The Brief, Professional Bio

Donna George Storey has taught English in Japan and Japanese at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley. She holds a Ph.D. in Japanese literature from Stanford and has published over ninety literary and erotic stories and essays in Prairie Schooner, Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, Tampa Review, Wine Spectator, Best American Erotica 2006, and the past five annual volumes of Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica and Best Women’s Erotica. Her work has been featured in magazines in the UK, translated into Italian and received special mention in Pushcart Prize Stories 2004. She has also read for KQED’s “Writer’s Block.” Her first novel, Amorous Woman, about an American woman’s love affair with Japan was released in the U.S. in 2008. She is also the author of Child of Darkness: Yôko and Other Stories by Furui Yoshikichi, a translation with critical commentaries (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, 1997).

The Long, Chatty Pull-up-a-chair-and-I’ll-pour-you-some-green-tea Bio

Donna's Baby Picture.

Beginnings

I was born on December 31, 1961 in a small town near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By all reports I was a fussy baby who never slept much, so demanding that my frazzled mother once threatened to throw me out the window. To my older sisters’ disappointment, she did not carry through on that threat. In the photograph to your left, I appear to have calmed down enough to celebrate my first birthday in style.

I had writerly leanings from an early age. Whenever my grade school teachers assigned original poems or stories for homework, the other children groaned, but I secretly rejoiced. I filled the recess hours writing plays and recruiting my friends to act them out. In third grade I coached a group of twelve eight-year-old girls into a creditable chorus line performance of “Let Me Entertain You” from the musical about the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, hinting at my later tendencies toward the spicy side of entertainment.

False Starts

I started my undergraduate years amidst the gray, faux-Gothic towers of Princeton hoping to major in international relations. My career plans were vague; mostly I wanted an excuse to travel on an expense account and carry a fancy leather briefcase. However, I soon realized the obvious––I was far better suited to English literature with a creative writing minor, even if it meant I had to carry a cheap canvas book bag.

My teachers were writers of varying fame who commuted down from New York. E.L. Doctorow was the most memorable and the most kind. The day he told me I was a good writer, my feet didn’t touch the ground as I soared back to my dorm through the October dusk. I swear it. Other teachers were not as nurturing, although my senior advisor, Stephen Koch, gave me a pep talk two months before my creative thesis was due. He told me, in more polite terms than I use here, that I’d better get over my writer’s block and get my ass writing something or I’d have to drop out of the program. The looming deadline worked its magic and I emerged from three-and-a-half years of formal writing study with an autobiographical novella and the conviction I wasn’t talented or cool enough to be a real writer. I didn’t write another word of fiction for fourteen years.

Donna in Kimono.

Japan

By that time, fortunately, I’d found a reasonable excuse to see the world. Depressed by the job prospects—or rather the lack thereof—for English majors, I decided to apply for the JET program which sends a batch of newly graduated American kids each year to teach English in the public schools throughout Japan. The program rejected me, perhaps because I emphasized my “creative” personality in the interview. On paper, I didn’t look as if I would fit well with the serious and regimented ways of Japanese society. In fact, I went to Japan on my own with nothing but a plastic suitcase from Woolworth’s and a lot of hope, found a job in a small language school in lovely Kyoto (rather than being exiled to the boonies of, say, Aomori with JET) and proceeded to make tons of friends and have the time of my life. If you were wondering if the events in my novel Amorous Woman were based on real experiences, the answer is—much more than I thought when I first started writing it. Most of the characters are composites of people I knew and I was indeed treated to kaiseki and blowfish dinners in exclusive restaurants by kindly dentists, met one of my boyfriends through an unofficial omiai, enjoyed the hedonistic pleasures of hot spring inns and took every opportunity I could to dress up in kimono. The photograph was taken on New Year’s Day in 1985 in the grounds of temple in Gion. I look happy and I was!

However, just like the protagonist of my novel, I eventually grew restless. Because most of my friends wanted to practice English, my progress in Japanese was at a standstill. I longed for validation of my own language study, so I applied to graduate school in the States. Thanks to a grant from the Japanese government, I was able to spend my days reading books and looking up kanji in Nelson’s (this was before the advent of computerized dictionaries) for hours on end. This was my idea of bliss. Better yet, I met a very cool guy in my Japanese class, we started dating and were engaged by the year’s end. One benefit of the circumstances of our meeting was that we could say rude things about other people in Japanese without worrying if someone would understand us. This backfired once when we were seated at a table at a wedding with a group of older couples. “Why’d they stick us with these old fogies?” I said in Japanese to my husband. “Yeah, they’re old enough to be our grandparents,” he replied moments before the bride informed us that she’d seated us at this table because the other people had all lived in Japan and knew a great deal about the country.

At the end of eight years of graduate school, including another year’s stint in Yokohama for advanced language study, I turned in my dissertation, entitled “Speaking the Unspeakable: Images of Female Madness in the Work of Furui Yoshikichi, Yamamoto Michiko and Murakami Haruki.” It is brimming with erudite observations such as: “I have already noted how Yoko’s madness is related to the situation of the female in patriarchal society as Other, as both observed object and mysterious intermediary to the secret world of nature.” More accessible than a lot of academic writing, perhaps, but rather different from what I write now! By this time, I’d decided I loved the Bay Area and rather than looking for a real job, I took adjunct positions at Stanford and Berkeley. Teaching proved an educational experience. For example, I learned how immensely creative students could be in their excuses for why they had to turn in their papers late. At the end of each course, I would ask my class to summarize what they’d learned about Japanese literature. The most popular response was: “Never trust the narrator.” Which is probably not bad advice at all…

Creative Acts

By this time I was in my early thirties and the biological clock was ticking. I wasn’t sure I wanted children because I knew someday they’d have to take gym class, a torture too great to inflict knowingly on an innocent soul. It turned out, however, that both of my kids enjoy sports and P.E. Children will surprise you, as every parent knows. Good feminist that I was, I intended to keep teaching after my first son was born, but he developed chronic ear infections in daycare, my nominal salary wouldn’t cover a nanny, and besides I discovered I actually enjoyed being with him—most of the time.

It was during his naptimes that I started writing creatively again. At first the words came in a rush. I couldn’t write fast enough. Each smell and taste and sound was intoxicatingly new, not just sensory input but a magical essence I could bring alive again on the page in my latest story. Six months after I started writing, I won first place in Stanford Magazine’s fiction contest for alumni, a modest but encouraging accomplishment for a new writer. A few other paying publications followed. I’m not exactly an optimist, but on some level, I thought it would all be this easy.

Then came the dry spell. I had no publications for almost two years, but plenty of rejection slips. Writing is a tough road, but I agree with the countless writers’ guides I’ve read that perseverance is key. Not to mention I was using that time to discover what really inspired me in my writing. Erotic themes were of particular interest to me from the very beginning, but I was holding myself back, a lingering legacy of my “please the authorities” good girl years. Then one day, I was straightening a drawer and found a scarf my sister had given me for Christmas. The scarf was beautiful, but I’m not an accessories kind of girl. I got to thinking about how I could put it to good use and a few hours later I sat down to write the first scenes of a story called “The Blindfold” (a later revision has been reprinted as “Blinded”). Writing the story was electrifying—I had never been as consumed or excited by any work I’d ever done. It took almost a year and many revisions, but the story was accepted enthusiastically by a small literary magazine called Rain Crow. My mind swirled with ideas for more exploration. I knew I had found my passion.

If you’ve read this far, you’re either a fellow writer or a real trooper. For the writers, I’ll conclude with some words from my favorite writing teacher, Ed Doctorow. Back in 1980, at fall semester’s end, I timidly stopped by his office and asked him to sign my copy of Loon Lake. He smiled graciously and scribbled down a few words. I didn’t dare read them until I’d left. “To Donna: Keep writing!” What? It sounded then like a lukewarm formality as in, “you’re not there yet, kiddo, but maybe some day.” I’ll admit I was disappointed.

Twenty-seven years later, I understand his words differently. Doctorow knew that no matter how talented or promising, every writer will face blocks and disappointments. She will wonder if it’s worth it to expose her heart and soul to an often indifferent audience. She’ll wonder if it’s worth spending years on a story only to be answered with a flurry of fortune-cookie-sized form rejections. In the end, though, the answers to these questions are beside the point. What matters is that only the process of writing itself makes a writer feel truly alive.

And so, I keep writing. Do drop me a line if you have comments or would just like to chat. I love shooting the breeze about the writing life. I love getting appreciative emails from people who’ve enjoyed my stories.

That’s you, right?