Exploring the art of prose


Bear by Ben Loory

alt text: image is a color photograph of a brown bear; title card for the flash story "Bear" by Ben Loory

A man goes camping with his wife. A bear shows up at their tent. They decide to bring him home. The reader’s curiosity is immediately engaged by the straightforward yet absurd premise of Ben Loory’s “Bear.” In the author’s note that accompanies this story, Loory generously offers the reader a window into his writing process, sharing that “almost everything I do as a writer is designed to eliminate rational thought and amplify the voice of…the unconscious, the subconscious, the instinctive….” Reading Loory’s note alongside “Bear,” one can imagine the writer following the thread as it unspools, as the narrative “push[es] relentlessly to uncover and exacerbate the central conflict inside the main character and bring it to some kind of conclusion.” Throughout the piece, Loory uses spare, even stylized language to convey the story of Bear and his family, thus creating space for the reader to connect with the central metaphor in a way that encompasses their own experience. What happens when a couple brings a bear into their home? What happens, Loory seems to say, is life, as the couple attempts to fold Bear into what appears to be a quintessential middle-class, suburban experience. Bear settles in and the story expands until reaching its logical, unavoidable yet wrenching conclusion. Meanwhile, the reader is left with a sense of wonder as to how much a mute bear, and the hapless couple who take him in, can reflect to us all that we know—and all that is unknowable—about love. We are thrilled to share this short story from one of the masters of contemporary fabulism, Ben Loory.  —CRAFT


My wife and I went camping one day. It was nice! But that night, we met a bear. He came into our tent and sat down and stared at us, kept pawing sort of sadly at the ground.

What do we do? my wife said to me.

How would I know? I said.

We looked at the bear. The bear looked at us.

Finally, my wife cleared her throat.

Excuse me, she said. Is there something wrong?

The bear paused. He seemed to consider.

No? he finally said—or maybe seemed to say.

But the way he said it—or seemed to—seemed sad.

Can we help you somehow? my wife said to him.

The bear didn’t answer.

We exchanged glances.

Hmm, said my wife. What do you think we should do?

Really, I said, I don’t know.

Well, said my wife. We have to do something.

Yes, I finally said, I guess that’s true.

So in the morning, we put the bear in the back seat, and took him home and showed him the guest room.


We never actually found out how old the bear was; the truth is, he didn’t talk very much. He mostly seemed to want to roll around on my wife’s skateboard.

Bear, wear your helmet! we always said.

We built him a cement pool out in the side yard, and stocked it full of different kinds of fish, but the bear never seemed all that interested in them. He preferred peanut butter sandwiches.


What about school? my wife said one day. Is it right that he’s home all the time?

School? I said. I mean…he’s a bear.

But then I felt guilty for saying that.


And so, in the end, we went down and signed him up.

His name, the lady said, is Bear?

Well, I said, we don’t really know.

That’s what we call him, my wife said.


The years went by. Bear did okay in school. I’m not saying that he exactly shined. He wasn’t what you’d call a natural scholar.

But on the other hand, he never got into any fights.


He didn’t make a friend till he was in the eleventh grade—a pale, shy boy named Ronald Knight. Ronald came over after school a few times and he and Bear watched old Star Trek episodes.

Sometimes I’d stand there in the doorway and watch them. Ronald sometimes laughed, or made a joke. But Bear never did; he just stared at the screen—his shoulders, as always, hunched over.


I don’t know, I told my wife. He never seems all that happy. Do you think maybe something could be wrong?

Wrong? said my wife.

Like what? she finally said.

So we took him to a therapist for a while.


The therapist never told us what exactly they talked about.

He’s going to be just fine, she said.

But a few weeks later, when I went to wake up Bear, I found his room deserted. He wasn’t there.


I stood there staring at the spot where he usually slept (in the closet—he always slept in the closet).

He must be around here somewhere, said my wife.

But—the thing was—he wasn’t.


We searched the whole house, calling out for Bear, but there was no sign of him at all. Even his skateboard and helmet were gone.

Maybe, I said, Ronald knows?


Can we talk to Ronald? we said to Ronald’s parents when they answered our knock on the door.

Ronald? they said. Is this about Bear?

It is, said my wife. Is he there?


They showed us to Ronald’s room, and there we found Bear, fast asleep in the top bunk of Ronald’s bed. Ronald was there too, awake on the bottom, furiously playing some video game.

Ronald, we said. What’s going on?

Bear’s gonna live here, Ronald said.

He is? said my wife. Are your parents okay with that?

Yeah, I think so, Ronald said.

I looked at my wife and my wife looked at me.

Ronald, I said. Did we do something wrong?

I don’t know, Ronald said. Why are you asking me? Bear’s right there—why don’t you ask him?


We looked at the bear. He was sleeping so well. He was snoring in a way I’d never heard. It sounded so smooth, like he’d had an engine installed. Like a brand new engine—it purred.

I looked at my wife.

What do you think? she finally said.

Do you think we should wake him? I said.

My wife bit her lip. Then she shook her head.

He’s a growing bear, she said. He needs his sleep.


So the two of us went home, and climbed into bed. We turned on the TV and watched a show.

I didn’t even know he liked Ronald, I said. Maybe we didn’t know him very well.

Well, my wife said, Bear always kept to himself.

We did do our best, though—right? I said.

Of course, said my wife.

A few minutes went by.

Do you think he’ll be happy? I said.

I don’t know, said my wife. I mean, I hope so.

We sat there in silence for a bit.

Do you ever think that we should’ve had a kid? I finally said.

Oh honey, my wife said. We did.


BEN LOORY is the author of the collections Tales of Falling and Flying (Penguin, 2017) and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011). His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, BOMB Magazine, Fairy Tale Review, and A Public Space, and been heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. He lives and teaches short story writing in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter @benloory.


Image by Zdeněk Macháček courtesy of Unsplash


Author’s Note

As a writing teacher I talk about craft all the time, but it feels strange to discuss it in relation to my own work; almost everything I do as a writer is designed to eliminate rational thought and amplify the voice of, I don’t even know what to call it—the unconscious, the subconscious, the instinctive?

I write every story in the same way: I sit down, make my mind as blank as I can, and then wait for the first thing that pops into my head—whether it’s a line, an image, a character, whatever. Then I grab that thing, stick it in an opening sentence, and run with it; I write a first draft as quickly as I can, beginning to end, without backing up, deleting, editing—I don’t even fix typos, I just follow the character and keep poking at ’em if they stop moving. That’s all I do, and I keep doing it until I reach the end of the story—or if not THE end, at least AN end…. I can usually tell that the story has gone wrong somewhere along the way but I force myself to write to an end anyway, even if it’s a stupid one. Whatever, just get it out there; we’ll make it better later. This first stage usually takes about 20-30 minutes. Sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more (bear in mind, my stories are very short, usually 700-1400 words, sometimes hitting 2000 at the outside). Then I save that draft and go eat an English muffin and then work on something else for a while.

Some time after that—usually the next day—I move into the second stage, which is basically just me sitting there reading over that frantic, often only semilegible first draft and trying to see if there’s anything interesting about it or not. Sometimes there’s not; sometimes it just sucks, or makes no sense at all, and I have no idea why I even wrote it. And that’s fine; no big deal. Maybe it’ll look different to me next week, or next month, or in three years when I randomly stumble on it in a weird folder on my computer…. In any case, I never delete anything. But! If it looks interesting to me, then I resave it as a new draft (storyname2 or storyname3 or whatever) and I just start reading through it from the beginning and “ironing it out.” That means that I sit there and read it out loud, line by line, checking each line with my stomach to see if it feels right. If it feels right, I move onto the next line, and then the next, and the next, etc. If, on the other hand, my stomach screams “Ahhh Jeez it hurts!” then I sit there and fiddle with the line until my stomach stops complaining. Then I move on again. Sometimes the cringe is due not to a line but to a space between the lines; then I have to come up with some other lines to stick in there. I don’t “think” about any of these changes, I just do whatever that quiet, floating voice in the back of my head says, without questioning it. When I get to the end of the story I take a break, resave the document as a new numbered draft, and start over again. This time around, different lines will hurt my stomach (or sometimes the same ones I “fixed” the time before). And I just keep doing that until none of the lines hurt my stomach; at that point the story is finished.

How many times do I do that? It depends. Usually by the time I publish a story, I’m up to around 20-30 numbered drafts, often 40-50…a few times I’ve gotten up into the 70s and 80s, and there’s at least one story I’m still working on that’s in the 90s now and still hurts me in a different place every time I read it. I’ve never gotten to 100 but I’m sure I will someday (I will probably have a little party). I never really “give up” on a story; some of them just take longer than others, and others are just lying around forgotten (for now, at least) on my computer.

I should probably clarify that I don’t work on just one story at a time, like some people do…. I am constantly working on 10 or 20 or 30 at a time, bouncing between them, back and forth. I get tired of one and move on to another, fixate on that one for a bit, then get bored or frustrated and jump to the previous one, or a different one, or go read through forgotten first drafts looking for something interesting to bring out of retirement. In the meantime, I try to produce a new first draft every day, so the pool of possibilities is always growing. It sounds insane and it probably is, but it keeps things fresh for me; my biggest problem is boredom.

The one exception to my “Only Go By Stomach” rule: every now and then I’ll be “ironing out” a story and I’ll be up in the 20s or 30s of drafts and I’ll get the sense that I’m just not getting anywhere, that there’s something I’m not understanding and I just can’t make it hurt less, and so in that singular instance I will sit back and allow myself to think with my brain. I’ll get out a piece of paper and draw myself a little diagram of the story in structural terms, identify the main character’s stated or implicit goal, and then see if I can identify the midpoint turn, the moment where the other side—the secret side, the repressed side, the unfed side—of the character begins to become active. If I can’t find that moment then it usually means I don’t yet have an internal conflict for the character. What are they forgetting about? What are they not addressing? What are they running from? What do they really need, that all their hurrying about trying to do things is obscuring? Once I figure that out, the midpoint turn usually pops into place and then I can see my way through the story—there’s usually a crisis ahead where those two opposing inner goals or desires smash together and make a big mess, and then a third act where the winning “side” plays itself out (while still paying due attention to its opposite)—and at that point I usually “understand” the story and then can stop thinking about it and go back to feeling my way through the sentences again, with my internal compass set right. That’s the only time I ever use anything approaching logic on a conscious level, and while it is extremely useful, it is also not much fun and very tiring on the brain, so I try to avoid it if I can. In my ideal process I never once think about what a story’s “about,” I just write it until it feels right and there it is.

As to actual “craft” things, I thought a little bit and then sat down and wrote out a little primer on “How I Write” for you; here it is: I focus on action; I limit interiority unless I can’t get the information across any other way (I can almost always get the information across some other way); I never describe anything that isn’t the focus of the character’s attention (or wouldn’t be the focus of a viewer’s attention if they were on the scene watching it all unfold); I make sure every sentence is a direct escalation (no vamping or backtracking); and I push relentlessly to uncover and exacerbate the central conflict inside the main character and bring it to some kind of conclusion. (This is all complicated a bit when I write in first person instead of my usual third, but only a very little bit.) I also never write a sentence or a word that I wouldn’t say out loud exactly the same way in front of my friends.

Looks pretty weird seeing it all written out so baldly on the page, but…that’s what I do.

As for this story, “Bear,” it was a pretty standard “good” experience. I wrote the first draft of the story on January 27, 2020, and then did 12 more numbered drafts over the span of the ensuing 19 months; final draft on September 21, 2021. The opening idea was “a man going camping with his wife,” the bear popped up immediately and everything else flowed from there. A number of true-to-life personal details appeared as usual for little-to-no reason (Ronald Knight was a friend of mine in first grade, I used to watch a lot of Star Trek with my friend Neil in high school, my girlfriend is much smarter than me and always understands things before I do). I didn’t have any particular difficulties with the story and so never had to take it apart and think about it consciously (in my book, that makes it “one of the good ones”). I was particularly pleased to realize, after the story was long finished, that the title constitutes a pun. That is often the way; I am forever “realizing” what my stories are about and/or how they work long after they’re done. The unconscious is powerful and will do the work for you if you do the work to clear the way.


BEN LOORY is the author of the collections Tales of Falling and Flying (Penguin, 2017) and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011). His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, BOMB Magazine, Fairy Tale Review, and A Public Space, and been heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. He lives and teaches short story writing in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter @benloory.