The Idea Jar

When Clayton’s Secret Notebook came out, readers all had a different favorite story or piece. But one thing they all agreed on was that they liked the section I included at the end, called The Idea Jar.

So I’ve taken a shovel to the soil near the roots of the tree where I buried it last. Let’s twist the cap off the jar and have a look inside.

An Evening of Blue

One of my high school math teachers told us a story about her belief in entities she called “the blue men” - a group of beings that kept order in the universe. “When your socks go missing in the wash,” she told us, “it means the blue men are occupied elsewhere. They can’t, while being called away, ensure your unobserved socks as they’re washed are going to be there when you open the machine door.” I started writing stories about them in high school - stories about the blue men. This is one of those, edited over time, but in essence the same story it was as when I first put it down, in the eleventh grade.

You Oort Too Now

This story came from the question, “What would it be like, or how would an alien observer possibly interpret the phenomenon of a police shooting?” The title is a play on the phrase “You ought to know.” The reader is the unarmed man who’s been killed, and the speaker is the mind of the alien, a kind of colonial sentience that manipulates time and dark matter networks to travel through the universe. More on the Oort in the future...

The Ghost of St. Frances on Bonaventure

I lived in Nevada for four years after college, which was enough, and there was a big span in there during which I couldn’t make myself write. My day job had me in my chair at 6:30 AM, because our sales staff had East Coast clients. By the end of the day I was usually exhausted with little output toward my writing goals. As a way to force myself to throw words on the page, I started a thing called Sunday Stories - simply, write a whole story in one day, every Sunday, and post it. This is the fifth or sixth draft of one of those stories.

Insider Trading

This is a kind of surreal, whacked-out story about the kind of thing you’d never want to be diagnosed with at the doctor’s office.


My dad’s a semi-famous professional artist, and he did a painting he thought was too creepy (I thought it was awesome) that made me want to write a story about a boogieman. I wanted to write a story where the kid isn’t the one in danger; the parents are. I did research about about bogeys from folk tales of different cultures. I folded in dreams I’d had when I was little in which I’d pull open trapdoors in the ground to escape my current circumstance, whatever it was - running from balls of lava, fleeing from the crumbling earth, dodging the clutches of giant dark amorphous monsters, it didn’t matter the malady. I would pull open a door in the ground and fall toward the Earth, awakening in my own bed, in my own body.

A bogey named Gambol uses this mode of transportation in the story.

It’s Not Yours

I’ve been writing this story for years. It came in slices. First the idea of a man in a train station watching a courier at the same time every day. Then the story sat dormant, until one night it came to me - what was inside the package. On the next pass I added the world of whisps and the idea that Ken’s eyesight keeps getting better—and finally…after so many coats of paint and a juggling of nuts and bolts, it’s here in your hands. But it’s not yours.

Room of Screens

I grew up in a farmhouse forty minutes in any direction from the nearest metropolitan hub (a facetious moniker - Midland’s population barely approaching 45,000). As soon as I could read and understand that opening the same book just showed the same words, I hungered for more. I needed more books. Every week I’d beg my dad to drive us to Midland, this was before Barnes and Noble was even a thing; the extent of the bound paper situation was a Walden Books (one in the mall and one between a car wash and a jewelry store (that was the better one)) and a couple of used bookstores. My dad never seemed to have a problem spending money on a book I wanted to read, which was generous, because from my perspective I’d keep reading till there was no more to read.

I won contests at school for reading so much. I won free pizza, enough through programs life BookIt and Reading Is Fun it seemed to me like a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut every once in a while ought to be a tacit human right. I started to wish I could have my mind wiped so I could go to the library and start all over again, so I could experience all the emotions as though I was reading them again for the first time.

My Battle of the Books team in 6th grade won the state of Michigan. Our secret weapon was my next door neighbor, a girl named Kate who’d read every book on the list. She had a unique talent - she could wake up, get ready for school and by the time she had to leave, read a whole book. I think knowing she had this skill contributed to the amount of procrastination I normalized in my habits throughout my life, but it wasn’t an altogether bad lesson. With a skill like that, procrastination was a no-brainer. I read voraciously as well, but not out of a sense of competition. We were just both avid readers, to the point of ridiculousness. Hi Kate!

Reading so much meant I read a lot of books I don’t remember at all. Some of them I only remember because of how they made me feel after I turned the last page. I specifically remember one book that disturbed and haunted me. It was House of Stairs, by William Sleator. This story was about a government experiment that was carried out by behavioral scientists in this structure of stairs, and there was a box that gave out food, and the kids society wouldn’t miss made alliances and encountered trials and finally the experiment ended. Every time I thought about the story I couldn’t quite remember details, but I remembered the feeling it gave me. The feeling that humanity was unconditional, but that so is evil.

Randomly I decided to try to write the book House of Stairs from memory. I’d write it how I remembered it: blurry on the specifics. If I remember right, my story includes more characters and more death than was in Sleator’s book - the book I think primarily centered around the character I’ve dubbed “Raggedy Andy” in this version. And what I couldn’t remember I filled in with spackle from a different William: Golding.

As for whether I’ll go back and read House of Stairs again?

‘Fraid to.

Wednesday’s Boy

Another story I wrote in college. I wanted to write a story about a kid that got stuck in an underground labrynth that kept changing, with a minotaur at the middle made of endlessness, of madness, and despair. I named one of the characters Willy Pilgrim after the Vonnegut character from Slaughterhouse Five. I also snatched up the concept of a place being somewhere “unstuck in time,” where time slows down and even stops. Students in my workshop group told me it reminded them of Lovecraft, and for that reason I’ve purposefully avoided reading him. Now that the story is done, however, I suppose I’m free.

For the Love of Lilly

The first story I wrote after returning from Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp in 2006. The one lesson I chose to try and improve upon from the Card bootcamp was the idea that the most important thing in good fiction was just being able to render realistic relationships. So, I created a broken relationship and tried to see what I could to fix it throughout the course of the story. I also wanted to meaningfully resurface aspects of seemingly innocuous childhood fairy tales that are actually horrible, and how they bleed into the world we know today.

From Scratch

This was an exercise about an itch - those slightly annoying but great to scratch pleasure centers. We all have favorite itches to scratch, but what if the itch had a mind of its own, an agenda that didn’t match yours? The itch in this story leads Todd through a bad to worse to worst kind of day. I think we’ve all had them, but we can be grateful they don’t end like his.

Brian’s Elephant

I had this idea of writing a story where someone literally had an elephant in their living room. It was a play on the phrase, and to imagine the living elephant was intriguing to me. Growing up, in what my family called the “sun room,” there was a carved stone elephant. On the flat platform atop the back of the elephant sat a purple and green glazed porcelain box.

Every morning I would sit against the metal grate behind the elephant, because it was the only place in the house pumping warmth. I eventually bumped the elephant and the porcelain box fell off and shattered. My sister called me an asshole and I ran into the corn to escape what I’d done.

We were able to glue it back together.

Oh, you wanted to know what the elephant represents exactly? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s different every time you read.

Leather Lip Lightman and the Ice Train

One of my earliest stories. This one was published in the Offbeat, an MSU literary journal. If you’ve ever been the only one waiting for a bus or train, and someone comes to tell you it’s not running, this story within a story is a twist on that situation, with an unexpected ending.

Twelve Years Into the Trump Presidency

A more…patriotic kind of horror story, that could also fall under the category of political sci-fi. I wrote and published this on Medium in March, 2016. At that point in history the idea of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States was not much more in the public eye than some macabre joke. Lo and behold, when the 8th of November passed, the populace had cast its vote for the television hoaxperson and the tenth or hundredth domino toward the world I portray in this story fell into place.

Readers who pay attention may have already noticed that the story is not listed on the back of the book, only on the Contents page inside. Simple reason: I’m just not going to put that guy’s name on my book.