Three Short Essays from The Hard Problem: A Guide for the Intergalactic Writer Looking to Mate



There is much that could be said about books. Why do people write books? Why do we read books? And just what exactly are books? Certainly we understand them as paper and ink, as characters and occurrences, as words and sentences, but is this all they are? Probably not.

Sometimes men write books instead of fathering babies. Women do this too, write the books instead of have the babies. I mean, they make a conscious decision, one instead of the other. In these cases, we could say the books, for these particular writers, are babies who, once published, forever remain babies. They do not mature into adolescents and then wreck the family sedan. They will not one day leave home in a fit of fury and independence and make horrible demands of their authors such as I need so and so amount of money for so and so rehab. The books will never refuse to speak to the authors because the books have recently been going to therapy and have uncovered some disturbing feelings they really need to work through on their own.

I wonder if the authors who write books instead of making babies ever have feelings of tenderness toward the hardcover editions of their books. Do they ever want to fashion tiny flowered dresses for the books? Might they ever consider adorning a book with a leather glove and then attempting to teach it how to play catch? Do they sometimes feel a tendon deep in their groin stretch and throb when they open their books and whiff the scents of its paper? Have they ever dreamed themselves pregnant and contracting on a book’s hard corners? In their deepest fantasies, do they both fear and desire hard labor, the sensation of something they created emerging violently from their bodies, and/or genital paper cuts? It’s hard to know the answers to these questions.

But books aren’t always babies and, perhaps, are not even babies most or any of the time. What are books? In their highest incarnation, books are word maps of the neural realities of the author’s brain.  At lowest, they are simulacra of simulacra of other people’s brains, most probably authored by aliens who have been studying our civilization and, in an effort to better understand us, create what they suppose our brain maps are, to varying degrees of success. Surely many a best-selling vampire book was penned by an astute alien or perhaps the astute alien’s computer. But then again, certainly many books no one has ever heard of were also penned by ambitious aliens. Reviews of books by aliens generally includes words such as “trite,” “derivative,” and “very much seeming as if an alien studied the history of literature and then threw in homages, allusions, and straight up plagiarisms of the masters.” My point here is that no one ever got into the canon by writing something that sounded as if it were already in the canon. Think about it.

Perhaps this discussion has not moved us as any closer to understanding the book. Perhaps you are thinking, well certainly a book is not a baby. Certainly a book is also not merely a map of the brain and certainly a book is not possibly something an alien could make. Perhaps you are thinking more along the lines of popularly held opinion, that a book is a uniquely human pursuit created of paper and ink, hard work, imagination, and magic. Could a book, however, be viewed as much beloved, yet nonetheless stinking and repugnant excrement? Could it be something similar to blood or piss or shit?Could it be something that must be moved from the body on peril of death? Perhaps this is becoming too dramatic/ridiculous, or perhaps we are nearing enlightenment. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.

Of one thing we can be sure: the books of the future must necessarily look much different than the books of the past. Perhaps they will be fashioned with bionic appendages so as to speed their evolution and keep time with the remarkable leaps in consciousness. Perhaps their innards will be manufactured with very tiny computer chips so as to boost their cognitive abilities and transform a mere book into a technological monster capable of unimaginable stories. I would be interested in reading this book, or doing whatever it is one would do with such an entity.

One time I watched an episode of Cosmos hosted and narrated by Carl Sagan and in it he talked about how human animals are the only animals who have devised a way to store information and memories outside themselves. They so very much do not want to forget. They have amassed more information than anyone could ever process in libraries and bookstores and the richly stained shelves of living rooms and studies. (They do not want to forget. They do not want to forget. They do not want to forget.) When confronted with such a mass of memories, perhaps the library of the world seems desperate, or maybe if you are stoned and considering this human phenomena again, it seems the most essential and humble act the humans could ever perform, this writing down of memories and brain functions within such an inconceivably vast and unending universe, a space so large you would think they would simply give up, they would say, “You win, eternal void!  You win!” But they don’t say this. Instead they say so many things.

I was stoned, and Carl Sagan spoke to me, and I saw that my task was to only write books worth remembering. I saw each book was a love letter to the aliens. I saw each book needed to be beautiful and important and strange enough to merit becoming a part of a giant communal exo-brain.

Consider the way you feel when a child gives you a crooked, indecipherable drawing. Consider the drawing an endearing visual manifestation of the heretofore unformed and underdeveloped neural connections in the child’s brain. Consider the intentions of the child. Consider those same intentions, so facile and pure, propelling the fully-matured child, otherwise known as the adult. Consider every book a similar gesture, of the same value, of the same magnitude, as the child’s drawing. Consider the child’s ignorance of its own death. Consider how this changes your experience of the drawing.

I suppose what I am trying to do is consider our endeavors with books from the perspective of the alien come down to earth one thousand years after we’re gone and finding the New York Public Library and entering therein, between the crumbling gray pillars, and sliding a book from the shelf and sitting at an empty wooden table as the sun slants in through a tall window—as the light suspends within itself a civilization of dust—and that alien opening the book’s pages and sitting so quietly and so still, and after a few human hours spent in silence, weeping in the manner of his species. 


Writers love problems. It’s really quite a stupid avocation, the avocation of problems, but for all intents and purposes, this is the job of the writer. The job of the writer is to dream up increasingly perplexing and interesting problems and then, in death-defying and acrobatic literary feats, loop de loo around and over and underneath and through these problems in new and interesting ways. The problem may be formal or the problem may be plotful but, of course, there has to be a problem, the worser the better, as they say.

I’ve heard it said the problem with first-person nonfiction is death can never be the problem, as the narrator is, obviously, still alive to write the tale. After I heard this I extrapolated some people must then think this makes first-person nonfiction a lesser art form, or lesserly exciting, because, hey, I’m not dead, nor can I ever be for the duration of this book (though there’s a definite chance I may die after I finish writing it).

But then it struck me, in addition to the avocation of problems, supposing that somehow the stakes aren’t always, always, irreversibly always death for a real nonfiction person writing in the real nonfiction world—supposing that the rumor of death is not at every moment humming patiently in the gray folds of the writer’s brain and that the act itself of writing by the first-person nonfiction writer is indeed an effort to muffle these horrible sounds—there is the possibility of writing transforming, via the same scientific reaction which first made the unicorns, into an avocation of happiness.

Allow me to explain.

What if the crisis was repositioned as an exercise in delight? What if we sat down cross-legged and sipped hot tea from small handle-less cups and wore shapeless clothing made of raw fibers and shaved our heads and then after we got over how unfashionable we looked entered in a trancelike state and considered there might not even be a crisis at all? What if we stopped thinking about ourselves and our experiences in such obvious ways and instead tried to re-conceptualize just exactly what it is we’re doing here via a 24 volume leather-bound epic lab report composed of heroic couplets, colorful graphs charting the moral consciousness of homo sapiens over 6 million years, and various logarithmic explications of the movement required to traverse the mathematical distance between “crisis” and “an objective approach to the concept formerly known as crisis”?

The problem is not realism. The problem is not the novel. The problem is not narrative. The problem is not literary tradition. The problem is not writing school. The problem is not form. The problem is problems. Write that down.

As one of my teachers once said, “Your essays are all very good, but they should be better.”

And I was like, Hey, this isn’t a problem. It’s just a subjective fact.

And so, I began again: There is no problem.

And again: In the beginning, God looked down at the Earth which was just an ugly ball of fishy-smelling mud and thought, “Not a problem.”

And again: Just outside the garden, Adam put his hand on Eve’s back. “Hey,” he said. “No problem!”

Finally: Dear Ancient Men, Your myths are all very good, but they should be better.

As one of my teachers once said, “If I read one more hetero-normative story with a young couple sitting on a sofa talking about their feelings, I’m going to puke. Why not write about two planets in love? Why not write about an affair between the sun and the moon?”

And so it was: In the beginning, the sun man loved the moon boy, but the moon boy was quiet and shy and pale and floated all the way on the dark side of the Earth cat. The sun man stroked the Earth cat day after day with its warm hands, waiting for a glimpse of the strange and distant moon boy, for just a sliver of his pocked face and cold glow. This is how the love story was told for an eternity, the sun man burning with desire and the moon boy shyly tap dancing just beyond the curve of the sleepy, tuna-filled Earth cat who all the while served as messenger, meowing the love notes between the sun man and the moon boy: When I think of you, my surface flares or It’s so cold and dark here without you or I long for a full eclipse.

It was one of those true love stories with a sad, unfulfilling ending in which the sun man and moon boy eternally orbit in different distant ellipses, never to meet, never to touch, never to see up close the glory of the other’s face. The moon boy will never burn up in the sun man’s embrace, but he dreams of it. In the cold space night, he dreams of steaming and then sublimating to violet and sea green gases inside a beloved conflagration, a body of immeasurable light. And the sun man will never know the moon boy’s chill nor the dusty topography of his scars and craters. He will never be able to see the slow pirouette the moon boy makes each month, this dance he does at the irresistible, invisible beckoning of the sun man.

We can consider the lapping of the salty tides across thousands of miles of coastline to be the moon boy’s gesture of love toward the sun man. We can consider the forever rhythm of waves to be a heartbeat or a movement of breath or a tap tap tap of Morse code. We can consider the brine’s rush against the smooth slopes of sand as the movement of one lover’s body against another. We can consider so many things.

If you were the sun man and I was the moon boy, I would still love you. If you were the Earth cat and I was the Mars dog, I would still love you. Atoms are just atoms. One day we’ll both blow apart and then grow into daffodils. If you were a daffodil and I were a daffodil, I would still love you. This is not a problem.

Why Writers Need Unicorns

There may come a time when you haven’t written one good line in the past day, or week, or month, or 37 days. There may come a time when you, perhaps, have a full-time job in a giant warehouse full of designer clothing. There may come a time when every day you go to this warehouse and fasten your photo badge at your hip and walk through the endless acres of clothing racks and conveyor belts on which person-less dresses swing and lilt and you live—positively live—to see the ones that have fallen high above you and now lie limp and dead and unsold in aerial cages for some dependable Midwesterner to efficiently fish out later with a giant hook.

There may come a time, when you sit in a room all day and pen the poetry of consumerism, and use The Voice, which is The Voice that speaks to the target customer who is a 60-something woman with $200,000 of expendable income who you deeply resent. There may come a time when the only verbs you use are styles and fashions or, if you are really feely puckish, reimagines. Perhaps breezy and swingy and trend-now and sharkbite hem now scrawl across the computer screen in your dreams. You fall asleep and awaken with pert prairie boot cut from weathered leather and bold color blocking buzzing in your head. And perhaps, when you return home from the designer clothing warehouse, all you want to do is make some rice and stir-fry and pet the cats and be disgusting on the sofa with the adult boy with whom you live.

And perhaps the good lines you have not written for the past 37 days begin to seem like impossible lines, the lines of who you used to be, and now you are the writer in the warehouse writing warehouse lines. Now you are a machine. Now you bang it out.  Maybe you will just bang it out for the rest of your life because do you really need to keep writing your pointless little other things, what were they even called, those silly thingies…

It is at this moment, you will need a unicorn.

You have to call it. You have to sit down at your computer, the one on which you have not written one good line in 37 days, and call it. You have to want the unicorn to come. You have to beg for it. You have to become as Jesus was, alone in the wilderness, dying on the cross, calling out to The Unicorn. Why have you forsaken me? Where are you? Why have I been so alone?

You have to remember the last time you saw the unicorn, that day 37 days ago, back when it was still summer and the unicorn was stabled there, close to your writing desk, in the guest room. Remember when you could hear the sound of it munching its bucket of pop rocks? Remember the smell of its mane?

Yes, you say. Like cotton candy. Like a spring breeze mixed with a candy store at Christmas. Like my mother’s freshly-washed hair.

And remember the currents of its muscles, how they moved beneath its hide like rivers or wind.

And remember how big it was, and how strong, how alive. Its white bangs fell over its long-lashed eyes, and its horn sparkled in the whirling light of the ceiling fan. It used to be here! Standing on the white carpet and snuffling the smallest breaths of air down into its feed sack of crystallized sugar, those noises were so lovely. Remember how wisps of glitter stirred from its hide and caught the breeze, how they twirled by you as you typed. You used to get so annoyed with the mess of glitter, in the keyboard and in your coffee, how the glitter laced everything with its shimmering and afterward how you had to take one whole hour just to rid yourself of its magic. Do you remember how this used to annoy you? Never let this annoy you again.

And remember after you had sat there in the room with the unicorn for a whole morning or afternoon, when you finally would mount it and burst out the second story goddamn window, your knees squeezed tight against its power, and how the unicorn seriously fucked up the neighborhood on its flights, pooping huge piles of pudding directly on the roofs of parked cars, swooping low over children and kicking huge clouds of glitter in their eyes.

Remember the unicorn’s body, how you loved it, the sweat beneath your knees as you rode, and how it pushed your hips, and how you sunk your fists deep into its mane and how sometimes, on the very best days, it would take you into itself so that you were the unicorn and it was you, and you knew what it was to be power and beauty and magic and speed. You were The Unicorn. Do you remember? You have to remember this.

And then, there it is, at your right shoulder. The velvet of its nose against your skin. Now is not the time for tears or reunions. Now is the time for being a motherfucking awesome writer with a pet unicorn. Now is the time for laying your hand on the white star between its eyes and saying, just a minute, Unicorn. Just a minute. Let me finish this. I am writing now, and it’s fucking amazing, and just one more minute, please.

Rachel Yoder is a founding editor of draft: the journal of process and the creator and host of The Fail Safe podcast. She programs literary events for the Mission Creek Festival, where a version of this essay was first performed during A More Perfect Union, an interdisciplinary dinner featuring comedy, music, and theatre. She is also a 2017 Iowa Arts Fellow. Her most recent work can be found at Literary Hub, The Southern Review, StoryQuarterly, and Catapult. She lives in Iowa City with her family. More from this author →