“I made DHS a character.” Countdown to Muse 2020 with Sari Boren

The Muse and the Marketplace 2020 will soon kick off on April 3rd in Boston! This year’s theme is “Imagination and Reality,” as many presenters are exploring the boundaries between fact and imagination, and how each contributes to great writing. Here, presenting authors have selected a passage from their own work, highlighting in green which elements came roughly from their direct experience, memory, or fact; while highlighting in blue which elements came from their imagination or speculation. First up is Sari Boren, from her essay, “He’s a Rope.”



Where can I find a man, just like the man who could be the Department of Homeland Security?

Accessible and Reassuring.  Trustworthy and Committed. American through and through. Even as the sound of his name, DHS (go ahead, say it aloud, Dee Aych Ehs), holds a whisper of multicultural spice, a contemporary dip into the melting pot.

If DHS were a man, if DHS were my man, I’d call him Dahas because the insertion of a few vowels would loosen him up and the letter “a” is the most optimistic letter, the flag-bearer, so to speak, of our entire alphabet.

Dahas. Jesus. I’m getting ahead of myself. I hardly know DHS and already I’m making up pet names, so I can  . . . what? Surprise him with a meal reminiscent of the homeland?

Grilled American Cheese.

Do you do this? Do you meet someone at a party and right away—in the time it takes to walk from the living room to the kitchen to pour yourself a glass of wine, half hiding­–half hoping to be noticed, in that brief squeeze against strangers’ bodies, ignoring the damp hands and the ciphered conversations—do you spin out an idealized version of a person? 

I intuit his needs. Glancing over my shoulder to check if DHS is nearby, I discreetly rearrange the wine bottles into a row showing the levels of wine consumed in descending order, a visual chart of boozy popularity. And hope DHS sees what I’ve done.

Of course he does.

DHS likes his data graphically represented. So I take my data the same way. And my steak.


In grade school I wanted to be the heroine of my own story. I fantasized rescuing my unrequited crush from a burning school bus; sadly, the bus remained intact. I cycled past his driveway day after day as he shot hoops, hoping to come upon him pinned under the garage door so I could free him. Such were my suburban childhood dreams.

Then the boys grew bigger. I grew older. Rescue became something to desire, not perform.

[End of excerpt.]


The excerpt above is the opening of my most recent essay, “He’s a Rope.” These absolutely real U.S. Department of Homeland Security House Style Guidelines are meant to guide the selection of photos used in DHS print materials.

When I read this list of characteristics I was struck by how they sound like a stereotypical description of an alpha male, and the first line of the essay popped into my head. Since the Style Guidelines sound like they’re describing an actual person, I made DHS a character.

The braided essay I wrote includes two key threads. One thread describes imaginary scenes of DHS as a personified character who I’m dating; the other, memoir-based, thread describes fraught sexual interactions I had with men from high school through my 20s. I question how we’re supposed to balance our needs for self-determination and intimacy with those of safety and protection—on both a personal level and a national one—especially if those we’re encouraged to seek out for protection (men; DHS) may be the source of the threats themselves. I also wanted to recognize that the country faces real, potentially catastrophic threats from external (and internal) enemies and not dismiss outright our need for some kind of national security apparatus.

The tension arises from wanting to seek protection, but being wary of the compromises entailed in accepting protection.


You can catch Sari’s craft discussion, “Narrative Unbound: Experimental Structures in Essays and Stories” on Saturday, April 4th at 10:15am at the Muse. For all the latest Muse news, follow #Muse20.


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About the Author

Sari Boren is an essayist, playwright, and museum exhibit developer who has built a career around storytelling and environments devoted to learning. She received a 2018 fellowship from Vermont Studio Center, a 2016 Emerging Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, and a 2014 Finalist grant in Creative Nonfiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Copper Nickel,The Southeast Review, Sycamore Review,Lilith Magazine, Alimentum, Pangyrus, Hobart, Gamba, War, Literature & the Arts, and Sari was a member of the 2019 PlayLab Unit for emerging playwrights at Boston's Company One Theater. Her solo play EXHIBITING premiered at the Newton Theatre Company in 2019 and her short play TO REST at the 2019 Somerville Theater Festival. She has also written the exhibit text for dozens of visitor centers, history museums, children’s museums, and science museums across the country, including many sites for the National Park Service. She received her B.A. from Brandeis University and her Ed.M from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learn more at:

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