Giving a Sexist Character Texture

by Ukamaka Olisakwe

 

My favorite male character is Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

He values manliness, and this often is synonymous to violence. He abhors everything his late father Unoka stood for: gentleness, love for music, showing emotion, idleness. And so, he becomes the opposite of his father, is rich and powerful, rigid to a fault. However, he grows a peculiar fondness for his daughter Ezinma. And when this child falls ill and is taken into the forest by her mother Ekwefi, the narrator tells us that Okonkwo follows them into the night, and here we get to see how tender he can also be, how worried-to-death he is, despite his “manly” values.

In the story, he is a sexist patriarch, a loving father, the upholder of his culture, a murderer.

Okonkwo is not one thing.

These dimensions to his personality make him fully rounded, grounded in reality. He reminds us of the people we have lived with, people we have associated with, people who can be tender and offensive at the same time. People who aren’t perfect. Being many things at the same time gives the character texture. And Things Fall Apart is a wonderful example of how to craft a complex character without riddling your pages with sexism, upsetting your reader.

But it took a while before I learned this art of character dynamism.

Before now, I had often written emotionally manipulative stories. In 2016, I began to work on my second novel which follows the journey of a young woman in a community rife with social patriarchy. I deleted the first 68, 000 words because the story felt flat. One of the primary characters was too wooden. He was just a violent abuser, nothing more. I knew the story I wanted to tell but I didn’t have the language for it. So, I immersed myself in books.

I reread my favorites: everything from J. M. Coetzee to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who have written stories about controversial and abusive characters. I took inventories of the primary characters’ actions on the pages, and it was only after I had put down Disgrace, that I realized how I can add dimensions to a sexist character.

In Coetzee’s Disgrace, we meet Professor David Lurie who abuses his position of power and intimidates his student into having sex with him. He is an arrogant creep who stalks women, body-shames them even. However, after his infamous disgrace, he moves in with his daughter Lucy in an attempt to make meaning out of the mess his life had become.

It is on this farm where he lives with Lucy that we begin to see different texture to this troublesome character, and Coetzee so perfectly crafts him that despite the sexism, the reader is never tempted to fling the book out of the window. Lurie keeps you engaged with his brilliance, his reluctant love for nature and dogs, his desperate love for his daughter, how often he fumbles, his honest attempt to become a better father, a better man. At the end of the book, he becomes a more appealing character and somewhat atones for his sins.

My close reading of these books opened my eyes. Remember, my aim is not to make the character likable, but to be honest on the page; for the character to become fully rounded, to deepen readers’ engagement with them.

So, consider these passages taken from my reworked manuscript:

Her father shook her awake at past midnight, when the cries of crickets flitted in from the open window, the room illuminated by the orange flame of the smoky kerosene lantern. He sat on the chair close to her bed, his elbows rested on his knees.

“Papa,” she said, as tried to make out the look on his face, to prepare her mind for what he wanted to say. It still hurt to move, and her stomach still felt as though someone had dug everything out. Still, she sat and said, “Good morning, Papa.”

He stared at her for a long time, his face shielded by dark shadows. The last time they stayed this way was that day, after the rioting boys wreaked havoc in Sabon Gari and burned the church. He brought her home and made their meal, the first time in many years. Later that night, she had woken to find him leaning by her bedside, weeping. He didn’t bother wiping the tears, or to muffle his cries. He said he had feared something bad would have happened to her. He said he had feared for her, not for his own fate. That night was the first time she would see him cry. But it was a different look in his eyes this time.

“You went and got pregnant, and then killed the child under my roof?” He was angry, but this was a cold, calculated anger. He was not shouting. He did not stutter. He waited for her to explain herself, as he always did. Heart-to-heart, he always called it.

“I am sorry, Papa,” she said. It was the only thing she could say.

Then he stood and walked out of the door, his feet padding heavily down the passage. She had almost sighed in relief when his footsteps returned, heavy with purpose. The glare from the extra lantern he had brought brightened the room, before he appeared at the door. He was holding a bunch of rattan canes, slim, long sticks bounded together at each end with black rope. She stood up.

“Papa.”

He set the canes by the door, pointed to the bed and said, “Lie flat on the bed,” his voice barely above a whisper.

“Papa, please.”

“Your aunt Okwy brought pregnancy from nowhere into my house. And you went and did the same thing? Ujo adiro gi n’anya, eh, so you have no fear in your eyes?”

“Papa, biko, you promised you won’t flog me again.”

“Lie on the bed!”

She climbed into bed and flattened her stomach against the soft mattress, her head turned to the side, so she could see everything he did. Outside her window, the world was so dark, so still. He grabbed a cane, a long thing that was as thick as her thumb.

“Papa, biko. Please,” she begged.

“Where did you get that pregnancy from?” he said.

“It was a mistake, Papa,” she began to explain.

He lifted his hand, the cane reaching for the ceiling, before he brought it down with so much might that it zipped through the air, before landing on her buttocks, the force lifting her skirt. She was numbed by the shock, her knees suddenly soft. And then she screamed. A hoarse cry that tore through the night, ringing throughout the compound. Neighbors jerked awake. Worried voices rose. Her father was undaunted.

I tried to add a texture to an archetypal violent male character. Here is a father who loves his daughter, who fears for her, but who is also a violent man.

We are often so upset with characters we consider “villains” that we over-indulge the “victim.” The camera is always on the “victim,” showing us what is done to them, how they are unfairly treated, with the intent of drawing out the deepest emotions from the readers. But this mechanism becomes too one-sided because a story feels more authentic when the characters are fully rounded. It gets harder to trust a protagonist whose story is told from the place of victimhood, such that they are not smudged, are perfect, have everything wrong done to them. A story told this way can seem even deceptive, cowardly. This can also unintentionally become injurious to them because the reader knows them as just one thing: victims, stunted or political agendas.

In Disgrace, we see Lurie struggling to atone for his transgressions. As the book progresses, we learn what he truly yearns for, what he is afraid of, his weakness, his strength, who he trusts, who he can turn to when he is troubled, his hopes and dreams and failures. This character who starts off in the story preying on young women is almost redeemed at the end of the page.

Knowing all the dimensions to your character, especially that sexist character, helps you in making them well-rounded, helps in curving that narrative arc, raises the stakes in the story, heightens the emotional question. And in all, your reader is intrigued. This intrigue prompts them to become emotionally invested in the story, despite the character’s faults. And that lets them see the character’s faults more clearly and fully.

 

Ukamaka Olisakwe was born and raised in Kano, Nigeria. She authored one novel, EYES OF A GODDESS (Piraeus Books LLC, Massachusetts, 2012), and a one-hundred-episode TV series, THE CALABASH, which aired on DSTV in Africa in 2015/2016. She has had her work appear in the New York Times and on the BBC, and has been published in JaladaSarabaSentinel Nigeria and Short Story Day Africa.

She was awarded an honorary fellowship in Writing from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In 2014, she was chosen as one of the continent’s most promising writers under the age of 40 by the UNESCO World Book Capital. In 2018, she won the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Emerging Writer Scholarship for the MFA in Writing and Publishing program.

Writing Off the Page

Andrea Rothman

I live in the North Shore of Long Island, the setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In theory, the bucolic landscape of sea grass, lush trees, and glittering water that surround me should provide the ideal framework for my fiction writing. But as a mother of seven-year-old twins with a household to manage, a social life, and a husband, my writing life is far from ideal.

Rarely do I write as often as I would like to, or for as long. And the few precious hours a week I get to spend in the quiet of my room, at my desk, the tips of my fingers poised on the keyboard of my laptop, are not always satisfying or productive. Seldom do I achieve that deep, focused state of mind that feels so necessary to good writing, and when I do, inevitably the home phone will ring, or my mobile dings with a new text, summoning me out of the waking dream, back to reality: my best friend—and one of the few people who actually cares about my writing, aside from my husband—is having personal issues, so how can I not interrupt my writing to hear her out? Meanwhile the school nurse has just informed me that my daughter’s ear is hurting; I should pick her up as soon as possible. And there goes my writing day.

I might have given up writing long ago, or set it aside until my kids are at least teenagers. The reason I haven’t stopped writing has something to do with my suspicion that there probably is no ideal time in life to write, but mainly it has to do with a habit I’ve developed—call it self-preservation—of stretching my imagination past the limits of my allotted writing time, beyond the confines of my laptop and desk.

Often I will write in my car, parked near the stop sign where the bus drops my kids off after school. In the glove compartment there are pens and stacks of Post-it notes. If something pops in my head as I wait, I jot it down. Occasionally I will cover a Post-it or two, the flow of words usually cut short by the approaching sound of the school bus, or someone pulling up next to my car to ask for directions. Once, as I was busy filling a Post-it, the honking of a car horn made me look up. A man in whose face I slowly came to recognize my neighbor was smiling expectantly at me from his car. I waved at him across the glass, then looked back down and continued to write. Hey, I’m as friendly as the next person. When I’m not writing. Or trying to.

When I can’t hold a pen and paper—in store aisles and checkout lines, or as I’m driving—I will resort to writing in my head. More accurately, I try to lose myself in the feeling-state world of my characters, to perceive smells, sounds, the weather, an image, a conversation, as my characters would, while my mind free-floats through potential scenes. What I call writing in my head—or off the page—is a combination of playacting and dreamstorming: driving to the supermarket, I am no longer a mother, or even a woman. I am six feet tall and have dark hair cropped close to my skull, and my name is Aeden. Except that Aeden rarely ever goes to the supermarket. Aeden doesn’t even live in this town. But here he is, discovering that his colleague in the research lab betrayed him. And his reaction isn’t one of anger—as I’d thought—but one of bewilderment.

Writing off the page, flat characters can come to life and stories take shape. One time I had just left the supermarket and was rushing toward my car. It was one of those still gray mornings in winter when you know it’s about to snow, and I was in Emily’s skin, the thirteen-year-old girl in the story I was writing. Her mother had hidden her Pink Floyd CD and Emily had run outside to look for it. Emily couldn’t have cared less if it snowed. She would have been out in a snowstorm looking for her CD. I got inside the car and jotted this down. And that is how my story “Breathe” begins.

While writing off the page, I’ve grasped what it was about a scene that wasn’t working, or discovered the emotional layer one of my characters so desperately needed. I remember pushing a shopping cart across a supermarket aisle where two women stood talking. Being in Cathy’s body—the protagonist of my work in progress—I was drawn to these two women. Cathy, who was always alone, yearned for human connection. She would have wanted to know what the women were saying to each other, especially if it was something personal. But when I wheeled my cart past the two women, Cathy didn’t want to know. She had no interest in them, or in anyone, for that matter. Cathy was a loner by choice. She thought she longed for people but she didn’t, and deep down, she was aware of this contradiction in her character. Now I understood that her voice could not be the purely yearning one I’d written; there had to be irony in it, too. I filled several Post-it notes in the car that day and for several weeks went back to them to re-write scenes in Cathy’s new voice. In hours of sitting at my desk, I’d been unable to figure out a problem I solved behind my cart at the supermarket.

I know that creativity benefits from periods of incubation. But I also believe that creativity can be activated by habit. My time alone in the car and stores is just the kind of idleness I need to fuel my creative dreams, which is why I value that time so much. I have noticed, though, that if I let too much time pass between a writing session at my desk and an opportunity to dreamstorm, my characters become less tangible to me, and my focus on them compromised.

Standing near the rack of tabloid magazines at the checkout counter, I begin to wonder if it’s true that Angelina Jolie is starving herself to death. I ask myself why Barbara Streisand looks so old lately, and find it slightly upsetting that an NBA player was dumped by one of the Kardashians. And there goes my character, along with the scene I’d conjured. By the time I’ve paid and left the store, the question of whether Demi Moore will survive without Ashton Kutcher has become a more pressing issue in my mind than why my character has just fallen down a flight of stairs and broken his leg. I rush towards my car to jot down a plausible explanation for my character’s misfortune before Demi’s crisis, like blotting fluid, erases it. But the truth is, there is no clear reason in my mind as to why my character has fallen down the stairs.

Lately I’ve been trying out a strategy for making use of the over-stimulating influence of pop culture. If a celebrity intrusion distracts me enough to threaten to kick a character out of my head, then maybe it can also serve as the catalyst for new material. After all, my characters, though they are my creations, are inspired by the world I live in. Writing off the page might be an ideal means of harnessing creative leaps that can only come from tabloid invasion.

I recall Demi’s look of sweet longing and indignation at the photographer who sold that picture, and wonder how my character, who now wears a cast up to his thigh and goes to work on crutches, will respond to pity. I don’t know. But inspired by the look on Demi’s face, I can begin to imagine two options for my character: either he tells his coworker to get lost, or, through tears, he tells him to try running down newly polished stairs after the woman he loves has just left him. Options worth dreamstorming during the drive home.

On Revision: Pulling Up Widows

Pam Houston

One of my primary goals in writing Contents May Have Shifted was to make a book in which each of my sentences worked harder than they ever had before. I was brought up in the post-Raymond Carver school of compression, and I still believe the poets are the real wizards, all that humanness crammed into just a few perfect lines.

So when I got to the 15th, and I believed final, draft, I decided to spend some weeks doing nothing but pulling up “widows.” Every time there was a word or two at the end of a paragraph that spilled over to the next line, I found a way to compress the language of the paragraph so that it got pulled “up” to the line above. My book is in 144 short sections, so I did the same thing if a sentence or two at the end of a section was “widowed” onto a blank page. You can see how this becomes a self-perpetuating process. If I pulled up a three-sentence widow from the end of a section and then pulled up word widows from every paragraph within that section, I might create, by the time I was finished, new widows to pull up at the section’s end. I knew, of course, that the layout of my manuscript would bear no resemblance to the typeset book. This process was simply a way to say to each sentence, “I know you think you’re as tight as you can get; now lets tighten you up just a little bit more.”

Weeks turned into months—four, to be exact—of rigorous, painstaking, highly enjoyable work, and what I had to show for it was a 250-page manuscript that was exactly 17 pages shorter than when I began. Not much, you say, for four months of work. But I’d beg to differ. When I contemplate putting back any of what I thought was muscle and turned out to be flab, I would say those excised 17 pages count for everything.

First draft of this craft short: 392 words

Final draft: 336

The Art of Interviewing

Josh Dudley

 

I’ve had the good fortune to interview several podcast hosts for the New York Observer, most recently James Urbaniak. I’ve also talked to Russ Haven, legislative counsel for The New York Public Interest Research group and a very independent film director. The first interview I had was with Scott Bateman, the film director. Now, even though I was friends with the guy, I was scared, nervous, and intimidated. In my head, I thought I was trying to bridge a divide that I had no business going near.

After conducting several interviews, I realized that having the interest, the opportunity, and the desire to put the work into perfecting interviewing skills means I do belong in the same level as Bateman. I think Bert Cooper’s  quote from Mad Men is particularly relatable: “The Japanese have a saying: a man is whatever room he is in, and right now Donald Draper is in this room.” If given the opportunity and time to prepare, you can successfully interview anyone.

HOW DO I DECIDE WHO TO INTERVIEW?

The best interviews come out of passion for the interviewee and their craft. You are providing a conduit for them to expand or reach their fan base, and the best way to do that is to be a fan yourself. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them on everything, but if it’s a major issue that hinders you from appreciating them, put it aside and try to examine it in context with everything else they’ve produced. If you still can’t get behind it, or at least compartmentalize it, then you may need to accept that you are not the right person to conduct the interview.

HOW DO YOU STOP YOURSELF FROM BEING SO NERVOUS BEFORE AN INTERVIEW?

Immerse yourself in your interview subject’s world. Watch, read, or listen to what they have created until you understand their point of view. If you don’t understand where they are coming from, your questions may come off as ill-informed, wrongheaded, or even combative.

Take copious notes on everything until key themes emerge. Even if you’re interviewing people who have a wide range of interests, if you really study them, you will notice patterns and themes that repeat themselves. It’s from those themes that you will develop inferences, and from those inferences that your best questions will come.

When you have a good understanding of the subject and several questions to ask, keep researching their work right up until the interview. You never know what new insights you might glean. The more comfortable you feel about their material, the more comfortable you will feel around them.

You need to be comfortable to make them feel comfortable talking to you. If your interview is over the phone, be prepared to be in your room or a quiet workspace for as long as you think the interview will last. You don’t want to be interrupted or distracted. Give yourself a glass of water, but no food, and be ready to put yourself in their headspace.

WHAT DO I DO DURING THE INTERVIEW?

Treat your guest like a friend by asking first about their wellbeing and what they’ve been doing this week. Don’t rush right into your questions. You don’t want to sound forced and/or canned. In addition to ingratiating yourself, it can also serve as an excellent segue, as their answers might very well be relevant to your interview questions.

Keep an eye on verbal or visual cues that they give you, as this may give you an idea for a follow-up about their response. Do your best to make your questions short and efficient. Your guest’s time is valuable, and you need to treat it like gold.

Hopefully, your new friend is passionate and connected to what you are asking them about, in which case the natural course of the conversation may flow out of that. Keep your questions and notes handy during the interview. Think of them as guidepost markers to keep you on the trail should you wander too far off.

WHAT TO DO AFTER THE INTERVIEW IS OVER

Thank them again for their time by text or email, and try to give them an idea, if you have one, of when the interview will be published. If your talk lasted for an hour, and you have it recorded and transcribed, then you may be looking at several thousand words more than you want in the final product. You will need to do some severe cutting.

What you are now creating, in effect, is a commentary of what you believe happened. You want this commentary to be the most interesting and informative version of the event as possible.

Your original notes and questions had a theme, and you will soon discover that the answers you received have one as well. When choosing what to reduce or eliminate, look for things that are farthest from that theme as well as obvious redundancies. It’s your job to put the interviewee in the best light possible, so use care. You don’t want lack of time to be the reason for cutting an entire paragraph.

When you’re finished, give them a heads up, and consider sending them a copy in advance to avoid embarrassing revisions or retractions after your story is published.

Congratulations! You’ve told the world about someone, and their work, that you find interesting. Hopefully, you’ve also made a valuable new friend.

Pain is Not the Only Thing

J.C. Lillis

Is a book that makes you ugly-cry worth more than a book that makes you belly-laugh?

Can a book’s worth be measured in milliliters of tears produced?

Does a book that feels like a punch in the gut mean more than one that feels like a hug?

I’ve seen some great Twitter threads lately that tackled these questions with passion and smarts. And though I probably can’t add many blazing new insights to the conversation, I want to say something anyway. Because that’s what writers do when they aren’t mid-book, and have way too much time to think about the Art and Theory of Writing instead of the Sweat and Tears and Agony of Writing.

The connection between pain and artistic merit is something I think about a lot, especially when I’m between book projects, pondering my next move. My last YA novel, A&B, was an f/f (female/female) romantic comedy of the rainbows, pop-songs, and cute-dorky-banter variety.  It was fun to write and hopefully fun to read. But now, while I’m letting new story ideas marinate, the Gremlin of Insecure Rumination has come back to squat in my brain and pass a stinky cloud of judgment.

Gremlin: Whatcha got, kid?

Me: Two ideas. One’s kind of heavy, one’s light and weird and fun.

Gremlin: Which one are you leaning toward… OH, NO. WAIT. DON’T TELL ME!

Me: The light funny one. Okay? Because the world is a trash fire right now, and dear God, do I need to entangle myself in a story that makes me smile. I bet other people do, too.

Gremlin: Okay, but…

Me: People like rainbows! People like unicorns! People like nerdy banter about pop music, and why goats are terrible creatures!

Gremlin: Yeah, but like, when are you going to write–

Me: DON’T SAY IT!

Gremlin: —Something that actually matters?

We have this conversation a lot, the Gremlin and I. Maybe she visits you, too. Sometimes, she comes in the guise of true concern for your career, but then she hunkers down and puts a pot of poison on the stove to simmer. Before you know it, you catch yourself stirring up all kinds of bullshit.

I’ve caught myself thinking the heavier story is automatically more legitimate. More artistically respectable. More “real.”

I’ve caught myself thinking that if I don’t write books people call brutal and important and a searing indictment of such-and-such, or an uncompromising look at the way we live today, I’m not a real writer.

I’ve caught myself thinking that peddling joy is an endeavor that serious writers grow out of.

Judging by the stream of tweets I’ve favorited lately, other writerly folks wrestle with these thoughts, too. So, what’s behind this? Why do we lionize stories that devastate us and trivialize stories that comfort and restore us?

I think the core of it is, we tend to believe painful stories tell the truth and happy stories sell sweet lies.

It’s easy to jump on this train of thought in 2017 United States of America where we’re all basically Podlings held hostage by gluttonous Skeksis in moldering robes, their craggy beaks picking off hunks of our democracy (please stop reading this and go watch The Dark Crystal if that didn’t make sense to you). Every day, there’s so much to fight, so much to cry and rage about, so many mountains to drill through on our dark uncertain path to a future we can live with.

But in the valleys between mountains, the sun still shows its face.

Great pain, sadness, and injustices swarm the world, but people still fall in love, overcome odds, pitch their battered tents in valleys of happy. Those stories are as true as the tragedies. It’s as essential a part of the human experience.

Gremlin: Yeah. Yeah, cool. But the purpose of real art is to challenge, right? Not to placate.

Here’s what you say, when the Gremlin tries this line: Joyful stories are a direct and powerful challenge to a world that routinely conspires against our happiness. While downbeat stories brilliantly challenge and expose human shortcomings—our complacency, our prejudices, our basest instincts and dearly held illusions—upbeat stories challenge our frequent inability to see past these shortcomings.

Love is absurdly flawed and transient, the downbeat story whispers.

But love still exists, says the upbeat story, and the happiness it brings should be celebrated, even if it sometimes doesn’t endure.

People are shits, the downbeat story grumbles, with an endless capacity for selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy.

But sometimes people are good shits, says the upbeat story, who balance their flaws with extraordinary acts of kindness and defiant acts of love.

Pain is an ever-present thing, the downbeat story cries!

True, says the upbeat story, but pain is not the only thing.

If a key role of fiction is to mirror life, then our bookshelves need a balance of dark and light.

We should value both types of stories equally, as two sides of the same human experience. Because when we devalue stories that bring joy, it implies that we think pain is the only truth. All we can hope for. All we deserve.

In 2017 United States, that’s a tempting thought. But it’s one I can’t bear to submit to.

So, writers, I’m gonna say this to you now, in the hope that we both believe it: If you write funny books with kissing and banter, funny misunderstandings, obstacles overcome, and happy or happy-for-now endings, you are needed. YOUR BOOKS MATTER. Now more than ever.

If you catch yourself thinking your evolution as a writer depends on an obligatory descent into darkness, then stop that shit, ‘cause that’s the Gremlin talking.

If you don’t have it in you to write a searing indictment of anything, and if your rage is real but doesn’t fuel your writerly engine, try to see that as a feature, not a bug. Recognize the particular gift you have to contribute, and don’t try to be anyone else but you. You’re enough. Your books are enough.

Readers and bloggers, you can help too. Actively confront and dismantle the notion that painful stories have the market on depth and quality cornered. Review rom-coms and lift up light reads. Talk up the merits of the books that make you laugh out loud when you thought you’d forgotten how. Take joy seriously. It takes a lot of voices to challenge a myth, so raise yours whenever you can.

And if you-know-who comes with her pot of poison, then send her my way. I’ve got Gremlin spray in my office, and I’m not afraid to use it.

The Story That Chooses You

Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons

A couple of years ago, I was interviewed by the East Bay Times about a cold case I’d written about the previous year.

“What made you decide to write about this?” the reporter asked.

Without thinking, I said, “She’s buried near my grandparents.” I knew it wasn’t a terribly sophisticated answer, but it was an honest one.

“But Jennifer, why this story? What made you choose this story?”

“You have to understand. I didn’t choose this story. This story chose me.”

Again, an honest answer. It made me think: Can a story choose a writer? Or does the writer choose the story?

Some background:

Suzanne (known to family and friends as Suzie) Bombardier disappeared while babysitting her nieces on June 22, 1980. Her body was found in a nearby marina several days later. My grandmother died a month later. Suzie, and my grandparents, are buried at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Lafayette, California.

As I visited my grandparents’ grave, a young man came up to me wanting a pen. I didn’t have one. Being nosy, I looked at the grave he was visiting. It was Suzie’s. I wondered, why was he visiting that grave?

In my journal, I wrote about what happened. Months later, I reread it. Writing wise, I was in a malaise. For years, I stuck by the rule of ‘write what you know.’ I wrote about suburban Northern California (where I grew up), my childhood, having a learning disability, home shopping, feminism,

I was trying to write a novel about Jonestown and an essay collection about the local movie theater being torn down, but it wasn’t working. As my former teacher, Susan Browne wrote, the cake wasn’t baked yet.

I looked through my journal and saw my notes about the man at the cemetery. I wrote a short essay about it for the local NPR station KQED. Then, I wrote a blog about Suzie after I found out she had been murdered.

Two months later, I received two notes from people who knew Suzie. They thanked me for writing about her. They expressed anger that the case wasn’t solved. It felt unfair to me. I knew there were many unsolved cases out there, but this was personal. She was buried near my grandparents. That made it more real.

How It Chose Me:

I thought, well, someone should be writing about this! It should be a Real Journalist! A Real Journalist that could get to the truth of this story!  I emailed several journalist friends about Suzie. They said, essentially, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ There wasn’t any new evidence, no corruption involved. It wasn’t sexy. There simply wasn’t anything new. I understood. They had other stories to write and were struggling to make a living. But I wanted this story to be told. Suzie’s death had fallen through the cracks. It felt like she had been forgotten. Her story had no resolution, no closure. It was in limbo. As a person who hates limbo, I couldn’t imagine anything worse for a person, dead or alive.

I talked about the story constantly. Finally, my friend Laura said, “You need to write this story.”

“I don’t do hard news. The police will never talk to me.”

“You need to write this story.”

“But what if…”

She said it a third time: “You need to write this story. This is your story.”

I finally gave in. It was as if the story chose me. It was a story that plopped itself right on my doorstep and said, “Here I am. Write about me.”

I thought, if I don’t write about it, nothing will happen. If I do write about it, something might happen. I risked it.

I wrote about Suzie and had it published in several media outlets. More people learned about her and what happened to her that June night. I heard from even more people who knew Suzie, including a detective who had worked on her case. She hadn’t been forgotten. She didn’t fall completely through the cracks.

What I’ve learned through writing about Suzie is that stories sometimes choose writers. If something interests you, you should write about it. I still believe this is true. For me, this was the story I had to write.

I remembered what Anne Lamott tweeted years ago: “Here’s how to write: badly, 2 pages at a time, because there’s a story tugging on your sleeve that has chosen you to tell it, and will help you.” This story was pulling at my skirt. It was like a little kid saying, “Come on! You need to write about me! I trust you! Please write about me!”

I wish I could say something very smart and academic about why some stories choose certain writers. I believe it has to do with paying attention to the world.

You might look at a magazine in the grocery store and see a story that intrigues you. Or you could remember a person in your past that sparked inspiration. In my case, a stranger asked me for a pen. He could’ve gone to anyone else in the cemetery, but he approached me. I can’t explain it.

The Story that Chose Thomas Keneally

One of my favorite writing stories is about Thomas Keneally who needed a new briefcase when he was visiting Los Angeles. He went to a luggage shop and met Leopold Page, the owner of the shop. Years later, Keneally wrote about the meeting for The Guardian: they were waiting for Keneally’s credit card to clear when Page asked what Keneally did for a living. Keneally replied he was a writer. Page told him he had a story for him.

Keneally froze. He’d heard this so many times. But Page was a nice man and was trying to get him a good briefcase, so he said go ahead and tell the story. Page told him about Oskar Schindler, a man who saved over a thousand Jews during World War II. Oh yeah, and he happened to be a Nazi. And a gambler. He also cheated on his wife. Minor little details! Once the credit card cleared, Page Xeroxed several documents about Schindler and put them in Keneally’s new briefcase.

Keneally could’ve thought, “Okay, that gentleman was interesting. A little high strung, but interesting,” then gone about his day. But he didn’t. He started researching Oskar Schindler. Along the way, he realized that this was a story that chose him. He was an Irish Catholic who once studied for the priesthood and grew up in Australia, as far as anyone could get from World War II. But he knew this was his story. He had to write about Schindler and how he saved a thousand Jews from the Holocaust.

Keneally started working on a historical novel that was originally called Schindler’s Ark, then renamed Schindler’s List. The novel went on to win the Booker Award, and then was turned into an Academy award-winning movie directed by Steven Spielberg. In a tribute to Page, Keneally wrote in The Guardian: “…but I had not, as some readers would later kindly see it, fought my way to the centre of a maze to emerge with one of the essential stories of an awful century. I had stumbled upon it. I had not grasped it. It…had grasped me.”

Through the years, I’ve tried to explain to people that Suzie’s story chose me, not the other way around. “I want to write something like you did,” someone told me. The biggest advice I would tell someone is what journalist Amy Goodman once said: “A journalist’s job is go to where the silence is and listen.” One day, I went to where the silence was and I listened.

A Loaded Gun: Hunting My Elusive Book

Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons

A few nights ago I dreamed a tray arrived with my lunch: a bowl of bullets. They weren’t the only offering on the tray, just the only one I cared to eat. Stale pita smeared with hummus by a parsimonious hand, a slice of supermarket peach pie that looked like someone had stomped on it…hell, no.

The bullets clinked and gleamed as I rolled them in the palm of my hand. They looked like no other bullets, black with silver tips, daring me to consume them. They could only be mine, these beauties. Or was it the other way around? I put the first one on my tongue and let it rest there, biding my time until it seemed I’d always known how to make a meal of bullets. Lead bloomed in my mouth, then all the way down as I swallowed the sucker. Who knew this could feel so good? I woke up both exalted and nourished, the back of my throat still tingling.

In the real world, bullets are not exactly my thing. I’ve never seen one, never touched a firearm, and never lived among people who hunt and shoot. From time to time, I wonder what it’s like to fire a lethal weapon: hear the bang, absorb the force of the recoil. I’m afraid to find out. But as of that morning, I knew how it felt to be a loaded gun.

Writing is a Thicket of Frustrations

For a couple of months I’d been lost in the metaphorical woods with my writing. The prize, my second book, circled out of my view like a fleet-footed creature of the night. I became so busy checking my mental GPS, I forgot to check my instincts. Every day I bashed and prodded the previous day’s work, until it looked like the crushed pie in my dream. Turns of phrase that had once looked perfectly fine revealed themselves to be as meager and dry as stale pita. A frenzy of disgust overtook me—at my work for falling short of the captivating notion in my head and at myself for ever thinking I was equal to the challenge.

But when it comes to dreaming, I’m still on my game. My bullet dream has the power, the boldness that my woebegone manuscript doesn’t. The dream proves I still have my creative mojo. Even better, I have an inner coach.

Emily Dickinson Lights the Way

I can’t credit my unconscious for my dream’s central image: The woman artist as firearm. I borrowed it from a genius, Emily Dickinson. For close to 40 years, a thrillingly subversive poem of hers has knocked around in my head like a lucky charm inside a pocket. I still don’t fully understand it. Yet no poem has ever made more sense to me than this one does today. Dickinson is grappling with her own creative powers—what they demand of her and where they take her. She begins:

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—

In Corners—till a Day

The Owner passed—identified—

And carried Me away—

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods—

And now We hunt the Doe—

And every time I speak for Him—

The Mountains straight reply—

I know the wild landscape of this poem; I just haven’t found my way back. Still, Dickinson points me in the right direction. Step one is admitting I’m not in control of this adventure. No use being fully loaded if I’m stuck in a corner, invisible to my creative self. I have to forsake the confining and familiar for the vast and unknown. Let myself be carried away and go after the doe, following Dickinson’s lead.

Only a woman could’ve written this poem. It packs an unmistakable sexual punch (male hunter, female prey, creative work as ravishment). If I were still an English major trying to ace a term paper, I might ramble on about sex and gender.

But I’m a blocked writer seeking hope that the mountains will reply to me again. Dickinson’s take on power and submission is exactly the tonic I’m after. As I read the poem, both the hunter and the prey are aspects of the poet (the former being her inner badass, the latter her vision).

Writing is Bigger and Wilder than the Writer

I’ve always liked power and control. Submission? Not so much. I was perfectly cast for my previous career as editor-in-chief of a successful women’s magazine. For ten years I sharpened prose for other writers. Cut here, expand there, we need a word picture. My team and I had targets to meet. Words took us there. Now, I write alone without rules, targets or readers waiting for my work to land in their mailbox. After years of telling others what to do, I can barely see my way forward. I don’t miss my corporate masters, but Dickinson’s woods are not for softies.

Writing will have its way with the writer, she tells me in her cryptic fashion. I’ll not only meet my killer instinct, I might be shocked by how much I enjoy it. She says of the partnership between gun and hunter:

To foe of His—I’m deadly foe—

None stir the second time—

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—

Or an emphatic Thumb—

I stand in the cold at the edge of the woods, listening for a rustle in the underbrush. I could be in for a lonely vigil but my prey is out there. I’m not turning back. We’ll find each other soon enough. As much as I’m hunting this book, it is hunting me. I know that as surely as I know the taste of bullets. I submit to the inevitable.

Sympathetic Magic

Annah Browning

Sympathetic magic. This is a term that does mean something like what you think it would. It is a kind of sympathy, an extension from one thing to another — the idea that you can influence something based on its similarity to something else. Think poppets, little dolls made to look like lovers or bad neighbors. What you do to one, you do to the other. Think pink candles lit for love; pink as interior, tender parts.

This magic is also called the magic of correspondence or contagion — the properties of one thing leaping to another. In folk medicines around the world, it shows up in what has been called the doctrine of signatures — the belief that you can tell what plant will heal you by its similarity to an ailing part. Lungwort, with its oval, spotted leaves, was prescribed to cure our ulcerated and cancerous lungs.  Walnuts for the brain. Eyebright, a sunny-centered herb, for what hurts the eyes. Saxifrage breaks apart stones with its roots, and so was thought to clear away kidney stones.

As a poet, these are my favorite falsehoods. As above, so below. Correspondence means a kind of matching, but also letters, communication. If I light this wick here, and kiss this rock, some cloud above me will shift in response. If I make this metaphor well enough — if tenor moves with vehicle, hovering above that holiness called ground — then some confusion within me will lift, and I will be able to see clearly enough to show you something — that I love you, that I fear for you, that I have found something beautiful and terrible in this world.

I refuse to believe this work means nothing. And yet, I know  you can crack walnuts between your teeth all day and your brain can still stutter until it stops. I know if I cut back the hair of a doll that looked just like you, even if it had your own locks sewn into its scalp, you would be untouched. Intention is powerful, they say. But I don’t know if it moves anything above or below. I only know what metaphor, what ritual, moves inside of me — what corresponds to my blood, what intent can contagion my daily movements: I will be better today. I will fight better today. I light a blue candle in the dark — blue for healing, blue for calm — and for a minute, the whole room is.

There are some who believe that the doctrine of signatures did not begin as the idea of a map placed on earth by God to tell us what can heal us. They say that individual correspondences between the shapes of plants and their qualities were used first as mnemonics — to help us remember when we stumbled onto a good one, a cure that actually worked. Eyebright, as it turns out — whether by coincidence or long-forgotten, accidental discovery — when used in eye drops, really can fight infection. Maybe that’s what ritual, what magic and the magic of good writing can do — they remind us of what we already know can help sustain us. An intent. A symbol. A daily work. A correspondence, a leeching of light from one source to another.

What a Lonely Youth with Robots Taught Me: MST3K and Storytelling

Amy E. O’Neal

When I was a kid, my grandparents in Jackson had a bigger cable package than my folks did. Thanks to my frequent sleepovers at their home, I owe one of the greatest writing influences in my life to a show on that package. Since they went to bed at 9, I could pretty much watch anything that wasn’t nailed down. What could be more amazing, in 1991, than the concept of an entire Comedy Channel? I turned to it, hoping to find some stand-up.

What I found was a Japanese monster movie of some kind. It was being mocked by three shadows on the screen: two puppets and a guy, all with mild Midwestern voices and, as it turned out, the most delightfully absurd and addictive humor that I had ever heard from American comics.

Granted, I was a twelve-year-old girl from Mississippi. I found it easier to relate to Monty Python, Douglas Adams and Ren & Stimpy than to other actual human beings, I’d already decided that I was a comedy expert. I gave this matter my considered judgment. To this day, I have not changed it much.

Over twenty-five years later, Mystery Science Theater 3000, fronted by comic Joel Hodgson and later by head writer Michael J. Nelson, has become extremely influential in the field of American comedy. Even after its cancellation, its alumni brought the movie-mockery concept straight over to their own projects, Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax. The show itself is being revived with a new generation of comics on Netflix. What the show has given me, though, is not only entertainment, but years’ worth of sneaky instruction in how to tell a story.

When a movie ended up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, or ends up today on Rifftrax, it wasn’t merely because its effects were bad, but because it possessed a deeper badness. It possessed an inability to entertain on its own merits. Many of these movies were unconcerned with actual storytelling. The filmmakers were chiefly concerned with another goal: importing cheap foreign movies for a profit (Pod People), taking advantage of lower production costs in a sunny clime (Final Justice), or displaying breasts on a grand scale (Village of the Giants).

We — you and I and anybody else classy enough to read Ephemeral Artery — are, of course, above such considerations. We are literary. We produce literary fiction for literary people. That is why it’s paramount that we expose ourselves and our work to the same ruthless mockery as the saddest of Z-grade films. We must never take our audience for granted. In the words of the late Richard Nagareda: “we must take our work seriously, but we must never take ourselves seriously.”

The kind of movies that were on MST3K had, despite themselves, important lessons to teach us about storytelling, particularly about pacing and characterization.

Pacing

“So, what are we, about a half hour into this movie?”

“No, I’m afraid it’s just a minute.”

Manos: The Hands of Fate

Manos, a movie made on a bet by a small-town Texas businessman, became so famous through its MST3K appearance that it has become a top contender for the title of Worst Movie Ever Made. The tedium of this film is established upfront, minutes out of the gate. What happens? Nothing. The protagonists are riding in their convertible, down a road, past some fields, past some houses (unless they are hills). Some off-brand jazz is playing. Acres of nothing pass. The robots, whose job it is to find something, anything, to make fun of, are finally reduced to saying, “In summary, Manos: the Hands of Fate.”

Ask yourself: are you showing your character getting ready to go, getting in a car, and going someplace? Are you detailing how that character gets there? Is that critical to the storyline, plot, or character development? Do we care? Are you sure?

Absent some intervening circumstance, we will trust and believe you that a character in a given modern setting can take a car, bus, train, or even walk to the next scene. The conveyance of a character from one location to another is only relevant insofar as any other scene is relevant. Remember, if you are not interested by what you are writing, the reader won’t be, either. Sadly, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you are fascinated by your writing, the reader will be fascinated as well.

You can speed your pacing by shortening your sentences and chopping them with line breaks to create a shortness of breath in the narrative, if you prefer a terser style. Alternatively, you can lace a crash of events into long sentences that refuse to let go, as Gerry Visco shows in his analysis of Tobias Wolff’s famous gem of a story, “Bullet in the Brain.” Keep it swift. You will keep the reader with you.

“TALK. QUICKER.”

The Touch of Satan

In this movie, a couple in what we are assured is love angsts about the fact that one of them is an immortal witch who made a deal with the devil out in colonial 19th-century Burbank. They indicate the gravity of their dialogue by measuring it out through long pauses. It does not have the desired effect. Instead of suspense and dread, we get doldrums and whining.

Don’t parcel out information and interaction purely to drag out events or pad a scene. This, as we see above, does not equate suspense. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “Suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.” In order to involve the audience emotionally, they must, indeed, care. And in order to get the audience to care, we need —

Characterization

“I will not accept this as our star, sorry… Can I see your supervisor, movie? This will not stand!”

Time Chasers

“It stars nobody and features nothing. I hope you gag on it.”

Track of the Moon Beast

“So, basically, the hero is this guy. I think it’s time we all face that fact.”

The Pumaman

The kind of movies featured on MST3K often presented protagonists that were less than inspiring. Sometimes, as in Track of the Moon Beast or The Pumaman, the nominal heroes are helpless, flailing white dudes inexplicably seconded by intelligent, competent men of color who supply the plot’s necessary lore and save their bacon at every turn. Sometimes, as in Time Chasers, the protagonist just doesn’t protagonate, at least not to start with — he goes to the supermarket, taps at the computer, and watches TV.

Is your protagonist someone worth watching — that is, reading about? Why? Examine them closely. Question your assumptions as to why you expect so. Is there another character in the story standing just behind them? Someone whose perspective might be more exciting or informative? Is this (to paraphrase another writer) the most important story in the protagonist’s life? If not, why aren’t you telling that one, or telling this story from the perspective of someone for whom, indeed, it is?

Anyone who has read a dull workshop story with a character whose main drive in life is apparently staring at baristas will at least recognize why and how we lose our patience with a main character that is not very main. Steven James writes, “Usually if a reader says she’s bored or that ‘nothing’s happening in the story,’ she doesn’t necessarily mean that events aren’t occurring, but rather that she doesn’t see the protagonist taking natural, logical steps to try and solve his struggle.”

Consider for yourself: what is your protagonist’s struggle? What are some “natural, logical” steps that they might take in response to it? What’s natural and logical for the protagonist needs to be defined subjectively, of course, especially if the protagonist is as flawed as the rest of us, and is likely to come up with some “logical” solution to their own problem that isn’t quite right. The clarity of your depiction, and of this action, will keep your reader with you.

In summary, Manos: the Hands of Fate I do not mean to argue that MST3K intended more import than any other comedy show. Nor would I argue that everyone should forego literary experimentation and place cinematic values first. Yet, I do believe that this show can teach writers to respect the audience, to understand that the viewer (or reader) is offering their time and attention up to us, as creators. We must respect that gift of attention, and treat it with gratitude, or lose it.

 

Thanks to the Livejournal MST3K community for letting me bounce this idea off them years ago.

Writing First-Personal Journalism About Trauma

Gina Tron

I have written several pieces about personal trauma for news publications and nearly all went viral. I have written about being accused of wanting to shoot up my school as a teenager for VICE and Politico. I wrote about being sexually assaulted in VICE and XoJane. I also wrote about having cancer for the Daily Beast. These stories are not merely grim recounts of personal trauma, sickness, and drama. I mean, they are that too. But they are so much more. It’s about the larger message, which is the key to writing quality first-person journalism about trauma.

How do you know what to write about and what not to write about?

Are you going to write about every trauma in your life? No! Life is ridden with traumatic events. That’s part of living. You will definitely not be writing publicly about every grief or miscommunication or break up in your life. If your story has a larger universal message, especially if it’s an issue in the news at the time, then it may be worth writing about in this particular capacity. Relevancy and universal appeal are key. Does your personal story say something new or poignant about society, about misconceptions of our flawed justice system? Or is it a topic that has a stigma? When I wrote about my rape, not only did I write about it because it had stigma attached to it, but also because of a larger issue at hand. I pitched this to VICE because I wanted to show how fucked up the legal system is when people are raped. Even though it was only a few years ago, rape culture and rape stories weren’t as prevalent as they are now. It was only beginning. Coming out and stating that I was raped and that drugs were involved was a bigger deal than it would be in 2017. Being assaulted was not the point of my story. It was merely the catalyst. The  takeaway was to show how difficult it is to convict a rapist. I explained in my article that the defense attorney planned to use photos of me in bathing suits and at parties to prove that I was essentially a loose girl, as well as my cartoon blog of blobs fighting to somehow show that I liked violent sex, all apparent proof that I could not have been raped. This story opened the eyes of many readers who had not realized just how bad things were in this regard. Many did not realize that women’s sexual history and clothing was still used against them in court.

In January, I wrote about having cancer for the Daily Beast. The article wasn’t a sob story about cancer.  I wrote about it because I had a specific message and the cancer proved my point. Speaker Paul Ryan had just announced his plans to cut federal money to Planned Parenthood, a plan that went forward in Congress. Planned Parenthood happened to be the health care provider that pushed me to get checked for cancer. I wanted the world to know that Planned Parenthood  saves lives, like my own, and that they are not an abortion mill, as many claim. So, although I touched on my trauma in my story, I didn’t go into intricate detail. It wasn’t a cancer story. It was a message to combat a current and popular Republican sentiment about Planned Parenthood.

Here are some tips for writing essays that include personal trauma:

PITCHING

Focus on the message. The point should be about something stigmatic or newsworthy, not just your pain. Your pain is part of it, but it’s also the catalyst for a bigger issue.

Pitch by stating your intentions clearly: you want to write about your father’s death in a boating accident. You might want to list statistics about boating accidents. Show the editors that boating accidents are the leading cause of death of fathers in the United States. Moreover, there is a stigma around it; it’s thought to be an unmanly way to die. Note that your mom refused to tell people how your dad died. She insisted that he died by a snake bite. Assert that you want to write this personal essay to try to fight that stigma.

Stigmatized topics are always pitch-worthy. Relevant trauma-related topics in the news are also pitch-worthy. For example, pretend that people are being banned from grocery stores because they are wearing white jeans, ordered by Trump. And that has been headlining the news lately and sparking giant protests. Maybe this is a good time to write about how your sister became depressed.  Why? She was banned from her favorite grocery store for wearing white jeans.

WRITING

If your pitch is accepted, write up a draft. For me, trauma-based articles take the shortest amount of time to write. I already know the story arc and already have my point or thesis envisioned.  Although I often include some research and statistics, the meat of the story is personal experience. I will often refer to journal entries or emails to make sure I have the dates and other details as correct as possible.

When writing your draft, try to make sure it doesn’t come off as angry or vengeful. Asking a loved one to read your draft before sending to your editor is a good idea. Stay on point. If something happened related to the trauma but is irrelevant to the point you are making, consider taking it out. It will only distract the reader.

Try not to come off as bitter. Having some distance and being matter-of-fact is helpful. People respond better to a measured tone because they don’t feel judged. This approach is more than likely to help lead to social change. That should be your goal for writing about trauma in this context. This is not a memoir. It’s an article meant to evoke thoughts and perhaps change perspectives of people who read the news.

Humor also helps, essentially when you have lived through a trauma with stigma, like rape. People who have been raped can still be funny. Humor can also be a subtle message behind the message, as in: See, we (rape survivors) are not broken, sad human beings. We can still laugh and make others laugh.

SELF-CARE

Make sure you’re in a good enough place psychologically to write about any past trauma. Writing about trauma is not easy. If you are the type of person that will re-live your trauma by writing about it, and get re-traumatized, this type of writing is not for you. Maybe you can write about your trauma in a different manner: like memoir, but not news articles. News articles are faster, colder, and more about the issue and the thesis. With memoir, it’s more about you and your healing. It is slow and patient. The news cycle is fast and cruel. Self-care comes first. It does not make you weak if you don’t want to write about trauma in this particular style. It’s a personality trait. I’m very detached at times, maybe a side effect from PTSD, or maybe that’s just the way I am. Either way, it works to my advantage when writing about trauma in a timely manner, because I am not negatively affected when I write about it. I can write about some of the worst, most painful experiences in my life while laughing and chatting with my boyfriend in the same room. Then I will eat mac and cheese and watch funny videos on YouTube and go to sleep without nightmares.

Time is a factor. If I witnessed people get shot yesterday, I would not be able to write about it with ease today. Obviously one must give themselves some time to heal and process. Even if you are completely deadpan in the face of trauma, and able to write about it immediately, you may need time to actually process and make sense of what happened before you are able to write something insightful about it.

If you are able to write about it, however, there are mental health benefits. According to Psych Central, “Written disclosure of emotional reactions to trauma leads to a wide variety of positive health consequences.” Personally, I have felt validated through writing about my trauma. I’ve received emails from people who related to my experiences, and the accompanying emotions, which has led to my own personal healing.

BACKLASH

If you want to write about trauma you have to be prepared for some backlash. This may be way tougher than actually writing about it. People will likely email or make nasty comments, even if you are a rape survivor or cancer survivor. It doesn’t matter. You can have all your limbs violently cut off in a train accident and you will still get shit for it.

I look at the big picture: if I made some women feel less alone with their rape then I did good. I put something good out into the world and I shed light on our shitty judicial system. It’s worth it even if I get nasty messages accusing me of lying or telling me I deserved it. There’s literally a whole article published about why I deserved to be raped. And I’m okay with that. It’s a small (albeit aggravating) price to pay for the rewards. If you write something and everyone agrees with your point and your story, then what’s the point of writing it at all? If everyone already agrees with your angle, then the social change has already occurred. If some people protest, if people argue, it’s often a good thing. It shows that there was a NEED for your piece. It proves that it’s important to try to change minds. Make sure you have a good support system and friends that help you through any backlash or trolling. Then, you can just laugh off the mean comments together!

 

 

Scratch That Curiosity Itch

Tierney Ray

I have never committed murder. Nor have I ever been at a murder scene with police, forensics, and medical examiners gathering evidence. But I know how to write that scene. So do you. Chances are high that you have, at some point in your life, watched a movie or television show that had a murder in it. Use that. Don’t think about blood spatter patterns. Don’t think about the effects of air conditioning on a decomposing body. Just write the scene.

Write about the murder. Write about the process of solving it, and the conclusion when the culprit is, or isn’t, caught. A few important things you will discover by the end of the book include: the name of the murderer, the name of the victim, the murder weapon, and the motive. With this new information, it becomes easier to figure out what to research, how far down the rabbit hole you need to go, and how to shape the murder scene in revision. This way, you have much more control over the breadcrumbs you leave for your audience.

I heard the idiom “write what you know” before I knew I wanted to be a writer. The problem with this line of thinking is that you will inevitably reach a point where you have to write about something you don’t know, because no one knows everything.

The first step in writing what you don’t know is to get the scene down on paper any way you can. There are already so many excuses writers use to psych themselves out of writing and the fear of getting details wrong should never be one of them.

If you’re female, you will likely need to write from the perspective of a male character at some point in your career, even if you have never been a man. As a woman, you can only imagine the maddening sensation of itchy balls in the middle of a two hour briefing that you are giving to a boardroom full of Generals and Colonels deciding the fate of a highly dangerous mission based on your briefing. If you are male, you can only dream about the terrible pain of underwire digging into your skin as you low crawl through sand dunes surrounding an enemy encampment while on a covert mission to save a group of soldiers captured during a convoy.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write these stories. I worry about getting the process of investigation wrong, but I am still going to write that process as best I can.

The Scene:

           “Neat as a pin. Not a stitch out of place. The J. Crew store on the South end of the local mall looked as it always did, with neatly stocked racks of shirts, pants, and sweaters in color coordinated groups. Cold air blasted from overhead fans, keeping the store a chilly sixty degrees. Time of death would be difficult to determine. Perfect, Detective Curio thought with a heavy sigh.

            As Curio trudged down the center aisle, skirting around the check-out station, he noted that nothing looked disturbed. Either there hadn’t been a struggle, or the killer knew how to put things back where they belonged. Glass lay scattered in large chunks on the floor of the dressing room, and the mirror sported a large blank section with sharp shards clinging to the edges of the frame. Someone hit the mirror hard enough for the glass to not only shatter, but to fall from the frame. The backing showed very little dried glue, so it was possible the mirror had simply been cheap.

            Blood pooled on the floor, already congealed and drying at the edges, but not on the bench. His shirt was cut, not torn. More blood soaked into the fabric, turning the bright cherry red to a gory brick shade. The victim’s hands showed numerous cuts and punctures and his eyes were still open, staring at the ceiling in absolute horror. Odd. As Detective Curio picked over the scene carefully, he noted each of these facts.” Pause.

Consider the scene above wherein a young man is found in the fitting room of the J. Crew at the local mall. The sales clerk who found the gruesome sight hurried to call the police and they sent in your character. He has noted the condition of the shop, the victim’s clothing, age, and the mess in the fitting room.

You have written to the end of the story. You know that the man was stabbed to death by his mother’s new boyfriend. The motive was to keep the victim from telling his mother about the boyfriend’s pedophilia conviction. This information can now color the scene. Despite having written the piece, you still need to flesh it out with enough breadcrumbs to give your readers the chance to solve the crime. For example, what does the glass on the floor mean? What do the victim’s wounds look like? Why isn’t the body covered or hidden? There are a vast array of platforms for research sources these days.  Let’s look at the three most popular – internet, media, and people.

The Internet:

If you know, specifically, what information to look for, then the Internet is a great resource. Let’s say the mirror cracked when the victim’s head connected with the glass as he struggled to gain possession of the knife. I go back and add Detective Curio or the M.E. commenting on the bump on the victim’s head so that the connection is suggested without telling the reader exactly what happened. This doesn’t answer the question about the cuts. I will need to clarify whether the cuts are jagged or smooth based on my research – wounds from a serrated blade versus a piece of glass. Let’s say the killer attacked with the serrated knife, but the victim knocked it away. The killer picked up a shard of broken mirror to finish the job. From my internet search, I know that the serrated knife would have left ragged edges in the shirt and skin. Because of this, I add in a scene where Curio is peering at photos of the crime scene and notices the difference in cuts.

The Media:

If the diagrams from the Internet aren’t for you and there are no videos on YouTube, then it may be time to consider another source – television, books, and movies. A lot of what I already know regarding murder is from detective novels, movies, and shows like Forensic Files. From the last source on this list, I learned that temperature can slow or speed up decomposition and make learning time of death difficult, which is why Curio notes the cold air.

The stab wounds on the victim can tell us more than just the weapon. The victim above shows a large number of stab wounds, indicating anger and hatred. A crime of passion. But the face was uncovered. From an episode of Forensic Files, I know that if the killer knew the victim well, the killer likely would have covered the face with something. The victim was a casual acquaintance, then.

The People:

The last source is all about connections. In my current acquaintance are a number of police officers, detectives, medical examiners, doctors, and just plain morbid people. If Wednesday Adams was a real person, she would be an excellent source. These are the people you ask if you don’t know the gaps in your story or how to leave a crumb to lead the reader in a specific direction. One of my friends is a glass expert. She blows glass professionally and has broken her fair share of mirrors. She tells me that not all mirrors are created equal. The mirror in your local Walmart is not the same quality as the mirror in your local J. Crew store, or even the same shape (see this article on Vice for proof). Assuming J. Crew uses moderately nice mirrors in their dressing rooms, I know the glue would hold the fractured glass in place pretty well, unless something pulled the glass free – like a particularly hard blow, snagged clothing, or a person looking for a new weapon. Now I can add a scene of Curio inspecting the shards of glass on the floor of the dressing room. Research moves the subject from the unknown to the known, helping you to write from a place of authority.

Writing what you don’t know takes a blend of curiosity, bravery, and research. You want to know what it would be like to investigate a murder, give a top secret briefing to government officials while suffering from a terrible case of jock itch, or explain to your date that the questionable stain is clearly wine and that the red pattern was always on your skirt. Summoning your courage, you ignore the fact that you have no experience with your subject and just let the scene play out on the page. The research conducted online, through interviews, or by watching television shows, helps you correct previous assumptions and flesh out the story. A competent, realistic Detective Curio strolls into a crime scene and solves a murder. A woman uses the underwire to pick the lock on the cell door to help her fellow soldiers escape. A presenter sighs in relief as he disappears into his office to finally scratch that itch.

Giving In

Rebecca Lawton

American Robin

When someone raps at my kitchen window, I jump out of my chair. It’s before dawn, in the hour when the horizon emerges as a gray line on the ephemeral lake before me. I’m staying in the Oregon Outback, at a retreat center as remote as Neverland, where the prospect of a face at the glass spooks me. I peek around. It’s a robin tapping, pausing, and tapping again. My pulse settles. I can consult avian specialist Noah, also a writer in residence at Playa Fellowship Program, about whether the robin is mentally ill.

When I ask Noah, he tells me that the robin’s failing the “mirror test” – he doesn’t recognize the face in the glass. Instead, he sees a possible mate or a territorial rival. His disregard for data is normal, Noah says, and won’t stop until I close my curtains.

I loathe shutting out some of the most dazzling light on the planet, though, on the parched edge of the Great Basin. During my first stay at Playa, I labored as an ant does from sunrise to sundown despite the light. This second residency, however, comes when the batteries in my brain are flatter than those in a mislaid flashlight. The idea of working would amuse me if I had the energy to laugh.

Somehow, I’ll rally. I’ll strive again through the hours. I’ll barely leave the cabin for breaks. I’ll do as Jack London said he would do (and did): “I shall use my time.”

But now, there’s this robin. Out beyond his little head, fields flash with the scarlet and yellow of finches and goldfinches attacking dandelions for their seeds. An oriole hops branch to branch in a pine, his orange and black matching the sunrise. People and birds come here for pretty much the same reason: to stop over for long or short stays in a basin with a wide, blue sky and sweet, seasonal water. Some migrators pass through in minutes. Some linger for days or a season. A lucky few stay for years or a lifetime.

I draw the curtains. An inner voice warns that I need rest, but I push it aside. When else will I have such an opportunity to work? The planet needs every voice it can get now that climate deniers have been voted into major public offices.

The robin moves to a bedroom window. I put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that I thought I’d never need out here. The tap-tapping continues, but farther away. Something could be learned from the robin, I’m certain, but lessons be damned. I labor on.

Thirteen more days to go.

 

Common Poorwill

The next days of my residency mimic the first. Rise, go to the desk, and put new words on paper. When I stop, it’s not for long. At night I seldom sleep, tired but wired. I persevere, despite knowing that the Latin roots are per, meaning thoroughly, and severus, meaning severe. Thoroughly severe, implying, to continue with little prospect of success.

On the fourth morning, when I review what I’ve written, my heart falls. The sentences lack life. There are no original ideas. It’s dull and overblown. In short, it’s utter crap. Discouraged, I step out to my deck as a flock of white-faced ibises, long necks outstretched, pass over the lake’s shimmering surface. Noisy pairs of Canada geese bark like small dogs in tall grasses. Each day more migratory birds arrive in hordes.

Returning inside I look in the bathroom mirror. Fatigued eyes in a drooping face stare back. That can’t be me.

I almost never drink, and never alone. After all, didn’t Rhett Butler say, “Never drink alone, Scarlett?” Nonetheless, I open a bottle of Grenache I’ve brought from home and down a glass before taking the rest to dinner in the Commons. Conversation is the last thing I want, but around the big communal table, I find instant rapport with the other residents. The residency has opened up their creativity in unforeseen ways. Noah and another passionate birder, the poet Farnaz, are planning to drive up Highway 31 after dark to look for common poorwills. My curiosity stirs, but I push it down, knowing I plan to rise at dawn to write.

Across the table a printmaker, Barbara, describes the arc of her nearly completed six-week residency. Her work shifted partway through her stay, after a visit to the archeological caves south of Summer Lake. In those ragged holes in an ochre cliff, some of America’s oldest fossil human feces have been found alongside the bones of waterfowl, fish, and extinct camels and horses.

Once Barbara’s curiosity was ignited about the ancient landscape, she developed a process of collecting images directly from the ground. She strapped wooden blocks to her feet before hiking nearby trails and Forest Service roads. After the treks, she removed the worn and roughened blocks and inked them for printing. The results are both coarse and fluid depictions of geologic textures.

“I gave in,” Barbara says. “When I opened to this place and the people, and let the surroundings transform my work, it made all the difference.”

Immediately, I decide to go into the night with Noah and Farnaz. We drive to Picture Rock Pass, our windows open to the scent of new things growing. Parking by the side of the road on a pullout covered with volcanic cinders, we tread with care to lessen crunching noisy rock. At the end of the pullout, overlooking the stunted piñon-juniper forest, Noah pulls up a sound recording on his phone – the call of a common poorwill. The bird is known to answer to a whistled poor-will.

Poor-will, poor-will, goes Noah’s phone. Silence, silence, goes the night. In a minute we hear the steady advertising call of a northern saw-whet owl. A few ring-billed gulls above us mew like loud kittens. Miles away in the valley, cattle moan, their ghost voices carrying above farm and forest.

The nagging advice I’d disregarded sinks in – this is what I need. This valley, this night, this basin, these people. Otherwise, my well is too dry to sustain writing about water or climate or anything else. I could no more write a new book than walk five miles into this night on printmaker’s blocks.

The poorwills remain silent, not hearing or believing the silicon voice of Noah’s phone. On the drive back to Playa, he and Farnaz tell me about the Punchbowl. It’s an open dish of land set among ridges above Summer Lake. One resident saw five black bears, all at once, on a hike there last week. I vow to go, too, alone. It will be just one day off from the ten more days of residency, in this dry valley where robins attack windows and sleep stays a stranger.

 

Mountain Bluebird

At dawn, after four hours of actual slumber, I set out with my writing notebook, binoculars, bird book, and a canister of bear spray. I’ll return to Playa by late afternoon, before large carnivores start their dusk feeding. Following the Forest Service trail, I find early wildflowers bursting forth in crimson, gold, and lilac every few feet. Meadowlarks burble and flee as I approach. A thin cloud cover rests on a jagged row of ridges in the distance. The only large trees still standing are white skeletal snags, stripped of their foliage and bark by a past forest fire.

Soon I come to a broad basin that must be the Punchbowl. The trail continues, though, and so do I, despite new growth crowding the trail and fallen trees blocking the road like log gates guarding Oz. Climbing up and over them, I’m careful not to twist an ankle or blow out a knee with each landing. Somehow, I manage to scrape both shins through my hiking pants, drawing blood.

After hours of thrashing, I reach a patch of live woods. The air is chilly and full of mosquitoes. Busy swatting insects, I nearly miss a bird perched just yards away. It’s the bluest bird in the history of the world, a mountain bluebird, poised to fly. It’s many shades deeper than the sky. Remembering that a story’s told in the details, I catch some in my notebook, quick, like floating dandelion seeds.

On my way down the trail, the pull of gravity makes the return trip easier. Midway back, I flush a poorwill from a clump of manzanita in the overgrown trail. The bird escapes on a rush of wings. If only Noah and Farnaz were here.

Back in the cabin, after eight hours away, I barely have energy to clean up and eat while standing in my kitchen. I fall on the bed and sleep until morning.

Nine days of residency to go. It may not be enough.

 

 Franklin’s Gull

At dawn, I drive ten miles to the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge. An introductory kiosk notes that hundreds of species of mammals and birds live on nineteen thousand acres watered by an elaborate system of pipes and canals. I enter on a dirt road at the breakneck speed of ten miles an hour, seeing only a few ducks and geese. I hit the brakes at the eastern edge of the property. Thousands of ducks, geese, terns, gulls, sandpipers, phalaropes, and other shorebirds browse a shining pond. Some are in flight. Some stroll beaches. Some dive and dabble. Some face beaks-first into the wind. A small gull wings past, a species with a black head and thick white crescents above and below its eyes. A newbie for me, it’s a Franklin’s gull, which breeds and summers farther north.

I gaze until I’m satiated, then find another kiosk sign that tells me aridity is increasing, as are nearby human populations. I pull out my notebook and write.

Water in refuge = life. Climate change = drier refuge. Alfalfa shipped elsewhere = broken local water cycle.

When I leave the refuge hours later and return to my cabin, I type up notes on wildlife and its dependence on the same water depleted by growing irrigation demands. I work without effort until dark. I don’t count the days left in residency.

I’ve started writing about things that I came here to write about.

 

 Calliope Hummingbird

On my last full day, I take a Forest Service road to Winter Ridge. The well-groomed gravel surface would allow me to drive fast if I felt like it. Instead, I go as slowly as the (nonexistent) traffic will allow, about eight miles an hour. Maybe I’ll see a Williamson’s sapsucker, a life bird for me, up in the high forests. Reaching a wet meadow with a small stream, I hear wood-pecking all around. None resembles the start-and-stop, Morse-code tapping of sapsuckers, so I continue on.

I drive with my windows open, pulling over often, stopping near patches of old-growth forest among the new growth recovering from logging. The woods are full of life. A red-tail hawk masquerades as a broken pine branch until he lifts wings and flies. A golden eagle dwarfs the telephone cross-pole she’s hunkered on. A brilliantly colored lazuli bunting, more turquoise than lapis blue, hangs out on a log.

The last bird of the day is a stunner, a calliope hummingbird feeding in a burned-over patch of woods. The smallest bird in North America, dragonfly-sized, arrives with a flash of violet throat and soft buzz of wings. The bird hovers only a moment before zooming off.

So it goes with writing and birding.

You try to find a sapsucker, but stumble up on a tiny jewel of a hummingbird. You persist and strive despite a robin showing you the insanity of ignoring results. You go out calling for a poorwill, only to flush one out the next day after discovering another bird more blue than the sky. Or you think you’ll uncover a labyrinthine waterworks, but  spend hours immersed in sanctuary and the surprise of a new species. Near the roof of a basin that holds light and sky in the same grip as alfalfa and cattle, you open to it.

Somehow, you do not fail the mirror test. You find a way, as Barbara did with her printer’s blocks, as Noah and Farnaz do with their birding, as the birds do with their migrations. You crunch the data, no matter how it comes to you.

You return to the world again and again and pour it out in your own voice.

When the Cake is Baked

Susan Browne

In my poetry writing classes at Diablo Valley College, revision wasn’t the most popular subject on the menu. For many students, this was their first time taking a poetry workshop, the first time their poems were looked at closely. Some of them had never even written a poem before. The workshop’s format first pointed out what was working in the poem. Only after all strengths were established did we start to discuss what wasn’t working so well and offered possible solutions for making the poem “better.”

This was tricky, depending on students’ ability to see the poem as a made thing, separate from themselves, a work of art in process that needs, well, work. No matter how much I talked about the importance of revision, even saying that writing was revision, my students would often get upset when told their poem wasn’t perfect and ready for publication in the most esteemed literary magazine in the land. Sometimes after the gentlest of critiques, a student started crying or left the room in a huff. I had to find a way to diffuse these tense and often unbearable situations. One day, while discussing a student’s poem, I blurted out, “Hey, the cake isn’t baked yet.”

My students liked this. They laughed. They liked saying it to each other. “Hey, that cake needs more baking.” “Needs more icing.” “More spice.” “Hey, the cake is almost baked, but why don’t you try adding some…” Fill in the blank with an element of poetic craft or good writing. This phrase became ours. We bonded as a class of not only poets, but bakers who knew how to get that cake stirred up, into the oven, and baked! It was a cake, after all. It wasn’t the end of your life if it didn’t come out very well. You can always make another cake.

With the help of my students over many semesters and hours in the poetry kitchen, I came up with a list of revision ingredients. I’m not the greatest cook on the planet. In fact, my most successful baking adventure has been with chocolate chip cookies. I will now drop the culinary conceit.

The following list is a mixture (guess I’m not quite ready to stop with the foodie talk) of my own thoughts on revision, and what I’ve learned from other teachers, poets, and writers.

  1. Openings. Consider the opening line to your poem as the on-ramp. Now that your first, (or tenth), draft of the poem is finished, do you think this is the best way to enter the poem? Or could you start a few lines later? Or do you need something else entirely? The first line establishes the mood, the tone, the ambience, how the poem will be received by the reader.
  2. What’s at stake? Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “A work of art is good if it has been written out of necessity.” Look for the passion, the trouble. Even in the most surreal or lyric poem, there is a nucleus of story and, therefore, conflict. One of the most amazing experiences in my writer’s life was taking a three-day poetry workshop with Jack Gilbert. He said terrific and useful things about writing. One was this: “Tell me something about love that matters.” What matters in your poem? What’s at stake?
  3. Energy. Does the poem have energy all the way through? Are there moments in the poem that don’t really need to be there? Is the description just decoration? Is it deepening the poem’s intent in some essential way?
  4. Surprise. Poetry makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Poetry is meant to wake us up, not keep us in the usual, predictable modes of thinking and feeling. However, here’s another gem from Jack Gilbert: “If everything is crazy, nothing is crazy; real surrealism has to have truth in it.”
  5. Take a walk. Memorize your poem and then take a three mile walk. Say the poem out loud over and over. You will hear it differently, discover places to edit, and new phrases, images might come to you. Besides walking, I often take my poem for a drive, put the poem right there in the passenger seat. In whatever parking lot I land in, I read the poem. It always amazes me how this process helps with revision, with my vision of the poem.
  6. Do a headstand. Start backward. Maybe the ending is the beginning.
  7. Duende. Always add in the duende. This ingredient is difficult to define, but I like what Federico Garcia Lorca wrote: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’” Duende helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that, as Lorca said, “Ants could eat him or a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head.” Duende brings the artist face-to-face with death. Duende is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry; it’s irrational, earthy, with a dash of the diabolical. You know duende when you feel it.
  8. Meditate. Let the poem sit in the lotus position. Don’t look at it for a month, or for at least two weeks. If you keep opening the oven, the soufflé will fall. Wait, I forgot. It’s a cake! The same rule applies. You want to get some distance from the poem, so you can see it with fresh eyes, mind, and heart.
  9. Cleverness, irony, humor. These three ingredients need a special balance. Is the poem only being clever or ironic or funny? The reader wants more from the poem; the reader wants truth.
  10. Form. Change up the sentence structure. This opens doors and windows in the poem, gives you a chance to make a different kind of music.
  11. Use of space. How does the poem look on the page? Take chances with space and the arrangement of lines.
  12. Images. Images create an experience for the reader, so the poem is not just an explanation. See how many images you have in the poem. Metaphors? Similes?
  13. Endings. One of my poetry mentors once told me that a good ending to a poem is surprising and inevitable. Ending with an image is stronger. Also look and see if the poem already ended three or four lines ago. The poem is an adventure. It has to take the reader somewhere, be it physically, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, and/or spiritually. Not all of these levels are required. Reading the poem must cause a small or big change in the reader.

This list is not all-encompassing. I think these ingredients or elements of revision are the most important. The wonderful poet, Thomas Lux (who died last February) said in an interview:

“This [writing poetry] is not something one chooses to do…It is something I was drawn to. I do it      because I love to do it, and because I don’t have any choice. If I don’t write, I feel empty and lost…Poetry exists because there is no other way to say the things that get said in good poems except in poems. There is something about the right combination of metaphor or image connected to the business of being alive that only poems can do. To me, it makes me feel more alive.”

What makes a good poem? There are many answers to that question, as many as there are good poems. What makes a good cake? There’s a banquet of delicious cakes in the world to taste. It takes work to make a beautiful thing. When I’m at my writing desk, working on my twelfth draft of a twelve-line poem, one that may never be fully baked, or one that ends up in the trash, I remember it’s the process I love. It’s the making that gives me nourishing delight.

When Prose Turns to Horses, Remember the Humans

Lisa Romeo

Since I was 15, I have been publishing articles, essays, and nonfiction narratives about horses – or, more precisely, about horses and the humans they interact with, depend upon, perform with, live among, are trained by and cared for. Never – even when I wrote about the spontaneous, unexpected delivery of rare twin foals on a remote and rugged Central New York farm – is it a story about only equines. This interesting arrangement of horses and humans intimately intertwined, makes a demand of the writer who seeks to include horses in literature.

Perhaps it is the same when writing of dogs, or cats, or other animals who step into a show ring with their human handlers. But in no other situation are humans so integral – in dozens of sports and recreational pursuits, the only acceptably entry is a horse and human pairing. Horse racing, horse shows, rodeo, Pony Club, three-day event and dressage, endurance riding: they only exist when a human is mounted upon, or walking beside a horse.

As a writer, this both expands the possibilities for narrative, reporting, lyricism, and metaphor, and makes a demand. We are forced to consider when one part of the partnership ends, the other begins; where the two overlap; what each brings and takes from the interaction; how to understand the horse as not separate from the humans surrounding it.

I spent ten years as an equestrian journalist, earning a living (sometimes full time, sometimes supplemental) writing about equestrian sports and the athletic duos that dominate them. Mostly, this involved the English-style horse show circuit and competitions – jumpers (from amateur up to Olympic and international caliber), hunters, dressage, three-day eventing, equitation horses, endurance, and racing. But, occasionally, I also wrote about breeding, stable and show management, and equine health and veterinary care.

I was a horse owner, rider, and show ring competitor while writing about horses, so my stance was always one of partnership. Any horse I observed and made notes about, any horse for which I gathered stats and records, or any horse I got close to so as to describe him or her, was always seen in context of its human counterparts.

Who “owns” this horse? Who trains her? Who rides him? Who cares for this horse – feeding and cleaning its stall, exercising and grooming it, noticing when he’s a bit lame, or if she’s off her feed?

Often, I’d remark how lucky this horse was to have such a caring lot worrying, doing, and doting over him. Thankfully, less often, I’d make a silent note about how I’d love to, if only I could, do something about the callous, uncaring louts who seemed to treat the horses entrusted to their care as bricks, or worse, as cash machines in need only of occasional oiling. On the “A” level horse show circuit where, even in the 1980s, top jumpers were bought and sold for the high six figures, one of the most reassuring relationships I witnessed was between these high-priced performers and their minimum-wage earning grooms. The grooms were often illegal Mexicans who ran for cover when, in Southern California, the show announcer intoned the code: “Adam Jones please report to the office.”

A fiery Thoroughbred ex-racehorse could be snorting, galloping might in the ring, but transform, once handed by the professional rider to his groom, into a cuddly, frolicking pony. This transformation may take place during the quarter-mile walk back to the stabling area, under the practiced hand of his groom, stroking his face, rubbing his flank, whispering loving praise into his ears. I’d watch as the horse’s strident, jerky vertical stance relaxed, his head dropping, and the two walked along in the most visible amiable companionship.

My advice to those who want to write about modern horses at work or play in America: find them with their caretakers. The ones who love them whether they’ve had the fastest jump-off round that day, or if they spooked at the stray plastic bag at the side of the ring, tossing a rider on his duff. That is when you will see the real horse, the one who knows he’s safe and seems to understand when nothing is expected of her except that she exist.

Horses can be celebrities in the rarefied environs of top-level competition. High-achieving trainers and riders can be celebrities in that world, too. Sometimes, they match up. Many times, I’d glimpse an Olympic medalist rider rubbing down their horse’s forelegs in the quiet early morning after a strenuous workout, talking quietly to their mount, with nowhere more important to be at the moment.

Often I’d arrive earlier than expected for an interview appointment, as I wanted to see what was happening when the reporter wasn’t there. I’d observe a rider or trainer for days or weeks before even letting him or her know a magazine cover story was brewing. I’d ask around, talking to farriers, show ring judges, former students or trainers or grooms, trying to get a bead on what transpired between rider and mount. I wanted to see if there was a real relationship between human and equine, or if, as was sometimes the case, the name brand human equestrian star breezed in at the last moment, barked at the groom, barely acknowledged the horse at all before going about what was clearly only the business, and not the partnership, of the day’s work.

Nobody wants to have to write about a churlish, egomaniacal trainer or rider who treats his or her horses like baggage. I wrote for the sake of the four-legged animals. Usually, I found myself looking for a fresh angle on the story. Instead of focusing narrowly on Joe Schmoe, the ace rider, and Buddy, his constant champion jumper, I’d tilt the lens to the unique relationship between Buddy and the night watchman at his stable who sang the blues that kept Buddy calm.

         Love was what I was looking for, always.

Even when writing about a shoestring horse orphanage that cared for the neglected horses, the main story was about the bond between caregiver and scared, sacred horse.

To be inquisitive about a horse’s “home life” is to begin to understand the horse. What does he eat, and how much? Who feeds her? Is a horse an “easy keeper,” or a finicky eater who’d rather starve than accept a sub-par bucket of oats over the custom-blended mix a well-meaning groom once got him used to? Does a mare enjoy her stall or weave front legs side to side, wearing a rut in the floorboards from boredom? When turned out in a field, is a gelding content to graze and gallop, or does he worry at the gate, snorting at passers-by until returned to his stall?

And, whatever the behavior when a horse is unmounted, whatever aspects of personality emerge, charming or curmudgeonly, what happens then? Are a horse’s humans tolerant or tough? Indulgent or incapable of folly? The answers to these questions, which can only be attained by patient observation, round-about questioning behind the scenes, or following from afar, are an important ingredient in the mix of what one might write about that horse.

This is all about writing nonfiction, of course: writing about real horses in the real world.

 

What happens when a writer invents horses on the page?

Unfortunately, writers without equine background often either neglect to take into account the human factor. Or they create an idealized, uninformed portrait of a horse that more closely resembles a domesticated pet with attributes, qualities, and behaviors that make horse people laugh or grimace at the unrealistic portrayal. Sometimes the uneducated fiction writer forgets that modern horses subdue their clearly superior physical strength, and tamp down their fight or flight instinct for the sake of steady food, shelter, and care. They ask modern readers to believe that instead of an aberration, the norm is that stabled horses regularly and purposefully kick, buck, rear, thrash out, bite, ram, or otherwise intentionally hurt or mangle their humans.

Fiction writers tend to not write horses well because they either spend very little time in the actual equine environments of which they write and prefer, instead, an idealized or overly hyped version that serves some sensational plot requirement. Or, they tend to believe (and assume their readers will also accept) what little and repeatedly incorrect information they’ve gleaned about horses from badly researched and poorly written films and television programs.

With few exceptions, screenwriters get it wrong, but prose writers don’t know that and build on ridiculous tropes. The race horse that behaves like Lassie, summoning help with a whinny. The show ring newcomer who suddenly, with no training, negotiates a complicated grand prix course, carrying his neophyte young rider to victory in the Olympic trials. Or the seemingly docile mare who, in a pique of remembered wildness, bashes her way out of her stall, gallops miles across the Moors for three days, and makes her way back to her wild herd on the craggy rocks of the Scottish coast.

All satisfying cinema perhaps, but rubbish.

I say that if you’re going to write about horses in the twenty-first century, first, be sure you write about real horses and the humans that make their lives into whatever pattern it takes. A key element is to – and apparently this isn’t as obvious as it may seem – spend time with horses and horse people. Even in cities today, it’s possible to find stables and riders, trainers and grooms, working with horses or competing in horse sports. Hang around. Ask questions. Get the terminology right. Learn that what is true for one breed, for one equestrian sport, for one style of riding, isn’t true for others. Ride, if you can. Clean out a stall, hoist a grain bucket, run a brush across a quivering flank. Or just discover, closely and with the understanding that you probably know nothing, that what you think you know regarding horse writing is probably wrong. Then, when you do write about horses, take what you’ve written and ask a horse person to read it. Be ready to change it.

And while you’re doing the field research you must do, remember to look not just to the horses, but to the two-legged folks who are always around them. Watch what transpires between them and their charges.

Watch for the love, always.

 

Above photo is of Lisa reporting from the National Horse Show in 1983.

What Being “Willing to Fail” Really Means

by Hillary Rettig

These days, many people know it’s okay to fail.*

They understand that failure is an essential part of any ambitious path, and also a fantastic learning opportunity. They also know that if you’re not failing at least some of the time, you’re probably not taking enough risks.

This failure-is-okay viewpoint is reinforced by many inspiring quotes by brilliant people, including:

“He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great.” — Herman Melville
“Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill
(There are zillions more.)

So, to repeat: these days, many people realize it’s okay to fail.

Or do they?

It turns out that many who think they’re prepared to fail, really aren’t. Underneath, they still crave success.

It’s a good bet that they’ve defined success perfectionistically — meaning, that any outcome short of “fabulous” is unacceptable.

And that they’re counting on someone’s good opinion of their result and/or a monetary or other yield from it. That’s always a dicey situation. (Far better to derive your validation and rewards internally from the pleasures of doing the work.)

And, finally, that they have no “Plan B”: meaning that if they don’t succeed to the desired extent, they have no idea how they’ll cope or what they’ll do next. Having no backup, especially to an unrealistic plan, is also dicey.

Let’s be clear:

  • Hoping (a bit, not too much) for success is fine.
  • Needing success, especially when it’s defined perfectionistically, isn’t.

So, if you’re stuck or slowing down on a project, ask yourself if you’re really, truly prepared to fail — or if you just think you are. If the latter, you are probably experiencing a terror of failure that is inhibiting your creativity and productivity.

Here’s what being prepared to fail really looks like:

  • You’re focused mostly on your process, and not thinking too much about either the outcome of your efforts or its reception by others. Put another way, you’re working mostly in the moment, and not focusing much on either the past or future.
  • You are prepared to fail utterly — to embarrass yourself, even. Although even in the worst case, you probably won’t be that embarrassed because you are not so personally invested in your product, and not craving outside validation.
  • You understand that this project, no matter how important it seems, is merely a “way station” along the arc of your work and life. (This is true even for seemingly very important projects! No project is do-or-die, and there are always alternative paths.)
  • You have a Plan B that, while not optimal, you would actually be okay with.

There are probably plenty of “unimportant” things you do where you are perfectly willing to fail, and so you can use those as a guide on how to handle the “important” ones. (Also, think of a kid building sand castles.)

It might seem paradoxical or even impossible to embrace a low-stakes mindset about your important work, but it is very doable, and gets easier with practice. Moreover, like all productivity work, it is hugely liberating and can create a lot of peace and joy around your work. So go for it!

*Asterisk to remind us that there is no such thing as a complete and total “failure,” since most failures contain elements of success, and all failures are terrific learning opportunities.

This post originally appeared April 30th, 2014, at HillaryRettig.com. Reproduced with permission.

How Not to Not Be Funny

Ryan Kriger

You can’t teach funny.

I wish I could. But humor is such an intuitive thing, so reliant on an appreciation of language, on lyricism, on timing, observation, and drawing abstract connections. You’re either funny or you’re not.

This is an essay on incorporating humor into writing. Not writing comedy or comedic pieces – that’s a whole different animal. I’m talking about straight prose, whether it’s genre fiction, literary, memoir – hell, it could be a cookbook – and making people chuckle while they read it. Making your reader sit back and say, “Oh, I see what she did there. That was good.”

This is not quite a how to, because see point one. It’s more a meditation on what works and what doesn’t. Except it’s less pompous than that (a meditation? Seriously. What? No.)

The first question the writer must ask herself then, is,

“Am I funny?”

If the answer is “No,” then maybe stop reading this. I’m not sure what you’ll get out of it. Go read about use of metaphor or deduplication or alliteration or something.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re funny, here’s a quick test: Has anyone ever described you as “funny?” It likely would have happened shortly after you did something which caused someone else to laugh, to which that person said words to the effect of, “You’re funny.”[1]

If they did say that, were they being sarcastic?  If you’re not sure, they probably were. And if they weren’t, congratulations, you’re funny.

Because the thing about funny is, it really is entirely reliant on the opinion of a third-person. Inner strength is valuable but on this issue we really are seeking external validation. Maybe you make yourself laugh, and that’s great. Life is absurd and cruel and in the end we’re all dead, and if you can’t laugh at that it’s a sad, sad existence just floating through space on this wet little ball, waiting for the sun to go out. So, I hope you can find some iota of humor in it.

But if you can’t make other people find humor in it, you’re not funny.

So, you’re funny! Congratulations.

Maybe you’re ugly, maybe you’re lonely, maybe you’re sick, but at least you can make people laugh. That’s something. Right?

Right?

Right. Yes, take solace in the fact that you are able to find the right combination of words and you can present them in such a way that the listener must, involuntarily, unexpectedly, laugh. It’s like crafting a magic spell.  Words are uttered. Result: laughter. Existence altered.

And that is the key to humor: it’s unexpected. You cannot have humor without surprise.

Is it possible to categorize the different types of humor?  I suppose so, but it sounds like a dreary and humorless task. A time waster. Pointless.

Let us consider a few categories of humor – ones you are likely to run into in prose. At least, the ones I can think of.

There’s the unexpected twist; the misdirect. Where the passage zigs when it should have zagged.  AKA, the joke.  There’s a setup – a building narrative that leads the reader in a certain direction, and a punchline: the unexpected conclusion.

“He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”

LOG ENTRY: SOL 61 How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

― Andy Weir, The Martian

There’s absurdity. A situation, an image, a moment that is so strange that it elicits a laugh.

It was a bright, defrosted, pussy willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.

― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

There’s the clever observation – the connection that you never thought of before. The conclusion that is obvious in hindsight but shocking when first encountered.

Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

― Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Similarly, there’s the witty aside. The transposition.

I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Some words are just funny. The old vaudeville trope is that words with a hard “K” are inherently funny.

Rancho Cucamonga.

Albuquerque.

Lake Titicaca.

Kalamazoo.

Guam.

Names and places that defy expectations fall into this category as well. The cutesy name for the nasty beast. Basing a post-apocalyptic zombie horror story in Lake Placid or Carmel-by-the-Sea, or Shelburne.

They were looking straight into the eyes of a monstrous dog, a dog that filled the whole space between ceiling and floor. It had three heads. Three pairs of rolling, mad eyes; three noses, twitching and quivering in their direction; three drooling mouths, saliva hanging in slippery ropes from yellowish fangs.

[…] Hagrid dropped the teapot

“How do you know about Fluffy?” he said.

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone[2]

There’s the sentence that starts out seriously enough, but just kind of spins off in a weird direction by degrees and finds itself taking the reader down the garden path until the original thought is lost and at some point you start to wonder if it’s going to wrap up but you’ve traveled this far and now you’re kind of curious to see how it’s going to end, whether there will be a payoff or if it will just trickle off, until you find yourself looking at your watch and remembering that you really have things to do, errands to run, and when’s the last time you spoke to your oldest friend from High School, seems like it’s been a while hasn’t it…

Yes, it has.

[Rambling sentence removed for length, but it really was a funny one let me tell you as it had this really interesting bit in the middle where it, wait… you know what? No.]

  • [Well Known Author], [Also Well Known Work of Literature] 

Pig in a Blanket by Camden Yandel

Then, there are things that are not funny.

Explaining the joke is never funny. If the reader did not laugh, no amount of exposition is going to bring them around. Then again, it’s hard to know during the writing process that the reader isn’t going to laugh, so maybe that’s not one to worry about.

Trying too hard is not funny. If it’s an explicitly humorous piece, the funny bits will either land or they won’t. And if it’s not explicitly humorous, and the writer is clearly trying to make the reader laugh, it will seem desperate. And desperation is not funny.

Unless that’s your schtick. In which case it might be. Because there really are no clearly defined rules.

Doing something humorous, and then standing aside and going, “Eh? Eh? That was pretty funny right?” Is not funny. You should never try to draw attention to the humor.

The great thing about humorous writing is, if you play it deadpan, if you just leave the joke there without drawing too much attention to it, then it’s a win-win.  If the joke lands, the reader thinks you’re funny.  If the reader never notices the joke, then they don’t think you’re unfunny, they simply didn’t realize you were going for humor.

It is only when you explicitly try to be funny, and fail, that you find yourself out on a proverbial limb without a paddle.

As it happens, some of the same rules that apply to writing, generally also apply to humor. For example, avoid excess verbiage. Get the funny across with the minimal amount of words to get at the funny. Some folks believe that a good joke is one that’s drawn out as much as possible, so when the punchline finally arrives, it feels earned.

It’s not. That’s stupid.

Callbacks are funny. But in literature that’s simply called a recurring theme.

Recurring themes are funny.

If you can take the funny bits and make them relevant to the theme of the book, such that you wend the humor, the subtext, the symbolism and all the other elements together into a luxuriant pastiche that blends together like a lovingly made lasagna after it’s been reheated three days later, then you have achieved your goal.

Because remember, the goal was never simply to be funny. Humor is just one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox, and funny for funny’s sake is nice, but if it doesn’t contribute to what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, then you have just incorporated a distraction, not a contribution.

Now, go forth, and reheat that lasagna.

[1] If these words were uttered shortly after a pratfall, or a successful impersonation of Robert DeNiro, or perhaps you attempted to sip from a rum and coke but got the straw lodged in your nostril and then in attempting to remove the straw from your nostril you somehow got the lime wedge wedged in your ear, then yes you may be funny. But you are not the type of funny that is relevant to this essay. We are specifically, explicitly talking about word funny here. A predilection for a clever turn of phrase, and that sort of thing.
[2] Or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, if you want to be all British about it, or snooty, or both.

 

Where I Find Myself

P.E. Garcia

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I’m trying to write nonfiction.

I have published some fiction, so I think of myself as a fiction writer. I have published some poetry, so sometimes I think of myself as a poet. I have published a few essays, but I have never thought of myself as a nonfiction writer.

I’m not a nonfiction writer. In fact, I don’t even believe nonfiction can exist. All writing is fiction by virtue of the fact that words can never be equal to lived experience; I can say I’m writing truth, but all I’m doing is constructing a mirror of the truth, a mirror of lived experience, using words as symbols to do my best to communicate what the truth is.

Ferdinand de Saussure is famous for saying there are two things in all communication: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is arbitrary; there’s no inherent reason to refer to a dog as a “dog,” except that, as English speakers, we have agreed on this word to signify the animal we think of as a dog.

But the word “dog” will never be an actual dog. Words will always be words; words can never be truth.

~

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog.

I’m here, in Philadelphia, because I’m working on a PhD in English at Temple University. I want to study Rhetoric and Poetics and Creative Writing pedagogy and identity and race and literature and anything that has to do with words, really, and how they can connect to our lived experiences. This is why I’m here.

I have an MFA in Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. When I was getting my MFA, there were creative nonfiction writers in the program, but they were separate from me. They were people who had led interesting lives, done interesting things, grown enough that they could offer some perspective on reality that I couldn’t. I was only a kid, 25 years old, from a small town in Arkansas; I’d barely traveled anywhere, hadn’t seen much of anything; what could I add to the already abundant world of nonfiction?

I was a kid. In many ways, I’m still a kid, trapped in the extended adolescence of the post-irony, post-sincerity millennial era; I came of age in America under the Bush Administration, a world where words, masquerading as truths, became tools for war. Fictions posing as nonfictions created disaster. Why would I even want to pretend to be able to tell the truth?

~

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I’m looking in a mirror.

This is the story I’m telling about myself, and for the most part, it’s true. That is: it’s easy to believe that there’s a place called Philadelphia, and I am in it, along with my couch and my dog. I say these things; you think these things; therefore, they are.

Brian Street has said before that sometimes we form identities in our narratives: we tell stories about ourselves, and in doing so, we figure out who we are. By creating a fiction, we create ourselves.

That isn’t true, of course. I mean, not truly true—we can’t be the actual fictions we make out of ourselves; we will be ourselves, and the words will be the words. In writing, I play a character in a story: I am in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog; in reality, I’m much more than that.

I’ve been reading a lot about identity lately, mainly because I’m trying to figure out who I am. It seems strange to be me, in the literal, physical sense, and yet to not really know what it actually means to be me. What does it mean to be here? What does it mean to be a fiction writer? What does it mean to never want to tell the truth?

I used to be mad whenever anyone would read one of my stories and critique it as though I was the main character. That still isn’t a critique I would support, but certainly, a character is a part of my imagination, isn’t it? In the way that a child might reflect a parent, a character reflects me, irrevocably tied by creation, if not always by advocacy.

If then, in my fiction and poetry, you can see a blurry reflection of me, why would that be less true of my nonfiction? The reflection, albeit blurry, is still a reflection, isn’t it? I look in the mirror, and I know that the reflection isn’t me—it lacks my entire interior life—but doesn’t that reflection still contain at least some aspects of who I am?

Why should I give a shit if my signifier and signified aren’t entirely equivalent? Symbols are the only things I have to express truth with, and even if they don’t convey all of the truth, they can convey some of it. The truth inherently bleeds into my fiction, and so maybe there is no fiction, but instead, only nonfiction.

In every fiction there is an aspect of nonfiction. In every signifier, some image of the signified; in every word, some aspect of myself.

~

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I have written nonfiction. I have always written nonfiction. I am a nonfiction writer.

Writing the 30th Gate

Caitlyn Renee Miller

This past summer my husband, Derek, and I spent seven weeks in Mexico, where he took immersive Spanish classes, and I holed up in our rented apartment finalizing some contracted writing projects. I also spent my days trying to learn to prepare food at regular intervals and attempting to convince myself I have the discipline to complete my own writing projects.[i] This probably comes as a surprise to no one. My friends, family, coworkers, dentist, and that lady at the mall kiosk are all equally familiar with my tenuous commitment to the craft of writing (and also my Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese lifestyle, for that matter).

I think every writer grapples with discipline.[ii] To that end, I conducted my previous writing experiment—talking about writing without writing much—for around five years post-MFA. Despite repeated trials, my results were always indistinguishable from the control. I swore Mexico would be different. I would be as prolific as Malcolm Lowry, minus the mescal, plus a stable, loving relationship. Everything would be different this time!

Except that it wasn’t. I sprawled on our rattan couch, ate a bunch of avocados, watched any show on television that was broadcast in English, and waited for Derek to come home from class. Comfortably slunk into nihilism with Will & Grace as background noise, I had some kind of revelation. Perhaps it was the altitude sickness (Guanajuato has an elevation of over 6,500 ft.) or the near-vertical walks up the infernal hill that led from the grocery store back to my apartment, but I decided I would try an endurance exercise that would, ideally, show me what improvement looks like.

Since it’s difficult for me to gauge the effect of discipline on my writing, I would paint. I would paint the same scene every week day for the remainder of our summer, allowing me to see creative growth in a new way.[iii] It was a mad endeavor, one that made my grandmother say, “My god, Caitlyn,” when I explained it over the phone, and one that taught me everything I now know about progress.

~

Guanajuato is a city at the bottom of a bowl, and mountains make up the bowl’s sides. Our apartment was perched above the city center and provided an unfettered view of La Bufa, the city’s most famous rock face. The rooms of my apartment were simultaneously small and spacious—as if we lived in Mary Poppins’ handbag.

The gate to the apartment complex required two separate keys, a strong push, and occasionally some swearing before it would swing open into our courtyard. “My” chair on the balcony faced the gate, so naturally I painted 29 representations of it over the course of 40 days.[iv]

Here’s what happened when I, a non-painter, painted for the first time as an adult: I felt clumsy, tried to use the brush like a pencil, and used paint that was much too dry. I scraped that pigment over the paper until the paper pilled. I felt proud of myself.

Gate #1

Gate #1

On day two, I was shocked at how much better I’d done. Shocked enough to feel ashamed of my painting from day one. Was this how I’d been as a beginning writer?[v] But the biggest difference was my attitude. I was experimenting. I had guesses about what I could do differently from the previous day, so I was coming at this painting thing with an attitude of genuine curiosity. I was experimenting. I was having fun.

Like all heady times, the feeling did not last long. I’d say I got about five days in before I felt like I’d made a huge mistake. So why didn’t I quit this time?

~

Prior to leaving for Mexico, my parents (who live conveniently close to an international airport and thus hosted us in the days preceding our trip) voiced some concerns about what might befall us in Guanajuato. When my mother hugged me goodbye, I couldn’t tell if her extra-strong grip was in case this was the last goodbye she’d ever be afforded—or if I was imagining it.[vi]

After I painted my second gate, I emailed them photos of the first two paintings with the subject line “A Marked Improvement in My Painting Skills.” They each responded that they could really see the progress. I decided that day that I’d email them every painting. The Gate of the Day newsletter would remain capped at two subscribers. I saw Gate of the Day as the conscription of my parents. They certainly were not given the luxury of the “unsubscribe” option of other newsletters. Each evening I took a photo of myself holding the painting in front of my face and sent it off to my mom and dad in America. It was my version of holding up a newspaper. I’m fine, it said. Each day both of my parents picked out one element of the painting to praise.[vii]

My weird forced newsletter is a key element of this story because it gave me accountability. I worried that if I didn’t send a painting, my parents would imagine I’d fallen into the hands of Chapo Guzmán himself.[viii] I obsessed that my parents could be living in fear until my return, and this obsession proved to be an effective motivator. It turns out I am also a huge fan of being praised.

~

I started to see patterns in the way I was improving, though my improvement was slow. I thought about my progress as though I were viewing myself as an avatar in a video game: I’d run forward, then have to take a step back before I could vault myself to the next level. Often my biggest leaps came after what felt like insurmountable backslides. Many of my paintings are hideously ugly.[ix]

I rated each painting on an arbitrary 10-point scale

I rated each painting on an arbitrary 10-point scale

~

Of course, these peaks and valleys inspired a lot of frustration. I’d devise new ways to make that same gate image seem new: setting a 10-minute time limit for a painting, using a single color of paint, or zooming in to paint small details instead of the full image. I would also procrastinate. Arms laden with groceries, I’d catch my breath on a bench at the mid-way point of that devil hill after my daily trek to the store. The back of the bench featured the words BAD BITCH. I’d intentionally sit next to the graffiti—I didn’t want to obscure any of the sloppy blue letters. I would nod to myself. I would think, yes. Bad bitch. Then I’d walk home with a little more surety to paint in the twenty minutes before Derek got home.

~

One day, just like that, it was over. I found myself on an airplane watching Mexico recede from view. For a while we hovered next to a mountain with a flat top before gaining altitude until nothing was in clear view except for the clouds. My 29 paintings were neatly wrapped in a plastic bag and tucked into the front pocket of my carry-on bag. My husband held my hand.[x] The final painting had felt important, so I gave myself over to it. Before sitting down to paint for the last time in our perfect apartment in a perfect city, I thought of the art we’d seen in a museum in Querétaro. I had noticed that the painters used unreal colors that somehow imbued every person or building with weight and reality. But I hadn’t been thinking at all while I painted the 29th gate—I was immersed. I leapt.

~

I fell short.

~

Gate #29

Gate #29

 And I know I’ll continue to fall short. As a writer and especially as a painter. The other thing I know is that I’ll keep showing up, keep progressing.[xi] Because for me, writing is not about writing. It’s about becoming the kind of person who is willing to leap.

~

[i] Note that there’s no way to say, “I spent seven weeks in Mexico [more or less fucking around]” without giving the impression that you’re kind of a douche. I’ve tried phrasing it different ways to no avail. Please accept my assurances that I’m mostly not a douche.

[ii] If you were expecting a statistic here about writers and commitment, you’d be wrong! I’d prefer not to complete any (potentially disheartening) research in favor of repeating comforting platitudes. Are you struggling to sit down and write? You’re not alone.

[iii] I gave myself weekends off because I’m not a monster.

[iv] It could be tempting to ascribe some kind of meaning to this choice. Something like, the gate signifies how close I am to achieving my goals, or a V. for Vendetta-esque The gate was open the whole time! Alas, I just thought the gate looked kind of cool and was visible from my vantage point of choice.

[v] Because I teach, I know the answer to this question.

[vi] My parents are lovely and open-minded people who often take my travel plans in stride. I’m not surprised they were worried about Mexico, considering the media paints it as a dystopian wasteland.

[vii] Even the shittiest paintings! My parents have a knack for finding the positive.

[viii] My husband has been following Guzmán’s exploits for some time, so it was particularly surprising that Guzmán tunneled to freedom while we were in Guanajuato.

[ix] Making ugly things can be exciting, too.

[x] Sometimes Derek would paint with me out on the balcony. I love that man.

[xi] “This is practice: if we feel like doing it, we do it, and if we don’t feel like doing it, we do it just the same. We just keep doing it.” –Ajahn Chah

Healthy Silence

Heather Sharfeddin

Clint McCown, one of my graduate professors, once said, “The literary artist writes to tame an unquiet heart.” I was newly diagnosed with Celiac disease when I first heard those words. The decades leading up to my diagnosis were filled with chronic bone pain and insomnia, the latter of which I parlayed into writing. What else could I do at 1:00 AM, staring down the darkness with no hope of sleep?

I wrote like a maniac, penning four complete novels between 1992 and 2002. They were awful, but they taught me much about writing. When my fifth manuscript sold to a publisher, my editor was stunned that I hadn’t published any short stories in my literary career—that was the usual route, after all. I had to explain that by its general nature, insomnia is the architect of novels.

Insomnia was the easy part. If nothing else, it was time alone when my inner critic seldom bothered to show up. I wrote dangerous things in the glow of my desk lamp with the dog warming my toes, most of which have since been mercifully deleted. It was the chronic pain that disquieted my heart.

No one can experience another’s pain, no matter how graphically it is described. And when doctor after doctor reported that all tests were normal, the pain began to eat at my soul. At times my bones ached so deeply that I knew I was dying. But dying of what? At other times the pain simply retreated into some mysterious remission. Perhaps it was in my head? Maybe I’m not sick, I would think. Until the pain returned. It has something to do with the wind, I imagined one night on the Oregon coast, gales battering my shinbones like brittle saplings ready to snap.

My Celiac diagnosis was like being handed my life back brand new. It’s akin to gum disease in a way—floss your teeth and the problems go away. Omitting gluten from my diet was easy. To use an overtired cliché, sans gluten I felt like a million bucks! I immediately returned to activities like hiking. Then yoga. My skin took on a new glow. Pain was a distant memory, a ghost I recognized only by its absence. Insomnia? A thing of the past—an affliction I used to have.

My diagnosis came with just one problem. Writing—my insomnia’s dependable companion—also became an affliction I used to have.

Writing is an inspired act, and little had I understood the fountainhead of that inspiration. Pain is an ugly thing. It brings us in touch with dark ideas. What is fiction, but an elaborate staging of someone else’s pain? It’s downright cathartic when you have the power to release your characters from their pain (even when you choose not to). It stands to reason that when the pain is gone, so, too, is the muse.

During my new, physically robust years, I’ve written a string of short stories—a literary form I could hardly comprehend before. Each began as a grand notion with novelesque aspirations that impatiently sprinted to an early finish-line. The proverbial “novel in progress” I managed to knead into the familiar structure of plot and subplots wheezes in the corner, now, an anemic 120 pages.

There was a time when I looked at my future with vague apprehension, and that itself was a constant wellspring of stories. Of course even with my health intact, there are no guarantees. But neither is there a burning need to make my mark. Would I have dreamt of health had I known it would cost me my literary children? It’s hard to say, and it can’t be undone now. At the very least, my experience offers some feeble explanation for why so many literary artists find a self-inflicted source of pain at the bottom of a liquor bottle.

For me, the pain of being separated from my creative voice may be the very thing that revives my writing. Oddly, I hope it aches sufficient to the task.

Favorite First Lines

For the “Firsts” issue we reached out through social media and asked our Hunger Mountain friends to share their favorite first lines of literature. Here are a few of them:

“The muscular sky of Minnesota is more than I can fathom.” Autumn Song, Spencer Reece

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having

done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” The Trial, Franz Kafka

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died-““591”, Emily Dickinson

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

“A screaming comes across the sky.” Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984, George Orwell.

“Robert Cohn was once middle-weight boxing champion of Princeton.” The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“All children, except one, grow up.” Peter Pan and Wendy, J.M. Barrie

“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon with an 8-ball in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” Until Gwen, Dennis Lehane

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

 “It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

 “He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” Orlando, Virginia Woolf

“All around us everything was changing in the order of things we had fashioned for ourselves.” The Promise, Chaim Potok

“It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.” The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

“To be born again,” sang GibreelFarishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” The Satanic Verses: A Novel, Salman Rushdie

“Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye form doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man.” How Late It Was, How Late, James Keller

“I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.” The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño

“Time is a blind guide. Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels

“What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.” A Supermarket in California, Allen Ginsberg

“I am an invisible man.” Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

“You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.” All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” The Color Purple, Alice Walker

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Dark Places, Gillian Flynn

“I left Claude, the French rat.” After Claude, Iris Owens

“Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying.” The Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

Beginning Horton Halfpott

Tom Angleberger

Here we have the story of two ways to open a book.

One, is in media res, or “in the middle of things.” Which, is often considered to be an exciting way to start a book.

And that is how I chose to start my first book, Horton Halfpott. (The first book I ever finished, that is.)

I wrote this opening, considered it to perfect and then wrote the rest of the book to go with it. Here it is…

Old Crotty gasped.

Crotty, the Luggertuck’s ancient maid, had not expressed surprise for seventeen years.

And even that occurred in the privacy of her own room, certainly never in the presence of M’Lady Luggertuck.

This gasp from Crotty would be the second of many unprecedented marvels that day and that summer, including, but not limited to, a Stolen Diamond, snooping stableboys, love, the appearance of a famous detective, the disappearance of a Valuable Wig and, yes, even the black deeds of The Shipless Pirates.

Surprisingly, the first unprecedented marvel, the one to which all these others would owe their existence, came from the thickly painted lips of M’Lady Luggertuck herself.

“Not quite so tight today, Crotty,” said M’Lady Luggertuck as the old servant pulled at her corset strings.

The aforementioned, audible gasp of Crotty issued forth directly following M’Lady’s request.

In Old Crotty’s long memory there had never been a day when M’Lady Luggertuck’s corset had not been tightened to a breathless level of constriction.

What did you think? Did you even make it through?

As the manuscript racked up rejections, I started to suspect that the opening was to blame. Were people even reading the whole book? Or were the dropping it in exhaustion after one page?

And so… I killed it. I murdered my darling. After five years or so of hanging out at the top of this oft-rejected manuscript, “Old Crotty” got buried under a new opening!

The new opening wasn’t in media res, it was pure sales pitch, trying—rather desperately—to hook the reader:

          There are so many exciting things in this book—a Stolen Diamond, snooping stable boys, a famous detective, the disappearance of a Valuable Wig, love, pickle éclairs, unbridled Evil, and the Black Deeds of the Shipless Pirates—that it really does seem a shame to begin with ladies’ underwear.

          But the underwear, you see, is the reason that all those Unprecedented Marvels happened—with the possible exception of the pickle éclairs. The underwear in question was a painful item called a corset. A corset, you see, is a sort of undershirt made of straps and sticks and strings and whalebones. In the days of horse-drawn carriages and powdered wigs, some women—and some men—would strap themselves into a corset and it would squeeze them and pinch them so much that they would look skinny.

          Imagine being pinched like that day after day, year after year. It could make a nice lady into a mean one. So imagine what it would do to a lady like M’Lady Luggertuck, who was a nasty beast to start.

          Our story begins one morning, long after the corset has turned M’Lady Luggertuck into one of the worst people in the world. For some reason, which no one knows, M’Lady Luggertuck decided not to be pinched and squeezed that morning.

          “Not quite so tight today, Crotty,” said M’Lady Luggertuck as Old Crotty, her lady’s maid pulled at her corset strings.

          Old Crotty gasped.

Armed with this new beginning, the manuscript sallied forth once more… and was sold immediately! It got published with a glow-in-the-dark cover, was nominated for an Edgar award and got some almost respectable sales numbers!

Was the new opening the reason for all this? Who knows… But I’m glad the first opening was gone because it would have stopped a kid cold.

The original was written with cleverness in mind. The new one was written with readers in mind.


Excerpt from HORTON HALFPOTT: OR, THE FIENDISH MYSTERY OF SMUGWICK MANOR; OR, THE LOOSENING M’LADY LUGGERTUCK’S CORSET © 2011 Tom Angleberger. Published by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. Used by permission.


 

7 Ways to Seduce Your Reader

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.

My all-time favorite first line yanked the rug and tossed me into the chair for a read when I discovered it in The Atlantic. In the language of reader romance, Dennis Lehane’s “Until Gwen” is a speed-date of a first line. In one sentence we learn about the narrator’s crappy childhood, crappy present life, criminal background, and criminal father. We get a sense of the characters’ relative ages and a bit of the setting. In this line we understand that daddy is perfectly willing to put his son in jeopardy. Because the narrator has chosen to let us in on that fact, we sympathize with a potentially unsympathetic protagonist and we believe he wants to go straight. Wow. That’s a lot to pack into one line, a powerful first sentence that seduced me into reading more.

And that’s what you, dear writer, must do. Whether novel, short story, memoir, or essay, all prose openings must seduce your reader to keep reading, an increasingly difficult task in our world of constant distraction. You must make your reader fall in love.

The language of love is an apt metaphor for the relationship between readers and writers: When we can’t wait to tell a friend about a great new book, we say we loved it. Many an agent has declined to take on a new author’s work, saying, I didn’t love it, even if they think it’s well written. In the realm of fiction or memoir, for an agent or editor to link their professional fortune to a story or book they must first fall in love. But while the attraction must be immediate, the form literary love finally takes can vary from book to book, story to story.

Sandra Scofield advises in The Scene Book to“think of your opening lines as the come-hither and the open door.” Here are seven ways to open that door in the world of reader attraction:

1. Speed Date

2. Blind Date

3. Let’s Be Friends

4. White-Hot-Chemistry

5. Heartbreak

6. Slow Seduction

7. Second Impression


Like the first impression you get on a blind date, the opening line of a story or book is crucial because it draws the reader in with a promise. This opening line by Maud Newton, grabbed me by the lapels of my pajamas as I surfed the online literary world:

  My mother was a preacher until the cops shut her down.

From “When the Flock Changed,” this was a teaser posted on the home page of Narrative. That line did its job of getting me to click through to the story. Why? Well it’s funny. And it’s unexpected, like a blind date that turned out well. Say we’ve been set up with our second cousin’s investment broker—imagine our delight in learning he was once in the Peace Corps. What a charming surprise to discover he also does stand-up comedy weekends. Readers like such surprises; readers appreciate a bit of mystery. In Newton’s story, we wonder: just what did mother preach that the police got involved? It is unexpected, her juxtaposing the second half of the sentence against the first. That first line has us eagerly anticipating the second. As Scofield advised, it is a come-hither invitation into the story. So in our world of book-love, a flirtatious opening that hints at what’s to come is a great way to catch a reader’s eye. What every blind date ought to be.

By contrast, a first date who shows up in a suit, clutching flowers and a gold box of Godiva to take you to a movie is simply trying too hard. In workshop, writers often get well-intentioned comments— “I need to know—blank—earlier.” These suggest that what readers want is the opposite of intrigue—flowers and gifts and slicked-down hair, Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from his lapel—but cramming all that data, all the “need to knows” in at the start just creates a jumble of info.

With my own novel, after workshopping and revising the opening many times based on feedback, I set it aside for a while. Then when I turned again to the manuscript, it seemed the first chapter had been written by a committee. Yeah—because it had been. Despite the “need-to-knows,” every aspect of your protagonist, every plot element, does not need to be laid out at the outset: A slow unfolding of the story is as seductive as a man with a slow hand.


Speaking of slow hands, in writing as in life, sometimes the love that lasts starts with friendship. Gregory Spatz does just that in a Let’s be Friends opening in the titular story of his collection, Half as Happy:

Summer afternoons Stan would come home from his work at the mortgage lending office in town, ten minutes away, for lunch. He’d sit by the pool sipping a cold Kokanee with his usual sandwich of turkey and ham on a whole-grain bun or organic six-grain bread, with mustard and no mayo, watching Heidi swim.

From the moment Spatz welcomes us into Stan’s world we have a sense of who Stan is and what his eighteen-year marriage to Heidi is like in a comfortable, let’s be friends way. Oh, how Stan revels in the pleasure of routine, in that ‘usual’ sandwich, which Spatz makes symbolic the third time it appears, the description of its consumption mirroring the deterioration in Stan’s view of his marriage:

He bites off a last hunk of sandwich, feels the grains break against he teeth, the mustard with its little heat and nose-stinging tartness, his one bad tooth with the disintegrating cap giving him the intermittent ache through his jaw that he enjoys bracing himself against.

By starting, not in the early days of his marriage, but with Stan reveling in the simple pleasure of his long union, near the moment the displeasure begins, Spatz also follows that oft-given advice: begin in the middle of the story. Scofield says, “It is possible to pull your reader into the heart of the story, beginning in media res, without getting lost, if your opening lines offer enough details of the situation, setting, and potential conflict.”


Dennis Lehane, chronicler of the seedier side of life, is another champion of starting in media res, as evidenced by the excerpt from “Until Gwen” that opened this essay, as well as by his recent novel, Live by Night:

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion that morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.

If stories of criminals, mayhem, and murder are your thing, that’s an opening with white-hot chemistry. It turns out most of Lehane’s work is too dark and disturbing for me to enjoy, despite his literary stylings—kind of like the guy in a speed dating session with chemistry so white-hot it’s like a neon sign flashing “he’s the one” when he takes the seat across the table. That is until you later discover the manacles and ball-gag by his bed. Yikes! That may be your thing, but you gotta make sure your pickup line prepares the reader for the story you’re about to deliver. Lehane’s openings surely do that.

Your story’s opening lines must prepare the reader for what is to follow. A story is a promise to the reader, and your premise—that is, what the story is about—must be evident on the first page. Make sure your book’s opening informs the reader what kind of book they’ve picked up.

Erica Lorraine Scheidt in her book, Uses for Boys, set us up for the heartbreak that surely follows:

In the happy times, in the tell-me-again times, when I’m seven and there are no stepbrothers and it’s before the stepfathers, my mom lets me sleep in her bed.

Her bed is a raft on the ocean. It’s a cloud, a forest, a spaceship, a cocoon we share. I stretch out big as I can, a five-pointed star, and she bundles me back up in her arms. When I wake I’m tangled in her hair.

“Tell me again,” I say and she tells me again how she wanted me more than anything.

“More than anything in the world,” she says, “I wanted a little girl.”

The tender relationship between mother and daughter is beautifully sketched, and the future trouble, the coming heartbreak, is foreshadowed by mention of later stepbrothers and stepfathers. As in life, we prefer hearing about a heartbreak to having one. Let your reader know there’s trouble ahead and she’ll hang around to hear about it.


So we’ve learned that story openings can have the intrigue of a blind date or they can befriend us before blossoming into reader romance. Story love can come on fast and hard or can seduce us slowly. That’s right, a first line doesn’t have to be dramatic or memorable to be effective. Sometimes what we want is slow seduction. Violating the oft-repeated rule that modern readers don’t care for books that open with character description, here’s how Amanda Coplin opens her novel, The Orchardist:

His face was as pitted as the moon. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and thick without being stocky, though one could see how he would pass into stockiness; he had already taken on the barrel-chested sturdiness of an old man. His ears were elephantine, a feature most commented on when he was younger, when the ears stuck out from his head; but now they had darkened like the rest of his sun-exposed flesh and lay against his skull more than at any other time in his life, and were tough, the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit. He was clean-shaven, large-pored; his skin was oily. In some lights his flesh was gray; others, tallow; others, red. His lips were the same color as his face, had given way to the overall visage, had begun to disappear. His nose was large, bulbous. His eyes were cornflower blue. His eyelashes nothing to speak of now, but when he was young they were thick-black, and his cheeks bloomed, and his lips were as pure and sculpted as a cherub’s. These things together made the women compulsively kiss him, lean down on their way to do other chores, collapse him to their breasts.

One hundred and seventy-seven beautifully rendered words devoted to describing a single character. What follows is four lines of backstory, then more character description. Coplin’s opening is indeed a slow seduction. The Orchardist was short-listed for several best-of awards, was a 2012 Barnes and Noble Discover Awards finalist, and inspired this praise from NPR’s Jane Ciabattari, “Coplin displays a dazzling sense of craftsmanship, and a talent for creating characters vivid and true.”

The ‘dazzling craftsmanship’ of her first lines opens a world of possibility involving the character she described. By starting the story with an extensive description of the protagonist, Coplin alerts the reader that a character-based story follows. It works because she has selected concrete images that create a vivid picture of an interesting man.

From the speed-date of Lehane’s story to the slow seduction of Coplin’s book, the right opening helps match book with reader. Remember that there isn’t a right or wrong pick up line, as different readers prefer different styles. Spend time eavesdropping in any nightclub and you will note one woman taken with the cocky assurance of a man’s opening line, while another finds that same man smarmy.

In fact, the best way to discover what kind of opening best fits you as a writer is to look no further than your nightstand. Take a gander at what you like to read. According to Robert Masello in his book Robert’s Rules of Writing, “the kind of book you most enjoy is the kind of book you will stand the best chance of writing well yourself.”

Whether your ideal reader is drawn in by simple or by complex first lines, by rich detail or spartan prose, remember that you teach your readers how to read your story with the opening. Again, an opening is a promise of what’s to come and it is a promise which the author must fulfill.

Okay. You’re convinced of the importance of those first paragraphs or pages. Be aware that there is a danger in relying on white-hot chemistry alone. Some writers focus heavily on instant attraction in order to garner an agent (who will nab an editor, who will publish the book in hopes that it will grab a reader). They rework their first chapter, their opening scene, again and again until those first few pages are so gloriously polished the reflection is blinding. As Billie Joe Shaver sang in his country hit:

I’m gonna spit and polish my old rough-edged self

Until I get rid of every single flaw

I’m just an old chunk of coal

But I’m gonna be a diamond some day

Writers spit and polish their rough-edged first chapter—like the guys we’ve all known who are great at the initial attraction, but who can’t sustain a relationship—but the blue-pure perfection of that glorious opening loses it’s luster when compared to the rough slate of the rest of the story. Diamond brilliance followed by less-gemstone-than-coal is far too common. When the guy who you met walking his puppy in the park turns out to have borrowed the pooch for it’s chick-magnet qualities white-hot chemistry alone won’t cut it.

Sometimes it’s what comes after the opening that lends a glow to what preceded; sometimes it’s the second impression that counts. Some of the best short stories employ this technique of seeming to go one way before veering another. Cheryl Diane Kidder’s story “Ten Days Gone,” which appeared in Pembroke, is a masterful example of this second impression technique. It starts this way:

Late October, 1868, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

2 days since leaving Base Camp

Jake found this cabin. We walked for maybe two days. Inside all we found were tin cans. No firewood. There was a small table and two chairs. We broke those up the first night and burned them in the old fireplace.It must have been closed up. All we got was a cabin full of smoke. Had to sit outside until that cleared. Jake was worried about animals, but I knew if we stayed inside the smoke would kill us just as fast. I tried to tell him we should stay here and wait, but he was sure he knew the way out. I tore the wrappers off the old cans and burned those too. I tore pages out of the Bible Jake gave me and with a pencil nub wrote my first letter.

if you find this we’re heading west

This opening plays off the reader’s assumptions. Base camp, the time, the location, all lead the reader to think a pair of men, gold miners or fur trappers perhaps, are forced by weather or dwindling supplies to leave their camp in the cold. But the ‘letters’ the narrator scribbles each day on torn-out bible pages and nails to trees along the way hint at another story as they become more and more poignant.

please tell my daughter Jun I love her dearly and tell Charlie I am sorry

The reader gradually comes to understand the narrator is a woman, and that she and Jake are lost and starving, but we don’t fully comprehend their situation—how they came to be lost in the wild, the nature of their relationship—until half way through the story when the narration shifts to Jake and goes backward in time to when he first met the woman, Lin Mein, and convinced her to run away with him. And it’s not until Jake loses his mind, stripping off his clothes in the bitter cold and running into the wilderness, leaving Lin Mein alone that readers understand the tragic reality of the story, an understanding that shatters the first impression entirely.

The reader realizes their previous assumptions were false, yet the truth was right there for them to see all along. And this last is key: Layering in elements that trigger a perception, then shining a light that alters perception of those same elements is what leads to the successful use of the ‘second impression’ technique. Absent that layering of truth-there-to-be-seen leaves the reader feeling betrayed by new information revealed in the end.

This technique is especially effective in the compression of short works, but it can be put to good use in longer works as well. A novel manuscript I’m editing about a concert violinist who is also a contract killer, HitChick by David Paul Williams, starts this way:

Some claimed her favorite close encounter weapon, a Socimi type 821, was nothing more than an Italian knock off of the famous Israeli Uzi. Anyone who’d ever handled both quickly appreciated the Socimi’s refinements. Like the Old World craftsmen who created the Stradavari and Amati violins she coveted, the inspired Italians refined a good design into a work of art.

See how the third sentence alters the impression given by the first? Readers like second impressions, happy surprises that say, “you’re much cooler than I first thought.” Like a skinny nerd with unexpectedly adroit dance moves and a hip heart of pure cool, the unexpected arouses a reader’s interest. While giving an intriguing second impression, Williams sets up his story’s promise: his protagonist lives a dual life.

Now, please don’t mistake setting the tone for predictability. Do set the reader up to expect the unexpected—linger too long in the straightforward and your sudden surprise comes off as not believable.

If you suspect your openings don’t seduce the reader the way they should, here are some exercises to resuscitate your story starts:

After you’ve got a finished draft of your book or story, rewrite your opening page in several ways, trying various styles:

  • in dialogue, either secondary characters or the protagonist in conversation
  • in action, involving at least one other character: crying, arguing, rollerskating, dancing, jumping from a moving car, hang gliding into danger, getting shot at, discovering a dead body, burying a body, digging for treasure, in the midst of a reunion, finding a parent’s illicit love letters
  • in lyrical prose, which is especially effective if unexpected for the genre of your book or story
  • and, one of my favorites, in the style of your favorite books or stories. I was delighted at the new perspective I gained re-writing my novel’s opening pages in the style of several admired author’s works.

Make particular effort to employ a method which contrasts starkly with your existing opening, and with what you’d expect in your genre. You may surprise yourself, and happy surprises are what makes an agent / editor / reader buy your book.

Arouse a reader’s interest and they’ll be willing to take their shoes off, set a spell with your characters. Pick your opening flavor by examining those that get you to crack open the pages of a new book. Teach your reader how to read your story by the way it opens, then deliver on that promise. Hook them at the start, whether with a Speed Date that leaves them breathless; a Blind Date that surprises and delights; Let’s Be Friends that blossoms into romance; the White-Hot-Chemistry that lingers for the long run; a Heartbreak of the thank-goodness-it’s-not-my-life variety; a Slow Seduction they can’t get off their mind with characters they’d like to spend time with; or a you’re-pretty-cool-after-all Second Impression,and those lovely readers will not only buy your book, but will paint the sky with declarations of author-love.


Read Love at First Sight: Agents and Editors on Irresistible Beginnings, essential advice for writers compiled by Q Lindsey Barrett.

firstsin

Love at First Sight: Agents and Editors on Irresistible Beginnings

Q Lindsey Barrett

As assistant fiction editor at Hunger Mountain I read a lot of fiction submissions, and sometimes writers ask what I’m looking for in a piece of fiction. The simple answer is that I’m looking to fall in love. We all feel this way, all the HM editors: we love to fall in love with your stories. We love stories with white-hot chemistry that take our breath away from the first line. So too do we love the slow seduction of a story that unfolds gradually, or a story that befriends us before blossoming into reader romance—all the varieties of love.

But at what moment in the reading experience do we lose our hearts? There is this (correct) notion that the world is speeding up of late, that we no longer have the attention spans to wait for a story to get going. But even decades ago, Elia Kazan, award-winning director and novelist, said that film audiences gave him seven minutes to capture their interest. If they weren’t intrigued within those first crucial minutes, the film was a disappointment to them no matter what came after and they would not be telling the world, “You’ve got to see this movie.”

Seven minutes may not seem like much, but the bad news is that a bookstore browser or digital book-surfer gives your life’s work, your paper/digital baby, but a fraction of that time to capture her heart. In his book, Stein on Writing, Sol Stein, master editor, best-selling author, and writing instructor, tells of a study of book store browsers. The cover art or title may have flirted with them, the jacket copy offered to buy them a drink, but before they said “yes” to the book’s overture, the conversation had to go well when they turned to page one. No browser went beyond page three before taking a book to the cashier or putting it down.

So important are those early pages in seducing an agent or editor to fall in love, literary agent Noah Lukeman wrote a best-selling book specifically on opening well called, The First Five Pages. Lukeman saw a lot of manuscripts cross his desk that didn’t grab him from the start. The longer he was in the business, the more clear it became that the busy editor wasn’t going to look beyond the first pages to decide whether to pass on a book, so the books he chose to represent needed to grab the reader in those first few pages. Lukeman’s book alerts good writers that revving the engine before the race doesn’t get a book across the reader’s finish line.

To help you, lovely writers, cross that line, Hunger Mountain asked agents and editors to share their insights into what draws them into a story, and why. We think you’ll be as delighted as we were with the generosity and insight of their comments. Here’s what they had to say:

Mike Levine, Acquisitions Editor from Northwestern University Press:

It takes hold of you in a particular way. The first sentence of a story does not need to surprise you, though this can be used to powerful effect (Gregor Samsa did what?). In fact, it can be surprisingly ordinary in what it expresses and yet still work brilliantly. All it has to do—as if this were at all easy, which it is decidedly not—is suggest a world and a voice. There is implication, the sense that whatever that first sentence tells you will lead to another one, must lead to another one. And there is perspective, the words chosen or arranged in such a way as to betray individuality, whether the story is in first-, second-, or third-person. The sentence needs to sound as if there is only one person, one consciousness in which it could have originated. To illustrate, I’ve chosen an opening sentence, not quite but almost at random, from a master, Donald Barthelme. This is how “The Great Hug” begins: “At the last breakfast after I told her, we had steak and eggs.” There is nothing fancy here, yet you’re already leaping ahead: What was she told? What was the relationship between her and the narrator and how is it different now that she has been told? How much time has passed between the telling and the breakfast? The specificity of steak and eggs is the coup de grâce. Amid all these questions prompted by the first clause is something so easily pictured. Is it significant? If so, how? You want to know, but it doesn’t matter because the essential function of the steak and eggs is to ground these characters in a world you recognize. They become real. Once they’re real, you care. Once you care, the story has you where it wants you.”

 

Caitlin Horrocks, Fiction Editor of the Kenyon Review and Assistant Professor of Writing at Grand Valley State University:

I was just talking about beginnings with the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and she has a wonderful metaphor that goes beyond the old saw about openings “hooking” the reader: as she describes it, the opening should hook, but it can do anything from gouging to just slipping with a little tug under the skin. By the end of the piece, whatever hook has been inserted should be removed, and it should hurt, whether that means a sharp or wistful or satisfying feeling.

I’d add that, for me personally as a reader and editor of fiction, there are many ways for a beginning to accomplish that, and I don’t necessarily need verbal pyrotechnics or fiery car crashes. But those two things are broad examples of two types of openings I do tend to enjoy: openings that promise a plot or setting that feel fresh, strange or exciting to me; and openings that grab me with the surety or surprise of the voice. A story we recently accepted at The Kenyon Review, Gabriel Urza’s “Last Indian Massacre,” starts like this: “The trial is thirty years in the past, and the only reason people still talk about the white girl Lana Thomas and my brother Danny is because of the business with the livestock.” There’s a classic mystery there (a trial!) and I’m immediately curious about Lana, Danny, and the convergent “business with the livestock.”

Another recently accepted story, “Kink” by Chris Drangle, opened in a way that frankly had me worried—a troubled character beginning a journal on the advice of his therapist. I’d seen that done badly too many times to be optimistic. But the first-person voice in “Kink” is very funny, sure-footed, and highly individual. The voice carried me long enough for the story to reveal itself to be a fresh take on the journal form, with a vivid, biting character that I loved.

April Eberhardt of April Eberhardt Literary

I can say that as a general rule, I favor stories that draw me in in the very first line, by presenting such a compelling character, or riveting situation, or striking observation, that I can’t help but keep reading.

Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency underscores how your story’s opening teaches your reader what kind of book they’ve picked up:

In an ideal world, for me, the first sentences of a book will subtly set the tone for what we are to expect for the rest of our reading. One example of this is Joshua McCune’s forthcoming TALKER 25, whose first sentence in an online post hooked me and made me write him to ask for more details: “When Trish called and begged me to go dragon hunting, I should have trusted my instincts. Now I’m stuck in a car with her and a pair of wannabe farmboys whose idea of Friday night fun is sneaking onto the rez to get their pictures taken next to Old Man Blue.” From this opener we can tell right away we’re in a world very much like our own—but with one big twist (dragons!). We get a sense of the narrator’s voice and tone, and I think get a pretty good idea of the action-packed, voice-driven read we are in for.

On a completely different side of the spectrum is Jennifer A. Nielsen’s ELLIOT AND THE GOBLIN WAR, which begins: “When he was eight years old, Elliot Penster started an inter-species war. Don’t blame him. As anyone who has ever started an inter-species war will tell you, it’s not that difficult to do.” Once again, right away we can tell what kind of story we’re diving into: in this case, a middle-grade romp packed with action and tongue-in-cheek humor.

Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary:

I see tons of identical openings: characters eating breakfast; car crashes where kids lose their parents; teens on airplanes, usually travelling unwillingly to new states/countries. Beginnings don’t literally need to be beginnings! The point being, do something a little fresh and unexpected. Enter the action at a surprising moment, juxtapose ideas—or say something simple but arresting. “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” Wham, I’m there. Erica Scheidt conveys a whole world in opening USES FOR BOYS: “In the happy times, in the tell-me-again times, when I’m seven and there are no stepbrothers and it’s before the stepfathers, my mom lets me sleep in her bed.” Three lines and I knew I wanted to rep this novel because my heart was grabbed.

Joanna Volpe, New Leaf Literary:

An opening line is a tricky thing. It has to hook your reader, but it shouldn’t try too hard to do so. Ultimately, it needs to fit the tone and style and voice of your story. My favorite opening line, to this day, is from CHAINED by Lynne Kelly: “The flood left, but the fever stayed.” That one line sets up the story perfectly. In fact, it could be a micro-story all unto its own! It had me hooked. So I read on, signed it, sold it. A good first line can make a difference.

John M. Cusick, Greenhouse Literary:

A great opening should grab the reader’s attention. It might be shocking, a moment of high tension, or it might hook us in by juxtaposing apparently contradictory ideas. Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE opens, “The best day of my life happened when I was five and I almost died at Disney World.” How could the best day of your life be the day you almost died, and how could that happen at Disney World, of all places? The puzzle seizes our interest, and compels us to keep reading.

Abigail Samoun, Red Fox Literary:

One of the most common mistakes I see authors making is not really thinking enough about the best place to enter the narrative of their story. Taking your reader through the threshold and into the world of your book is the most perilous stage of the storytelling process. I always tell my clients to step very carefully at this point, with eyes wide open. Should your story begin here or a day later? An hour later? A minute later? Every decision you make here will influence what follows. The reader, meanwhile, is a little bit like a swimmer on the edge of a pool. There’s always some reluctance on the reader’s part to dive in and begin a new book by a new author—will they like it? Should they be reading this book or another one? So the author is in a dangerous position here on the first page of their story. They must find a way to seduce the reader in. “Come on! The water’s fine! I have an amazing story to tell you.” It’s worth really taking your time with the beginning of your fiction piece—experiment with your opening scenes. Try it in different points-of-view, different tenses. Start later or earlier in the scene, or start in an entirely different one. Remember, you’ve only got one shot at getting the reader through the door. It’s easy for them to take a peek through the doorway and then decide to turn around and leave.


Read 7 Ways to Seduce Your Reader by Q Lindsey Barrett.

firstlinedetail2

Gratitude from Country Mouse

Tamara Ellis Smith

When I sit at my desk on the second floor of my house, I look out over our town park with its playground and band shell, soccer and baseball fields, and, right about now, the remains of our skating rink made by the local tow guy. Beyond the park I see the line of trees at the Winooski River’s shore, and beyond the river I see five hill peaks. To the right of my house is Jericho Settler’s Farm, where we hear the baaingof sheep and the snorting of pigs. To the left of my house is On the Rise Bakery, where the smell of baking bread and brownies and pizza tumbles onto the street.

Kissing the Earth was born out of a series of conversations between Sharry Phelan Wright and me about creating a blog together, one about writing that would be different from the others out there in the vast blogosphere. Beyond our passion for children’s literature, we also share a deep reverence for nature and for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary—and thus we created our bi-monthly blog about the intersection between landscape and writing for children.

At Kissing the Earth, I am the country mouse. I live in Richmond, Vermont, a small northern rural town all the way on the other side of the country from Sharry. I run with my dog (and my running partner and her dog) on the trails by the river, cross-country ski behind the farm, and attend a yoga class in the loft of my neighbor’s garage. My kids walk to school, and my husband rides his bike to work. (Or he used to, before Tropical Storm Irene destroyed his office. To read a Hunger Mountain essay about how Irene influenced my writing, see here.)

I feel a sense of gratitude for where I live. I am well connected to this feeling; it is right on the surface where I can find it and touch it easily, but it is also deeply inside of me in a place where I can feel it in my bones. But if someone had asked me a year ago—before Sharry and I began writing our blog, Kissing the Earth—why I feel this gratitude, I would have been at a loss for words. Writing this blog has changed that. Now, when I hike through the woods and feel that rush of centered wonder and happiness, I take a moment to really explore what’s stimulating that good feeling. The way the trees covered in snow create a canopy over the path. The comfort that the flora-embrace brings. Now, when I walk the kids to school and I feel that same rush, I breathe slowly and deeply and take in the warm, thick smell of my neighbor’s wood-fired stove. I register the way it triggers a sense of safety inside me. Now, when I run along the trail by the river, I feel, once again, that same centeredness. I stop and listen to the ice cracking around the flowing water and bend down to see the tracks that a pair of foxes left while trekking the same trail, veering off now and then to drink from the icy water’s edge. And then I understand why I am feeling a sense of connectedness to this trail, this river, this place.

I am able to see—and feel—how the amazing individual pieces of my landscape make up its whole. I am able to name what brings me joy and sing its very specific praises. And because of these two things, I am able to find where I fit into my landscape and where it fits into me.

In a recent blog entry, I wrote:

Rituals are comforting. It feels good to do something familiar. My body can relax into it because it knows, instinctively what to do—downward dog or stretching pizza dough or whatever the movement may be—and so my mind can relax too. There is no thinking about the action, only doing it, and this frees me up to dream or imagine or simply let go.

But rituals also facilitate discovery. Because I run along the same river trail day in and day out, I notice when a tree has fallen or a fox has been by or the ice flow on the river has shifted. I can hone in on tiny new details because I am not taking in the entire landscape in that sweeping, wide-angle way I do when I am in it for the first or even second or third time. Rituals strengthen that observation muscle.

The dual-layered practice of paying close attention to my landscape and writing about it bi-monthly at Kissing The Earth, has, of course, informed my writing. It has opened me up to the rich details that are all around me waiting to be internalized and then recalled when the just-right moment arises in my works-in-progress. On a hike up Mount Mansfield, for example, I noticed for the first time that the rock at the very top of the mountain is striated with white, grey and silver. Just like a marble. And—lo and behold!—my novel that centers around a marble includes a hike up Mansfield. You can bet I wove that perfect, metaphoric detail into the manuscript. I write with more specificity as a result of my flaneur practice. When my main character is wrestling with a particular feeling, such as grief or joy, bits and pieces of my landscape (and my correlating feelings) rise to the surface of my consciousness. I can use these details to express my character’s feelings.

For me, landscape is often a metaphor. It can be used to enhance a pivotal plot point, or describe a character’s state of mind, or mirror her strong emotion. And making a daily practice of observing the landscape that surrounds me has transformed what used to be a haphazard method of writing into a solid, well-crafted tool. One that is readily available to me. The study of landscape allows for much more than that, though. Yes, I have found a tool—or a language—with which I can view, talk about, and write about the world. Studying my landscape has given smell and shape and sound to the musings and wonderings and ideas in my head—the ones that make their way into my work. But I also have come to truly view the elements of landscape as characters unto themselves. The foxes on the trail are a metaphor for resilience and cunning, and they are also real foxes! With hearts and bones and fur; with struggles and instincts and journeys. The trees bending over the path are a metaphor for home and safety, and they are also real trees!  With roots digging deep into the earth and branches reaching high into the sky and so old they have bore witness to multiple human lifetimes of events. When the metaphor and the real are woven together in a story—this is when alchemy happens. This is magic.

Kissing the Earth has also opened me up to landscapes other than my own.  I eagerly await Sharry’s posts every other week, excited to learn about yet another wondrous corner of San Francisco. I talk about landscape much more than I used to, so I am constantly gaining new bits of information about all sorts of places, from the road between my sister’s hotel and her yoga studio in India, to my friend’s son’s preschool in the middle of the woods in Germany, to my mother’s walk up the road on my childhood farm’s property.

I am also more acutely aware of the role landscape plays in other authors’ stories. Just as Sharry tries to weave the craft of writing into her blog posts, I try to weave a book I have recently read into mine. Often it is a book that has reminded me of an intimate landscape, such as Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, which prompted me to write about my sister’s cancer recovery on the North Shore of Boston, or Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green, which evoked my own landscape-of-origin (the family farm). Sometimes it works in reverse, and my own observations remind me of books I have read, such as Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, which was conjured deeply by the snake-like vines that entwine with the trees along my river trail.

That blog entry is one of the ways I have woven together landscape and books, but there are more. An exciting new development at Kissing the Earth is our author interviews. We, of course, focus on what role landscape plays in the author’s novel, as well as the details of that landscape and where the landscape is personal and intimate to the author.  The process of discussing books with their authors has been a joyful and enlightening endeavor, and we believe the interviews that come from these conversations are a unique entrée into a book, a different way to get to know an author. We plan to add more of these this year and make it a regular feature of Kissing the Earth.

But for now—in this very minute—I am going to press the command and S keys on my computer, get up from my desk, go downstairs, and head out. Out onto my street, across the park, down to the river, and I’ll see what happens from there….

Out the door for a run. Kara and I weren’t going to be deterred by the weather. We donned our yak-traks and headed out onto the trail. Sheer and total ice. Kara and I had to run along the side of the trail. Any step on it would have resulted in both of us on our tails. I know this because the dogs did slip and really fell on theirs. And even the sides of the trail were icy. I had to keep my eyes on my feet the entire time I was running.

I initially felt that fear that I always feel when I’m worrying about falling; when I am sure, at any moment, I am going to lose control. But as I ran—as I continued to focus on my feet, and as the unusual silence between Kara and me opened itself up to the sound of ice cracking on the river, the clicking of the dogs’ toes on the frozen ground and the rush of the wind—I began to get into a rhythm. My feet, my breathing, and my head all came together in a sort of running meditation. I was fully in the moment, fully in my body, and not afraid at all.

The first thing Kara said to me when we finished the run was, “That was hard but it was kind of like a meditation and I began to love it…” How amazing that we had shared the same experience without ever communicating during it. Did one of us inspire it in the other? Did the landscape inspire it in both of us?

Whoever it was that helped me transform my fear into joy, I thank you…

On Material: Art + Blueprint

 

Throwing the Careful into the Crazy, painting by Dawn Doran

Throwing the Careful into the Crazy, painting by Dawn Doran

For me, a prompt makes creating new work easier and a deadline makes finishing possible. So I incorporated both when I created SPARK, a quarterly project for writers, artists, and musicians, who get ten days to create something new, using another person’s work as inspiration. I administer the project, but I also participate, and I use each round as an opportunity to play with process.

During one round*, I was assigned an inspiration painting called “Throwing the Careful Into the Crazy,” by Dawn Doran, and I wanted to write a poem in response to this painting. At the time I was reading about surrealists and chance-based art, and I thought something a bit “out there” would suit Dawn’s piece. So I created a game that would introduce an element of chance to my drafting process.

First, I chose a poem I like:

On Being Introduced to You
by Eve Merriam

No watch
can tell love’s time:
the hour is always
unbidden, when least expected,
as now.

Joy comes
as a light craft
darting on the surface
of the sea, then dropping anchor
to stay.

Cinquains:
five lines, unrhymed;
start with two syllables,
go to four, six, eight, but at length
just two.

Using this poem, I constructed a blueprint for mine, based on the parts of speech in each line. (I ignored the fact that the poem was written in cinquains and is overtly about cinquains—I wasn’t interested in reflecting that aspect of the poem’s structure.) So if a line of the Merriam poem were made up of noun verb article noun, say, then that was my blueprint for that line.

I wanted each noun, verb, adjective, and adverb to come directly from the inspiration piece, so I spent a long time staring at the painting and writing down what I saw. When I stopped generating words that interested me, I typed everything into the computer, added a few lines of generic words (articles, demonstrative adjectives, prepositions), then printed out the page. I cut out the words and sorted them by parts of speech into labeled buckets (lumping the demonstratives and the articles together: sorry, grammarians). Using my blueprint as a guide, I then pulled out words and placed them face down, line by line, to construct my poem.

When I was finished, I had fifteen rows of hidden words. Then came the exciting part. I turned everything over to see the poem I had made. I repeated the process three times, chose the poem I liked best, gave it one thoughtful edit based on how each line sounded (straying from the blueprint if I felt like it) and voila. My response to the inspiration painting was complete.

This “game” was a lot of fun and the resulting poem was definitely surreal. I’m told it sounds like a Beck song, and I take that as very high praise indeed.

Crazily Careful or Carefully Crazy?
a surreally structured poem
by Amy Souza

This fire
Scrapes flying dreams:
His donkey flies deftly
Pink with flaming attachment,
On sequins.

Bottles clear
Of two deep-blue corazónes
Smearing those baubles
over which banner, but foiling foils
To paint.

Memories (swirls):
Red fires, attached,
Express toward their hearts,
Feel then stars, marks, love
A flame.

~

*This round’s complete SPARK between Amy and Dawn.

The Potential of the Peripheral: Secondary Characters in Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief

 

 INTRODUCTION1

Some years ago, toward the end of an hour-long class during which a group was workshopping one of my stories, someone in the room said, “I was just wondering, don’t these people ever run into anyone else? Don’t their waiters ever talk to them? Don’t they have any friends?” My notes from that comment read: “Secondary characters. What is it with me? Where are they all? Must find them. Must use them. Duhhh.”

At that moment, it may have seemed obvious—duhhh—but in fact, I had never given much thought to secondary characters. To the extent that they appeared at all in my work, I treated most incidental figures as characters of convenience, whose presence I primarily tolerated for what they could provide, in very practical ways, for my main characters. If my leading lady needed a cab ride, she would be driven by a cabbie, but that driver would be as sketchy a figure as I could make him. If my narrator had a mistress, she would have no life of her own, existing in the story only as the genesis of his aching conscience and little else. I treated such characters stingily, and in return they brought very little to the work. They gave me none of the sub-plots they might have provided, and none of the welcome tonal shifts; none of the surprises, and none of the new perspectives on my central characters that might in turn make them more compelling. Most importantly, these one-dimensional figures gave my stories none of the expansiveness that might have resulted from characters whose hearts and whose own stories were made available to readers, even if their struggles, dreams and full life histories were not ultimately occupying center stage.

My scant use of a supporting cast came about at least in part because I feared losing my hold on the question of what was at stake in each work. Writing short stories at the time, a form for which necessity is a common demand, I was terrified (a strong word, but an accurate one) of introducing anything or anyone a reader might consider irrelevant into my work. But relevance, I have come to see, is a double-edged sword. While it’s true that wholly unrelated, disconnected story threads can distract to the point of destroying, it’s equally true that a work in which the relevance of every element and every figure is unambiguously clear is likely to be an overly tidy work, one in which the presence of a controlling, directive author is also all too clear.

At around the time I began to understand that my secondary characters and I might have much more to give to one another, I read Jane Smiley’s novella “The Age of Grief” and was struck by the amount of attention given to non-central figures on the page. “The Age of Grief” is a first person narrative, told by David Hurst, a dentist. The central drama revolves around David’s suspicion that his wife, Dana, also a dentist, is romantically involved with another man. By the time David tells us the story, the involvement has ended, but the concerns and the questioning go on.

Smiley populates the novella with a very large supporting cast. David and Dana have three children, they have families of origin, they have a shared office staff of four, they have memorable figures from their common dental education, they have patients and they have, of course, the shadowy figure of the Other, the man with whom David believes Dana to be involved. In addition there are brief appearances by many minor players—a teacher, a school friend, a nurse, among them. In all, there are approximately thirty characters in “The Age of Grief” which is a mere seventy-six pages long. Yet the first time I read the novella it never occurred to me that Smiley had overpopulated her work. It all made sense. No single character diverted me from the story of the couple and of their marriage, and in fact these potentially distracting figures lend to the intensity of the central drama, even doing so, at times, by leaving that subject and that storyline for a bit. Most importantly, throughout, Smiley uses secondary characters to define and then redefine our sense of the man who is at center stage, the narrator, David Hurst.

I. Secondary Characters as Guests: Introductions, Please

It’s no small task to introduce thirty or so secondary and minor characters in the course of fewer than eighty pages. The clearest danger is confusion, both about who people are and also about the degree to which they matter, but Smiley not only navigates the potentials for mix-up and misdirection, she also uses those potentials to her own ends.

Minor characters appear immediately in “The Age of Grief.”  In the opening paragraph of the novella, we meet Professor Perl, a teacher who picked on Dana in dental school because she was a woman, and two pages later we hear about Phil Levine and Marty Crockett, the men who beat her out in the class order, graduating first and second to her third. Smiley’s methods in these early introductions are predictive of techniques she will use throughout the novella to keep her characters memorable and distinct:

The next year things changed, and a fifth of [the students] were women, so maybe Professor Perl . . . didn’t persist in his habit of turning to the only woman in the class and saying “Miss McManus, did you understand that (121)?”

If Dana were reminded these days that she hadn’t graduated first in our class but third, she would pretend indifference, but she was furious then. What did it matter that Phil Levine, who was first, hadn’t been out of his apartment after dark in three years and his wife seemed to have taken a vow of silence, which she broke only when she told him she was going to live with another guy? Or that Marty Crockett, number two, was a certified genius and headed for NASA as the first dentist in space (124)?

In each case Smiley devotes only a sentence or two to the person, and in each case, too, she finds a unique detail to have David recount. This continues throughout the novella. Characters who are only mentioned once are carefully grounded with a single defining physical or personal trait. Tessa, a friend of David’s youngest daughter, “wears a tiny ponytail smack on the top of her head” (129). Dana’s sister Frances is so perennially carsick that anyone driving her has to “pull over so that Frances can give her all on the side of the road” (146). Her brother Joe can “bench-press 250 pounds, though he doesn’t lift weights as a hobby” (204). And there are David’s father and mother. The former is chatty and social; the latter, withdrawn and nearly silent. And so on and on and on. Teeth, as David reminds us, are the part of the body most often used to identify people when all else is gone. David, a dentist, is notably skillful at finding an identifying feature in each character he mentions along the way, even while he may be failing to detect essential and central complexities. And though the craft belongs to Smiley, the accounts are believable as David’s, at least in part because he is presented throughout as a meditative and observant man—albeit one who is trying to hide important truths from himself.

In the two passages about dental school, above, Smiley does something else as well, something beyond merely making each character distinct. She alludes to an imagined time or slightly removed reality different from the historical context of dental school in which they appear, and these allusions perform a similar, technical function each time. It is as though the character to whom David refers is gently but firmly placed on a path away from the tale David tells. These three men may appear in his story, but each also has a story of his own; and this implication in turn helps a reader intuitively understand that they are only incidental and not central characters. David doesn’t know for sure what became of Professor Perl because Professor Perl ceased to be relevant after their freshman year—and he’s certainly not relevant now. Phil Levine, in turn, is a man who had his own drama, literally contained within his own walls, and also had his own trauma with which to contend. And Marty Crockett, most dramatically, is sent out into space, far, far away from this narrative. Smiley is directive without seeming at all to be so, as she keeps the figures from David’s and Dana’s past contained to his memory and destined for their own futures.

At the same time, paradoxically, David’s own tendency to become distracted from the question of what is truly at stake is evident even in these early pages. While Smiley is careful to take precautions that we, as readers, not be confused over what is central to this story, she uses the same secondary characters to make it clear that the narrator himself is confused at times. As the novella progresses, David will prove to be powerfully drawn to the periphery of his own tale—as befits a man who frequently admits that he is avoiding facing the truths about his own life. The elegance of what Smiley accomplishes lies in the fact that David’s distraction never becomes ours. He may be in continual danger of losing track of what’s at stake, but his narrative never is.

At other times, Smiley uses nomenclature—or more accurately its absence—to direct us toward what is and isn’t important. David has parents and a brother; that much we know. And we even know some personality traits of both his parents, just enough to help us understand him a bit better. But we don’t know his brother’s name or anything about David’s current relationship to him. By leaving David’s family members unnamed and by keeping the door shut to their current roles in his life, Smiley tacitly closes off our inquiries.

II. Secondary Characters as World: Society, Witness and Atmosphere

The Hursts exist together in two separate societies: domestic and professional. Though these realms are in some ways parallel, and are acknowledged by David as such (148), their treatment in the novella is very different. As David describes the office staff he and Dana share, the care later taken to keep their daughters distinct from one another (discussed below) is entirely absent. The following paragraph is a tribute to confusion, rife with the potential for mixing up almost everybody:

The receptionists are Katharyn and Dave, eight to one and one to six, six bucks an hour, and the assistants are Laura (mine) and Delilah (Dana’s), eight to two and noon to six, fifteen bucks an hour. Our receptionists are always students at the university and turn over about every two and a half years. Laura has been my assistant for five years, and Delilah came last year, replacing Genevieve. Both, as I said before, have sets of twins: Laura’s fraternal, twelve years old, and Delilah’s identical, four years old. Laura and Delilah also have pension plans, so, of course, we are also a financial institution, with policy decisions and long-term planning goals and investment strategies. Dave is a flirt. For convenience, he is known as “Dave” while I am known as “Dr. Dave,” even, at the office, to Dana. Katharyn has been engaged for three years to an Arabian engineer she met during her freshman year. Laura is divorced, edgy, bossy with the patients. Delilah is rounded, soft, an officer in the local Mothers of twins club, which Laura has never joined (148-149).

From the first sentence, it is impossible not to feel somewhat muddled. So much information is released all at once—names, jobs, hours of work, salaries, personal lives. The life of the office itself spills over from the pages of this story, into the past, into homes we will never enter, even, not coincidentally, into “Arabia,” the legendary land of tales told to preserve one’s own life. As with the earlier references to the futures and private lives of the dental school figures, these references serve to give the novella an open, expansive quality by implying a larger world just outside our ken. They also serve to illustrate for us once again the fact that David’s own mind is filled with details, with somewhat irrelevant observations and, most importantly, with distractions from his own situation. Though David describes himself as a meditative man, the degree to which his own account of his life and marital crisis is so crowded with minutiae serves to call that assessment into question. If he is meditative, it is not generally about that on which it might be most useful that he meditate. But then, as one of his central, stated goals throughout the novella is to avoid having to see clearly the fact that his wife is disloyal to him, his overdeveloped peripheral vision is understandable.

Smiley also uses the office figures to achieve something like a shift in atmosphere and in tone, this time toward humor. One of the most basic comic tropes, dating back at least as far as Plautus, is that of mistaken identity. Here, Smiley gives us example after example of potential mix-ups along those lines. Everyone has at least one double. There are two Dr. Hursts, two receptionists, two assistants, two women each with a set of twins, and even two men named David. Were this a Shakespearean comedy, rather than a heart-wrenching novella, it would be only a matter of moments before characters were opening letters meant for other people, calling one twin by the name of the other and wondering why the Dr. Hurst they saw a year before has suddenly turned into a woman.

I’m not claiming that Smiley uses the dental office for much comic effect. She doesn’t.  There aren’t many laughs in this tale. But in the particular and peculiar way in which she staffs the workplace, Smiley nods in comedy’s direction, as if acknowledging the possibility for humor in the situation. We look at this cast of oddball, same-named, overly twinned characters and feel, if only semiconsciously, that it should be funny. It could be funny. There are all the classic, ancient ingredients for comedy in these words; and their presence, even in the absence of their full realization, does provide some relief from the grief-stricken tone of the domestic sphere.

In addition, the office staff members function as witnesses to what goes on between David and Dana. Late in the novella, when Dana cancels her patients for two days in a row, David’s narration focuses on receptionist Dave’s discomfort with the obvious discord between the Hursts:

Dave was surprised at my surprise. Man to man. He didn’t look at me. He said, looking at the floor, “Didn’t you know that she cancelled everything?” Man to man. I didn’t look at him. I said, “Maybe she told me and I wasn’t listening. It was a busy morning.” Man to man. We glanced at each other, briefly, embarrassed (211).

Narrator David’s own inattentiveness is highlighted by the surprise of receptionist Dave. “Maybe she told me and I wasn’t listening,” he says—forced by this witness to his household’s disrepair to admit, in a somewhat transfigured and characteristically offhand form, to his own most central weakness and even to his own tragic flaw: I wasn’t listening. That the witness to this admission bears his name, adds another twist to the scene, as David Hurst’s discomfort with looking into an accurate reflection of himself becomes all too clear—to us, if not to him.

III. Secondary Characters as Forces of Transformation

Questions relating to transformation haunt this novella. How did that couple become this couple? Who will they next become? Has Dana changed in ways that David either cannot see or refuses to see? Has he? In his narration, David presents us with five different versions of Dana and himself, who they are, have been or might become. These are:

  1. Who they were in dental school and during their courtship.
  2. Who they were during their marriage, before any trouble was evident.
  3. Who they are during this six-week period of crisis, the time frame of the story.
  4. Who they might become, if things spin out of what David believes is his control.
  5. Who they have become, by the close of the novella, at the point from which he tells the story.

Pressures put on the Hursts by other characters play a large role in their transformations from one of these states to the next, as well as in how David attempts to control the change he fears most. Not surprisingly, the most important secondary characters—their children—play critical roles in these transformative events.

David and Dana are parents to three daughters: Elizabeth (Lizzie), Stephanie, and Leah. During the story’s six week span, Lizzie is seven, Stephanie, five, and Leah, two. The first mention of the children comes early in the novella, amidst a description of what David and Dana were like before parenthood, during their dental school days:

After that, we’d go back to her place and make love until the adrenaline in our systems had broken down. Sometimes that was a long time. But we were up at six, fresh and sexy, Dana pumped up for the daily challenge of crushing the dental school between her fists like a beer can, and me for the daily challenge of Dana. Now we have three daughters. We strap them in the car and jerk the belts to test them. One of us walks the older ones to school every day, although the distance is two blocks. The oldest, Lizzie, would be floored by the knowledge that Dana and I haven’t always crept fearfully from potential accident to potential accident the way we do now (123-124).

There is the then of their courtship about which we have heard in some detail in the opening pages, and there is the now of their married life. These are not only temporally but also qualitatively, even tonally different times, and the transformation is both caused and documented by acts of parenting. So, as we are introduced to the girls, we are also introduced to how David views their impact on himself and on his wife.

In contrast to the office staff, from their first mention in the passage above, Smiley metes out the information about the children, helping us to keep them distinct from one another and not be overwhelmed by the sudden introduction of three new and presumably important characters. We know immediately that there are three daughters, but we are only given the name of one, Lizzie, as well as her birth order and a memorable fact or hypothesis about her. By the time we meet her younger sisters, nearly three pages later, David has mentioned only Lizzie several more times, and so, with her firmly placed in our heads, we are in little danger of muddling up which daughter is which when the other two are introduced.

As it turns out, the youngest of the Hurst’s daughters is the one who has the most important and the oddest role in the novella. In the passage below, Smiley begins to differentiate her from her sisters, while the distinctly distant tone David uses to discuss Lizzie and Stephanie defines them immediately as relatively minor characters:

I sound as if we never forget that we are dentists, as if when someone smiles we automatically class their teeth as “gray range” or “yellow range.” Of course we are also parents. These are my three daughters, Lizzie, Stephanie, and Leah. They are seven, five, and two. The most important thing in the world to Lizzie and Stephanie is the social world of the playground. The most important thing to Leah is me. Apart from the fact that Lizzie and Stephanie are my daughters, I am very fond of them (127-128).

Stephanie is not distinguished from Lizzie, but Leah is. When I first read this passage, which follows nearly ten opening pages of description and background throughout which the central conflict of the story is by no means yet clear, I could feel myself grasping at the peculiar separation of Leah from her sisters for possible guidance in locating that conflict. Something was different and even seemingly amiss about the third daughter, and my assumption was that this something would be the crux of the story. As it turns out, it isn’t the crux. Leah’s preference for her father is not presented as the central conflict of the piece—the suspected adultery is—but her peculiarity forms an intertwined parallel plot and creates a steady pressure on the central characters while also creating an echo of the novel’s central anxiety over loyalty and changes of preference.

The paragraph quoted above is followed by fairly lengthy descriptions of the girls in order of their ages. We are told that Lizzie is “naturally graceful and cool” and that Stephanie is their “boy” who “feels about kindergarten the way people used to feel about going away to college” (128). Gradually, though, as these earliest descriptions continue, the two older girls are merged into one, into a “they.” “They have a lot of confidence and power when it comes to boys” (128-129). “The unknown age they wish to know all about is their own” (129). By stressing the many ways in which these two daughters can be collapsed into one entity, Smiley continues to pique our curiosity about the special, different status of the third.

This curiosity is finally, at least partially, rewarded when David goes on to ‘unpack’ for us the sentence: “[t]he most important thing to Leah is me” (128). Moving down the birth order, having told us quite a bit about her sisters, he then describes Leah as a baby—and not just any baby, but a particularly gratifying one. She was easy, she slept amazingly well, with her first word she asked her mother—an aspiring singer—to sing. “Leah was everything [Dana] could want and she, as far as she knew, was everything that Leah could want” (130).

But then, without warning, all that changed:

In each instance, Leah woke up crying for me, Dana went to comfort her and was sent packing. The longer she stayed and the more things she tried, the wilder Leah got. The first bout lasted from midnight to twelve thirty and the second from two forty-five until three forty. I woke up at last, wondering what Dana was doing, motionless beside me, and Dana said, “I won’t go to her. You have to go to her.” That was the beginning (132).

“That was the beginning,” David tells us and, first reading the story, I believed him to mean, at least in part, that this was the beginning of the central conflict of the story. This, I thought, will turn out to be the story of how a high-powered, successful couple deals with the transformation of their perfect baby into such a difficult, hurtful, and seemingly irrational child. There seemed to me to be enough material nestled within our introduction to Leah, to support an entire narrative. Not until three pages later, when David tells us almost as an aside that during the same time period “Dana fell in love with one of her fellow singers, or maybe it was the musical director” (136) did I understand that Leah’s difficulties, which I had been assuming were the central conflict of the story, were not, though that sense of transformation, of a lost era of happiness, so entwined with Leah’s role in the work, both haunts and echoes the adultery.

Throughout the novella, Smiley resists the temptation to define the relation between the Leah storyline and the adultery storyline. They co-exist and that’s all the information we’re given. This happened at the same time as that. Yet, in part because of their thematic resonances, it’s impossible not to search for a more explicit, causal relation between the two. Has one transformation led to another? Does Dana stray because she feels betrayed by the child who had formerly so adored her? Is she getting back at David for unwittingly stealing the affections of her favorite child? Is Leah repelled by her mother because she somehow senses in her the potential for disloyalty? Is David using Leah to punish Dana somehow? Smiley’s text never asks these questions explicitly, much less answers them, in part because David would never ask these questions, and in part because to ask and to answer would be to rob the story of some of the ambiguity that keeps a reader involved. Rather, Smiley leaves those questions unspoken, but inevitable, irresistible to any reader who is interested in human psychology, the engine that pulls this particular tale along.

While the novella is saturated with the implication that parenthood in general and Leah in particular have contributed to the transformation of the Hursts, other characters too have transformative powers throughout. One of these is the patient, Slater. Slater is perhaps the most surprising character to take on any prominence in this work. We hear fairly little about David’s and Dana’s other patients, even the ones who are named. In part, this is true because David doesn’t like to speak with them. He prefers the orderly quiet of “sitting here, my back hunched, the office cool and clean, the patient half asleep” (151). Slater, however, challenges this expectation, initially suggesting that he pay David to talk to him, like a psychiatrist, instead. Indeed, part of his role in the novella is to challenge what we think we know about David up to that point, though in David’s actual interactions with Slater, he behaves very much as we would expect him to:

“I don’t know,” [Slater] said. “Things are more fucked up every day.”

“Open, please,” I said.

“I mean, I don’t know why I’m sitting here having my teeth fixed. It’s going to cost me a lot of money that I could spend having the other stuff fixed. By the way, don’t touch the front teeth. I play the trumpet, and if you touch the front teeth, then I’ll have to change my embouchure.”

I said, “Open, please” (169-170).

There are no surprises here. This is David Hurst, the pent-up, denial-bound, somewhat numbed dentist we have come to know. But when Slater leaves the office—in corpus at least, if not in spirit—things change. And so does David Hurst:

After he left I wanted him back. I wanted the navy-blue collarless jacket that he wouldn’t take off. I wanted the Sansabelt slacks that stretched tight over his derriere. I wanted the loafers. I wanted him to tell me about his wife. He didn’t smile much. He had a rough way of speaking. He was tall and not a pleasant man. It seemed to me that I could have drilled his teeth without novocaine, man to man, and it would have relieved us both (171).
.

Grief, I saw, had loosened him up, as if at the joints, and up and down his vertebrae. He had become a man who would do or say anything, would toss his head back or fling out his arms in a gesture impossible before. He wouldn’t leave me all alone. I felt bitterly sorry for him all afternoon. It seemed to me that his fate would be an ill one, and mine, too. All of our fates.

By the time Dana came home, I couldn’t stop doing things as Slater might have done them (171-172).

What follows is a very odd interlude, in which David claims that he went in and out of feeling as though he were Slater, the crude, uncaring man with nothing to left to lose. And, as Slater, he views his family anew:

The woman was blond, sort of pretty, and nice enough. But I thought her children were horrible, the oldest sullen and suspicious—clank, clank-clank went her knife and fork on the plate—the next one an oblivious blonde, masticating her food with annoying languor, and the third irritating and squawking. At last, inevitably, Leah smacked her bowl and it landed upside down on the floor. As Slater, I waited for their mother to do something about it. As my wife, Dana looked at me expectantly. Leah looked at me expectantly. I pretended to be their father. I jumped up and grabbed Leah out of her chair, and said in gruffish tones, “That’s enough. I’m putting you into bed.” And I carried her upstairs (173).

This passage, as well as the several pages that follow in which David continues to act literally “out of character,” accomplish several goals for the novella. At the point at which Slater arrives—just about halfway through—we’ve already met the central players, and we already know, fairly well, what the central conflict is. There is a certain sense of stasis at this point, and a feeling, for the reader, that something should happen now. There is also the related potential for a reader to grow frustrated with David’s passivity. He exerts no authority over his children, one of whom makes near grotesque demands on her parents; and faced with a wife he believes to be disloyal, his strategy is to play possum to avoid a confession, much less a confrontation. Nothing we know about David at this point can give us much faith that he will provide the spark to bring this situation to any kind of crisis.

By allowing her narrator to borrow both the persona and the perspective of a character so unlike himself and be temporarily transformed, Smiley addresses many of the potential frustrations a reader might otherwise be feeling by page fifty or so. As Slater, David describes his children as unpleasant; and as a reader, there’s an unmistakable sense of relief in hearing them described that way. After all, they sound unpleasant. And though we might not want their father to tell us that they are—what kind of father would he then be?—it’s satisfying to have that impression represented somewhere in the narrative. Leah’s demands and David’s accession to them create a tension in the reader, a desire that he stand up to her, assert himself a bit. We want him to blow off a little steam. We’ve had it with his demanding children and unfaithful wife, and we’ve had it too with David the Doormat. So with a well-timed and time-limited step out of character, Smiley takes the lid off and allows some pent-up steam to escape, and this release in turn gives the reader and David both what it will take to return to the novella’s comparatively static status quo.

Of course, Smiley might just have had David tell us that one night he lost his patience with them all, finally told Leah off, snapped at Dana, sped off in the car. Because after all, this is the truth. David Hurst loses his temper, not his identity. He doesn’t become Slater; he becomes angry. But because David describes the evening as though he were possessed, we learn that when enraged, when impatient, he’s most comfortable viewing himself as being a different man.

The temporary transformation that Slater brings to David is also intimately related to the larger transformation that David resists throughout the novella. Slater is a man who has nothing left to lose because his wife, unlike David’s, has already walked out on him. By “being” Slater, David is essentially trying on the identity he most fears having foisted upon him. Much of the tension of the story revolves around David’s resistance to becoming a man who has lost his wife. The secondary character he believes has the power to turn him into that man is Dana’s purported love, the Other.

We never meet the Other. We don’t even know who he is—only that David claims to believe that he’s tied somehow to Dana’s choral group.2 The fact that he is never identified has many effects on the narration, including that for some time we’re not at all sure that he exists; yet his power to change David, to change everything, is present throughout.

David Hurst is like the child who believes that when he closes his eyes, the world disappears. “I wasn’t curious,” he says (138). But, what he seems to mean, more pressingly, is that he was terrified. And we, of course, are curious. At our safe remove as readers and not husbands, each time we feel curiosity about the Other, we feel too the strength of David’s desire to pretend he doesn’t exist and to evade the life-altering outcome that absolute knowledge of the Other might bring.

Smiley uses this discrepancy between our need to see and his not to see to create a cognitive and emotional distance—and tension—between her reader and her narrator. Importantly, this isn’t identical to the more familiar distance produced by a discrepancy in what a reader and first person narrator know or understand, but is rather produced by a discrepancy in what he and we want to know. Our narrator and we don’t share the same objective for his narrative. He is invested in what he perceives as self-protection and we only want to be told. He says and demonstrates that he isn’t curious, but we absolutely are.

To the extent that stories traditionally involve transformation, and there’s something satisfying to readers about that, David, from the beginning, is resistant to the very force that might make the story succeed on those terms. He is wholly invested in having everything stay at a comfortable status quo.

What is present in this novella throughout, is evidence that the transformative force David fears most is knowledge itself—the very thing that lost Adam and Eve Eden and lost the world its innocence when Pandora opened her box. “It was tempting,” he tells us, “very tempting, not to know what I knew, but I knew that if I relaxed, she would tell me, and then I would really know it” (152). This fear of knowledge, this fear of closing the gap on his own cognitive dissonance, informs everything about how David’s narrative is structured; and the unidentified figure of the Other stands as an embodiment of the knowledge David doesn’t want to have. That the Other is never named, never truly known, never even clearly existent until the final pages, reinforces the fact that David’s narration is, to a large degree, an extended exercise in self-delusion and obfuscation of the truth.

IV. Reflections and Echoes: Secondary Characters as Metaphor

Images, themes, relationship dynamics and even names often reappear in transfigured forms throughout “The Age of Grief” so the novella is thick with metaphoric reverberations. Among the earliest character/metaphors we meet is fellow dental student Phil Levine the house-bound man whose marriage is conducted in silence until it ends with an explosive disclosure of disloyalty. The portrait of his otherwise speechless wife who then announces that she is in love with another man is an image close to the heart of this novella, though at the time that we hear about Phil, we don’t yet know that fact. David, who does or at least who should know it, doesn’t acknowledge that, which creates a foundation for our understanding his powers of both perception and relation once the information is available to us. If he doesn’t see the relationship between Phil’s tragic storyline and his own, then his vision is sadly impaired. If he does see the relationship between what he tells us about Phil and himself and chooses not to acknowledge that, then his reliability is questionable on other grounds.

For the length of the novella, David evokes other, explicitly acknowledged metaphors, often using secondary characters to set them up. In these cases, Smiley generally leaves the secondary character unnamed.

On the first page of the novella, David tells us:

Dentists on television never have people coming in like the man who came to me today. His teeth were hurting him over the weekend, and so he went out to his toolbox and found a pliers and began to pull them out, with only some whiskey to kill the pain. . . What drove him into my office today, after fifteen years away from the dentist, was twenty-four broken teeth, some fragments below the gum line, some merely smashed around the crown (122).3

By not giving this man his own name, Smiley enables us to focus more easily on the image itself. We can blend the man’s acts and what he represents with David, the desperate, partially—but inadequately—anaesthetized man who is telling us his tale. It is a metaphor that haunts the narrative throughout, though its function for David on the one hand and the reader on the other are somewhat distinct. For David, this image is an explicit metaphoric benchmark for what is and isn’t possible in desperate times: “You could say that it is impossible for a man to pull out all his teeth with only the help of a few swallows of whiskey. Nothing is impossible” (160). But for readers the patient is also a kind of grotesque, extreme version of the man to whom we are listening.

Later, another nameless character emerges as both a compelling image that is meaningful to David and as a metaphor for David himself that he may not clearly see:

What is it possible to give? Last fall I was driving to the office in a downpour, and I saw a very fat woman cross the street in front of the bus depot and stick out her thumb? No raincoat, no umbrella. I stopped and let her in. She said she was going to Kinney, a town about ten miles east, and it occurred to me simply to drive her there. . . . She said “My husband works out there. I just got in from California, after two months, and the whole time he was sending me these postcards, saying, Come back, come back and so I bought my ticket.” She fell silent. Then she looked at me and said, “Well, I called him up to say I’d got my ticket, and he said right there, ‘Well, I want a divorce, anyway.’ So here I am. He works out there.”

I said “Maybe you can change his mind.”

“I hope so. . .” She looked at me defiantly.

I said “Why don’t I drop you at the Amoco station at the corner of Front Street? You can stand under the awning and there ought to be a lot of people turning toward Kinney there.”

“Yeah.”

After I got to the office, I thought maybe I could have bought her an umbrella, but I didn’t go out and get her one, did I?  It perplexes me, what it is possible to give a stranger, what it is possible to give a loved one, the difference between desire and need, how it is possible to divine what is helpful (187-188).

David uses this incident as a response to the question he poses: what is it possible to give? This woman exists for him as a measure of how generous one can be, much as the man on the first page of the book exists as a benchmark of how desperate one can be. But again, as readers, we inevitably see her as a metaphor for David himself. The miscommunication she has with her husband, the image of the abandoned spouse out in the elements, uncared for, unable to give up, all these features deepen the narrative precisely because they never stray far from our understanding of David’s dilemma. Smiley doesn’t waste details, even when addressing the most peripheral figures. Just like Phil Levine and his unfaithful wife, just like the man who can’t adequately anaesthetize himself, this woman too becomes a metaphoric re-figuration of David in the text. And, by not having David address the clear fact that these characters are representations of himself, Smiley accomplishes two additional goals. First, she allows readers to draw their own connections, encouraging their participation that way in the work. Second, she once again reinforces our sense that David is a man who may be either farsighted at times or myopic at others, but is rarely able to see the clearest truth.

From their earliest mention, the Hurst children take turns doubling up for one or both of their parents. Because Leah’s irrational needs and seemingly inexplicable fierce love for her father mirror the themes that arise from Dana’s adultery, her character seems to demand recognition as a symbol of one of her parents. While reading, I had the continual sense that she must in some way be playing a particular one of their roles, since in so many respects she reduplicates their quandary. The problem however, and the literary virtue as well, is that a stronger case can be made for her being a metaphoric echo of them both at once.

David introduces us to Leah, and then to his suspicions about his wife in structurally identical ways. In both instances, David uses a one, two, three formulation in which the third member of the trio is the zinger. First, this is how he introduces his children, and then it is how he tells us about those three background elements that existed during the period of Leah’s obsession with him: Dana’s choir rehearsals, the new country house they had bought and, oh yes, “[t]he third element was that Dana fell in love with one of her fellow singers, or maybe it was the musical director” (136). David mistakes foreground for background, as he often does, once again demonstrating his disinclination to see the obvious, but more relevantly here, these parallel formulations create a strong implication of a connection between the third confounding element to the Hurst’s marriage and the third likewise confounding child.

Additionally, Leah’s betrayal of Dana echoes Dana’s betrayal of David. One day, David tells us, Leah simply chose another parent to love, as Dana seems one day to have chosen another man.

Yet Leah can also be viewed as a double of David himself. Both he and she are stubbornly determined to have things the way they want them to be. She throws tantrums to get her way, while David pretends to be deaf and blind. In the end, they are equally determined to realign reality to suit their needs—and neither seems to care much about what Dana wants.

By resisting the impulse to have Leah function as a miniaturized version of either her mother or her father, Smiley makes her less of a device, less of an opportunity for Smiley to show off her own skill at creating analogies and more of a real character. We don’t have the sense that Leah is on the page to prove a literary point, though she certainly does at least her fair share of the literary work of the novella. The story, throughout, is dependent on ambiguity as one of its major energy sources, and the matter of Leah’s symbolic role in the story is a fine example of an ambiguity that never loses its relevance to the central conflict. The fact that the precise nature of that relevance is complex, rather than reductively clear, only works to maximize its power. Leah herself is an excellent argument in favor of complex secondary characters, against whom the central conflict can resonate in key, if not entirely understandable, ways.

Late in the novella, in an episode of short duration, Stephanie plays a less ambiguous role acting as a substitute for her mother. Although in what little we see of Stephanie before these late scenes, we can find some basis for associating her with Dana, these hints are so subtle as to be nearly invisible during an initial read. Stephanie is blonde, like Dana, but then one of the children was likely to be. David’s repeated assertions that Stephanie always has one foot out the door, that she “feels about kindergarten the way people used to feel about going away to college” (128), do give her a loose associative relation to her mother, whose potential departure from the home is at stake. But then at her earliest mention, Stephanie is described as their “boy,” which could make us guess that she’s most like David, except that when we first meet Dana, in dental school, she is a woman in a man’s world, a woman determined not to be seen as female in any of the stereotypical ways, and in fact in many most traditional ways is the “boy” of their marriage. In other words, though I would argue that the balance tips toward Dana throughout, the fact is that Smiley again resists sending us any overly clear signal that Stephanie should be thought of as a symbol for her mother—at least until late in the novella when the family is stricken with the flu and Stephanie is hardest hit. While Lizzie and Leah are ill in characteristically difficult ways—Lizzie vomits constantly and Leah insists on being held by David for days—Stephanie is seized with what David perceives as a life-threatening fever. For many pages, he tends her, waiting for the fever either to dip below 104, at which point he will relax, or rise above 105 at which point he will take her to the hospital. The tension that is produced in the novella by his monitoring her strongly echoes, and for some pages replaces, the tension that has been present all along as he monitors Dana but, importantly, does not seek any real information.

On a structural level, this sub-plot of Stephanie’s illness works to produce a sense of crisis, a sense that something both dramatic and relevant is happening here. The matter of Dana’s adultery remains essentially static throughout the novella and Stephanie’s illness breaks through that stasis, as did David’s assumption of Slater’s identity. But again, as with David’s “becoming” Slater, this crisis is not the one the book seems to need in order to reach its own end. It is a displacement of David’s marital concerns and when the flu leaves Stephanie’s body, it briefly leaves behind it the illusion that the status quo of “normal” life has been maintained:

I went into the living room and lay down on the couch. I looked at my watch. It read 12:25. After a moment I looked at it again. It read 5:12. It was not wrong. . . . Dana appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on a towel, then smiled and said, “You’re awake.”

“I’m resurrected. Are you sure I was breathing all this time?”

“We had a nice day.”

“How do you feel?”

“Back to normal.”

“How normal?”

“I’m making fried chicken.”

“Mashed potatoes?”

“Cream gravy, green beans, browned almonds, romaine lettuce.”

“The Joe McManus blue-plate special.”…

…And then it was Friday, everyone in school, day care, work, all support services functioning, the routine as smooth as stainless steel. I was thirty-five, which is young these days, resilient, vital, glad to be in the office, glad to see Laura and Dave, glad to drill and fill and hold x-rays up to the light (208-209).

Much as Smiley earlier used Leah’s inappropriate desire for her father’s undivided attentions as a substitute for introducing the central conflict of the book, here, she uses Stephanie’s recovery as a false resolution. Everything is back to normal, we’re told—as if that central conflict itself has ceased to exist.

V. Whose Ending Is This, Anyway? Saying Goodbye to the Supporting Cast

As it is no small task to introduce so large an array of players, it’s also not clear when or how to allow each to depart from the book.

Smiley says goodbye to the office staff by using them, in the final few pages, to pull in the same two directions in which the novella pulls throughout: both toward and away from David’s beloved status quo. During the period of the false resolution that follows the family’s recovery from flu, David gives us one last overview of his office life:

As soon as the embryo can hear, what it hears is the music of the mother’s body—the lub-dup of her heart, the riffle of blood surging in her arteries, the slosh of amniotic fluids. What sound, so close up, does the stomach make, the esophagus? . . . Toward the end of pregnancy, when the pelvis loosens, is there a groan of protest from the bony plates? Maybe it is such sounds that I am recalling when I sit on my chair with the door to the office half closed and feel that rush of pleasure hearing the conversations in the hall, or in Dana’s office. Delilah’s voice swells: “And then they—” It fades. Dave: “But if you—” Dana: “Tomorrow we had better—” The simplest words, words without content, the body of the office surging and creaking. Dana’s heels, click, click, the hydraulic hum of her dental chair rising. In my office, I am that embryo for a second, eyes bulging, mouth open, little hand raised, little fingers spread. I have been so reduced by the danger of the last few weeks that the light shines through me. Does the embryo feel embryonic doubt and then, like me, feel himself nestling into those sounds, that giant heart, carrying with him beat by confident beat into the future—waltz, fox-trot, march, jig, largo, adagio, allegro? (209-210)

The use of present tense to describe something from the past is unique in the novella to this passage, and reinforces the impression that David is trying, with all his rhetorical might, to prevent change. The office staff members here are essential elements of the womb that David seeks. Fittingly, though, the office, the womb that cannot last, is also where David first learns that Dana has left. There is no further communication between David and Dana during that night and no word of her whereabouts until the following day:

Dave caught my eye involuntarily as I opened the door, and shrugged. At eleven the phone rang, and then Dave came into my examination room between patients and said, “She cancelled again.” I nodded and straightened the instruments on my tray. At two, my last patient failed to show, and I went home to clean up for the girls (212).

The last act we see David Hurst perform in his office is straightening his tools—as he cannot straighten his life. The last patient who is mentioned is one who fails to appear. At the end of the novella, all glimmers of comedy are gone from the office environment and all actions seem sad. The characters no longer stand in any contrast to the central story or central tone. David’s grief has found him there, where he can no longer hide, embryonic and unaware. Smiley closes our relationship to the secondary office characters with a distinct, simultaneous closure of that gap.

In preparing for Leah’s ‘goodbye,’ Smiley actually does some of the work not at the end but very early on:  “I wish that Leah’s state of mind weren’t so unavailable to us all, including herself, because she is driving us crazy” (129). David tells us this as he introduces his daughters, and the use of present tense here—she is driving them crazy still, even as he recounts the story to us—cues us very early to the fact that the Leah storyline will not be resolved by the end of this tale; and indeed it never is. By the end of the book, when David tells us that “[i]t seems to me that marriage is a small container, after all, barely large enough to hold some children. Two inner lives, two lifelong meditations of whatever complexity, burst out of it and out of it, cracking it, deforming it” (213) we understand that in part the container he and Dana share is challenged still by Leah’s unmanageable loves.

In the final pages of the novella, when David must contend with the absence of his wife from his home, he must also decide what to share with his children:

She was not at home at seven, when we sat down to eat our meat and potatoes. Lizzie said, “Where’s Mommy?”

I said, “I don’t know,” and they all looked at me, even Leah. I repeated, “I don’t know,” and they looked at their dinners, and one by one they made up their minds to eat, anyway, and I did, too, without prying into the mystery, without taking any position at all (211).

The children here, in their last “in scene” appearance, provide yet another opportunity for us to take measure of David’s resistance to knowledge. With their questions, they challenge David to explain something about their mother’s absence. With his admission to ignorance, he further defines himself as someone who chooses not to know, who prefers to proceed “without prying into the mystery.” A bit later, at the girls’ very last mention in the novella, they provide a further narrative anchor against the changes that knowledge might bring. The penultimate paragraph of the novella, the paragraph that follows David’s characteristic request to Dana that they not discuss her adultery for a while, and that precedes David’s ruminations on the nature of marriage, consists of a single sentence: “The big girls would be home in forty minutes” (213). Even as the Hursts enact the scene that most threatens the underpinnings of their home, even as David can no longer pretend to ignorance about his wife’s disloyalty, the clock of normalcy is running, unstoppable inside his head. Smiley uses the children here, in the final moments, to remind us of how precious to David that normalcy is, how much ballast it continually provides in the face of any change. Focusing on the clock as his wife admits to adultery is in essence the same act David performs when he straightens his dental tools after the receptionist Dave tells him Dana has cancelled her patients again. It is a reenactment of a dozen such acts that David has performed. In their last moments in the novella, the children, like the office staff members, continue to provide us with more and still more understanding of the tension that is central to David’s heart and his narrative, both.

CONCLUSION

While at work on this essay, I read Doris Lessing’s novel Love, Again, and a short passage leapt out at me. The novel concerns a group of associates who are staging a play. As rehearsals progress, dynamics on the stage begin to change:

In this last week something new happened. The main characters. . . were not starkly set in scene after scene showing confrontations, mostly two by two, but were absorbed into a setting of minor characters who, hardly noticed during the first weeks of rehearsals, now showed how much they determined destinies. As in life (Lessing 121).

In the past, I have avoided secondary characters, fearing irrelevance and distraction from the central conflict. But Smiley demonstrates what Lessing so eloquently describes: no matter how peripheral a character or how close to the story’s center, if treated with generosity, that figure will often reciprocate in kind.


1 A version of this essay was first composed in 2004 under the generous supervision of Kevin McIlvoy, as a component of my MFA degree at Warren Wilson College.
2 Despite this claim of David’s, the novella is mined with hints that Dan, the Hurst’s pediatrician, may be Dana’s lover, or at least that that suspicion may be hovering at the edges of David’s consciousness. The many effects of those hints form too vast a topic for treatment in this essay, but I highly recommend that anyone reading “The Age of Grief” track the evidence and consider how that evidence reflects on David’s reliability as a narrator.
3 It is worth noting that this passage, in addition to providing the text with a governing metaphor, also provides our earliest hint about the temporal narrative stance. There is a specific time from which the story is being told, a today, and by the first page of the novella we are oriented to that fact.


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Flooded with Understanding

Tamara Ellis Smith

Flood water smells old. It smells like something decaying, like something that has been left out for too long, like a mix of oil and compost and mold. Flood silt is heavy. It sticks to everything it touches. A pair of blue jeans covered in it is almost too hard to carry. I know these things. I know what it feels like to walk down a block lined with more appliances than trees and more garbage than grass. Facing clean-up and recovery is lonely—deep in the bones lonely—and while part of that loss of control means surrendering to the awful thing that has happened, another part means accepting help—from friends but also from strangers. And that’s why I also know what it feels like to have a stranger walk up my front porch steps, ask if she can take the pile of muddy, wet laundry from my front yard and wash it for me—and to not know what to say—and to finally say yes—and to have my life change forever because of that one word.

Flooding-7-225x149

Early this fall, Tropical Storm Irene swept through my home state of Vermont, my town, my street and my home—and all of a sudden I was inside Marble Boys, my middle-grade novel about Hurricane Katrina, in a way I had never, ever, ever imagined.

I began to write Marble Boys in September 2005. The story was born out my son Luc’s question, “Who exactly is going to get my blue jeans?” as we dropped off a bag of food and clothing for the Hurricane Katrina Relief Drive at the Vermont State Police Barracks. I didn’t know how, exactly, to answer his question. I didn’t know who would get his blue jeans. But it—or he—stayed with me. This mystery person. Who would he be? Would he be Luc’s age? Would he love to skateboard too?  Play the trombone?  Be afraid of making telephone calls? And so I began to imagine: What if a boy in Vermont named Henry donated a pair of his blue jeans to the relief effort in New Orleans and a boy named Zavion got them? And what if Henry put his lucky marble—which he had just deemed unlucky because of his own terrible tragedy—into a pocket of those pants?  And what if Zavion found the marble and wondered who had given him this magical gift?

Like any good writer, I did my homework for this story. I read many articles and blogs—first-hand accounts of what it was like to be in New Orleans during and after Katrina. I interviewed people. I watched countless documentaries about Katrina. I also read articles on post-traumatic stress disorder and, in particular, the way children are emotionally and psychologically affected by natural disasters. And finally, I read Chris Rose’s 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina, which is a compilation of his stunning stories that appeared in the Times-Picayune.

I felt as though I knew—as best I could—what it had been like during those harrowing days during the hurricane. I was emotionally connected to the incredible people who had survived such a tragic disaster and my heart was bursting with empathy. It was from this place that I wrote Marble Boys.

But now—after Tropical Storm Irene has seeped into every corner of my life—Marble Boys has become exceedingly more personal. Flooding-papers-225x337The outpouring of help that my community, my family and I have received is staggering. Strangers have shared in the very real and physical process—hauling soggy, disintegrated boxes out of my basement and then donning dust masks to disinfect its floor and walls. They have also shared in my equally real and emotional process—crying with me as we tipped a too-heavy box of my children’s waterlogged art into the dumpster.

At one point during the hauling and dumping brigade, someone brought yet another box up from the basement and gave it to me. I was standing outside by the dumpster making decisions about what could be salvaged and what had to be thrown away. (Most everything had to be thrown away.) I opened the box, as I had opened all of the others. Photographs. The box was filled with photographs. And I began to cry. They were soaking wet and covered in mud. A picture of my siblings and me at my wedding, a picture of my sister the first time she made Luc laugh, a picture of my newborn daughter in my mother’s arms. I stood and stared at the surely ruined photographs. I knew there were dozens of similar boxes, also full of photographs, still in the basement. And I knew I had to throw them all away. But standing there, with this box in my hands, I just couldn’t do it. A friend put her hand on my shoulder and gently suggested that I put the box aside. I could make the decision later. I could throw them away later. I went back to sorting through clothes, winter boots, books and manuscripts, filling the dumpster bit by bit. Hours later, as the sun was setting and I was still receiving boxes from the basement and throwing things away, I took a break and walked over to the lawn at the side of my house.

What I saw took my breath away.

A group of people—people I didn’t know—were sitting on the grass saving my photographs. One by one, image by image, memory by memory. Someone peeled the photos apart, someone rinsed them in a shallow bin of water, someone laid them out in my shed, and then finally, someone hung them on a clothesline to dry. They hadn’t talked to me about it, they just did this meticulous, time-consuming, oh-so-intimate work.  I was struck, in that moment, by the smallness of the objects—these photos—and by the vast enormity of their meaning to me.  I didn’t know these people and yet there they were, their hands and eyes and patience and generosity all over the documentation of my life.

Flooding-3-225x150By crossing into that intimate space, these amazing human beings took on some of my actual grief and suffering. They helped me begin to transform and heal. Accepting help became entwined with growing an incredible sense of empowerment, liberation and connection. I am still struggling to express the magnitude of what happened to me, but in the end, these strangers and I—we became friends.

This is what happens between Henry and Zavion in Marble Boys.

Life has imitated art, which leaves me on-my-knees humbled by the lessons I have learned. I have stumbled into a simple epiphany that goes something like this: Knowledge and understanding with humbleness is truly the best we can offer.

I know now that I got Marble Boys right in so many ways, and I am grateful for that, but I also know that I still have more to learn, more to revise, more to get right—and I am absolutely ready and eager to incorporate all of these new lessons into this manuscript. Most of all, I am holding very tightly to my heart my new and real understanding that experiencing our own suffering in connection with others—connecting in our basic, common humanity—transforms that suffering into something healing, intimate, and deeply profound.

~

Just two weeks ago, my family was given a bag of winter clothes, and in it was a pair of snow pants, exactly Luc’s size. And Luc remembered, and wondered all over again about his own donated blue jeans. Am I any closer to answering his question, “Who exactly got my pair of jeans?” Maybe. Maybe I am.

My experience makes me wonder if maybe there is magic within the pages of Marble Boys: how one boy in Vermont and another boy in New Orleans can come together in such a strange and amazing way. Maybe there is magic in those snow pants. Maybe there is magic in Luc’s blue jeans. I, for one, believe there is.

 

Photos courtesy of Alice Pollvogt


To Read An Excerpt from Marble Boys, click here.

 

On Material: Writing Prompts

Prompts can be more than just a warm-up to the real writing; they can lead us to material in surprising ways. A dominant left brain can lead to over-thinking, playing it safe, and self-judging—all of which can block the creative right brain. Prompts help us loosen up and let go of control.

Robert Olen Butler says that good writing doesn’t come from thinking, but from the unconscious. The prompt is a way to access the unconscious, to connect us to our right brain instead of waiting for it to connect with us.

For a stream-of-consciousness free write, choose general and open-ended prompts. Write whatever comes to mind, even if it seems nonsensical or inappropriate. Write for three to five minutes without pausing to plan, revise, correct, or judge. Not every prompt will produce usable material, but each one has the potential to reveal details, images, ideas, and themes that could transform our writing.

3 Prompts To Try This Week:

1. Select a random household object (e.g., toy soldier, silver dollar, dice, souvenir shot glass, empty film canister, buttons, box of matches) from a shelf, drawer, or pre-assembled grab bag. Free write about the object you select.

2. Draw a word from a deck of vocabulary flash cards. If you don’t own flash cards, create a set by writing places, animals, colors, fruits, or even verbs onto index cards. Each day pick one and do a free write in response to the word.

3. Open a book of poetry to any page. Use the first line of the poem on that page to start a free write.

~

Butler, Robert Olen, and Janet Burroway. From Where You Dream:The Process of Writing Fiction. New York: Grove, 2005.

Massey, Irving. The Neural Imagination: Aesthetic and Neuroscientific Approach to the Arts. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009.

~

 

Out on the Bendy Branches

Lindsey Lane

Writing teachers often tell their students to “write what you know” because writers must learn to write clearly and authentically, and the best way to do that is to write about what they know. It’s a place to begin. It’s a place to grow from. It’s a place where we start to hone our facility with craft and voice. But I don’t think it’s a place we want to remain. I think writers have a duty to expand beyond the boundaries of what we know and stretch beyond the familiar.

To do that, we have to get uncomfortable and unbalanced. We have to climb out to the bendy branches, where we think fear and failure reside, but it is only a new point of equilibrium in our craft and in our stories.

Failure As Safety Net

December 1996

I am staring at my newborn daughter lying outside of me for the very first time. She is crying. I hesitate to pick her up. Some phrase from some parenting book drifts through my postpartum brain: “You must let them cry it out.”

“Really?” I say to the phrase. “Even if they are a minute old?”

I look at my daughter. For 42 weeks, she’d been this round belly in front of me. I want to examine the dark stick-outy hairs on her head. I want to press her hand against my lips. I want to smell her. I want to hold her.

For about two and half seconds, I waver in the face of this sage advice. Then I take my own fledgling parenting authority and pick her up.

November 2008

Kathi Appelt receives a National Book Award nomination for The Underneath. I read a Cynsations interview with her. In it, she says that Tobin Anderson called her up one day in the middle of writing the book and said, “Write what you think you can’t.” When I asked Kathi what that meant to her, she said, “What it did was basically give me permission to completely and utterly fail.  If I couldn’t do it anyways, then what did I have to lose, right? That was very freeing.”

Anderson’s advice suggests that writing is not supposed to be an exercise in safety. In order to write well, we have to go beyond what we know and camp out in the hearts of our characters and write their stories.

Often we don’t know what we are doing when we sit down with a story in our head and face the blank screen or page. That’s okay. At least we have an idea or a voice or a character. We begin. As Stephen King says in his craft book On Writing, “We tell ourselves the story. That’s the first draft.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland say it well in their 1979 book Art & Fear: “Vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is our contact with reality and uncertainty is a virtue.”

Think about that: “Vision is ahead of execution.” That means the idea, the character, the thought, whatever brings us to the paper or blank screen probably won’t be perfect on the first go-round. Does that mean we quit? No. It means we write. We take authority for our vision, however fledgling, however new, and begin. We pick up the two-minute-old child and hold her.

“Knowledge of our materials is our contact with reality.” As writers, our materials are the books. This means reading. This means reading like a writer. This means reading and, as Eudora Welty says, “writing consciously with the subconscious voices of the writers who came before us.”

“Uncertainty is a virtue.” We are explorers. This means we will always be slightly off-balance. This means we will write from a place of discovery. This means we will always be caught in what I have come to know as the growth spiral.

Disequilibrium is Normal

January 1999

I am now the mother of a two-year-old. She is wailing on the floor in front of me. I have just given her the pink clown cup. She wanted the pink elephant cup. To me, this difference is minuscule. To her, it is huge. I am frustrated. She is inconsolable. It doesn’t help when I reach over and pick her up. It doesn’t help when I pour the water into the pink elephant cup. Nothing helps. I am usually the source of happiness and breast milk. Now I am the source of frustration. How did this happen?

I turn to my friend and parent educator Gail Allen. She draws me a picture of a Louise Bates Ames’ growth spiral. “From the moment children are born,” says Gail, “they move round and round this spiral. On one side of the spiral is chaos and disequilibrium. On the other side is integration, order and equilibrium.”

When something is new to a child, whether it is a new skill or bodily function or even a new location, there is turbulence and chaos. It takes them time to integrate that new skill or get used to the new surroundings. Until they do, they are in disequilibrium. Meltdowns are symptoms of disequilibrium. Once they process that new information or function, watch out: All of sudden the tumblers can all fall into place and full sentences, walking, a two inch growth spurt, even potty training can magically happen overnight.

I think about this growth spiral a lot. I notice it everywhere. In my personal awareness. In my relationships. In my writing. I may not move at the same lightning speed as an infant, who can go from the chaos side of the spiral to the integrated side in a matter of hours. But I do move. I swing from one side to the other.

In writing, in particular, I notice that disequilibrium side when I am getting words on the paper, when they are all coming from that that right-brain, intuitive side—what Henriette A. Klauser in Writing on Both Sides of the Brain calls Ariel after Shakespeare’s magical spirit from “The Tempest.” For me, right-brain writing feels a bit like being lost. I’m listening to voices, following characters down unfamiliar paths. I am turning over rocks, describing the milky white curl of a worm and the dank moist smell of the hard-pressed dirt. I am doing what Robert Olen Butler describes in his craft book, From Where You Dream, “giving voice to the deep inchoate vision of the world that resides dynamically in the unconscious.”  I am in disequilibrium. I feel slightly out of my body and off balance. This is normal.

“After Ariel has sprung from inspiration,” says Klauser, “…invite the left brain, Caliban, the critic, back in to help you shape and deepen the story.” This is when author Tim Wynne-Jones suggests that we “look for what might have washed up on the shores of [our] stories.” After the inchoate ideas and images are on the page, we bring equilibrium to our work. We need both: the initial mess of words on the page and the integrated order the editor imposes.

Knowing that we are continually circling this growth spiral is important. It means we are growing. If we are doing our jobs as writers and stretching beyond what we know, then it will feel uncomfortable. It will feel precarious. But if we don’t step beyond what we know, if we don’t try to reach for that vision which is beyond execution, if we aren’t just a little bit uncertain, then we aren’t inching further out on the bendy branches.

Alexander Calder: An Unlikely Writing Mentor

January 2010

When we begin a new work, it is a leap of faith. We listen to a new character’s voice. We tell ourselves a story. We scribble notes to ourselves after washing dishes or getting out of the shower. We are creeping out on the bendy branches. We don’t do this alone. We have critique groups or agents or writing partners. I was lucky enough to have poet Julie Larios as my advisor for one semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. When I showed her my newest work, I said, “Right now, it’s lumps of clay. I just keep piling them up. I have no idea what it is. Short story. Middle grade.” I didn’t even have a title for it. Just the name of the main character: Natalie Jean.

Julie Larios told me not to worry. “I would hate to see Natalie Jean in any other format than the lumps of clay. Only they aren’t lumps of clay. I would say they are more like pieces of a mobile—light enough to catch a current of air, but well-balanced, forming a whole structure. I want you to go look at some mobiles by Alexander Calder—that’s what Natalie Jean is like. Playful, artful, throwing a lovely shadow on the wall, moving together gracefully.”

So I did what I was told. I looked at Calder’s mobiles.

As I looked at his creations, I thought about Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and An Na’s A Step From Heaven. I thought about how much these writers leave off the page—but what they do leave on the page shows us enough that the world is created and the heart of the story beats. I started to see a correlation between scenes dancing on a fulcrum, balanced, telling a story, casting shadows, catching light, moving, resting and moving again. The pieces and shapes of a mobile have to be perfectly balanced as they move in concert and opposition, suspended at varying lengths from the spine, the arc of the story. “Not all art needs to be solid,” says Julie Larios. “It can play with air, movement and time.”

Think about this idea: The overall arc is there. The voice. The characters. Even the back-stories are there. But there isn’t a lot of connective tissue. There isn’t a lot of telling. The reader supplies it. The reader actually holds the story as a whole. Each scene makes sense on its own and within the context of the whole but it allows the reader to make leaps. Readers easily make point-of-view shifts in Norma Fox Mazer’s The Missing Girl. The same with the time shifts in Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable. If we choose the pieces of our mobile carefully, the reader can see the whole shape without our having to tell it.

I was so intrigued by this link between writing and mobiles that I wondered if Calder’s own life and how he came to create mobiles could teach me something about my craft.

Born in 1898, Alexander Calder grew up in a house full of artists. His mother was a painter. His father and grandfather were sculptors. Perhaps because it was familiar, making art didn’t call to Calder. What did call to him was making things work. He wanted wire and tools, not brushes or clay.

This mechanical sensibility led Calder to engineering school, but as he said later, “Engineering did not allow enough play of ingenuity on my part.” So he went to art school and took a job sketching the circus, which led to his first exhibition in 1926 and this notice in the New Yorker: “A. Calder is a good bet.”

After that exhibition, Calder went to Paris. There, he met a Serb who claimed he was in the business of toys and said there was a living to be made from inventing mechanical toys. Using wire as his principal material, Calder added string, leather, fabric, and wood and made his first circus performers. When Calder went to find his Serbian toy collector, the man was gone, but by then, Calder decided to design an entire circus.

Remember Bayles and Orland: “Vision is ahead of execution.” Calder knew his material: wire. All he had to do was stretch into the uncertainty of execution. Could he do a trapeze artist? A horse?  He knew what they looked like but could he recreate it with wire and cranks and levers?

Calder soon became known as the King of Wire. It brought him his first great personal success as an original sculptor. The artists in Paris loved his playfulness. It was through this community that Calder walked into Piet Mondrian’s studio, which looked like a spatial translation of one of his paintings.

Calder said that when he walked into the studio, “I thought at the time how fine it would be if everything moved. I went home and tried to paint. But wire, or something to twist or tear, or bend is an easier medium for me to think in.” There it is again: the vision ahead of execution, the knowledge of his materials and the uncertainty.

These first sculptures didn’t move, but the lines suggested movement. At an exhibit at the Galerie Percier, they were given the name stabiles.

This new work was a big departure for Calder. He had a reputation and a following as a humorist. But the representational work in wire was beginning to have limitations. He wanted to explore the unknown world of the abstract composition. To do so, he would have to leave the circus and character drawings behind. Can’t you hear M.T. Anderson advising him as he had advised Kathi Appelt, “Create what you think you can’t”?

What Calder pursued next was movement. He had not achieved the full effect of what sparked his imagination in Mondrian’s studio. At first he limited himself to a slight rhythmic movement in a single object fixed to a base. Then the idea struck him of making two or more objects find actual relations in space.

At an exhibit of his work in 1932, Calder asked Marcel Duchamp to name this new work that moved. Without hesitation, Duchamp said if the work at Percier was stabiles, then these were mobiles.

That was the beginning. The motor-driven and hand-cranked mobiles gradually lost their appeal because the movement patterns were always the same. Calder began to look for ways to give his mobile a free and more natural movement. If Chinese wind-bells could please the ear, why couldn’t the wind be enlisted to please the eye with rhythmically swinging sculptural forms? The result was Calder’s first wind mobile.

Calder had taken the traditional form of abstract painting and sculpture and opened it up to movement and wind. Writers crack open genres when we write what we think we can’t. We veer into the unknown, experimenting with form, and then attach names like flash fiction or prose poetry after the vision has been created.

Once Calder had achieved the kind of movement he wanted, he plunged into his materials and played with different ways to execute his mobiles, always trusting his materials, his vision and his execution. Calder’s sense of play, his expertise in engineering, and his artistic abilities with color and light danced and spun like pieces of his mobiles.

Even after Calder had achieved a kind of equilibrium with these mobiles, he was still plagued, like all of us, with his own doubts and worries about his artistic abilities. After a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943, he spoke of becoming ingrown, habit-bound and uninventive. He realized that he had developed an ease in the handling of his materials, which he made him distrustful. He was afraid this facility would weaken his expression.

All artists have anxieties about their work. As we continue to explore our craft, we stumble and wobble. You can find disequilibrium in that notion, or you can find comfort in knowing you are exactly where you need to be.

Bayles and Orland counsel that the fears artists have about their work are answered in the work itself. “What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. Put simply, your work is your guide.” Writing is not meant to be an exercise in safety. We must get comfortable with the uncertainty of what is next. This is certainly true for Calder as well as for the authors I’ve mentioned.

Each new work asks us to crawl out on the bendy branches and tell that story with increasing refinement and complexity. We use what came before as guideposts for what worked well. But we still have to climb out there. If we have the vision, we have to try to execute it. One word after another. One page after another. Knowing all the while that it is in the stretching, we will find a new place of equilibrium in our stories and our craft.

Mad Men and the Writing Life

Sue Eisenfeld

from WRITER, INC.

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Every creative writer’s dream is to leave the day job and just write. No longer shackled by other responsibilities, deadlines, or inter-office politics, you could spend your days at home, or at a coffee shop, addressing your literary whims and dreams: all the ideas you could never get to, all the drafts that have been waiting for a rainy day. With the space and freedom of complete independence, answering to no one but yourself, you could become the New Yorker writer or best-selling author you always wanted to be.

Right?

In December 2009, after spending several years climbing down the corporate ladder, reducing my project management responsibilities and giving up the vice-president track in favor of reduced hours so I could spend more time writing, I finally left the company I’d been with for more than fifteen years to write a book.

I didn’t go into this decision as a novice. I had found some success publishing essays and articles in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals over many years, and my writing colleagues had told me it was time to step it up a notch.

My husband and I downgraded our standard of living so his salary (and some help from my mom) would cover our bills, and I gave myself a year to release my bottled-up literary tension—words and chapters begging to be set free. I did not think about money, employment, my future, or the world. I spent every waking hour on the book—writing, researching, traveling to conduct interviews and to visit libraries and archives, and thinking, above all; sometimes long afternoons of nothing but thought. In addition to two prior years of part-time writing, I finished the 250-page memoir/history manuscript, to my satisfaction at the time, after only ten months.

While I worked to find an agent and polish the book, and with the blessing of my husband, I decided I would continue the writing life into another year. I would work on my essays and articles again, with the luxury of no deadlines or responsibilities even to myself. Compared with writing while beholden to a company or clients, or even while working on the book, I would be prolific! I would be a free agent to explore the recesses of my mind for all that it wanted to say, with plenty of space for my brilliance to rush in.

I sat at the computer. I checked email, LinkedIn, and Facebook as regularly as I sashayed to the kitchen to make snacks. I carried baskets of dirty laundry down two flights of stairs to put loads in and then back up when they were clean. I folded my husband’s underwear and matched up his socks.

I scheduled home repairmen, made doctors’ appointments for my husband, and straightened up the house. I planned menus and went to the grocery store, and by the time four o’clock rolled around I began to get dinner ready so it would be on the table when my husband got home from a hard day at work. Sometimes I pulled weeds in the yard between stints at the computer or met a friend for lunch after yoga. I occasionally went clothes shopping, just for me.

I did this for weeks, months. During this time, I was Netflixing seasons one through four of Mad Men, plunging myself into the gender-stereotyped 1960s world of reckless, decadent Madison Avenue ad man Don Draper and his colleagues and their bored, unhappy, homebound housewives, and I began to feel like I was living a Betty Draper life.

I admit, I am exaggerating a bit. I had one magazine assignment in January of my new year, one in February, March, and May as well, and revisions for an article that was accepted the previous year—an excerpt from my book. I was teaching two creative writing classes in the evenings. I was serving as a thesis advisor for a graduate writing program, and I judged an essay contest for a literary festival. I was also doing fitness boot camp twice a week and swimming once a week. But the point is, I wasn’t making much money—a few hundred at a time—and I wasn’t doing much self-inspired writing. After liberating my one big idea, in the form of the book, I was empty.

All the complicated essay ideas I had hatched that required historical research, the one that necessitated finding a linguistic specialist, the other articles I had planned on the topic of my book: when I sat down to begin them, or even just to approach the idea of them, I no longer found the notions riveting. I no longer felt the undeniable urge to create, to explore, to discover. I had all the time in the world to follow any new creative strand, any inkling of an idea I might have, to dance with it, to lavish it with attention, and yet, I found myself devoid of curiosity. It was as if my ideas were an inert gas, diffusing in limitless wide open space, floating away into nothingness.

~

Evening after evening of watching the creative process at work at Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper agency, I began reminiscing about all I had left behind. My communications consulting firm outside of Washington, D.C. was no match for the glamour and high-powered adrenaline of television’s Manhattan agency, but the show reminded me over and over again of the motivation of daily and weekly deadlines, brainstorming with creative teams, being “on” for client meetings and presentations, working lunches and happy hours, dressing up and looking nice (and showering each day, for that matter), work that was not of my own making but that somehow made me feel useful and productive and valuable in the world, the ongoing calisthenics of the brain.

Despite the characters’ dysfunctional lives and flawed personalities, Mad Men inspired me. It made me want to wear ironed shirts and pleated pants and go to work for a company again. Watching the young, ambitious Peggy Olson in those early seasons of the show—rising from a secretary to a copywriter, fighting for a woman’s right to assume management responsibility and be respected as a creative visionary and a professional—I realized I had “had it all,” and I wanted some of it back. I had achieved what she was struggling for, and I had given it up because I thought it interfered with my writing. Don Draper, cad that he was, seemed a hero of sorts. However he got his inspiration—by drinking, or planting himself in his office overnight, or serial philandering—every time he was under pressure to deliver the right slogan or motto or creative concept to a client, he made it happen. Watching this real-life fiction on the tube made me realize that not only did I miss the professional life I had left behind for its inherent rhythm and orderliness and even its chaos but that I needed “real work” to make my literary writing happen.

In my old job in environmental communications consulting, we had used the term “forcing agent” in speaking about global climate change. “Forcing agents” are those phenomena that “force” change on the climate—natural happenings like changes in the amount of sunlight, or human-driven phenomena like increasing pollution from burning fossil fuels.

Instead of a forcing agent causing warming, droughts, floods, or disease, I needed one that would make me feel I had too little time to produce new work. I needed short deadlines. I needed conflicting priorities. I needed an opportunity I might miss—something to drive originality and inventiveness into gear, to make my art desperate, to make writing as necessary as breathing, like a gasp of fresh air after nearly drowning. I needed all the reasons why writing would not fit into my life in order to make it fit. Like a gas gaining density from being compressed into a small space, I needed to pressure the muse into action with small windows of time, little energy, and an occasional flicker of creative spark.

So I channeled my inner Don Draper—summoning up the poised, confident air, the polished dress, the startlingly pithy and suave one-liners (having watched the special feature, “How to Succeed in Business Don Draper Style”). I took an interview with a firm where I could be creative and productive and useful again, and I got another job (albeit, part-time—leaving an air leak for that compressed gas).

I did it partly for the money, of course—I wanted to be able to buy things again—and I did it partly for the self-esteem that comes from getting something tangible done each day: the campaign that needs a tagline, the project that needs a vision. I did it for more frequent affirmation of my abilities and ideas. And I did it to get out in the world and live, rather than staying home on a budget and imagine living.

But more than anything else, I did it to give myself a driver, a forcing agent—something that would tamp down on my available time, something that would squeeze me until I practically had no breath left, so that the creative juices that once flowed so freely without even trying, would begin to seep out onto the page once again.

Teaching, Writing, and the Practice of Illusion

Can we talk, not to be grandiose or anything, about truth? I don’t mean the kind of truth John Ruskin went on about in his architectural critiques, decrying flexible tracery as barbaric and making fearless leaps between such judgments and the virtue and enlightenment of man. Which pretty much, I would like to point out, excludes me from the conversation right there: The barbaric part, because if he felt that way about a little smoke-and-mirrors effect in stonework, what on earth would he have made of resonating pillars in south Indian temples? And of course the not-male part, which by implication seems to render me incapable of enlightenment.

What? A chip on my shoulder? Some days it’s practically a cinderblock.

Ruskin sought a natural truth, something that lay inherently in the materials of sculptor and architect, and was self-evidently, to him, not present in civilizations that he saw as decadent and corrupted (never mind those singing pillars). In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, he wrote, “Speaking truth is like writing fair, and comes only by practice.”

But “writing fair” has always been about creating illusion, placing emotional signposts, manufacturing an effect upon the page. The object is to come at truth, but in the most indirect ways possible. You aim for a certain resonance regardless of whether the outcome will be fiction or nonfiction, and you try, at least whenever you remember it, not to deafen the reader.

Teaching, too, is a part of the illusion game, a kind of dabbling in shadowplay in the spaces between intention and realization. When I read a student’s work, I have to understand what the particular illusion is that the writer is after, whether I think it’s sustainable in the form being visualized, and how I can help nudge it along or open it up to questions.

Sometimes I need to come at it more directly. I may show what’s overwritten in my opinion, or point out gaps. I may highlight places where the words sing to me, others where they don’t work hard enough, still others where perhaps they try a little too hard.  I may even ask, as nicely as I can, what the point is.

More often than not, I am reminded that the flaws I see most clearly in students’ work are the very ones I’m blind to in my own. As Ursula Le Guin says in her essay collection The Wave in the Mind, writing is not only illusion but collusion. It becomes real only when there is a reader, and in the teaching contract I am that reader, with a major difference being, of course, that I get to talk back.

Sometimes it feels a bit as if the student and I are in a huddle over a bubbling pot of some kind, trying to find ways to make the stew stranger and wilder and ever more true to itself. At such times, I must remember to add a few easily overlooked ingredients—a smidgeon of generosity, a dash of trust. In turn, teaching compels me to be a little more honest when I assume my customary role of writer.

The question is often raised whether we can in fact teach writing. It may simply be the wrong question. I think we can safely assume that those who come to study with a teaching writer are already writers—and that if they’re not they will leave in a hurry once they find out the truth about what it entails. We know that there are things we can teach that seem to make writers write, and write better: a certain discipline, the cultivation of writing habits, realistic expectations, respecting the craft, learning to ask useful questions, and learning to take criticism without letting it beat them down.  These things can be taught, in part because they don’t insist on a singular truth, but rather allow for a multiplicity of views.

The Internet being the ultimate illusory space, it seems fitting that my teaching would at some point take a turn through it.  For several years, I taught classes (to grownups) on Writing for Children, through Writers On the Net/writers.com. My students were mostly interesting, generous, and kind, although in the service of honesty I must also admit that there were a few who were just, well, strange. I probably learned a lot more from them than they ever learned from me, and I’m still in touch with some of them as they’ve gone on to publish.

When I began to teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts, it became clear to me that in the balance of teaching and writing, I was doing altogether too much teaching.

This is where Ruskin’s point begins to make sense—the one about practice in matters of speaking truth and writing fair. Because suppose you’re teaching, let us say, about widgets. You don’t just teach about their history, their uses, the art of their construction, their social and environmental repercussions. You also demonstrate your own practice. You show how you come at widget problems, for example, or how you relate to people who are also passionate about…you see where I’m going with this. So when I teach this practice that I teach, which I hope will make writers write, and write better, in effect I’m teaching the practice of teaching as much as anything else. At least some of the people I teach will in turn end up teaching others. Which is either terribly inspiring or a bit of a Ponzi scheme, but there it is.

That’s what happened with those classes. I handed them on to Vermont College of Fine Arts graduates Sarah Aronson and Debby Dahl Edwardson. I offered my help during the transition, trying very hard not to hover. They have both since developed those classes, changed them, and made them part of their own practice, which makes me feel I must have done something right.

Practice. I love that word. In the chaos of markets and sales and subrights and the hotly debated future of the book, practice is the only truth. It’s an island you can return to, to make yourself real again.  Which is, speaking entirely selfishly, the reason I teach at all. It makes me want to keep writing.

Writing from Both Sides of the Brain

As writers, we spend a lot of time seeking the shy, elusive muse or avoiding the judgmental, overbearing inner critic. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, calls her inner critic Nigel. She writes, “Like my Nigel, everyone’s critic has doubts, second thoughts, third thoughts. The critic analyzes everything to the point of extinction. Everything must always be groomed and manicured. Everything must measure up to some mysterious and elusive standard.”

Yet, when I think about it, that standard isn’t that mysterious. It’s brilliance, and I easily recognize it when I read fresh, sensory, fully-engaged-in-the-moment passages. I strive to create those brilliant passages, strive to connect to my muse, and strive to do it regularly. Unfortunately, in my own writing, I too often find those brilliant nuggets surrounded by pages and pages of garbage.  Where did they come from? Was my muse playing tricks on me? Where was my inner critic—taking a nap?

I believe the answer is a little less cryptic. A while ago I wanted to learn to draw, so I picked up Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and started doing the exercises. First I drew a house scene like I did all the time as a kid. It looked pretty much the same as it did back then:

In her book, Edwards explains what happens in our brains as we engage in a drawing project:“Since drawing a perceived form is largely an R-mode [right brain] function, it helps to reduce L-mode [left brain] interference as much as possible. The problem is that the left brain is dominant and speedy and is very prone to rush in with words and symbols, even taking over jobs which it is not good at.”

In other words, the left brain is our inner critic, the know-it-all, bossy big sister to the quiet, albeit creative right brain, the mute muse. When I decided to draw a house, my left brain said, “Ah, yes, drawing. I know how to draw a house. You start with a square. Then you put a triangle on top for the roof.” My left brain is not the best side of my brain for the job, but my right brain isn’t going to fight for the gig, so off I go drawing a house the same way I always have since I was six years old.

But when I followed Edwards’ instructions to copy a picture upside down, this is what happened:

By turning the picture upside down, I broke the rules of top and bottom. It didn’t look like anything distinguishable. I tricked my left brain. It said, “What are you doing, drawing? What is that? That’s not right. I’m not doing that.” My right brain said, “Let me give it a go.” When I turned the finished picture right-side up, it looked like this:

Even though sometimes it felt like there were opposing forces at work in my head—angel on one shoulder, devil on the other; muse vs. critic; etc.—I’d never considered my right and left brain separately; they were always just parts of one organ. Then I ran across brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk describing and interpreting her personal experience with a stroke. In the talk, she shows an actual brain; each side is completely separate! She explains how each side thinks differently, cares about different things, and each has its own distinct personality. Personality? Really?

The left brain processes information serially, linearly, methodically. It is where our calculated intelligence is. It organizes and categorizes details and makes associations with what we already know. It thinks using language, the product of previously synthesized symbols. The right brain, on the other hand, is parallel in its processing—a lot going on all at once. It functions completely in the here-and-now and is totally sensory.

Manipulating the right and left sides fits perfectly with Edwards’ drawing theory, but how does it work in terms of writing? Creativity is the right brain’s domain, but words belong to the left. Writers need both. We are artists with words our medium.

Because words and writing, in general terms, are the left brain’s domain, is it any wonder that when I sit down to write, my left brain (the bossy, articulate Nigel) declares, “Oh, writing! I got this!” And then I wind up with flat two-dimensional writing as interesting as my childhood house picture.  Since there is nothing actually wrong with the writing (or the picture)—it is distinguishable; it just isn’t good—fixing it, or even recognizing it, can be difficult. Here are some clues that the left brain has hijacked your writing:

  • Rushed scenes that read like a laundry list of plot points, with little or no introspection
    This happens and then that happens, followed by the next thing that happens.
  • Telling, rather than showing
    Being present and showing, not telling, takes time. The left brain is a time manager, likes word economy, and is not comfortable wallowing in emotion or spending more than a moment in a moment. It takes more than a moment to relay an important moment. Real time and story time are not correlative.
  • Broad, sweeping descriptions, rather than specific, sensory ones
    After all, that’s what the left brain does. It synthesizes the sensory and finds words that generalize and explain them.
  • Long, uniform, grammatically correct sentences with less (or no) white space or sentence fragments
    The left brain stores and employs all the “rules” for sentence construction. Go ahead. Break a few rules.
  • Stilted dialogue and cliché
    The left brain makes associations with what it already knows. It searches and repeats rather than creating or discovering fresh comparisons.

An exercise that helps with left-brain hijacking is what Julia Cameron calls Morning Pages: three pages of brain drain, written longhand. There are no rules about what to write, except that you must write three pages and it must be every day, preferably in the morning. The purpose is to have a place for the left brain chatter to fall. Morning Pages gets you into the right brain writing space using the same technique that parents use when they take their kids to the park and let them run and run and run before taking them on a long car ride—it tires them out and keeps them quiet. Once the left brain—the bossy side who likes to go first—has had its writing time, it’ll let the right brain have a chance.

In his book From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler calls this right-brain writing place The Zone, or the dreamspace of the unconscious. It is the “compost of the imagination.” It is where all of our memories—especially the bad ones—and everything we read and hear and see and have done or that has been done to us mixes together, decomposes, and comes out as rich soil for our stories. They are not literally our memories, but they still contain the essence, the life-force of them.

This unconscious dreamspace “Zone” is a scary place. It’s irrational. While the left brain is rational, reminding us that our bad memories are in the past, the dreamspace of the right brain is where those feelings of conflict are immediate, “now”, painful, and most of all, real. While we’re writing from there, we are there, dwelling and feeling and documenting, sometimes even staying there and repeating to get it right. Our rational, controlled left brains want to protect us; they fight us going there.

But the more often we access this place, the more we remember and the easier it is to access. That’s why athletes, especially dancers, practice daily. Those first few days after a long absence hurt. But when dancers practice movement and flexibility and choreography, it eventually becomes more natural. The body takes over and goes where it needs to go. It’s called muscle memory.

The same is true for writing. We writers have developed phrases like “butt in chair” and “write every day.” We know. The more you write, the more often you write, the more natural it becomes.  Once you enter and re-enter that right-brain dreamspace, it gets easier and easier to dwell there.

However, that is still not enough. Let’s look at Sharon Creech’s middle grade novel Walk Two Moons. The main character Sal’s mother is gone, and Sal discovers how dependent she was on her mother for emotional stability:

As the days went on, many things were harder and sadder, but some things were strangely easier. When my mother had been there, I was like a mirror. If she was happy, I was happy. If she was sad, I was sad. For the first few days after she left, I felt numb, non-feeling. I didn’t know how to feel. I would find myself looking around for her, to see what I might want to feel.

One day, about two weeks after she had left, I was standing against the fence watching a newborn calf wobble on its thin legs. It tripped and wobbled and swung its big head in my direction and gave me a sweet, loving look. “Oh!” I thought. “I am happy at this moment in time.” I was surprised that I knew this all by myself, without my mother there. And that night in bed, I did not cry. I said to myself, “Salamanca Tree Hiddle, you can be happy without her.” It seemed a mean thought and I was sorry for it, but it felt true. (38-39)

Clearly this is right-brained writing. Creech’s detailed, sensory scene with a calf is more than description. It illuminates Sal for the reader and is also a moment of self-awareness, a tangible step toward adjustment to being without her mother. These moments are the soft tissue of the story. The beating heart, the emotion. But without backbone and structure, they can easily become a disconnected wad of superficial sentiment.

Backbone, structure, plot, the big picture: These are the left brain’s forte. Where is the story going? Why is it going there? Does it make logical sense? Could that really happen? Would it happen here and now and to these characters?

In Walk Two Moons, Creech does not simply string beautiful words in a row and admire them. She constructs a story within a story with another story nestled alongside. Sal learns about herself and her mother as she relays her friend Phoebe’s story to her grandparents on a cross-country road trip. Along the way, readers are also privy to Sal’s grandparent’s story, which is heart-warming itself. All of these stories are parallel and complex and fully fleshed out with rising action and inevitable resolutions.

This big-picture work does not happen by accident. It takes ruthless interrogation, careful planning, and savage use of the delete button. It is a job for the bold and critical left brain. But sometimes the left side defers its job to the right, like that bossy older sister who forces the younger one to do the dishes: “I don’t have time for this. Here, you do it.” So what happens if you need to work from the left side, but your right side is working instead?

  • You are emotionally attached to every beautiful word.
    Go ahead, kill your darlings. Words are free. You can make more.  Often they are even better the next time around.
  • You have interesting, insightful characters, but they don’t DO anything.
    Just as plot needs some introspection to put it in perspective, introspection without plot is mere navel gazing. The major conflict may be internal, but something still has to happen. Someone once told me that my main character had to do something besides not die. Really? Did he really? My right brain didn’t buy it.
  • Your story wanders aimlessly. You’re not sure if or when it will ever end.
    If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know when you get there?
  • Your story covers too much ground.
    While the sequential details of the plot are the left brain’s territory, the overall big picture, otherwise known as theme, is the right brain’s. If your theme is, say, acceptance, your right brain will throw in every sensory image and possible scene that feels like acceptance. It won’t weigh what fits and what doesn’t. It’s the left brain’s job to weed through it all.

One way to tone your sensory writing muscles is to use Robert Olen Butler’s technique, Emotion Journaling.  This exercise can be done at the end of the day or the beginning of the next. You retell an event that evoked an emotion in you, moment to moment using only the senses. Absolutely never name an emotion. Record through the five ways that we feel emotions:

  • Signals inside the body: temperature, heartbeat, muscle reaction, neural change
  • Signals outside the body: posture, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice
  • Flashes of the past: memories evoked in the moment
  • Flashes of the future: something that could happen, something we desire or fear
  • Sensual selectivity: carefully chosen setting details that reveal a person’s personality and state of mind (Butler 28)

It should read like a scene from a novel, fully developed in the moment.

Here’s the second part of the exercise: After two weeks of Emotion Journaling, you go back to the entry from exactly two weeks earlier and edit with a red pen, “slashing through all examples of abstraction, generalization, summary, analysis, and interpretation, leaving only moment-to-moment sense-based events and impressions” (29). No matter how hard you tried to write that way in the first place, those left brain writing tendencies creep in there. After all, that’s its job. The exercise will develop your left/right brain control, strengthening your right brain sensory scene writing and your left brain editing skills, as well as keeping the jobs clearly defined and delegated.

Some books have complex plots, which require a lot of left brain input. The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins are great examples. They are heavily detailed with many surprising twists. The left brain sorts and puts events in linear form. It also checks and cross-checks to make sure everything happening is plausible and logical.

However, when it comes to putting characters in peril, I believe both sides of the brain play important roles. As the left brain plans, step by step, it leans toward what should happen next. It leans towards safe choices, easier choices. For example, when planning who would be the tribute for the Hunger Games, Collins must have known that it would be Katniss, her main character. The left brain would instantly and easily accept that Katniss’s name would be drawn. However, some part of her brain—probably the creative right side—had to ask, “What if Prim were chosen instead?” Having Katniss sacrifice herself for her sister immediately ups Katniss’ likability and connects the reader to her. It raises the stakes, creates tension. Each twist requires careful planning and forethought (left brain) and creativity and emotional connectivity (right brain), all of which hook readers into the story and pull them along. When the right and left sides are each doing their optimal tasks at the same time, amazing and brilliant work can result.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that writing is deliberate. While, yes, writing is art, and creativity and inspiration can even be spiritual, none of it is fortuitous. Writers do not need to wait for our muses to show up in order to begin working. Nor do we need to battle our inner critic. Both are naturally part of us, and both have purpose. Now that we know where each one of them lives, we can find them, train them, and manipulate them to do our writerly bidding. So don’t just sit there. Grab hold of your muse and your Nigel and put them to work.

Idiosyncratic Tone in the Novel

My novel is set in a time and place—1850’s west—that’s already solidly ingrained into the American consciousness as a mostly historically inaccurate and over-dramatized milieu. For three years, I spent enormous energy creating the historical details—believable characters, a rich sense of place, credible plot. All this realism came at a cost. My novel was missing tone; that sort of unusual, quirky aesthetic that subverts convention and adds fizz to a story. Without a distinct tone, my novel developed a smooth, realistic veneer with too little texture underneath. So six months ago, I set out to learn everything I could about literary tone. I sought to infuse my writing with some artistic spark, or meaningful spirit, to make it unique and enticing, while avoiding self-conscious language and unnecessary lyrical back flips.

What is Tone?

Tone is the emotional color or musical pitch of a novel. It’s typically a feeling or atmosphere a writer establishes and maintains through an entire piece of writing. It’s not what is being said or done—it’s how it’s said or done. It’s the words on the page: their rhythm, grammar, diction, sound, and sequence.

In his craft book Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell says, “tone is the sound of the inner voice of a novel and in every case, the story is colored by the idiosyncrasies of the narrative voice, and how these idiosyncrasies strike the reader.” According to the Literary Terms and Poetry Glossary, tone is defined as “the manner in which an author expresses his or her attitude; the intonation of the voice that expresses meaning.” Tone is different from style. Style is the way writers put words together in units of thought—sentences—and the way they link sentences to make larger units—paragraphs, novels—to produce a particular tone. Tone is generally the effect of these sorts of literary techniques on the level of a work’s overall meaning. Writers convey tone through style. For example, the writing style in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying consists of first person stream-of-consciousness from the point of view of multiple characters, a non-chronological plot structure, and very long complex sentences aside short nonsensical sentences. These stylistic literary techniques give the novel its morbid irony, its sad, poignant cynical tone.

Why is Tone Important?

Tone is important in literature because it suggests an attitude toward the subject. It creates a feeling and emotional response in the reader and advances the meaning of a novel. Tone makes a story memorable, stirring, and relevant. It can heighten the theme and reinforce the plot.

Wallace Stegner said in his Paris Review interview that in order to create a sense of credibility in his novels, he tries to get “the tone and the quality of mind that will persuade a reader to see and hear a real and credible human being, not a mouthpiece or a construct.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that he had an idea of a novel, but something was missing. He said,

I was not sure what it was until one day I discovered the right tone—the tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for eighteen months and worked every day.

He’d found the perfect tone for One Hundred Years of Solitude: a blend of the magical and the real.

How Do Writers Create a Unique Tone?

When I sought ways of infusing a unique tone in my novel, I realized not many writers discuss specifically how they arrive at a particular tone, a process which appears to be the result of some mysterious alchemy magically borne out of all the mechanical literary techniques writers are supposed to employ. So I decided to study two novels known for their distinct, idiosyncratic tone—Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. I examined these novels for the specific literary techniques that contributed to the tone of each work and discovered that both authors used three common techniques:

  1. Titles
  2. Diction
    • strange and archaic words
    • untranslated words
    • vernacular
    • heavily-laden words
    • strong verbs
    • abstractions
  3. Metaphors and similes

Although there are plenty more, I narrowed my study to these three because each one directly contributes to achieving an idiosyncratic tone in both the novels under discussion.

Achieving Tone in Blood Meridian

The first novel I examined, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, follows a fourteen-year-old teenage runaway called only ”the kid” in a dramatic objective third-person point of view as he drifts through the Southwest during the mid-nineteenth century. The kid joins an outlaw gang of Indian hunters hired by a Mexican governor to scalp Apaches for a one hundred dollar bounty apiece.

Blood Meridian has a fairly traditional, chronological plot structure that starts with the kid hooking up with the gang and then experiencing events in a linear fashion throughout twenty-three chapters. But the plot is anything but traditional. Blood Meridian is one novel set in the west that subverts the archetypal hero versus villain, good versus evil. It subverts most of the expectations of the western genre by using tactics that keep the reader off balance. It explodes myth, the idyllic dream of Manifest Destiny through a dystopian western universe: evil wins through pervasive, extremely distasteful violence. There are no lovely ladies. No romance. Nobody finds gold or builds a new town. It’s a catalog of brutality, depicting, often times in explicit detail, all manner of bloodshed and cruelty in an unromantic, barbaric frontier. It’s horrific depravity that confronts not only the slaughtering of Indians and Mexicans, but also Americans killing Americans, pedophilia, and child killing.

The bulk of the novel is devoted to detailing the group’s gruesome activities and bizarre conversations. Although the kid is attracted to extreme violence, he rarely initiates it himself, usually doing so only when urged by others or in self-defense. The violence becomes exponentially more extreme and unrelenting when Judge Holden, often referred to as “the judge,” joins the gang as the magnetic center. He’s an erudite nihilist, sadistically violent, cunning, educated, and deeply philosophical. He’s capable of ruthless violence and remarkable delicacy; a savage savant with weirdly paradoxical behavior.

Blood Meridian has been described as both nihilistic and strongly moral, as a satire of the western genre, and a savage indictment of Manifest Destiny. Some describe it as one of the most grotesquely violent and bloody tellings of the west, while others describe it as a hauntingly beautiful and masterful tome of human warfare. The idiosyncratic tone in Blood Meridian can only be described as dark, and darker, brutal, and bleak.

At the end of the novel, the kid is wandering across the American West. Decades are compressed into a few pages, speeding up the plot. The final chapter is even farther in the future, where the kid is now referred to as “the man.” Cut to a saloon, dancing and wild fiddling, drunkards and whores. A confrontation occurs between the judge and the man in the outhouse, and what happens is unclear. The judge either kills or rapes “the man.” The act itself isn’t clearly described, just commented upon by a saloon patron, who says, “Good God almighty.” Then the judge is dancing in the saloon again, saying he will never die.

It turns out Blood Meridian is the perfect novel for a conventional writer like me to study. The language, which sets the tone, is simply astounding. You can flip open the book to any page and find an unusual writing style that’s inventive far beyond the Western lyric tradition. McCarthy’s sentence structure and word choice work together to create an aesthetic that is the distinctive tone in Blood Meridian.

So, exactly how did McCarthy infuse Blood Meridian with its idiosyncratic tone? Through titles, diction, and metaphor and similes.

Titling the Tone

The first thing that speaks to tone is the title of the novel. The title is an important part of the language choices a writer makes and an opportunity for the writer to name the tone directly or indirectly, and to stir a feeling in the reader immediately.

The title Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness In the West (the full title) sets an unmistakable tone of darkness. In addition, each chapter begins not with a traditional title, but with a list of events that will happen. For example, the chapter 12 pre-summary reads:

Crossing the boarder — Storms — Ice and lightning — The slain Argonauts — The azimuth  — Rendezvous — Councils of war — Slaughter of the Gilenos Death of Juan Miguel — The dead in the lake — The chief — An apache child — On the desert — Night fires — El virote — A surgery — The judge takes a scalp — Un hacendado —Gallego — Ciudad de Chihuajua.

This summary offers plenty of clues that the chapter will have some horrifically violent and strange stuff. McCarthy sets the brutal tone of impending doom with brutal words: scalp, dead in the lake, slain, death. The violent and strange word phrases are clear, matter-of-fact and divided by a simple dash, reinforcing the bleak tone of the novel.

The double-barreled title and chapter pre-summaries are meant to give the novel a vaguely antiquated tone. McCarthy is also creating a parody of dime store westerns that’s meant to be over-the-top and somewhat comical.

Diction

The next literary technique setting the tone in Blood Meridian is diction, or the choice and use of words and phrases. McCarthy’s diction is the tone of Blood Meridian. He seems to have meticulously chosen each word to intensify the strange, dark tone of the novel, and the desired effect on the reader.

Strange and Antique Words

McCarthy builds the dark tone by using both strange and antique words. I had to look up many—parfleche, gobbet, spancel. A few appear to be made up. Then there are the weird choices—rooty, paps, supernumeraries. In other instances, words are juxtaposed together in peculiar combinations, like grand horror, scurvid cur, death hilarious. The words often have twisted up placement, with nouns in place of adverbs and adjectives, and vice versa; or common verbs are used in an unusual way; or phrases have no verbs—all intensifying the tonal feeling. For example, McCarthy writes “and all the horseman’s faces gaudy,” as opposed to “the horseman’s gaudy faces” or “the horseman had gaudy faces.”

McCarthy arranges these unusual words and phrases into well-formed, artful sentences that heighten the tone in Blood Meridian. He also forgoes quotation marks and apostrophes, leading to a sparse, yet expansive language that’s hauntingly resonant.

Untranslated Spanish

McCarthy uses untranslated Spanish to produce an unsettling edge to the tone. Sometimes he throws in a single Spanish word within an English sentence, like “The old malabarista was on his knees where he’d been flung.” Or a Spanish phrase, “Cuatro de copas,” he called out, or “El jefe,” said the judge. The addition of Spanish gives the feeling that there’s some strange conversation happening. Notice in the following quote how McCarthy uses no punctuation to set off the dialogue:

Cuatro de copas, he called out.
The woman raised her head. She looked like a blindfold mannequin raised awake by a string.
Quien, called the juggler.
El hombre…she said. El hombre mas joven. El muchacho.
El muchacho, called the juggler. He turned the card for all to see.

Heavily Laden Words

Words laden with blood, violence, and darkness also help establish the tone. That might seem obvious. But McCarthy’s word choices aren’t just your run-of-the-mill words that signal violence like blood, kill, scalp. Although he uses those words too. McCarthy’s words cleverly hint and suggest violence, often when he’s describing something that’s seemingly ordinary. For example, with emphasis added, “The wind sent the weeds to gnashing.” “The little Spanish ponies sucking at the thin air.” Others are: pyre, smoking, sizzled, stank, spurting, jerking, reddening, dragging. You get the feeling.

McCarthy often alternates between the exquisite beauty of the flora and fauna and grim violence. For example,

They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing… [emphasis added]

Notice the heavily laden words italicized here. Using violence and nature together as in this quote creates a tone that acts as an external manifestation of the bleak emotional lives of the characters and conflicts, and intensifies the strange, dark feeling of the novel. In addition, this sharp juxtaposition intensifies the violence.

Strong Verbs

That brings me to the fourth element of diction in Blood Meridian: strong verbs. This novel is filled with intense verbs that enhance the relentless, incessant, pounding of the dark tone. Let’s look at an example:

Glanton’s horse reared and Glanton flattened himself along the horse’s shoulder and drew his pistol. One of the Delawares was next behind him and the horse he rode was falling backward and he was trying to turn it, beating it about the head with his balled fist, and the bear’s long muzzle swung toward them in a stunned articulation, amazed beyond reckoning, some foul gobbet dangling from its jaws and its chops dyed red with blood. Glanton fired. [emphasis added]

Here, McCarthy uses powerfully violent, action verbs—flattened, reared, swing, dangling, dyed. The verbs pull the reader from one violent act to another, which helps to reinforce the tone of darkness and brutality. McCarthy uses the two instances of past progressive verbs was falling and was trying to turn purposefully to show activity was in progress when another activity occurred simultaneously (beating the bear), to reinforce the feeling—the tone—of confusion, violence and chaos.

As the scene unfolds, the bear escapes with the man. The end of the paragraph reads:

…Glanton cocked the pistol a third time as the bear swung with the Indian dangling from its mouth like a doll and passed over him in a sea of honey-colored hair smeared with blood and reek of carrion and the rooty smell of the creature itself. The shot rose and rose, a small core of metal scurrying toward the distant beltways of matter grinding mutely to the west above them all. Several rifle shots rang out and the beast loped horribly into the forest with his hostage and was lost among the darkening trees. [emphasis added]

Notice how McCarthy describes the surrounding nature with a participle—darkening—not an adjective. He doesn’t write dark trees. Green trees. Mean trees. His gives the trees action: They are darkening. This verbal adjective phrase layers and animates the tone of foreboding. And he uses the verb dangling again here, to denote something so dreadful (a man dangling in the bear’s mouth). McCarthy is deliberately creating an odd, brutal tonal mood by coupling the natural world and violence with powerful, active verbs.

Abstractions

McCarthy also intensifies the tone in Blood Meridian by creating a unique arrangement of abstractions and uniting fragmentary concepts. For example,

The trail of argonauts terminated in ashes as told and in the convergence of such vectors in such a waste wherein the hearts and enterprise of one small nation have been swallowed up and carried off by another the expriest asked if some might not see the hand of a cynical god conducting with what austerity and what mock surprise so lethal a congruence.

McCarthy fills this passage with imagery and fragments that create a rich abstraction: “convergence of such vectors,” and “what mock surprise so lethal a congruence.” The sentence alternates between biblical and Gnostic motifs: “terminated in ashes,” “swallowed up,” “cynical god (lower g) conducting with what” (what is acting as an abstraction here), “austerity,” “as told,” implying a sermon. Notice there is no grammatical pause between the phrases, “carried off by another,” and “the expriest asked.” These sorts of abstractions create broad associations, and at the same time focus the tone of confusion and violence.  In addition, they add a tone of intellect, a high-mindedness, which contrasts somewhat comically with, as well as heightens, the bodily violence.

Use of Metaphor and Simile

In describing what happened with the Indian and the bear, McCarthy uses metaphor and simile to solidify the tone. “…the Indian dangling from its mouth like a doll.” And, “The bear had carried off their kinsman like some fabled storybook beast and the land had swallowed them up beyond all ransom or reprieve.” The strange similes of the doll and the storybook beast enhance the feeling of terror. The metaphor, “the land had swallowed them up” bolsters the tone of darkness. McCarthy doesn’t write: It was horrible. It was terrible. He creates sharp similes and metaphors to express and enliven, focus and reflect the tone of horror and terror.

Achieving Tone in The Shipping News

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx won both a Pulitzer Prize and the national Book Award.  It’s told in an omniscient third-person point of view centered on Quoyle, a hack reporter from upstate New York, seriously down on his luck. First his parents commit suicide. Then his unfaithful and abusive wife Petal leaves town to sell their daughters to sex traffickers. When Petal and her lover are killed in a car accident the young girls are returned to Quoyle. His life is in shambles, and his aunt Agnis convinces him to return to his ancestral home in Newfoundland for a new beginning.

The Shipping News is an affecting, atmospheric novel about the idea of family and home, and of a man finding his spirit again. When Quoyle arrives in his small ancestral town of Killick-Claw, he’s a broken man. He slowly comes back to life as he writes compelling stories about the harbor happenings, connects with the vibrant Newfoundlanders, and learns about his own troubled family background. He also develops a touching connection with a local woman, Wavey, and her sad child, as well as his aunt. As the novel progresses over thirty-nine chapters, Quoyle gains in emotional strength and discovers the deep and disturbing family secret—that his father raped his aunt.

The Shipping News has been described as a vigorous novel, packed with haunting images and lyrical renderings of Newfoundland. Others have said it’s darkly comic, and irritatingly uneven in its staccato stylings. For sure, it’s a quiet, yet powerful evocation of a place and people buffeted by nature and change. The idiosyncratic tone of The Shipping News is technical, practical, direct, and closely aligned with the physical world. Due to the Newfoundland setting and the Newfoundlanders living there, the novel takes on a tonal character that’s a bit distant and remote, perhaps even a bit cold and unfeeling, yet at the same time, calmly contemplative.

Titling the Tone

Proulx sets the practical tone immediately with the title—The Shipping News. It’s the name of a section of the local newspaper Gammy Bird in the small town of Killick-Claw where Quoyle finds work as a reporter chronicling banal shipping details. The straightforward title implies that this story will reveal news of this strange place and its people in a factual, clear manner.

Proulx continues this technical tone by naming each chapter after a particular knot in the Ashley Book of Knots and providing an explanation and illustration of the knot. Most of the chapter titles, derived from this sailor’s instruction manual, directly signal the chapter contents, further infusing the novel with a practical tone. Note how chapter one immediately sets the direct, straightforward tone, “Quoyle: A coil of rope. A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary.” Yet the titles also tie in a layer of subtext adding to the contemplative tone of The Shipping News.

Diction

The Shipping News is known for its distinctive offbeat sentence structure and deliberately choppy prose. It eliminates lots of verbs, nouns, and conjunctions, creating a strange staccato-like tonal texture. This unorthodox and rhythmic diction is cold, while at the same time hard-bitten, setting the tone of the whole novel.

Newfoundlander Vernacular

Proulx once said that she slept with the Dictionary of Newfoundland English under her pillow for two years. Perhaps that’s Proulx’s secret to the distinctive tone achieved in The Shipping News. A strange speech pattern, born out of regional vernacular, emerges in the writing—one that’s based on the anglicized, Irish-English accent of Newfoundland—and creates a direct, yet distant tone. For example:

Quoyle woke in the empty room. Grey light. A sound of hammering. His heart. He lay in his sleeping bag in the middle of the floor. The candle on its side. Could smell the wax, smell the cracks. Neutral light illumined the window. The hammering again and a beating shadow in the highest panes. A bird.

The paragraph above could be said to consist of eleven distinct sentences, but only four verbs: woke, lay, smell, and illumined. Note the Newfoundland vernacular “illumined,” not the English “illuminated.” The lack of verbs doesn’t leave the reader confused. The setting is clear. The stillness of the moment is revealed. A reader can feel the dreary tone. It’s as if Proulx created a language that mirrors how Newfoundlanders would relay the facts of what happened.

Here’s another example:

Quoyle below the rock. Suddenly he clasped his hands around her ankles. She felt the heat of his hands through her brown stockings, did not move. Prisoner on the rock. Looked down. Quoyle’s face was pressed against her legs. She could see the white scalp through snarled reddish hair, fingers curved firm around her ankles hiding her shoes except the pointed toes, the leather perforated in an ornate curl like a Victorian mustache, his heavy wrists and beyond them the sweater cuffs, a bit of broken shell caught in the wool, dog’s hair on the sleeves. She did not move.

There are eight sentences, short and long situated amicably with each other for a unique cadence; five relatively short sentences and one long sentence, followed by another short sentence. The first sentence has no verb. It’s more of a note that a newspaper reporter such as Quoyle would jot down in a notebook. Right away you feel the practical tone. There is no conjunction after “stockings,” then more descriptive notes, “prisoner on the rock,” and “looked down.” Then comes a long sentence, which suggests list items describing the woman’s characteristics. Then another note, “She did not move.”

In addition, Proulx’s dialogue mirrors the Newfoundlander’s speech, by dropping the h’s. For example, “Yes, we know ‘is ways. But ‘ow many knows the time last winter, February it was, time we ‘as that silver thaw when Billy wanted to ‘ave the old grandfather clock in ‘is kitchen repaired?” These curt Newfoundlander speech patterns become the natural tone of the novel itself. The diction also blends seamlessly with the setting, with lots of sea, sailing, and fishing words.

Heavily Laden Words

Like in Blood Meridian, the word choices in The Shipping News are heavily laden. Not with blood, but with the powerful rich imagery of Newfoundland, directly mirroring the dreary, sad, meandering emotional tone of the characters and the physical place. For example:

Nothing was clear to lonesome Quoyle. His thoughts churned like the amorphous thing that ancient sailors, drifting into arctic half-light, called the Sea Lung; a heaving sludge of ice under fog where air blurred into water, where liquid was solid, where solids dissolved, where the sky froze and light and dark muddled.

Notice how both the nouns and the verbs referencing the island are used to describe Quoyle’s emotional state: clear, sailor, arctic half-light, sea, sludge, ice, fog, churned, heaving, blurred, dissolved, froze, muddled. The repetition of the word where, along with the changing elements, creates a resonant connection back to the beginning of the paragraph with the phrase “amorphous thing.” The whole sentence becomes a lyrically “amorphous thing” leading to a tonal feeling of cold quirkiness.

Strong Verbs

Proulx often omits verbs. So when she does use them, it’s with a clear sense of purpose toward the practical tone of The Shipping News. Her verbs are powerful, not like McCarthy’s violent and aggressive choices in Blood Meridian, but intensely quiet. They tend to be odd, and often paired with ordinary yet unexpectedly nouns, revealing and implying multiple layers of feeling. For example: “The hill tilting toward the water, the straggled pickets and then Dennis’ aquamarine house with a picture window toward the street.” The verbs titling and straggled cleverly allude to Quoyle’s feelings when he approached his friend’s home.

Let’s take a look at a longer example:

Everything in the house tatted and doilied in the great art of the place, designs of lace waves and floe ice, whelk shells and sea wrack, the curve of lobster feelers, and round knot of cod-eye, the bristled commas of shrimp and fissured sea calves, white snow on black rock, pinwheeled gulls, the slant of silver rain. Hard tortured knots encased picture frames of ancestors and anchors. [emphasis added]

It seems like Proulx is just describing a “perfect kitchen” in Newfoundland, but so much more is revealed in her verb choices. Almost everything in this static kitchen is described with a verb, as if the kitchen in alive. Quoyle was pulled into this kitchen directly from the sea, saved from drowning. Wrapped in a warm towel, he’s the one surveying the surroundings. The verbs curve, bristled, and fissured mirror his current emotional state, as do tortured and encased.  I also noticed the clever use of the word wrack, which is coarse brown seaweed. But it also means, “to be subjected to extreme stress or mental pain.” In the variant spelling, rack as a noun can mean “a wrecked ship,” “the historical instrument of torture,” and “a mass of thick-fast moving clouds.” As a verb, it can mean, “being driven before the wind” or “to draw off the sediment in a wine barrel.” In addition, “to go to rack and ruin,” is a phrase meaning “to gradually deteriorate in condition because of neglect.” Every single one of these meanings of wrack/rack describes how Quoyle feels sitting dripping wet in that kitchen. But Proulx doesn’t say anything about his emotional state.  She simply describes the practicalities of the kitchen décor, quietly slipping in the verb wrack to describe a seaweed decoration.  This is evidence of the practical, cool tone built into the language choices. Yet, at the same time, that one word cleverly describes all of Quoyle’s emotions at that moment. Brilliant.

Use of Metaphor and Simile

The metaphors in The Shipping News also reference concrete physical things on the island of Newfoundland, reinforcing the idiosyncratic tone of the novel. Because the syntax is fragmented and traditional sentence parts are omitted, fluidity is interrupted allowing for epigrammatic statements and odd, arresting metaphors that are original and apt. For example:

It began with his parents. First the father, diagnosed with liver cancer, a blush of wild cells diffusing. A month later a tumor fastened in the mother’s brain like a burr, crowding her thoughts to the side. The father blamed the power station. Two hundred yards from their house sizzling wires, thick as eels, came down from northern towers.

The concrete connection between the liver cancer and “a blush of wild cells diffusing,” and the brain tumor, “like a burr,” is matter-of-fact and unemotional. The phrase “the father blamed,” is contemplative, yet still distant. Notice there is no comma between “house” and “sizzling wires.” No verb. It’s a bit of an inverted sentence. By pulling back to the mechanics of what caused the cancer with a concrete yet unusual metaphor—an eel found in Newfoundland—Proulx bolsters the practical tone.

Adding a Deeper Layer

Examining the literary novels The Shipping News and Blood Meridian for their tonal qualities served as a powerful exercise.  In both novels I discovered tone emerging from the author’s use of literary techniques to twist and flip the ordinary into something more interesting and distinctive. Both Proulx and McCarthy shape the language—the words and sentences—to create tone, more than they use plot structure and character development towards tone.

In Blood Meridian McCarthy uses titles, diction (including strange and antique words, aggressive verbs, heavily laden words, weird abstractions), and memorable metaphor and similes. Together these techniques create an urgent and constant tone that oozes some strange, syncopated drumbeat signaling impending violence. Not just ordinary violence, but horrific violence, and bizarre. Blood Meridian, with its senseless bloody brutality, is not for everyone, but its idiosyncratic tone is undeniable—inexplicable evil, hinged between the real and the surreal, and laden with darkness, brutality and bleakness. It’s the tone that jolts readers and makes for a masterpiece of American literature.

As for The Shipping News, the language itself is the tone: quirky, cold, distant and practical. Proulx achieves this idiosyncratic feeling through a lyrical diction and cadence made up of authentic Newfoundlander vernacular speech patterns, as well as word choices and metaphors heavily laden with the physical place of Newfoundland. Proulx makes thoughtful and purposeful use of ordinary literary techniques.

The key word here is purposeful. As writers, we need to make specific and imaginative use of these literary techniques to create an idiosyncratic tone. We need to dig deeper with language for the exact, unique word, metaphor, abstraction, or verb to convey a particular feeling and attitude. We need to find a particular tone that reveals our character’s emotion. Enlivens the sense of place. Invigorates the nature of the action and enriches our stories with a deeper layer of meaning. A deeper layer of feeling. In doing so, we can escape creating a byproduct of mechanized literary learning. We can use language to create a story with an idiosyncratic tone that subverts the ordinary, engages in an unusual way, and lifts our level of storytelling to meaningful art.

Works Cited
Bell, Madison Smartt. Narrative Design: Working with Imagination,
Craft, and Form
. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.
Hepworth, James R. “Wallace Stegner, The Art of Fiction,” The Paris
Review
. No.118. Summer 1990.
Literary Terms and Poetry Glossary. Boston. Bedford/St Martins. 2007.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the
West
. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Proulx, Annie. The Shipping News. New York: Scribner, 1993.
Stone, Peter, “Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, Writers at Work”, The Paris
Review
, No. 69. Winter 1981.

 

The Perks of Being Bipolar

Bobbie Pyron

Tales of a wacky writer in a roller-coaster business

Recently, I spoke at a benefit event I’d put together for my local animal rescue organization. I’d brought together five authors (including myself) who all wrote about and were inspired by their love for dogs.  I told the audience how the idea burst into my mind two months before my book, A Dog’s Way Home, was due to be released. A good friend’s dog book would be coming out about six weeks later.

I said to the audience, “I thought ’Hey! Corinne and I could do a signing together!’ And then I thought, ‘Oh and hey! We could do it as a benefit for Friends of Animals because we both love our dogs and we love Friends of Animals and…and HEY! Why not invite Patti because she’s had a really tough winter and plus I haven’t seen her in ages, and well, there’s Juli-Anne’s wonderful photography book of Park City dogs, and well of course, if you’re having a dog book signing, you have to have Jeannine there and we could even….’  And my brain was off and running like a galloping horse penned up all winter.”

Then I explained how my friend Charlene, who’s on the board of Friends of Animals, patiently listened to my mile-a-minute talking about my Grand Idea. “I knew Charlene would either say, ‘Sounds good to me,’ or she’d say, ‘Bobbie, you might want to get your meds checked.’”  That got quite a round of laughter.

Later that evening, as I signed a copy of my book for someone, she said, “You were so funny up there! Are you always that funny?”

No. I’m bipolar. And what I’d said up there to the audience about meds was absolutely true. Our event, “Authors Unleashed”, came to me when I was in one of my rare manic phases. It burst on the scene and grew bigger and bigger, and then rose like one of those metallic celebration balloons in the air.  I was lucky: This actually was a good idea!

I get a lot of what I think are really “good” ideas when I’m manic. Often, the good ideas become great ideas, which become The Best Damn Idea Anyone In The World Has Ever Had. These Best Damn Ideas may be story ideas, or they may be ideas for saving the world or, at the very least, eradicating the need for animal shelters. I’m not saying God talks to me when I’m manic—but I firmly believe she should.

What I’ve learned after living with this illness for thirty-plus years, and living with it as a writer for the last six years, is to write down all story ideas during that time and look at them when I “come down,” because there may actually be something that is good (there will also be ideas that are truly wacky and unworkable). I’ve also learned to give my husband my checkbook and credit cards. Getting actual writing done when I’m in a full-blown manic phase is almost impossible: I can’t sit still or concentrate enough to string solid sentences together. So that’s kind of too bad, but I have learned to take lots of notes.

Of course, once that balloon goes up, it must come down. For me, that usually happens after about three days, and the landing is seldom gentle. Unfortunately, I have what’s called bipolar II, which means I mostly experience the crushing depression end of the spectrum, with occasional swings of mania. It’s pretty funny to get a debate going amongst people who fall in different places on the bipolar spectrum. It goes something like this:

“You’re lucky because at least once a month you get high and get to be the life of the party.”

“No, you’re lucky because you don’t have to explain to your husband (or wife) every month what happened to the savings account. It’s a lot cheaper to be depressed.”

Really. I’m not kidding.

If I land on solid ground (in other words, if the meds are working), I can get back to writing. I can look at the copious notes and make something out of it that’s good. Maybe not great, certainly not The Best Damn Idea in the World, but good. And good is good enough.

But there are the very dark times when the depression steals everything away—all hope, all confidence, all creativity, all faith. I can feel myself falling and falling into this deep abyss. If the meds are working, I have a chemical safety net that keeps me from falling too far.

I read once that J.K. Rowling created those soul-stealing, joy-slaying “Dementors” in the Harry Potter series when she went through a particularly bad and lengthy bout of depression. She captured those torturous dark being perfectly on the page.

When I was writing an early draft of what would become A Dog’s Way Home, I fell into such an abyss. I didn’t realize at the time my medication had lost its effectiveness—a common problem with bipolar II.  The first couple of weeks, I’d have full-blown anxiety attacks when I tried to write. Then I would freeze up. After several weeks of falling lower and lower, I would sit down in front of my computer to write and just sob. I felt completely worthless and hopeless.  Who did I think I was, trying to be a writer? During those weeks, I was lucky if I managed to fight the depression and despair enough to get one or two pages out. It was pure agony. Finally, when I started thinking even my dogs would be happier if I weren’t around, I got myself to my doctor.  She, in turn, sent me to a psychiatrist who finally gave me the diagnosis and medication I had needed for so many years.

Here’s the good news: When I re-read those hard-won pages I wrote during those weeks of pure black hell, I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell the difference between what I’d written then and what I’d written in previous pages before The Fall.  I am not someone who cries, but I tell you I wept, absolutely wept, with relief. As sick as I was during that time, I could still write. My own “Dementors” had not robbed me of that.

Writing is a tough business for someone with any kind of mental illness, but it’s particularly tough for people with illnesses that fall along the bipolar spectrum. It’s a business that’s bipolar in its own way. It’s full of soaring highs (that first “yes” from an editor or agent) and crushing lows (I don’t need to spell those out). Those highs and lows can wreak havoc on already fragile brain chemistry and self-confidence. I can’t tell you how to ride this roller coaster with grace. Sometimes I’m successful; sometimes I’m quite sure I’m not cut out for this business. When the vagaries of being a writer sends me plummeting, I hold on for dear life and make myself count my blessings. And take my medication. If the highs trigger a manic phase, I give my husband my credit cards and checkbook and try to enjoy it, because I know it won’t last long.

This is not an easy world to live lightly in—mental illness aside. It is a world that demands emotional toughness, unwavering self-confidence, and perfect teeth—all things I do not possess. There are times when I simply don’t feel up to the task of living in this world, much less being a writer. But then a voice whispers in my ear a story about someone…someone vulnerable, someone who feels like an outsider…who has lost something he or she loves. I open my heart and take this someone in. I listen to their story and help them find their way by my small, flickering flame. There is light out there; there is light in me. I write.

On Rhythm: In Sentences

I ride horses, always have. Everything I know about how to raise children, or survive school, comes from my life with horses. So it was only natural I would turn to horses to teach me about writing. Horses—their movement and response—would help me build sentences, pace my prose, find the rhythm of my words.

Rhythm is the foundation of good riding. Clint McCown told me, “The difference between bad writing and good writing is rhythm.” If I can control a horse’s rhythm, surely I can wrangle nouns and verbs.

Rhythm is regularity. Although a steady beat would seem to suggest static writing—the antithesis of our goal to engage the reader—instead, a steady beat creates energy and establishes authority. It collects the attention of the reader. As I ride to a jump, I use my position to balance, or punctuate, in order to maintain the energy and create the correct cadence. In his essay, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Flow,” David Jauss writes that when the author employs the correct cadence for a paragraph, we trust him for the rest of the story. So instead of letting my sentences run away with me, I study the structure, count the beats, use syntax to balance, punctuate, and construct a tight sentence. Philip Graham told me: you don’t want your reader skimming; you want to maintain the energy of your sentence with each word.

Rhythm is the footfall of the horse. So I considered the footfalls of my words by setting them to the beat of my horse. I did this by reading my work aloud while riding. Each gait had a different impact on the sentences because each gait has a different tempo. The walk was too slow and the trot too quick. I picked up the three-beat canter and read for about one sentence, before I had a steering issue and lost control of the horse. End of exercise.

What did I learn from this experience? That reading while riding was a cumbersome process and I would be safer to use a metronome at home in an armchair. What else I learned was surprisingly—embarrassingly—simple but perhaps only learned by doing. The words moved out of my head and into my body. I began to think more intently about tempo.  If I wanted to keep a regular beat I had to reconsider the placement of the words in the sentence or choose a better sounding word. Here is where I heard the musicality of the sentence and heard what clunked. It was hard to dismiss the beat when I felt it in my whole body. Every sentence had its own rhythm.

Riding a horse is a partnership. I approach my horse the way I approach the page: with humility, open to discoveries, listening for the rhythm. I cannot force the horse any more than I can force the prose.

~

Jauss, David. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Flow.” Alone with All that Could Happen. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008.

On Poetry: Sine Waves

I’ve found that many contemporary lyric poems—though certainly not all—make interwoven use of three distinct elements: image, narrative, and rhetoric. Sometimes I think of the interaction between and amongst these elements as representing a sine wave or sinusoid. A sine wave looks like a regularized horizon of hills and valleys: first a hill, then a valley, then another hill, then another valley.

In the poetic sine wave, the “peaks” of the hills correspond to moments of lyric intensity or condensation, such as those orchestrated by a compound image, a metaphor, or sustained sonic density. The “troughs” of the sine wave’s valleys, and thus of the poem, are those rhetorical elements in the piece that incorporate prosaic diction and syntax and abstract reasoning. These troughs are easier for the reader to digest because they are sonically, syntactically, and content-wise more familiar. Finally, the forward motion and constant curving of the sine wave itself—which brings the reader to and past each peak and trough—is the poem’s propulsive internal structure, which may, but need not be, narrative in nature, or perhaps predicated upon the speaker’s unique diction. In some instances, the curve will be a “conceit,” a sort of skeletal thematic or structural presumption the language of the poem winds itself around.

I sometimes find it tempting to write a poem that is entirely comprised of one sinusoid peak after another. But I know that in such poems the reader often has no time to come up for air. I also know that it can be problematic to elide peaks and troughs altogether, as that runs the risk of over-emphasizing idiosyncratic diction, or a meandering self-narrative, or a conceit that conjoins a series of fey, neo-surrealistic visualizations without the sort of lyric intensity we usually associate with image and metaphor. And certainly there’s always the temptation to eschew rhetoric altogether, believing—wrongly, I feel—that in a postmodern world it is not for poets or poetry to address the Great Themes or admit into verse the possibility of absolute truth or natural law.

In my poem “Ruin,” from my second collection, Northerners, I tried to balance the three elements mentioned above:

  • narrative: “and backwards go / the men into the garden”
  • rhetoric: “Forget about great / men, and soon the great forgetting / will be over, leaving all that is left all over” and “ponies cannot love / children”
  • image: “All over the world, curtains drew” and “a haircut and a vacuous look they had / when they were twenty…”

I see a similar sort of effort underway in Matt Guenette’s American Busboy, particularly in the excellent poem “Dog Days” (available in an earlier version here), inasmuch as I detect there, too, a careful balance between:

  • narrative: “The mattress shoved / to the center of the sublet” and “For fun we dragged / a couch to the curb”
  • rhetoric: “A defining moment, / & that was the problem. / How a thing defined / resists what it means”
  • image: “cicadas buzzing so loud / they sawed through / our thoughts”

“Ruin” and “Dog Days” are undoubtedly slightly different, but the general shape of a sinusoid is present in both poems.

~

 

I Craft, Therefore I Am: Creating Persona through Syntax and Style

Persona is the mask writers wear in their novels, short stories, poems, essays and memoirs. It is the artfully crafted or created “self” on the page. Poet Ezra Pound defined persona as a literary stand-in for the author’s voice. It is not the actual self or author; real lives can rarely be contained within the margins. In Jorge Luis Borges’ “Borges and I,” Borges confronts the dichotomy between the self and the persona, saying, “I live, I let myself live so that Borges may write his literature, and this literature justifies me.” Yet this distinction is dismantled in his final line, “I don’t know which one of us is writing this.” Unlike Borges, most of us do know. Less clear is how to portray a portion of our true selves, how to slant the details and to shape our image. One way to translate persona to the reader is through syntax and style. In this essay, we’ll look at two highly stylized memoirs to see how these authors crafted persona.

Consider this passage from Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking:

December 30, 2003, a Tuesday.
We had seen Quintana in the sixth-floor ICU at Beth Israel North.
We had come home.
We had discussed whether to go out for dinner or eat in.
I said I would build a fire, we could eat in.
I built the fire, I started dinner, I asked John if he wanted a drink.
I got him a Scotch and gave it to him in the living room, where he was reading in the chair by the fire where he habitually sat.
The book he was reading was by David Fromkin, a bound galley of Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?
I finished getting dinner, I set the table in the living room where, when we were home alone, we could eat within sight of the fire.

Each line operates as a stand-alone paragraph, giving greater emphasis to each sentence and to the space between them. The sentences are short, clipped almost, as if translated from Morse code. The first sentence, “December 30, 2003, a Tuesday,” lacks a verb, and announces the diary-entry nature of the scene. That first sentence is five words long. The second is thirteen. The third is four. The next three sentences are between eleven and fifteen words apiece. The effect is syntactic machine gun fire. Invisible exclamation marks. The abbreviated length functions like an alarm, telling the reader to wake up, pay attention. Just as the author might be telling herself the same thing in retrospect. Didion’s sentences—and, by extrapolation, her persona—are crying for help.

At the same time, perhaps ironically, the abbreviated sentences also make the passage read like poetry. The presence of so few words highlights the negative space around them. And this negative space is overwhelming, creating an interesting if simple metaphor—that is, the overwhelming negativity of this moment as shown through the largely unmarked page. The area surrounding Didion’s emotionless sentences is haunted by what she doesn’t reveal; this absence gives us the opportunity for an emotional response. The white space suggests what is happening off the page—her husband is dying. You could even say that his death is occurring in the void. The author’s persona cannot face this event. She obscures it from herself by ‘hiding’ it in a wordless desert. The short sentences show us that the persona is both controlled and under attack. Didion’s use of negative space, which physically overwhelms her words on the page, shows us that her persona is overwhelmed.

In addition to sentence length, we also learn about persona via repetition and parallel structure. The second, third and fourth sentences begin with the words “We had.” Perhaps the focus on “We” is significant as it’s the last time she gets to use it. In this passage, the phrase “eat in” is used twice, as is “build a fire.” “Dinner” comes up three times, “fire” two more times, “living room,” and “reading” twice. The sentence, “We had come home,” is itself repetition of a known fact; it could be assumed by the circumstances—clearly the narrator wouldn’t make dinner or build a fire at the hospital. Repetition acts as a highlighter, marking words and phrases so that they catch our attention. If she’d written, “After seeing our daughter in the hospital, I made us dinner at home,” this would be a very different piece of writing. It would sound ordinary, routine, unremarkable. But instead, the language shows us that for Didion’s persona this day was anything but ordinary—in fact, it was the most abnormal and devastating day of her life. Yet she is not willing to say that outright. Didion forces her persona’s devastation into the density of this excerpt, through the repetition of her words and through the repeating structure, also known as parallelism.

Another perspective is that Didion is stripping her language of beauty, simplifying it, to use only the essentials. As such, the writing has the format of a police report or a news bulletin. Why is that? Using the police report analogy, she’s trying to understand what went wrong. If she can just get the details down, unencumbered by emotional content, if she can just get the facts, perhaps she can pinpoint the error and resurrect her husband. That her attempt at comprehension might be driven by a Lazarus-like impulse shows the persona’s limited grasp of logic and rationality—because of this, we know that the persona is suffering.

By using short, sparse sentences, the writing sounds like a warning; she’s using a loudspeaker, calmly telling us about the fire we can’t yet see. The prose, and, thus the persona, appear to be emotionless. And yet, behind her words lies a tsunami of emotion. How do we know? Because normally inconsequential details: whether or not they ate in, whether or not she built a fire, whether or not he wanted a drink, where he sat, what he read, are in fact of great consequence. If they weren’t, Didion wouldn’t share them with us. Or if she did, she would bury them in long sentences. Here, they stand in the spotlight. The short, sparse sentences also show that the persona is in shock, capable of only basic functioning and basic writing.

These seemingly inconsequential details matter because they’re all the persona has. The mundane moments are marked in bold by what follows—her husband’s death. She later says, “What gives those December days . . . their sharper focus is their ending.”

The language Didion uses, particularly when describing the death of her husband, John Dunne, is precise and controlled. Likely, the logic is that if she can control the words, she can control the feelings—this is how she avoids the inevitable grief that awaits her. What does this show us about the persona? That she lives in fear. Precision is her reaction to terror. If this persona were attacked, I imagine she would remember every detail of her attacker, but I don’t know if she would cry out. It’s as if she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. And maybe she does. Watching people die is traumatic. In the new world Didion confronts as a widow, control is her first line of defense. She backs up this argument with her maxim: “Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control.”

Didion says this about language:

As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.

The “impenetrable polish” Didion refers to is the persona. It’s created via the meaning “resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs,” also known as syntax. And as she tells us here, she uses this polish to withhold. Though she looks at grief from a philosophical standpoint, or remarks on her illogical attachment to her husband’s shoes, she rarely shares her emotional state.  Yet I have the impression that Didion wrote the only words she could; this scene of her husband’s death keeps resurfacing, both in her mind and on the page.

Not only does Didion the writer exercise control, but she also employs distance in order to translate her persona onto the page. We hear about their discussion, but we do not hear the discussion itself. Not only are there no direct quotes, the discussion isn’t summarized—we only know that they did discuss. In this way, Didion doesn’t place the reader in the room. And I don’t think she wants to—these last moments with her husband are hers and hers alone. The pronouns in the short, declarative sentences are “we” then “I.” “He” is used twice, but unlike the other pronouns, it’s followed by the past continuous: He was reading, he was sitting. Her husband John is almost a prop. The verb tense is an interesting and appropriate choice since we use past continuous to indicate an interrupted action. And what interrupts John’s sitting and reading, and eventual eating, is his death. Past perfect is another distancing factor. She doesn’t say “We discussed,” but rather, “We had discussed,” making the event even more removed—this is true for the reader and for the persona. Thus, we learn that Didion’s persona is trying to extricate herself from this traumatic event through distance.

The emergency room social worker calls Didion a “cool customer,” and for much of the book, the description is apt. The writing is free of emotion, almost clinical. And yet absence breeds presence; her sparse language, ordinary details, and extensive use of white space all hint at her grief.

Whereas Didion relied on sentence length, repetition, parallelism and verb tense to convey her persona, Nick Flynn uses modifiers, meter, analogy and punctuation, as well as parallelism and repetition, to portray his persona in his memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

Each night, like another night in a long-running play, I wander the empty streets, check on every sprawled man until I find him, tension built into each blanket. Each man has a role—one will be the lunatic king, one will be the fool. One will offer dire warnings, one will plot against us, one will try to help. I am forced to play the son. .  . The stage is done up like the outdoor space of an anonymous American city—broken neon, billboards of happy products, vast, empty. The light is dim, but we can make out figures draped in blankets, on benches, in doorways, beneath bushes. Each night I wander among them, and some I speak with, and for some I leave food. Another blanket. A coat. Any one of them may or may not be my father. Though the audience expects the encounter, they’ve paid for the encounter, I may not find him.

The placement of clauses and modifiers in the first sentence convey both grief and acceptance. How so? Let’s go back to grammar basics. What is happening in this sentence? What’s the predicate? Wander. Who is doing the wandering? I. I wander. A left-branching modifier precedes it: “Each night, like another night in a long-running play.” A right branching modifier, “tension built into each blanket,” follows the independent clause. Grammatically, this sentence is a mouthful. The experience of reading it, of moving from one branch to another, is slow and deliberate, thus revealing a calm and broken-hearted persona. To me, it suggests that Flynn has accepted the circumstances he’s confronted with. This is clear from the sentence’s structure, which gives the writing a soft, incremental quality.

Likewise, the language choices reflect his persona. Not only is the word “night” repeated, but the scene itself is repeated each night as if it were part of a long-running play: here he goes again, wandering the empty streets. And the sentence wanders along with him. That the speaker is checking on “every sprawled man,” is evocative of working with the dead, collecting bodies, an act that underlines this scene with a sense of gravity. This emotional weight is reinforced by the “tension built into each blanket,” tension integral to life on the streets, to searching for his homeless father, who could appear underneath any blanket, anywhere in Boston and at anytime. Furthermore, Flynn’s father’s homelessness mirrors his own—Flynn, who lost his mother to suicide and dropped out of college, makes minimum wage at the homeless shelter and spends his weekends getting high. Thus, we learn that his persona is both wise and sorrowful; he knows there is no quick fix, no easy way out for his father or for himself.

Look at how meter reveals persona in this first sentence. You find stressed syllables flanking each comma: like, comma, night; play, comma, I; streets, comma, check; him, comma, tension. The stressed syllables define the end and the beginning of each phrase, effectively sewing the language together. As such, meter gives a plodding aspect to the prose. And in the plodding there is sorrow. Thus we learn the persona is plodding along, into and beyond whatever obstacles, or in this case, stressed syllables, he comes across.

In the next two sentences, with Flynn’s play analogy, these homeless men and the speaker himself are given roles. This has a dehumanizing effect because they could be anyone. And because they could be anyone, the narrator’s experience moves from the personal to the universal. How many men fall to the same fate? How many sons search for their fathers? And not by choice. No, the verb here is “forced.” He doesn’t want to play the son, but whether he runs away or wanders the streets, his father’s homelessness, alcoholism and absence remain. Assigning roles suggests that these men are cursed to repeat themselves, and that lasting change is far from likely. Today, one plays the lunatic king; another, the son. Tomorrow, others assume their places. There’s no chance for escape. Thus, the persona, this son, is trapped along with the other fathers and sons on the street.

The use of punctuation enhances the sensation of being trapped, and of the speaker’s accompanying grief. He doesn’t say vast and empty, but vast comma empty. It’s not in doorways or beneath bushes but in doorways comma beneath bushes. The rhythm is melancholic—it’s as if the speaker is so grief-stricken that he doesn’t have the strength for conjunctions. This rhythm is contrasted by two sentences with only two words each: “Another blanket. A coat.” These fragments underline the finite nature of what he can give. The blanket and coat won’t change anything fundamentally—they merely offer another night of survival, both for the homeless men and for the speaker. Why the speaker? Because he’s out there too—doing something, even if it’s inconsequential, and in some small, metaphorical way, that keeps him alive. This persona confronts paradox: his words suggest hopelessness while his actions suggest the opposite.

Persona is also shown through the passage’s parallel structure, which transmits a sense of monotony. Three of the eleven sentences begin with the word “each”: twice with “each night,” once with “each man.” In the second and third sentences, the words “one will” begin five clauses in a row: “one will be the lunatic king, one will be the fool. One will offer dire warnings, one will plot against us, one will try to help.” In the sixth sentence, which lists the locations where the speaker finds the homeless men’s bodies, each phrase starts with a preposition: “draped in blankets, on benches, in doorways, beneath bushes.” (As a brief aside—in this last example we have plenty of B and D consonance, which gives the passage a slow, deliberate quality.) In the next sentence we have two phrases centered on the word some: “some I speak with and for some I leave food.” In the final sentence, the phrase “the encounter” is repeated: “the audience expects the encounter, they’ve paid for the encounter.” In the monotony that comes from this parallel structure, we circle back to the closed loop that the speaker cannot escape; he is powerless over his fate—he may find his father, he may not. Additionally, the monotony of the syntax reflects the monotonous and grief-filled experience of the persona.

In these examples from Joan Didion and Nick Flynn, we’ve seen how persona is crafted in seemingly miniscule ways—through sentence length, punctuation, meter and repetition. We often hear that dialogue is a great way to show character because everyone speaks with a different voice, uses different language, chooses different moments to be silent. In addition to the “normal” dialogue you find in both fiction and nonfiction, I believe that in memoir the narrator is essentially in constant dialogue with the reader. Thus the way we speak to the reader defines us and shapes our story.

We’ve been looking at the building blocks that form persona. What we are creating—or recreating—in the case of memoir is ourselves. Not necessarily who we are today but who we were in that story, in that time. If you speak to the reader in long, meandering or breathless sentences, you translate differently from a persona who speaks in short, staccato bursts. And of course our personas are far from static, but we aim for consistency in tone. In general, how you reveal yourself, is, well, revealing.

Persona is something I struggled with while writing my own memoir. On an auspicious day in April in 2008, I knew I was writing the first page. What I didn’t realize was that this page would be deleted from subsequent drafts. But this is where it all began. As writers we have to make our own clay, so here is my raw material, the original initial sentence of my book:

A maroon ‘89 Jetta sailed down the highway, easily exceeding Michigan’s seventy mile-per-hour limit, zipping from left to right, right to left until it found its kind ahead, a coalition of speeders reenacting U-boat wolf pack tactics from the Second World War in hopes that someone had radar or the leader would take one for the team if a patrolman appeared out of nowhere, lights blinking, siren blaring, accelerating from zero to sixty in seven-six-five-four-three-two-one.

Whew. I’m exhausted—exactly the reaction I hoped for. This opening is 80 words long. That the sentence has little to do with the topic of my memoir is beside the point.

When I returned to the first half of my memoir, I encountered a breathless quality in the prose. I found a young, urgent voice that wanted me in her grasp. But to be honest, I wasn’t sure how much I liked her. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get to know her. She didn’t sound like the type I would have a latté with, that I would invite over, or that I would listen to for any extended period of time. These are telling indicators, since reading is essentially a one-way conversation with the author. And in memoir, if we aren’t emotionally invested in the narrator, the author has failed.

With persona in mind, I wrote a different beginning to my memoir. The difference between these two openings is subtle. The first new version, “Haunted” was Flynn-esque:

Ten years later, I still can’t let it go. My brief moments with Maggie and Neenef are now fragments of film loaded through the reels of my imagination. There, they await any stimuli capable of turning the dial, initiating the projector’s hum. Sometimes it’s as simple as staring out the window or as direct as reading about another school shooting.

With revision, the opening became more like Didion:

The murder, the suicide. Ten years later, I still can’t let go. Brief moments with Maggie and Neenef. Fragments of film loaded through reels of imagination—awaiting stimuli to turn the dial, initiate the projector’s hum. Sometimes as simple as staring out the window. Or as direct as reading about another school shooting.

What changed? We’ve moved from four sentences to six. Complete sentences to fragments. What has this done to the persona? What I hear in the fragmentation of the revised passage is a fragmented speaker. And fragmentation is aligned with grief, even obsession. When the narrator says that she “can’t let go,” I hear it in the writing. While the complete sentences in the first passage suggest that the event did not have a lasting impact, the revised version’s incomplete sentences show the persona’s incompleteness. Syntax mirrors experience, which shapes persona. Everything is working in unison.

As anyone who has read multiple memoirs by the same author has noticed, persona shifts from book to book. In Sue William Silverman’s first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, her adolescent persona tries on flannel pajamas at a department store:

I believe if I owned these I would be able to curl inside them and sleep undisturbed for years, smelling and feeling their warm comfort. I have no money, but I must own these pajamas. I must steal them—I must. I cannot leave without them. I roll the cuffs to my knees, put my skirt on, pull my sweater over the top, and zip up my jacket. Slowly, I leave the store.

The opening to Silverman’s second memoir, Love Sick, takes place in a motel parking lot in Texas:

I cut the engine and air conditioner and listen to stillness, to nothing, to heat. Sunrays splinter the windshield. Heat from the pavement rises, stifling, around the car, around me. No insects flutter in the brittle grass next to the lot. Trees don’t rustle with bird wings. A neon rainbow, mute and colorless by day, arcs over a sign switched to vacancy.

The difference is striking. You can hear the contrast in age and perhaps in cynicism. The young persona has impossible dreams about what this pair of pajamas could do for her, so much so that they drive her to steal. We hear the desperation in the repetition of “I must.” The older persona is subsisting in a void, in perpetual heat where nothing happens. In the negation—“nothing,” “no insects,” “trees don’t rustle,”—we hear a resigned persona, one that is perhaps as mute and colorless as the daytime neon rainbow over the motel room.

I’ll leave you with a writing exercise. I invite you to follow the same thematic territory as Didion and Flynn and consider loss. Of fresh flowers, the family pet, or a traumatic event like the one Didion describes. You could describe how a significant relationship ended. What was said? What was left unsaid? What matters most is your relationship to the loss—it must be intimate and therefore meaningful. As usual, avoid abstractions. Focus on the details. Be specific. Write the beginning of a scene to bring us into the moment of loss. Then revise to mimic either Joan Didion’s short, abrupt sentences devoid of emotion, or Nick Flynn’s long, spacious sentences weighted with emotion. Remember, we invent and reinvent ourselves with words. Choose or revise wisely.

Works Cited
Anderson, Erika. “Breathing Through Broken.” (Unpublished).
Borges, Jorge Luis. Dreamtiger. Trans. Mildred Boyer, Harold Morland. …..Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.
Didion, Joan. A Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Flynn, Nick. Another bullshit night in Suck City: a memoir. New York: …..W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Silverman, Sue William. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember
…..You
. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Silverman, Sue William. Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through
…..Sexual Addiction
. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

The Happy Ending Effect

Why do I write?

Considering the odds of publishing, we have all asked ourselves that question at one time or another. If we haven’t, we should. When I set out to write a novel some ten or more years ago, I had a grand vision in mind, in which I would hit the New York Times Bestsellers list, quit my day job, write four or five hours a day, do a little gardening, and have some wine. Or some variation of that. Every day. My husband has never said it, but I suspect he wants to ask, “How’s that working out for you, babe?” Well, let’s see… I still have my day job—the one that demands at least forty hours a week. I block out a full day on Saturday or Sunday, and sometimes both, just for writing. My evenings are filled working through a stack of books that mysteriously only grows, and I can’t even find my garden through the tangled weeds. About the only thing that is working out is the wine. I could continue, but you get the picture.

If your primary reason for writing is that you want to be published, let me give you a bit of tough advice. Quit! Quit right now. You will never find satisfaction in publishing alone, and your chances for that life of leisure are better playing the lottery. I’ll get to one of the reasons for that in a minute. But first I want to mention Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve greatness in any endeavor, which he outlines in his book The Outliers: The Story of Success.

If you work full-time, your employer estimates that you put in roughly 2,000 hours per year. That factors in vacations, time at the water cooler, lunch, and so on. So plying your craft—any craft—according to Gladwell, requires a steady five years of work to master. I calculated how much writing practice I get in annually and it’s somewhere in the 400-hour range. So maybe… if I put my hopes on Gladwell’s theory, and I did my math correctly (I’m a writer, so who knows) I am roughly a third to halfway there! I should mention that my first published novel was actually my fifth completed work. I have four practice novels somewhere in my attic. I would sooner burn them than read them. I don’t have to look to know that they are utter crap.

But even publishing four novels does not make a master. In fact, even if I achieve Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, there is no guarantee that I will be a master, or that I will continue to find publishing success in the future.

One of the biggest frustrations literary authors face in publishing is the pressure to write happy endings. We consider ourselves artists, but publishing is a business—a money-making, dollars-and-cents business. It is driven by trends in consumer spending, just like any other. If vampires are selling, vampire stories are what publishers are buying.

The demand for stories with happy endings is not new; Mark Twain’s famous final “Chapter the Last” in Huckleberry Finn is century-old proof of that. In a recent rereading of the work, I was stunned and slightly amused at how trite it was. I can imagine Twain thinking, You want a happy ending? I’ll give you a happy ending! And he produced what any sophisticated reader would understand as a grotesque appendage designed to please the market.

To give perspective on just how long this pressure for authors to provide happy endings has been around, imagine rewriting Shakespeare’s tragedies to be a little less… well, depressing. That is precisely what Nahum Tate did with King Lear, as well as others. Who would dare! you might say. In Tate’s adaptation, Cordelia, Lear’s beloved favorite daughter who refuses to indulge his narcissism and conceit because of her love for him, essentially setting the wheels of the story in motion, is not only spared her life in the end, but even goes on to marry the Duke. Tate’s revision, titled The History of King Lear, was first published in 1681, and rapidly became the preferred adaptation by theatres throughout the world. In fact, it remained the primary version of this story performed until 1830. Nahum Tate successfully hijacked Shakespeare’s irony and profundity for no less than 150 years. Contemporary scholars now view Tate’s revision as one of mediocrity eclipsing genius.

Though this pressure has been around for centuries, I would assert that the demand for a happy ending has never been more acute than it is today in this post-Hollywood era. The average American has scarcely, and possibly never, experienced fine literature, choosing instead to marinate in a stew of anorexic stories, based on identical scenarios, propped up by visual effects. Looking at the stories available to the masses reveals comic book heroes fighting mythical villains on the big screen—in fact, the same comic heroes introduced to our grandparents. Dysfunctional families crack pointless jokes on the small screen, and the rare adult reading frenzy to sweep through society quite often features books intended for children. Without question, there is still a small group of literary readers out there. But the majority of readers are more likely to flock to wine parties where they discuss the latest celebrity-promoted bestseller. Raised on Hollywood and raising children of their own, many of these readers critique novels as if they’ve actually read them and not simply grilled a co-worker for a fourth- or fifth-hand synopsis thirty minutes earlier. Someone inevitably says with a highbrow glint in her eye, “I loved the ending.” The ending that virtually all of these hold in common… is happy.

The popular version of the happy ending is destructive to our culture in several ways. Certainly it creates unrealistic expectations, and it does so very subtly. The romantic comedy, which in the publishing world is called “chick lit,” could be, in my view, a significant contributor to marital discontent in America today. It is only a slight step up from genre romance, in which the couple is happily united at the end. Even if we do not read commercial fiction, most of us are guilty of imbibing harmless films like Bridget Jones’s Diary. After all, who didn’t want Bridget to dump Daniel Cleaver and hook up with Mark Darcy? Selfish, two-timing asshole? Or shy intellectual who knows how to prepare a meal for friends and thinks enough of Bridget to keep his mouth shut? At the close of this movie, perhaps somewhere in the back of our minds, we know this couple is at the beginning of a long and bumpy journey that will include fights about money, dirty laundry, and whether or not to spank their children. But we leave their romance, and every romance like it, at the height of bliss. It will never again feel this way. Not to them or us. This kind of ending leaves viewers with a strange mix of emotions: excitement, memories of our own romances, but also a sense of loss. We wish to experience that bliss once again. And because it’s not there, or at the very least it is not the same—she’s gained weight, he doesn’t get along with your mother, she spends too much money, he isn’t professionally ambitious—whatever the reasons, we feel discontent. It is the equivalent of a sugar high that will eventually result in a crash.

As Margaret Atwood illustrated in her short story “Happy Endings,” all stories ultimately end on an unhappy note. After providing a series of possible endings to a story about John and Mary, in which each must find its link to the same inevitable conclusion, she states:

You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don’t be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.

The only authentic ending is the one provided here:

John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

It is true for any character we authors might create. But happy endings perpetuate because they allow us to carry on as if that were not true.

Another example of popular storytelling that primes us for real-life letdown is the medical drama. When was the last time House lost a patient to his or her mysterious illness? When was the first time, for that matter? We know these are fictional scenarios designed to entertain, yet we learn the lingo so thoroughly that when our loved ones suffer unexplained symptoms, we are at the doctor’s elbow demanding tests with five-syllable names. We want to know white cell counts, vitals, and long-term prognoses so we can denounce grim expectations and encourage our kin to overcome the naysayers. “It can be done,” we say. It is as if these fictional doctors are insurance policies against the things that we most fear. Watching them on television, or reading about them in the pages of the latest trade paperback, we can set aside our anxieties about the unknown and believe that wholesale recoveries are not only possible, but commonplace. What greater discontent can a person experience than the loss of a loved one to random illness in this day of everyday miracles by television doctors?

Is it any wonder that prescriptions for anti-depressants are at an all-time high when books, TV shows, and films—popular modes of relaxation—repeatedly remind us that our daily lives, which are filled with job stress, bad luck, illness, lost keys, and divorce, fall short of what we are constantly told they should be?

A recent example of a literary work that gained widespread popularity is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I imagine that had McCarthy provided this novel with the ending we expected, and arguably, the one it deserved, which I’ll discuss in a moment, it would not have been as widely read. And certainly the ending of its cinematic version would have been altered.

The novel is set in post-apocalyptic America, where a man and his son scrape out a dismal existence of scrounging for food and running from cannibals as they try to reach the Gulf Coast. They are seeking “good people” like themselves, people they can trust and band together with. But at no point in this story does the man show any sign that he would ever trust anyone, or recognize “good people.” He carries a pistol with two bullets: one for the boy, and one for himself, should it come to that. When he realizes that he may not be able to fully protect the boy, he turns the pistol over to his son, instructing him on its purpose and ensuring the child is prepared to use it. We never know the boy’s age, but based on his description we can estimate that he is somewhere between eight and ten years old.

The story is about as bleak as they come. It represents everyone’s worst nightmare. What will the world be like after wholesale, instantaneous destruction? Doomsday stories have been popular for a long time. One has only to look at popular cinema to find a plethora of devastation from floods to nuclear war to our interpretation of the sudden end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. What The Road and these other stories hold in common, of course, is a happy ending. One might argue that in a world as bleak as McCarthy has created, anything north of death is happy. So when the man dies, leaving the boy in a world in which he has taught him to trust no one, and in which we have scarcely seen women and children, it seems slightly less than believable that the boy is found by a family—one in which exists a mother and a father and children.

In an earlier scene, McCarthy’s literary prowess is much more apparent in his use of two beloved archetypes. Father and son are traveling along the road when they encounter a man who has been struck by lightning. The boy begs his father to help the man. But his father refuses, continuing on as if the injured man were not there at all. When the boy persists, his father harshly reprimands him, stating that there is nothing they can do. In this world in which the protective father figure is in direct opposition to our deeply cherished concept of the Good Samaritan—two archetypes American psyches consider right and just—is it possible that this boy could ever find happiness? Even in the arms of a surrogate mother, the boy could hardly overcome the influence of his father, who has equipped him only for distrust and self-protection.

A more believable ending to The Road would have been that the boy is put to the test his father has prepared him for. He uses the pistol. Either to kill someone else, or to kill himself. We can be nearly certain that this ending, while consistent with the literary merits of the work, would have limited its appeal, and its publisher would not have seen the financial success it did with this novel.

A second destructive aspect of the popular happy ending is that it diminishes the reader’s interaction with the story, downgrading the experience from engaging to simply entertaining.

I will concede that many Americans shy away from stories that inspire contemplation or that offer a level of complexity that requires reader interaction. In the sea of popular fiction, people can drift from one simple story to the next without the threat of challenge. Those stories will be long forgotten in time because one of the elements that makes great literature memorable is its ability to make us think.

Consider Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” a rare example of literary fiction that was widely popular in both the written and film versions. It leaves its readers with the devastating understanding that Enis is alone. Permanently alone. It is not simply Jack’s death that makes it so, but the world in which Enis lives. What Proulx has done so masterfully is show us the impact of prejudice at the most personal level. Enis is a cowboy. He will never pack his bags and head out for Los Angeles or New York, where he can enjoy a gay relationship without fear. In fact, he’s not able to accept himself as gay because he is so thoroughly a product of his environment. It would’ve been easy for Proulx to tell this story in black and white, right versus wrong. But by creating the conflict within Enis himself, the reader is less able to hate Enis’s environment without hating him as well.

Fortunately for Proulx, gay cowboys trump happy endings where American readers are concerned. Even when most readers avoid gay literature, employing the iconic American cowboy strikes a nerve that is both scandalous and irresistible. She would have sold books whether she included a happy ending or not. But let’s take a moment to look at how a happy ending would have diminished this work. To give “Brokeback Mountain” a “realistic” happy ending—and I use that term lightly—Proulx would have had to either resolve Enis’s inner conflict, or leave it out entirely. A resolution seems unlikely; his inner conflict is the very essence of the story. Enis would need years to come to terms with who he is, and probably a lot of experimentation, which would devalue his relationship with Jack. Therefore, Proulx would have had to leave his inner conflict out, and this changes the story to a romantic drama. The prejudice they would face, devoid of Enis’s inner conflict, would be cast as simple wrongness on the part of society, and that would risk a didactic tone. What could Enis do to find happiness? Another cowboy? A move to a more progressive place? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. She could write almost any ending she wanted, but if Enis is happy, the reader has nothing left to ponder.

Think about it this way: Why should you or I give the oppression of a man living an alternative lifestyle a second thought when the story that brought it to our attention also resolved it? What is left for the reader to contemplate in any story when the villain is dead, the couple is married, and the nerd is posing for the cover of GQ? This common dumbing down of story shifts its impact from engaging to simply entertaining for mainstream readers.

I would also suggest that the loss of contemplation in our stories has even influenced the way America interprets its religious texts. I have personally witnessed the oversimplification of religious ideas through story interpretation to the point of rendering religious figures on the same scale as comic book heroes. At their most exaggerated, religions offer adherents a happy ending for being good, as well as the irresistible satisfaction that those who choose the “low road” will be punished. May I suggest that a literary, rather than literal, reading of the crucifixion of Christ might lead the adherent to the idea that Jesus saved us from our sins by modeling how not to employ anger and violence, even as self-defense? Perhaps it is the act of not sinning in the first place, as opposed to a miraculous rescuing of sinners, that gives the circumstances of his death greatest meaning? I am simply suggesting that we might find a deeper and more useful application were we to divorce ourselves from our happy-ending expectations.

When stories present us with complex scenarios that are not easily resolved, they more often resemble true life. One of my all-time favorite novels is John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. There are many reasons I love it, but the most important is that it stuns the reader with a brutal decision. I can’t imagine any readers finishing this novel without asking themselves what they would have done in George’s place. What is the depth of our compassion for another, less capable person? It isn’t simply a question of whether we would kill Lenny to protect him from a worse ending, but whether we would have taken responsibility for the man in the first place. We may find George’s anger toward Lenny abusive at times, but doesn’t he make us see others in his position a little more charitably for it?

What if Steinbeck’s publisher had demanded he provide a happy ending to the story? I suspect he would have told them where to get off. But let’s imagine for a moment what the story would have become. One scenario might be that George is released from his obligation when Lenny is conveniently run over by a hay wagon. We can still admire George for his dedication, but that ending omits the most powerful aspect of the story—that George will do anything to protect Lenny. And it fails to put George to the test, likewise failing to put the reader’s own views on the subject to the test.

Another option that would more likely play out in today’s world of fiction is that Lenny is miraculously cured of his mental handicap and the two are then able to go on to brighter futures. Of course, Lenny would be found not guilty by reason of insanity, or some such technicality given his unfit mental state at the time he killed Curly’s wife. I can see it. Can’t you? I bet House could find the cause of Lenny’s mental handicap within a fifty-minute episode and still have time to snark at someone about an unrelated annoyance. But seriously, what does the reader take away from this scenario? That miracles are possible and no one should or will ever have to make such horrific decisions?

There are other ways we might give George and Lenny a happy ending, but none could produce the impact on the reader and society that the original does. The reason this story is so often taught by high school teachers is that it reveals to us something about ourselves. Whether the answer is yes I would, or no I wouldn’t, we are compelled to ask the question simply because we have been given the problem.

By far, the most destructive result of popular happy endings is the wholesale anesthetizing of the reader against real world dangers. For millions of years people have used stories to convey important concepts about ourselves, our environments, and our cultures. Consider Franz Kafka’s naïf Josef K. in The Trial and how he is a metaphor for what happens to a society asleep at the helm. Had K. not been put to death, but allowed an awakening so profound as to set his life back on course, no one would have hailed this work as important. It would not have been the prophetic foretelling it was. In fact, it would have been quite forgettable.

That brings me back to why I write. The unpublished draft of my first novel, Blackbelly, ended on an appropriately hopeful note, but not without loose ends and unresolved conflicts. In fact, the main character was hitchhiking west, leaving behind forty-some years of family oppression, as well as a grocer with a bashed-in head buried in his meadow. I didn’t sell it with that ending. My then-future publisher wanted a revised ending that was… you guessed it… happy. They simply couldn’t see the protagonist as a hero if he didn’t ‘fess up and then get together with the nurse. I argued that it wasn’t a romance novel. I argued that he was too good for her. I argued that it was about finding the courage to follow your dreams, or at least break away from unhealthy roots.

My agent used the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Don’t ever forget that your agent only makes money when he or she sells your work.

So, as a young novelist who had never worked so hard and failed so thoroughly at anything as I had at writing fiction, I was compelled to consider the requested change. I eventually complied and did something similar to Twain by adding another “chapter the last” because I could not bring myself to change the true ending that already was. I regret it to this day. I often tell people where the real ending is, offering excuses for the grotesque appendage. Here’s the funny part: Blackbelly received starred reviews from Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and others. It has won minor awards. And, most important, reader reviews consistently run in the four-to-five star range. But that doesn’t make it any easier for me to read that last chapter without knowing I sold out.

Riding a tide of relative success from my first and then second novels, both with happy endings (because I’d figured out the secret code to publishing), I decided it was time for me to write an ending that was true to life—something that told the story as it would actually happen. Something that would make people think about things. My third novel, Windless Summer, was that work and Random House was my new publisher.

It launched quietly to very few reviews. Your first book will get the most attention until you’ve got a bestseller under your belt. The books between your first and your bestseller are very often passed over by reviewers in search of the next great debut. What industry reviews Windless Summer received were polite; not good, but not bad, either. It was the reader reviews that surprised me. Hot and cold. They split into two distinct camps: five stars or one star. One reader said she would give it zero stars if the program would allow her to do that. Ouch! A large group of people were confused and sometimes royally pissed off by the ending, in which the protagonist decides to kill his daughter and then himself. Events don’t go as planned, leaving him bleeding badly and at the mercy of his uncomprehending child. There was a much smaller group of readers who both understood and liked the ending.

As I talked with readers, trying to discern why they did or didn’t like the ending, it became clear that I was talking to either literary readers who had read the book in greater depth, connecting the finer points and not taking the story at face value, versus casual readers who, expecting to be entertained, read the work almost literally. The suggestion of supernatural activity in my fictional community, which was economically devastated and desperate for a miracle, in the minds of casual readers was interpreted as a factual occurrence intended by the author. The more important personal story of a man struggling to raise his severely handicapped child became the secondary story for these readers because many of its elements were quietly established against a backdrop of comedy.

I am not a master, and there are aspects of Windless Summer that I could have done differently to avoid some negative response. But I don’t think I would change the ending. It is devastating for a reason. I have been learning that as an author I have to accept the consequences of my writing. Some people won’t like me. Some will tear my work apart in vicious ways—the anonymity of online reviews gives opportunity for people to say things they never would in person. And perhaps that’s another lesson I can share: once it’s out there, it belongs to its readers. The story is what people believe it is. All an author can do is ask questions and take notes for the next one.

My recently published fourth novel, Damaged Goods, ends much like the original version of Blackbelly. My characters have learned something about themselves and they don’t like what they see. There is a hopeful tenor that as intelligent people they will make changes for a better future. We leave them at the beginning of the next phase of their journey, allowing the literary reader a broad platform for contemplation. The casual reader will undoubtedly complain that I left loose ends and unresolved issues. Yes, I did, and intentionally so. The only true outcome is that Hershel and Silvie die.

Popular happy endings rob us of an important tool for contemplation. Instead of giving us the foundation for coping with difficult, real-life problems, they falsely solve them in our imagined worlds. They deepen our sense of discontent with real life and build false expectations. And there is an irony in my personal experience with publishing that should not be lost on us. I started out with high hopes, possibly even expectations, about my own success. In many ways, just like Annie Proulx’s Enis, I am a product of my own environment. I have found myself as disappointed with the absence of a happy ending in my writing career as readers of my third novel were when the main character was still faced with raising a profoundly handicapped child. Nothing has changed, for him or me. I am still faced with the same difficulties of writing and publishing. I’ve overcome issues, and uncovered new ones. I’ve improved in areas that have provided horrifying clarity on how deficient I am in others. As a literary artist, how could I have imagined any other scenario?

As much as I would love to have the lifestyle I first expected, as long as I continue to practice the craft, working toward mastering it, it’s the act of writing itself that matters. Readers will interpret the work as they will, publishers will accept or reject it, but I will continue to improve, continue to write the truth, even if it doesn’t have a happy ending.


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