States of Mystery


Generation after generation leapfrogging west across wild young America . . . driven by a dream of a place where the water tastes like wine:

This Springfield water tastes like turpentine,
I’m goin’ down . . . that long dusty road.

Going until at last the whole family, the whole clan, reached the salty wall of the Pacific.

—Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion


“I have a problem!” calls the student in the front row.

This is supposed to be a silent writing activity, and there is something about the way the woman—mid-60s, meticulously put-together, her dour expression a perfect illustration of that Northwest condition known as logger face—protests that should have immediately alerted me to how, if I’m going to pull off this morning class with a roomful of students at a weekend writer’s conference on the Oregon coast, it is we who have a problem.

I have been invited to the conference to offer one of my favorite short courses, a guided-writing workshop I call “Multiply the Mystery.” The recipe: Bring a character you know well and make their story more interesting by adding layers of puzzles and complexity—just like life does. I use guiding prompts from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and a healthy dose of timeless advice usually attributed to Vladimir Nabokov: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”

My classroom is a high school library, and 20 students have come out early on a stormy Saturday morning. The heat is on, which is good, but it’s making a ceiling vent rattle distractingly in the corner. It is essential to have controlled conditions for this automatic-writing workshop. Students write nonstop for 20 minutes while I give them four short, ZeaBarker_statesofmystery_02successive prompts, spoken softly from the podium at five-minute intervals. Besides that—and above all—there should be no talking. If one of you has a burning question, I tell the writers before we begin, look up and I’ll come around for a brief, whispered check-in. Otherwise, save it for the break.

Every student is busy writing. Except one: my front-row student, who after writing one sentence, stares frowning at it for several minutes, and finally announces to the room, “I have a problem!”

I walk up to her desk and say softly, “What is it?” I’m used to the student who has difficulty getting started. The solution: Just keep writing I can’t think of anything to write, the logic being that a spell of repeatedly writing something so mundane will eventually stir up something more interesting from your unconscious. But this student’s problem is new to me:

“I can’t read a word I’ve written!”

Figuring she just forgot her glasses, I tell her, “It’s okay. Just keep writing,” and get ready to announce the next prompt.


My decision to teach at this conference was partly an excuse to bring the family to the coast for the weekend. The last time we got in the ocean, it was in Miami, where the hot sands are crawling with brown and browner Cubans. But the Northwest Coast is nothing like the beaches back east. You can’t even swim in the frigid waters of the Pacific here near Port Orford, the westernmost city in the lower 48.

We arrived the night before at Cape Blanco, a state park that caters to RVs and drive-in sites. We had rented a log cabin with bunk beds and electricity, but we still had to do our cooking outside, and the winds were blowing and the wood was wet. It had been a hellish drive from our home 200 miles away in Talent, Oregon. We had had a hard, hot time fitting all our camping supplies into our tiny hybrid along with our sons, seven-year-old Davíd and four-year-old Zane, who fought with each other the entire ride. We arrived hungry and cranky when Jodie had to run back to town for insect repellant and left me to start the campfire.

As I neared the end of my matches, I looked up to see the boys wrestling close to the mouth of our pullout, tripping over each other at the edge of the narrow loop road, when an RV bus, one of those huge diesel pushers,ZeaBarker_statesofmystery_01 rounded the blind corner and screeched to a halt, almost grazing the boys in their scuffle. It was an awfully close call.

The boys were stunned, both bawling, but not hurt. I clutched each by one arm and had to resist shaking them with all my strength while shouting: “Listen to me! Stop fighting! Someday I’m going to be gone, and your mother’s going to be gone, and he’s going to be the only one you have, and you’re going to be the only one he has.”

I was trembling, hands still locked around their arms, when Jodie returned with the bug spray. After I calmed down enough to tell her the story, Jodie told her boys somberly, “It’s a miracle. You both could have been killed.”


In the high school library, the ceiling vent is rattling when I announce the next prompt. The defiant student puts down her pen and levels a cold, hard gaze at me. “I have a problem! I can’t read a word I’ve written!”

She has handed me a mystery: How can I both manage a disruptive student and stay on the clock for the rest of the class, 19 people deep in the work of guided writing? The success of the entire workshop—a centerpiece of the weekend conference—hangs in the balance.

“Please, just keep writing.”

At the desk beside the problem student sits another student, a young woman, possibly a daughter or caregiver. She puts down her pen and, after giving me an apologetic smile that communicates she will take care of it, begins whispering to her companion. I have a few seconds to catch my breath and make it to the podium to announce the next prompt and get this workshop back on track, but the friend’s entreaties just serve to send the woman into a tailspin, and now she shouts:

“I have a problem! I can’t read a word I’ve written!”

Other students begin putting down their pens and a few try to soothe her: “It’s okay—keep writing.” “Don’t try to read it now.” “We’ll help you during the break.”

The woman will not—seemingly cannot—stop. She cries over and over, “I have a problem! I can’t read a word I’ve written!”

Is she suffering a stroke? Should we call 911? The wind is blowing rain so hard against the windows, it sounds like waves breaking on the glass.

The companion rises and holds out a hand. “Maybe we just need to go for a walk.” At her friend’s touch, the student suddenly stops shouting. Standing triggers something in her and she stops talking altogether. She has no trouble walking to the door. I signal to the friend that I’ll be right behind them, and when the door closes I call out the next prompt.

In the hallway, the woman is draped wearily over a stairway railing. The wind is howling and the rain is hammering the school roof. “I’m sorry,” she says in a weak voice, “I have—.”

“It’s okay,” her friend says soothingly. “You can say it.”

She exhales, closes her eyes. “I lost a son last year.”

“I’m so sorry,” I say.

“I thought I was ready to write about it, but….”

“It’s okay,” I tell her.

“I’m sorry if I disturbed the class.”

“Don’t even think about it.”

The friend says, “I’ll take you home.”

Back in the library, the ceiling vent still rattling, and every pen is moving when I call out the final prompt. The friend comes in for a moment to pack up two pens and two notebooks. A student looks up and says, “Is she going to be okay?” The friend smiles and silently nods her head. Eighteen writers continue busily complicating the lives of their characters to make their stories more interesting. Two writers go home to drink hot tea and postpone creating any more problems for the day.


After the workshop I drive my family to Cape Blanco lighthouse to watch the sunset.

I tell the boys that, when the tides are right, the place we’re standing is the end of America. Zane is named after Zane Grey, whose Oregon cabin still stands along the banks of the Rogue River not 25 miles from here. He is working out new words, and happily he cries to the windy Pacific, “It’s the end of a miracle!”

I’ve rented the family a log cabin in Cape Blanco for the weekend when it hits me: This is it, the end of a miracle. I have finished my family’s journey: fleeing Havana first for Florida, then to New Jersey where my father found work, onto Rhode Island where I went to college and grad school, then New Mexico for my first tenure-track professorship. ZeaBarker_statesofmystery_03I’ve lived Southeast, Northeast, Southwest, and finally Northwest, crisscrossing the country on an American journey. Now we’ve arrived at the salty wall of the Pacific, and there’s no further to go. Two brothers are always going to fight, but I’m trying to make Americans out of you, trying to make Oregonians, so you better plan on at least standing together in the face of the storm. Like Hank Stamper in Sometimes a Great Notion, I’ve “got a lot to say and no notion how to say it.”

I never got to read the first line my front-row student wrote before she stopped, but I believe that coming to the conference was brave of her and the writing of that line was heroic, and it was written with a heavier pen than I ever hope to lift. She chose a character she knew too well, and what I’m thinking is I don’t think I could have read that word, either. And I don’t think I could have kept writing. The solution is that there is no good answer. There are no rules. A family member is lost. Friends disappear. Trying to tell these stories presents problems, just like life does. It’s complicated. At the start, the author thought he was telling a story about the student in the front row, but in the end it turned out to be about himself.


Rumpus original art by Zea Barker.

Robert Arellano wrote this essay as a literary arts fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in November. His seventh novel, Havana Libre, will be published later this year from Akashic Books. More from this author →