a circle.

“Not here, boys,” the P.E. teacher said, walking over, “You’ll settle this after school if you want.”

Again, D.J. was taken aback. While grateful for the intervention, it was the first time he’d ever heard a teacher condone, even encourage, a fight.

D.J.’s father had done his best to reassure his wife.

“You think growing up an Army brat was a picnic for me?”

“I know,” she said.

“This is part of becoming a man,” he said.

But he’s not a man, she wanted to say. 

“I know,” she said.

“Plus, D.J. can hold his own.”

“I know.”

“And one thing is the same: boys will be boys, wherever they are.”

“I know.”

D.J.’s father had taught him the fundamentals of boxing, and this had come in handy on a couple of occasions. But during the last year, being a few inches taller, refusing to be bullied, just being willing to stand up, had been enough.

This time was different, and he accepted it. Get it over with right up front and then see which kids he’d be able to connect with. Heck, he’d even become best friends with the kid he had to beat up in third grade.

Back in the classroom, he kept wondering how his parents had known: his father not wanting to talk about it, his mother talking about it too much. They knew, somehow, and he, of course, had picked up on it.

He’d gone to bed earlier than usual, and was unable to fall asleep. First day jitters, same as usual. But, still. He’d heard his parents talking, their whispered words easier to hear than if they’d been shouting.

“Yes, it’s going to be a challenge for him,” his father said. “This is going to be hard for all of us, for a while.”

“I don’t understand why everyone seems so angry,” his mother said.

“Can you blame them, really? They keep electing idiots who make sure everything gets worse. What can you do with people like that?”

“The coal mines are never coming back, that’s for sure.”

“That’s exactly what I spend my days talking about. Learn new skills, adapt. But nobody wants to listen.”

“It’s red state sewer side,” his mother said, whatever that meant.

In D.J.’s experience, girls usually showed up at fights, which was a good chance to make another impression. Today, there was not a single girl amongst the dozen or so kids who walked outside after school, past the playground and toward the woods.

Suddenly, two other boys, either overly excited or with their own beef, started jawing at each other, then pushing. To D.J.’s amazement, within a few seconds they were rolling around in the dirt, a dust cloud of fists and curses. The scuffle was surprisingly intense and went on for what seemed a long time. He began to feel an odd relief; maybe this unexpected bout would offer distraction, if not get him off the hook.

But once the boys were separated, one of them wiping his nose on a muddy sleeve, D.J.’s adversary stepped forward. D.J. understood what everyone just witnessed had been a warm-up for the main event.

Before every fight he’d been in, there was a sort of ritual: the bravado, bold words, some shoving, and occasionally the opportunity for the other kid to back down. 

“Get him, Breece,” the boy who’d just won his scrap yelled, and D.J. stepped back at the barrage of punches.

Being taller, he used his jabs to keep the other boy away, able to handle his opponent without difficulty. But, just as he’d seen at recess, the boy was wiry and relentless: he kept coming, and it took a lot to put him down. And he wouldn’t stay down.

In D.J.’s experience, after a while—usually quickly—the other kid would want to shake hands, or say “uncle,” or cry. This one, he understood, wasn’t shaking hands, wasn’t going to say “uncle,” and looked like he’d never shed a tear in his entire life. In fact, it appeared as though he were genuinely enjoying this.

It unnerved D.J., and even as he kept landing blows, he began to feel afraid. The faces all around him, at once eager and scornful, made it seem like someone might jump in at any moment. Then the P.E. teacher appeared, like before, as if by magic.

“Get ‘em apart. You had enough, Breece? Look like he busted you up pretty good.”

“Shit no,” the boy said, hawking a mixture of snot and blood at D.J.’s feet. “I can take this fucker.”

D.J. didn’t have time to fully register—or process—his disbelief. The teacher simply nodded, and D.J. retreated into a defensive crouch to fend off another flurry.

On his way to the hospital, D.J.’s father was able to avoid thinking about whatever he was going to see by replaying what he’d just seen.


When he oversaw his first group layoff, the idea of armed security was ludicrous, like something out of a bad sci-fi movie. A great deal had changed during the last two decades, in his profession and everywhere else. Now, most offices had some type of security employed around the clock. Certain things remained the same, naturally. He had been called every name imaginable, been threatened, invited to step outside, spit on (twice, once by a man, once by a woman), and, on one memorable occasion, harassed at home—back in the days before caller ID and cell phones. And, unfortunately, he’d seen grown men cry, too many times to count.

Until today, however, he’d never seen a dismissed employee threaten to take his own life, on the spot.

“Of course we don’t have metal detectors here,” the shift manager said, afterward, nonplussed but also slightly indignant, “How we gonna keep people bringing their guns? That’s their right…”

It was unbelievable. It was almost as though this halfwit was defending the practice of packing heat, on the job, during working hours. No, he was defending it.

But this wasn’t the worst thing. The man’s swearing, surrendering his pistol, his uncontrollable bawling followed by a kind of furious begging, none of these was the worst. The worst wasn’t even that the police officer knew the man; was clearly, on some level, friends with him, and kept calling him by an obvious nickname. 

“It’s okay, Cakes,” and “It’ll be alright, Cakes.”

The worst thing was his suspicion, no certainty, that it was only his security badge—his status of being in charge of the people in charge—more than any laws, or customs, or unforeseeable circumstances, that ensured he wasn’t the one being forced off the premises, and not on his feet either.

He had been comforted to get his wife’s call, at first. After what had just gone down, he needed to tell her, to talk about it with someone who might understand. Actually, with someone who definitely wouldn’t understand. Just like him.

But then she said two things that confused and frightened him: emergency room and bitten.


Even here, he thought, as the young-looking (too young-looking) woman approached him in the parking lot.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said softly.

He knew the script, had been hearing it more regularly, outside grocery stores, coffee shops, movie theaters, anywhere. Even, apparently, hospitals. And typically, he had a dollar or two to give, the least he could do.

“I’m just trying to get something to eat, and…”

“It’s okay,” he said, handing her the first bill he pulled out,“I don’t need the story. Here you go…”

The woman looked at him as though he were a god or some kind of alien, and then back at her hand, like she’d never held twenty dollars before.

In the elevator he repeated the short, unsettling conversation he’d had with his wife.

“Unconscious? How’s D.J. going to get knocked out from being bitten?”

“No,” his wife said, her voice unsteady with fear, but also something like awe, “After he bit him, the other boy kept punching him, over and over.”

He looked down at his son and felt ill. Ill at what had happened. Ill at all that would happen next, starting here in the hospital. And especially ill about the ragged wound on his son’s cheek: the stitches it would require; all the possible infections attacking his system.

He felt ill.

“It was a fair fight,” the P.E. teacher had apparently said, once the paramedics arrived.

Who teaches their kid to fight like that? To bite, like some rabid dog? And who knew what types of germs were in that boy’s mouth, trapped between his teeth. Did that boy even brush his teeth? How often? And what was the quality of the meat his family ate? 

How much do we become like the animals we feed on?

He looked at his son’s bruised and beaten face, awake now but in another state altogether on account of the IV drip.

The surgeon had been speaking for some time, but he hadn’t heard anything.

He was sick, with a sudden dread that the doctor was going to remove his mask and reveal himself as the man he’d just been paid to terminate. Or the one who’d similarly been escorted off another site the year before. Or a stranger he’d insulted at some point in his career, wherever his travels had taken him. Or maybe the nameless kid whose ass he’d kicked behind another forgotten school. Or else—he imagined, as he half-fell, half-fainted into the reclining chair, at once toward and away from his son—some unfortunate soul who hadn’t even been born yet.

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