RESEARCH AND WRITING
The Warp and Woof of Historical Fiction A Craft Essay by Terry Roberts
When I stand before a crowd of curious readers and talk about my novels, which are generally understood to be “historical fiction,” invariably someone asks a version of the following: “How much research do you do before you start writing?”
Sometimes that question is followed by more detailed queries about the kind and type of research: “Where did you go to find information?” and “Do you interview the experts?” and “How do you know when enough is enough and it’s time to start writing?” And one of my favorites: “To what extent are you constrained by history?”
I understand the motivation behind all those questions, especially when asked by true historians (amateur or professional) or nascent fiction writers. But the truth is that I have never tackled the process of research and writing in the linear way most readers seem to expect. One process doesn’t end and the other begin on some magical date when it feels like I’ve learned everything I need to know and I’m ready to put pen to paper.
My grandmother, Belva Roberts, was a mountain weaver of some renown, and the motif of weaving runs throughout my second novel, That Bright Land. And, perhaps the best metaphor for what I do as I’m researching and writing every book, is weaving. Understood in that way, research and writing are more like the warp—threads that run lengthwise—and the woof—threads that run across—that make up the fabric of the story.
Let’s look at my most recent novel, My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black (Turner, July 2021), a noir thriller set on Ellis Island in the summer of 1920. I had the idea for a murder mystery set in the hospitals on Ellis Island long before I ever visited the location. I imagined that the narrative would take the form of a hardboiled detective story in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley. And I thought the murders at the heart of the story would have to do with our apparently innate tendency to hate and fear the other. Xenophobia played out on a fictional stage where the other—“your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—famously sought entry into the United States.
(It is worth noting that all my thinking and note-taking took place before the Presidential election of 2016, and the political events that followed only served to shine a hot light on immigration in general and racial profiling in particular. By that point, I was busy writing the novel, and it was too late to even consider turning back.)
I had begun to think about the characters who might inhabit this fictional world, and that’s when it became increasingly obvious that an old friend, Stephen Robbins, the narrator/protagonist of my first novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, was waiting in the wings. When last we saw Stephen, in the closing pages of that novel, he was in New York and apparently meant to stay there. Here was my detective, and the rest of the cast took shape around him, in particular the wicked being who prowled the island.
So, when did research enter the picture?
As I worked on the early chapters, I had been reading everything I could find about Ellis Island, and was gratified to find that 1920—when Stephen would be in New York—was an especially telling year in the history of the island. A decision about character led to a decision about the time as well as the place, and so my reading and research increasingly focused on the years immediately following World War I. The library is full of both narrative and visual history from the period, which fed the story as it grew.
Then I found a collection of photographs by Augustus F. Sherman subtitled Ellis Island Portraits 1905 – 1920 (Aperture 2005). I am a profoundly visual person, and though I love words, photographs are often what inspire my writing. This was true of the first Stephen Robbins novel, fed by The Appalachian Photographs of Doris Ullmann (The Jargon Society 1951), which also helped illuminate this second installment. Sherman’s images reveal the incredible variety of immigrants who passed through the island, and along with the insightful introduction by Peter Mesenholler, blew my story wide open. Suddenly, I had the visual texture I was looking for, and Mesenholler raised the issue of racial and ethnic characteristics both in the photographs and in the immigration policies of the day.
It was at that point that I was able to begin weaving the tight fabric of historic detail and narrative pace that I wanted. But I still hadn’t visited the island itself.
Place is vital in my imagination, as is the setting in my novels. Finally, my wife Lynn and I had the chance to visit Ellis Island for the first time, and we took full advantage, trekking along with the hard-hat tour of the abandoned hospitals on the island. This experience came at the perfect point in the creative process because by then I knew enough about the story and the characters so that every hallway and every room was flooded with significance. While we were still on the tour, the historical and narrative threads—research and writing—began to weave themselves into complex and compelling patterns in my imagination.
And then it happened. We followed the tour guide into a room that probably meant little to the others present, and he told us about the mysterious implement on display there. I turned to Lynn, and said, “That’s it. It’s perfect.”
She looked sideways at me. “That’s what?”
“That’s how the murderer does it,” I whispered and pointed.
And yes, it is how the murderer does it.
That moment felt like a research gift that arrived at the perfect point in the narrative process. Which illustrates my point. For me, there is never a juncture where research ends and writing begins. In fact, on the rare occasion when I am stuck in terms of the history (research) or the story (writing), I turn to the other for answers, and invariably, they’re there. Waiting…
Terry Roberts is the author of three novels: A Short Time to Stay Here (winner of the Willie Morris Prize for Southern Fiction); That Bright Land (winner of the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award); and most recently, The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival. His new novel, My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, and his other works are available here.
EMBRACE THE NELSON: Going Beyond the Pretty Narrative Voice A craft essay by Dena Soffer
In my first graduate writing workshop, David Gates told a true story about Raymond Carver working on a piece of writing that wasn’t going well. Carver worked and worked, experiencing the feeling that all of us writers have felt—the piece was going nowhere. All of a sudden, the phone rang. He picked up, and the voice on the other line asked to speak to someone named Nelson. It was a wrong number, but this timely interruption made Carver think that maybe what his story needed…was Nelson. He inserted a new character by that same name into his story, which soon became “Vitamins,” and this proved to be the exact change the narrative needed. In a craft lecture at Muse and the Marketplace Literary Conference, Charles Baxter called this type of character a “Captain Happen,” someone to insert into a story to destabilize it on purpose.
In workshop, Gates encouraged us to make trouble happen in our fiction in a variety of ways, one of which was by using this exact technique. When I had somehow forgotten this advice halfway through the term, he reminded me. “Maybe you want to drop a new character into this mess,” he suggested in a letter about a story of mine that wasn’t quite there yet. My first-person narrator was dreamy and quiet. Not much happened to her, though the sentences did sound pretty. Rather than writing fiction, I was perfecting prose; readers came away from my work asking the exact question that no writer wants to hear: “so what?
Narrators like mine were everywhere in literature – wallflowers, idealists, poets. So why wasn’t mine working? I found a solution, as always, through reading. In “Glow Hunters,” a story from Kimberly King Parsons’ Black Light, the narrator, Sara, is a teenager with a tendency to ruminate. She is a thoughtful, introverted type who believes humans are “always in between tragedies, that anything good is a lull before the next devastation.” A narrator like Sara is without question a good writer, but also provides such a great deal of interiority that she risks infecting the story with passivity. Parsons breaks up Sara’s gorgeously reflective, yet potentially bleak first-person voice by looking to another character to take the lead for action: Sara’s best friend (and crush), Bo.
Bo gives Sara an active purpose right from the outset, declaring that the girls’ summer will be defined by their quest for psychedelic mushrooms. During their days on the road searching in cow fields, Bo tells outrageous lies to cashiers at truck stops and insists that Sara is the “designated [mushroom] gatherer.” Without a character like Bo, Sara might very well spend her entire summer indoors, fearing life before it can happen to her. Parsons knows that if we’re inside Sara’s head the entire time, we must at least have interesting things going on outside of it in order to carry a story.
Sara is aware of Bo’s magnetism. “Bo’s more brightly lit than the rest of us,” she notes in the very first sentence of the story, and soon becomes aware of the fact that her friend is bringing out something in her, too. “What Bo and I have going on – this electric something – I’m not sure either of us knows exactly what to call it.” Halfway through summer, Bo wakes Sara up in the middle of the night for sex, and the rest of the story is propelled by Sara’s hope for it to happen again. Here, Parsons has inserted a character that is doing quite a bit of work on the page, both prompting all the action while also serving as an object of desire. Bo is unafraid to make a scene, contrasting Sara’s passivity, and so because of her we have scenes, and the girls’ journey moves along much more speedily than it might otherwise. Readers have someone interesting to watch from the start, but the plot is truly propelled by the love scene in the middle, after which our narrator starts to want.
Desire becomes the main driver giving the story its shape, and Parsons knows to stretch this out, making us wait. Like Joyce bringing the perverted man forth and taking him away in “An Encounter,” Parsons has teased her readers with this middle scene. The day after their rendezvous, Bo doesn’t even acknowledge that anything has happened, which tortures Sara, and readers ache right alongside her. This is when the author’s choice to include such an internally-focused narrator makes most sense; Sara’s strengths shine brightly in these next sections, when she articulates her thoughts on the anguish of unrequited love quite clearly, despite being unable to say them aloud. These words nourish readers, who have of course felt this too. Not another inkling of intimacy appears again until the very end, when finally, Bo straddles Sara in the back of the car, “and it’s bliss.” Sara has gotten what she wanted, so the story is over, but she is still her same introspective self. “It’s the kind of sex so good you want it to hurry up and be over so you can talk about it for the rest of your life,” she thinks. “That’s something I think of while I’m having it, some way I might describe it later.”
There is great power in the narrative voice that sounds pretty, and perhaps even more in the gritty voice, the one that tells the same truths as the voice inside our heads. Dialogue can achieve this too; in Carver’s “Vitamins,” the narrator’s wife discovers her job selling vitamins isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She says, “Vitamins…for shit’s sake! I mean, when I was a girl, this is the last thing I ever saw myself doing. Jesus, I never thought I’d grow up to sell vitamins. Door-to-door vitamins. This beats all. This really blows my mind.” There is a seduction in reading other people’s voices and realizing they sound like our own. Still, the voice can’t do all the work, no matter how good it may be. In fiction, we need surprises to push against our characters, challenging them. In fiction, something must always intrude: Nelson arrives, carrying with him a severed human ear from Vietnam. This changes the scope of the story, forcing readers to compare the vitamin-ridden, middle-class existence to the horrors of war.
It seems ludicrous now that I didn’t see it before: the essential shape of a story typically includes the introduction of something new into a character’s life. This something new could take on many different forms; writers may find their Nelsons in long-kept secrets, or a lacy underthing, or anything, really, that causes characters to react. These intrusions mold the plot, putting characters in situations where they have no choice but to change, bringing readers to a conclusion that does not just sound nice but brings the gut punch we are all looking for, the one that happens when a page of words manages to capture a precise emotion from real life. Only artists can do this. We know it when we see it, cutting across time and place, connecting writer to reader: that feeling you describe; I’ve had it too.
So, let some social misfit walk by your characters, or set roaches loose inside the house. See what happens. If you’re like me, you might not fully succeed, at least not yet. But in the words of a wise mentor of mine, “who knows, you might actually end up with a plot.”
Dena Soffer is a writer and literacy coach from St. Louis. She earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a 2021 recipient of an Author Fellowship from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Her writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, the Chicago Review of Books, and the Cleveland Review of Books. She is working on a novel.
NOTES TO A YOUNG WRITER On (Re)writing, (Re)vision, Editing, and Other Random Terms A Craft Essay by Gayathri Prabhu
The young writer asks me, the mentor whose name is vertical on book spines, a question about writing they wish would go away. No doubt they can write, they know that, they love that, but the question is really about rewriting. What they seek is vigor and inspiration in writing, the kind of dazzling force that they believe only spontaneity can create, and none of that squares up to my advice about reflection, revision, and molten sentences constantly recast. Yes, yes, they agree with me about the demands of crafting, of sentences that need trimming or ideas that need extending, but what does one do with the air of drudgery and scrutiny that is evoked by rewriting? The young writer would like to believe in something that is complete in the incompleteness of the first draft, its creative ferment and immediacy, not to mention the freshness of a mind just churned. How does one retain such immediacy and force if one submits to the exhaustion of more drafts?
I take recourse in an anecdote about two books written simultaneously by a writer who only intended to publish one. The Nobel laureate John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in black pencil on blue-ruled paper notebooks that were supplied to him by his friend and editor, Pat Covici (to whom the novel is dedicated). While Steinbeck wrote his manuscript on the right-hand pages of these notebooks, he would unfailingly jot down ideas, comments, resolutions and verbal snapshots of each working day on the left-hand pages. These parallel writings became the book Journal of a Novel, published in 1969, a year after Steinbeck’s death. To dip into its pages is to have the privilege of looking over a writer’s shoulder, to know something about the contours of their thought process, the best demonstration I know of the continuum of writing and rewriting. While Steinbeck’s informal entries are often explicitly addressed to Covici, there is no doubt that Steinbeck is in dialogue with himself about his craft; at each step is the implication that the terrain of imagination and writing must be revisited several times.
The first edition of Journal of a Novel includes a Publisher’s Note confirming that Steinbeck made “extensive revisions, omitted whole passages and rearranged some of the chapters” to the first full draft of East of Eden. However, unlike the celebrated novel, the collection of writings that finally became the precocious Journal of a Novel was “never revised in any way” since its author never intended it for publication. On the contrary, “its repetitions, even its seeming irrelevancies, are a part of its documentary interest.” In the first entry in this journal, dated January 29, 1951, Steinbeck reflects on the inexplicability, the clumsiness and difficulty of a craft that tries to “find symbols for the wordlessness.” And then as if to rouse himself to get to work for the day, he writes, “A good writer always works at the impossible.” In this very private word of encouragement that a writer gives his hesitant self, we understand that while the aspiration may seem impossible, it is the constant (re)writing that brings our words into the realm of plausibility, and then, finally, to bounteous possibility.
Could it be then, I ask the young writer, that rewriting is not an appendage to writing, but is the unavoidable heart of the matter? When we start to write, if the sentence has to shape up for any reader’s comprehension, we are already in the realm of rewriting. Rewriting is not the aftermath or the consequence or the cosmetic surgery to early writing. And most importantly, writing does not come before rewriting. To rewrite or to re-vision, one begins with the awareness that writing is a process and that there is a constant negotiation during that process between the thought or idea and the words that accompany it in the first iteration.
Therefore, to be a writer is inevitably to be a rewriter.
The young writer clarifies with alacrity: of course, they agree, and in no way would they imply that readers must be inflicted with their writing angst, but if writing and rewriting are indeed simultaneous and continuous, what do we make of editing? Is it different from rewriting, or is it just a matter of fussy nomenclature?
Thus, our discussion turns to in-built editors—all writers come with one. This in-built editor is the voice in our head that can spy a sentence taking flight or berate the use of the same fraying connective for the seventh time in five pages. But to think of our writing selves as creating and our editing selves as tidying, one as before and the other as after, is to cleave the creative life for no good reason.
“Thought was never an isolated thing with me” reveals William Carlos Williams in his autobiography, “it was a game of tests and balances, to be proven by the written word.” A game, playful, even joyous perhaps, that is not linear, but concentric – thought, written word, and tests and balances (the craft of composing, rearranging, tuning) form the composite of a writer’s work.
It may be helpful, I say, to think in terms of drafts, the many versions of a work as it morphs from first idea to the published text. For instance, when I have to make significant changes to my manuscripts—these may be of structure, language, voice, tone, tense, plot, or even genre—I start a new draft, a blank document into which I transfer or rework relevant parts of the previous version (a copy of which is saved somewhere). Editing, on the other hand, is when one is content that the draft is now more or less stable and changes will be much more geared towards tweaks of clarity, punctuation, lexicon, grammar, and syntax. When I edit, unlike when I rewrite, I do not clone any further versions or files but make the corrections within a draft that I now think of as done. However, I do feel obliged to tell the young writer, as I have heard it remarked elsewhere, that manuscripts are never finished, but published.
We are of the same tribe, the young writer and I, a tribe that obsessively count words, lines, pages, hours at the table. If we have slaved for days on a few pages, we are loath to discard it, or even to recast it. We grow attached to bits that other readers (those we dare trust) will tell us to let go. We cling without shame because good writing is hard-fought and it takes courage and humility to finally accept that much of what we put on the page may not be good enough to make it to the next draft. As painstaking as knowing what to take out of our drafts is the finding of parts that we can sense are missing, to write and fit them in without the whole edifice taking a tumble. The grand sweep of ideas might conjure an essay, a poem, a book, but it will begin to breathe to another pair of eyes (outside our heads) only through the integrity of the details that we carefully bead together.
And so, we agree that it does not matter what we call any step in the writing process, so long as we are able to think of steps or progressions that include all kinds of nurturance and hindrance, because it takes us closer to being better at the craft. I may have written more pages and for more years than the young writer, but our struggles at the writing table look the same. Word has to follow word, some to be deleted, others to change, a few more to add, and yet resolutely, word after word, till, the end.
Gayathri Prabhu is the author of four novels, a memoir, a novella in prose poetry, and a book on black and white Hindi cinema. She teaches literary studies at the Manipal Centre for Humanities. Her work can be seen at her website.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
EMOTION IS NOT PLOT: Using Detachment to Create Powerful Fiction by Claire Rudy Foster
In her recent essay on fiction and failure in Electric Lit, Ramona Aubusel asserts that “part of what makes a good writer is the ability to be porous, to feel all the intricate and complicated notes, the particular music of each moment.” To be present in your skin, then, instead of feeling something in your bones.
Here’s my greatest fear: that I will never be able to name the essential emotions I perceive in myself and others. Our shifting tide and all its smells and sweat and words and secret hidden codes and eyelashes and old letters and emotional ephemera that moves across the surface of the human world like that gyre of discarded belongings and trash that is so large it could cover Texas and is comprised of plastic, the things made of plastic that surround us our whole lives, including baby pacifiers and Barbie dolls and old soccer balls and parts of cars and rubber duckies and condoms and tiny things collected by the swale of the sea the way we will accumulate a hundred precious objects and love them as though they were anything but trash, our collection of special garbage with our memories attached, our stories which burrow deeply into our minds and tell us that there is more to this than plastic, more to this, more.
“We have to feel everything,” Aubusel says. When I read that line, my stomach turns over. It feels like a taunt, a dare. It implies that feeling nothing or not enough makes someone less of a writer, when in fact what I feel is only a small part of what I do when I am writing.
Great writing, I think, awakens lost feelings in us. We cry, laugh, and ache over our favorite characters; our experience of reading becomes imbued with the power of our emotional response to what we’ve read. Feeling everything is the gift a writer gives to the reader. Reading helps me name those feelings, which have no name for me; I experience an emotional intensity I may never encounter in my waking life. Reading Kundera or Dostoyevsky or Nabokov, I am transported. Writing of this caliber opens a doorway to that other world, the place where it’s safe to feel despair, passion, and all the reckless emotions that would wreak havoc in our real lives. Do I need to point out that this “other world” is a carefully crafted creative illusion? Would you be disappointed if I did?
The fact is that when I write, even if I’m writing about “myself,” which is an essay for another time, my real feelings are none of the reader’s business. Nobody wants to feel everything, just as nobody wants to read work by a writer who is emotionally incontinent. In real life, I may be strung out on anxiety, or aching from bad news, or jubilant, or missing someone I love. However, I know that my job is not to directly transmit those emotions to the reader. My job is to live my life, feel my feelings, and then learn to translate what I’m feeling without making it about me.
A good writer puts herself second—puts her ego aside—and tells a story worth reading.
Does that seem unkind? Let me add to it. First-person, stream-of-consciousness accounts, especially of someone’s emotional patterns, are not terribly interesting. Having feelings is not a plot. The feelings that arise as a character takes action are a plot. Ruminating is, for the most part, not an action. “I had a feeling once” is an immature attitude to bring to the table as a writer. Emotionalism is barely tolerable in real life; in a novel or short story, it is incredibly dull to read. An example of this is the writing of Sylvia Plath.
Plath gets a bad rap for being “adolescent,” or writing too much about her characters’ emotions. However, looking at her prose, it’s tight and spare. Her poems, too, are deliberate. Each line shows intention, even when its content is unwieldy. “Ariel” is not an accident, any more than The Bell Jar is a diary entry. I know this because I have read Plath’s diaries, her letters and journals. Her private writing is intensely emotional, confessional, and sometimes nauseatingly personal. It’s just so much Sylvia. It’s also the kind of writing that would have zero interest for me if it wasn’t Plath. I read this stuff as research, because I wanted to know more about the person behind the poetry. The operative word here is “behind.”
The contrast between Sylvia’s journals and her creative writing is like fat and bones. If she was less disciplined, more selfish, her creative writing wouldn’t have the same moving qualities. It would be all about her. Good writing is porous; it may be infused with the writer’s experience, but still betray nothing about who they really are.
Some people say that a writer’s task is to give credence and form to the things we all feel. Plath, with her unending darkness, shows that this is only partially true. The words that move us exist on a sheet of paper enclosed between two covers that can be shut and put back on the shelf or thrown down on the bed beside you when you’ve had enough. Good writing allows a reader to sample from the spectrum of emotions safely; it transmits emotion subtly, as an electric current can cause a muscle fiber to twitch.
Reading “Poppies in July,” I feel a sickening detachment.
A mouth just bloodied. Little bloody skirts!
I don’t arrive at that feeling because Plath is spelling everything out for me. No. I feel it because she’s taken something raw and real, possibly but not necessarily drawn from her own experience, and used her craft to elicit something in me. She’s not saying, “One time I was in the hospital after a suicide attempt and I did it because I can’t get over how disappointed I am in my father since he loved himself more than he loved me, don’t you feel conflicted about your dad, too?” She’s crafted something that comes from her own experience but is separate from it. That’s where the power is—her distance, from herself, her feelings, and us.
A few years ago, I found a lovely essay by Alice Munro about her writing process. In this essay is a passage about looking through a window onto a courtyard, and down to where wet, flower petal flakes of snow are falling onto the broad, brown back of a horse. The horse is not the story, nor is the window, Munro says. None of this memory will make its way onto the page—but it’s in her mind as she writes. Every sentence carries an implicit sense of that image.
I do this when I write, as well.
For example, at this moment, I am thinking of a photograph I saw, of a girl who I have never met. In this picture, she is standing in her bedroom, wearing sandals, a sun hat, and a simple dress. She’s got her hands on her hips, and she’s smiling with the confidence of someone who still believes that nobody can break her heart except herself. Over her shoulder, a Japanese paper lamp hangs, catching the afternoon light through the open door. She is going out, in this photograph, and I love her cheekiness. It is a quality I wish I had more of, and as I’m writing, my mind dwells on this photo’s many textures, its simplicity, and I feel in my bones so many things that I could not possibly name them all.
Claire Rudy Foster lives in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her critically recognized short fiction has appeared in various respected journals and she has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently at work on a novel.
The main character in my second novel, On Hurricane Island, is a lesbian. I’m straight. There are also an African-American attorney and a cross-dressing F.B.I. agent in that book, and I’m neither of those. So what right do I have to burrow under these characters’ skin, see the world through their eyes, and write their voices?
It’s an important question and one that has been frequently argued, especially when a white author writes from the perspective of a person of color. Think about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Over the decades, fiction writers have been roundly criticized for appropriating the voices of marginalized groups.
More recently, writers have also been criticized for not writing characters who represent our diverse world.
The opportunity to explore “other” voices – to live lives and tell stories that are not our own personal experience – is, I think, one of the main reasons why many of us write. I want to know how it feels to be a lesbian kidnapped by misogynist national security officers, and what it’s like to be a cross-dressing F.B.I. agent. I trust the combination of research and imagination to take me there.
I’m not denying that there are significant risks inherit in writing across the boundaries of race, class, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, especially when the author is perceived as enjoying more privilege than her characters. Publishers may pass on the manuscript because of concerns about potential censure; a writers’ conference director I queried about a panel on “majority” authors writing “minority” characters suggested we find a different topic. But I still believe that each of us has the right and the responsibility to imagine across those boundaries of power and privilege, to write outside our neighborhoods and families, our race and our political opinions. And I think this is true whether writing main characters or secondary ones. If we were more courageous (and if we had a level playing field that welcomed writers from minority groups), contemporary literature could better reflect the racial and cultural demographics of our global world.
This issue is closely related to another border-crossing question that obsesses me: What responsibility, if any, does a fiction writer have to the public figures she appropriates and re-imagines? Because of historical distance, Geraldine Brooks can create her own fictional version of Bronson Alcott without too many worries, and Susan Stinson can safely inhabit Jonathan Edwards’ fierce 18th century intellect. But what about Curtis Sittenfeld’s character based on Laura Bush? Should Susan Choi be concerned about what Patty Hearst thinks, or T.C. Boyle worry about Frank Lloyd Wright’s offspring?
I read and write fiction that addresses our contemporary political landscape. I crave stories that illuminate our moment in history. But I also belong to a family who has been deeply plundered for dramatic conflict. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage in 1953, thirteen years before I fell in love with their younger son. My in-laws have been appropriated for dozens of novels and stories, plays and films. Some of those uses, like Charles Baxter’s goldfish named Ethel and Julius in The Feast of Love or Ethel saying the mourners Kaddish at Roy Cohn’s deathbed in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, are so creative, so brilliant that the real person is transformed and art is made.
But much of the literary appropriation of my family feels like a violation. Sometimes that’s because the pursuit of dramatic tension leads the author’s imagination to twisted and ugly character motives and actions that are painful to read when it’s your family. Sometimes it’s because the author simply gets the “facts” wrong, leaving the reader with the impression that the fictional version is the historical truth.
Getting it wrong is the major worry about writing outside of our own experience, whether through historical characters or ones we make up. Even with extensive research and interviews, with an empathic and respectful approach to the situation, we will sometimes get it wrong. These errors are especially difficult when the historical figure or the character from a marginalized group is politically charged. Writing from the point-of-view of the cross-dressing F.B.I. agent was much easier than writing the African-American character, or inhabiting the lesbian protagonist in On Hurricane Island. As far as I know, none of my friends work for the F.B.I. and probably very few of my readers identify strongly with the Bureau, but I have friends who are African-Americans and lesbians and gay men. I care what they think. I want to get it right.
Which means that appropriating voices across those political and cultural barriers, whether an imagined “other” character or one based on an historical figure, can be risky personally as well as politically. Not getting it right can have significant consequences from readers and writers whose good opinions we value.
I’ve changed my mind about this over the years; I now believe that these stories belong to all of us. Those who live them and those who write them. Whether the characters are “real” or invented. Even my in-laws.
We do risk getting it wrong. But the only thing worse than attempting the risky and vulnerable voices (and maybe not getting it right), is not trying. Writing across borders increases the possibility that our stories will explore our common humanity, in all its ecstasy and sorrow, its triumph and shame. And that’s why I write—to understand more deeply our shared history and our possible futures, our differences and our similarities. To illuminate something about those divisions and those barriers and—hopefully—to do my part to bring them down.
Ellen Meeropol is the author of two novels, House Arrest and On Hurricane Island. A former nurse practitioner, a part-time bookseller, and a literary late bloomer, Ellen is fascinated by characters balanced on the fault lines between political turmoil and human connection. Her short fiction and essays have been published in Bridges, DoveTales, Pedestal, Rumpus, Portland Magazine, Beyond the Margins, The Drum, and The Writers Chronicle. Ellen holds an MFA in fiction from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine and is a founding member of Straw Dog Writers Guild. www.ellenmeeropol.com.
I am the fiction editor of a respectable independent ink-and-paper quarterly literary journal. We publish short fiction of up to 1500 words. I see every piece of prose submitted to the journal. The editor-in-chief has given me sole discretion to accept or reject any piece submitted.
Here are my confessions.
Confession #1: I reject nearly everything. Most work I see should never have been submitted in the first place. It is embarrassingly amateurish. It makes me wonder whether these submitters have even a modicum of critical judgment of their own work. Frankly, I would have rejected much of what I see published in other journals, too.
To the dismay of my editor-in-chief, who probably thinks my standards are too high, some issues of our journal have run with no fiction at all. Other issues have included work that I should have rejected. I accepted them because they were, at least, competently written, and the boss was getting antsy. A few issues have included some real gems of short fiction, and of those I am most proud.
Confession #2: I make up my mind fast. I read few submissions beyond the first paragraph, some not even beyond the first sentence. For some submissions I know my answer by the time I’ve read the title—still, I always read at least the first sentence or two. From that, I can tell if a writer knows what they heck they’re doing, and if it will be worthwhile reading further.
Some writers may find this admission dismaying, even shocking, even arrogant. How do I know the story doesn’t really take off in the second paragraph, they might ask. How do I know there isn’t some deathless prose within those pages that I will never see because I stopped reading too soon? Who in the hell do I think I am, anyway? Well, I’m the fiction editor, and trust me, I know.
I accept most of the stories I actually read through to the end.
Confession #3: Most story openings, even those competently written, leave me cold. When I read a new story, I want to know who is involved and what is at stake, right away. Another way of putting this is that I need to know ASAP why I should give a damn about this story. Here are some examples of beginnings that don’t work for me:
stories that begin with description
stories that begin with dialogue
stories that begin with background information
stories that have the word “mom” in the first sentence
stories that begin with an alarm clock going off
stories that identify the protagonist as just “he” or “she” or some other generalized identification, and who is never identified by name. Examples? “She sits up straight in bed, heart pounding.” Or, “The road unfurled before him, a flat white ribbon,” Who? Who? Who? Tell me who, right away. And why I should care.
Confession #4: I have prejudices. Every editor does. I have a prejudice against stories written in the second person. I have a prejudice against stories in which there is no strong story, just a lot of self-involved, undefined angst. I have a prejudice against “experimental” fiction, or “innovative” fiction, or fiction that “breaks new ground”. Give me a good story that breaks old ground any day. I have a prejudice against stories in which the main characters are children. Or animals. I never want to read another story from the point of view of someone with Alzheimer’s, or a person dealing with cancer, or someone who has just lost a parent.
I read cover letters, mainly out of curiosity, but I have my prejudices about those, too. I have a prejudice against cover letters that tell me what the story is about, or why it was written. I expect good stories by writers with multiple publishing credits, but I am often disappointed. My reaction after reading a few paragraphs is usually, really? This person has actually had work published?
Confession #5: I have a prejudice against stories submitted in Courier font.
Confession #6: I believe my judgment is flawless. I don’t think I’ve ever rejected a great story, or even a good story.
Confession #7: I disregard my own editorial rules if the story I’m considering is superbly written. For instance, I recently recommended for publication a story in which the protagonist is never named. It is only “he” throughout the whole story. But it was a brilliant story, and I accepted it without hesitation. And of course, John Updike wrote a nifty little story about a guy with cancer called “Poker Night,” and I’m sure I would have accepted that one, too, regardless of the authorship. In fact, I just wrote a story about a guy with cancer.
Confession #8: I’m a fiction writer, too. Hey, I have feelings. I never react well to rejection. It hurts. And it gives me no pleasure to cause pain in others.
So there you have it. My confessions. I expect no absolution. I will probably be damned to the hell set aside especially for pig-headed fiction editors. Maybe our punishment will be to read unreadable fiction submissions for eternity.
George Dila is the author of a short story collection, Nothing More to Tell, published by Mayapple Press in 2011, and the short story chapbook Working Stiffs, published by One Wet Shoe Press in 2014. His short fiction and personal essays have appeared in numerous journals, including North American Review, Raleigh Review, Flare: the Flagler Review, Potomac Review, Palooka, Literal Latte, Fiction Now, and others. His flash piece “That Summer” appeared in Issue No. 2 of Cleaver. A native Detroiter, he lived in Ludington, MI, a small town on the Lake Michigan shore. George passed away unexpectedly and peacefully in April 2016, while vacationing with his family in New Mexico. Visit his website at www.georgedila.com. Image Credit: Paul on Flickr