Houses We Live in, Homes that Live in Our Writing
A Fiction Craft Essay
by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Memory and imagination cast spells. Fiction is inspired by places as well as temps perdue. Many of us have dreamed last night that we went back to—well, not Rebecca’s Manderley but to a place from our past, one that resonates. Some places are lost to us even if the building remains because we can never again enter and live there. Perhaps we can peer in, but we cannot look out the windows again, never see the way the world is framed from within that particular shelter again. Sometimes indeed an entire small world is lost to us. Although years later we may wander through a campus again, a neighborhood, the people are gone or so changed as to be unrecognizable. Without our remembered familiars, it’s empty as a stage set.
But story-telling, imagining, can open the portal to the lost place. Writing fiction, just as we can write from the point of view of people we have never been, we can inhabit resonant places we’ve never actually lived in. We can step over the threshold of the real or imagined house, into the skin of the house’s real or imagined occupant. Resonant homes contain lives, shelter, hide, even expose, the hopes, dreams, sorrows, and joys played out beneath the roof.
Such places for me are often the initial wellspring for a story. Sometimes, I re-inhabit a truly remembered place—a former home of mine. Sometimes I visit, I take a long-term lease, to a place I have never lived.
I’ve always loved, and frequently visit “house museums” and I’d argue that, in a way, all houses are museums. Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House was first on my list, Emily Dickinson’s not too much further down. Perhaps a personal best day of sightseeing was visiting the white garden Vita Sackville West designed to be seen by moonlight, followed by the coziness of Henry James’ Lamb House in Rye. A close second would be the evening on the patio of Edith Wharton’s house in Lenox, Massachusetts, hearing one of her stories read aloud by an actor from the theater down the road. I “collect” house museums the way some collect bird sightings.
A couple of years ago, I stood in Herman Melville’s study—the only comfortable, light-filled room in the awkward rambling house. Looking out the window—at fields, not waves—was to imagine looking through his eyes, at what he saw (or blotted out) as he wrote.
But it was a visit to a different kind of house, one empty of furniture, in the midst of restoration, not a museum of the famous former occupant, that spurred the process of writing my novel Frieda’s Song.
For years I lived a couple of blocks from the Chestnut Lodge Hospital in Rockville, Maryland. The Lodge had once been renowned for innovative treatment of severe mental illness, and the psychiatrist who put the sanatorium on the map was Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Frieda, as everyone including her patients called her, came to the Lodge in 1935, fleeing Nazi Germany, losing her home, losing the hospital she had founded there, losing her family, colleagues, friends. She soon proved invaluable to The Lodge, and other envious institutions wooed her. A competing hospital offered her a house. How tempting, especially to a refugee who had been dispossessed of everyone, of everything.
The Lodge’s director did not want to lose her, so he counteroffered—promising not just a house, but one custom-built to her specifications. She accepted, took active part in designing the house, and remained to live and work in what is still called Frieda’s Cottage for the rest of her life, dying in her home in 1957.
About thirty years after her death, I moved to the neighborhood, where I practiced psychotherapy at a community clinic. I attended the annual symposium for mental health professionals on the expansive green lawns of the Lodge. Many of us had read Principles of Intensive Psychotherapy, authored by Frieda, who remained an iconic absent presence. Her Cottage was by then shabby, used as office space.
The Lodge itself declined and in the latter days of the twentieth century, the hospital closed and stood empty as attempts to repurpose it failed. But the local historical society purchased Frieda’s Cottage, and began restorations. Visiting the Cottage during its renovation, I felt a tug: a resonant place, a resident ghost, pulling me toward story. Restoration complete, the Cottage was rented; Frieda’s Cottage was once more a home.
The remaining hospital building went up in flames one night in 2009 and its rubble was bulldozed, erased. But—miraculously it seemed—Frieda’s Cottage, just yards away, survived.
The invisible shadow of the vanished Lodge, the mysterious fire, the resilient Cottage, all pulled me in. I researched, I imagined. I began to write a story, from the point of view of a current-day psychotherapist living in Frieda’s Cottage. The therapist’s teenage son demanded his say, and soon Frieda herself—rather my Frieda, my imagined Frieda Fromm-Reichmann—demanded hers.
In strange parallel progression, my novel was finished and then accepted for publication almost precisely as Frieda’s Cottage was nominated and then designated as a National Historic Landmark. (I had testified before the Landmark Commission along with Frieda’s biographer, historians, architectural historians—a rather surreal experience for someone who makes things up.)
Not too long ago, the Cottage was available for rent again.
Tempting, I’ll admit, to imagine, living and writing in Frieda’s Cottage.
It is time for me to move again. But not to move homes. It’s time for me to move on again, move in again, to a different resonant home. I’ve already found my next story abode, though it’s vanished. A truly lost house this time, though once a real house, once inhabited by a local artist’s family. House, artist, and family are all gone. Which makes the place perfect for me in some ways: free-range. I’m just opening the door, looking around. Seriously considering a long-term lease.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s new novel is Frieda’s Song. Her debut novel The Bowl with Gold Seams received the National Indie Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award. Known by Heart: Collected Stories appeared in May 2020. She lives in Washington D.C. Learn more at her website.
MAKING THE READER FEEL SOMETHING. PLEASE. SHOW AND TELL.
A Craft Essay
by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
“Show, don’t tell.”
An old piece of writing advice, generally good advice, but sometimes hard to know how to do it well. Also, confusing, because telling is often part of the showing, especially when writing personal essay and memoir.
The advice stems from how writers can best help readers understand what they are trying to convey—everything from emotions and mental state to the tone of a situation, the nature of a person or relationship, the look and feel of a setting. And much more.
What if I wrote, “I’m so mad!” Do those words and the exclamation point make you feel my anger? They just aren’t enough. I must work harder to convey my anger.
Writing how an emotion makes us feel in our body or how it looks sometimes works. But it, too, might not be enough. Writing “my face turned red” tells you what I looked like (and it is probably better than “I’m so mad!”), but showing by using such a predictable, overused description probably doesn’t help you feel my anger. And I want you to feel it, not just know about it.
There are many other techniques you can use to show and tell. Here are a few:
Share the narrator’s thoughts and internal dialogue with herself.
Write a scene when a scene is more effective than a summary.
Describe a character’s (the narrator’s or someone else’s) behavior/action and/or reaction.
Use dialogue (indirect, direct, summary, inner) as well as show what is not said, or show silence.
Bring the senses, details, and description to the page.
Find strong verbs.
Give an example. Be specific.
Choose sentence length to match the emotion/tone.
Now let me show you a few examples where writers have done show and tell well.
In Ross Gay’s essay “Some Thoughts on Mercy” (The Sun, July 2013), he discusses racism and writes about a night when he was driving home from work late at night and a cop pulled him over. Gay writes, offering the reader his thoughts, “I wasn’t perturbed by the cop. I had made a decision in the recent past no longer to be afraid of the police.” This is the scene he gives us:
And so, for the first time in my life when a cop came to my car window, I looked him in the eye and asked as gently and openheartedly as possible if he could tell me why he’d stopped me. “After you give me your license and registration,” he said. I handed them over, and he told me simply, “Your license-plate light is out.” I’d had no idea there was such a thing as a license-plate light, and I told him as much, laughing to express my good-natured confusion and gratitude: He wants to do me a favor.
And he smiled—just for a second—then asked if I had any drugs in the car. When I said no, he asked if I had any guns in the car. When I said no, he asked if I’d been drinking. When I said no, he asked again, “You don’t have any weapons or anything illegal in the car I should know about?” (Strange, you might think, for such questions to arise from a burned-out license-plate light.) And I said, looking straight ahead through the windshield, “No.”
Look at all he accomplished in this short scene. Gay “looked the cop in the eye” (behavior/action)—showing a wish to connect and also animating his decision to feel no fear. Ross describes how he asked the cop “as gently and openheartedly as possible” why he’d been pulled over. He could have written about using a sharp tone or asking matter-of-factly. But “gently” and “openheartedly” help us understand the author’s mindset. The cop doesn’t answer the question—he tells Gay he wants license and registration first (direct dialogue). The tension starts. By the time I get to the cop’s questions in a row (first two are indirect dialogue)—and the nature of the questions themselves—the tension escalates more. Having that third question written in direct dialogue—“You don’t have any weapons or anything illegal in the car I should know about?”—ups the tension even more. And then that last moment—of Gay no longer looking at the cop (action/reaction) but “looking straight ahead through the windshield” when he answers no (that is all he says, so note what is not being said/silence—and that’s a short sentence, just “no,” which is also effective at showing mindset). This makes me feel that any hope of change in that moment is gone.
In Sam Bell’s essay “The Empty Set” (The Sun, April 2020), she writes, “I dated a lunatic in college.” But what does that mean? He had outlandish ideas? He liked to speed on the highway? A label is not enough, so she follows with:
Here are some of the things he did: lit a cigarette as we deplaned on the tarmac and, after he was asked to put it out, flung the butt into the circular engine intake, causing chaos, then ran from the attendants, leaving me behind; kicked in car doors with his steel-toed boots in a very expensive neighborhood; came after me with a hammer; stole all my money. You know what? He’s not worth talking about.
She gives examples of his behaviors (with great details), and by the end of the list (even before the end), I agree and understand what she means when she calls him “a lunatic.” Let’s note the strong verbs: “flung,” “kicked,” “stole.” And then those last two sentences—“You know what? He’s not worth talking about” (not just what they say, but also the sentence length)—convey she’s tired of the mental space he has taken.
In Sophfronia Scott’s essay “Why I Didn’t Go to the Firehouse” (Timberline Review, Fall/Winter 2019), she writes about being newly pregnant:
I loved that time of walking newly pregnant through New York City as the days were getting colder. I liked knowing I harbored my own bit of heat, a tiny ball of sunshine growing within me and waiting to warm its own universe. I lived in a realm of possibility and I remember being acutely conscious of it, of soaking up life and magic all around me—savoring the sugar of a Krispy Kreme donut melting in my mouth, my steps touching down on pavement that seemed gentle beneath my feet. I walked down Columbus Avenue and I saw a dual face, my own mingled with some aura of my unborn child, reflected to me in the smiling faces of strangers who couldn’t possibly know I was pregnant. But in that strange law of nature, life attracts life, recognizes itself and feeds there. Every face seemed like a harbinger of grace, of the potential held by the being growing inside me. I felt a strong sense of the whole experience being a gift and I was grateful. I loved being in that golden bubble. It felt like where I was supposed to be. It felt like home.
Scott begins by describing what is going through her mind (thoughts), how it felt to be newly pregnant—not the physical sensation, but her emotional and mental state. She picks out sensory details and specifics that reflect a sweetness and peace: the donut melting in her mouth, the pavement “gentle,” and every face “like a harbinger of grace.” I was with her in a glowing, happy picture.
Then that single three-word sentence. Jarring? The blood was jarring to her, and she wanted to convey that. She did in one, swift (short!) sentence—not just by the words, but because the sentence is set in its own paragraph.
Here’s a paragraph from Natalie Lima’s essay, “Snowbound” (Brevity, September 2019), about her leaving Florida to attend her “dream school” in Chicago, only to experience disillusionment at what she finds. Let’s look at how she uses strong verbs. (Basic verbs describe a general action—like “I walked down the hall” and “I sat in my chair”—versus a more specific and stronger verb such as “I shuffled down the hall” or “I slumped in my chair.”) By interspersing basic verbs with strong verbs, Lima’s prose is more effective; an entire paragraph with all strong verbs might be too much. Here I have bolded the stronger verbs.
The inside of your dorm room is muggy when you plop onto your bed. The heat suffocates your skin, so you unzip your North Face and throw it across the room. It lands on your roommate’s desk, almost knocks over her laptop. You want to get up and grab the jacket but your body can’t seem to move. You sit still, sinking into the mattress, trying to remember what it felt like to float.
In my own memoir, The Going and Goodbye, I was writing about a love I’d experienced with someone when we were both young and I did not yet understand the difficulties that could come in a committed relationship. Instead of saying that, I tried to show it with this scene in which I had asked him to go with me on a ride in an amusement park:
The ride threw us up, up, and down, down, and our bucket spun so fast we slid into each other, smashed skin to skin, and the fair and everything we could see blurred and washed together in an uneasy glimpse, again, again, and neither one of us laughed as the pace quickened, as we spun so fast everything I had ever eaten tossed in my gut, and round and round we went until the sky was in our laps and our bodies felt as if we could not press harder against the bucket’s edges, and up we tossed and down we came and up again and down and up and down and up and down until the dizziness felt like failure.
The ride slowed and stopped. The man ambled over. He lifted the metal rod and let us loose, and we staggered off the ride for which we had paid. We held our stomachs and could not bear the scent of sizzling meat, nor could we look at the fruit in market stalls, their peels broken and the flesh sweltering through. We could not have glanced at scarves swaying in the breeze nor born the sound of water beating against the shore.
We returned to our hotel room and lay on separate beds. We turned on our sides and on our backs, but nothing kept the world from free falling.
I tried to select strong verbs like “smashed” and “blurred” to create an uncomfortable feeling, and I used a long sentence in that first paragraph to show how the ride went on and on. I also tried to use the senses (e.g., “scent of sizzling meat”) to evoke nausea.
Most of this kind of work doesn’t happen for me on the first draft. My first drafts get my ideas on the page, and later drafts are often when I try out the sort of techniques I listed to see what works best for the piece.
If you look at your own writing drafts, you might see where you can revise, using one or more of these techniques. With enough practice and use of these, you won’t need this list. Your writing will show you where it needs to go to make the reader feel what you want them to.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is an award-winning author. Her books include the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press) and A Small Thing to Want: stories (Press 53). She teaches memoir and personal essay workshops. Learn more at her website.
QUEER (PRIVATE) EYE: Crafting a New Hardboiled Sleuth
by Margot Douaihy
“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” —Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
There’s arguably no writer more emblematic of the hardboiled experience than Raymond Chandler. On the mean streets of Chandler’s fictional Los Angeles, his private eye character, Philip Marlowe, expresses infuriating bravado and self-annihilation in equal measure. It was PI Marlowe who ignited my interest in, and enduring love for hardboiled crime fiction. His lyrical musings about fine whiskey, his tireless dog-with-a-bone persistence, his suit, hat, and gun—it all entranced me.
As a closeted queer growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, searching for headstrong characters in books felt safer than getting to know myself. I was in awe of Private Investigator Marlowe’s freedom, his devil-may-care brio, unaware that his swagger was probably shaped by his white, heterosexual, cisgender male privilege. Even if the hardboiled dick (yes, that’s the colloquial term for detective) is pistol-whipped, he is never afraid to throw a punch, snark at cops, or chase a lead down a shadowy alley.
Besides the PI’s barbed charms and Chandler’s dexterity at the line level—evocative neon-lit atmospheres, seductive metaphorical turns—Marlowe’s sadness thickens his characterization and the psychological texture of the mystery. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe readily admits he is “depressed.” Marlowe is a damn good PI who can work a case, but crime writer and critic Megan Abbott observes in a LitHub interview how he “feels control over nothing, not even himself.” The canonical sleuth’s melancholy and cynicism complicate his whiskey-drinking machismo, letting readers see his human frailty, deepening investment in both him and his investigations. Will he fall off track? What’s at stake for him?
Marlowe’s hard to stomach when he demeans and abuses female characters. In The Big Sleep (1939), he slaps Carmen Sternwood to rouse her from a drug-induced haze, repeating the word “slap” four times within the span of two sentences, creating a strong rhythmic effect. The cadence intimates a pleasure in—or fixation with—the act of hitting a woman. Marlowe declares that the opposite sex gives him a hangover.
It’s impossible to deracinate a text from the time and place in which it was written, and Chandler’s craft innovation is undeniable. But as a creative writer who savors the sumptuous rituals of reading—pouring a cup of black coffee, laying on the sofa, and devouring a book in a day—Marlowe’s sexist, racist, and homophobic escapades repel me.
Reimagining the Hardboiled Hero
Inspired by gifted hardboiled writers and interested in crafting intersectional queer mysteries, I developed my own critical-into-creative crime-fiction methodology. The first book in the series is The Scorched Cross, and the sleuth is not a trench-coat-clad PI but a tattooed queer nun named Sister Holiday. If that seems rather wild, it should.
At the heart of my practice is a close engagement with foundational hardboiled texts published primarily in the ‘40s and ‘50s in concert with their feminist counterweights—mysteries by Sue Grafton, Katherine V. Forrest, Laurie R. King, and Sara Paretsky, published, largely, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The feminist hardboiled and neo-hardboiled authors include women writing mysteries in the context of gay liberation and second-wave feminism, and the politics of these movements informed their narratives.
What I discovered through my analysis of early feminist hardboilers was a startling array of methods for leveraging social identity (re)construction to intensify and sustain narrative suspense. For instance, Sue Grafton’s PI Kinsey Millhone is an ass-kicking, wisecracking straight woman who, in A is for Alibi, smokes out the homme fatale (male version of the femme fatale) in a dramatic flip of the script. Katherine V. Forrest’s Kate Delafield is a fastidious detective and butch lesbian who battles crime and homophobia—internalized as well as externalized—in seedy Los Angeles.
Social comment is not extraneous but an inherent element of the hardboiled tale. In Talking About Detective Fiction, PD James points to hardboiled novels as stories of “social realism and protest.” Similar to the way in which the political tumult and socio/economic ideologies of Chandler’s Los Angeles informed his crime fiction plots (mobsters, for instance), feminist and queer crime fiction authors regularly weave topical themes and identity politics into their projects. Harsh social conditions, such as racism and violence, that threaten queer sleuth characters like Detroit-based PI Charlie Mack in Cheryl A. Head’s brilliant Catch Me When I’m Falling: A Charlie Mack Motown Mystery (2019), indicate some of the hostilities queer and BIPOC women experience on a daily basis.
Examining myriad strategies for weaving social critique into mystery plots helped me devise ways to narrativize contemporary polemics and tensions I find interesting. Accepting that the sleuth genre is both fluid and stable—a living art form that evolves as attitudes evolve—I set out to craft tales that read like satisfying whodunits while centering queer theory, queer spirituality, and queer phenomenology.
Subverting the Lone Wolf Trope In my wise-guy reversal, I recast the hardboiled sleuth as a thirty-three-year-old tattooed queer nun named Sister Holiday who, as she tries to solve an arson-and-murder case, interrogates herself and her own interleaved identities. The Scorched Cross interlaces multiple mysteries and introduces the queer sleuth as both an investigator and instigator. Intrigued by Lisa Duggan’s suggestion that queer theory holds space for “radical potentiality,” my nun-sleuth rejects fixed binaries and tidy categories of any sort. Sister Holiday breaks the rules and bucks convention as she seeks redemption.
In The Long Goodbye, PI Marlowe describes himself as “a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich … I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things.” Sister Holiday is also a lone wolf of a kind; an out queer woman when she lived in Brooklyn who took a provisional vow of abstinence as a novice nun in her New Orleans convent, but she still considers herself to be “extremely gay.” Like Marlowe, Sister Holiday has a penchant for liquor and women, and her relationship to “vice” is as cerebral as it is corporeal.
Queer “I” I anchored my novel within the contours of a first-person point-of-view. The opening scene establishes the cynical voiceover as the camera eye. My goal is for the raw energy of the first-person voice and the plot points to dovetail to propel the narrative forward. First-person POVs can be challenging in mysteries because of the expectation for forward motion. Lyrical and metaphorical meditations can vivify the sense of place and intensify character immersion, but they must be used judiciously to keep the story cranking along.
Beginning on page one of The Scorched Cross, Sister Holiday’s voiceover foreshadows the narrative centrality of seeing and introduces the New Orleans heat as its own formidable character in a city of curses and miracles:
A good mystery never starts where you’d think. A sleight-of-hand trick begins off to the side, in a blind spot, like the alley behind my school. The alley was the only place I could smoke. I had no money for cigarettes, of course, but what I confiscated from my students was fair game. Waste is a sin. Not a deadly sin but sinful all the same. So, there I was on the stoop, minding my own business, roasting in the heat that never broke, not even at dusk. I had my goddamned gloves and scarf on, as Sister Augustine demanded. It was a rare moment alone, with one precious cigarette, before I slipped into the convent for supper.
Sister Holiday’s (often obnoxious) attitude and observations—and what she chooses to ignore—expose vital paradoxes that drive the story.
Queer Crime & (In)Justice The LGBTQ community is not monolithic, but people at the margins often learn skills that prove to be valuable for detection: code-switching, people reading, encoding, decoding, reading between the lines, and inference. Queer people are fighters; from Stonewall to Obergefell v. Hodges, the community has shown resilience. PIs and queers also share more nuanced, unconventional views on crime, punishment, and fairness—knowing how to locate the gaps in systems of power.
To craft a female sleuth figure who capitalizes on her inside/outsider status and her queerness to advance her sleuthing, I needed to codify Sister Holiday’s sexuality in the context of her religiosity. As I began composing my novel, I inquired: would self-selected celibacy and abstinence delegitimize Holiday as a queer sleuth?
According to critic Faye Stewart, the answer is no. In a study of German queer crime fiction, Stewart posits that queer mysteries bring a “socially critical perspective together with boundary-crossing genders and sexualities, inviting readers to interpret queer figures and themes as literary incursions into cultural traditions and political discourses.” Within my crime-fiction framework, a religious lesbian sleuth uses the otherness of her experience and viewpoint to make surprising syntheses, look in unexpected places, connect disparate clues, and take unconventional approaches.
Genre Evolution The market for queer private-eye tales continues to grow. Just a few of the exciting LGBTQX inheritors of the gumshoe tradition include Nikki Baker’s Virginia Kelly Mystery Series; Cheryl A. Head’s Charlie Mack Motown Series; Kristen Lepionka’s The Roxane Weary mystery series; Penny Mickelbury’s Mimi Patterson/Gianna Maglione Mystery Series; J.M. Redmann’s PI Michele (Micky) Knight; Sarah Schulman’s Maggie Terry; and my own Sister Holiday novels. The Sisters in Crime website offers more about these books and other queer sleuths who doggedly work the mean streets for their clients, who aren’t afraid to shake up their narrative worlds and expand the genre.
I believe we need more than new hardboiled heroes following the same old formula. Now is the moment for new paradigms and queer hardboiled heroes who foreground queer storylines. The pedagogical implications are exhilarating: What might contemporary queer hardboilers illuminate about seminal novels by James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, and vice versa?
There’s a singular thrill in experiencing the new within the familiar, to disenthrall from tradition and mint a bold new code. It’s the delicious challenge of writing “genre.” In this generative spirit, I strive to push the boundaries of the ever-evolving PI genre with my mysteries led by a flawed, stubborn sleuth with a queer identity all her own that informs her passion for revelation as well as her taste for vice.
Margot Douaihy, PhD, is the author of Girls Like You, a Lambda Finalist, and Scranton Lace, both published by Clemson University Press. Her work has been featured in PBS NewsHour, Colorado Review, The South Carolina Review, The Madison Review, The Florida Review, and Wisconsin Review. Learn more at her website.
AVOIDING / EMBRACING:
Strategies for Writers with Anxiety Disorders
A Craft Essay by Bailey Bridgewater
Ah, writing and mental health conditions—a power couple in the collective imagination of what influences how artists create. Biographies, movies, TV shows, and even books have reinforced the idea that psychological ailments produce the very best writers. It’s hard not to over-emphasize Edgar Allen Poe’s alcoholism, Sylvia Plath’s suicidal ideation, Emily Dickinson’s agoraphobia, or David Foster Wallace’s depression because we have been lured to focus more on these writers’ diagnoses than their process or even personality.
I’ll admit, I fell for it. I have suffered anxiety my whole life. As a child, it manifested itself in nervous ticks like picking my lips and severe panic around people I didn’t know well. Despite being the most advanced reader in my class, I would count paragraphs and figure out which passage I would be asked to read aloud, then practice in my head until the teacher called on me.
My condition severely hindered my writing process. I could dash off flash fiction in something near panic, but I could never finish a longer piece that required me to focus on it for multiple days. When I could, inevitably, I would re-read what I had, decide it was trash and I was a fraud, then not write anything for months or even years. Nevertheless, I avoided even thinking about medication. Wasn’t my anxiety what made me a writer? Wasn’t my ability to craft strong dialogue caused by my need to replay conversations over and over in my head? Weren’t my obsessive thought patterns what led to my best story ideas?
It took a weeklong residency in the middle of Alaska to help me discover the strategies that could make me a productive writer even with severe anxiety. Turns out, these techniques work for me whether my condition is medicated or not, and I suspect they may work for other writers struggling with the same challenges.
Alaska Changes Everything
When I accepted the residency at Chulitna Wilderness Lodge in remote Lake Clark, I planned to write a collection of short stories during the single week (all I could take off work). I thought constantly about the stories before I left. I jotted notes about characters and plots and settings. I outlined each one. But a strange thing happened when I arrived at my tiny cabin on the beach – I couldn’t write a single story. I started four of them, and each fell as flat as me on black ice. I panicked. I only had seven days. I had to have something to show for myself.
What if I had nothing to show and the organizers told everyone in the writing business that I was a fraud and I was never published again? What if they canceled my residency and made me pay full price for the time I had spent there because I had not written anything? What if at the end of the week I had to stand up for my presentation empty-handed and all the other artists laughed at me?
As I sat at dinner one night, too stressed to eat my fresh salmon, listening to the other artists talk about the wonderful things they had accomplished that day, I considered packing my bags and saving myself the humiliation. Then the lodge owner told a story about the pioneering woman who founded the lodge. It was captivating. This, I realized, was the story I had come here to write!
My immediate instinct was to research. Oh, how my academic brain wanted to find every book on female pioneers, about Lake Clark, how to build a log cabin, the social context of the time period, what people wore in the early 1900s, and period-appropriate vocabulary. But I knew I couldn’t. I didn’t have time. I devoured that delicious salmon and rushed back to my room to start the first novel I would ever completely draft.
My anxiety, task-master that it is, told me that I had to finish the entire book before I left Lake Clark, or I would never be able to complete it – so that’s what I did. For 6 days I did nothing but sleep, eat, and write. I finished on the last morning with 65,000 words and a manuscript that, in retrospect, was awful, but which taught me the key to finishing a novel while anxious: speed writing. The compulsion to finish that novel before I left residency, though obviously rooted in my disorder, led me to nearly all the writing strategies I use today, four completed novels later.
How I Recreated a Residency
Though the novel I drafted in one week was not particularly good (surprise!), an article I read on my way home from Alaska about missing men in the Kenai Peninsula offered the inspiration I needed to write my next book—a police procedural that has garnered positive feedback from several agents. I knew that if I wanted to write that book while back at home and working full time, I was going to have to try to write the way I did in residency. Here are the strategies I adopted.
Open the work-in-progress document, but do not read it.
In residency, the first thing I did upon waking was sit at my desk and open my draft document. Even now, the first thing I do on a weekend is open my document before I’ve even made coffee. I use the notes I made the night before and write forward at least a few paragraphs, just to get my head in the right space. This ensures that, after making breakfast, I will immediately come straight back to writing.
I am careful not to let myself read what I have already written, because reading all the previous pages only sows self-doubt, and the temptation to begin editing what is already on the page is overwhelming. Self-editing while still drafting is a black hole that can kill a novel faster than anything else for me.
Don’t be a librarian!
Just as I must be careful not to read what I’ve previously written, I also consciously stop myself from researching while I draft. I did not have WiFi in Alaska, and I don’t turn it on while writing now. In residency, the only historical information I had to go on was the lodge owner’s story, a two-minute video of the woman who became my main character, and a book about the region that mentioned her death-by-plane-propeller. I could not possibly fall down the research rabbit hole.
A major feature of my anxiety is obsessive thought patterns. What might start as a simple search to find the population of Seward can easily end five days later with me reading the training manual for Alaska State Troopers, memorizing the organizational structure of their reporting lines, and fretting over how to convey every detail about what they would carry in their SUVs. Even if I do find my way out of this thought-spiral, my writing can suffer because I feel the need to prove to the reader that I’ve done my research, which results in the inclusion of far too much irrelevant detail.
Duly noted. And noted only.
While drafting, I keep a running list of facts I need, such as what time the sun sets in Anchorage at the end of November. Jotting them down prevents me from getting hung up on them (or worse, starting to research) while writing. Only once the entire novel is fully drafted do I look those facts up and insert them. Then I have beta readers tell me what still needs more exploration, and only then do I research, with the aim of addressing their substantive concerns only – not checking whether my description of the texture of snow falling after a solar eclipse over the water at the end of December is realistic.
Don’t get out of that bed.
End-of-day notes have also become a permanent feature of my writing process. When I save my document and close my laptop, I make notes in a paper notebook about what scene I plan to begin next, and place that notebook on the nightstand when I go to bed. If left unchecked, I would jump up 20 times and stumble to my laptop to add a detail or make a change to the manuscript. Instead, I jot those thoughts in the notebook, so it’s all in one place when I’m ready to revise. Plus, I sleep better.
Kick a friend out of their own home.
For myself, and likely for many people with anxiety, writing at home is extremely difficult. Anxiety is often accompanied by obsessive compulsions and/or attention deficit disorder, and it is easy to get distracted by the dust on your desk, or the cat, or what you’re going to make for dinner, or that nitpicky project you meant to do six months ago, but suddenly needs to be completed right this very instant. I cannot write in coffee shops – being surrounded by other people talking and watching videos and, God forbid, looking at me, is a recipe for disaster. Remote Alaska was perfect, but I can’t exactly go live off the grid.
My solution to this problem came accidentally when a friend asked me to watch his dog three nights a week while he attended class. (His dog, ironically, has severe separation anxiety.) Sitting in another person’s house for hours at a time, for me, provides the perfect opportunity for uninterrupted writing. I feel strange watching other people’s televisions, so I bring my laptop and use those 4-hour blocks to work. Since the house is not my own, I’m not tempted to clean or cook. If my friend ever completes graduate school, I may have to just regularly kick him out of his own home.
Take ownership of your anxiety.
While the relationship between anxiety and writing may be problematic, it can also be symbiotic. Anxiety can compel writers to speed on, rushing toward a deadline no one but they themselves imposed. Writing can also worsen anxiety if the process is not handled with care. Every writer is affected by the condition in different ways, but here’s the truth – leaving a serious health issue uncontrolled does not a better writer make.
What worked for me is accepting this aspect of my mental health, and finding workable strategies. All I needed to get started was as simple as applying to 20 residency programs, biting my nails while I waited to hear, getting on two jets and then a 3 passenger prop plane, taking an hour-long boat ride across a lake, cutting contact with everyone I know, and letting other people cook and clean for me while I wrote in the most remote part of the country where bears lurk around every corner. Talk about facing your fears!
Bailey Bridgewater’s fiction appears in Crack the Spine, As You Were, Fiction on the Web, and many other places. Her collection, A Map of Safe Places, will be published by Red Bird Chapbook this year, and a short story “In Silence, The Decision” is forthcoming from Hoosier Noir. Read more at her website.
What I Learned from Jennifer Egan’s Use of Sensory Detail
A Craft Essay by Sandy Smith
On a friend’s repeated urging to read Jennifer Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Visit from the Goon Squad, I went to my small local bookstore. They had no copies of Goon Squad in stock, but there was a single copy of Egan’s 2006 title, The Keep. Since Egan is a well-respected author and the flap copy looked promising (“…relentlessly gripping page-turner…rich forms…transfixing themes”), I took it home and dove in. I didn’t expect to be as engaged as the hyperbolic blurbs promised, but I found myself fully immersed almost immediately. When I came up for air nearly an hour later, I asked myself how The Keep had managed to pull me in so quickly and so thoroughly that I’d missed the ding of the microwave and the beguiling aroma of leftover lasagna.
Over a dish of sadly steam-logged pasta, I went back to the beginning to re-read, paying closer attention to try and suss out what was so gripping. It hit me that Egan was using sensory description in a way that allowed me to subconsciously ground myself in the novel’s world. And her sensory cues were so masterfully deployed, they’d superseded the sounds and smells of my own kitchen (a rarity).
At first read, I didn’t know what it was about the opening pages that had hooked me or even that I was hooked. Nothing much was happening in the story yet, and the only character introduced at that point was neither likable nor unlikable. Nevertheless, I’d lost track of time (and dinner) because I was so absorbed.
Right away, in the first two paragraphs of page 1, Egan incorporates descriptors affecting all five senses: sight (“the towers had those square indentations… that little kids put on castles when they draw them”—an especially effective use because we have to dig into our own recollection of kids’ drawings to access that image); sound (“he heard [the falling leaves] crunching under his boots”); smell/taste (“the air was cold with a smoky bite”—we can smell the burning leaves but the word “bite” here evokes taste as well); touch (“Danny felt [the leaves] landing in his hair”).
Egan’s particular genius in utilizing descriptors this way lies in her subtlety. At first read, I didn’t know what it was about the opening pages that had hooked me or even that I was hooked. Nothing much was happening in the story yet, and the only character introduced at that point was neither likable nor unlikable. Nevertheless, I’d lost track of time (and dinner) because I was so absorbed. Once I started paying attention though, it leapt out at me like one of those hidden pictures that emerges in 3D from a seemingly random pattern of shapes: Egan doesn’t avalanche the reader with a surfeit of showy adjectives and adverbs. That kind of showboating is tempting, and I’ve been guilty of it in my own work (and consequently grateful for editors), but being heavy-handed with spurious details comes off more as tedious than captivating. A deft writer like Egan knows restraint pays off, and instead she salts the text with sensory cues that dwell below even normally perceptive (as opposed to critical) reading, serving as a means of connection rather than distraction.
The sensory description continues throughout the narrative. Even brief passages contain elements of touch, smell, sight, and taste: “Danny picked it up and smelled: mold, wet wood. The glass was thin and hand-blown, colored bubbles around its base. The taste was outright freakish: a reek of decay mixed with some sweet, fresh thing the decay hadn’t touched.”). Sensory reference points not only engage the reader viscerally in the moment, but they create the collective ambiance of the book, which lingers between reading sessions and helps the reader re-engage the next time they pick up the book. And wouldn’t this be an efficient way to add depth to a piece of short fiction too, where economy of language is especially important? I tucked this lesson into my craft toolkit as well.
Familiar sensory details take on additional significance when the narrative gets tricky, a consequence of varying settings and personas. The Keep’s narrative voice switches between close third person POV and first person. For long portions of text, these are distinct and easy to follow. But as the book reaches its climax, these voices blur and intermingle, as the story lines themselves do, so that the identity of the first-person narrator is eventually revealed through the third-person narration in a contextual flip-flop. This fairly complex structure is made navigable by a breadcrumb trail in the form of relatable sensory cues. Whether the text drops us into the dungeon of a decrepit European castle or an American prison cafeteria, we can orient ourselves in the foreign landscape by the smells, tastes, textures, and sounds that are as close as the dinner plate on our kitchen table.
At the castle, Danny observes the neglected pool: “Its water was black and thick with scum . . . a smell of something from deep inside the earth meeting open air, full of metal and protein and blood.” In prison, Ray describes the “smell that gags you when you first walk into the prison building . . . cigarettes, germ killer, sweat, chow, piss.” The details are so richly evocative, I had no trouble switching between the two wildly different locations and narrative voices. I stayed connected with the text because although I’ve never been in prison or fallen into a hell-mouth pool, I’ve smelled these smells, so my personal catalog of sense memories helps bridge the gaps in my experience.
Regardless of whether I believe in the possibility that an ordinary castle of stone and wood may be haunted, I’m willing—and, more importantly, able—to accept that it is because Egan doesn’t just tell us it’s haunted. She lets us smell and hear and taste how natural the keep is before hitting us with the supernatural. The jarring disconnect is what makes it scary, and I didn’t have to work too hard to suspend my disbelief. Even though there were a couple of implausible plot points that might otherwise have derailed my interest, I kept right on reading.
Though sometimes we do want readers to work a little harder, to penetrate the surface and mine for meaning on their own, I saw in The Keep that the more layered the detail, the better and faster the connection—the buy-in is achieved without making readers labor over it.
In Egan’s hands, sensory detail is revealed as a significantly useful implement in the writer’s toolbox. This turned out to be a critical takeaway for me, as I sometimes ask a lot of my readers. Leonora, the narrator of my slightly fabulist literary novel, is the ghost of a chimpanzee. When I set about revising my first draft, guided by the way Egan creates accessibility in The Keep, I paid extra attention to the sensory details that would help readers empathize with Leo, who’s not only nonhuman, but nonliving. This was important because as a character-narrator, she does the heavy lifting of the story. Although in her afterlife she’s anthropomorphized, Leo’s still a chimpanzee. To establish her humanity, I gave her memories (she has a nostalgic fondness for monkey stink); desire (for the taste of hardboiled eggs and fresh mango); and dread (she can’t bear the sound of children’s laughter), all tied tightly to the senses.
Though sometimes we do want readers to work a little harder, to penetrate the surface and mine for meaning on their own, I saw in The Keep that the more layered the detail, the better and faster the connection—the buy-in is achieved without making readers labor over it.
In the end, my bookstore’s failure to stock Goon Squad was serendipitous. I would have missed out on Egan’s object lessons in forging robust reader-text connection right away. When you need your reader to seamlessly acclimate, not interrogate, the skillful use of robust sensory detail delivers every time. That’s a lesson I didn’t know I needed, a keeper.
Sandy Smith is a writer and editor whose short fiction and essays have appeared in a number of journals, including Brevity, Sky Island Journal, Gravel, and The MacGuffin. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside, and is currently at work on her second novel. Visit her website to learn more.
How the Books we Both Read Helped Me Write My Sister’s Life into Fiction
A Craft Essay by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
When my sister, Susan, was still in elementary school, a family friend gave her a book for her birthday, The Wizard of Wallaby Wallow, by Jack Kent. Dyslexic as a child, Susan wasn’t much of a reader, so the gift was unusual. In time though, she overcame her disability, it seemed, because she wanted to read the instructions for building things.
Even after she managed to build her crystal radio set, or her darkroom, or teach herself how to play guitar, words and language were never Susan’s forte. Her conversations with friends and family often ended in arguments, and she could be cruel—prompting friends not to speak to her for years at a time—without meaning to be. During one of her lowest periods, when she was anorexic, my mother could not talk to her without the help of puppets. Mickey Mouse became her favorite interlocutor.
For years, I knew I wanted to write a novel about Susan’s life and death. She grew up gay in a straight world, but as a musician found somewhere she could be comfortable: at the center of the punk rock movement in Los Angeles. Singled out early in life as a genius—despite her difficulties with reading, she aced mathematics and figured out word problems by studying their patterns—she felt forced to succeed academically and professionally, though her desires lay elsewhere. Susan eventually forged a career as a software engineer in the dot-com boom, before her death from breast cancer. But how to render her into words, which had often defied her? How could I express her unique perspective on the world in her own language, when our relationship, like so many others, was marked by the failure of language, of communication?
When I began work on Sisterhood of the Infamous (forthcoming from New Meridian Arts Press, February 2021), I told myself I’d avoid this problem through the usual routes: research and interviews. I researched the causes that most inspired her adolescence (punk rock and gay liberation in the 1970’s), and interviewed several people. But Susan’s friends were as mystified by her sudden bursts of anger, crying fits and long-held grudges, as I was. They too did not understand what had made her so inconsolable, volatile, and why her favored target for that volatility was often herself. (“She was a raw nerve,” one woman explained. Another said repeatedly, “because that’s the way she was.”)
When I tried to mold the facts of her life and times into fiction, all I got was exposition: a mini-history of the L.A.’s punk scene, for instance; or a listing of the real-life slights and insults she suffered as a child and teenager. I realized I had yet to find her language, the rhythm and tone of how she spoke and thought; the linguistic framework that enabled her to always depict herself as an outsider, rather than the protagonist of her own story. Stumped, I thought back over the words we did share during her lifetime. And that’s when I realized: that language, Susan’s language—the characters it might animate, the conflicts it would alternately create and resolve, the subject matter it would be most concerned with—had always been available to me, in the form of books that she read.
Going back over the books we had in common—from picture books to children’s novels to the works of Kathryn Harrison and Dorothy Allison—I began to see a set of “instructions” for depicting a character with her life history, her passions, and her disappointments. Although the characters in these books did not have exactly the same problems Susan faced, nor necessarily speak or think in a way she might have, each of those authors had figured out a way to make those characters seen through language.
When I talk about the language of these books, I mean more than vocabulary, syntax, or style. I’m talking about the possibilities these books verbalized, the propositions they expressed about the world: Would you really want to change everything about your life, when that everything is all you know? How should a girl, or a woman behave, when burdened by a past that is unfathomable to others? Somehow, Susan had come to trust the characters and their circumstances in these books as authentic and deserving of her curiosity and sympathy. They also taught me about what could be credibly illustrated or interpreted of my sister’s life: how if she were to read a book about herself, what would it cover, and how might it sound.
The first book Susan and I shared was The Wizard of Wallaby Wallow that she received at age seven, about the perils of imagining a different life for yourself, and realizing something valuable about your current situation. This picture book apparently remains popular (according to Amazon’s sales figures), so no more spoilers here. But The Wizard of Wallaby Wallow has a winning message and a happy ending. My sister did not read the book for years, although I wish she had earlier. What impresses me now is what an adept choice it was for her, even at that young age. She had always wanted to belong somewhere, or to someone, a longing that’s addressed in another book she was given on a different birthday: Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards (yes, that Julie Andrews, now a frequent children’s author).
As a chapter book with pictures, Mandy is a bridge between reading levels. Susan was particularly possessive of this book (because I stole so much of her stuff, she had to be!), and I was allowed to read it only if I didn’t take it into my own room. So, read it I did, on the floor of the hall, next to the bookcase. I would return to it many times, for its fairy tale lyricism and the audacity of its protagonist. Mandy is an orphan story; orphans are common in children’s literature because they reflect a paradox about childhood. Children love and depend on their parents, but also feel encumbered by them; an orphan is a vehicle that enables readers to explore this conflict.
My sister wasn’t an orphan, of course, but she always felt unable to crack the code of friendships. More important to my sister’s story is the conundrum Mandy makes for herself as she pursues her heart’s desire. That Mandy may not know exactly what she truly wants is not some pedantic lesson, but a consequence of Mandy’s journey, her maturation. She is a good girl, much as Susan was. Nevertheless, Mandy surprises herself by lying and stealing to fulfill her quest.
This reflects the predicament I believe my sister often found herself in: she felt that her ethics were being tested by her friendships, or the actions of those she called friends. She struggled over how to honor those friends without losing her sense of self. Eventually she decided to do the right thing, or so she said, and it cost her dearly, and she became a loner afterward, pining for real connection.
Yet Susan was not friendless. At the time of her death, she had several friends in her own age group, and also counted some of their parents and even their children as friends. But she was often reclusive, preferring to stay home and sticking close to our mother. Our father was a complicated, charming but ultimately incompetent husband and parent (our parents divorced as Susan began college). She refused to speak to him for close to thirty years, and gravitated toward books that documented the sundering of the parent-child bond. Through these books I came to understand the physical and emotional fallout she endured because of that break.
I hadn’t read Kathryn Harrison’s novel Exposure when I noticed it on the floor of her bedroom as I watched Susan sort through her laundry one day. But I knew its premise and immediately recognized why Susan would be interested. Its depiction of a twisted father-daughter relationship, and the self-destructive path the daughter takes as a result, is still shocking two decades after it was published. Our father, for all his faults, was not the self-absorbed artist who alternately neglects and exploits his daughter, as is the father of the book, and my sister did not have juvenile diabetes, like the daughter, Ann, had. But as I read the book, I realized that like Ann, Susan found herself trapped by certain physical circumstances that deeply scarred her mentally. She became a prisoner of her body, its demands and aspirations. In Exposure, Ann’s body seems to drive her deadly fight or flight response. Susan’s size, her physical and emotional weaknesses, framed her conceptions about what is normal, beautiful; to a degree, even what is wrong and right.
Similarly, Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina is another tale of bad parenting; this time, the mother is the culprit. Set in crushing poverty that begets stunning violence, Bastard could not be more different than the world in which my sister and I were raised. But Allison’s brutal vision of growing up unwanted was a reminder that the elements of our upbringing that were merely rueful and regrettable to me were devastating to Susan. The long, slow breakup of our family amounted to a full-bore assault on her confidence and self-image. She also might have imagined redemption—in some form—in a similarly transgressive way as Allison’s alter ego in the book, Bone, accomplishes.
I gave Allison’s Cavedweller novel to Susan for one of her birthdays, because its lead character is a rock ’n roll singer. I thought she would appreciate the story of a rock ‘n’ roll singer, though I worried she’d misinterpret the gift. Cavedweller celebrates a quiet, nearly anonymous life over the supposed perks of stardom. I was not necessarily recommending the same for her, but hoped she’d be taken by the novel’s epic exploration of mothers, daughters, reconciliation and second chances. It turned out that Susan had already bought and read the book.
This was when we were both in our early thirties, both frustrated with careers and relationships. In the decade that followed, both of our lives changed in ways we couldn’t have anticipated, much like the sprawling destinies of the characters in Cavedweller. After that birthday, I stuck to safe gifts, like CDs or fancy dinners, or a T-shirt featuring her favorite concert venues or musicians. For her last birthday, which she failed to make by three days, I mailed her an early present of a hoodie that said, “Central Park Zoo,” guessing she could still appreciate the private joke (she was the keeper of a legion of stuffed animals) .
In fictionalizing my sister’s life, my job was not to imitate the scenarios or style of these books, but to remember them as a foundation. Once I’d re-read them all, I no longer wondered how my sister would like to be depicted as much as what would be plausible and how she would react in certain situations. In the novel I eventually wrote, there’s still much I did not include because I could not figure out how to make some situations believable, or relevant to the plot powering the narrative.
Though I had moved closer, I think, to rendering my fictional character, Barbara, into language and situations that honored Susan’s life and her own words, in the end, the book embodies, as of course it must, my own language. No matter how well informed I became, no matter how much I tried, in many ways I still failed to capture on the page Susan’s playfulness, what some might consider her best quality. But I believe in the character I created out of her life, fashioned from the hurt she could not forget and how it skewed her vision and prospects. The dilemma that my novel’s characters face is the one my sister tried to solve. Then she ran out of time. I hope, through yet another shared book, I was able to give her a little more.
A BOOK BY ANY OTHER NAME: ON TITLES AND DATING
A Craft Essay
by Melinda Scully
Imagine a reader is on a blind date with your book or short story. Maybe a friend set them up, or they ventured out for a local singles speed-dating extravaganza. The specifics don’t really matter. The point is, the reader is on the hunt for a new story to love, and it could be yours. How exciting!
Your story walks up to the table, and in mere moments, the reader subconsciously asks and answers about seventeen questions in their head, maybe starting with…
What is your story wearing?
Did it walk up confidently?
Is it smiling?
Does it smell weird?
Did your story pass the test? Did you even know you were being tested?
Let’s hope so, because by this time your reader already knows whether they want to proceed with the date. Readers are ruthless. If they don’t like your first-date disco suit, they’ve already rung the rotation bell and moved on to their next option.
That is the power of first impressions. In fiction, that is also the power of titles. Readers are supposed to judge a title. The author knows that you’re doing it, so theoretically, they’ve chosen that title with love and care.
Except… when they don’t. How often do we type “STUPID DRAFT #3” and hope a title will eventually manifest (and if it doesn’t, we resort to using the jazziest simile our story has to offer)? Or, we start the page with a title that sounds snazzy, and we never think about it again? Too many of us forget that the title should be a selling point—not an afterthought. We must craft it as an honest, interesting representation of our work that smacks the target audience right in the face. It should intrigue the reader. Flirt with them.
We could talk about what makes a title fantastic, but a great title is like a great date: there’s not a single formula, but you’ll know it when you see it. Bad titles, though? We immediately identify them on others’ work; unfortunately, we aren’t so good at recognizing our own. Can you confidently say you’ve never made a bad first impression without knowing it?
So, for all of our edification, behold—an incomplete list of weirdos you don’t want to show up on your blind date:
Wasn’t she supposed to be a 5’11” volleyball player?
Ever read something and think wow, that is not what I thought this was going to be about? You got book-baited. I know sometimes it is fun being fooled by a title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and To Kill a Mockingbird are fortunately not about birds. So, what’s the difference? If your title is misleading, ask yourself whether the deception serves a specific purpose. If not, please reconsider bamboozling your readers.
(Fake) Bad example: Boys Gone Wild
(Real) Good Example: The Picture of Dorian Gray
He’s wearing khakis, works in accounting, and good god, he has nothing interesting to say.
Unless your title is ironically boring, you probably don’t want your reader’s eyes to glaze over before the first paragraph. Come on! Your story isn’t tedious, so why should your title be?
Bad Example: Watching the Green Light
Good Example: The Great Gatsby
Lady of Mystery
“So, what do you do?” “Why do you own a Ouija board?” Ask away. She won’t tell you squat.
A title should at least hint at something interesting the reader will experience in the story. What’s the tone? Where is it set? Who’s it about? Can I have one teeny tiny little mental image? Give your reader something to react to.
Bad Example: Regrets
Good Example: The Kite Runner
The (Figuratively) Naked Lady
She has no boundaries. In fact, she already mentioned her raging yeast infection. Do you even need to know more?
I know, this doesn’t seem fair. You just told us not to be mysterious! Well, it’s a balance. If you share all of your secrets upfront, then what is going to keep the reader interested?
Bad Example: Death of the Southern Dream
Good Example: Gone with the Wind
He’s soooooo deep. Too deep. He should really introspect introspectively.
This is when the author uses the title to make an unnecessary value statement (probably one that the text already makes for itself). Or, the author chose the title for their own personal or sentimental reasons (ones that the reader will never understand). Remember, the title is for your reader and the betterment of your story. Not for you.
Bad Example: Murdering Misogyny
Good Example: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Wait, what’s his name?
It definitely started with a K. Or… a Q. Is it tacky to ask for his business card?
These are the titles that sound clunky, are hard to remember, or are exceptionally difficult to pronounce. You need people to be able to say the name of your story out loud. As a test, try saying it five times fast. If you can’t manage it, your readers won’t be able to either.
Bad Example: Oliver Oglethorp
Good Example: Oliver Twist
He’s Wearing a Literal Disco Suit
Trying hard, but not in the right ways.
Mid-workshop: “I picked the title because it sounded cool.” Yeah, we can tell.
Bad Example: A Hodgepodge Monster Called Prometheus
Good Example: Frankenstein
Do these guidelines always apply? Well, no. There are a handful of situations where a disco suit might be the right choice—for example, if you’ve got sweet dance moves, and you’re headed to a Halloween party. The point is that first impressions matter, and also, there is a lot of room for error. Avoiding common pitfalls will maximize your chances of a second date with the reader. When in doubt, ask a brutally honest friend for an opinion. They’ll tell you if your suit has too many sequins.
Melinda Scully is a fiction writer and operations strategist based in Dallas, Texas. Besides writing, her skillsets include math, competitive swing dancing, and spreadsheets. She is working towards her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Find her on LinkedIn or on Instagram @melindascully.
HOW WRITING FICTION HELPS ME—AND MAYBE YOU—DEAL WITH PAST TRAUMA A Craft Essay
by Kelly Fordon
In her essay “Nine Beginnings,” Margaret Atwood answers the question, “Why Do You Write?” nine different ways. In her honor, while completing my recent short story collection, I Have The Answer, I challenged myself to answer the question: “How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?” nine different times.
Honestly, I probably could have gone on even longer.
How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?
I write about trauma to stop dissociating.
After I was sexually assaulted in high school, I did not initially understand what had happened to me. I was Catholic, raised in a strict household. My mother told me that if I went into a room alone with a boy, anything that happened after that was my fault. For that reason, when I decided to make out with a boy in high school, and things went south, I blamed myself, froze, and waited for it to end. When I first wrote about it, I had no choice but to fictionalize the event. I didn’t remember anything about the house where I was assaulted, the bedroom, or even who else was at the party. The only thing that stuck with me was the name and actions of the perpetrator. Fiction allowed me the space and leeway to set a scene to replace the one my mind had erased.
How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?
I write about trauma so I can hear my own voice.
After you are traumatized, and you go to therapy and you spend months working through it, you very hopefully have a few voices in your head. You have the voices of your family and friends all telling you (again, hopefully) that what happened wasn’t your fault. You have your therapist’s voice in your head, again, hopefully telling you it wasn’t your fault. If the traumatic incident was experienced by others on a large scale: a mass shooting at a concert, 9/11, a car crash, you will read essays, letters, newspaper accounts of the event, telling you exactly what happened from many different angles and probably how you should feel about it.
But only you can write your own story, and your deepest feelings. Only you know what happened specifically to you. In order to hear that voice, your inner voice, the most important one, you must silence everyone else and write it down.
How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?
Fiction allows the writer to tell the truth, but tell it slant. To taste the fear, but not get too close. Fiction allows the protective armor of distance. When I wrote the fictional story, “The Devil’s Proof,” loosely based on my own experience of assault, I just wanted to blur reality a little bit to figure out how much reality I could stand.
How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?
Fiction provides additional protection from judgment—both your own and other people’s.
Writing “The Devil’s Proof” allowed me to explore my feelings of violation and frankly, horror, and share that moment with other people without the risk of having to name the actual perpetrator or be judged by friends or family members. Later I wrote about the assault in nonfiction, but for the first run through, it felt more comfortable to be able to say, “No, no, this is just a story.”
You may find you have more empathy for the protagonist in your “fictional” story than you do for yourself.
Sejal Shah, author of This is One Way to Dance, in her essay, “Craft Capsule: Breaking Genre” writes, “There is magic in fiction, in not having everything you write be attached directly to you. In my stories, I draw from a wider field, and I’m not worried about how something sounds, if it would make my public self cringe. If you grow up in a deeply private, Hindu, conservative, traditional family as I did, fiction and poetry offered a different code, a cover.”
How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?
You may find you have more empathy for the protagonist in your “fictional” story than you do for yourself.
For years after, I blamed myself for initial assault, and for going out with the boy a second time, a mistake which led to my rape. But then I created a character who was my age, went to the same school, and was every bit as naïve as I had once been, and I found that I was crushed by the decisions she made, because she was so innocent. I had complete empathy for her and by then understood the complexity of what had happened to her (and the societal complicity) in a way I simply would not have allowed if I had been talking about myself, or my own decision-making process.
In short, I would have been harder on myself, and discovering that taught me about the insidious nature of shame, how debilitating it can be. Conversely, the empathy I felt for my protagonist helped me heal.
How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Writing fiction allowed me to create a new—better—storyline. In the hero’s journey I created for my character in “The Devil’s Proof,” she has the last word. I did not.
Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has been used as a powerful metaphor and descriptor of the recovery path for survivors of trauma. In “Trauma Recovery: A Heroic Journey,” authors Brenda Keck, Lisa Compton, Corie Schoeneberg and Tucker Compton advocate studying and implementing the hero’s journey in order to take back some power, “Writing the story of the assault helps the writer move from injured to transformed…Survivors have been unexpectedly thrust into a storyline they did not choose nor are they offered the option to decline.” Conversely, in the Hero’s Journey the protagonist starts out with no power, sets out into the unknown, confronts their demon, so to speak, and return victorious.
How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?
Making art is transformative.
In her Poets & Writers Magazine essay, “The Heart-Work: Writing about Trauma as a Subversive Act,” memoirist Melissa Febos explains: “Transforming my secrets into art has transformed me. And I believe that stories like these have the power to transform the world. That is the point of literature, or at least that’s what I tell my students. We are writing the history that we could not find in any other book. We are telling the stories that no one else can tell, and we are giving this proof of our survival to one another.”
Making art is transformative.
How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?
Fiction writing allows the writer to create the story that fits the feeling.
When we are writing fiction, we don’t have to tell anyone exactly what happened, instead we can create the circumstances on the page that reflect how an experience felt. Sometimes the “true” circumstances will not feel equal to the reaction.
My story “Superman at Hogback Ridge” is based on a real event. One summer day, a young, skinny, tattooed man who was clearly very angry, and acting erratically, startled me when I was sitting in my car after it had stalled out. He jumped out of his car, screamed some vitriol at me, and then drove away.
That was not a very exciting story and it feels like a pathetic reason to be “traumatized,” but I was going fishing, it was a beautiful day, and ever since then, I can’t get over the feeling that anything can happen at any moment. I wasn’t traumatized, but the incident haunted me, so in the story, I made the man a meth addict and handed him a gun. My fictional story reflected my fear (which was outsized) in a way that the actual “true” event did not.
In other words, I took control of the story and changed it in order to convey an exact level of terror. By writing that story, I was able to figure out where my own fear was really coming from—my own lack of control.
How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?
In study after study, expressive writing has been proven to have a positive effect on both mental and physical health.
Studies by James W. Pennebaker, the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, show that by putting emotional upheavals into words, we start to understand them better. Once we have a better handle on our problems, we can move forward and get on with life.
After I described the feeling of being assaulted in “The Devil’s Proof,” I was able to go on and write the true story in the 21.2 issue of River Teeth. Writing fiction helped me circle the experience and poke at it tentatively with my stick. Later—35 years later to be exact—I was able to face it head-on.
Better late than never.
Kelly Fordon’s new book is the short story collection I Have the Answer (Wayne State University Press). Her work has appeared in The Florida Review, The Kenyon Review, River Teeth, and other journals. Her novel-in-stories, Garden for the Blind, was chosen as a Michigan Notable Book, and other honors. Other publications include a full-length poetry collection, Goodbye Toothless House (Kattywompus Press) and three poetry chapbooks. She teaches at Springfed Arts, and InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit. Visit her website.
THE BIG WARM HOUSE An Essay on the Art of Becoming a Writer
by Emma Sloley
I’m thinking of a particular house, a house whose characteristics vary but whose essential nature remains unchanged. Let’s call it The Big Warm House. I’m not saying this very literary house is benign, necessarily. In some stories, the warmth is a trick, a fatal illusion from which the protagonist must eventually flee. The walls are so thin you can hear every burst of laughter or weeping, or else they’re as thick as a medieval prison. The size is also unreliable. You might assume a big house implies wealth, a certain level of bourgeois status, comfort. But sometimes the house is big because it has had to expand to contain all the terrible secrets.
As a baby bookworm, I spent hours out of sight and hearing of my family, tucked away in some dusty corner of the house, frantically reading as if words were a finite resource and I was close to finishing my ration. I was a slightly odd child, not eccentric enough to be noteworthy, just slightly withdrawn and socially awkward, waiting to grow into my forehead and teeth and the colt-like legs my sisters and I all inherited. My favorite books were about houses. Well, they were ostensibly about the people who lived in the houses, but it was in the corners of the houses that the true drama lived.
I appreciated the cursed fantasy world of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but secretly I was far more interested in the wonderfully gloomy house through which the children entered that world. They had the run of the place without any functional grown-up interference, which struck me as the height of decadence. Though the descriptions of the décor were sparse (I mean, everyone was eager to get to Narnia, understandably), I loved reading about the faded English splendor of the rooms, the gardens, an oak wardrobe big enough in which to get truly lost.
I loved the escape these fictional homes provided, but I also thrilled to their familiarity. I had no trouble imagining the big warm house because reading about it transported me there; I lived inside those houses.
Children’s literature has no shortage of great houses: the chaotic, come one-come-all cheeriness of the Weasley’s Burrow in Harry Potter; the Moominhouse in Tove Jansson’s enchantingly oddball Moomintroll series; the cabin in the Little House on the Prairie books, which in spite of the titular adjective doesn’t feel small at all. Even Bilbo Baggins’ house, though diminutive, fits the paradigm: the hobbit hole from Lord of the Rings is a source of hospitality and comfort, an ad-hoc meeting place for the community where there’s always a kettle on and a pipe to be smoked (if you’re into that kind of thing).
I loved the escape these fictional homes provided, but I also thrilled to their familiarity. I had no trouble imagining the big warm house because reading about it transported me there; I lived inside those houses. My real family’s ramshackle Edwardian family home was a warren of oddly-shaped rooms and surprise doors, of chimneys that went nowhere and chimneys so cavernous the cat sometimes got stuck in them, her plaintive mewling reverberating eerily through the walls. It was a place of dinner parties that never seemed to start or end. Of projects never quite finished, test swatches of paint on walls and windows propped open with books. As a child, I learned early that the temporary can become permanent.
Perhaps that’s partly why I felt an instant kinship when I encountered characters like Cassandra and Rose Mortmain from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. We didn’t bathe in the kitchen sink, but we weren’t too far off during the many years in which our house was a DIY work-in-progress, our lives a kind of architectural progressive dinner party. Each of us—my parents, me, my three sisters— would live in a room designated our own until the time came to renovate it, then we’d move into another room, and so on until normal meant camp beds in the corner of the lounge room, a piano in the bedroom, piles of scuffed shoes in the walk-in pantry. There were always raucous communal meals and a stream of visitors, and plenty of suitors came to call, even if they were never for me.
Like the ill-fated Berry family of John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, I grew into adolescence nodding knowingly at the many iterations of the titular hotel because the salient aspects of that life felt familiar: how frustrating to mark out a territory as one of multiple siblings; how bourgeois ideals of normality could warp a child’s developing identity; how the roof under which you all lived could come to feel like both sanctuary and prison. All those early Irving sagas—The Water-Method Man, The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules—to some degree fixated on houses as a locus of comfort, desire, and betrayal; the bricks-and-mortar manifestation of a hero’s longing for home always too slippery to grasp.
The big warm house represents a bulwark against that pressure, but of course bricks and mortar are no defense against a civilization in peril. Houses might represent civilization, but they are also the first totems of civilization to fall.
During my Brontë years, I loved Jane Eyre madly, but I loved Rochester’s house even more. Even a literal madwoman in an attic can’t dampen the dangerous romance of a home in which you could lose yourself both literally and figuratively. This is the big warm house as liminal space. Standing on the threshold, the reader is suspended between two worlds. Ahead of you, a life of fulfillment and happiness glimpsed through a golden crack in the parlor door; behind, the cold loneliness of the moors where pariahs are doomed to wander forever. Visiting Wuthering Heights was even more treacherous. On the one hand, the promise of a roaring hearth fire and some juicy gossip: on the other, melodramatic ghosts and a host who’s extremely fucked-up, emotionally speaking.
Later, I developed an appreciation of the houses under whose roofs Edith Wharton’s gilded unfortunates played out their fates. They were more like big cold houses, their opulence and prestige a poor trade-off for the chilly inhospitality and betrayals that took place within. There was a constant stream of visitors—a classic hallmark of the big warm house—but chief among the visitors was class anxiety, who always proved a total bitch to evict. The only way to escape those rooms was via death, either social or literal. But they were so lavish and beautiful, the time spent there was almost worth it!
The big warm house doesn’t have to be a mansion. In Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, the “residence” is a ramshackle lot called the Pit in danger of being swept away in a hurricane, but it’s nevertheless where familial love and loyalty live, at least temporarily. Abject poverty is recast as a chance to catch up with the whole fam in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Charlie’s home is both a haven and a disturbingly privacy-free zone. In Anne Enright’s The Gathering, the Irish working-class family home is a fulcrum around which its many damaged members revolve, a place where siblings can’t seem to help returning even when they know grief awaits, because something else lives there too—the chance to forgive one another and oneself.
In life, I crave the comfort of the big warm house, but I also need to get away from its demands in order to write. I think many writers are like this, building the house into their stories instead of trying to live in it. To properly capture home, we must leave.
Before I’d even put pen to paper to write my first novel, Disaster’s Children, the fictional house was already built, existing even before my characters did. I knew the survivalist ranch on which these people lived would be a wonder of design, because they were building a utopia, and utopias are always beautiful. The main house is both an architectural triumph and a convivial gathering place. How could a utopia exist if it didn’t involve the comfort of walking through chilly woods at dusk and spotting the golden glow of a house wavering through the trees? The promise of camaraderie, of food and drink, of refuge, of people who finally understand you, of rest.
In life, I crave the comfort of the big warm house, but I also need to get away from its demands in order to write. I think many writers are like this, building the house into their stories instead of trying to live in it. To properly capture home, we must leave.
My stories are often about a world coming apart. The big warm house represents a bulwark against that pressure, but of course bricks and mortar are no defense against a civilization in peril. Houses might represent civilization, but they are also the first totems of civilization to fall. Houses can be flattened, burned down, bombed, swept away. They can squash witches, sure, but they can in turn be squashed. Marlo, the protagonist of Disaster’s Children, understands on some cellular level that in order to become her best and truest self she needs to flee the binds of the ranch, her beloved big warm house.
The thing I believe writers (and perhaps also readers) need to know about the big warm house is that it’s built on a foundation of contradiction. Everyone who lives inside must crave solitude but instead find themselves bumping up against furniture, beds, each other, themselves. They must be forced into intimacy and driven apart by failing to understand one another. The fictional house must always be full of people but also profoundly lonely. The house must represent safety but also danger—a waystation between two worlds, though never exposing in which direction lies folly and which salvation. Most importantly, the inhabitants of the story house must be torn between desperately wanting to get away, and wanting never to leave.
Emma Sloley’s work has appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, Yemassee Journal, and the Masters Review Anthology, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and her debut novel, Disaster’s Children, was published by Little A books in 2019. Born in Australia, Emma divides her time between the US and the city of Mérida, Mexico. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley and visit her website to learn more. Her novel can be purchased via BookShop.
THE PROBLEM WITH SURFING AND WRITING
A Craft Essay
by Nate House
Last summer I was supposed to finish a novel. But there were waves, so many waves. I did my best to try, to write.
Woke up at 4:30 in the morning, took the dogs out under the stars in our yard, smelled the oysters and salt from the Delaware Bay two miles to the south. Went back inside to attempt to write a few hundred words before the sun came up. Often, I wrote nothing worth a damn, gave up, put a few boards in the van, drove to my favorite break in South Jersey, one my wife and I loved. Got into the water and wondered how it was possible to surf perfectly glassy, waist-high waves all to ourselves in the most densely populated state in the country. When a wave came my way I turned, paddled, stood, walked to the nose of the board and lost myself in that magical moment where nothing else in the world mattered. Nothing, except catching another wave.
Herein lies the problem: being a writer who surfs, a surfer who writes. When there is a wave to be ridden, everything else in life—dogs, loved ones, deadlines and writing—gets put on hold. To make matters worse, once you’re completely and totally stoked from the waves, writing a coherent thought, especially one that attempts to describe the sublime experience of riding waves, becomes virtually impossible.
This could be why there are so few books about surfing that have been able to adequately capture the experience of walking on water. Yes, Daniel Duane’s Caught Inside, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days and Alan Weisbecker’s In Search of Captain Zero paint colorful portraits of the surfing life, and are filled with beautiful descriptions of the ocean, dolphin, and waves. Yet, the true experience of surfing itself seems to elude even the most talented surf-writer.
One could argue that all writers struggle to describe our most intimate and intense moments, agonizing over sentences that allow the reader to experience the love, sex, and heartbreak of their characters—but writers of those topics know that we all (hopefully) have likely brushed up against all three, and uses our knowledge and shared metaphors to put us into the mind and body of the character so we can feel or at least understand what they feel. Love, sex, and heartbreak can be put into a language we all speak. Surfing, I’m convinced, cannot.
Instead of writing about surfing, the best we surfers can do is try to use the experience of the sport, the pursuit, to open our minds in the same way jogging does for writers like Joyce Carol Oates or Haruki Murakami. While it may be impossible to write after surfing, what often happens—at least for me—is that a few hours in the ocean creates an intense awareness to my surroundings, be it the ocean, people, or even the traffic. It is during these moments of heightened sensitivity where we humans become aware of the smallest details—the old man in a brand new Mercedes at the gas station sitting alone, frantically scratching lottery tickets; the dead cat on the side of the road; the laughter from a group of teenagers smoking pot on the beach.
After some of the best surf sessions of the summer, I’d often find myself tearing up while watching videos of Bruce Springsteen bringing audience members up on stage. This increased sensitivity, when properly harnessed, might, I think, expose the writer—or at least this writer—to all the small details that make us human. The same details that make for good writing.
Here in Jersey, we had one of the hottest summers on record. The sand on the beach burned our feet. Cases of flesh-eating bacteria along the coast increased, most likely due to global warming. The flies, brought from the back bay to the beach in the light west winds, sawed through any exposed piece of flesh. The news incessantly pointed out the moral failings of our president, and yet his supporters still backed him. We surf to escape all of this, and yet it sometimes makes all that news all the more devastating because of our enhanced sensitive state.
I’ve been surfing for over twenty years, writing for thirty. I still struggle with each of them, trying to figure out how to make the two activities, my two passions, work with all the other parts of my life. When I’m at my worst, struggling with life, with surfing and writing, my wife kindly guides me back to Percy Shelly:
All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. ‘The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being.
Surfing is its own form of art. It “spreads its own figured curtain” and “withdraws life’s dark veil,” leaving its victims unable to find the words to describe a single moment in time, shared by board, mind, body, wind, tide and sand, that connects us to all the beauty and suffering that exists in the universe. Surfing and writing keeps us searching for that perfect wave, sentence, or poem so we can experience that moment again and again and again and again.
Nate House’s fiction has appeared in Armchair Shotgun, Kudzu House, The Bicycle Review, Monday Night Lit, The Schuylkill River Journal, and other publications. His columns have appeared in both local and national newspapers. He worked as a reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune and currently teaches at Community College of Philadelphia.
From story to STORY, With a Little Help from a Doomed Vole and Robert McKee
A Craft Essay
by Lea Page
If memoir is sculpture, where writers must strip away the unnecessary to find the shape of the story, then it is my memory that wields the knife. Memory chooses certain scenes and impressions. Memory snips and stores fragments and shadows. Memory does not follow the rules of chronology or of rational cause and effect. Memory puts any old thing next to another for its own reasons and may preserve for example, the dance of a courageous vole in perfect detail, while jettisoning a crucial conversation with a friend who is now gone. Try as I might to recall that moment with my friend, memory carved it away, leaving only shavings on the floor, which I crushed into ever smaller pieces as I paced back and forth, studying what I had left to work with.
A freaking vole? What was I supposed to make of that vole?
I am still new enough to writing to laugh in delight when I hear myself say I am a writer. And, I am also one of those writers who drafts the whole book before I know what the story is. It’s worse than that: I write the whole memoir before I know what the story is, even though I know what the story is because I’ve lived the story.
Because there’s story, and then there’s capital-S Story. It took working through several manuscript revisions before I understood the difference.
My first draft, which included the dancing vole, was the story. It was 100% accurate—everything I wrote about was what I remembered happening. There were no embellishments, no composites, no made-up dialogue, even. What I brought to the page had been seared onto the skin of my soul. I had been branded by the story. It owned me. So, I was surprised when my writing group flipped my manuscript onto the table (proverbial table—we met by video conference) and leaned back in their chairs and said, “We love your scenes and your language, but we’re not convinced.”
But, I told them, it all happened.
“That’s not enough,” they said, “to make us care.”
Damn. That stung.
“Don’t take it personally,” they said. “Literally, this isn’t about you. That’s the problem. Right now, the story is only about you.”
They explained that I needed an underlying current, an emotional logic. I needed the big picture. I needed to answer the “why” and the “who cares,” as well as the “what” and the “how.” I needed a thematic arc to match the arc of events. In other words, a capital-S Story to go with my story.
Shortly after I received this humbling advice, my husband, a lawyer, surprised me with the audio version of Robert McKee’s Story for us to listen to during a six-hour drive. “Maybe this will help you with your revision,” he said.
I was grateful, but worried he’d be bored. “Oh, no,” he said. “My final argument in any brief or trial is only as convincing as the story I’ve told.” As we hurtled south down the highway, we listened to McKee describing his thematic array of values that forms the foundation of a complete story arc.
Start, he said, by nailing down the basic value at stake in your story.
What had I really been after, I asked myself, moving my young family to a small town in rural Montana? A simple life, lush scenery, sure. But what else?
Belonging, that’s what I had been looking for.
And what, asked McKee, is the opposite of that basic value? What negates it?
That’s easy: being bullied, ostracized, shunned. When your daughter is bullied for years and you cannot stop it, no matter how desperately you try. When people avert their eyes, turn their backs and close door after door, all the while telling you that there is “something” about your daughter, “something” about you. You are to blame, they mean, but just why is unnameable, unknowable, and therefore impossible to change or to fix.
And what, asked McKee, is the opposite of belonging but is not negative?
Who knew, as I was living my story, acting and reacting, that my solution would so neatly fit into this man’s formula? But the structure of stories is what it is because life is what it is, and my choice, when I was faced with the impossibility of our ever belonging in our tiny town, was self-sufficiency: the opposite of belonging, but not necessarily a bad thing.
Not a bad thing at all. Our retreat into the community of wild and domestic animals, into the rhythm of the seasons and the sanctuary of our home and garden, was understandable, given our circumstances.
But, said McKee, even that is not enough. In any story, there are obstacles. Challenges to overcome. Villains. What, he asked, is the worst possible manifestation of the negative? What is so savagely awful as to threaten one’s existence? McKee called it the “negation of the negation.” Take the negative, the opposite of your positive value, and turn it on itself, so that the negation, the challenge to your soul, is exponential.
What was the negation of self-sufficiency, of ostracism? What would be exponentially more damaging than mere shunning? How could that harm be magnified?
The “negation of the negation” was that voice that woke me in the small hours of the night and whispered, “Maybe there is something about you.” The negation of the negation was my belief that that voice was speaking the truth: that we deserved it. I didn’t need anyone to ostracize me or to destroy me. I was doing it for them. I felt a sense of triumph for identifying that last piece of the puzzle. But I also felt despair. This wasn’t fiction, after all. It was my life.
When I was forced by the gods of revision to weave a more expansive and emotionally resonant capital-S Story to justify the inclusion of every word, event and character—even that dancing vole—I began to understand that my story didn’t just happen. That even if I felt a bit victimized by events, once I was inside the revision process, there were no more victims and no more villains. There were only choices. I saw that my main character (me) wasn’t simply the target of relentless persecution. My protagonist had made a series of choices—good ones and bad—rendering the larger Story believable only when I set the events afloat on a thematic current.
By examining the big Story, I came to understand my villains through their choices as well. There were reasons they acted as they did—as badly as they did. Their actions reflected their own limitations and misery. I wasn’t responsible for what they had done, any more than the vole was, the one that fought valiantly when my cat caught it, the one that made her jump back in surprise as it bared its tiny rodent teeth, the one that died because, despite its courage, it was after all, a vole, and she was a cat, and that is the nature of things.
And here is what I discovered as I wrestled again with those scenes— I was not that vole. I had a choice in the end, while the vole had none, and I had chosen, and survived.
It wasn’t until after my husband and I were in the car again headed home that I understood there was a fifth and final element in McKee’s thematic array: the bending of the arc into a circle, the redemption. Without redemption, the story—my Story—would be a tragedy, starting at a positive value, belonging, and ending with a negative one, self-nullification.
Regardless of whether anyone would want to read a tragedy, I didn’t want to have lived a tragedy. When we fled the Montana town where we had dreamed of making a life, we left behind a home we had designed ourselves, drawing my grandmother’s kitchen table on a piece of graph paper and working out from there. We left our work, our animals, our trees—we had planted so many trees! It was hard to deny the sacrifice.
But memoir is truth. You can’t make up a better ending, one that you would prefer. When you have experienced the negation of your negation, when you have possibly had a hand in creating it, how, I asked the wise voice coming from the car speaker, how do you redeem yourself?
The answer dawned on me only because I had written it: the act of writing was itself the answer. The opposite of self-nullification is self-expression. It is even more than that: self-expression is an exponentially higher, more positive value of belonging. It is an affirmation of the affirmative: belonging to oneself. And I have revision to thank for it.
An avid walker, gardener and dog-snuggler, Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Washington Post and the Brevity blog, among others. She is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have. Visit her at www.LeaPageAuthor.com.
FROM PLAY TO PERIL AND BEYOND: HOW WRITING CONSTRAINTS UNLEASH TRUER TRUTHS A Nonfiction Craft Essay by Jeannine Ouellette
“There is neither painting, nor sculpture, nor music, nor poetry. The only truth is creation.”
~Umberto Boccioni, Italian painter and sculptor
Writers seek truth—truth that makes a reader’s hair stand up and speeds our hearts with recognition. But that kind of truth is elusive, both from the perspective of craft and brain science. I spent two decades unable to write an essential truth of my own life, one rooted in my childhood, during which I experienced several years of sexual abuse by my stepfather, beginning when I was four. Not surprisingly, this experience shaped the person I am—and, as a writer, I sensed the importance of weaving this early trauma into some kind of narrative. But my attempts to do so were consistently ineffective and inartistic. Dreadful, really.
So, I wrote other things. From my twenties through my forties, I published narrative journalism, a couple of nonfiction books, a children’s book, plus dozens of essays. Some essays were intimate and a handful took risks. But this one true thing tugged—and persistently evaded me. The problem wasn’t the material itself, which was neither buried nor inaccessible. The problem was my inability to transform it. In print, my life started around age twenty. Meanwhile, that blocked childhood truth coursed beneath, like an undertow that kept my writing from its full potential.
Writing constraints help us discover the truth rather than recite it.
The turning point came in 2010, when I was working full-time as a Waldorf teacher and impulsively enrolled in a three-week writing workshop with Paul Matthews, a Waldorf mentor and author of several books of poetry and two craft books, Sing Me the Creation and Words in Place. Paul teaches writing with constraints—a literary technique that involves requiring or forbidding certain elements, or juxtaposing various incongruities, or imposing one or more patterns. Constraints are so common in poetry that you need only think of the rules for sonnets or sestinas or villanelles to understand how they work. But as a writer of prose—at the time, primarily nonfiction—my first response to Paul’s workshop was alarm. His lectures were riveting, but his prompts were preposterous. Many were collaborative and involved “activities.” We made up nonsense languages. Spoke to plants. Wrote nursery rhymes in iambic pentameter. We blindfolded ourselves and tossed beanbags back and forth as a means of wordless communication.
If I had, that first day, been seated closer to the door, I’d have run through it. I was a “serious writer,” there to write, not babble. I was not near the door though, and that was lucky. Because my writing began waking up almost immediately in all kinds of exciting ways. First, I laughed more than I had in years. I entered into what the comedic actor and creative genius John Cleese heralds as the most essential condition for creativity—“open mode”—a loose, playful state of mind most easily achieved through laughter. Second, and this is related to the laughing, I learned invaluable craft lessons, including the paradox that if I wanted to write dark and serious things, I needed to lighten up. I needed to play.
Playfulness, Paul told us, is the portal to the profound: the English word “silly” comes from the German selig—which means, according to the Babylon German-English Dictionary, soulful, full of feeling, blessed, late, deceased.These opposites work synergistically. As eighteenth-century philosopher Frederich Schiller wrote in his aesthetic letters, “Humans are fully human only when we play, and we only play when we are human in the fullest sense of the word.” Schiller also said art belongs in the same realm of total freedom as play. Both offer the possibility of becoming childlike, of losing ourselves in experience and—according to Matthews—“healing the division in our consciousness.”
My problem is that I am quite unnerved by free, undefined play. The same is true for most people who have endured childhood trauma. But even the untraumatized are not exempt. Most adults experience at least some discomfort in the face of a game with unfamiliar rules—or worse yet, a game with no rules. We shrink back from the innate risk of freedom. Twelfth-century troubadours in the South of France understood this risk. They played a literary question and answer game called the jeu-parti—the divided game. From this root comes our English word “jeopardy,” meaning danger. What an idea! That in the midst of word play we might be confronted by a real question, a creative risk, a jeopardy, to be faced directly or shied away from. According to Paul Matthews, such moments almost always hold the hidden question: Who are you? What could be scarier—or richer—than that?
Paul’s workshop gave me my first glimpse of what my failed childhood stories were missing, which was joy. Of course, more joy in the process of writing doesn’t—and probably shouldn’t—turn an incest story into a comedic romp. But more joy in the writing will leak into the work. It will add light, not in a way that diffuses the story’s darker truths, but illuminates them more completely, slanting them in a way that surprises us even as we write. This slant, as Emily Dickinson understood, makes all the difference. After all, if I tell exactly the story I’ve set out to tell, I’ve failed. The truer story exists somewhere outside the margins of consciousness. Writing constraints help us discover the truth rather than recite it.
This theory also underlies the work of the Oulipo, the French “workshop of potential literature.” The Oulipo is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians founded in 1960. They create works using constrained techniques, and define potential literature as “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.” Note the emphasis on new and patterns and enjoy. The group advocates the use of severe, self-imposed limitations during the creative process, seeing themselves as “rats who construct the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.” One of the most famous members of the Oulipo, Italo Calvino, wrote an entire 300-page novel without the letter “e.” The Oulipo is recognized as one of the most original, productive, and provocative literary enterprises to appear in the past century.
As for me, the more I experimented with constrained writing, the more I came to see its value. Still, I wondered why devices like writing constraints are so useful for accessing sharper angles on certain truths, even in cases when those truths are notparticularly traumatic or difficult to tell. The answer stems from brain science, which confirms a sad fact: we’re wired to see and say (and write) the same versions of our various stories over and over, even if those versions are not essentially true—or interesting. Meanwhile, the big truths about our own lives march by unrecognized. The simple term for this is “confirmation bias,” a deep and debilitating hardwiring against seeing virtually anything we haven’t already pictured or that we don’t expect to see.
One of my favorite sources for understanding this conundrum is the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which explores the dichotomy between our two modes of thought: “System 1” and “System 2.” System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional. It’s the system we use the vast majority of the time. System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and logical, the system required for solving calculus problems and working out difficult code. System 2 is taxing, and we avoid it; it raises our heartrate and makes us sweat, so we default to System 1. But there’s a hack for getting past System 1’s hold on us. All we have to do is intentionally engage System 2, which effectively disables System 1 and thereby allows us to see beyond our pre-existing beliefs.
Constraints are like puzzles. We use System 2 to solve them, which quiets System 1, and suddenly, as if by magic, we write something newer and truer.
This is exactly how writing constraints work. Constraints are like puzzles. We use System 2 to solve them, which quiets System 1, and suddenly, as if by magic, we write something newer and truer.
One of my literary heroes, the poet and memoirist Nick Flynn, writes and teaches with constraints. In 2005, he described his process in an interview with the University of Arizona Poetry Center:
Well, when I’m walking in a strange city I have this ritual, which is to find three bits of ephemera, usually scraps of paper, usually something torn from advertisements, or maybe a ticket stub, or discarded cigarette pack, trash really, but it has to have some element in it that catches my eye, that interests me, or reminds me of something. I like pages torn from children’s notebooks a lot, with drawings on them, though they don’t always mix well with other images. Once I find one it might determine what comes next, one that somehow either adds to the one I already have or else works against it, creating some tension or juxtaposition, though if it feels too limiting, I’ll throw it away and start over. Eventually, over the course of a day, I’ll settle on the three scraps of paper, and then I’ll force myself to make a collage. I make a collage a day, always from only three scraps, because anything more becomes chaos, and I try to only use things I found that day, and to date the final collage, also finding the “canvas,” usually a weathered piece of cardboard, a technique I learned from Bill Traylor. So I have to carry a glue stick, or buy it in a stationary store once I land, which is even better, because I like stationary stores, especially in other countries. I write the same way.
I write that way, too—or I have since studying with Paul Matthews. I first tested the methods soon after Paul’s workshop, in a memoir class at the University of Minnesota, when we were asked to write a scene from childhood. Totally frozen, I gave myself a restrictive constraint using Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood—a book that beautifully chronicles a sunny childhood vastly different from my own. I opened Dillard’s book randomly to page 185 and forced myself to copy her sentences, replacing Dillard’s words with my own, part of speech for part of speech and syllable for syllable. I quickly gave up on the syllables, but stuck to the parts of speech until I bent that rule also, before finally tossing off the rules altogether when I realized that the first line of the exercise had altered my whole story, shifted it what Nick Flynn calls “five degrees to the left.”
Previously, I’d always viewed the abuse I experienced as a child through a lens trained on my stepfather and my mother. But when I revised Dillard’s first sentence, “The boys were changing,” to “My sister was changing,” and, later, to, “Mary is changing,” my lens focused itself more clearly on the world of the child. That shift was fundamental to unsticking my stuck story and opening it up in unexpected ways. I continued the piece, which I called “Tumbleweeds,” long after the class was over, forcing myself to include several new and incongruous elements, such as fragments of the text of Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inaugural address, facts about the breeding and parenting behavior of the Western Meadowlark, the botany of tumbleweeds, the myth of the jackalope, and the archetype of the mother in fairytales. I was writing about some very traumatic events—which was hard and scary at times—but I was also enjoying myself. It felt almost wrong, really, that writing about incest could be fun. Yet, in order to follow my own rules, I had to be playful. I had to explore new angles on a story I knew by heart, but that was actually far more complex and nuanced than I had understood.
“Tumbleweeds” was a finalist in several writing contests and eventually selected by Joyce Carol Oates as the second-place winner of the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Contest, published in the journal december, reprinted in Nowhere, and subsequently selected for the NowherePrint Annual alongside work by none other than Nick Flynn himself.
With that kind of encouragement, especially after so many years of failed attempts, I was more than sold on using constraints to break open difficult new material. Now, I’m always grateful when someone gives me a good constraint, which is exactly what my former MFA advisor, Brian Leung, did during a workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts shortly after “Tumbleweeds” was first published. Brian’s constraint had ten rules and options, one of which was to include the necessary building of unnecessary stairs. I threw myself in, and months later my short piece eventually grew into a 6,000-word essay, “Four Dogs, Maybe Five,” a winning entry in the 2016 Proximity contest. Eventually, this material coalesced into a novel manuscript, the first chapter of which was published last October as Narrative Magazine’sstory of the week.
Of course, in the end, art is art, and art is mystery. For every constrained exercise that’s worked, I’ve produced many nothings. But even those nothings are flexing my creative muscles and keeping my mind playful and limber by turning my own stories sideways. As the late scientist Stephen Gould said, “The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore never scrutinize or question.”
Ultimately, the pressure and limitations of writing constraints open doors to truths I can’t see otherwise, especially the hardest truths that hide behind the ones I believe about myself.
Jeannine Ouellette has authored several nonfiction books and the picture book Mama Moon. She is a fellow of Millay Colony and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and teaches through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. She is also founder and creative director of Elephant Rock, a writing program based in Minneapolis.
LISTEN, STORY, TELL. (NOT ALWAYS TELL) A Nonfiction Craft Essay by Aileen Hunt
The other night I was waiting for my daughter to finish a class. The father of a classmate sat beside me and we chatted about this and that. “How’s work?” I asked, and he began to tell me that he’d been driving his bus one morning when a man ran onto the road and jumped into his path.
“His face stuck to the window,” this dad said. “He was looking straight at me until he started to slide down and onto the road. The counsellor told me it wasn’t my fault. She asked if I wanted to see a video of what had happened. ‘Why would I want to see a video of what happened?’ I asked her. ‘Don’t I see it every night when I go to bed?’”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I don’t know this man well; I was just being polite when I asked how he was. Yet he told me this story, clearly and carefully, as if it was important to him that I hear it, as if it was important to him that I understand.
People tell me things. I meet people I haven’t seen in a while and ask them how they are and before I know it, they’re telling me their kid has been expelled from school or their husband is in an existential funk.
They tell me about friends dying and sons selling weed; about partners cheating and children lying; about crises of faith and black nights of the soul. They tell me how hard life is and sometimes, the brave or deluded ones, tell me how lucky I am not to have such problems.
People tell me things. I meet people I haven’t seen in a while and ask them how they are and before I know it, they’re telling me their kid has been expelled from school or their husband is in an existential funk.
I don’t ask for these revelations, at least not consciously. I’m not the type of person who instinctively knows the right thing to say when I hear something painful or traumatic. Nor do I cry in public. I’m more likely to think of a comforting remark hours later; more likely to cry in private, days or even weeks later.
Instead, I sit quietly and awkwardly, blank-faced, too dim-witted to head off a confession, too polite to be rude, and people take my silence as encouragement and tell me things.
I work in adult literacy. This year, I have two especially weak students. When I ask them how their week was or what they did at the weekend, they can’t tell me. They cannot tell a story.
My youngest daughter is hearing impaired. She’s been going to speech therapy since she was a baby to work on speech articulation and language development. More and more, the language development work revolves around narrative and the ability to tell a story. More and more it’s seen as essential to social success.
Last week I sat in on a therapy session. The therapist had a stack of twenty picture cards. She put the cards on the table one at a time then read an accompanying story from a script. When she’d finished, she asked my daughter to retell the story using the cards as a prompt. My daughter went through the cards one by one, but when she came to the last card, she ran out of steam.
The therapist looked at my daughter expectantly and my daughter looked at the therapist. She knew something more was required, but couldn’t think what to say. Then, in a moment of inspiration, she smiled, and announced, “They all lived happily ever after.”
What to do with all the stories you hear? Especially the stories you didn’t ask to hear?
Once I was at a parent-teacher conference and my daughter’s teacher broke down and told me her three children were going blind.
I’m not sure when I realized I didn’t just want to listen to stories; I wanted to tell them, too. Maybe it was when I was living in America. I was going through a stressful time and decided to see a therapist. I sat and talked about myself for an hour every week, and the therapist was a perfect audience, interrupting only to tell me we were out of time. I enjoyed telling my story. I played around with it during each session, adjusting the mood, the plot, the payoff. Nothing really changed in my life, but I took great pleasure in being a storyteller, once a week for one hour, until my insurance benefits eventually ran out.
The first time I told my story to a stranger was in the waiting room of the emergency department at a Cincinnati hospital. I’d gone there, pregnant and bleeding, naively believing in the power of medicine to halt the inevitable.
When the doctor shook his head and finally discharged me, I stumbled into the waiting room. A woman approached and put her hand on my shoulder. She was older than me, in her forties, perhaps, and had a kind face.
“Are you ok?” she asked, and her unexpected gentleness had the force of a battering ram. I told her everything, right there and then, the words spilling out of me in great, heaving spurts. She grabbed my hand and began to pray, asking Jesus to welcome my baby into heaven, to comfort me in my hour of need. And as she spoke, I grew more and more distressed, not because I’d told a stranger about my miscarriage before I’d told my husband (although that would haunt me later), but because the stranger had misunderstood me so completely. I had no belief in Jesus, no concept of him rocking my baby to sleep, no concept of a baby at all. The stranger had it all wrong.
She thought I was crying for something I’d lost, but I knew I was crying for something I’d never have. I couldn’t explain the difference that night in the waiting room, but instinctively, I knew it to be true.
I had told my story too soon. And I had told it to the wrong person.
I don’t have much of an imagination. I don’t mean I can’t enter into imaginative worlds or respond imaginatively to life or art. I mean I can’t make up stories. I can only tell stories that have already happened, that I’ve already experienced, which would be fine, except nothing happens in isolation and every story involves someone else.
Years ago, one of my children was very ill, and spent months in the neurology ward of a large hospital. I stayed at her bedside all day, and every night after she fell asleep, I’d make my way down the corridor to the parents’ dorm where I’d crawl into bed, exhausted and frayed. One night I walked into the dorm and saw a woman I hadn’t seen before sitting on the edge of her bed. I said hello and she looked at me blankly.
“My daughter has cancer,” she said, and I sat down opposite her and listened.
I read a first-person account of a woman’s destructive behavior. The writing was harsh and forensic and probably cathartic for the writer. But the story she recounted included her betraying her husband, a man that she insisted was kind and blameless. I wondered how he felt about her public account of their marriage and break-up.
When does being honest and unsparing with yourself become a further betrayal of others?
Every family has its stories. Some are good and fine and admirable. But others are grubby and distasteful. Who has a right to tell these stories? And what responsibilities does the teller have in telling them?
Every family has its stories. Some are good and fine and admirable. But others are grubby and distasteful. Who has a right to tell these stories? And what responsibilities does the teller have in telling them?
My nephew was involved in a serious car crash. He was driving on a country road late at night and his car left the road and hit a tree. The car was a write-off and my nephew was lucky to escape with his life. My brother, my nephew’s father, told the story over and over again, showing us photos of the mangled car. As he repeated the story, a hint of admiration entered his voice, a hint of excitement. “Look at the car,” he told us. “How did he ever get out?” The story is on its way to becoming a great adventure in this father’s mind, a great escape, but a different narrative runs through my head whenever I see the photo.
“Jesus,” I think. “What speed was he going at?”
I have a story. Some of it is mine alone to tell; some of it belongs wholly or partly to others; and some of it is so intertwined with stories I’ve read or been told that it’s impossible to know where one begins and the other ends. It will require patience to untangle everything. To decide how I should tell it, or if I can tell it.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived with her husband and four children in a nice house on a nice street. One day, the woman looked at her family and asked: “Who will tell our story?”
“Not I,” said the husband. “I’m too busy.”
“Not I,” said the oldest girl. “I’m moving out soon.”
“Not I,” said the son. “Nobody listens to me.”
“Not I,” said the youngest girl. “I don’t have enough words.”
The woman looked around her crowded kitchen and took a deep breath. “Very well then,” she said. “I’ll do it myself.”
Aileen Hunt is an Irish writer with a particular interest in lyric essays and compressed forms. Her work has appeared in various print and online journals, including Hippocampus, Sweet, Entropy, and Compose. She is currently working on a collection of historical flash fiction. You can read more of her work at aileen-hunt.com or follow her on Twitter @HuntAileen
INTO THE WOODS
What Fairy Tale Settings Can Teach Us About Fiction Writing A Craft Essay by Dana Kroos
Consider the phrase, “We’re not out of the woods yet” meaning “we are still in danger.” This phrase can refer to innumerable types of danger. A doctor may say to the loved ones of a sick patient: “She’s not out of the woods yet;” or in the middle of a trial that seems to be going well the lawyer may say to his client, “We’re not out of the woods yet;” in a traffic jam that seems to be moving again, a driver may say to a passenger, “We’re not out of the woods yet.” The insinuation is that those involved are thinking about being out of the woods—there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a glimpse of something safer, better, or in their control—but it is not yet certain that they will reach that light; there is still a chance that the threat—the woods—will overcome.
In fairy tales the woods is often a manifestation of the unknown that is contrasted with the safety of the village, or home, where the protagonists feel in control of the setting and situation.
In fairy tales the woods is often a manifestation of the unknown that is contrasted with the safety of the village, or home, where the protagonists feel in control of the setting and situation. Protagonists in these fairy tales leave the comforts of home for the unknown element of the woods for different reasons—at times in flight, and at other times in quest: Little Red Riding Hood goes into the woods in order to attend to her sick grandmother; Hansel and Gretel are led into the woods and abandoned by their parents; Snow White hides in the woods to escape her evil stepmother; Jack travels up the beanstalk (his version of the woods) to seek wealth and adventure. The woods represent the world over which the people of the village and the protagonists have no control. Here the characters are literally and figuratively out of their elements. The story then becomes about a struggle to gain control over the unknown, to triumph by learning the ways of this other world, or to simply survive and escape: Little Red Riding Hood discovers the wolf’s trick and is saved by the hunter who has knowledge of the woods; Hansel and Gretel use ingenuity and cunning to escape from the witch; Snow White finds unexpected assistance and power from the woods that she uses to return home.
If the woods represents the unknown world, then the village, or home, represents the place where the characters have control over their domain: they live in town (or sometimes kingdoms) governed and tamed by people, protected by both physical and social structures. The opening scenes establish the world where the protagonists feel secure and make the reader aware of the contrast between this known world and the unknown world where the tale will reside.
The idea of the village and woods in fairy tales corresponds to Joseph Campbell’s research about the Ordinary and Special Worlds in the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey.
The idea of the village and woods in fairy tales corresponds to Joseph Campbell’s research about the Ordinary and Special Worlds in the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey. In Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the protagonist begins in what Campbell describes as the Ordinary World and ventures into the Special World where he or she is faced with new challenges and must develop new skills accordingly. The accumulation of skills and knowledge prepares the protagonist for a final climactic trial. Having succeeded in gaining command of the Special World, the protagonist returns to the Ordinary World and must learn to integrate his or her new skills with ordinary life.
Most fairy tales follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to some degree, including the “refusal of the call”: the stage where the protagonist resists journeying into the unknown; and the “refusal of return”: the stage when the protagonists resist returning to the known or Ordinary World once they have become masters of the Special World, or woods. In the Grimm Brothers’ version of Hansel and Gretel, Gretel refuses the call to adventure in the unknown by expressing her fear of being left in the woods, while Hansel strategizes to avoid this fate—dropping flint stones, then bread crumbs so that they can find their way home. After a series of trials that end with Gretel killing the witch, the two protagonists begin their journey home, but are met by an impassable river that represents the refusal of return. It is when Gretel exerts her newly learned skills and independence to call upon a white bird to help them cross the river that the brother and sister are able to make their way home to their village with the treasure, symbolizing knowledge, they have stolen from the witch.
This schema can be a useful way of conceiving of plot. In present-day settings our fictional characters can venture out of, or be forced from, their comfort zones: graduating to a new grade, leaving a job due to downsizing, moving to an unfamiliar city or state for the promise of better opportunity, missing the bus and testing a new type of transportation. We grow-up, leave the comfort of our parents’ homes, trade roommates and lovers, settle homes, adapt to new co-inhabitants, grow stir-crazy again and flee comfort for independence. Or sometimes we progress more intentionally to seek adventure, or because we need a change, or are looking to find someone or something in particular. We are constantly advancing to master our situations only to decide to move on or to be pushed into new situations where we are again novices. Some people find these moves easy, while other people struggle with even the smallest shift from a known and comfortable state to something unknown and challenging. Either way, we often initially refuse the call to change or find obstacles or other people opposing our advancement; this type of resistance makes sense for our characters and reveals their vulnerabilities.
Eudora Welty’s short story, “A Worn Path,” combines elements of the fairytale and hero’s journey structures including a refusal of the call and return. The story follows Phoenix, “an old Negro woman” on a journey from her home, through the woods, to the big city to retrieve medicine for her grandson. She comes from “far out in the country” and is not accustomed to the big city, making—for her—a fairytale-style woods of the city where she is going. As with “Little Red Riding Hood”, Phoenix’s journey through the wood shows her character’s strengths and vulnerabilities; and as with the hero in the hero’s journey, Phoenix also learns from the trials she faces along the way and is ultimately able to use her new skills once she arrives in the city.
Phoenix’s Call to Adventure is the need to get her grandson’s medicine. The Refusal of The Call is “a quivering in the thicket” in the woods, something undefined and ominous that shows her fear. But Phoenix says to the unknown sounds, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals,” both announcing what she fears and denouncing it at once before she continues with her journey.
On her way she faces different tests: a “ghost” that turns out to be a scarecrow and a dog that comes out of the woods and scares her, causing her to topple over and fall into a ditch. While she is stuck, she reflects on the situation and learns a lesson: “’Old woman,’ she said to herself, ‘that black dog come up out of the weeds to stall you off, and now there he sitting on his fine tail, smiling at you.’” The man who saves her tries to discourage her from continuing with her journey: “‘Why, that’s too far! That’s as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble . . . Now you go on home, Granny!’” At this moment Phoenix turns the tables on the man: she distracts him by sending him after the dog that initially scared her so that she can steal a nickel he dropped. When he returns wielding his gun, she is not afraid, “I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.” Here, Phoenix succeeds in overcoming her fear, defying the man’s discouragement, and tricking him out of his nickel.
When Phoenix arrives in the city she is fully in an unknown world—the woods. The first thing that Phoenix does is ask a passerby to tie her shoe: “’Do all right for out in the country, but wouldn’t look right to go in a big building.’” Here she acknowledges the new setting and its requirements. Nevertheless, the new setting is overwhelming, and in the hospital Phoenix is rendered mute and can’t remember why she has come when asked by the nurse. Then: “At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke. ‘My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.’” Phoenix has mastered this new world and gotten the prize of medicine for her grandson that she sought. But before she can leave she has a refusal of return. She persists in practicing the skills that she has mastered and which are only applicable in this new world: successfully manipulating the nurses into giving her another nickel. But she must return home to be triumphant, bringing with her the medicine and both nickels.
The village and woods can also be defined through a-stranger-comes-to-town stories. In this case, the village is transformed into the woods, or the known situation changes, undoing our careful cultivation and making that which we once controlled and understood foreign and overwhelming—the new boss restructures duties at work, the substitute teacher assigns a different seating arrangement, the neighborhood evolves and our favorite haunts are replaced by new establishments. In this way fairytales also speak about the ways that elements intrude upon the comfort of the village or the home, making the known world ominous and unknown. In “Peter and the Wolf” a wolf enters Peter’s yard and Peter must think quickly of a way to save his friends; in the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” a stranger appears to offer help to a village and later seeks revenge when they do not pay him, in “Sleeping Beauty” the forest grows around the castle encasing the kingdom in sleep; in a strange twist “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” presents an intruder from the village who both seems to be in jeopardy and menacing as she makes her rampage through the bears’ house in the woods.
In a Melanie Rae Thon’s retelling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” entitled “X-mas, Jamaica Plain,” two homeless teenagers break into a house where the family is away. These homeless teenagers have been cast into the woods for so long that they have become a part of the dangers of the woods: “I am your worst nightmare,” the unnamed first-person narrator begins the story, talking to the reader, and perhaps the family, as she describes sleeping in the family’s beds, eating their food, trying on their clothes. The narrator and her friend resent the family for having what they lack but also desire the family life represented by the house. As with Goldilocks, the narrator especially fixates on the belongings of the little boy, a child whom she understands is protected and loved. Their youth and desperate situations make them sympathetic and complex: they are at once the Big Bad Wolf and the child protagonists of the fairytales. Temporarily inhabiting that domestic space reinforces for the two teenagers that they do not belong in the home—or the village. Like Goldilocks, the narrator flees in fear.
Fairy tales use setting to present physical, emotional, mental, and psychic tensions as concrete places, characters, and situations. In many of the best-known stories young protagonists face dangers.
Fairy tales use setting to present physical, emotional, mental, and psychic tensions as concrete places, characters, and situations. In many of the best-known stories young protagonists face dangers (what Joseph Campbell would label “tests”) in the woods that force them to learn and develop skills: Hansel and Gretel are at first in danger of being lost and starving, then in danger of the witch who hopes to eat them, then in danger of not being able to find their way home. The characters must grow to meet each of these challenges in order to survive.
In many of these stories the protagonists encounter other characters native to the woods: the witch, the wolf, the hunter, the giant. This is to say that although the woods is an unknown place to the protagonists, it is a well-known place to the characters who hold dominion there. This creates an imbalance of power. Characters who are masters of the woods often use this advantage to trick the young, naïve children who are out of their elements.
Fairy tales raise the stakes of ventures to the unknown world by positioning children—who are or should be cared for at home—as their protagonists. The protagonists are almost always at an age where they are on the brink of independence.
Fairy tales raise the stakes of ventures to the unknown world by positioning children—who are or should be cared for at home—as their protagonists. The protagonists are almost always at an age where they are on the brink of independence. The known place—the village, the family home—is a place where the wellbeing of the child protagonists is the responsibility of adult characters—a place where the child can be a child. The inciting incident is one that removes the characters from this place of comfort, either by force or choice: to save themselves, help their families, or seek adventure. The child is thrust into a world where he or she must accept and conquer adult skills or knowledge in order to survive, symbolizing a movement from the safety and security of a protected childhood to the liberation and dangers of the adult world. In the adult world the child must come into his or her own, gaining skills and ultimately becoming the master of his or her new environment—coming of age.
In addition to the obvious and direct threats that the young protagonists face, thoughtful readers sense deeper conflicts that are not mentioned by the distant narrators of these tales. While these children gain the knowledge and skills of an unknown world, they do so at the cost of their innocence and childhoods, for what child can be the same after pushing an old woman into an oven and watching her burn; or knowing that she was betrayed by her parents; or living in a world with those who wish her deep and unspeakable harm?
These stories captivate us because they make physical the internal and emotional struggles that we face throughout our lives. The situations and settings transcend metaphor to become tangible threats that the characters can describe and the reader can name. In good fiction the tensions, emotions, and fears felt by both the characters and reader are more complex than this, multi-layered, and amorphous; however, by analyzing the characters, plots, and conflicts of fairy tales, we can discover the tensions that excite and enlighten the reader: the power dynamic of a parent-child relationship in a fairy tale could easily be represented as a relationship between a boss and employee, or coach and player; the vulnerability expressed as youth in a fairy tale could also be the vulnerability of coming from a lower socio-economic class, suffering an illness, or entering a situation with less information than your peers; the tensions of risk, sacrifice, vengeance, pity, abandonment, betrayal, loyalty, and desire are tensions that also happen when spending time with family, participating in social clubs, and during mundane shopping trips. As the village is all around us all of the time, so the woods is there too, lurking beneath the surface.
Studying fairy tales that overtly represent the hardships and triumphs that make life meaningful can help us to understand what interests us about stories, the emotions and tensions that we want to explore, and the ways that we can reveal internal and social conflicts in our own fiction.
Dana Kroos received a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston and an MFA in fiction writing from New Mexico State University. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her short stories and poems have appeared in American Short Fiction Online, Glimmer Train, The Florida Review, The Superstition Review, Minnesota Monthly and other literary publications. Her work is frequently influenced by her travels in Africa, Asia, South America and other places, and by her studies in art through which she also holds a MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and a MA from Purdue University. More information can be found at www.danakroos.com.
BUILDING MY AUTHOR PLATFORM WITHOUT A SMARTPHONE
A Craft Essay
by Mallory McDuff
“I hope you’re working on your platform,” wrote my agent last year after I sent a substantive revision of my manuscript. I had previously published three nonfiction books with small presses, but I typically spent more time following other writers on social media than promoting myself. That might not be unusual, but I did have one unique challenge: I needed to build online visibility, but I didn’t have a smartphone—a conscious decision. I wasn’t sure how to boost my social media presence without carrying a screen in my back pocket. But I was determined to try.
It’s not like I’m a Luddite with an off-the-grid, back-to-the-land lifestyle. From my laptop and iPad, I obsessively followed writers I adored. On Facebook, I’d reposted a link to nearly every Rebecca Solnit essay since the Kavanaugh hearings. I watched the sunrise in Dani Shapiro’s Instagram stories before reading her new memoir, Inheritance. I relished Kiese Laymon’s true-to-life tweets about Trump. But I was a perennial stalker, not much of an original poster.
When my own essays were published or I taught workshops, I shared those links on Facebook, but I rarely posted personal photos or anything else that might allow readers to get to know me. My profile picture was ten years old, which I didn’t even realize until I got my hair cut before the holidays: “I can’t believe how blonde you used to be!” chirped my hip hair stylist when she saw my photo online.
I know writers capture snapshots of their everyday lives and post to a variety of social media—Instagram, Facebook, etc.—using their smartphone cameras and web apps. And many people can’t live without those phones for viable reasons. But my routine was to carry a cheap prepaid phone when I traveled, much to the embarrassment of my two teenagers. Since I wouldn’t purchase smartphones for them, my daughters found babysitting jobs to buy their own devices, an iPod Touch in middle school and a phone in high school.
Perhaps my aversion to portable technology was a product of my upbringing. I had grown up in Fairhope, Alabama with a family that tried to minimize their impact on the natural world, which meant using the least costly, most functional item that could do the job.
Perhaps my aversion to portable technology was a product of my upbringing. I had grown up in Fairhope, Alabama with a family that tried to minimize their impact on the natural world, which meant using the least costly, most functional item that could do the job. From the late 1960s, my father sold IBM mainframe computers to hospitals and universities, but we didn’t have a computer in our home until I left for college in 1984. During high school, when a few classmates were using their family’s first desktop computers, I typed papers on an IBM Selectric typewriter, using Wite-Out to erase mistakes. That should have been a clue to the lifestyle my parents were slowly adopting, one of needs versus wants.
And since my parents were the focus of the book I was writing, it felt incongruous to purchase an iPhone to promote a book about living a life scaled for a changing climate. As a single mom, I was happy to save that money too. I told myself the other technologies I already had available would do the job. My challenge then was to figure out how to accomplish that.
In North Carolina, I teach environmental education at a small liberal arts college, where I live on campus in a 900-square foot duplex about a five-minute walk from my office. So, it usually wasn’t hard to reach me. Even without a smartphone, I was already online too much of the time. My students marveled that I answered e-mails faster than many professors on campus, but my responsiveness was a deterrent to a focused writing life. I was addicted to social media and e-mail, even without the constant companion of an iPhone. If I had a mobile device, I was afraid I would take it everywhere. Leaving my house and office without one gave me freedom from being tethered to The New York Times and Facebook when I ran on the trails or listened to my daughter’s middle-school band concert.
Maybe the challenge was to live in a digital world without being consumed by it. I recognized many writers depended on their phones for work and family. But in the acknowledgements for her novel NW, Zadie Smith paid tribute to the apps Freedom and Self Control for blocking Internet distractions. From a different generation, Wendell Berry famously wrote longhand and presented his reasoning in the essay “Why I am not going to buy a computer.” His rationale to farm his land with a horse and use pen and paper to construct an argument seemed both poignant and prescient.
I also knew the point of creating an author platform was to connect my writing with its potential audience, what Forbes Communication Council calls “the extended friend group.” My last two books, published with small presses without an agent, focused on the intersection of faith and climate change, topics I continue to write about. But this manuscript was more intimate: It was a memoir about my parents who, among other acts, used the forty days of Lent to give up trash and driving to decrease their impact on the earth.
As a family of six, we aimed for a zero-waste household before recycling ever came to my hometown. However my folks weren’t earthy hippies or radical activists: my mother had a bridge group, and my father sang in the church choir. After we were grown, they learned to live with even less stuff as they walked thousands of miles to complete the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and most of the Continental Divide Trail, with backpacks weighing about 10 pounds each.
The narrative was about their deaths as much as their lives, as they were killed in mirror-image cycling accidents, two years apart, both hit by teenage drivers. The book confronts the question of how we learn to carry the love of people who have died. The lessons from my mom and dad—learning to live with less because they could—would be critical to my daughters who face a changing climate. Here in the valley where we live, summer temperatures have lingered into winter, and floods have resulted in the wettest year on record. My oldest daughter said the world was turned upside down. My girls would need the story of my parents to help navigate the enormity of an uncertain world.
To address the challenge of building my online platform without a smartphone—and in a way that honored the book—I started with the simplest of actions: I updated my Facebook photo. Within one day, more than 200 of my 750 friends liked the photo and many commented with supportive notes: “That picture captures your spirit!” one friend said. While I discourage my teenagers from “counting likes,” it was uplifting to know my Facebook contacts were glad to see the new-but-old me.
To address the challenge of building my online platform without a smartphone—and in a way that honored the book—I started with the simplest of actions: I updated my Facebook photo. Within one day, more than 200 of my 750 friends liked the photo and many commented with supportive notes…
Next, I needed a website: My 13-year-old whipped up a sample draft on Wix within minutes. Yet, I chose to use modest professional development funds from my college to hire someone who understood my desire for a simple and clean aesthetic. A photographer who is a generous friend offered to take pictures in exchange for a six-pack of IPA, some good bourbon, and a gift certificate to a taco shop. After my initial awkward smiles at the camera, I began to grow more comfortable as the focus of attention. As a single mother, I’d been behind the camera for most of my adult life. Now my story—and my parents’—would take center stage.
Last I signed up for an Instagram account. At first, I had to connect my camera to my laptop, download the images, and then upload them to Instagram via Facebook messenger. By that time, I could have graded several student papers or started cooking supper for my children. The process grew infinitely less cumbersome when I used my iPad to take photos and upload to Insta (yes, I started using the shorthand). Rather than just stalk other people’s stories, I began by posting pictures of the donkey Tallulah in the pasture in front of our house. I tried to share a picture or story daily, and found even my old iPad did the job just fine. Only I would know that I’d forgone an entire decade of Apple updates.
When I perused the photos I’d posted, I saw the small perimeter of the life I’d documented showed me as writer with a life beyond her books. The images reflected the area around my house: the stubborn donkey who grazed in the pasture, my Mom’s wine glasses in the dish rack after book club, and my coffee mug with the inscription: “And also with y’all.” I didn’t have videos of hilarious conversations with Uber drivers headed to the airport or footage of hikes in exotic locations. But even my clunky iPad, which won’t fit in my pocket, could capture the immediacy of my very ordinary life on this small college campus.
My two teenagers were following along: “You should stop posting pictures of the donkey,” advised my youngest. “You went overboard when you called Tallulah your ‘spirit animal’.” My 19-year old religiously liked each photo: “I asked some of my friends to follow you,” she said, feeling sorry since I only had a fraction of her 600 followers.
Now I could also do more of what I cherished online—sharing the stories of others. I got an adrenaline boost from posting on Facebook about my former students who were doing work in line with my writer platform: Kelsey Juliana, suing the federal government to protect youth from the impacts of climate change; Jamie DeMarco, promoting state-level policies for climate action with Citizens Climate Lobby; and Danielle and Mikey Hutchinson, growing organic food on a farm just down the road.
These are small steps I’ve taken, but significant ones for me. By creating my website, using Instagram to share visual glimpses of my life, updating and expanding my Facebook footprint to include more of my life and to shine spotlights on others, I’ve begun to carve out a presence, a platform perhaps. It’s one that doesn’t rely on a smartphone, or I think suffer from the lack of one. From here, I see that I can do more even without a device in my pocket: I just sent out my first e-mail missive and plan to video-chat with followers on Instagram. (Someday I might tackle Twitter, although I worry about my possible addiction to that tool.)
While I recognize building a platform is about using a diversity of strategies to become known and sell books, ultimately to me, it’s about elevating the work of others for a better world, magnifying voices to lift and connect us all.
While I recognize building a platform is about using a diversity of strategies to become known and sell books, ultimately to me, it’s about elevating the work of others for a better world, magnifying voices to lift and connect us all. This seems especially true when our current times call for despair. The key seems to be integrating technology in a way that is true to my life, even if the outcome is a scaled-down version of what it could be. In the end, I think my parents would approve.
Mallory McDuff teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC, where she lives on campus with her daughters. She is the author of the books Natural Saints (Oxford University Press, 2010), Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012), and co-author of Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (OUP, 2015). Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, The Rumpus, Sojourners, and more. Find her at: https://mallorymcduff.com/
THREE SECRETS TO CREATE THE WRITING LIFE YOU WANT
by Lisa Bubert
The question is a familiar one, full of angst and hand-wringing, one I often asked myself but never out loud: How do you do it? How do you become a writer?
There are more questions contained in this question—Where do you get your ideas? What should I write about? Where should I start?—and all these questions lead to the ultimate question: Is there a secret to this thing that I am not privy to?
Yes and no. Yes, there are secrets. It wouldn’t be an art if there were not. But no, they are not secrets you couldn’t be privy to. It only takes knowing who to ask and learning that the person to ask is ultimately yourself.
Almost five years ago, I decided to write for real. I had always written in journals, blogged, tried my hand at stories, poems, even a novel that never got past ten thousand words—but on May 24th, 2014, three weeks after my wedding, I decided that I would not feel whole if I did not make the writing a thing that I did for real. I had an idea for a novel, a very basic one. My grandmother had died the previous year and I was in grief. I had suffered the panic and anxiety attacks of the early “what am I going to do with my life” twenties and had started seeing a therapist. I wanted to write. More specifically, I wanted to be a writer, if only because I didn’t want my life to come to its end without having really tried for it.
So, I started to write. For a year, before the sun came up, 500 words before my day job at the library. My novel stayed very basic. I wrote, re-wrote, tore up pages, re-wrote again, read about false starts and gnashed my teeth. The story changed and changed again. I was learning—but I was also completely and utterly alone.
No one knew how important this was to me. Why I couldn’t stay out late with friends because I needed to wake up early and work on this project no one knew about. I didn’t even really tell my husband what I was doing—oh, the shame of him knowing I was trying at this! And that was exactly it—that I was trying. I was unsure of my work. Nothing I produced felt like it was that great, though it definitely felt good in the making-my-life-whole sense. But if I were really to make my life whole, I needed someone to know I was doing this. So after a year of writing alone, I joined a local critique group.
My first shared reading was a nerve-wracking one. I could see all the imperfections in my work. They were judging me on this one piece. All of this had been private and if I failed, I failed silently, with no one watching. (Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me to define what this failure was—being rejected? Never having my work shared? If that was the case, I was already failing.)
Nauseous as I was, they finished the piece and declared it worthwhile—beautiful even. Sure, it had some things to improve on—all drafts do. But the bones were there and that was what mattered. I was hooked.
All of this is to tell you the first secret of becoming a writer—put yourself out there. Find your fellow writers and share your work. Get used to sharing things you know are not ready because you need to learn and you must be in the student’s seat to do so. Tell your loved ones this is a thing you want and that it is important. Because until you can admit this to the world, you won’t be able to convince yourself.
After a year of struggling alone with the book, I declared to my husband and my closest friends that I was writing. I finished the first draft mere months after joining the group.
Finishing a draft is well and good. So is editing that draft. But if a novel is to become published in the traditional sense (which is what I wanted), then I needed to do more. I needed to know how to query agents. I needed publishing credits. I needed to expand my network (we had just moved to Nashville so my lovely critique group was now gone). I needed to become a professional. And to do all this, I needed to become accountable.
Here is where knowing yourself really comes in handy. What I knew was this: I liked goals, lists, checking things off those lists, calendars, spreadsheets, and I was a morning person. (Yes, I am that person.)
Before, I threw my organizational prowess into my job at the library, other projects at home, and everything that wasn’t my writing (because my writing was art! you can’t organize art!). But I wanted this. So when January rolled around, I took an index card and wrote down the goals for the year:
Finish the novel and begin querying.
Submit three new pieces to journals.
Receive more than 100 rejections.
Each of these goals required planning. Finishing the novel required I actually work on the novel. Submitting new pieces required I write them. Receiving that many rejections meant I needed enough pieces to submit widely.
I came up with two ways to remain accountable to finishing my novel and completing the other goals on my list. 1) Stick to a daily word quota (500 words), or 2) stick to a daily time quota (an hour and a half five days a week). When I was drafting, the word quota was the best goal to shoot for. When I was submitting or editing, the time quota worked best. The point was to close out each day being able to say that I accomplished my duty, whether it was the 500 words and/or the time spent at the craft. (Gold stars on a calendar help. As does an internet blocker.)
Let me digress here to share a real trade secret: Duotrope, an international database of publisher, agent, and literary journal listings and statistics.
None of us come with a head full of great journals perfect for our work. We may have a few dream places—Glimmer Train and Tin House to name my two, and yes, I am still grieving the announcement of their upcoming closures—but everybody must start small on their path to greatness. There are literally thousands of wonderful journals out there just waiting for your work. The world is your submission oyster—and Duotrope is your path to the acceptance pearl.
It will give you the low-down on each participating journal—if they’re open to submissions, what kind of work they publish, word limits, editor interviews, how long the wait is for responses, and (the best part) comparative listings of similar journals. So if you’re submitting that weird, experimental piece you feel would only work for Conjunctions, Duotrope can suggest other journals to check out based on where other writers who submitted to Conjunctions have also submitted. And the other best part is Duotrope’s list of top 100s. Top 100 most approachable journals, most exclusive journals, most likely to send a personalized response, most likely to not respond at all. It takes some of guesswork out of submitting and is a godsend when you’re getting started and learning the literary landscape. It does require a paid subscription to access the listings but it is beyond well worth it. I’ve used it for the past three years and it is the singular reason I have been able to submit as widely and as accurately as I have. (I promise they’re not paying me to say this. I just really love Duotrope.)
I got obsessive about my goals. Probably too obsessive. I noted daily word counts and watched them grow. The more I worked, the more I wanted to work, the easier the words came, until the end of the year when I had a novel on query and stories on submission. The rejections came on their own. I finished out the year with 99 rejections, seven requests on my manuscript from agents, and three published pieces in journals I was extremely proud to be in.
Secret, the second: understand that art is work and work is art. It’s magical, it’s allowed to be—but it requires professional diligence only earned by committing time to the task. You have to do the work every day, even on the bad days, and even on the really bad days. All the talent in the world can’t override the fact that you must get up early or stay up late, you must forgo seeing friends, watching TV, you must keep your mind clear, you must put your hands on the keyboard and type. The more time you invest in the work, the more inspiration can find you. Like Pavlov’s dog and the ringing bell, only your work is the bell and you, my friend, become the drooling dog. This is the magic of the work. This is how you welcome the spirit.
Fun fact: Publishing is hard and there are plenty of other writers trying to do it. Being successful has very little to do with talent and everything to do with how you hustle (although talent helps.)
The thing about hustling is that the personal becomes professional. Creative writing of any kind means the world sees you very intimately. You have to be okay with people you don’t know and people you love dearly seeing you in a vulnerable state on the page. Which is why it’s so hard to be rejected.
But that’s why hustling is so important. That thick skin they talk about only callouses up when more rejections and more edits are received. It doesn’t make you love the work any less. I’ve found it makes me love it more because I care about it enough to advocate for it. That’s all hustling is anyway—advocacy.
Which brings me to secret number three: Advocate for yourself by showing up.
The single most important thing I do for my writing is to show up, especially when I don’t want to. I showed up when I joined that first critique group. I showed up when I made my writing public. I showed up every morning in front of the keyboard, when I submitted work, when I went in search of a new writing community once we moved.
In this singular year of showing up, I have become known in my community as a writer to be respected, someone who can be counted on, as capable and competent, as talented, yes, but also as a hustler.
Ultimately, this is a business. Only you are going to bring yourself success (as you define it). Only you are going to advocate for yourself. The more you produce, the more you submit. The more you submit, the more acceptances you will receive. The more acceptances, the more confidence you gain. The more confidence, the more you will produce. And so on and so forth. It’s a vicious cycle. Vicious and delicious.
So show up. Hustle. Tell the world what you want. Ask for help. Ask for celebration. Give help when asked. Give help without having to be asked. Your dream writing life awaits—no special instructions required.
Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Carolina Quarterly, wildness, South 85, Barnstorm Journal, Spartan, and more. Her story “Formation” was named a finalist in the Texas Institute of Letters Kay Cattarrula Award for Best Short Story. She is the leader of Lit Mag League, a literary journal reading club organized though The Porch, Nashville’s lead writer’s collective, and now also leads Draft Chats, the Porch’s new group for critique and writer support. See more of her work at lisabubert.com.
Almost anyone who has taken a writing class has encountered the sacrosanct dictum: Show; don’t tell. The late Wayne C. Booth, Professor Emeritus of the University of Chicago led me to question this doctrine in his influential book, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). I like books about rhetoric, so when I came across the book at my local Barnes and Noble, the title hooked me. Professor Booth is a warm and clear-eyed guide. And while he occasionally feels compelled to cut through thickets of scholarly debate, he always manages to keep his focus on the rhetorical devices that make fiction work.
Professor Booth advances the idea that many novels, especially those from the 18th and 19th centuries, have what he terms an “implied author,” an authorial presence that guides and modulates the reader’s reactions, sympathies, and expectations. Implied authors are hybrid creatures, combining the voice of a fictional character with the point of view of the author. But for Professor Booth, the voice of an implied author can’t be equated with the actual author; it’s a rhetorical mantle that the author dons for each novel or story.
In their most straightforward form, implied authors are created when the writer speaks directly to reader about the action or characters of the story. It was a favorite device of earlier centuries, and accounts for much contemporary impatience with slowly-paced thick, thick novels by Henry Fielding, George Eliot, and others. By the time the novel fell into the hands of a writer like Henry James, implied authors had become more subtle, created through word choice, emphasis on specific details, and arrangement of action rather than direct commentary. But an implied author is still there in the text, lurking behind the words, guiding readers.
Today, implied authors are often scarce. I attribute this disappearance to the association between implied authors and “telling,” as well as the ascendancy of “showing.”
What exactly is meant by “telling”?
In the eagerness to “show,” the nuance of “telling” is threatened with extinction. But there are exceptions. In my story “Light Refracted through Water” the first person narrator is trying to decide whether a high school buddy is making a sexual advance to him.
Was desire or fear stronger? But it wasn’t really a question. After years of taunting in school, I didn’t dare dream of acting on my desires with other boys, and so they were relegated to the world of private fantasy. It never occurred to me there was any other choice. Gradually a split arose between how I acted and what I desired, so that with time, I didn’t even recognize my own desires. Or so I thought. In reality, though, they were like light refracted through water. The beam of my desires shone through my actions, but bent at various angles, sometimes obtuse, sometimes acute, that weren’t immediately recognizable to me.
Here, “telling” portrays how we narrate the world and our own experience to ourselves. The implied author is subtle and comes in at the very end in the use of the visual metaphor of light refracted through water. While some people may spontaneously think in metaphors, up until this point in the story, the closeted, gay teenage narrator from a rough and tumble background has not shown himself to be such a person. The narrator gets an assist from the author. That the narrator is interpreting his experience using a visual metaphor is also an example of telling and showing working together.
Or take the late Philadelphian writer Mark Merlis who used “telling” to excellent effect. In his 2005 novel Man about Town, the main character Joel Lingeman is inexplicably drawn to a photo of a man in swim trunks in a magazine ad. While the photograph triggers Joel’s reflection, the depth and significance of the photograph is conveyed by “telling.” Merlis writes about the character:
He knew it was a crime, looking at that picture, even having it in the room. Not just the obvious crime. Perhaps he already had some vague intuition that a good boy wasn’t supposed to be quite so profoundly interested in a picture of a handsome guy in swimming trunks. But there was something else about the picture, something seismically subversive.
In his reflection, Joel’s character is imbued with Merlis’ preternaturally wise and articulate voice, making fine-grained distinctions about obvious and subtle crimes, how too great an interest can imply a kind of guilt, or how something can be “seismically subversive.” “Telling” brushes into a story’s frame the presence of a mature writer capable of assessing human experience and ascribing words to it. For Professor Booth, this “writer” may be one of a story’s greatest fictional creations, but it’s a necessary one that underlies and reinforces the overall aesthetics of any given piece.
I can already hear the impatience: You’ve got to be kidding. In the early 21st century, we like our stories cool and ironic, and irony abhors “telling” or commentary of any kind. We like to have a character or scene presented directly, because we’re quite capable of inferring the meaning for ourselves. We don’t need to be told. We like the sense of privacy, privilege, and power that judging in the wings alongside the author brings. Any comment from the author, implied or otherwise, destroys the spell of direct presentation.
The other competitor “telling” has is film, a medium that for obvious reasons is predisposed to “showing.” “Telling” or commentary by a character in film must be done with a light touch or its effect usually verges on silly. Think of Sonny von Bulow’s mind talking to the viewer from the depths of a coma in Reversal of Fortune. Directors also almost never speak in their own voices. So film, too, in which the director/author is very nearly always obscured, also creates a general taste for visual representation, direct presentation, and no “telling.”
Yet despite contemporary cultural inclinations toward coolness, irony, and visual representation, it’s strange that the many nuances of “telling” should be lost. There are instances when “telling” is “showing,” such as in Tristram Shandy, where the sheer power of the voice, the voice that tells and tells and tells some more, is the most vivid presentation of a character imaginable. Coolness, irony, and visual representation tip the scale in the direction of “showing,” but it doesn’t mean that “telling” is an ineffective or less valid literary device.
In each work of fiction, “telling” and “showing” interact to advance plot, shade characterization, and explicate meaning in a way that is as unique as each writer’s fingerprints. Neither “telling” nor “showing” can be held out to writers as theorems that hold true under any and all circumstances, although just such a magic key is alluring. But rigid application of “show; don’t tell” drains art’s reflective pool and hinders its ability to mirror our lives back to us in all their complexity and nuance. And this being the case, I’m always ready to be told a good story.
Scott Bane’s work has appeared in number of journals and newspapers, including Christopher Street, The Gay and Lesbian Review, The Huffington Post, and Poets & Writers. He lives in New York City.
THE BELL DINGS FOR ME
On Writing with a Typewriter A Craft Essay
by Toby Juffre Goode
I pack up my laptop and some comfortable clothes and pull away from my mile-high mountain home in Northern Arizona to drive hundreds of desert miles. I’m headed for the women’s writing retreat I attend every January in Palm Springs, California. I’m anxious. The five-hour drive facing me isn’t the problem. It’s the slump I’ve languished in for too long. I haven’t touched my memoir manuscript in months. A few essay ideas poke at me, but I ignore them. My heart isn’t in it. If not for the women I look forward to seeing and the money I paid up front to attend, I’d sit this one out.
I pass through Skull Valley and Yarnell, and keep going beyond Hope. I cross the California border into Blythe and drive on through mind-numbing miles of dry dirt, desert scrub, and sporadic crumbled foundations.
Stuff the anxiety, I tell myself. I’m tired of it. Inspiration will find me.
I arrive at the historic Casa Cody Inn and go in search of Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, author, teacher, mentor, and my friend who leads these annual retreats. Over the past year I observed this woman of many passions delve into yet another: typewriters. I’ve lost count of the prized acquisitions she posts on Instagram. Where the hell is she putting all these typewriters? Barbara lives in a tiny cottage by the sea in Southern California. Has she gone off the deep end?
I find her in her room at the Winter’s House where she has three typewriters set up and ready to fly. Barbara points out her prized Olivetti Lettera 32, a Royal Aristocrat, and a Smith Corona Classic Electra. She tilts her head and grins.
“You’re welcome to try one out while you’re here,” she says. “If you want.”
I’m rooming next-door to Barbara. During the day I hear her typing. And I love the sound.
One particular night she’s typing while I read in bed. Rhythmic and meditative, the sound soothes me. I want to fall asleep listening. I shut my light. She stops typing. I’m disappointed.
The next day Barbara mentions that she has a Smith Corona electric in the trunk of her car that I can play with. “I’m selling it on Craigslist,” she says. “I can’t keep them all.”
I humor her. I lug the portable typewriter in its case to my room. It reminds me of a bowling ball. My father’s bag and shoes waited for him by the front door every Thursday night—his bowling night with the Knights of Columbus. I’d always try, but I wasn’t strong enough to lift it.
I hoist the case up onto my desk and struggle to release the typewriter. I don’t remember my portable typewriter in college being this cumbersome. Plug it in, feed a sheet of paper through the roller thingy, and flip the switch. Oh yeah—I’d forgotten that motor sound. Do I remember how to use this thing? I consider the keys. My fingertips find home row. Like getting on a bike again. The next thing I know I’m typing. Energy flows into my fingers. I can still do this! Even though it’s been more than thirty years. Through the serial number, Barbara confirms that this typewriter was manufactured in 1964. I was only eight years old then, trying to pick up Dad’s bowling bag. Talk about a time machine.
During the four-day retreat I write on the Smith Corona instead of my laptop. I work on one of my essay ideas, but after a rough page or two I’m compelled to bang away about this infatuating typewriter experience. Hitting the keys takes effort and discernment. Too little pressure delivers a faint h; too much and a sputter of hhhhhs spit onto the paper. But once I get the touch, it’s fun. I type. I’m warming up. Thoughts sizzle.
During the four-day retreat I write on the Smith Corona instead of my laptop. I work on one of my essay ideas, but after a rough page or two I’m compelled to bang away about this infatuating typewriter experience. Hitting the keys takes effort and discernment. Too little pressure delivers a faint h; too much and a sputter of hhhhhs spit onto the paper. But once I get the touch, it’s fun. I type. I’m warming up. Thoughts sizzle.
By day two I’m more than smitten. I peer into Smith Corona’s open heart where metal typebars wait to slap letters on the platen (the roller thingy has an official term, I learn), the way piano keys send hammers flying upward to strike strings. A musical staccato sings out: you’re writing! Inspiration has come—in the form of a Smith Corona Coronet electric typewriter.
“I want to buy it,” I tell Barbara.
I wonder about who played on these cream-colored, black-lettered keys before I came along. Did their fingers peck their way, or dance with abandon over the keyboard? Maybe they explored reams of poetry, or stalked stories that were going nowhere yet eventually arrived. I imagine letters of friendship, apology, or long-overdue explanations of love lost. Were pages pulled from the typewriter, crumpled in a ball, and thrown across the room? Or sealed into an envelope and mailed far away? Both actions more gratifying than the lifeless computer functions delete and send.
I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?
In college I wrote essays and term papers on my typewriter. Nothing about it seemed complicated and I never worried that I might break the machine. Now the same simple functions bewilder me and I’m afraid I’ll damage it. I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?
I’m bringing this vintage baby home. I’m excited. The five-hour drive back is a breeze. That night I don’t mention my new typewriter to my husband. I park Smith Corona on the desk in my office and wait for his reaction.
“Is that a typewriter I’ve been hearing?” Phil says a few mornings later. There’s a twinge of amusement in his half smile. He thinks it’s cool, I can tell. He’s not a writer, but I bet the typewriter evokes memories for him too.
Now an integral tool in my writing practice, Smith Corona welcomes me, idea-filled or empty. Of course you’re going to write, it says to me. Why else would you sit here? So, I act as if. I slap keys. Words splay across the paper, add up to sentences, and run into paragraphs. Prompts and free writes still help me, but my typewriter gets me moving out of my own way. Blank whiteness begs for more—good or bad makes no difference.
When I write on my laptop, I revise—to a fault. The trained copyeditor/proofreader in me wants every sentence perfect. Tempted by the online thesaurus, and cut and paste functions, I’m seduced into premature editing. I wander the Internet in the name of research, or more likely in a search for those boots I’m coveting. My creative flow is choked like a gutter full of leaves.
But my Smith Corona sentences read perfectly imperfect, as they should at this point in the process. The snap-snap of the keys scores my mantra: write freely, write freely. My inner critic quiets.
I type away. The bell dings and cheers me on: another line! I may not have a page worth saving. But I love the physical effort required, and I’m proud of the wadded up white paper balls collecting by my feet. They validate that I showed up. I’m in the chair, thrashing in a pool of possibility. I hate my writer self a little less.
A painter layers color with brush strokes. A weaver threads weft through warp on her loom. Artists explore and create with their tools. On my Smith Corona I compose with jazz hands and a cacophony of sounds to silence the controlling, demeaning, perfection-demanding voice in my head. I type through it. Critics be damned, I say. The bell dings for me and I keep writing for the love of it.
Toby Juffre Goode lives in Northern Arizona where she writes creative nonfiction and memoir. Her advertising writing career has taken her from the NBC affiliate in Boston to Playgirl Magazine to the Walt Disney Company in Southern California. She owns one manual and two electric typewriters, and counting.
YOU DON’T NEED AN ANNA MARCH IN YOUR WRITING LIFE to Know About Getting Burned A Craft Essay by Anthony J. Mohr
Seth Fischer writes beautifully, and publishers are taking notice. He’s in PANK, The Rumpus, Guernica, and elsewhere. The Best American Essays 2013 listed one of his works in their Notables section. I’ve met Seth Fischer and have taken several of his classes at Writing Workshops Los Angeles.
Anna March and I never crossed paths, but she and Seth Fischer did. According to the Los Angeles Times, March, who apparently posed as a writing mentor, organized eleven workshops during 2016 and 2017, including one slated for Positano, Italy. Fischer signed up and bought a cheap ticket to Italy, but two days before the program’s start, March canceled it—an apparently frequent move. Fischer and some others traveled to Italy anyway, since his ticket was nonrefundable and he figured he already had a place to stay. Wrong. Says the Times, “They learned when they arrived that no rooms had been booked for the workshop at the advertised hotel.”
The article upset me, not just because Anna March grifted someone I know, but because she could have done the same to me had she come across my radar.
The Times reporters painted a picture of a woman who has canceled numerous workshops, has not delivered the coaching, editing, and mentoring writers have paid for, has gone by four different names in four different cities, has judgments against her, has been placed on probation, and has been ordered to receive psychiatric care.
The article upset me, not just because Anna March grifted someone I know, but because she could have done the same to me had she come across my radar. Mostly, I have limited my ambition to attending reputable conferences and workshops other writers I know can vouch for—HippoCamp, Squaw Valley, Kenyon Review, and Sirenland. (Sirenland takes place in Positano too, but when you arrive, the hotel does have a room for you.) But other possible Anna Marches ping my inbox, show up in social media streams, and remind me of the flakes who, before I started writing, weaseled their way into my life over two decades ago, when I practiced law.
At times back then I was so hungry for clients that I took on a few who played me for a fool. Like writers and so many others in the arts, newly minted attorneys can also fall prey to charlatans—clients who skewed the facts dangled big numbers before me, and showed up in my office close to the statute of limitations expiration, giving me no time to investigate before agreeing to represent them. These were the folks who called me all day long, and on nights and weekends, but never paid their bills. They wounded my self-image and made me feel less than competent. I wish I’d sued them, won, and chased their assets until the pips squeaked, but I didn’t muster the courage. Like many who were conned by Anna March.
Where did these people come from? You might as well ask how ants find a picnic.
Finally, one of these swindlers telephoned me on New Year’s Eve and demanded we meet. “You have to cancel your plans. This is important,” he said. By then I was getting wiser. I said no and, on January 2, told him to get another lawyer. It was bracing to throw him out, a boost to my self-esteem.
Where did these people come from? You might as well ask how ants find a picnic.
Anna March lured in equally hungry writers and failed to deliver services she promised. In a tweet, Seth Fischer gave a good description of her modus operandi: “This is where Anna thrived—not in taking advantage of people who didn’t deserve it, but by taking advantage of really hardworking people who do deserve it but just aren’t getting the mentorship they need to succeed.”
I understand why some writers who encountered March and became her victims haven’t done anything. It wasn’t worth the time, mental energy, and possible expense to recover their financial losses. (I’m sure some also took a blow to their confidence as writers.) The problem is serious, especially among the most vulnerable artists among us, people who want so badly to get that part, record that song, sell that book. I’ve heard of writers paying agents who are not agents and others who’ve submitted to literary journals that are not journals. One of my first acceptances was from a “literary journal” which never appeared. After waiting for over a year, I pulled the essay and managed to place it in a real editorial home.
I closed my law practice twenty-four years ago when the Governor appointed me as a judge. I started writing on the side, and while you’d think a judge may be too savvy to fall for a literary scam, who knows? I want to get published, get access to top mentoring, get a leg up in this fickle literary world just as much as the next writer. Thanks to the recent Ms. March debacle, however, I’ve decided to redouble my efforts to keep the fabulists and snollygosters out of my life—but not my vocabulary. Before signing up for that workshop in Antarctica, you can bet I’ll do a thorough Google search, run an online litigation check, and ask writer friends to weigh in. If the feedback feels ambiguous, I’ll run like hell. Every one of us in the literary community needs to take care of each other, starting with protecting ourselves and others from those who’d do us harm by taking our money and doing nothing.
When they sailed past the Island of the Sirens, Odysseus was smart enough to order his crew to stuff their ears with wax. But because he wanted to hear the siren songs, Odysseus didn’t plug his ears, instead commanding the crew to tie him to the mast.
When they sailed past the Island of the Sirens, Odysseus was smart enough to order his crew to stuff their ears with wax. But because he wanted to hear the siren songs, Odysseus didn’t plug his ears, instead commanding the crew to tie him to the mast. The moment the music reached him, Odysseus screamed and ordered his sailors to let him go, but instead, they roped him in more tightly, saving his life.
If you think someone you know is falling for a scam, say something. Sometimes it takes rough measures to avoid disasters. That can be hard for us. We writers are a sensitive group, but one Anna March in a lifetime is too many.
Editor’s note: Melissa Chadburn, lead reporter on the Los Angeles Times story mentioned above, is planning a follow-up and wants to hear from others who are owned money by Anna March. You can get in touch hereif you fall into that category.
Anthony J. Mohr has studied craft with Bernard Cooper, Rebecca McClanahan, Dinty W. Moore, Dani Shapiro, and Al Young. His work has appeared in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Compose Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Superstition Review, and ZYZZYVA, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times.
SHOWING AND TELLING: Seven Ways to Help Your Writing Breathe
A Craft Essay by Billy Dean
“Show-don’t-tell” is fine advice—unless you apply it absolutely, as if you should always show and never tell. But there are no absolute rules in good writing. Here are seven ways your prose and poetry can breathe with both showing and telling.
#1 Body & Mind We know more about the world with our bodies than with our minds because we are more directly connected to reality through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. When you want readers to participate with their imagination, engage their senses with words aimed at their bodies.
Penny watched a rabbit hop under the snow-covered rosemary, ears down and alone.
Stories with nothing but imagery, however vivid and beautiful, can be boring and pointless unless you give readers a context for what you are showing them, and why. When you want readers to participate with their intellect, engage their understanding with words aimed at their brains.
Penny glanced at her cell phone. Five bars. Why hasn’t he called?
#2 Peaks & Valleys Exploit the distinction between words aimed at the mind and words aimed at the body with “peaks” of showing and “valleys” of telling. Peaks are high points when your readers are holding their breath, and valleys are low points when they are pondering what they saw on the peaks. Juxtaposing peaks and valleys grounds images in information.
Jim pulled the pistol out of the glove box and pushed the barrel under his chin.
Doctor Evans had told him there was no cure, but Jim had a cure. Life sucks, then you die—alone, angry and full of regrets.
#3 Scene & Summary Your setting will be a boring, irrelevant background for the action and the dialog unless it merges images and information to set the stage for your plot, your character’s mood, and what can happen.
Most stories alternate “scene” writing—which shows readers what happened—with “summary” writing—which tells readers what happened. The trick is to balance scene with summary, showing with telling, facts with feelings, and imagery with information.
The sky was filled with dark, threatening clouds. In the distance, lightning could be seen but not heard. Like small children, the men huddled near the fire, seeking its warmth and familiar glow. Hank looked up. The storm was moving their way. He reached forward and poked the smoldering fire with his cane.
He would tell the story again, tonight, because, in the story, the world promised what might have been. Outside the story, the world closed in again, actual, bare and unyielding.
#4 Brevity & Presence Showing can be more precise than telling, whereas telling can be more concise than showing. Precise details give your readers more sensory-oriented information to enhance their presence in the story, as in example A, below. By contrast, a concise telling gives your readers fewer details to compress time so they are not burdened with every aspect of a character’s preparation for the real action ahead, as in example B.
A) Sharon pulled into her space at the Oak Knoll Apartments, turned off the engine, got out and heard the satisfying beep as she tapped her remote. She climbed the stairs to her apartment, unlocked her door, and closed it behind her. She tossed her purse on the dinner table, kicked off her shoes and threw herself onto the bed. Lying there with her face buried in the soft, pillowy comforter, a dark wave came over her.
Remembering she had forgotten to lock her door, she rolled off her bed, walked to the door and felt, as much as heard, the snick of the deadbolt as it slid home through the strike plate of the sill. Would she ever feel safe again?
She poured herself a drink—vodka without the rocks. She opened her purse and saw the canister of pepper spray Anthony had given her. She resisted the urge to grab it and pretend to point it at Jack’s face. Instead of seeing the spray transform his arrogance into anguish, she saw a guard, hairy and huge as a gorilla, his black eyes boring into her under his ape-like brow, and his voice mocking her with a growling, “You brought pepper spray to a gunfight? Want me to break your neck or just shoot you?”
B) Sharon was afraid the compound would be guarded by dogs. So she tossed a canister of pepper spray in her purse before leaving the house.
You noticed, of course, that we don’t know what’s bothering Sharon. The first example doesn’t tell us why she no longer feels safe, and the second omits her reasons in the interest of brevity. Both are missing context, which is neither necessarily good or bad. It all depends on your motives for keeping your readers in the dark. Perhaps you want to enhance suspense or save a surprise for later in the story. Whatever the reason, keep in mind that showing without telling and telling without showing can be boring, pointless and confusing unless you give readers a context for what you are showing or telling them, and why.
Too much or too little of anything is unbalanced. When it comes to showing or telling, we can balance our writing with a combination of both to enhance both presence and brevity with context. Below is a third example demonstrating how to alternate scene and summary to move your readers from imagery to information:
C) When Sharon got home, she kicked off her shoes and poured herself a drink—vodka without the rocks. A wave of fear washed over her. In her mind’s eye, she saw a guard, hairy and huge as a gorilla, his black eyes boring into her under an ape-like brow, his hand on his gun. [Scene]
Anthony was asking her to risk her job, her career—maybe even her life. For what? The cause? Him? They hadn’t even slept together. One date, two drinks, and a kiss on the cheek as they said goodnight. She was a legal secretary, not a spy. And how would she get into the place? Even if she got past the dogs, the guards, and the locked doors, how would she know which disk had the data that Anthony needed to put Jack and his crooked buddies behind bars? [Summary]
#5 Convey & Evoke Telling can move your story forward, speed up the pace, and spare your readers from long, boring passages. But, as we have seen, it can also leave your readers standing outside your story like spectators. Telling readers how a character feels is trying to elicit an emotional response with words rather than with sensory clues. Think of words as handles to carry the idea of a feeling from writer to reader, not the feeling itself. Instead of directly informing your readers about a character’s feelings, as in the first example below, show them the symptoms so they can participate with their own emotions, as in the second example.
A) Shirley was so sad she wanted to die.
B) Shirley stood on the cliff watching the waves crash against the rocks below.
Let’s examine these differences in greater detail. In example A, above, readers are limited to what the narrator is telling them about the character’s feelings. But it’s merely a description of the character’s inner thoughts—as if the narrator is pointing at the character from a distance. The narrator becomes more present than the character. And that makes it more likely that the readers will not identify with the character in a personal way because they, too, feel distant from the character.
In example B, the narrator has all but disappeared because the narration, not the narrator, is showing the character in a particular situation. And that increases the likelihood that readers will feel little or no distance between themselves and the character in the scene. Most are likely to feel as if they are standing on that cliff with the character.
#6 Clarity, Curiosity & Closure Showing can be more subtle than telling. But you don’t want to be so subtle that your readers feel like they’re working a crossword puzzle without the clues, as in example A, below. You can be both subtle and clear, as in example B. And you can achieve clarity by igniting your reader’s curiosity, then satisfying it with closure, as in example C:
A) With every step across that furrowed field, Sylvia heard the rumble hammering her ears get closer, louder—more like a mongoose circling a cobra than the moon orbiting earth.
B) Sylvia watched Jake drive away with Jean, her best friend, in that truck they painted three summers ago—the one his dad gave her to repair so Jake could drive it when he turned 16. He’d never know how much she loved that truck, the rust bleeding through its other color.
C) Her gold ring tossed on the tracks was no match for iron wheels rolling into the station. She would leave Jake and buy a ticket to tomorrow, where she would go, with alacrity, alone.
#7 Walking the Dog My goal has been to convince you that your best writing will result from asking yourself, How do I want my readers to respond to that sentence, this scene, my story? rather than, Did I follow the hallowed rules of writing?
Even my show-and-tell suggestions might keep you from your best writing if you follow them absolutely. So let’s examine another rule some writers apply absolutely, a rule they justify by saying that Anton Chekhov told us to avoid all adjectives and adverbs because the use of modifiers constitutes telling. He didn’t say that. He said, Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.
Chekhov advised us to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Being too specific is like walking your dog on a short leash: your readers won’t be free enough to bring your words to life with their own imagination and intellect. Being too is like walking your dog on a 30-foot leash: your readers will wander off the path you want them on. In the first example below, I haven’t crossed out all my adverbs and adjectives. I’ve crossed out as many as I could to ensure my readers will respond as I intended:
Little Tommy pedaled his younger sister’s oldJC Higgins bicycle to herelementary school as quickly as he could, hoping he’d get there before any of his friends saw its girly-pink seat and sissy-blue ribbons twirling conspicuously from the bent handlebars.
The second example, the same text minus extraneous modifiers, gives my reader freedom to imagine a vivid scene—without wandering off the path I’ve chosen:
Tommy pedaled his sister’s bicycle to school as quickly as he could, hoping he’d get there before his friends saw its pink seat and the blue ribbons twirling from the handlebars.
Billy Dean is a retired technical writer with degrees in English and Engineering. His essays, how-to guides, poems, and stories have been published in trade journals and magazines, and on the Internet. His goals are to craft prose and poetry loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.
FOUND IN TRANSLATION
How my Memoir of Life Overseas Turned into a Novella
A Craft Essay
by Ele Pawelski
Fresh from having left my international development career and moving home to Toronto in 2009, I wanted to write a memoir. Browsing through the periodic emails I’d sent home over my twelve years away, I pieced together funny stories about life in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo. But the longer I was home, the harder it became to recall events without notes or a journal from that time (this kind of record-keeping isn’t my thing). Instead, with encouragement from the writing group I later joined, I fed these remembrances into a novella set in Kabul and found my footing as a fiction writer.
My love for factual writing began back in university where I wrote film reviews for my college newspaper. Overseas, I drafted project proposals and implementation plans, and occasionally helped create communications products. A couple of my real-life stories were printed in Canadian national newspapers, and in the past ten years, I’ve published two academic papers. I definitely enjoy putting together a solid premise or argument based on research and evidence: in some ways, the antithesis of creative writing.
So it was natural to land on a memoir as my story-telling vehicle. I’d read enough to know that successful ones needed a recognized author or a gripping, dramatic story. I’m definitely not the first and while I’d had many interesting encounters and was once almost evacuated from South Sudan, I didn’t think I had enough for the second. Nor could I come close to the riveting tales of working for the United Nations recounted by Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Doctor Andrew Thomson in Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. In this memoir, the three use intersected stories to relate their experiences on the front line of increasingly dangerous and dysfunctional UN missions.
While passing time before a speed-dating event (that’s a whole other story), I wrote down as many comical chapter titles as I could think of that evoked the satirical side of development work: “Airports, Airplanes and Goats,” “Where Taxis Go to Die” and “The Way of the Tea.” Instead of a linear storyline, my plan was to write a series of humorous anecdotes in the style of Bill Bryson. Readers would not be taken through the countries I’d worked in but rather experience my world through scenes tied together by a common topic. For each chapter, I would gather an inventory of my stories and then string them together into a cohesive depiction of life in aid-receiving countries. In my head, it worked. And I thought the chapter ideas were laugh-out-loud funny.
With the outline of a memoir in hand, I joined Moosemeat Writing Group in 2010, a writing group I found online. While its focus was fiction, non-fiction writers were welcome too. This group would form the backbone of my writing existence and transition to fiction writing.
About three months in, I presented my first memoir chapter. The critiques were sharp but honest. The biggest was that the piece contained too much wit to be funny. Sort of like a stand-up comedian delivering too many jokes, who eventually isn’t funny because everything is funny and there’s no downtime to process anything. Also, while colleagues with whom I’d worked featured in the narrative, their appearances were too brief. These were fascinating individuals, trying hard to improve things in their home countries, and I’d given them too little airtime. But the most important feedback I received was that without a subject continually present (i.e. me) it was hard to become invested in the story. I needed a narrator to give the story more depth.
So I regrouped, shifting my thinking back to a linear and more serious approach. I reread Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries and a fellow writer lent me Another Quiet American by Brett Dakin. Both are memoirs of time spent abroad and reflections on the unfamiliar. I developed my stories in the order they happened and renamed my chapters by the country I’d lived in. Instead of writing around topics, I would offer glimpses of my life in each place.
In the meantime, I absorbed more and more fiction scribed by the Moosemeat writers. Each year, Moosemeat publishes a chapbook collection of flash fiction pieces written to a theme. Six months after I’d joined, a call for submissions went out. With a bit of cajoling and an idea about a satirical take on a real event, I wrote my first fictional story, “A Tale of Two Summits.” At 500 words it was short—but completely imagined.
As part of the process, Moosemeat members critiqued my story. Perhaps because it was fiction, I didn’t endure the stress I’d felt when presenting my memoir chapter. In fact, I felt invigorated by some of the suggestions that I knew would make this piece better. With fiction, I wasn’t invested in trying to squeeze out all the details from my not-so-great memory or figure out how to make my true stories more engrossing. How freeing!
Later, at our chapbook event, I read my flash fiction aloud to a room full of family, friends and a hell of a lot of strangers. Here, I was most definitely nervous. But another part of me was intrigued by how the story fit with the other ones. Or least, wasn’t remarkably (or terribly) different. Perhaps, just maybe, I could write fiction…
In the back of my mind, I remembered years earlier attending a meet-up hosted by Quattro Books, a small publisher in Toronto that would eventually publish my novella. Would-be authors were walked through what made for a good story, and what the publisher looked for when selecting a manuscript: a character with a goal, a crisis from mounting tension, and an epiphany at the end. Yet, it still seemed daunting to write a novel. But then, I read a very personal news story.
In January 2011, a suicide bomber targeted a convenience store in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital where I worked in 2007-2008. It was a place where I’d frequently shopped when I lived there. From online photos of the incident, I recognized the ads in the shop windows and could visualize the aisles filled with sugary drinks and snacks. Thankfully I didn’t know anyone who’d been hurt in the attack. But it felt like I did.
And, just like that, I knew the story I wanted to write: the book would happen over that one day in January 2011. There would be three characters, a local politician, a reporter and an aid worker, and each would tell their experience of the bombing, one after another. Through their eyes, readers would see the intensity but also the beauty of life in Kabul. As with my now-put-aside memoir, the story would encompass themes of challenging injustice and doing good as well as the importance of family.
I would aim for a word count in the territory of a novella. This all was manageable for my first attempt at longer fiction. Excitedly, I shared my idea with a writer friend, mainly as a commitment to writing it. But she also thought it was a good premise for a book.
To begin, I sifted through the comical chapter titles and finished stories that I’d crafted for my memoir, looking for bits that could be part of my new story. I also made notes on other remembrances and encounters I’d had which I could envision happening to one of my characters. If I didn’t quite recollect something, it didn’t matter because I could embellish or cut out as much as I wanted. This story was mine to own and shape just so.
As I wrote the politician’s story, I realized that fiction was providing distance, which allowed me to write in a more serious way. My memoir had been all about poking fun at my experiences and the places I lived, which partially reflected my personality but also kept me from being vulnerable in exposing my thoughts and reactions. The truth was, I wasn’t ready (and, in hindsight, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready) to let the world inside my head and heart. But I could explore and exploit vulnerabilities I created in my characters, vulnerabilities that could mimic my own.
Slipping my reality into fiction was not overly difficult for two reasons: first, the story was taking place some years after I’d left Kabul. While I could picture the Kabul, I’d lived in, I also knew it had changed as the Taliban continued to creep up and in. Second, once I attributed a personal anecdote to a character, I found I no longer owned it. Rather, I sought ways to transform it, playing with the facts to fit the narrative. This was the case for all the characters, including the aid worker, who I fashioned after myself. In most cases, I wanted to add details that I didn’t remember to enrich the descriptions or create tension.
Four months later I presented the first chapter at Moosemeat. Many were surprised at the story’s grave tone and substance. This time, unlike my memoir piece, I received a good dose of positive feedback. Enough to convince me that the story had legs.
I’m still astounded at how relatively easily I moved into writing fiction. Well, I worked hard at it. But I’m a more creative writer than my twenty-something self ever envisioned. My novella, The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, was being launched in January 2018. I already have ideas for my next three novels. And all are grounded in true stories.
Ele Pawelski has lived in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo. She has climbed in the Himalayas, walked the Camino and hiked in Newfoundland. Now living in urban Toronto with her husband, she’s always planning for her next travel adventure. Her stories have appeared in magazines, journals and newspapers. The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, published December 2017, is her first novella.
WORKING FOR SURPRISE: On Running, Prescriptive Teaching, and the Language of First Drafts A Poetry Craft Essay by Devin Kelly
For many writers, the first draft of a work can be either something magical or something they just have to step over to get to the next draft, and the next one. Devin Kelly celebrates the first draft and questions the fetishism of revision.—Grant Clauser, Editor
There are two things I do nearly every day without fail: write and run. I like to talk and think about them together because, to me, they are twin feats of both discipline and imagination. Growing up a competitive runner, never very good compared to the other people I competed against, I learned to value the sport as a way to keep me both grounded and honest. Your body has a way of letting you know how well you’ve treated it. Or how poorly. Lining up for an ultramarathon, I view the months of training prior as a succession of drafts. Practice gives me an idea of what to expect out of a race, but I like to leave room for surprise because the body, like a poem, holds more wonder than we can grasp. One of the reasons I race these long races is less because of some feeling of accomplishment that comes with finishing, but more for the strange and wondrous moments of mental and bodily access that arrive without any warning.
A few days ago, I posted a thread on Twitter that began with the idea that sometimes your first drafts can be your best drafts. I was responding, in some ways, to a sort of celebration of the masochism and self-deprecation of writing that often gets circulated on social media. It’s not surprising to see people talking about how bad their first drafts are. “Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can,” Anne Lamott writes in the canonical Bird by Bird, a seminal work on the craft of writing. Such a narrative is familiar: you write something you might think is wonderful, you put it away, and then you return to it and realize that it is a god-awful pile of shit. I don’t have any real qualm with this kind of narrative other than…well, maybe I do. I’d like to see another narrative celebrated (at least alongside it!): that of the surprising and wonderful first draft.
Before I go on, I want to say that there are different kinds of work, and that both discipline and work can look like many different things. Sitting down to write at 6 in the morning every day can be a kind of discipline. Writing a stream of conscious narrative can come from a place of discipline. The ability to structure and offer discipline to your life can come from privilege, whether that’s the privilege of money, or time, or job security. Some people create discipline out of lives that are filled with work.
About 23 miles into a recent 50-mile race last November, I began walking. A few miles prior, I had entered the marathon-long stretch of canal towpath that twirled and rolled alongside the Potomac River. I was in roughly thirtieth place in a field of close to a thousand and positively geeking out, excited for the soft and flat surface that extended outward like a dream for miles upon miles. Once on the towpath, I settled into a rhythm and tried to quiet my breathing. A few miles rolled by right near seven-minute mile pace and then, with the sudden sharpness of a bird’s quick descent from sky to ground, I stopped. No reason. No labored breathing. I just did. Other racers appeared behind me, emerging from the misty air, and passed me by. First one, then more. I was doing calculations in my head, trying to figure out how much time I had lost, how much I would have to salvage. And then I stopped this, too. I breathed. I walked forward. And then shuffled. And then one foot became two and those feet became meters and then, finally, those meters became miles.
There was a moment in that time of stoppage that was full of self-pity. I looked back on all I had done in preparation, this series of little drafts, and then looked at my not-moving feet, and felt this looming sense of anger and desperation and pity, that this event was not turning out the way I planned. I don’t know how you move on from those feelings other than by simply moving. As I shuffled back into the race, I began to create new goals for myself, to let myself be surprised by the present moment – the ache lifting from my legs after a warm cup of broth, the man and his dog knee-deep in the shallows of the river, a kindness-mirage.
I’m comparing running to writing here because each is a kind of work that offers access to different kinds of presents, in the sense of both time and gifts. And it takes work. How that work looks, though, and the effects of such work, can vary from writer to writer. When I brought up some thoughts about this via twitter, Natasha Oladokun, one of my favorite contemporary poets, mentioned how Li-Young Lee sometimes asks himself, “What impulse was I privileging in draft #2 that’s been killed by draft #17?” What a generous and self-interrogating thought, to understand that the work of working on something doesn’t always make that something better. Runners face a similar kind of problem in the build up to high-endurance races. A succession of heavy-mileage weeks can burn out one’s legs and leave one in worse shape, even when they’ve been running more. It often takes a kind of generous and inquisitive listening to one’s body in order to perfect that type of long-distance training.
Years ago, I arrived at my MFA program without having taken a single creative writing class in college. Unfamiliar with the rhetoric and dynamics of workshops, I grew to lament the idea of process. I looked at the specific edits fellow students gave me for my stories and knew that if I took each one, I’d have some jumbled mess of prose that hardly resembled me. I looked at other students who carried around the same story from workshop to workshop, and how it morphed and changed but never grew to be anything that resembled what the carrier wanted. I shook myself repeatedly, trying to remind myself that it’s not always about the story we tell but rather about how we come to it, and what we open ourselves toward, and what reveals itself to us in the process. I don’t really write to understand so much as I write to accept my own fundamental state of misunderstanding. Likewise, I don’t run a race to finish it. I run a race to dwell in the forever-encounter with the mystery of my body and my body’s place in this world.
So what now? I guess what I am trying to say is not that our first drafts are always absurdly beautiful, or that we should all stop revising, but rather that there is a language of surprise and generosity that exists within the confines of the first draft that can, at times, be beneficial to us as writers and people. And I think that what you want from your own writing depends on what you want from the world of writing. Sometimes the publishing world doesn’t celebrate the intrinsic adulations that writing for the self often brings about. Those feelings of surprise, inventiveness, generosity of self. “When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it again,” Hemingway writes in On Writing. National Book Award winner John Casey literally titled his advice-for-writers book Beyond the First Draft. In a 1963 conversation with David Ossman, Denise Levertov said, “When one has written a first draft one may be elated, and one may wrongly think that it’s right as it stands.” Debating whether these statements, Lamott’s earlier one included, are right or wrong is a fruitless hill to die on, but it bears questioning why, for so long, successful and established writers and teachers have often privileged the final draft over the first. There is a long list of teachers I’ve had or listened to who repeatedly told me or an audience that the key to writing is revision. But how? And why? And is it possible for revision to look different for different people? And isn’t it just a little weird that, often, the people who talk so frequently about the tedious work of writing are people in relative positions of power? And why, finally, does revision have to prescribed as work, when, often, there is a pleasure in diving back into that heady water?
In the first few miles of the 50-miler that November, as fellow racers and I were all working out of our shuffles and tentatively making assessments about the state of our legs and their prospects for the future hours, we talked. It’s one of my favorite things about long races. You’re racing, and yet, in those early miles, you’re going slow enough to hold a conversation. What’s interesting, though, is how those conversations hardly ever are about the work done prior to the race. Rather, they’re almost always centered on stories of the joys of long races, and the failures, and the oddities we’ve encountered along the way. For all my competitive running life prior to these longer races, all my starting lines were filled with conversation about the work needed to get to those start lines. But when I started running far enough, into the reaches of the why-the-fuck-would-you-do-that, I don’t think anyone cared. I think everyone knew it was a given.
Poetry, to me, is that far reach, that ultra-marathon of writing. That wonder-world of experience and language. And, as such, this is how I approach a poem: knowing there is labor involved but instead choosing to privilege the moments of revelation that such labor provides and the moments of surprise and joy that, sometimes, possibly, excessive labor eliminates. I believe, then, in the unlimited possibilities of the first draft. I don’t believe that anything can possibly be a finished thing. And, as an aside, why the fuck would I want to finish anything? I am already tremendously scared of finishing this thing we call life. I believe that we are always a working-toward, a working-against, a working-with. Always a working, never at rest. Always aware of how little our knowing takes away from the sheer depth of our unknowing. Understanding this, I believe a first draft can be an accurate replication of whatever a poet might be working toward, simply because I believe that a first draft contains within it so many things that do not look like work but, in fact, are. A thought struggled with for weeks. A moment observed and then held. A long walk taken through the night. Why not privilege this kind of thinking about poetry alongside, not instead of, our thinking of craft, and work, and structure, and time? Why do some teachers prescribe a craft that only works toward some or one of these things? Why not privilege surprise too, a labor that does not look like writing, a generosity of self-belief? Is it because these things are not as teachable as form?
I don’t relate to any sort of prescriptive advice about poetry, mainly because I don’t think there is such a thing as a good poem, especially in relation to the world outside the reader. I think a poem can be good at things that we prescribe as certain aims of poetry, and can, more importantly, be of a sort of intrinsic good for the poet. But to privilege the value of re-writing a poem toward a more prescriptive and extrinsic goodness over the value of simply discovering and expressing that poem within and through the self in the first place is, I think, a dangerous thing. I’ve heard and read discussions of craft that prioritize the extrinsic value of publishing rather than the intrinsic value of writing a poem that helps one move through one’s life, or memory. This is the dangerous and beautiful nature of the poetry world. It is an art form that exudes its limitless and boundless opportunity. A poem can be as tightly-wound as a sonnet and as excessive and explosive as a free verse poem whose lines run off the page. And even a sonnet can move through many iterations and experiments. Read Petrarch next to Bernadette Mayer and see this. It’s a beautiful thing.
When I do teach poetry, I focus on aspects of permission and surprise. I want students to understand that those small, hard-to-grasp moments when you write yourself through a door you never could have opened before into an exact description of a feeling are small miracles. I want to help students create a space within themselves that is permissive and generous, that gives them the access to move through moments that might be harder to move through without poetry. How this looks is different for each student, and that, I think, is the beautiful hardship of teaching poetry. There are a lot of wrong ways and few right ways. But I can say this: Ask me how to write a “good poem” and I will ask you to look out a window at the setting sun and make up words for the vast spectrum of ever-changing colors you see. Ask me how to write a “good poem” and I will ask you to think of the first time you felt deeply scared that the sky would suck you from the ground and how that feeling grew in you, unprompted, a land-swell of fear. Ask me how to write a “good poem” and I will ask you to gather your vegetables and neck bones and chicken stock and come to the next class with a stew for all of us to eat.
Devin Kelly is an Interviews Editor for Full Stop and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the books Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (CCM). He works as a college adviser in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in Harlem.
POETRY AS PRACTICE How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction A Craft Essay by Scott Edward Anderson
In this lyrical essay on the writing life, Scott Edward Anderson shows how poetry can be more than a formal approach to writing, more than an activity of technique, but a way to approach the world, which is good for both the poet and the poem.—Grant Clauser, Editor
Walking in Wissahickon Park after dropping my twins at their school in Philadelphia, I find muddy trails from the night’s heavy rains and temporary streams running along my path. The fuchsia flowers of a redbud tree shine brilliantly against the green of early leafing shrubs. A few chipmunks scurry among leaves on the forest floor. Birdsong is all around me: I note some of the birds—if they are bright enough and close enough to the trail or I recognize their song—the red flash of a cardinal lights on a branch nearby; a robin lands on the trail ahead, scraping his yellow beak against a rock.
Observation like this helps feed my database of images, fragments of music, and overheard speech, which prepares my poetry-brain for the work of choosing words, putting them in a certain order, and forming phrases into lines, stanzas, and eventually entire poems.
Remembering a line I’m working on, I worry it like a dog with a bone, gnawing on the words, their syntax, imagery, sound or feel in my mouth and mind. Playing with the line, I’ll follow it until it leads somewhere or dumps me in a ditch, when I’ll file it away for another day. I’m paying attention to where the poem wants to go.
Paying attention in the age of distraction is hard. At any moment, there is a myriad of distractions tempting us away from our writing: the latest bombastic tweet by our deranged president; someone posting a delicious plate of food on Instagram; or the steady stream of Facebook posts showing all my poet-friends and acquaintances meeting-up at AWP.
Paying attention in the age of distraction is hard. At any moment, there is a myriad of distractions tempting us away from our writing.
In many ways, the writing life seemed easier in the age of the typewriter—nothing but a blank page staring back at me, waiting for my fingers to move. No smartphone at the ready buzzing with the latest text from my wife, my kids, that Amazon.com delivery. “Let’s just take a minute and see who it is,” I say to myself. “I’ll get back to the writing.”
Consequently, it’s worse when writing on a computer, especially if it’s connected to the Internet. Writing something about a bird I heard singing on my walk this morning, I wonder—are they found here? At this time of year? Is that the song I heard? Let’s just take a look at the Cornell Bird Observatory website and verify…wait, is it the Bird Observatory or Center for Ornithology? (Minimizes Word document and clicks open browser…ah, it’s the Cornell Lab of Ornithology…I feel better.)
Poetry, the late Mark Strand wrote, “allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, poetry permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.”
If we’re paying attention, however, we can put our busy lives in perspective, create a context for what we’re doing on this planet. Lived like this, life is not about going through the motions; rather, we actively participate in life, in all its facets. And for poets, this means approaching life with eyes open and taking notes.
“I have no clear goal in mind for the notes I take,” poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming writes in Writing the Sacred Into the Real. “Other than to help myself remember the intensities of the day, the mix of sensation and thought as it rises and falls with the swells.”
For me, note-taking happens sporadically. Ordinarily, I work on poems in my head for a long time before I put anything on paper. As I get older, however, I find taking notes helps—especially if I’m busy with daily life—work, family, getting the dry cleaning. The “Notes” app on my iPhone is one repository; notebooks and the occasional scrap of paper are another.
As with Deming’s, my note-taking may or may not lead to a poem or an essay or much of anything. Yet, as she imparts, “taking them forces a kind of attention that makes the experience richer, and attention is central to both artistic and spiritual practice.”
Practice. That word speaks to me: poetry as practice feels right. We are amateurs of a sort at translating the unsayable, doing so requires attention and practice. While we must pay attention to fleeting moments of inspiration, more often we’re slogging away at draft upon draft of a poem, trying to find where the poem really wants to go.
And for this we need daily practice. Ezra Pound suggested poets write 70 lines a day; novelist Graham Greene stuck to 350-500 words per day and would quit as soon as he hit that limit. Counting it out, I find it is close to the same amount, given a typical line-length in contemporary poetry. (Accordingly, this being the age of distraction, I don’t trust my memory of Greene’s word-limit, so, I double-check. There are conflicting numbers even from Greene himself, so I’ll stick with this range.)
Working the poetry-brain in this way makes it easier to pay attention, not only to our surroundings, but to our words and what the poem is trying to say. Moreover, this is a reciprocal act, regenerative: paying attention is what poet Mary Oliver calls “our endless and proper work.”
The practice of poetry, like yoga, meditation, exercise or any other practice prepares us for paying attention. Consequently, attentiveness leads to a richer poetry, grounded in place, specificity, and real-world observation that can make a poem come to life and help the reader see the world in a different way.
As with Alison Deming’s note-taking, whether we get anything “done” or accomplished in terms of a draft or a finished poem is beside the point. The act of practice alone makes it easier to get work done and makes us more receptive, more available to the poems we must write. In turn, practicing our writing, through note-taking or drafting, makes observation easier. Through this practice, we become more attuned to the world around us and the poems tend to come easier. (Well, at least the bad first drafts!)
For me, the practice of paying attention is part of the practice of poetry, as the practice of poetry is part of paying attention, a cyclical, symbiotic relationship. This type of attentiveness I’m writing about is akin to what Zen practitioners call deep listening.
As the Zen practice implies, deep listening requires complete receptivity—an openness and attentiveness to what’s possible and to asking questions. If we have a question to answer through poetry, we need to ask it. Nevertheless, it sometimes seems like our minds are on auto-pilot and we are not truly paying attention, causing us to miss both questions and answers.
This deep listening and acute attentiveness is a form of tuning to the right frequency.
This deep listening and acute attentiveness is a form of tuning to the right frequency. Like the dial on a car radio, if you turn a little too much to the right or left, you lose the signal. Through the act of paying attention, we fine-tune our ability to find the right frequency. Think of a new violinist searching for the right notes with bow to strings—it takes practice to make melodious music.
One winter a painted bunting shows up in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park near where I live. He’s lost his way and finds refuge for several weeks foraging among the native grasses and shrubs behind the ice rink.
I’ve seen painted buntings before, in their southern, native habitat, so I want to see this Brooklyn visitor who strayed far from where he belongs. Finding his general location is easy; I look for a large group of birders: scopes and field glasses and big-lensed cameras trained on the spot. Even with his bright, variegated plumage, however, it proves hard to make him out among the reds, greens, and yellows of the meadow floor. Watching me stare at one spot for five minutes, my dog grows impatient.
Then, a flash of movement to the left catches my eye and I notice a bit of cobalt blue where that color can’t be. There he is, the painted bunting, as resplendent as I’d imagined: worth the wait, worth looking hard for, worth the patience and effort.
A poem can be like that bunting: elusive, hard to pin down, but once you’ve got it, you can’t let go. Paying attention to the colors hiding deep within the grasses, we find the kernel of a line or a phrase that leads to another line, and another. Sometimes obscured, sometimes difficult to extract.
As a poem takes shape, it requires attentiveness too. Am I using the right words to say what the poem wants to say? Are my line breaks speeding up or slowing down the reader? What is the cadence, tone, and sound of the poem saying and is it appropriate to the subject matter? These are all questions I ask myself while revising my poems, being attentive to what is happening in the poem and how I can help make it clearer—to get out of its way and let the poem tell itself. This kind of attentiveness to the poem, tuning the dial up or down to hone-in on the frequencies allows the poem to cut through the noise.
Looking at the world more closely requires a twofold approach to paying attention: outward and inward. Outward: what’s going on around you and what you see, what you notice. Inward: what’s going on within you and your reactions to what you notice. Combined, this inward and outward focus develops our ability to see things others do not see and allows us to call attention to those things in our writing. Inward-focused attention also helps turn observation into a poem, aligning the frequencies and images into metaphor through a complex process of our own devising.
Not to overplay the spiritual aspects inherent in this level of paying attention, it is, in part, a form of showing up, of being present, that can’t quite escape a spiritual element. Distractions govern so much of our lives—from social media to work-life—we so rarely allow time for a deep attentiveness. If we make it a practice, however, we can begin to form insights and become more receptive to the poetry even in our everyday lives.
Perhaps paying attention helps us uncover the unsayable, the unseeable, what needs seeing and saying in our poetry. Of course, paying attention in this age of distraction requires retraining ourselves in many respects. From my own practice, however, I find the more time I put into being attentive—inwardly and outwardly—the more often it leads to better poems.
Writing poetry may be an unnatural act, as Elizabeth Bishop once said, but through daily practice and paying attention, it may become a bit more natural or at least it appears that way to the reader.
Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks In Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award. His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Pine Hills Review, Terrain, Yellow Chair Review, The Wayfarer, and the anthologies Dogs Singing (Salmon Poetry, 2011) and The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody, 2013), among other publications. You can read more about his work at his website and follow him on Twitter @greenskeptic
MY WALK ON THE BEACH WITH ANTON A Craft Essay on Connecting the Body to the Brain by Billy Dean
He put his book down and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “I never said that, Billy.”
“Said what, Anton?”
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, someone turned what you actually said into a show-don’t-tell rule. On behalf of all the writers who should know better, I apologize. If they’d read your stories, they’d notice how skillfully you balanced showing and telling.”
“Well, I’m not turning over in my grave about it. It’s human nature to follow rules absolutely and to take things out of context. But I wish I had said that. Applied skillfully, it’s good advice.”
“And less absolute,” I said, “than Ezra Pound’s ‘Go in fear of abstractions.’ or Wallace Stevens’ ‘No ideas but in things.’ Both imply that we should always show and never tell.”
Anton cocked his head.
“Oh, of course, you didn’t know Pound or Stevens. They started a movement in the early 1900’s that shunned abstractions in favor of concrete images.”
“Not necessarily a bad idea, Billy.”
“True, and their poetry was highly regarded, but can you imagine Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” without the word hope?”
“No, and it gave wings to original thinking because Emily shunned writing about an experience in favor of giving the experience to her readers.”
Anton saw the confusion on my face. “You like the word ‘hope’ in Emily’s poem. Do you know why?”
“Not really, it just seems to fit perfectly with everything else in her poem.”
“It fits because Emily grounded a meaning-oriented concept in a sensory-oriented experience. A bird is something. Hope is merely about something.”
“But everyone knows what hope means, Anton. How does Emily’s bird change that?”
“You won’t find the meaning of a word in its definition, Billy. You find it in the context of something real and specific. Until then, a definition is just words floating in your head. Emily’s poem doesn’t define hope. It shows us what hope means by connecting it to a bird.”
“Ah,” I replied, nodding my head, “a bird that keeps on singing and flying despite the ups and downs of life.”
“Exactly. And her poem works both ways. Without her bird, hope would just be a word. Without hope, her bird would just be a bird. But Emily weaved them together so elegantly, so intricately, that her poem takes us beyond a mere sum of a word and a bird.”
Anton paused, waiting to see if what he had said was sinking in. It was.
“And that moves the word ‘hope’ and the word ‘bird’ from our heads to our hearts.”
Anton pointed up at his head, then tapped his chest with his fingers. As he did, a deeper understanding of what writing is came over me, and what writers must do for their readers.
“Keep in mind,” he continued, “that every word of a story is just an abstract handle to carry the idea of something to your readers. We do not want our readers to know they are reading words. We want them to experience the meaning of our words. So choose words that will evoke thoughts and feeling in your readers by not restricting yourself to showing or telling, abstractions or imagery.”
“You see things so clearly, Anton.”
He stood and smiled. “Let’s go down to the beach where we can discuss this without disturbing the others here in the library.”
We took our books to the main desk. Mine was a collection of his short stories. His was “War and Peace” by Tolstoy. He must have read the surprise on my face because he grinned, and said, “I never found the time to finish it.”
At the beach, he removed his shoes, rolled his pants over his knees, and walked into the sand glistening with the coming and going of waves. I watched him pick up one seashell after another, then tossed each back into the churning surf. He reached down, picked up another shell, and waved me over.
“These shells,” he began, “abandoned here at the water’s edge, were once homes for mussels, periwinkles and mollusks. This one is a nautilus, one of nature’s most elegant, ingenious designs.”
“Yet odd,” I replied, “that the shell and the creature are so different. The spiral pattern is so naturally beautiful, but the creature, well, its tentacles come out of its head.”
Anton nodded, then got a faraway look in his eyes. “And odd that we treat the other animals here on Earth as aliens, as if they were creatures from another planet.”
He placed the nautilus in my hands. “How would you convey the fact that this was home to a creature very different than us? More importantly, how would you evoke the feeling of being the creature who lived in this shell?”
I looked down at the nautilus, knowing he had transferred the problem and its solution to me.
“Some mix of showing and telling, right?”
Anton didn’t say anything, so I assumed I was on a roll.
“Show readers things they can see. Tell readers about things they can’t see. Show important things with dialog and action. Tell less important things with descriptions and settings.”
“Let me give you some advice, Billy.”
“I’m all ears, Anton.”
“You will need more than your ears. Definitions tend to polarize issues into one category or another. So writers tend to think in terms of showing or telling, as if they were mutually exclusive kinds of writing, and that leads to the erroneous conclusion that telling is for ears and showing is for eyes.”
“We have six senses. Five for the body. One for the brain.”
“Six? Oh, you’ve added our spiritual or intuitive sense.”
“No, I am referring to the sensory nature of our bodies and the semantic nature of our brains. Do you recall earlier at the library when we talked about grounding concepts in concrete things?”
“Yes, you opened my understanding by explaining the difference between a meaning-oriented concept and a sensory-oriented experience.”
“Images versus abstractions. Body versus brain. Let’s do a little experiment to clarify the difference. What color do you think of when I say fire truck?”
“Red,” I answered.
“Now what color do you see?” Anton reached into the pocket of his shirt, and, like pulling a rabbit from a hat, held up a card with the word ‘BLUE” written on it.
“Blue, of course.”
Anton couldn’t hide the ‘Gotcha!’ look on his face. “What color do you see?” he asked, with an emphasis on the word color.
“Oh boy, I’m an idiot. The word is blue but the color is red.”
“You’re not an idiot. Your brain, like most people’s brain, including mine, is strongly influenced by what something means rather than what it looks like.”
I stood there thinking how my brain had dominated my body for years, perhaps since birth.
“That doesn’t mean our writing should reflect the body’s focus on senses rather than our brain’s focus on meaning. That would make our writing all showing and no telling. Better that our writing breath with all six senses so our readers are both involved and informed.”
I nodded my head but knew my brain was nodding too.
“First, however, you must be involved and informed. Do you recall me saying earlier that we tend to think of the non-human creatures here on Earth as if they were aliens, creatures from another planet?”
I nodded again, wondering where he was going with this.
“Let’s pretend a flying saucer–”
Anton stopped to watch my jaw drop and my eyes widen.
“People have been seeing strange objects in the sky for thousands of years, Billy. Even in Russia. So let’s get on with this one. It lands here on the beach, and an alien debarks from his craft and asks, ‘What is a nautilus, Earthman?’ How would you answer him?”
“That’s ingenious, Anton. Shiny nautilus. Silver saucer. Creatures from the sea. Aliens from the sky.”
“Thank you, but let’s get on with your answer.
“I should put it in the alien’s hands, right? As you did for me?”
“That would be a good place to start. Give your readers the thing itself with word pictures they can complete with their body and their brain.”
“Word pictures.” I said, “That sounds… I mean, looks like showing.”
“You want your readers to be involved and informed, not consciously aware that they are reading words. So don’t tromp through your story trying to identify whether you told your readers something or whether you showed them something. Focus on the effect you want your writing to have on their imagination and their intellect.”
He paused to lock eyes with me, as if to measure the effect he was having on me.
“And before your readers can complete what you began, you must have something to begin with, something grounded in all six of your senses. Start with this nautilus. Let it touch your body and your brain. Do you see it creeping up on prey? Can you smell the seven seas? Is it whispering something strange and wonderful? Can you hear its angst and ecstasy?”
Anton turned abruptly and walked into the waves lapping at the shore. Nearby, a reef bell began clanging, as if it were calling him into the sea. And then its clanging became my alarm clock calling me out of the dream.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes but knew I couldn’t rub this dream from my memory. Unlike most dreams, which disappear, as Anton did, it would remain a lucid lesson that readers will be involved and informed if our writing breathes with showing and telling–showing to stir the imagination with sensory images aimed at the body, and telling to engage the intellect with information aimed at the brain.
I pulled the blankets back to roll out of bed, but suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I saw a Martian standing on the beach holding a Nautilus in his hands. I was no longer asleep and wanted to get on with my day. But my dream had ended without answering Anton’s challenge to evoke the feeling of being the creature who lived in the shell. So I embraced the vision as an opportunity to build a word bridge between myself and this alien; this is the same chasm that separates writers and readers until they connect their hearts and minds in a meaningful way. I would indulge myself in another dream to answer the alien’s question…
“What is this, Earthman?” he asked, pointing to the shell in his hands.
“That’s a N-a-u-t-i-l-u-s,” I said, struggling to pronounce the sound of each letter.
“No. I mean what is it?”
I felt the distance between him and me shrink. He wanted more than a name or pronunciation. He wanted to experience the thing itself.
He only had three fingers, and one of them was much longer than the others, so I hesitated slightly before saying, “Well, you could touch it with your, uh, finger.”
He ran that long finger along the shell, tracing the spiral from end to end. He said nothing but his face, despite being from another planet, had a perplexed look.
“As the nautilus grows,” I explained, “it builds new chambers for itself, always in a spiral pattern.”
He held the shell up to his face and looked inside as if trying to see the chambers.
“Are you saying a creature lived in this shell?”
“Yes, the shell is empty now, but it was home to the creature who lived in it.”
He cocked his head as if in thought. “So the shell and the creature, when they were together, is called a N-a-u-t-i-l–u-s?” He pronounced every letter as I had done.
I felt the distance between us shrink even more.
I touched my hand to my ear and said, “Put it next to your ear and tell me what you hear.”
He did, then pointed that long finger of his at the ocean. “I hear that.”
“Yes,” I replied, “and they lived together out there.”
He turned abruptly, as Anton had, and walked through the waves lapping at the shore and into the deeper water swirling with foam and kelp. He had no shoes to remove or pants to roll up, so I didn’t bother with mine, and joined him in the water.
I placed my hands on the Nautilus. He looked up and locked eyes with me. “I’m not trying to take it away from you. I want us both to see and feel where it lived, and how it moved and captured prey.”
“This is good, Earthman. Together we will pretend that we are the creature who lived in this shell.”
We were truly on the same page now–perhaps the same paragraph.
“The creature propelled itself like this.” I leaned forward and blew my breath into the alien’s face as I moved the shell towards him. He rocked back, then recovered and blew his breath at me. We took turns blowing air out of our lungs while moving the shell forward in the water.
“The nautilus moves through the water using a kind of jet propulsion. He pulls water into his shell to move forward and blows it out through a tube below his tentacles to move backward.”
“The Nautilus is kind of ugly compared to its shell. It’s got dozens of long spidery legs sticking out of its head to grab things it wants to eat.”
I moved the shell toward the alien’s legs and made a growling noise.
“Ah, you are making funny with me, but I can see the creature grabbing its prey.”
Neither of us said anything. After a long but pleasant pause, the alien turned his face toward mine. Despite the differences in our faces, I could tell he was looking more through me than at me.
“I am sad the creature no longer lives in its shell. Perhaps that was what I heard when it was against my ear. Not the sound of your ocean and its waves, but the creature’s lament.”
We were no longer just on the same page, or the same paragraph. We were walking through the same words of every sentence in the book. Our connection had moved from our bodies and brains to our hearts.
“Yes,” I said, “and the creature left his lament in this shell when he departed to swim in other seas.”
“Here on Earth, there are seven of them, and I sometimes embrace them as worlds beyond this one. You, my Martian friend, are evidence there are.”
“On Mars, there are no seas, but I will not forget yours, the creature who lived in it, or you and your dream of other worlds.”
Billy Dean is a retired technical writer with degrees in English and Engineering. His essays, how-to guides, poems, and stories have been published in trade journals and magazines, and on the Internet. His goals are to craft prose and poetry loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.
IS MEMOIR AUTOMATICALLY THERAPEUTIC? A Craft Essay on Writing About Mental Health by Leslie Lindsay
I recently finished a memoir manuscript about my bipolar mother and her eventual suicide.
Light, easy writing, right? When I tell strangers about my manuscript, they cock their heads in sympathy as if to say, “You poor thing. ” Some even suggest I’ve misconstrued the events in my own life. Surely your mother wasn’t really mentally ill. You must have it all wrong. Others lean in as if they are about to hear a juicy story. But the majority recoil: Mothers. Daughters. Mental illness. Who would touch such a topic?
My father-in-law said, “It must have been therapeutic to write about your mother.” There was a lilt at the end of the sentence, which led me to believe this was a question. He’s eighty, and it’s not the first time he’s said it: “It must have been really therapeutic to write about your mother?” Every time he does this, I answer the same. “I took a clinical approach,” I assure him. Then he makes one of those “huh” looks, pushes his glasses up on his face, and buries his nose in the newspaper.
But I have also asked myself: was my memoir therapeutic? It all comes down to how you define “therapeutic.” For me, that’s relating to, involving, or used in the treatment of disease or disorders.
Many years ago, when I first began this project, I took drafts to my writing group. “More,” they demanded. “Go deeper.” They wanted the odor of the psychiatric ward, the texture of the cinderblock walls, the color lipstick my mother wore. They wanted the bizarre things she said when she was psychotic.
So I made notes and revised. At the time, I was twenty-five years old and my mother was still living. Soon, the memoir draft was abandoned.
These days, I’m a Child/Adolescent Psychiatric R.N. Hence, clinical. You’d think by now I’d have this all figured out. I’m older. My mother is gone and I don’t have to worry how she will react to what I write. But still, somehow, I worry that by writing I dishonor her memory.
So I use my clinical approach. I scour her medical records. I flip through every doctor’s note, administrative profile, nurse’s note, social worker’s entry. I examine flow charts and vital signs and lab results. I skim mental status exams and even retype admission and dismissal notes. My dad has graciously passed along his thirty-year-old spiral leatherette calendar, the contents of the days scratched-in with his familiar scrawl.
Lynne says she’ll go to the Day Hospital, just to “play the game.” Intentionally decided against taking the girls to church for a year following Lynne’s psychotic break in which she talked about being God.
Lynne thinks the lamp will give her energy. She laid underneath it for hours Made spaghetti for dinner for the first time. It was good.
Received credit card bill in the mail. Lynne has charged over a thousand dollars in lingerie and perfume.
I am struck by the severity of my mother’s illness. My heart aches. I trudge on, donning my psych-nurse hat, looking at black squiggles and digits with a critical—clinical—eye. When I read portions of my work-in-progress to my family, my dad, who is not a writer, says, “I wonder what the story would be like if it were told from your mom’s point-of-view. Or her mother’s?”
I find his observation quite astute.
For the next day or so, I practice retelling portions of The Story, through my (imagined) mother’s lens. The possible first line:
I keep hearing the voice of God, deep and sonorous, telling me that I must accept His mission.
There is no second line.
You’d think that, as a writer, I’d be able to shift POVs and fall into my mother’s skin as easily as I had been cleaved from her nearly forty years ago. But I can’t. I can only tell my story. And I realize now that there’s nothing wrong with that.
Is my memoir a tale of loss? Yes. Is it a story of serious mental illness? About the struggle between mothers and daughters? About grief? Yes, yes, yes.
But is it a tragedy? That’s subjective.
My first reaction to my father-in-law’s comment about the writing process being therapeutic was irritation, fueled by the realization that perhaps I had spent needless hours, weeks, and months in a state of mere ‘therapy.’ I’ve had scores of therapy sessions where my mother is concerned, from her very first psychotic break when I was ten, to the sessions following her death. I know what “therapeutic” is, and writing was not therapeutic. But it was necessary.
A man in my writing group says with a smirk, “Just who do you think is going to read this?”
Well, maybe not you, I want to retort.
Another man in that group says, “Keep going. This is solid.” He pokes at the paper with his finger, “This line, the one where you talk about the miniature stove not cooking even a morsel of hope, that’s powerful.”
I tell the smirking man that I understand what he means.There can be a sameness to tales of loss, perhaps even a whiny, self-indulgent, victim quality. The key is to make these tales of seem fresh.
And then it comes to me.
In the next draft, I tell my story from a little girl’s POV.
This little girl clamors onto my couch, knobby knees angled, hands intertwined and tells me her story. I take notes, good therapist that I am, churning them into a manuscript. I offer her feedback and suggestions.
I marvel at the little girl’s tenacity, her resilience, and her perceptive observations. I find—and appreciate, perhaps for the first time—her sense of humor and her introspection.
At times I want to fold the little girl into my arms and cry with her, whisper in her ear. I want to say, “You are more than your mother’s mental illness; please don’t let that define you.” But I can’t get emotionally entangled in this little girl’s life. That would be countertransference—and definitely not therapeutic.
In the end, I pat her on the back and tell her, “Thanks for sharing your story. It’s important.”
She nods and says, I know.
Leslie Lindsay is the author of Speaking of Apraxia (Woodbine House, 2012.) Her work has been published in PsychCentral, The Nervous Breakdown, and International Bipolar Foundation; and is forthcoming in The Manifest-Station and Common Ground Review. Leslie, who recently completed a memoir, Model Home, about her mother, reviews books and interviews authors at her website. She is a former child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. at Mayo Clinic. She lives with her family in Chicago.
A Craft Essay on Writing Diversity in Fiction by Sawyer Lovett
As a queer, relatively progressive woman writing things on the internet, I thought the conversation about diversity in publishing was pretty well established. That we were all looking hard at the world around us and trying hard to implement best practices. But we still have a long way to go. I’ve gotten spoiled by keeping good company and while there are tons of other people speaking more eloquently about the importance and need for diversity and inclusion, I hope this will be a good starting point for writers looking to write outside their experience.
Are you the best person to write what you’re writing? Does your lived experience complement the story you’re trying to write? Real talk: The conversation about diversity and inclusion is a relatively new one and books and publishing are stronger because of it. Organizations like VONA (workshops for writers of color), Lambda (amplifying queer voices), and WNDB (children’s book advocates for changes in the publishing industry) are doing an awesome job of helping create and inspire books that more accurately reflect the world we live in. Part of that conversation is about the difference between compulsory diversity and own voices (books written about marginalized people by marginalized people—in their own voices).
Compulsory diversity reads like a checklist: one character of color, one queer character, one character with a disability. Ta-da, instant diversity, just add water and stir. Predictably, this shallow formula reads pretty false. Black characters written by black authors are always going to be more real. Bookish people on twitter have been talking about this for a couple of years now and a phrase that I’ve seen pop-up a couple of times is “stay in your lane.” I love this analogy. We’re all readers and writers on the same highway. We all want to do good art that reflects the world around us. We should be aware of all the cars on the road. We shouldn’t merge just because that’s where all the traffic seems to be going: changes to our destination can be dangerous. Your writing and your perspectives are important.
If you believe sprinkling diverse characters into your work will help you break into traditional publishing, you are in danger of potentially reinforcing stereotypes or creating a negative image of a community to which you don’t belong. You should consider that the narrative of slavery belongs to black people, transitioning is specific to trans and gender non-conforming people, and coming out is primarily something that queer people have to do. You can read every book on the subject ever written, but you do not have that well of life experience to drink from and your writing will reflect that. That being said, there are white, cisgender, straight writers who do diversity well. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin gave depth and dimension, sorrow and joy to black and Latina sex workers. Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda was a gorgeous love letter to the queer kids she worked with. Those authors put in the work. They spent enough time in the communities they were writing about to get it right.
Writers have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to what they can write about. Not all mystery writers are murderers, lots of science-fiction authors are not aliens. (I would love to see those Venn diagrams, especially.) But murderers aren’t especially ignored in fiction and as far as I know, no aliens have yet spoken up about appropriation, so I think it’s fair to assume that as writers our primary concern should be in preventing harm to communities that are already marginalized.
Are you guilty of tokenism? Your work-in-progress probably has a cast of characters. Take a look at the demographics of that list and be honest with yourself. Did you change someone’s name from Dave to Davon to make it more diverse? Is Davon the only person of color in your cast? If so, there needs to be a good reason for that. Code-switching and tokenism are exhausting. No one does it by choice. Davon might go to prep school with a bunch of white kids, but that isn’t his whole story or peer group. His family, neighborhood, or church community that mirror his socioeconomic demographics are probably much more comfortable for him. If there is only one marginalized character (or worse, two marginalized characters from different communities—for example, a gay kid and a Latina kid), be aware that maybe you’re adding them in to break up an otherwise white landscape. Ask if there’s a reason to do that and most of all, what point someone reading these characters might think you’re trying to make. For example, if you’re trying to diversify an all-white cast of unruly teenagers and you make the nerdy kid Chinese, are you feeding into the trope of Asian nerds? If you make the murderer in your psychological thriller a cross-dresser, are you adding fuel to the mythos of Jame Gumb from Silence of the Lambs? Which brings us to our next point …
Avoid stereotypes and clichés. Be aware of how you’re using your diverse characters. Are they an active part of the story or are they accessories that prop up your main character? Are all of your black characters around just to teach the white kid how to dab? Does your First Nations character take your group on a spiritual journey? Is the gay best friend around to pick out clothes? You can avoid these (and many other really outdated and offensive ideas) by googling racial stereotypes. Tvtropes.com is a really good resource for that.
Watch how you describe your characters and please avoid using culinary terms. People are not food. Describing someone as chocolate-colored, caramel, honey, or cinnamon is just lazy racism. Don’t describe your characters as “ethnic” or “exotic.” (As in Memoirs of a Geisha or Madame Butterfly). This is super racist because it identifies people of color as an “other” to white people and moves the margins farther away.
Do your research. If you’re writing outside your experience, you owe it to the characters and the communities you’re trying to represent to be as authentic as possible. Internet research costs only time, and meeting and learning about new people will make your stories better and your worldview wider.
Don’t ask marginalized friends to read your work. There are so many reasons to avoid this, not the least is that we’re all busy people and your work is probably not high on your friends’ priority list. Asking your friends to do unpaid work is weird at best and manipulative at worst. Putting them in a position where they’re not sure how you will respond is awkward and could potentially damage the relationship.
A good alternative to this is to hire a sensitivity reader to weigh in on issues of bias, cultural sensitivity, and appropriation. If that isn’t a feasible, consider a writing group or workshop.
In the end, do what you will. There are exceptions to everything and ultimately your work is your own, and (for the most part) you control what goes out into the world. But, once it’s out there, it’s no longer solely your own. Readers, bloggers, editors, and agents are all going to have thoughts and feelings about your writing. Put the best of yourself out there, do work you’re proud of, and aim to write well and responsibly. A lot of really good discourse is happening on social media. Look to twitter especially—writers like Justina Ireland and Mikki Kendall and Ellen Oh are doing good, important work. And keep reading about diversity and inclusion! There are so many resources available and reasons to reflect the world around you.
Sawyer Lovett is a writer, MFA student, and bookseller living in Philadelphia. He is the author of Everybody Else’s Girl, a memoir, and Retrospect, an anthology. You can find more of his writing at sawyerlovett.com.
SPYING THROUGH THE KEYHOLE:
A Novelist Grows Roots in the Glamorous, Twisted World of V. C. Andrews by Emma Sloley
My sisters and I knew they were trash. That was part of the appeal. Virginia Andrews’ best-selling Dollanganger series (described by Wikipedia as “Gothic,” although I think that might be a tad generous) was so deliciously lurid in its themes and so over-the-top in its execution that it was like overdosing on the dessert buffet at the ersatz German smorgasbord restaurant my family used to go to in the 1980s. It made you feel bad afterwards, but damn, it was fun at the time.
For the uninitiated, if it’s even possible there exist humans unaware of Flowers in the Attic, the series concerns a family called Dollanganger (in hindsight, perhaps a sly play on doppelganger?) who, for reasons I can’t and don’t even care to remember, end up living with the mother’s parents in a big old Gothic mansion in Virginia, where the mother agrees to lock her four children away in an attic for an unspecified stretch of time. (Spoiler alert: it turns out to be years.) This is all a scheme of the extremely evil grandmother, who for vague, never satisfactorily explained reasons hates her grandchildren and wants to make sure her husband, their grandfather, never knows of their existence. Totally normal. Oh, and the grandmother is also into whipping people—including her own grown-ass daughter—as punishment for transgressions. The casual sadism that so shocked me as a teen feels now like a foreshadowing of the Fifty Shades phenomenon that would similarly shame-captivate readers three decades later.
The prose is not only purple—fragrances evoke “a musty, perfumed garden on a moonlit night somewhere in the Orient;” paper flowers are described as “limpid dark pools of iridescence,” and everyone’s hair is “flaxen”—but peppered with odd, almost archaic language. “Good-golly day!” and “golly-lolly!” characters exclaim. The children’s father (conveniently removed from the picture early on), addresses his wife thusly after a day at work: “Do you love me? —For I most certainly love you; did you miss me? —Are you glad I’m home? —Did you think about me when I was gone? Every night? Did you toss and turn and wish I were beside you, holding you close? For if you didn’t, Corrine, I might want to die.” In this world, even the good guys are creeps.
Andrews is so unapologetic in her glorious, adjectival, don’t-give-a-fuckness, and takes such glee in the baroque suffering of her characters, that her writing transcends trash and becomes a luminous thing of wonder. As luminous as the platinum, flaxen hair of the angelic, doomed Dollanganger children.
The covers, at least in the Australian editions, featured a sinister black flap with a keyhole cutout through which peeped the titular flowers (an extended metaphor for the four imprisoned children), whose pale, Aryan beauty is described by the author with a rapturous enthusiasm that in hindsight was kind of disturbing. The message was clear before you even cracked the spine: this was not a book for brunettes. This was a book for the ethereal blondes of the world, whose very beauty was a curse that could only ever lead to their downfall.
We were a reading family. On weekends, the big rambling Edwardian house in which we lived would fall silent as the women of the household—my mother, my three sisters and I—retreated to their favorite corners to turn pages and sip huge mugs of tea. (Dad was the only one who didn’t read. Then, as now, he would always be off somewhere, wiry and taciturn and completely untouched by the need to live vicariously through fiction, whistling while chopping things down or building them up, like a kind of gentle Australian Marlborough Man.)
V. C. Andrews
My parents were, especially for the era, permissive and open-minded, both teachers and staunch believers in free speech and childhoods unrestrained by parental sanctions. My dad, the famous non-reader, had even done a stint as a librarian. The idea of censorship was anathema to them. We were allowed to read anything we could get our hands on: Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Slaughterhouse Five. There was no fear that such stories—each subversive for its time—were a bad influence, because how could great literature ever be a bad influence? Yet I remember their unease about the Virginia Andrews books. When Flowers in the Attic fever was at its height, they must have come across the books at their own schools and perhaps been alarmed at the corrupting grip they had on burgeoning female minds. (Or, it only now occurs to me, perhaps they were more alarmed at the idea that their daughters, whom they had painstakingly reared to be erudite and intellectually curious, would suddenly develop such bad taste.) I don’t recall them outright banning the reading of the five-book series at home, but my sisters and I got the message nevertheless. These stories were dangerous, unwholesome. There was something about them that made adults deeply uncomfortable, and so, of course, that just increased their dirty allure.
Beyond the obviously titillating details—neglectful mothers, wicked grandmothers, emotionally abusive men and incest galore—lay the real appeal of these thick volumes. They offered a vision of the world that was racier and more glamorous than anything in my happy but boring sphere of existence. As a shy teenager living a hopelessly sheltered suburban life in Melbourne, I was ravenous to live vicariously through narratives that flouted society’s stuffy rules and boundaries. The more over-the-top the telling, the better. Just as little children want to believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, I wanted to believe in a world where mothers allowed their inconvenient children to be locked in attics, blue-rinsed grandparents were into kinky BDSM and brothers and sisters found solace in each other’s arms. (It helped that I didn’t have a real-life brother when it came to not being grossed out by this plot point.) I didn’t want to live in such a world, of course, but to peek in at it through the keyhole.
I was so smitten that I would finish the last book and go right back to the beginning of the tattered series and start again. (The titles are so glorious I feel compelled to list them here in full: Petals on the Wind, If There Be Thorns, Seeds of Yesterday, and Garden of Shadows.) We re-readers are used to being scorned and misunderstood. Our obsessions recall the bromide about how insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. But of course that’s not why I, or any of us, reread: I not only expected the same result, I demanded it. I longed to feel that delicious shiver again, that rush of adrenaline at being plunged into V.C. Andrews’ glamorous, twisted world. Even her characters understood the comfort of being transported to another world through the pages of a book. Cathy, the series’ heroine, and her brother Chris get through their ordeal in the attic by reading the dusty volumes they find hidden in trunks. No sexy trash for them, though. They devoured Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Charlotte Bronte.
Something about her decision to name-check those classics makes me suspect that Andrews had her own complicated relationship to literature. Perhaps she subscribed to the idea that part of a balanced reading diet is consuming both high-brow and low-brow books, especially if the latter have something to teach you about storytelling. And if you overlook the flowery prose and prurient subject matter of the series, it’s obvious she had a sophisticated understanding of plotting, suspense, and foreshadowing, all skills I’ve endeavored—and often failed—to master in my own life as a writer.
It’s easy to dismiss the series as irredeemable tripe, to understand why parents might consider it unsuitable reading for impressionable minds. But I stand steadfast in my affection for them. There was a kind of dark magic to those books. Every time in my life that I’ve mentioned them, I’ve noticed the eyes of female friends light up as they are transported back to their own relationship with those subversive, hallowed pages. It’s a kind of secret sisterhood, a cult of guilty pleasure. Maybe it reminds us of a more innocent time, when there was still the possibility of being corrupted.
Emma Sloley is a travel journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Catapult, The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Travel + Leisure and New York magazine, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and has just completed her debut novel, Disaster’s Children. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US, Mexico, and various airport lounges. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley
THROUGH GIRL-COLORED GLASSES
A Craft Essay on Gender and Writing
by Dina Honour
In the mid-1990s, my first story was published in a small college literary journal. Tucked away at the back, nestled among the bold, Helvetica names and previous publication credits was this, which I’d given to the editor:
Dina Honour is a senior majoring in Creative Writing. She’s been told she writes like a woman, which she assumes is akin to throwing like a girl.
Twenty years later I can see that line for what it was: a small act of reclamation. A bold, Helvetica middle finger against what I suspect was not meant as a compliment, but a comparison. The dangerous thing about comparisons, of course, is that in order to exist, there must be a standard against which to compare.
There was writing. And there was writing like a woman.
Was there a noticeable difference in the way I structured my writing? Did I have a particularly feminine way of tapping the keys of my ancient word processor? When my very loud printer zig-zagged along could it tell the prose churning out was written by a woman? The stacks of perforated pages, waiting to be carefully separated and submitted, did they have the indelible pinkish watermark of ‘girl’ stamped upon them?
Of course what writing like a woman really means is that my work is both written and viewed through a filter of femaleness. It means my work is likely to resonate more profoundly with the ovarian crowd over the semenarian. Still, the notion, the comparison, rankled. I pushed back, donkey-kicking against the idea that my sex handicapped my writing in any way, that writing like a woman was merely a derivative of writing.
Yet under my small rebellion, a trickle of uncertainty wore a groove over time: if I wanted to play in the publication sandbox with the big boys, if I wanted to be taken seriously, I was going to have to take off my girl-colored glasses and write from a more gender-neutral place. A place not seen through the pink and frilly lens of ‘girl’ but through a beige and precise filter of ‘person’.
I tried. Mightily. I wrote, but my work was blurred and hazy. It was heaps of text with water stains bleeding the edges of ink, making it difficult to read. It lacked clarity. It lacked sharpness. It lacked me.
When I took off those girl glasses, the world became fuzzy.
I lost sight of the fact that to write clearly, you need to see clearly first.
Write what you know. The longer I write, the more I understand what you know is only half of the equation. The other half? What you see. A life viewed through a particular filter which shapes how you look at and experience the world, in reality and on the page.
Each of us hop, skip, and jump through life with a stack of name tags pinned to our lapels. Some are clear and discernible, (Hello! My name is Woman!). Some less so. Sometimes the face we present to the world is masking a hidden identity, an alter ego. When you filter your writing through those identities, rather than around them, something magical happens: writing through the lens of Diana Prince allows you the clarity to be Wonder Woman on the page.
My observations of life are pushed through a sieve of femaleness. Sometimes those spectacles are rose-tinted. Other times they’re so fogged up I’ve got to wipe them on my blouse before I can see beyond my own nose. It took me a long time and a lot of wasted words to understand I need them. To see and to write.
It took me two decades to realize writing like a woman isn’t a handicap at all, but a gift.
Nowadays I use those glasses to my advantage. I use them to add layers, a richness which would be lacking if I only wrote about what I know—the mind, the brain, the intellectual.
I could (and do) write about sexism from an intellectual viewpoint, standing on a platform looking down upon a not-so-scenic realm of misogyny. I can (and do) write true and well about wage gaps and rape statistics. But when I put on my glasses I infuse that writing with my own experiences of life as a woman. Viewing the world through my girl-tinted glasses, rape statistics are threaded through a story of walking home at night, keys wedged between my knuckles. The wage gap becomes a snippet of conversation I had with a woman in tech who described leaving an industry she loved because she couldn’t scrub the toxicity off in the shower.
These things only come into clear focus when I notch those spectacles onto my nose, when I pay attention not just to the world at large, but the world seen through my experience of life as a woman. These days when I sit down to write, I make sure I have the right pair of spectacles on. My parenting glasses are well-worn, held together by tape. My wife bifocals are kept in a velvet box with a ribbon. My girl-tinted glasses? They’ve been replaced a few times in my life. I wear them so often I don’t even notice I have them on.
The lenses through which you see life, your own and that around you, shouldn’t be a handicap. On the contrary, they should help you focus. They should take you from myopia to twenty/twenty vision.
Find your glasses. Pull them out and dust them off. Use them to complement what you know, what’s in your mind, with how you see and experience the world. Put them on before you sit down to write. Then, write like a woman. Write like a man, or a parent; an addict, a teacher, a daughter, an artist.
Put your glasses on. It’s amazing how much more in focus the world—and words—become.
Dina Honour is an American writer living in Denmark. Of late she’s been idling at the intersection of feminism, relationships, and life abroad. Meet her there and she’ll tell you a tale. Her work has appeared in Bust, Hippocampus, Paste, and other places. Find her at DinaHonour.com, @DinaHonour, or on Facebook.
The superhero is a staple of pop culture, but poets can use elements of superhero identity to craft poems and explore their own mythology. Lynn Levin offers a writing prompt designed to allow poets to reach beyond the real in search of other truths.
WRITING THE SUPERHERO POEM A Craft Essay by Lynn Levin
Gods and demigods, the superheroes of myth and legend, have provided people with drama, wisdom, moral lessons, and hopes of divine intervention for thousands of years. Thunderbolt throwers like Zeus and Thor, fierce beauties such as Athena and Artemis, super-mortals like Hercules, not to mention countless deities and folk heroes from other world traditions may be seen as the forerunners of Superman, Batman, Zena Princess Warrior, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the comic book pantheon. Anthropologists tell us that the transcendent, that sense of unearthly force, is a universal feature of human perception (or the human imagination, depending on one’s point of view). Today’s supernatural pop-cultural good guys and bad guys tie into our attraction to the transcendent. We want larger-than-life fictional superheroes to rescue those in distress, combat the forces of darkness, and entertain us. While comic book writers, TV or movie producers, and video game developers are usually the ones to rally the superheroes, poets can write superhero poems which enlist and evoke the transcendent power of myth.
Superhero poems attract poets and readers for a host of reasons, among them dreams of triumph, rescue, the restoration of justice, and a psychological fascination with the doubled self. In her fascinating essay “Poems about Superheroes,” originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Stephanie Burt observes that poets and readers are attracted to superhero poems both out of both familiarity and mystery: we recognize the characters, and we know what a secret identity is. Superhero themes allow poets to become fantasy writers.
Superhero poems might speak of happy victory, but they are often grim. In his poem [my neck a toothsome feeding ground vespered swarms had drunk of me before this new batman] subtitled “a song for Robin,” (Tea, Wesleyan), D. A. Powell writes of an orphaned and seductive Robin who has affairs with numerous men as he seeks to attract his next Batman. The Boy Wonder is not fighting crime; he is looking out for his own future, hunting for his next savior but not in the name of love and partnership. His quest is ruthless, based on survival.
Another dark superhero poem comes from Lisa Prince, a poet and writer from Southern Ontario. In “Icarus’s Daughter,” Prince borrows from the classics but wings away from the traditional myth of the overreaching and doomed Icarus. Here the daughter of the tragic figure tries to be human in the face of legend; she struggles on after things fall apart.
She had not longed for flight, despite the wings she’d been given.
Between her toes, sand. Every call she heard was ocean. Every step she took was wave.
Her fingers, nimble, plucked those vibrant feathers one by one. Hope to a stranger. Faith to a bride. Peace…
…she knew none.
In the empty spaces of her wings, nothing grew. Pale skin turning paler, sicklier.
The song was clearer now that she knew. It was those wings binding her. Those wings…
…spread against the morning sun, leaving her translucent, standing atop a crested hill, overlooking
blue-green waters, pale and still.
all she needed to do
With her eyes closed she breathed the scent and sound of the ocean
spread her wings
The family tradition for self-destruction moves Icarus’s daughter to pick apart her wings and plunge into the sea. This suicidal fall is very much the opposite of what we usually think of when we think of soaring comic book heroes.
I experimented with a superhero prompt in a recent poetry writing class at Drexel University. The prompt proved effective far beyond my expectations. The superhero prompt appealed to the students’ familiarity with and delight in pop culture, and it encouraged them to write through a persona. Some students created mighty warriors. Others celebrated very down-to-earth champions, such as working mothers or superheroes in itchy costumes.
Here is the superhero poem prompt:
Write a poem about a superhero you are fond of or who excites your imagination. This might be a character who comes to your rescue or the rescue of others. The character might restore justice, overpower evil doers, or make the world a better place. On the other hand, the superhero might cause trouble. The character might accomplish amazing feats or more modest feats. You can write about a traditional figure from myth or contemporary pop culture, or you can invent your own superhero.
After I explained the prompt to my students, I shared a few poems from Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Becoming the Villainess (Steeltoe Books), a collection of superhero persona poems. In her book, Gailey includes poems that focus on characters from fairy tales and Greek mythology as well as some superhero figures of her own making. The samples from Gailey combined with the students’ own familiarity with mythology, comic book, and other media superheroes, as well as the students’ eagerness to speak through a mask helped them generate vivid poems.
The prompt proved liberating in many ways. Surprisingly, none of my students wrote about existing characters from myth, legend, or popular culture. These college poets all made up their own superheroes who spoke to their fears and desires. Often the poems starred regular people, such as the previously mentioned working mothers, whom the writers held in high esteem. The exercise led many students to write poems with more action, more story, and more character development than they would normally do.
In this poem by English major Amberlyn Wilk, the superhero is a glamorous and angry protectress of young women.
The Raging Bitch
She protects the streets with her winged eyeliner on point so women can go out at night without pretending to talk on the phone. No more evil lurks around the dark corners when she’s patrolling. Ladies no longer speed walk home with keys carefully placed between their fingers. There are no more tiny pink cans of mace squeezed Into the teeny little pockets of their skinny jeans. They don’t need to call an escort because she is there— The invisible escort is always with them. And you know she won’t break any of her French tips When she destroys any predator who may be prowling the streets. She is something that the law could never be, What the women of the world have been crying out for. She is a there to make sure that 1-in-5 stat disappears Because she can see that the wolf whistles in sheep’s clothing. No longer will a woman leaving the house after 9 pm Be playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette because she is there. She is there to make sure that no more women Sleep with a knife under their pillow. She knows that Christine wasn’t wearing the wrong clothes and Katherine isn’t just a loose slut and Amy’s silence did not equal consent and Brooke didn’t lead him on and Sophie didn’t enjoy herself at all. And she knows above all else that none of them were asking for it. The system has failed them But she never will.
In contrast to Wilks’s fierce avenger, computer science major Andrew Yaros created a mild-mannered comic superhero who uses the power of pun making to lighten the burdens of mankind.
Super here? Oh…
Every day, I tell myself This curse isn’t worth it, This burden is more than I can carry, Why has this responsibility been thrust upon me?
But we live in horrible sick society, A society without puns And someone needs to make them, And that someone is I.
I’m compelled to make puns No matter the time or season, And even when I write poetry I make puns without rhyme or reason.
And every day, I carry my burden. I create puns whenever I can, Even if no one will hear them: It must be done for the good of man.
I live in fear each day, Knowing the world will lapse Into chaos, famine, and nuclear war If I neglect my duty for but one minute.
It is the hell I live in, But it cannot last forever: One day I may need to have a son of my own To pass the torch to, as my father did to me.
A world without puns? A world without me.
The superhero poem prompt, obviously, can be broadly interpreted. My students’ superheroes sometimes swooped the skies, and sometimes they were fierce, but more often they were humble souls, very human, and friends to mankind. Traditionally good characters can take on questionable roles. Conversely, superhero poems can serve to redeem or re-envision mythic or comic book figures who have been saddled with a bad reputation. I have written a series of poems about Lilith, a figure with roots in ancient folk tradition, who, non-biblical legend has it, was the first wife of Adam. Lilith has suffered a very bad rap in legend, but my mission has been to humanize her and be kind to her. For example, in one of my poems, Lilith goes shopping with Eve at Macy’s.
We love superheroes because they are exciting and because they fulfil our wishes for power, vengeance, justice, rescue, and other goals that seem beyond our reach. In poetry, they also turn out to be powerful muses.
Prince, Lisa: “Icarus’s Daughter” appears by permission of the author. The poem was first published in Prince’s Sign Language (and other hand signals), a chapbook in the November 2006 issue of Lily: A Monthly Online Literary Review.
Wilk, Amberlyn: “The Raging Bitch” appears by permission of the author. Copyright c 2017 by Amberlyn Wilk.
Yaros, Andrew: “Super here? Oh…” appears by permission of the author. Copyright c 2017 by Andrew Yaros.
Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, translator, and teacher. Her work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, Per Contra, Painted Bride Quarterly, Boulevard, and other places. She teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her website is www.lynnlevinpoet.com. The second edition of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press) by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin is expected to be published in 2018. “Eve and Lilith Go to Macy’s” and Levin’s other Lilith poems may be found here.
FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF FOR WRITERS When Dealing with Negative Feedback by Floyd Cheung
Anyone who has written and submitted anything—poems, stories, essays, books—knows that immediate acceptance is extremely rare. When that happens, we celebrate and try not to let it spoil us. Much more often, we receive negative feedback in the form of outright rejection, advice, and/or an invitation to revise and resubmit (an option much more common in the academic world than in the poetry and fiction publishing scene).
When dealing with negative feedback, I’ve found Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model for handling the five stages of grief uncannily helpful. She developed this model to describe how terminally-ill patients tend first to deny their prognosis; become angry at their fate, their own bodies, and sometimes other people around them; bargain with a higher power or whoever they can for an alternative; fall into depression once bargaining fails; and in the best case scenario accept their changed circumstances. (Although critics have pointed out that this model blurs description and prescription, many people nevertheless find it useful. Some have even adapted it for dealing with other kinds of loss, such as when a spouse mourns a failed marriage.)
The flowchart above both describes my writing process and offers guidance at junctures in that process, especially after receiving negative feedback.
The cycle of writing, revising, and getting help (in the upper left corner of this chart) is familiar to most authors—aspiring and experienced. Writing requires us to put our butts in chairs and churn out words. Some of us do this with regular consistency, while others wait for the right moment. The prescription to write every day has its proponents and detractors. No matter how we produce our first drafts, we revise, often through several more drafts. The poet Mary Oliver admits to revising her poems as many as fifty times. Not everyone seeks the help of others, but I’ve found critical-but-friendly readers essential to my own process. Some find these readers among their family members and friends. Others join writing groups or MFA programs. And a few of us pay professionals like those at Humanities First or consultants who advertise in the back of Poets & Writers magazine.
When the work feels ready, I submit it to the most appropriate journal or publisher I can find. It’s always a good idea to be familiar with work usually published in your chosen venue. Anthony Ocampo gives meticulous advice about how to analyze a journal’s articles before submitting your own work to it.
Once in a while, we receive immediate acceptance and we celebrate, but more frequently we receive a note of rejection or an invitation to revise and resubmit. With rejections, we occasionally get a reason but more often receive a simple “no, thank you.” In the case of a revise-and-resubmit, we usually get advice on how to improve.
At this point, we find ourselves on the right side of the flowchart. Denial is typically my first reaction, and I might tell myself, “My work was so good. It was the result of significant effort. This negative feedback must be off-base.” Depending on the critic’s tone and comments, I may or may not experience anger. If so, I might complain, “This critic is wack. He or she must have a personal grudge against me or this kind of work.”
The first crucial juncture for me occurs here. I must ask myself, even if I’m feeling angry, “Is the critic right?” Sometimes the critic is simply wrong, or perhaps I’ve sent my work to an inappropriate venue. In that case, I read over my piece once more to make sure I haven’t changed my mind about anything and, if not, then send it off to the next journal or publisher and wait again. Frank Herbert reportedly submitted his novel Dune to twenty publishers before it was accepted by Chilton, which is better known for its auto repair manuals. His determination and Chilton’s decision paid off, since Dune went on to win the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novel and in 2003 was cited as the world’s best-selling science-fiction novel.
Often, however, negative feedback contains some truth. Experienced critics want to accept excellent work, and when a piece falls short and time allows—in the academic world especially—they advise authors on how to improve their work until it meets their high standards. Some of us crave this kind of careful feedback, and it’s de rigueur for scholarly monographs. Ezra Pound was famously critical of T. S. Eliot’s draft of The Wasteland. He suggested cuts and revisions that shortened Eliot’s long poem by half, ultimately bringing out the masterpiece in what Eliot admitted was a “chaotic” manuscript. In spite my knowledge that bracing feedback can be incredibly helpful, I might find myself bargaining, saying probably to myself, “How little revision can I get away with to resubmit what is essentially good work?”
If I’m feeling weak or the advice is too difficult or distasteful to follow, I’ll fall into a state of depression. I might say, “True revision is so hard. Why should I bother? Maybe I should give up?” At this point, I find myself at another crucial juncture and need to ask myself, “Is this project worthwhile?” Not all projects are worth the time and energy to revise. (Maybe I don’t care about this subject as much as I did three years ago when I started working on it? Is additional devotion to this project stopping me from doing more worthwhile work?) At her 2013 commencement address at Smith College, Arianna Huffington advised, “Sometimes the best way to finish a project is to drop it.” When I heard this, I felt like she had granted me permission. In fact, I did give up on a big project that was going nowhere, turned my attention to other projects, and have enjoyed some publishing success and less guilt over the past few years.
Of course, I don’t mean to say that resilience and grit aren’t important. They certainly are, according to this TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth. She argues, for instance, that practice and persistence often account for success more than talent. But it is also possible to be too gritty and persist in behaviors that are ultimately self-destructive as Gale Lucas has shown in her research. She encourages us “to know when to quit and reevaluate rather than blindly push through.” When giving up on a project, however, it is important to keep faith in yourself and get to work on something else. Some writers and artists make sure to have several projects going at once so that not all of our emotional eggs are in the same basket, hence distributing our hope.
When I’ve decided that a particular work is worth revising, I arrive at a sense of acceptance. I might engage in self-talk like this: “There’s actually some truth in this criticism. It comes from a source that wants to help me improve my work, even if his or her tone could have been kinder. Let me engage with this feedback seriously. The hard work of revision will be worth it.” At this point, I have kept faith not only in myself but also in the project, and I reenter the cycle of writing, revision, and getting help until I am ready submit again.
As good a metaphor as Kübler-Ross’s model might be, it is worth emphasizing this difference on the matter of acceptance: accepting a terminal diagnosis is not the same as accepting the need to revise.
In the case of writing, accepting negative feedback and deciding to recommit to improving a work means a new lease on a project’s creative life. If I’ve made it through these five stages all the way to acceptance, I know both that the project is worth revising and that I can do it.
Floyd Cheung is author of the chapbook Jazz at Manzanar (Finishing Line Press, 2014).His poems have appeared in Ambit, Rhino, and other journals. He teaches in the Department of English and American Studies Program at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. His academic publications include journal articles on and scholarly editions of early Asian American literature.
TURNING OUT THE LIGHTS On Cuba, Writing, and the Ecstasy of Planetary Topography by Tim Weed
The blackout was a revelation. It happened at around eight PM, in Trinidad, Cuba, on one of those moonless tropical nights that fall so suddenly you barely notice the dusk. This was several years ago—before the loosening of travel regulations that occurred under President Obama—and the number of American tourists remained small. In common with many others who’ve dedicated their lives to the dream of producing enduring literature, I’ve had to make my living by other means. I was a Spanish major in college, and through a series of happy accidents I ended up developing a parallel career as an educational travel guide with specific expertise in Cuba. Before the resumption of diplomatic relations, organized cultural travel programs provided a highly sought after legal method for Americans to travel to the country, and my knowledge base was much in demand. At the time of the occurrence described in this essay, I was traveling to the country with cultural tourism groups at least half a dozen times a year.
Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a remote city nestled into the base of the Sierra de Escambray mountain range, overlooking a notably depopulated part of the Caribbean. For much of the Spanish colonial period it was a wealthy sugar capital, but in the second half of the nineteenth century—with the end of slavery and the economic devastation that came with the wars for Cuban independence—the city entered a long period of desperate poverty and near-total isolation. This period only ended with the construction of the first highway linking it to Havana in the 1950s, and the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 ensured that Trinidad, along with the rest of the island, would remain closed off from the main currents of the late twentieth century world economy. As a result of all this, the city is a living time capsule. Horses clop along the cobbled pedestrian-only streets in the hilly upper reaches of town. Through the wood-grated windows of the high-ceilinged colonial houses one can still see the original nineteenth-century furniture. In a few of the interior courtyards horse-drawn buggies remain parked, as if waiting for their owners to come back and rig them up.
Cuba is not a brightly lit country to begin with. The electrical system is antiquated, and although blackouts are less common now than they were during the deep economic depression that followed the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1990s, they do still occur. Trinidad is far removed from any other source of ambient light, so even without a blackout, on a moonless night, the stars emerge in a brilliant textural canopy.
When the electricity cut out I was “off the clock,” eating dinner on my own in one of the dozen small restaurants near the Plaza Mayor. There was a moment of cave-like blackness accompanied by silence. Then the quiet conversations around me resumed, and a few candles flickered to life in the surrounding establishments. Before long the center of town was dotted with spheres of trembling amber light. A horseman trotted by, the iron-shod hoof-beats ringing clearly across the square as if to complete the illusion of having traveled backwards in time.
Finishing dinner, I wandered out to sit on the coral-stone steps of the cathedral. A pleasant breeze blew up from the sea. The steps still radiated the warmth of the tropical sun.
And the revelation?
Well, before I can describe it, I have to explain something about my state of mind. Making a living as an international travel guide may sound like a sweet gig, but like any other repetitive job, it can get old. You’re always “on,” for one thing, which is a daunting prospect for an introverted writer: Imagine hosting a nine-day cocktail party. Then there’s the boredom of following the same crowded itineraries, meeting with the same interesting locals, and participating in the same festive activities year in and year out. In my personal life I treasure the opportunity to be active, but most high-end cultural programs are surprisingly sedentary, featuring long air-conditioned bus rides, a great deal of passive spectating, and twice daily, multi-course group meals in five-star restaurants. So even though my “day job” was bringing me to some of the most interesting and picturesque places in the world, I was only half-experiencing them. I was preoccupied with logistics, small talk, and the draining, insincere gregariousness the host role demands. My off hours were spent walking in numb distraction, dining alone at a familiar bar, or hiding behind potted plants in a hotel lobby checking my email. I’d become jaded.
This gets us back to the blackout—and the revelation I had while sitting on the steps of the cathedral in Trinidad. After my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I was suddenly overcome by a sharp awareness of my relationship to the physical landscape. Not just the abstract knowledge of where I was geographically. Not the conjured image of a point on a map, nor even a self-conscious awareness that I was sitting in a socio-politically unusual location: a remote, historic World Heritage Site in a poor region on the south-central coast of the western hemisphere’s only communist country. This was different. Suddenly, I had a visceral sense of my exact location in the three-dimensional topography: sitting at the head of the cobbled plaza at the center of a centuries-old town, at the base of the towering karst mountain range that formed a jagged ink-black wall in the night sky at my back, on a sort of elevated shelf overlooking a tropical sea that glittered faintly in the distance beneath the overspreading stars.
The intensity of this shift in perspective took me by surprise. All at once I’d recovered a sense of connection that I hadn’t even realized was missing. It was a big, reassuring, exhilaratingly physical feeling of communion with the land and the sea and the universe of stars.
When the electricity came back on, the three-dimensional majesty of the nighttime topography evaporated, leaving me with a sense of emptiness and loss. We’re used to blaming our technological gadgetry for keeping us at arm’s length from what we call “real life,” but for me, the blackout was a reminder that the problem goes deeper than the latest generation of smartphones. Electricity itself—that clever sine qua non of advanced industrialized society—is a force that imprisons us, because it prevents us from seeing out into the darkness. The live current we’ve tamed and channeled may provide a reassuring background buzz, but it keeps us from experiencing the sublime truth of the material universe and our precise location within it.
Absent fortuitous blackouts, depending on the kind of person you are, receiving this kind of visceral reminder of the true nature of existence may require either drugs or a deep-seated commitment to silent meditation. Wilderness camping might do it for you, as it often has for me, especially for multiple nights in a row. Even for a brief time, immersing yourself in one of out planet’s sublime landscapes is also a good bet. I’ve had moments of heightened awareness blossom back into my consciousness on hikes in the red rock deserts of the American southwest, on skis in snow-blanketed Rocky Mountain conifer meadows, and sitting at the rail of a small ship cruising through the Beagle Channel as the jaw-dropping peaks and hanging glaciers paraded magisterially by. If you haven’t been fortunate enough to experience one of these jolts recently, it’s possible that you may have become jaded. As with any rigorous pursuit, unused muscles can atrophy. Sometimes you have to exert your willpower to rekindle the connection.
And this is where writing comes in. I once heard the poet David Baker say that literature can be divided into two categories: the ironic and the ecstatic. Ecstasy is transcendent, mystical, implying a state of trance, vision, or dream. Irony, on the other end of the continuum, is social, worldly, rooted in the intellect. In blackout terms, irony is electricity, and ecstasy the unmediated tropical night.
Irony is essential in literature as an antidote to sentimentality, but in my view the most immersive writing is to be found on the ecstatic end of the continuum. When we write, we want the reader to forget all about those black marks on the page and tumble headlong into the narrative as one would fall into a trance. Good descriptive writing is what triggers this loss of conscious control, this benign fugue state; it’s what puts the vivid in John Gardner’s “vivid, continuous dream,” and it’s my belief that in order to produce good descriptive writing a writer must, at least intermittently, have access to something analogous to my blackout revelation. She must be able to turn off the electrical currents of irony and intellect and connect to the surrounding world in a way that is intuitive, instinctive, and ecstatic.
These days, if I happen to be talking to a group of aspiring writers, I may be tempted to give them some version of the following advice. Close your laptop. Turn off your smartphone. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a blackout, don’t forget to look up and notice your surroundings. And if there’s no blackout, just turn out the lights.
Tim Weed is the winner of a Writers Digest Popular Fiction Award, and his first novel, Will Poole’s Island, was named one of Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of the Year. Tim teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and in the MFA Writing program at Western Connecticut State University, and is the co-founder of the Cuba Writers’ Program. His new collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing, was a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards (Short Story category).
DON’T BE A DRONE
Manipulating the Reader Through Pitch and Pace
A Poetry Craft Essay
by Grant Clauser
Pacing in poetry can be used as a focusing technique. Both fast and slow pace equally have the ability to draw in a reader’s focus in slightly different, but complementary, ways. A sudden shift into high gear can raise our excitement or anxiety, while hitting the slow motion button compels us to look with greater scrutiny and concentration. Either way, pace is a kind of volume adjustment–by turning the volume of the poem up or down you force a shift of attention upon the reader.
Try this experiment–recite the alphabet out loud. First, start out slowly. Then speed up. As your recitation gets faster, your voice will involuntarily rise in volume. If you do the opposite, start fast and end slow, your volume will decrease. I’ve actually tried this experiment with my kids using a sound pressure meter, and their voices changed by a few decibels. Both shifts cause the listener to adjust their attention. The first causes the listener to sit up straight, triggered by the excitement of the louder voice. The second causes the listener to lean forward, paying extra attention to the details.
In many poems, pace control is achieved through syntax and diction. Essentially, any change in syntax or diction is a cue to the reader that pace and/or volume is also changing. A shift from long sentences to short ones, or description to metaphor, all signal that the poem is getting louder or quieter, faster or slower.
One of most obvious ways to impact pace and volume is the command. It’s the direct address to the reader that wakes us up and asks for our attention. Richard Hugo uses this frequently, as you can see at the end of “Farmer, Dying” where he piles on a series of commands in one stanza:
And we die silent, our last days loaded with the scream of Burnt Fork creek, the last cry of that raging farmer. We have aged ourselves to stone trying to summon mercy for ungrateful daughters. Let’s live him in ourselves, stand deranged on the meadow rim and curse the Baltic back, moon, bear and blast. And let him shout from his grave for us.
When we get to “Let’s live him / in ourselves, stand deranged on the meadow rim…” we can hear the pitch rising. If you’re reading it out loud, you’re standing up at this point as if in the throes of an anthem. The words “scream” and “cry” a few lines up act as signals for what’s coming. A command in a poem provokes an almost instinctual response in a reader. It’s the most active voice possible, and the hardest to ignore. When you hear a command you either oblige or resist, but either way, you engage with the words.
The next hardest to ignore is the question. What’s the most natural response to hearing a question? Answering it, of course, which you just did in your mind. Poets, like trial lawyers, sometimes use questions deceitfully. They know the answer, or at least their answer, but they want to trap you into answering it for yourself. That way you’re captured by the internal logic of the poem. Turning to Hugo again, this time in “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” he uses the entire third stanza to hound the reader with a series of questions that are more-or-less rhetorical:
Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat so accurate, the church bell simply seems a pure announcement: ring and no one comes? Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium and scorn sufficient to support a town, not just Philipsburg, but towns of towering blondes, good jazz and booze the world will never let you have until the town you came from dies inside?
Being a master manipulator, Hugo follows up that question stanza with a command “Say no to yourself.” However, the questions in the prior stanza are the primary volume controllers. Each question feels louder than the rest. Each one asks the reader to question their core values. It’s like a parent berating a child, wearing him or her down with questions that are really accusations. Readers can’t help but respond .
Even when a poem doesn’t answer its questions, and many do not, it still hooks the reader in the search. Readers are like cats following the light from a laser pointer–they can’t help themselves. Jennifer Givhan’s poem “Polar Bear” works on this principle with a rhetorical question that compels the reader to the poem’s conclusion phrased as another question. After the initial question we come to a long sentence constructed of pancake-stacked clauses that speed the poem along:
… We are on my bed crying for what we’ve done to the polar bears, the male we’ve bonded with on-screen whose search for seals on the melting ice has led him to an island of walruses and he is desperate, it is late- summer and he is starving and soon the freeze will drive all life back into hiding, so he goes for it, the dangerous hunt, the canine-sharp tusks and armored hides for shields, the fused weapon they create en masse, the whole island a system for the elephant-large walruses who, in fear, huddle together, who, in fear, fight back.
And then the rush stops on line 22 with a period, and a hard emotional stop that coincides with a change in setting (from the description of the polar bear attack to the speaker’s son), which is also where the author brings up the ends of the metaphor and ties it in a knot for the reader.
Kim Addonizio’s poem “What Do Women Want?” starts out with strong declarative statements, “I want a red dress. / I want it flimsy and cheap,” which you probably hear in a moderate pace and volume – not whispering or shouting, not dragging or rushing. The hard and medium-hard end-stop lines keep you from moving too quickly. A few lines later the poem picks up speed thanks to the the shift from short statements to a longer sentence that goes on for seven enjambed lines. The effect is like a creek, burbling along, and then it tumbles through a waterfall, speeding up along the way for those seven lines. But what always happens at the bottom of a waterfall? There’s a pool where the water, or energy, gathers, stops for a moment, then moves again. Directly after that seven line waterfall, Addonizio slows us down with shorter lines, shorter sentences, and more end stop lines that make it hard to rush through.
Maggie Smith’s poem, “Good Bones,” which has become something of an anthem for the times, uses these techniques and others as it pushes and pulls the reader along. It controls the reader so expertly that you feel you’re a car on a roller coaster, and your only choice is to follow the rails. The opening short, end-stopped, declaration, “Life is short, though I keep this from my children,” acts like a thesis statement for the poem. It’s followed by a much longer sentence, broken up into enjambed lines that use repetition, all of which speeds the poem along and raises the emotional pitch. Directly in the middle, Smith alters the pace with two emotionally-laden statements achieved both by startling images and an ecclesiastical-sounding sentence structure:
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird. For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, sunk in a lake.
That’s an interesting moment in the poem, because it’s a gut punch. Midway through the experience we are forced to reconsider our place (as reader and as people in the world) and reorient ourselves. Getting back to the roller coaster comparison– this is the moment when the car is paused at the top of the ride, and you’re looking nervously at the park down below. The very next sentence is the dive to the bottom, propelled by three enjambed lines. Then the poem continues to repeat phrases from the first half, lifting and turning its imagery, jolting the reader back and forth until the poem rolls smoothly back to ground.
So why all this attention on pace and volume? Because poetry shouldn’t be monotone. It shouldn’t be the white noise you fall asleep to or the drone of the late night TV news anchor. Why do TV commercials blast their volume? Because the change gets your attention of course, and getting attention is the first step in getting you to engage with the content. As in advertising or marketing, poetry can be (and I’d argue that it should be) manipulative, and a poet who knows how to control a reader’s attention and emotions is a poet I enjoy reading. A poem that hooks you by the nose and pulls you down the road is one you’re going to remember.
Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of two poetry books, Necessary Myths (Broadkill River Press 2013) and The Trouble with Rivers (Foothills Publishing 2012), plus the forthcoming collections, The Magician’s Handbook (PS Books) and Reckless Constellations (Cider Press Review Books). In 2010 he was named the Montgomery County Poet Laureate by Robert Bly. In 2014 he was a guest poet at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. He also writes about electronics, teaches poetry at random places and chases trout with a stick. His blog is www.uniambic.com. Email queries to [email protected].
TIME HEALS, EVEN YOUR DRAFTS Three Key Realizations for Revising Your Novel A Craft Essay by Wendy Fox
At the end of 2016, my debut novel, The Pull of It, launched. It’s a book about coming to terms with one version of adult life that includes marriage, children, and work. One reviewer called it “palliative care for the neurotic American attachment to routines of housekeeping, childrearing, and career building.”
This novel was a project I had started working on a decade and a half earlier. For years, the draft was something I fiddled with, reworking the same 60 pages, but when I finally got serious about it, the manuscript spun into something truly book-sized.
And then, it was rejected over and over again. I did a rewrite, and the rewrite commenced to be rejected even more, sometimes very aggressively; with other projects, I had become used to hearing nothing, or receiving form responses. With The Pull of It, I got quite a bit of commentary on the personality of the main character, Laura, and her actions. One agent sent me nearly an entire page about what was wrong with Laura as a human; another agent called her “entirely unsympathetic.” It was becoming clear most people struggled to care about Laura. So, I put the project down. In the meantime, I started a new, very different novel, and when I thought I was finished, I started yet another one.
Cultivating the ability to turn a critical eye to your own work, and listening to trusted readers are both undeniably valuable, and for most of us, it’s something that we learn how to do, through workshops and patience and practice.
Yet, with my first manuscript, even thought I had gotten reader feedback long before it made the agent rounds, and I thought I was trying to look at it objectively, I couldn’t pinpoint what the heart of the problem was. It had to be more than just an unlikeable female protagonist, which as The Atlantic has noted, really raises the hackles for critics and readers alike: there was something inherently flawed in the pages themselves.
Still, I kept working at the writing life. I pulled together a book of short stories, which won a national prize and got into print, and I continued to have stories and essays picked up. This felt good, to see my work in print and start to build an identity as an author, but my old manuscript always tugged at me.
When I finally picked it up again, there were sections I didn’t even recognize as having written.
It was the passage of time which showed me that I had a bigger problem with how my novel was built, and it was time that helped take me through a final revision that ultimately led to the manuscript getting placed.
Being away from, and then returning to, a dormant work helped me come to these three realizations:
#1: Everyone Grows Older, Except Your Characters
Even as we writers move through chronological time, our characters stay fixed and static in the place where we wrote them. Certainly our characters can traverse their own experiences with aging, but they will still always stay nailed to the page.
For example, when I started writing Laura, I was younger than she was, and there was more in her character that was motivated by my own fears about getting older than there needed to be. In my last revisions of the book, I had passed her age, and I started to understand why she was read as cruel.
In the end, she remained a difficult character, but in the final version there’s much more explanation of her actions, and a great deal more context and backstory. There’s less asking readers to take her actions on faith.
There’s a parallel, here, I think, with the way friendships change over months or years—how someone who might have been important to you (or someone to whom you may have been important) fades or intensifies as life moves on. Just like our characters, who cannot move outside of the time or age we create for them, our friendships may also not move out of the parameters of college, or childhood, or a job we’ve left behind.
One must ask: are these relationships fundamentally important, or were they only important during a certain moment? And, it’s okay if the latter is true, as long as you’re frank. When it comes to characters, even when your pen has not been with your people for a while, can you still care about these folks? Can readers care? It’s fine to understand that that not everyone is going to love your characters, but they have to at least resonate with some readers, and at the bare minimum, with you.
Distance can help a writer see her characters for who they really are, for better or for worse. Claire, for instance, might have meant everything to me the summer I was twenty-seven, but who is she to me now?
In my case, even though some of the earliest passages were truly cringe-worthy as I revised, I still did find something to love about my character, and I tried to focus on bringing this to the surface for readers.
#2: Is the Plot Thickening or Thinning?
If someone says they’ve never written anything that’s based on something that really happened with a thin veil of fiction, they’re probably fictionalizing again.
That doesn’t mean that plot based in your own experience can’t hold up; it means that it’s worth examining why this is compelling to you, and how it can be compelling to readers. You write a breakup story after you realize you’ve left your favorite coffee cup behind and there’s no way you are going back for it. You write a health scare when you are convinced you have a brain tumor, even if it turns out to be just a sinus infection. For me, the practice of writing has a way of absorbing everything around me—I write my friends’ layoffs, I write my family’s dramas.
Even tightly constructed plots can still suffer from this absorption factor, and therefore plot may benefit from the distance of time the most. Outside of the urgency of every day, it’s easier to identify plot elements that are superfluous and those that are required: it’s easier to cut.
Scenes that may have felt downright essential in moments of drafting can become backstory that are only important to the author and don’t need to be in the final draft. Time can clarify the writer’s emotional processing against what is realized for characters.
Maybe you very deeply cared about the experience of being trapped in an airport during the blizzard of ’07, and you wrote it into your draft. Ten years later, when no one remembers, is this inexorably important to your plotline, or is it noise?
Parts of my novel are set in a Turkey, where I was living when I began it, but there were massive sections I had to remove because the heart of the book is not about Turkey, specifically. The distance Laura creates from her family is important, and the details about her location contribute to her experience, but did readers need to know about my experiences going to the dentist? No, they definitely did not.
#3: We Built this City on … Wait, What?
Especially with larger projects, writers may feel married to structures, like the alternating voices or the short and long chapters they used to shape drafts, This scaffolding can be useful in getting through the initial challenge of tackling many pages, but once some time passes, the writer may discover that the structure of a work has more fluidity than she first imagined.
Over time, structural revision is more compelling to complete, because sometimes that’s where the meat of the work is. It’s easier to re-arrange bits of dialogue than it is to rip a project to the seams and then re-stitch it. It can also be more genuine, when the writer has come to an understanding about structural problems herself, rather than responding to an external mandate from readers. With time, I had the chance to read my work and reconsider how it was put together. This was a very different experience than being absorbed in composing.
With time, it’s easier to understand what is a device to buoy you through page counts and what is meaningful to the manuscript as a whole. Maybe you don’t really need that epilogue. Or maybe you do need it, but it’s a prologue. Ask: is the chapter structure inflexible, or with the perspective of time, can it move some?
Most of the structural work I did with The Pull of It was collapsing chapters that were much too short into longer, more cohesive sections, and front-loading the manuscript with Laura’s history instead of trickling it out. I was surprised how much of a difference this made. Readers still found, and will continue to find, Laura an awkward and sometimes exasperating character, but they’re also not as annoyed or outright angered by her as in earlier versions.
Finally, while it can be frustrating to see projects spin into weeks and months and years, do consider returning to manuscripts and drafts and putting new pressure on the pages. Some works—I have many—are never going to progress, and no amount of distance will solve this. Still, time can do a great deal in terms of perspective, and if it was worth writing in the first place, it’s surely worth at least a second look.
Wendy J. Fox is the author of the novel The Pull of It (Underground Voices, 2016) and The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (Press 53, 2014). www.wendyjfox.com
CREATIVE LIES I TELL MY NONFICTION STUDENTS by Liz Stephens
I teach memoir, which we writers file under the umbrella—with other juicy and lively forms—of “creative nonfiction”. What is creative nonfiction? We don’t know. Mostly, like obscenity, we know it when we see it. BUT HOW CREATIVE CAN IT BE? is something, I hear, in an all-caps game-show voice. I hear it when I wander near the edge of the cavern of the limits of creative nonfiction, limits that sneak up like un-programmed, undesigned space at the edge of a labyrinthine video game.
I am called to answer every day.
Pat answers are the comfort of some other disciplines. We who write and teach creative nonfiction don’t get that luxury. Ours is more like: philosophy, but with consequences. No one’s life is riding, as far as they know, on math, yet in writing classrooms and around workshop tables students may approach us like hotline workers, hands out for the right word, the final word, the bottom line, the prophecy, the truth of their life stories, and thus, their lives.
What do I say to earnest truth-seekers, at that moment when their head blows off and they see that truth is subjective, and memory is not a vault but a maze? That before it sets you free, memory makes you run a gamut of trapdoors? When they ask if they can write whatever they want about their family? When they ask if it’s okay to paraphrase dialogue. When they wonder what to do about incomplete memory. When they question perception. When they ask me if they can write what they believe to be true, without checking or getting permission from others. Whether they should wait until the people who they are about to tell tales on just die.
I don’t know, my dears, I don’t know.
I have tried it all. I have written about family and regretted it deeply, in spite of Anne Lamott’s sassy no-doubt-true contention that “if they wanted to be written about warmly, they should have behaved better.” And in spite of no end to my own hard-earned literary critical ways of explaining that as the narrator, I had to write in present tense about realizations I’d grown past in real life. Family didn’t get it, not when I did it, and really, they didn’t have to; they don’t want to write creative nonfiction themselves so why give a shit about anything I’ve put on the page, anything but the bald words stripped of caveats.
I’ve paraphrased dialogue, and wondered forever not about the ethics but what I’ve lost in the translation, proving right my friend and writing mentor Mary Blew, who has written that once you write anything down, you have traded the real event for your new print version. Your delicate sense of the tone of a loved one’s voice has become, once written down, concrete, unfleeting, stable not only in meaning but in shade and quiver. As I try to write down once-issued sweetnesses—words my daughter said about when I am old, the phrase my mother used about her childhood, the way my father describes the ice truck—even these chiming phrases race away from me, and I suspect these will be the very words that fall before me last, as I go at the end of it all.
Perception I cannot even begin to account for, my dears. Science fiction comes alive for me here. My world lies upon yours, and both lie on history. The word palimpsest must be invoked.
And by all means, of course you may write subjectively what you believe to be true. Others also may write what they believe to be true, and though I have not yet had a truth-telling duel in writing, I am waiting for the other shoe to drop on that too. There are murmurs among the troops—the local people of a small valley I wrote about, the family members who begin to hover at the edges of my work, the strippers, the waiters, the colleagues, the students, the tattooists, the canyon dwellers—who are more often populating my work as I dig further along the tunnel of my tunnel vision, and they may someday appear with their grudge wound up like a hardball. I myself may have taught them how to throw down in the written word, and so I am waiting. I am not comfortable being talked back to in person, and so I don’t expect to like it any better in print.
Luckily I try to say the meanest things only about myself, but see above, re: perception. Who knows what may insult anyone? Hair color, facial expression, year of event, what do I know? What do any of us know really? Relatively speaking. The whole enterprise falls apart if you look too hard, doesn’t it?
Or does it?
This brings me to memory.
With all of my maudlin and fragile and temporary heart, I wish for you, writing students, that you can believe in memory. I, like faith, like God itself, don’t know what I believe in anymore. Raised to count on the infallibility of my past, and the easy recovery of its embrace, memory was always there unexamined.
But oh the day I examined it.
I don’t have abuse in my past. My skeletons are merely dead pets, the ebbing loss of my girlish self-confidence at the mercy of grade school kids, and my own myopic treatment of others. Unfulfilled potential, lost direction, a dozen years on a couch in Los Angeles thinking the glorious future would come to me. The future came, of course, but simpering along, unlovely and unpredictable, more of a wincing golum than a winged angel.
Other than that general knowledge, my memories typically flee my direct looks. I have to sit very still for the wild animal to come close.
And yet some facts, disguised as memory, are immutably true. Or at least among us creative writers (we are not, after all, statisticians), some memories are true enough, and conveyed in the way we want them to be: with the kernel intact, the heart represented with the head as translator. To those of us self-selected to want it, memories represented with a voice that yowls or whispers or sings itself feel truer than fact. Fact is a cold thing on the surface of it. But fact has always seemed to me to want to be held, to be listened to with your ear against its mouth, to be allowed to say, “What I really mean is this.”
Our memories are behind a screen of science. We can only feel them. We do not replay them like music tracks or films. We do not take out the file that contains them, cannot bring up the program that reads them back to us. Our brain hides things. It occludes, disguises, erases, highlights unchosen bits of matter tacked onto our circuitry. Will I need to have remembered the French word for umbrella? Why is it there and how the hell do I get rid of this parapluie? Give me instead the words that have slipped away. When my daughter shocked me, at seven years old, by whispering in the auditorium of a performance hall, as an elderly woman sat down across the aisle from us, something close to: “I will help you then, when you are that age,” or was it “I’ll be there to bring you places,” or was it….in truth, I only hear Nabokov’s murmuring school tutors at the picnic table under the elms, conflated by the brush of his imperfect memory into the murmuring of bees.
Then she listened to the music while I gripped the seat handles, tears sprung, thinking too desperately, hold it, hold onto it, as the echo slipped away, and I knew I would never feel that particular sweetness again.
But the immutably true? It is the universal Memory. The sense of an ambiguous past with physical weight that can alter our health it is so heavy, the ghost-like touch of emotions rushing against us looking if anything like film played backwards with the projector, maybe, with a bulb out, and feeling like a chill. The sense that these half-called-back essential building blocks of our personality form an ambivalent Greek chorus of our fears and triumphs. (Don’t we all have this? Both the mocking knowledge that we’ll never know how we were formed emotionally, not really, and also that we cannot live without that integral try to call it back and know it?) That universal Memory is our very scaffolding.
That’s my answer, dear student-writers, which, ultimately, is all of us here. It’s a circular answer, one of those big answers like I give on a day when I lecture for an hour on the annealing power of crafting sentences about your life when someone has asked about memoir and afterwards you ask, how long should the paper be, and I sigh and say look at the syllabus.
But maybe if you see me come to you, hands-out, hotline-style, to ask, what are your memories, you will at least know the answer is important, and not stop trying to seek it, even when it hurts or perhaps worse, bores you, important enough to shape your life, and through that, ours, our collective memory, our sense of self, our time.
Liz Stephens is currently at work on a photographic essay book and a book about urban wild animals. Recent work can be found in the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction and Dirt: A Love Story, with work upcoming in Under the Gum Tree. She has served as managing editor of the journal Brevity, and teaches nonfiction with UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and through private workshops and retreats.
It’s no wonder then that my adopted child-self loved stories like Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina, about a “graceful little maiden” born from a piece of barleycorn to a woman unable to have children; or Sophie in Roald Dahl’s The BFG, taken from the village orphanage and befriended by a dream-hunting giant; or The Lonely Doll, whose author posed her doll Edith for photos with her best friend Mr. Bear. It’s been said that The Lonely Doll series was, “to a large degree, an autobiographical exercise in wish-fulfillment.”
Most fairy tales involve trauma or abandonment: a young girl lost in the woods or trapped by animals or trolls, a mother having her child taken away. But creativity can turn terror into delight, which is the reason fairy tales work on many levels; they’re creepy and fascinating.
As a child, I often played with 1960s-era plastic dollhouse furniture at my grandmother’s house. There was no dollhouse, but I remember sitting cross-legged for hours arranging furniture into imagined rooms of an imagined house—my child-self trying to convey something I couldn’t yet put into words. I recognize now that I was creating tiny homes for myself because I felt displaced, felt an “otherness” in the home I was adopted into, apart from a family I otherwise loved, but that wasn’t my biological one.
This duality was something I didn’t understand at seven, but I do now, at 50. Is it any wonder that I returned to playing with dolls when I began to write seriously about my adoption?
Along the way, I bought a 1960s-era Louis Marx “Marxie” Mansion and began a project called The Dollhouse. At first, the play seemed simple and fun, but it soon became clear that I was creating worlds I could control: re-enacting my abandonment and that of my birthmother.
Recently, I viewed an exhibit of dollhouses through the decades called, “Small Stories: At Home in the Dollhouse,”at The National Building Museum, and stayed to hear Dr. Ruth Westheimer, an avid dollhouse collector, talk with NPR’s Susan Stamberg. Westheimer was ten when she fled Nazi Germany to take refuge in a Swiss school with fifty other children. It later became an orphanage. She never saw her parents again. Her father died at Auschwitz, her mother went missing, and 1.5 million children perished in The Holocaust.
Dr. Ruth was twenty-eight when she came to the U.S., and when she could afford to, she commissioned her first dollhouse, built to represent her life before the war because she “wanted to preserve and reflect on the happy years of my childhood.”
“These are worlds we build for ourselves,” said Dr. Ruth. “With dollhouses I have control. I put the parents and the children there and they are going to stay there, they are safe, and they are together.”
Children play to control the world. Tiny themselves, they create even smaller worlds populated by figures, friends to have tea with, monsters to defeat, new microcosms to explore. My dollhouse allows me to create a world where women rule, at least on the 1:12 scale.
My dollhouse opened a portal to my child-self and allowed me to access adult feelings I’d largely been numb to—that being separated from my birthmother had legitimately traumatized me, and that the deep physical shame I felt about my body was the byproduct of the shame she had carried being nineteen, pregnant, and unwed in the ‘60s. This explains why my dolls, manufactured in the ‘60s, are hyper-sexualized and constrain their female citizens to Madonnas or Whores – a narrative I try to turn on its head. My dollhouse play made me aware that I was the embodiment of that shame, but I’m now accepting that her shame wasn’t even mine to carry.
These are my truths that I uncovered through play. By staging scenes that were tiny utopias, whose protagonists were all female, I was also watching a metaphorical narrative unfold. The more I played with the dollhouse, and photographed the scenes I staged, the more I realized it was telling my story, so I began to listen harder to what it might be saying, and how I could translate that on the page.
When I learned at twenty-nine that my birthmother, pregnant with me, had been sent away to a home for unwed mothers—The Guild of the Infant Saviour, in Manhattan—I realized we had more in common than just the circumstance of my birth: we both had disappeared inside a fantasy world. Mine was tiny, imaginary, and voluntary; hers was real.
At an artist’s residency last summer, I became immersed in the writing of Carl Jung thanks to deep conversations with artists like Samira Abbassy, whose art also deals with duality, myth, mother figures, and shame. We were fellows at The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, whose founder had been a devotee of Jung. My studio was full of Jung’s books and I devoured them, particularly his work on the archetype of the abandoned child, and the “symbolism of symbols.”
For example, dolls and dollhouses may represent family and home, “a child’s self at regressed stages of development, and child-parent interactions and relationships.” The use of cameras “may depict a still frame of the play image to freeze the visual image as proof, validation, and confirmation of the memory.” According to Jung, this is how our unconscious reveals itself. This is what creative play can do. It can lubricate the mind and allow for the space needed to reveal and work through concerns, ideas, and trauma.
Playing in my Dollhouse has been important to my writing. The scenes, photos and videos I make match the imagery of the color Polaroid photographs of the 60s. I have a deep affinity for the babies, in particular. Staging a scene mimics the feeling of writing the first draft of an essay, achieving a mythic freedom on the page where my voice is alive and unconcerned with self-editing. I remember playing this way as a child, immersed in my fantasy world, and utterly happy. Children are metaphor makers and their language is play.
An unintended consequence is that play has allowed me to see in metaphor and to “play out” problematic issues in a safe space, before and during various writing stages. It’s freeing to transfer fear, anxiety, and sadness on to objects. Play creates a veil of anonymity that is a bit like writing under a pseudonym.
I write essays, which are exercises in interrogating my self. Most times I have no idea where an essay will take me, but diligently listen to what it’s telling me. In a similar vein I have no idea where The Dollhouse project is going. I simply play along. Ultimately, I aim to create some sort of hybrid narrative that connects the images with my in-progress essay collection, The Guild of the Infant Saviour.
Doll posed over a photo of The Guild of the Infant Saviour, c. 1940s.
When I feel stuck on the page, instead of castigating myself, I cut out paper dolls, or stage scenes in my dollhouse. By photographing the scenes I can return to them later and ask myself what I was thinking and feeling at the time. What inspired me to do that thing? It has become a visual diary of sorts.
If you find yourself stuck, or need to get away from the page for a bit, or need a foil, a way to unpack feelings, or motivations for why you write, or help with character development, I encourage you to explore some form of play: Sketch, play with dolls, mold some clay, color something. Creative play can fuel your writing by freeing you from the fear of the blank page. It can open new ways to explore a subject. Play has helped me unlock ways of expressing the paradox of my identity as an adoptee, while exploring memory, trauma, erasure, and the myths and family lore that so heavily factor into my adoptive origin story.
Megan Culhane Galbraith has earned fellowships from The Saltonstall Foundation and The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is Director of the GIV/Young Writers Institute at Bennington College and a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars.
ACROSS THE DIVIDE AND BACK
How Writing Poetry Is Changing My Nonfiction
by Vivian Wagner
I started out long ago as a poet, as many young writers do, in high school. I liked the brevity, simplicity, and mystery of poetry. But in the intervening years I’ve become a nonfiction writer, focusing on creative nonfiction, memoir, journalism, and academic writing. That has been my professional and personal identity, and I thought that’s the way it would stay.
That is, until I volunteered for the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, committing to write a poem a day for thirty days. I signed on to the project spontaneously, never thinking it would change my identity and my writing practice. But the experience ended up radically altering my perspective. The challenge brought me back to poetry, and it’s transformed both my nonfiction prose and my writerly identity.
The first obvious thing is that when writing nonfiction, I have much more room and space to fill. That sometimes leads to carelessness in word choice, because I’m often trying to meet a particular word count, measuring my output that way. Writing poetry has reminded me that every word matters and has value. There’s no time or language to waste. As a nonfiction writer, I’m constantly looking at the little number counter on the bottom of the page in Microsoft Word.
What I’ve found—or remembered?—with writing poetry, however, is that it’s not about the number of words, but their quality. Much of my poetry starts in handwritten form, and when I commit it to the screen, I’m more than likely cutting, rather than adding. I never look at the word count when I’m writing poetry. It just doesn’t matter. The fewer words, the better.
This is not likely to change the fact that I have to pay attention to word count while writing nonfiction, but—especially in the revising process—I’m now thinking more about the life in those words. I’m lingering with them. I’ve always loved freewriting and taking tangents, and this technique is still a good way for me to get my original material on the page or screen, both for nonfiction and for poetry. But writing poetry is teaching me to understand the joy in revising, cutting, and condensing. Expanding inward, rather than outward.
Writing poetry has also reminded me once again to pay attention to the rhythm of language. Rhythm is central in poetry, but I often overlook it when writing nonfiction. When we read anything, there’s a hidden music to it. We hear the words, as well as the relationship between the words, the stressed and unstressed syllables, the complex intertwining of word and phrase and sentence. Listening to rhythm is understood and expected in poetry, but I’m now more conscious that it’s just as important in nonfiction. I’ve been thinking much more about rhythm and flow. I’ve started reading my nonfiction aloud, as I do with my poetry. Since I’m a musician, I’ve always at least unconsciously understood the relationship between writing and melodic line and rhythm. Writing poetry, however, has reminded me of that relationship, made me sit up and take notice. And in recent months, my nonfiction, such as my short essay “Cut,” has become more rhythmic and musical.
It’s as if my nonfiction is now being written by a poet.
Imagery, too, has become more important to me. Imagery is there in my nonfiction, but it’s often secondary to story, scene, and character. In poetry, concrete, vivid imagery is central, and when meaning is there, it often expresses itself through imagery. Even my lyric essays focus on narrative, but I’m learning that those stories can take shape through images as well as through dialogue and scene and character. So just as my Tupelo 30/30 Project poem, “On Doing Yoga in the Basement of the United Methodist Church on High Street,” since published by Grandma Moses Press, weaves together imagery and narrative, my lyric essay, “Displaced Person,” tells its story through a series of images. In other words, imagery is no longer a secondary consideration for me in nonfiction. Images can express layered meanings, pushing a story in many ways at once.
I’m also finding that many poetry practice books lend themselves just as well to writing nonfiction as they do to poetry. Two of my favorites are Scott Wiggerman’s and David Meischen’s Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry and Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. The excellent prompts in these books—including creating word lists and timelines, gathering word hordes, collecting synonyms, and crafting collages—work just as well for nonfiction as they do for poetry. Many nonfiction prompts focus on storytelling, but these poetry prompts have been pushing my nonfiction in new and unexpected directions. This year, I’m also working my way through the wonderful book, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice, by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano, and moderating a Facebook group for others doing the same. Most of the pieces I’m writing for this project are poems, but some might be classified more as lyric essays or prose poems. Honestly, I’m not too worried about genre anymore. I’m just writing.
It might be tempting to think of ourselves as belonging within the boundaries of only one genre, but I think it’s more helpful to embrace the possibilities afforded by crossing borders between genres. Creativity, after all, thrives in hybridity. Art lives in the spaces in between.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Narratively, The Atlantic, Zone 3, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other places. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry chapbook, The Village (forthcoming from Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books). Visit her website to learn more.
SOMEONE IS WRITING THE REAL WEST VIRGINIA by Mary Ann Bragg
An artist in Provincetown, Massachusetts named Jay Critchley has a knack for provocation. He once parked a perfectly legal sand-encrusted car in a big parking lot downtown, a statement in part about the town paving over a harbor-front beach because of the need for more parking for tourists. Another time, he offered the abandoned, underground septic tank in his backyard as a summer rental and theater space at a time when the town was in trouble with the state about its housing density and the disposal of human waste.
I live in Provincetown but I’m from West Virginia. I’ve been thinking of the simultaneous provocation and balm that literature, like art, can have on moments of social and economic crisis. In Provincetown, year-round residents are disappearing as more and more houses are bought as second homes, thoroughly and exquisitely renovated, and then occupied in the summer only. In my hometown, Madison, West Virginia, streets have emptied out as an economy built on coal mining weakens, in part due to worries that burning fossil fuels overheats the planet. I want to paste a poem on the front of the beat-up house down the street from me in Provincetown where, in the last few months, shade trees have been cut and an architect’s sign has been planted out front. Here’s the possible poem:
Many Of Us Newcomers
Beat-up blue van, that unshaved guy, stomach out, sold drugs, someone said. So respectful, almost silly, I once ran into him at the airport in D.C., “my spouse” fuzzy-haired, rotund. Missing too the owner, gray as sleet,
house sold, orders pizza now from high tops, blurts out: “I didn’t know they were going to cut down the trees.” Swimming pool rumored, he says; permit yellows in front window, grimaces at Bay Colony rental. Biggest antique
on the street, misshapen, white, added on and on and on, ivy rife, dirt driveway in lumps, electric power wired for empty, architect sign the only dignity. That man, gray as sleet, knocked on my door once: “I built this house.”
So who next? Dead mouse on the path to the beach, chicks flee pocket park, gate beyond: respect private property.
In the empty Ben Franklin store in Madison I want to read a poem, and invite other writers to read. My poem here might be something like this:
Everything That Falls Apart
I want that cotton pantsuit, paisley, upstairs gifts wrapped, girls’ department at Cox’s, far end of Main Street. But no. Homemade, very nicely homemade. Braces tightened I tear through Piece Goods, Saturday in the city sister strollered, Butterick seams cut and ripped, hot cashews hoarded in mittens, the Trailways bus leaves from Andy’s.
I could unfold metal chairs for the reading, and bring a cooler full of drinks, make it low-budget, and maybe people would come, people whose hearts are breaking, people who might like to hear what someone else is thinking.
I’ve been studying the poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” by Isaac Rosenberg. The poem, published in 1922, is about a World War I soldier on the Western Front; morning breaks, and then a rat runs across his hand. Rosenberg was one of the English soldiers in the war whose poems contain real and gritty details, rare for the time, about the overwhelming loss of life and the harsh and unromantic conditions of warfare. The poem isn’t Rosenberg unloading his emotional pain on the page. It’s not a distraught diary entry. The poem’s tone is restrained and almost ironical, mysterious and delicate in its conversation with the rat, until near the end when you come to understand how afraid, how mortally afraid, the soldier is.
I want to write a poem like that.
Earlier this year, while I was waiting for my mother at a doctor’s appointment in Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital, I walked a few blocks downtown, jaywalking when I wanted to, except there were no cars. This was on a Friday in the middle of the day, but it was like a Sunday morning. I kept walking toward a bookstore that I know on Capitol Street. I stepped inside. The place was busy and vital with literary magazines, coffee, comfortable seats, and shelves and shelves of books. I always go to this bookstore. I always buy more than I can afford. The bookstore is a beacon, a balm, and a statement. Someone has taken a stand with books and coffee right in the middle of an economic and social crisis with coal.
I live in Provincetown because it’s more welcoming of gay people than most places and I’m gay, and because the town is surrounded by the ocean and I love the beach. But I live in West Virginia too. I write short stories about West Virginia. I wrote this essay. In Matthew Neill Null’s essay, “No One is Writing the Real West Virginia,” Null argues that readers and publishing companies crave, “from a place like West Virginia, its most lurid and preconceived fantasies, as well as simple characters hopelessly shackled to their id.” He points to American writer Laura Albert who has continued to gain notoriety for her fiction published under the pseudonym J.T. LeRoy. Her novel Sarah (2000), written in first-person, is about an androgynous 12-year-old boy in West Virginia who adopts the persona of his mother Sarah, a truck stop “lot lizard.” For Null, what the wider readership wants from a place like Appalachia is a teen-age boy dressed in women’s clothes turning tricks at a truck stop. Readers, Null says, want “snake-handling Pentecostals” not United Methodists—a genre that Null calls “meth-lab trailer porn,” and he says that’s what’s being published.
Part of Null’s unspoken argument seems to be that Albert doesn’t have any apparent ties to West Virginia, and instead just overlaid her fantasies about mountain life on the harmless victim, the state of West Virginia, and that she shouldn’t do that. Albert was outed in 2005 and 2006 as the writer behind the J.T. LeRoy books and part of a literary hoax involving her boyfriend’s half-sister making public appearances as J.T. LeRoy. I read Sarah when it was first published because, like Null, I was curious and glad to find out more about a West Virginia-born author who was getting noticed at the highest levels in book reviews. My impression of Sarah then was a sense of the characters in a whirl of motion with no recognizable details of the state where I grew up.
I started to read the book again recently, and pretty soon came across a small detail about one of the state’s poorer counties that resonated with me as true. I can’t tell whether Albert has ties to West Virginia. She works in nonprofit development in San Francisco, according to her website. But writing about Sarah now has made me also think of the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005), which has more details of West Virginia children fending for themselves. I’m reminded of what Null says about the appetite among readers for rural clichés blown out to fit their fantasies. I read The Glass Castle when it came out and had a hard time swallowing the truth of those details. Still, the memoir has done well in sales, notably as a New York Times bestseller for more than six years, according to publisher Simon and Schuster. While Albert doesn’t say much on her website about her background, Walls does in her publisher’s bio. She grew up in the Southwest and in a mining town in West Virginia. She graduated from Barnard College, worked as a journalist in New York and now lives in rural Virginia.
I see West Virginia more and more in literature. It might be Null’s novel Honey From The Lion (2015), about the brutality of a rebellion against the state’s logging industry at the turn of the century, from which he read at a bookstore in Provincetown. It might be Jacob Knabb, writing an essay in Vice about the end of the coal economy in Boone County, where he and I grew up. It might be Emma Copley Eisenberg’s short story in Cutbank about a young woman’s move from a hilltop in West Virginia to Philadelphia. It might be Dean Marshall Tuck’s short story in Fugue about a lot of things: the history of Chief Cornstalk, the collapse of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio River, a father’s love for his daughter and an apparition called “Mothman.” There aren’t any boundaries, though, when it comes to a writer claiming a place as home. We don’t get to say who can write the real version, and what details are allowed. Writing the real West Virginia might mean you don’t use the words “West Virginia” at all. Maybe it just means you as a writer were born there, or your parents or grandparents are from there, or you drove through the state once and some details stuck with you, or whatever. Albert can write what she wants, and so can Walls and anybody else.
There are no boundaries either when it comes to reading about the place we call home. I have found the real West Virginia in The Country Girls by Irish novelist Edna O’Brien and in Sister Carrie by Indiana-born Theodore Dreiser. Both novels are about young women leaving their rural hometowns behind permanently for a life in the city, which is my story of departure in 1984 from West Virginia to Boston when I was twenty-six. I read Sister Carrie first, in the late 1990s, and even then it took me a while to realize that the story of Caroline Meeber (“Sister Carrie”) heading by train in 1889 to Chicago was a tale of rural flight and more importantly that rural flight was even a phenomenon that could be written about. The Country Girls, which I read two years ago, meant even more to me with its underlying themes of a young woman’s emerging independence and sexuality in the 1960s. The scene where Caithleen first arrives in Dublin with her friend Baba reminded me, with a jolt, of the wonder and uncertainty of first arriving in a city that could be your future. Both novels have scenes where the young women stay in cramped quarters with relatives or with families that provide supervised housing. It was the same for me, staying with my girlfriend’s aunt and uncle just outside of Boston, taking over her uncle’s bedroom with all our stuff and then asking to stay longer than we expected, until we found an apartment. We too went out looking for jobs shortly after getting to Boston, as Sister Carrie and Caithleen did.
In a different way, I also found the real West Virginia in the poem “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, a Missourian who was writing from England around 1920. I was reading the poem during the time I was in Charleston to take my mother to the doctor’s office. The details of a hopeless lower-class life in London, the typist lighting her stove and laying out food in tins, the ruminations of the old man Tiresias, and the overall tone of most of the poem captures, for me, the bleakness of the emptied-out storefronts in my hometown. But at the same time the poem doesn’t end in ruin, in part because of the use of Sanskrit at the end, which to me means something like: Rely on your history for strength.
I’ve found the real West Virginia in tangential ways too. In an earth science class it suddenly occurred to me as we studied tectonic plates that the tall rock shaped like an hourglass on top of a mountain in Lincoln County, West Virginia, that my uncle had shown me and my cousins one day, could possibly date back to a time when the Northern Hemisphere was covered with tropical swamps, when the vegetation would eventually be buried and over millions of years turn into beds of coal. In the Charleston Gazette-Mail, too, I’ve read about the boulders at the foot of Ice Mountain in Hampshire County, the talus, where cold and dense air sinks into the crevices in winter, where ice forms, guaranteeing over generations that by the Fourth of July families in the area would have plenty of ice to make ice cream.
I find myself thinking longer term, reaching back in geological time to when rocks formed and reaching forward to a time when, for example, global warming could drastically change the cycles of ice-making at Ice Mountain, and all of that leaks into my writing about West Virginia. So too does the life of Anne Newport Royall, one of the country’s first newspaperwomen who lived with her husband, a Revolutionary War soldier, in the unincorporated town of Sweet Springs in southeastern West Virginia. There’s a roadside plaque there for Royall, who in 1827, after her husband died, published her one novel, The Tennessean; a Novel, founded on Facts, before turning to travel writing and eventually journalism. In that early novel, a colonial fairy tale filled with stock characters and fantastic coincidences, you can see what her values are—to take care of those who have no voice—and how those values extended into her later career in newspapers. I take that to heart: Royall’s consistency in values across a lifetime of writing. A much greater influence has been feminist and poet Adrienne Rich, in particular her book What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993). I can remember first reading the book and feeling something quaking inside me. Rich’s message was simple enough. You can write a poem. Writing a poem can save your life. Writing a poem can be a “keenest joy.” Your own life is valid material, and as poets “we must use what we have to invent what we desire.”
At the time, I only half-understood what that meant. But as I flip through Rich’s book now, I find an airline ticket from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Houston, Texas, where I wrote what I think was my first poem, “And So It Goes,” about eating Thanksgiving dinner in Galveston, Texas, with complete strangers because my sister had been called away from the table to an emergency at work. Tucked in Rich’s book is also a newspaper clipping, one I had cut out about a woman in Madison, West Virginia stealing a refrigerator from her landlord when she left in the middle of the night without paying back rent of $200. I have an early poem entitled “Madison Woman Runs Off With Refrigerator.” I have an early poem entitled “Ennui,” about sitting at an office desk in tight pantyhose, and another entitled “Mr. French Thinks I’m The Secretary.”
All of those early poems were written in New England, but they have West Virginia in them, and they suggest themes that have emerged in my writing more fully over time: economic hardship, being stuck in unproductive work, alienation between men and women, alienation between cultures, desperate acts and a failure to act. Now, twenty years later, I’m asking more of myself and I’m asking more of other writers like Null and Knabb. They both see doom in West Virginia’s future. Knabb’s essay “A Portrait of Coal Town on the Brink of Death” ends with statements about how “powerless” he is to do anything except burn down a coal company’s billboard. Null’s assessment of West Virginia is: “We’re at the end of our road. By century’s end, half of West Virginia will be a moonscape of blasted rock, drilled and mined and stripped to nothing, all to produce cheap energy for the very people who have looked down on the place as backward; the rest will be a green playground for the wealthy, on the level of Jackson Hole.”
I don’t agree.
It’s our duty and responsibility as writers to address our concerns more and more fully, “to invent what we desire,” as Rich says. I can write a poem about the cracked Art Deco facade of a vacant beauty salon in Madison but I could also organize a one-day literary festival in the old Ben Franklin store across the street. A literary festival would be a surprise and provocation, an in-your-face response to the gloom of a Main Street hardened and hunkered-down with the strain of a bad economy. A literary festival would be a balm, a commitment to something as ephemeral as a poem and a statement of confidence in the potential of Main Street.
Of my neighborhood in Provincetown, I could write an essay about the depressing proliferation of “Private Beach” signs, and the new “No Dogs” sign down the street in a newcomer’s yard that actually shows a dog with a turd coming out of its butt. But as a writer, I can do more. I must do more. I could write a series of stories of Provincetown natives who have sold their houses for unbelievable amounts of money and moved away. I am thinking of excerpts I read of Voices From Chernobyl by Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich, which retold interviews she’d conducted as personal stories. I could write other stories from the perspective of those out-of-towners who might buy a house in Provincetown, and pay a crazy amount for the privilege, but then find that no one is very friendly on their street, and maybe they didn’t mean to disturb the neighborhood in the way that they did. What if a series of Alexievich-inspired stories start a town-wide conversation about alienation in Provincetown, and how we live in a guarded way, protecting our driveways from U-turns and telling drivers with out-of-town license plates to slow down yet we welcome the benefit of summer rental income and rising property values.
The problem with writing something down, something like this essay, is that then you have to act on it.
I’ve been thinking too of a writing workshop for fourth-graders. I hated fourth grade. It was a turning point. I got an “F” in conduct. Someone “got their period” and I didn’t know what that meant. But I wish I’d had the chance to do some creative writing, where maybe the germ of an idea about how to provoke, how to be a balm, how to do both, might have pushed to the surface. No one in my fourth-grade class was thinking of going to college to be a writer or to major in literature. But what if a fierce young writer could be nourished?
Mary Ann Bragg is working on her MA in English at UMASS Boston.
WHERE TO BEGIN: An Investigation Into First Lines by Michael Overa
Occasionally the first line or two of a story nearly eclipses the work as a whole. Consider Melville’s: “Call me Ishmael.”
Or, Dickens’: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
Yet, it’s not simply that the first lines of these classics are well written. Obviously the entire story is well written. The bigger question is: how does a first line enhance the overall story? There’s more weight on the first line of a short story than a novel simply because the structure is more spare. Not nearly as spare as the work of our poet friends, but the distribution of weight necessitates a first line that firmly anchors the story.
As a writer I’m forever reverse engineering great stories. That tendency to reverse engineer initially sparked might interest in first lines. First lines, like titles, are often given short shrift. Good lines, like good titles, have a way of becoming wallflowers.
So far as I can tell, there are at least three different ways that first lines function (although, for each rule there are clearly a number of exceptions). As a reader I’m interested in what these first lines contribute to the story itself; as a writer, I’m interested in how to replicate these lines. The primary function of a first line – especially a good one – seems to be put the story into motion, forecast the ending, or encapsulate the theme.
It’s relatively common for first lines to pull the reader directly into the story and serve as a catalyst for the story as a whole. Stuart Dybek’s story Pet Milk begins: “Today I’ve been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk and watching it snow.” As it turns out the story really has little to do with the pet milk, other than the swirl of milk that provides the catalyst for the memory that begins the story. Within two short paragraphs we’ve strayed from the milk through a fleeting memory of the narrator’s grandmother and her radio and into the narrator’s memory of drinking King Alphonses and his tryst with Kate on a train. By most standards the first line is neither dramatic nor compelling. However, the swirl of milk has triggered the memory and provided the reason we are being told the story in the first place. The line swirls and blends into the fabric of the story.
Consider how the story would change if it began with the second paragraph, following the introduction of Pet milk: “There was a yellow plastic radio on [my grandmother’s] kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she’d miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian.” The weight would, necessarily, shift to the idea of radios and languages. The link to the King Alphonses would be lost, and the catalyst for the story would be some memory of his grandmother’s radio. Were the focus to shift from the milk to the radio the story itself would, most likely, no longer be about the narrator’s tryst with Kate. The entire story would now, likely, be centered on the grandmother’s radio.
What Dybek’s first line doesn’t do is forecast the end of the story. It would be difficult even for the most astute reader to predict the ending from the first line. We’ll have to turn our attention to a different story in order to investigate the type of first line that does forecast the ending. Flannery O’Connor’s story A Good Man Is Hard To Find starts: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” This is not a particularly compelling line on its own; however, it turns out going to Florida isn’t such a good idea, since it leads to the mass murder of an entire family. The line serves as reportage, stating a simple fact. It also provides the basis for the slowly rising tension of the story as well as leads to greater character development of the son and his family, Red Sammy, and ultimately, The Misfit. By putting an emphasis on the grandmother’s outspoken desire not to go to Florida, we, as readers, focus on the rising tension of what might actually happen if the family does end up in Florida.
If, as in our experiment with Pet Milk, we start the story just a few lines later, we lose the O’Henry-esq ending, where the story comes full circle. Here, we might shift to the third sentence: “Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy.” In this case moving to the later sentence would have a less explicit effect on the story itself. After all, we’re still focused on the masculine component of the story – that is the finding of a good man. What we lose is the tension that builds to the appearance of the Misfit. Throughout the story the Grandmother reminds her family (and by proxy the reader) just why she doesn’t want to go to Florida. And, lo and behold, when the Misfit does happen upon the family on the side of the road, the Grandmother fullfills the prophecy set up in the very first line. She wastes no time identifying the Misfit, an act the leads not only to her own demise, but to the brutal murder of the whole family.
The third type of beginning starts with an innocuous statement that might be confused with either of the other types, but links, however subtly, to the overall theme of the story. Raymond Carver’s story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love begins: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.” As it turns out, Mel is waxing philosophical on the subject of love. As a cardiologist he is an expert on the mechanics of the heart. However, as a husband, he seems to come up lacking. The line also seems to underlie both couples’ apparent belief that only they know what love really is – while the others party to the conversation are intrinsically naïve.
Ultimately, it seems that what makes a line memorable is not that it is particularly poetic, but that it operates on some sort of deeper level within the story as a whole. The line becomes memorable because it is integral to our understanding of the structure and themes of the story. In fact, to truly appreciate a finely-built first line one should, and must, return to the opening sentence or two after reading the entire story. As a coda, the first line can shed new light on the short fiction.
Michael Overa was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. After completing his MFA at Hollins University he returned to Seattle where he currently works as a writing tutor and is a writer-in-residence with Seattle’s Writers In The Schools Program. His first book of short stories, The Filled In Spaces, was recently published by Unsolicited Press.
INTENT TO WITHHOLD A Craft Essay by Alisa A. Gaston
Soon after I moved from Denver to Loveland, Colorado—a town of close to sixty-five thousand people and an odd mixture of artists, retirees, and hicks—I agreed to hold a series of one-on-one creative writing workshops for a twelve-year-old girl. Once I set everything into place, her mother phoned and explained that she wanted me to give her daughter feedback on her writing, yet above all, she wanted me to discourage her from becoming a writer. She wanted me to verbally agree to this proposal, this instruction to put an end to her daughter’s dream. I somewhat addressed the mother’s request—I told her that the writing industry is quite competitive and can be challenging to break into and that I could explain this to her daughter.
“And you’ll tell her it’s a waste of time?”
I hesitated. “I’ll tell her it’s a difficult industry.”
I struggled with this because I am well acquainted with the rough and exotic topography of the writing world: the sometimes self-loathing and oscillating self-encouragement; accepting that there are hundreds of thousands of talented writers exploring the same terrain; and finding that diminutive piece of ego to inflate just enough to continue the pursuit. Understanding that even with varying gradations of ability, as writers, storytelling is innate. Financial reward or not, we must get the tale out of our heads.
For the next six weeks, the girl, Nina, and I met once a week at a coffee shop. Every Saturday morning, I ordered my latte, Nina ordered her hot cocoa, I instructed, Nina listened, and then we discussed her writing.
It was clear that Nina was a sharp girl. She wanted to know my credentials. She stared at me through her thick glasses, I stared at her through mine, and I recounted my publications and writing career. She addressed it at once. “My mother wants you to discourage me from writing. She thinks it’s a waste of time.”
“What do you think?” I asked her.
She shrugged her shoulders and we moved on.
Man against man; man against nature; man against society; man against machine; man against God/gods/deities; man against himself. What about mother against child? Nina was a good writer. A mature view of the world, internal discord, clever enough to question things. Her mother, me.
“Have you made a lot of money as a writer?”
“What do you mean by ‘a lot’?” I asked.
“Have you sold a successful novel?”
“No, I wrote one and sent it out to agents for four years. I’m working on another one now.”
“Why didn’t it get published?” She demanded.
“All the agents who read it told me they didn’t think they could sell it.”
Nina stared at me. I added, “I make quite a lot of money as a technical writer, well over the national average income.” She did not flinch. “Average individual income and family income.”
Nina appeared unimpressed with the technical writing gig; she was set on short stories and novels. I took a gulp of my coffee and thought to myself, what will I resolve by telling her that so often it feels implausible to break into the creative writing world?
After the third session, her mother asked me how it was going.
“Great. Nina is a fantastic writer.”
“Yes, but have you told her it’s not worth it?”
I smiled at her and said, “There are many different types of writing. I make my living writing web content and manuals for a science organization. My published short stories and essays haven’t made me much money because most literary journals don’t pay. Nina could make money writing in other areas while she tries to get her creative writing published.”
“But she wants to write novels. Have you published a novel?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“See? She needs to know it’s a waste of time.”
A stupendous observer, Nina knew details, and could write them. How a small child turned in an awkward manner, how a rock felt to the touch when half-immersed into mud, how the mud smelled. I prompted her and she understood aesthetics.
My internal point of view is that creative writing is not like other fields. If you study to be an X-ray technician, you become an X-ray technician. If you study to become a computer systems analyst, you become a computer systems analyst. If you train to become a truck driver, shazam, you drive trucks. It’s not like that with creative writing. You can study to be a writer of short stories, novels, literary essays or memoir, you can obtain your master’s degree in creative writing, but there is no guarantee that editors will publish your work. Even technical writing jobs can be arduous to come by; journalism is also rather competitive. Yet, I do not feel any form of writing—paid or not—is a waste of time and I wanted Nina to grasp this point of view.
Nina’s mouse-colored hair could have used a good washing. Her lumpy body demonstrated that perhaps she spent too much time inside—a useful habit for a writer. Sharp witted, cynical, defiant. Surly and quick to contest. All that at twelve. I loved her and disliked her all at once. She challenged my ability each week, and sometimes I wondered whether I should be instructing anyone on the techniques of writing.
“Why can’t I use a series of ellipses in dialogue?” she asked.
“You can use one ellipsis, but after that the reader gets tripped up by the dots. It pulls the reader out of the story.”
“But I want it to read like slow motion.”
“You can stretch out the words with em dashes, or try to convey the strange sensation of time through action.”
Nina glared at me. As I drove home I asked myself, who am I to tell her she can’t use twenty ellipses?
Nina’s personality itself was like onomatopoeia—hiss, buzz, bang, rumble, clatter. Yet her mother wanted to revise her. Her mother wanted me to revise her. In our last session, after I turned over the marked-up copy of the story she had turned in to me the week before—and we talked about constructive criticism, and intuition, and making things sharp, clear, and rhythmic—Nina asked me if she should pursue a writing career. I knew her mother would be there soon, waiting in triumph to pick up a defused daughter, waiting to hand over a check to me for services rendered. Paying me to tell her daughter to quit.
“Do I have any talent?”
I did not lie to her. And when her mother arrived, I did not lie to her either. Nina went to the car and I told her mother how her daughter had a great talent for artistic creation. I told her that all she needed was some direction, focus, and practice. She looked at me, cross, as she handed me a check.
“She loves writing,” I said. “There are so many different ways she can be a professional writer.”
Without a smile, she thanked me and left. I wondered if I had failed her. Not her mother, but Nina. And I questioned whether I had the correct ethics to be an instructor. I had been honest with Nina about her abilities but at the same time, I held back praise. I did not tell Nina to stop writing—in fact, I told her that if writing is what she wanted to do, she should do it, no matter who tells her to give it up, including her own mother. I told her I thought she had talent, but I did not go into detail about how she formed prose, similes and metaphors with eloquence, and how she gave massive weight to her context and frame. I did not hold back because of some false sense of loyalty to her mother. I held back because deep down, as a fellow writer, I understand that perhaps Nina must doubt herself only enough to gain the determination it will take to carry on in this fickle writing world, and to prove her mother wrong.
Alisa A. Gaston’s work has appeared in Brain Child, The Sun, The Montreal Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She spent several years writing for the U.S. Antarctic Program, has taught creative writing to youth at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers, and volunteered as a creative writing facilitator for the Boys and Girls Club, and Urban Peak Teen Shelter. Alisa is working on a novel.
STOP BREATHING AND JUST WRITE
National Novel Writing Month
by Claire Rudy Foster
50,000 words in November. That’s 1,667 words a day. Typing at a good clip, that’s 21 minutes of work for me. But is National Novel Writing Month really about writing? For me, it’s about climbing a mountain. It has less to do with writing than with the sense of accomplishment that goads me as a writer. And I’m not alone: last year, 431,626 writers worldwide cranked out a couple of billion words.
Of Jack Kerouac’s breathless style, Truman Capote famously snarked, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” Well, so what? There is something appealing about NaNoWriMo—the breakneck quality, maybe, or the ultra-supportive community. Maybe, as Benjamin Percy says in Thrill Me, his new collection of craft essays, it’s really just about showing up for your writing. The practice and craft of writing is fetishistic at times, and setting the bar low—at a basic word count—takes the pressure off in a big way.
What is a novel, anyway? If it’s just a pile of sentences, a word count, then we may as well all be Jack Nicholson in The Shining, pecking out the same phrase over and over. Plot, structure, and character have to be considered. Some writers jump in and figure out how to fly on the way down. Others, like me, plot and diagram obsessively, so that minimal time is spent ruminating on what happens next. In 2008, the first year I participated, I wrote a novel in 18 days. I typed so fast that I had to stretch my hands every hour to keep from cramping. I dreamed about my characters, woke up speaking their lines. It was the first time I’d tried a long project, and to be honest I was afraid of novels. Daunted.
I read literary fiction, and I knew there was more to a novel than just a beginning, middle, and end. I also knew that my clever flash fiction tricks and short story tools wouldn’t carry the serious weight of a longer work. A story is not a compressed novel, and a novel is not a truncated story. The novel is a beast unto itself, something broad shouldered and hairy, a completely different taxonomy than airy-winged, flittering short-short stories or languid novellas that gaze into deep pools and twist the tassels of their tails. Novels slouched. They had weight, could punch harder than George Foreman, and didn’t have much in the way of hand holds. What the fuck was I going to do? I wondered. Just grab it by the horns?
I can tell you that the first novel I wrote changed every assumption I had about writing. Always a meticulous re-writer, I cringed at the idea of making a pile of pages and leaving them unedited. My inner perfectionist asked me, more than once, is that what you’re writing? Seriously? Like my novel was a badly tailored suit, or a loud shirt that had more sentimental than sartorial value. I told her to button her lip and pressed on, through the untidy paragraphs and dialog that needed fewer adverbs and more accuracy. I realized, a few days into the project, that I either believed in my ability to create something at this scale, or I did not. I realized that my success largely hinged on my confidence, and as I looked at the word count widgets of my friends ticking higher and higher, it dawned on me that I could let go of my perfectionism for 30 days and put my story first.
A writer with determination and talent would accomplish what a brilliant-yet-blocked writer would not. If I paused to criticize my writing, I was stealing time from it. Why stop to make a line of seashells, when I could go pelting down the beach, exuberant, screaming Eliot at the top of my lungs? I let go of my preconceived notions about literary craft and blasted forward.
The horror novel that I wrote, Strange Fruit, has gone through two major rewrites. I also went back and did a lot of reading and research to flesh out the world I created in Sonoma wine country and the strange people who populate it. My novel is sitting in an agent’s slush pile right now. It’s done. It’s good, and I’m proud of it. It taught me that good writing doesn’t have to start out good. The thing is to start, and then finish the draft when I say I will.
And you know what? It worked, and it still works. This morning, I woke up and opened my laptop. Stop thinking, I ordered myself. My boyfriend put a cup of coffee at my elbow while I typed, staring at the screen with eyes that wouldn’t quite focus. Stop thinking and just feel where the story wants to go. Almost 2,000 words later, I looked up and it was time to go catch the train downtown.
“How’s the writing?” my boyfriend asked me while we walked.
“I’m going to crush this project.”
“You’re doing well?”
“No. My writing isn’t very good. But It doesn’t matter. I exceeded my word count goal, and I showed up.”
“Fuck yes,” he said, and high-fived me.
And I’ll show up tomorrow, and the day after. I know I will be a different person when I come out of the other side of this novel; and I know that there is another novel, too, a future book that needs to be written. And that can only be accomplished one word, one sentence, one page, one day at a time.