Craft Capsule: The Short Short Story

Peter Kispert

This is no. 89 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was assigned that first short short story in college, which I still return to today: Amy Hempel’s knockout “Going,” a three-page piece from her collection Reasons to Live (Knopf, 1985). Sitting in my dorm room, students loud in the common area outside, I recall thinking I had missed some pages, then the unmistakable feeling that I couldn’t have possibly. That perfect last line at the very bottom of the page, punctuating a deeply satisfying story that defied conventional narrative. There are moments one experiences as a reader and writer that blow the world wide open in the best way, and reading this story was one of those; to anyone who would (pretend to) listen, I couldn’t stop talking about it.

Short short stories hold the obvious charge of compressing narrative in a rather extreme way, but what I initially loved about writing the form was the possibility to attend to reverberation. I noticed how a detail could echo out more apparent, and controlled, than in the longer works of fiction I had been drafting. The attention of the reader had become, in writing these brief pieces, an available consideration, if not yet a manageable one. I had assumed that short short prose was written quickly because it was so quick to read, but as so often happens, the sketches began to take longer, and serious effort, the more I learned.

In my debut story collection, I Know You Know Who I Am, published by Penguin Books last year, I wrote about queer characters trapped by (often elaborate) falsehoods. I featured several short short stories of just one or two pages to mirror the restriction that I felt the liars of my fiction not only possessed but frequently valued. These narrators and protagonists are constricted by their deceptions, and sometimes say little, or just enough, to their own ends. In this way, the shorter pieces in the book felt true, and rang out with echoes from the longer stories in the book: doublings that hinted at a presiding consciousness over the collection, which I vied to make available, if not explicit.

The short short story form is, speaking frankly, often slighted. Quick, confident work can render something more like scene, and leave the reader ambivalent. Reader investment can be hard to manage. A detail can become a redundant crutch. The best short pieces are closed systems in which elements of narrative are brought into careful relief. And resonate in brevity that masks a world of meaning and complexity beneath their small surfaces.

Several years after studying that first short short story, I attended a reading Hempel gave at the New York Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. At the time, I was working as an academic administrator for a gifted youth program (hosted by the same university) for children whose talents extended to running loudly down the hallways outside that auditorium as Hempel read beautifully from a longer story, “The Dog of the Marriage.” I remember thinking, as I sat rapt in that auditorium, how intricate the piece was. How each of its scenes delivered precise, accumulating thematic echoes. The spectacular ending. It called to mind the experience of first flipping that page—once, then again, for the words that couldn’t be there. Later, while walking from the campus gym, I passed by her near the main lawn. Of course, I couldn’t say one word.

 

Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), which was selected as a Best Book of the Year by Elle and a Best LGBTQ Book of the Year by O, the Oprah Magazine. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in GQ, Esquire, them, Playboy, and other publications. He is finishing work on his first novel.

Thumbnail: Jakob Andreasen

Craft Capsule: Rethinking Theory and Poetics

by

Khadijah Queen

1.11.21

This is no. 85 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I entered my English PhD program in the fall of 2016 knowing that I wanted to write criticism—I felt excited to dive into prose and formally shape what I had learned about reading and writing literature over the course of nearly two decades. I wasn’t as excited about theory. My experience reading Heidegger during my MFA involved extreme disagreement, to put it mildly—disagreement with both classmates and my professor, not to mention Heidegger himself. This time around, as I read Foucault and structuralist texts, revisited Derrida and Baudrillard and Plato, I realized that their theories didn’t quite align with mine; when I tried to apply their thinking, it rang false. I came to different conclusions around what was important in shaping meaning within a text. Their texts are foundational, but they didn’t seem capable of even conceiving of the work I wanted to analyze—particularly literature by Black women. I also felt that the books I was assigned to analyze in class, works by John Ashbery and Ralph Ellison, for example, could benefit from a fresher, more updated approach to their work—an approach that didn’t take their being classics for granted, but examined, with feminist, queer and critical race theories in mind, how they approached both content and form. 

The literary criticism class I took was aggressively white, misogynist, and dead. The language of analysis favored rather violent words like argue, interrogate, force, demand, impose, rupture. The more I read, the less I understood why literary analysis had to be so painful. I loved literature! Why couldn’t I love analysis as well? I wondered, too, why literary analysis couldn’t reflect the love that we as writers and thinkers and readers have for the work. Objectivity felt like a farce; the so-called rigor felt like busywork, fake and antiproductive. The language of literary criticism (and the field overall, frankly) is steeped in imperialist hierarchy and exclusivity. If I wanted something more inclusive, I needed to read into the present and future as well as the past with, to paraphrase Audre Lorde’s famous quote, all new tools. 

I found myself approaching more feeling-centered analyses, in direct opposition to objectivity, which didn’t stand up to scrutiny as a default praxis, in my opinion. I decided to compile and add to a new critical framework to approach the work I wanted to study. Upon the recommendation of my advisor, Dr. Tayana Hardin, I found kinship, brilliance, and wisdom in Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Revolutionary Mothering, and the interviews with Toni Cade Bambara, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Sonia Sanchez in Claudia Tate’s hard-to-find 1984 treasure Black Women Writers at Work. I revisited Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others. To help me articulate what I wanted to express about literary analysis and the field of literary theory, I drew inspiration and training from Edward Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, and—surprisingly—Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text. By foregrounding enjoyment, aesthetically and content-wise, I could access nineteenth-century authors like Herman Melville in ways that acknowledged underlying queerness and class concerns in the work, as well as my own perspective as a Black woman. 

After reading and hearing about the nightmarishly racist and damaging experiences of my peers who had undertaken doctoral study, I was determined to enjoy my experience. I had to fight to identify and create that enjoyment, but once I did, I cherished and nurtured it. If you find literary theory inadequate for your needs, too convoluted, too dead—you aren’t alone. You can imagine new thinking methods for yourself, and trust your responses to theories that may be established and entrenched, but have outlived an unquestioned existence. 

Asking questions of one’s own work is part of any professional writing practice; it follows that our thinking about how writing works—in terms of craft, theory, and the work we choose to canonize—also benefits from periodic reexamination. If a work cannot stand up to such questioning, it is not only valuable to articulate why, but to point to works that do hold up to scrutiny. When we search for alternatives to problematic texts—alternatives that past critics may have overlooked or even actively dismissed—we expand the reach, influence, and richness of literature overall. Instead of lamenting “the death of the canon,” we can celebrate the power of human creativity to evolve for the better. We can recognize that we’ve always had examples of that power—all we have to do is remain open to changing how, and where, we look for and analyze it.

 

Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including Anodyne (Tin House, 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. Holding a PhD in English from the University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.

Thumbnail: Jaredd Craig

Craft Capsule: Creating a Seasonal Writing Practice

by

Khadijah Queen

1.4.21

This is no. 84 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The pandemic, social uprisings, and a volatile political climate—superimposed upon family and work responsibilities, as well as health challenges—has made a regular writing practice impossible over the past ten months. Essays I pitched early in the year didn’t materialize, and only a handful of terribly sad poems arrived in usable condition. The one longform piece I did finish—a zuihitsu that appeared in Harper’s—was about the pandemic, written in April and May as I worried terribly about the health and safety of family members who were sick, and some who are still frontline workers. As a relatively prolific writer, with six published books since 2008 and four more currently in various stages of completion, I’m trying to see my current lack of time and energy to write as a side effect of all that’s happening in the world, but I don’t want to give up on a regular writing practice. To that end, I want to reenvision possibilities for that practice while taking into account the new reality. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to adapt to complicated circumstances; I’ve tried many different kinds of writing practices over the past two decades. My early years of writing consisted of recording lines on my lunch breaks and during lulls at my day jobs, and a few minutes in my car before entering the house in the evening. When my son got older, I somehow managed six years of a daily writing practice, usually a half hour at 5:30 AM with a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin. When I had an emergency appendectomy in 2015, my writing routine tanked as I recovered. Slowly I built back up to weekend flurries, and that lasted long enough for me to complete my fifth book. Then I wrote during intensely concentrated weeks and months for three and a half years of doctoral study, resulting in one book of poetry, the first draft of a memoir and a 270-page critical dissertation by the end of 2019. After all that writing, all I wanted was a break, so I took a couple of months. Then the pandemic happened, and the writing—didn’t. As a person who really needs an intentional writing routine, I felt at a loss. 

How, with mounting caregiving, health issues and work responsibilities, would I fit in regular writing time? I struggled for months, until I hit upon the one thing I hadn’t tried yet—seasons. Thinking in terms of seasons avoids the specificity (and requisite pressure) of calendar dates and days of the week. A seasonal practice could preserve writing goals more gently and flexibly. It might include thematic prompts—write about lightness and travel in summer, or perhaps reflect on freedom; focus on renewal and revisit the pastoral or the aubade in spring; delve into darkness, list modes of comfort, and maybe address grief in winter; autumn writing might spotlight transformation and beauty. Autumn is my favorite season. I love wearing knee boots and turtleneck sweaters and leather gloves, love the early October riot of color in the trees. You can of course define for yourself what each season means. Collect keywords over the year that can provide lasting inspiration. 

Let’s also pause here and define “writing goals.” For me that’s mostly meant books, and that hasn’t changed. But I’ve had to think smaller when it comes to productivity even as I continue to envision larger projects. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, maybe I’ll choose a single element to work on, such as order, or beginnings and endings. For a seasonal practice, choosing writing goals that can be adjusted as needed, and granting yourself the easement of non-specified time to work, seems more than reasonable right now.  

If you have an impending deadline in early February, maybe you’ll work only on the coldest days, when outside pursuits aren’t accessible. In summer, if you enjoy writing outside like I do, choose the sunniest days to work on a patio, or at a socially distant café. If you have a deadline that isn’t urgent, try softening it. Make one date—or date range!—for a first draft, another for draft two, another for draft three. After each draft, especially if it’s spring, buy yourself fresh flowers. Get as much done as you can, then reward yourself with an evening walk or morning drive, weather permitting. These are just a few basic suggestions, and you can adjust goals (and rewards) as you go along. I happen to like dark chocolate, so that’s my default treat. Make a list of yours and have it ready along with those seasonal keywords. I firmly believe we need as many reminders as possible that part of the work of writing is allowing for mental space, for infusions of beauty, for intentional nourishment—physical and otherwise. During these incredibly challenging times, I would wager that flexibility rules the day. Don’t abuse grace, of course; communicate clearly and continue to commit to due dates with integrity, but also make use of kindness—given, and received.

 

Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including Anodyne (Tin House, 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. Holding a PhD in English from the University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.

Thumbnail: Oliver Hihn

Craft Capsule: Writing Hot

by

Jordan Kisner

11.30.20

This is no. 80 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was a writing student, a professor once commented to me that my writing was a little intense. I don’t remember exactly what he said, and he wasn’t unkind, but it was something like “Your writing is always at eleven,” or “Your writing is always just so hot-blooded.” 

This comment elicited a mixed reaction at the time. I wasn’t proud. I didn’t sense that this was a compliment. He was giving me a note: Learn to tone it down sometimes. It felt respectful in its way, as if he were saying, “Okay, you can write like your hair is on fire, but make sure that’s not the only thing you can do.” Which is a good and teacherly thing to do, to discourage a student from leaning too heavily on the thing that feels good, to point out tics and habits. But as a young writer—a female writer, a queer writer—to hear an older male professor note that your work is unrelentingly intense can set off a clamor of questions, insecurities, suspicions, irritations, doubts, shames. This is maybe especially the case when the young writer is writing (as I was) about her own life and self, the source of this overmuchness. 

So I was a little embarrassed, concerned that “intense” was code for melodramatic, maudlin, tacky, purple. Childish. Overfeminine. Hysterical. But also, I wanted to be an intense writer. What was the point of writing if it wasn’t vivid and compelling, if it wasn’t transporting, if it didn’t make you rock back in your seat? I wrote then, and write now, I suppose, to express an intensity to the condition of being, an aliveness that feels full and bewildering. 

After that, though, I spent several years trying to write in a way that was hot-blooded, or full of feeling, but also somehow cool. Writing that was fierce and ardent while being unimpeachably in control of itself. I’ve tried a few ways to do this over the years. The first, maybe, we’ll call The Didion method: Bury feeling in a near-hysterical radiance of detail or texture when describing absolutely mundane things like sock brands; directly reference imminent emotional breakdown (or past breakdown) in prose so deadpan and commanding it seems like possibly a complex joke. Then there is what we might call The Nelson: Go straight to eleven, get poetic and hot about sex, love, heartbreak, pain, and then stave off accusations of mawkishness with theory and academically rigorous discussions of the sex. 

I love both these methods—and Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson—but lately I’ve been thinking about what you lose when you insist on cooling down your prose. Early this summer I had a conversation with Ocean Vuong on my Thresholds podcast during which he spoke about his reclamation of prose that some might dismiss as purple. “I am interested in using a style that a lot of men have deemed too prissy for them to use in the present,” he told me. “It feels like drag to me—to be extra! There’s too much glitter because we want to be blindingly present and seen.” He was speaking about the historical moment when emotional and beautiful writing was deemed feminine and therefore less worthy, and the way that as a [queer] man he might begin to excavate and subvert that. He reminded me, also, that you can find fun and even joy in just going ahead and writing at eleven, writing hot, writing like your hair is on fire—to be blindingly present and seen.  

 

Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardian, n+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas. 

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Craft Capsule: On Becoming a Pop Star, I Mean, a Poet

by

Chen Chen

11.2.20

This is no. 77 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1. I started to write poetry because of a secret that I had trouble sharing even with myself.

2. I continue to write poetry because, in the fifth grade, my short story about a pregnant witch living in Venice received the following peer critique: “You do know it takes nine months for the baby to grow inside the mom, not two?” I write poetry because I wish I’d responded, “You do know this is a witch baby???” 

3. I knew I would always be a poet after a barely audible “goodbye” in the doorway of a tenth-floor apartment. How there was no elevator and it was the middle of summer and I had to walk down and down those stairs. 

4. I wake up craving poetry because Sawako Nakayasu once said, “I work mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor nonfiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it.”1 

5. Poetry because French class, Russian class. Because Mandarin and English and Hokkien at home. Because English. Because I learn and learn, then forget so much Mandarin. Because I forgot all my Hokkien2 by age seven. Poetry because my first-year advisor in college, a professor of Russian Studies, asked me why all my three-page Tolstoy responses were so late. “Go on,” she said, “give us your narrative.” Poems because I loved how her prompt was a comment on the expected form of my response. Poet because I said, “Time management’s an issue,” which really meant I wanted every paper to be about everything and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character in Chungking Express and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro and was rewatching the film over and over and Googling stills. 

6. In eighth grade I began writing poetry outside of school assignments because I couldn’t keep imitating Robert Frost. I kept writing poetry because it seemed no one else with a secret like this looked like me.

7. Poet because I am a failed musician. Failed painter. Failed scientist obsessed with the moon.3 Failed gymnast, though once I was very, very good at cartwheeling. Poetry because my favorite scenes in Power Rangers were when, instead of running, they all backflipped and backflipped to where the fighting would take place.

8. The violence of the state. The silence of the h in French words, like homme. How violent, many homes. To ask, “Where is home?” as if it’s ever a simple question. To say, “I have a home” as if it’s an unremarkable statement. To say “I have” in Russian, you use a genitive construction that translates to the awkward English, “At me there is.” At home the adults asked, “Why did you get an A-?” in three different languages; there were no questions about whether I would ever start hating myself for what and whom I loved.   

9. I continue to read poetry because it seems every poem has a big secret at its core and I always want to know if it’s a big gay secret. Because Anna Akhmatova wrote, “Sunset in the ethereal waves: / I cannot tell if the day / is ending, or the world, or if / the secret of secrets is inside me again”4 and that seems pretty gay to me. Because Denise Levertov wrote, “Two girls discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry”5 and that sounds definitely gay. 

Because for years I had to settle for subtext and total projection. 

Because when I found Justin Chin’s Bite Hard in a college library, I glanced at just one poem then added the book to my stack to check out. Because I moved it to the middle of the stack, as if hiding it from both the sky and the ground. Because I was so moved to see both “Chinese New Year” and “ex-boyfriends” in one poem. Because was it hide or protect, and do I know the difference now? 

10. In English, I still have trouble with lie versus lay, which I always feel ashamed to admit, though I know English is a troublesome, troubling language that makes one want to lay down, to lie one’s body on its side till all one’s lies have tumbled out from one’s head and belly, and are lain out like one single shadow-body of a liar on the grass. 

11. I started off as a fiction writer. 

12.  I started as a reader of fantastical literature, a writer of both fantasy and science fiction. I started on the playground, telling friends that the jungle gym was a spaceship and we’d better hurry onboard before it took off: “Danny, you’re new to the cause, like me. Amanda, you’re the chosen one, our only hope.” I couldn’t get enough of the galactic, magic, any-kind-of-epic mission; the dueling-with-lasers-or-wands journey. I acted them out, wrote them down. 

Moments of poetry occurred in my stories when I stayed too long in the pocket dimension of an emotion; when I strayed too far into the magic of an image; when I mismanaged the time and leapt through the wormhole/plot-hole back to my implausible Venice and its witch baby. Poetry erupted when I couldn’t keep performing the narrative I was supposed to—that of a boy who liked Amandas, not Dannys. 

13. Looking back, dueling with lasers or wands sounds definitely phallic. 

14. I became a poet after my friends no longer wanted to play the games we made up. After they decided to only play games that would help them grow up. But growing up, for me, meant no longer just playing at, dancing around what I desired. And some days I wanted to grow up. And some days I wanted to die. 

15. I had to Google “coming out.” I had to Google “lie vs. lay.” I had to Google “gay and Asian” and found mainly what white men had to say about bodies like mine. I had to Google “gay Asian American literature.” I had to Google “queer.” I had to Google “fag.” I had to search for one sentence with “I” that eventually I could say out loud. 

16. Poems became my favorite way of telling stories because poems can tell a secret and talk about telling that secret and along the way become another secret.

17. Of course, all this can and does happen in other genres too. And when I write poems I’m drawing on aspects of fantastical fiction, autobiography, realist fiction, standup comedy, Tolstoy as much as Takeshi Kaneshiro, TV shows that got way too many seasons, and elements I don’t want to be able to name. In recent years, lots of prose poems and lyric essay–esque pieces have been showing their blocky faces to me. And very recently, a teensy spoonful of fiction. To call myself poet just makes the most sense, personally, creatively. Poet is where I feel freest to do this and that and wtf.

18. Some nights I just want to be an international sex symbol/pop star with Grammy-worthy vocal chops but still a ton of totally relatable habits, like eating bread. I envy the pop song that can end simply6 by repeating its chorus over and over, slowly fading out yet also burrowing itself into your ear. 

19. A barely audible “hey” in the collapsed year. The violence of state-sanctioned language. My own unbroken, snowy silences. To ask “Where is home?” as if there is one answer. To write home in a poem, like a poem could be a home—is this happy or sad? Strange yet not uncommon, to weep with and into joy. A form of power, a kind of language: to weep and disobey silence. My favorite silence is a space for thought, is spaciousness. A wormhole named Maybe. A parallel galaxy called Another Way. 

20. I continue to poet because now I have all these poet friends who’ll text me to ask what poems I’m writing and I have to start writing again so they’ll stop bugging me and I never want them to stop. 

I continue to poet because I’m not satisfied with the definitions behind, the narratives around “coming out,” “lie vs. lay,” “gay and Asian,” “gay Asian American literature,” “queer,” “fag.” I am always trying to say the everything I’ve lived, am living, but I never want to feel like I’ve said it all. 

For years I believed poetry was the only place where I could be all my selves, any self. I wrote, trying to answer the question, “How can a poem hold the myriad me’s and realms and loves and ferocities and shards and velocities—this whole multiverse that the life cannot, yet?” But can a poem do this? A book of poems? Is poetry a place? 

I am a poet because I ask poetry to do too much, and then it does it. 

 

ENDNOTES

1. From a working note that prefaced a set of Nakayasu’s poems published in How2
2. Except what my parents call each other. 
3. What joy! Poets! Not caring one bit how annoying we are when we go on and on about the moon!
4. “A land not mine,” translated by Jane Kenyon in
From Room to Room (Alice James Books, 1978). 
5. “The Secret” in
O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964). 
6. With the best pop music, this is no simple feat; the chorus has to be excellent.

 

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Publishing Triangle Thom Gunn Award. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and the 2015 and 2019 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence. 

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Craft Capsule: We Are All Translators

by

Jenny Bhatt

9.21.20

This is no. 73 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Literary translation is about being a close reader in the source language and a skilled writer in the target language. Of course, a language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, diction, and syntax. Languages contain entire cultures within them, entire ways of thinking and being, too. Those of us who translate other writers’ works do so because we want to dive deep and fully immerse ourselves in another world—to pay attention to more than the literal content and preserve the emotions, cultural nuances, and humor from the source to target language.  

This is not unlike how, as readers and writers, we seek to inhabit the worlds of fictional characters. We are all translators. The process of reading involves translating and interpreting the writer’s meaning and intent. The process of writing involves interpreting and giving voice to our own thoughts, which are guided by the things we have read, seen, heard, and experienced. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously wrote, “No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the nonverbal world and secondly, since every sign and every phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase.”

Due to the accretions of traditions and culture over centuries, it is not possible to seamlessly transpose two languages when translating. Similarly, due to our conditioning and subjectivity, it is not possible for two readers to read the same text entirely the same way. And it is not possible for two writers to create entirely the same story. A single piece of writing can have multiple acceptable readings and translations due to the flexibility of language, suppleness of imagination, and versatility of craft techniques. 

I was a writer before I became a translator. But I learned to appreciate linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural diversity more profoundly because of translation work. There are ten key practices of the discipline that pull me in each time:

1. Reading a work closely and repetitively to know it, sometimes even better than the original writer.

2. Listening to the tonalities, textures, rhythms, cadences, and diction in both languages to capture the writer’s voice as fully as possible.

3. Learning nuanced meanings of words and phrases in the target language by seeing them used with different specificity and significance in the source language.

4. Hunting for le mot juste that honors the complexities of both languages.

5. Discovering aesthetic reinterpretations of an original work to suit a new readership or audience linguistically, intellectually, and intuitively. 

6. Deliberating over the subtexts, cultural implications, and stylistic choices made by the original writer in the source language to recreate them in the target language without losing any literary merit.

7. Interrogating the politics of the writer, their text, and the source and target languages.

8. Meditating on the original writer’s themes to convey them with the proper intentions and emotions.

9. Deepening my understanding of the world, past and present, by transforming something foreign into something familiar.

10. Negotiating with what remains untranslatable.

With only one book of translation and a handful of shorter works completed, I am still developing these practices into technical proficiencies. However, as each translation project helps me hone and refine my skills, I am also leveraging these lessons more frequently in my reading and writing. Literary translation is, in the end, about actively co-creating a text with its original writer by adding more shape, context, nuance, and texture to it. Aren’t we all better off as readers if we learn to do the same? And aren’t we stronger writers when we draw from, build onto, and expand upon the world of literature that has come before us?

 

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.

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Craft Capsule: Doors vs. Corridors

by

Will Harris

8.17.20

This is no. 68 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

During the pandemic, with so many doors locked and shuttered, I lived in the corridors of my house. Thom Gunn describes the corridor as a “separate place between the thought and felt”—a place of uncertainty, where thoughts are unformed and feelings suppressed. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the few poems I managed to eke out were meandering, confused, and muffled.

As the architecture of my house extended into what I wrote, I started looking for poems about houses—either set indoors or using the “house” as a metaphor for the craft of poetry. I was trying to work out what kind of house poetry should be, and how much confusion that house might be able to contain. Soon enough I turned to Emily Dickinson: 

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

I always read this stanza with the ironic hint of the estate agent in her tone (“Superior—for Doors” is particularly funny), which seems to mock the idea you could ever really compare poetry to a house. Though it can feel like using a conceit means committing to it entirely, here the analogy is loosely held, self-consciously tenuous: “If you look to your right, you’ll see some windows. How many? Numerous. And if you look down there, yup, superior doors. You won’t get that with Prose.” The lightness of tone is part of the image she projects about poetry. 

But I read it with another, darker Dickinson poem in the back of my head, this one taking the house less as a metaphor for poetry than for the poet’s interior life:

One need not be a Chamber – to be haunted – 
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing 
Material Place

These lines suggest that when you forgo “Material Place” and build your house in “Possibility” you open yourself up to a particular danger: being haunted. Where the other poem began with a confident assertion of habitation—“I dwell”—here the speaker expresses horror at the idea of being dwelt in: “The Brain has Corridors.” The tone is repetitious, fevered, as though the speaker has been running up and down their internal corridors for hours. The effect of this is compounded by the use of the impersonal pronoun “One” and that definite article before “Brain”—not my brain but the brain—which suggests a traumatic detachment from the body; and “surpassing,” hanging at the end of the line makes it feel like those brain corridors are only getting bigger, longer, more labyrinthine. 

What’s missing from the second poem is a door of the kind Dickinson thought made poetry so superior—and without one, there’s no means of escape. Door and corridor may sound related but there’s no etymological link between them. The word door comes from the Old English duru and has always meant the same thing. Corridor is from the Italian corridoio, referring to a “running-place.” They represent two forms of possibility, each reliant on the other: The door is a portal, signifying insight, while the corridor is an in-between place, signifying uncertainty and confusion. 

An important way to understand the corridor might be via the horror film in which a shadowy figure always seems to be lurking at the other end, or the protagonist is trapped, running down an endless dark passage full of locked doors. Where the corridor represents terror, the door is freedom.

*

During lockdown I also turned to Bhanu Kapil’s book How to Wash a Heart and stopped at this section:

When what you perform 
At the threshold
Is at odds 
With what happens
When the front door is closed,
Then you are burning
The toast 
And you are letting the butter
Fester.

The front door is where the internal becomes public, even if briefly. But in order for an act to be meaningful, what you “perform” at the threshold must have some relationship to what happens behind it. Kapil’s lines make me think of those people in expensive houses who voted to privatize Britain’s National Health Service last December and then stepped out onto their doorsteps this spring to clap enthusiastically in support of nurses and carers. They make me think of what the threshold can conceal. The door only has meaning in relation to the corridor.

In early July, Bhanu and I did a reading together on Zoom. She began hers by lighting a small candle. She had some shallots next to her that she’d picked from Wittgenstein’s garden in Cambridge. The effect of these gestures wasn’t just to welcome the listener in. It was to create an open space into which the poem could emerge, where we could meet it. In trying to harmonize inner and outer, in letting out what festers, the distance between our two screens fell away.

After the reading, I thought back to Dickinson’s haunted house poem. It’s driven by a claustrophobic fear of the internal. Even the “External Ghost” or hidden “Assassin” (other threats that feature in Dickinson’s poem) are less terrifying than the prospect of “self encounter.” The self is a more ambiguous, volatile element. It could stay hidden forever: “Ourself, behind ourself concealed,” reads one line in the poem. You might think you’ve turned a corner, the front door in sight, only to find yourself lost down another passageway. 

But this is only a nightmare if you’re looking for a door. The beauty of Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart lies in its openness: “I want to be split / Into two parts / Or a thousand pieces.” The self that’s been split into a thousand pieces has nothing to lose. What’s not whole cannot be broken. Likewise, the poem doesn’t have to form a coherent whole—a portal to insight. It doesn’t have to involve finding the right door and standing outside of it proudly. It can also mean walking the corridors, afraid and confused.

 

Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Kilarov Zaneit

Craft Capsule: The Authority of Black Childhood

by

Joy Priest

7.6.20

This is no. 64 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Outside / its case, the mind is a beehive / fallen in the wild grasses / of an abandoned playground.

— from “Ars Poetica” by Joy Priest

It’s January 2, 2020. I’m traveling by car with a painter back to the artists’ compound that I’m staying at for a seven-month residency—a blip-stage between the MFA I finished in May 2019 and the PhD I will start in August 2020, a deliberate detour in the longer academic-poet road on which I find myself. About it, slightly in mourning. Alone in study, but wholeheartedly wanting to be closer to the people in this poetry thing.

The painter has found a way to subsist outside the university engine, working in the residency office, leading Zumba classes in the morning, painting in her studio at night. We’re talking about what academia does to artists, and, as we’re riding—from Wellfleet back to Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape, isolated at the end of the land—she says, “I really do feel like this chapter for me has been about unlearning.”

*

“Sometimes a moment of liberation is suspended by the tight grip of contradiction,” my friend Bernardo says, which captures this moment I have in the car with the painter, as well as the larger social context we’re sailing through like a tiny, mobile dot on the periphery of the U.S. map. I was liberated by the painter’s articulation but jealous that I hadn’t pulled it out of my subconscious first: unlearning. This had been my project for the first three months of the fellowship, but I’d thought I was wasting time because that project had not yet been named. Wasting time—a feeling shaped by the values of academia, a microcosm of our larger society and its ailing imagination, which burdens artists and writers with paradigms of productivity and surplus contributions to an inaccessible archive. I had been unlearning that.

*

Usually, when stuck in a vehicle, poetry-talk is boring at worst, frustrating at best. A Lyft driver or seatmate on a plane will inevitably ask, “When did you start writing poetry?” I find this frustrating because I haven’t yet crafted a creative approach to the question, but, more importantly, because such a question precludes the true answer.

*

I was a better poet when I was a child.

During the nineties in Kentucky, I was a child in solitude. There was a lack of artificial stimuli, my technology limited to a Sega Genesis that I spent more time blowing dust from than playing. My single mother was at work. The only other person in the house was my grandfather, a man in his seventies, who—I didn’t know at the time—was white. He defined our relationship with board games, puzzles, basketball, or boxing on a box TV set—the technology of his time. With his racist perspectives, he attempted to define my identity, which I didn’t yet understand, but felt, intuitively. 

In place of understanding, in place of the internet, I cultivated a practice in noticing. This is how I developed my approach to the page, before I had an awareness of “craft.” Poetry wasn’t what I did or what I started doing in a single moment from the past onward, it was the way I thought, who I had to be in my grandfather’s household, the way my mind worked to make sense of something.

There isn’t a single event that led to me becoming a poet. There isn’t a beginning to me writing poetry—there is only the beginner’s mind. This is what I find myself trying to get back to in my unlearning: the authority of a child’s imagination—what we possess before we are fully indoctrinated into adulthood and the accepted ways of making sense of things. 

*

I spent a lot of time outside of my grandfather’s house, in the backyard. My mind was a beehive. A chaotic, intuitive knot of thought-impulses that I needed to wrest apart, investigate, ruminate on, understand. I found myself watching the ants at ground-level, making a daily visit to the carpenter bees and their perfectly round holes in the rotting wood. 

When I was inside, I noticed the difference between my grandfather’s skin and mine. I knew my hair was more like the hair of darker people, who he was always saying bad things about. I knew that he didn’t want me to be like them, but I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand why, but I could notice. I kept a record of these little noticings as a substitute for clarity around what I was noticing. This conversation with myself as a Black child supplemented what I learned, or what adults sought to teach me (what a white child learns or is taught by white adults). This practice of noticing, or overhearing, was my seminal craft approach. 

*

Pulling away the scaffolding of craft “knowledge,” which I’ve accumulated as an adult poet, has led me to this—notebooks full of little noticings and meditations, overhearings and mishearings, notions that haunt me, lines that keep coming up. Writing a poem this way becomes less strained: that accumulation of craft had become a cheesecloth through which I struggled to write. 

These little noticings are the only way I wish to start a poem, or any conversation about craft. It is how I get closer to an understanding of what something or someone—my imaginary friend, my ancestors, my intuition, the flora and fauna—is trying to tell me, and I embrace this as a spiritual craft as well as a technical one. It is my resistance to the limits of the U.S. popular imagination, which condescends to the childhood imagination in tropes and shorthand, which does not know, can no longer remember, what the child knows.

 

Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.

Thumbnail: Dustin Humes

Craft Capsule: Notes From the Cutting Room Floor

by

Sejal Shah

5.18.20

This is no. 60 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

An essay collection consists of more than several pieces between two covers. There is always the ghost manuscript: what is cut, what has been moved, shaped, revised. In my first book, This Is One Way to Dance, there are notes at the end of the text—they are narrative, include sources for quoted material, acknowledge readers and editors, and are not numbered. This essay is another kind of commentary. Each piece rewrites what came before. In a way, I am still rewriting my book and its notes—notes to oneself, to one’s reader, you; they are a conversation. 

I wrote the first draft of this essay in longhand; later, I typed it. At some point, I began numbering my thoughts as a way of keeping track. When I cut and pasted different sections of the text, I preserved the original numbers to trace the movement of information. In doing so, I attempt to show my writing process in the tradition of visible mending.

1. In Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, there are footnotes. There are three epigraphs at the beginning, each on a different page (I love this, the space). Many of the footnotes lead to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. The chapters are short, sometimes only a page, and the footnotes don’t feel like an interruption, but pleasurable, recursive reading. There is an overture disavowing prologues. After the overture is a gorgeous prologue: “The memoir is at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists…manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.” If I had read In the Dreamhouse while working on my book, I might have written a different prologue. So many beats to a book, architecture, a tonal range, a key. All of these elements are questions that ask: Who is your audience? To whom and how do I wish to explain myself?1 

3. Are prologues and codas forms of notes? Is an introduction?

20. Here is a ghost note, something I cut from the introduction of my book: “I grew up seeing and later studying with Garth Fagan Dance. A noted choreographer, Fagan is associated with the Black Arts Movement. Fagan technique draws from ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance. I learned: You could invent your own language. You didn’t have to fit yourself into someone else’s forms. You didn’t have to explain yourself.”

4. I wanted my notes to go before the acknowledgments, to be part of the body of This Is One Way to Dance. In the published copy, my notes follow the acknowledgments, per the press’s house style, which is The Chicago Manual of Style. I realize I don’t believe in style manuals.

17. Somewhere in a book (an introduction) or outside it (an interview), you will have to explain why you wrote your book. At each stage of the publishing process you use a different form: a proposal, a press sheet, a preface, a prologue, an afterward, a Q&A. Sometimes I still stumble. From the preface of Sonja Livingston’s memoir, Ghostbread: “I wrote this book because the pain and power and beauty of childhood inspire me. I wrote it selfishly, to make sense of chaos. I wrote it unselfishly, to bear witness. For houses and gardens and children most of us never see.” 

Part of me wants to never explain anything. Part of me worries I have explained too much and still missed what is most important. The settling and unsettling of the self. Navigating, meditating, mediating. Not identity, but movement. A book, through architecture or by words, must instruct the reader in how to read it. Both are important.

2. For a book review, I remember finding out, after already reading far into the text, that a glossary and notes existed at the back. This changed my reading of the book. With no table of contents and no superscript numbers, how would you know to look for notes and a glossary? Do you flip to the back of the book to see what happens, in case you die before you finish reading,2 in order to know what something means?

4. (a) My book ends with the last sentence of the notes: “And there are many reasons to dance.” 

5. I am talking to my friend Prageeta Sharma, a poet, about notes. She mentions Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which begins with a section called “[A Note].” Blanchfield writes, “At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called ‘Correction.’ It sets right much—almost certainly not all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs to twenty-one pages. It may still be running.” This feels true to me about writing a book. Trying to right it, but in the end, it’s a series of notations and corrections, assertions and deletions. Traces.

6. The poet Rick Barot told me his second book had notes. Not his first and third. And not his fourth, the most recent, The Galleons. He says he is anti-notes now.3 I get that.

28. Are notes like parentheses? (Say it clearly or not at all.) 

7. The writer Michael Martone wrote a book called Michael Martone, and the chapters are written in the style of “Contributors’ Notes” and his contributors’ notes are stories. Contributors’ notes are stories we tell about ourselves; they are fictions. 

10. How are notes different than sources? I wrote notes for many of my essays, but not all of them. Notes were sometimes meant to be a place to credit sources, but they also became their own commentary. They sprawled. I credit writing prompts, editors, readers, and books. Some of that could have been folded into acknowledgments. I credited sources for titles and images. I wrote about the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage during the time and day of our ceremony and why this mattered to me. Actually, that was a kind of afterward.

13. I am writing for the kind of people who read notes. Those are my readers, my people. 

16. (a) In my book there is a coda titled “Voice Texting With My Mother.” I did not title it a coda. At some point I lost track of what needed a classification or title and what could exist as part of the invisible architecture of the book.

18. In her short “A Note from the Author,” Tyrese Coleman writes: “How to Sit [a Memoir in Stories and Essays] challenges the concept that a distinction needs to be made when the work is memory-based, because memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.” 

9. This winter I read Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays, Minor Feelings. I realized, when I reached the end of the book, I had been expecting notes. Her essays are muscular, theoretical, personal, and include history, cultural commentary, friendships, family, and literature—a whole essay on the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her cross-genre memoir, Dictée. It surprised me to learn I liked the lack of notes in her book. It meant theorists and sources were often foregrounded in the essays themselves. In Hong’s work I saw a different model—the essay as a “coalitional form.” A model that foregrounds voices and perspectives beyond the essayist’s own—one that she credits writers in the tradition of Hilton Als, James Baldwin, and Maggie Nelson. 

19. An introduction is like a toast at a wedding. No, I cannot satisfactorily address so many audiences—pivot—who is an introduction for? Why not just begin? Whose job is it to host?

27. I read the acknowledgments and the notes in most books. I want to know how a book came together.

22. Sometimes I skim the notes.

14. I have to be honest: I am intrigued by the idea of no notes. Maybe for the next book.

 

ENDNOTES

1. After I turned in my proofs last December, I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Hong writes about Myung Mi Kim, “the first poet who said I [Hong] didn’t need to sound like a white poet nor did I have to ‘translate’ my experiences so that they sounded accessible to a white audience…Illegibility was a political act.” Yes. I believe this.
2. What Harry does in
When Harry Met Sally.
3. [E-mail from Rick] “When I say I’m now ‘anti-notes,’ this mostly refers to my last book, 
The Galleons. There’s a lot of background research in the book, but I didn’t want a notes section to make the book seem like a ‘project’ book.  After all, my research for the book was driven by lyrical sentiment and opportunity—it wasn’t systematic…”

 

Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Judith Browne

Craft Capsule: Reading Backwards

by

Carter Sickels

3.30.20

This is no. 54 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA many years ago, a member of the workshop passed on a piece of advice he’d once heard: Read your manuscript backwards. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention (he was a bit of a know-it-all), but the advice stuck with me, clanging around in my brain, and I’ve since turned to it when line editing and hammering out bigger structural issues.

Reading backwards doesn’t mean you read from right to left, or from the bottom of the page to the top. What I do is print out the manuscript, start with the top of the last page, and work my way back to page one. This exercise works differently for me depending on where I am in the process. When I have a final draft, reading backwards helps with line editing. When I read backwards, I use my brain in a different way, and it slows down my reading. I focus on the words, not the story, and spot repetition and unnecessary words.

Reading backwards has also helped me resolve structural issues and build narrative tension. I was struggling with a short story I’d been trying to write for months. It wasn’t working but I couldn’t figure out why. I let the manuscript sit and cool, like a hot potato; when I returned to it after a few more months, I tried the backwards reading trick. The ending of the story worked, but how did I get there? There were holes in the plot, and too much exposition that glossed over important information. The first-person narrator, so focused on his lover, never stepped up or revealed any insight into his own interior. I hadn’t written any scenes with him alone or with other characters. These backwards-reading discoveries helped me restructure and revise the story; I cut exposition, wrote new scenes, and rearranged the scenes I already had to amplify the tension. 

When I’m stuck I’ll try looking at the story from a fresh angle—whether reading backwards, changing the font, hanging pages on the wall or spreading them out on the floor. I read the entire manuscript aloud. I retype. These are all ways to trick myself into approaching the novel from a different place. Sometimes it works. And when it does, it’s like seeing the project with a new pair of eyes—catching what I missed, or discovering a hidden door that leads me to the true story. 

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Amie LeeKing

Craft Capsule: Consulting the Tarot

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

2.24.20

This is no. 50 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was raised in a house of reason where there was no God, no witchcraft, no science fiction, no astrology, and certainly no tarot. These things were for the weak, and we were not weak. But I’ll never forget when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dawned on me why Tom prayed so much: He was just trying to get through the day. I was weak, I knew. To make it from dawn to dusk, I too needed all the help I could get. 

Tarot came into my life through the friend, the friend I lost, and it is the thing she gave me more than any other for which I offer her my supreme gratitude. To be fair, I acquired the deck itself—The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans—much earlier; I bought it on impulse late one night on the gushing recommendation of someone I’d met at a party. You are not supposed to buy a tarot deck for yourself, I learned later, perhaps because without the blessing of someone you love to imbue the paper and images with power, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

I cannot now separate tarot from the friend, and I cannot separate tarot from writing. She and I became friends during the period when the card of the moon, which according to my deck “encompasses the idea of the Wild Unknown,” was my near constant companion. She taught me how to do the simplest spread—past, present, future—and led me to Michelle Tea’s book on tarot, life, and writing, Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards. Past, present, future; beginning, middle, and end. My friend and I began to draw a single card to set the mood for our writing sessions together, held at a ramshackle coworking space in the neighborhood where we lived.

What I like about drawing a single card before writing is that it allows me a single place to put my feelings about that day’s words—all my fear that the words won’t come and all my fear that they will. Drawing a single card, the mother of pentacles, for instance, which offers an image of a deer and her fawn, gives me a door at which to knock when I can’t see any of that paragraph’s architecture. She excels in the home, the card says: Perhaps I’ll turn my scent diffuser on, or I’ll have a character bake a scone, or I’ll think about why some person in my book moved around so much from place to place. It’s not so much a place to start writing but rather a way to give the day’s writing a particular mood or scent or inflection. Draw the death card, which in The Wild Unknown simply means that “something in your life needs to end…something is trying to find closure,” and the idea of ending and closure will start bonking around in my brain until it hits something in my writing that needed either to finish or to begin. Each card is like a prompt I suppose, except instead of being wacky and contrived, it feels like a prompt I gave myself from the darkest recesses of my unconscious, a shortcut to the place I was trying to go. 

I drew a card every day while writing The Third Rainbow Girl, which explores a mysterious act of violence in Pocahontas County, West Virginia in 1980, the Appalachian community where it transpired, and my own time in the place as a national service worker. For nearly the entirety of the fifteen months when I was most actively engaged, sentence by sentence, in writing the book, I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night. Then every morning I went to the deck and chose a card. I am not exaggerating when I say that I chose the moon card almost every time, no matter how well I shuffled. The card’s overall theme: vivid dreams and fears. I read the card’s description so many times I can recite it by heart:

[The moon] is the shadow realm, the place where dreams, fears, and mysteries are born. Much darkness can linger here, and if you aren’t careful, this can lead to periods of anxiety and self-doubt almost as if you’ve lost your way in a house of mirrors. Many great artists have roamed this inner landscape. It’s where imagination and creativity drift freely upon the midnight air.

That about summed it up. Fuck the fucking moon, I began to say aloud each time I drew it. Fuck this fucking book.

But the moon would not be fucked and neither would the book I was writing; they would not go away until they went away and maybe not even then. Eventually, I finished the book and I lost the friend. I’m drawing new cards these days—a lot of pentacles, the suit of home and hearth. I hope I drift less and dig more in the next book, but of course, it’s not up to me. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Altınay Dinç

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: The End

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.30.19

This is no. 45 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When do you stop revising? How do you know when a poem is done? The short answer is that I consider a poem done once I have committed it to memory. I learned this from a revision exercise I borrowed from Danez Smith who, in turn, borrowed it from Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. The exercise begins: Open to a blank notebook page or Word document and rewrite the poem you are working on from memory. Following this initial rewrite, Van Clief-Stefanon’s exercise contains a series of prompts intended to clarify what is important to the poem, what it needs more of, and what is extraneous. Even without the prompts, rewriting from memory can, on its own, provide such information; what you remember will usually turn out to be what is essential to the poem, whether that is an image, a narrative, a line-length, a sound. If you remember the whole thing, it stands to reason that the whole thing is essential. 

Poets often analogize the writing of poems to other artistic practices: sculpture, pottery, the making of boats. Embedded in each of these analogies is a different perspective on when to let a poem go. Has a particular affecting figure been etched from the raw material of language? Is the poem both beautiful and functional? Has it carried you—or will it carry your reader—somewhere new? But I tend to think of writing poetry as being less like art making and more like a biological process, like life making. Poetry is a place where I develop, a skin I make in order to make myself. Once I have outgrown it, I can examine the poem from all angles. I can learn new things about it and about who I became inside of it. I can polish its exterior, but there is no way for me to get back inside.

This account of poetry can seem like a rather dismal proposition, especially for those of us who give readings, who return again and again to poems that have already taken shape. It sounds like I am saying that the poem and I were briefly alive together and then, once it has been put down, the poem is no longer living. A reading, in this account, is nothing more than a display of dead language. But here is how I think about it: In the third episode of BBC’s Life Story, there is a vignette about hermit crabs’ elaborate, communal ritual of changing shells. Once a hermit crab has outgrown its shell, it does not simply discard it and move on to the next. Rather, it waits for a critical mass of its fellow travelers to gather and arrange themselves into a line by size order, so that they can transfer shells, one to another. The biggest crab moves into an empty shell on the beach, the next in line takes the big crab’s newly abandoned shell, and on and on down the line until everyone’s soft interior, hopefully, has new room in which to grow. 

What I like about using memorization as a diagnostic is that it says nothing about the “quality” of a poem, so it discourages thinking about revision as “fixing.” Instead, what determines whether a poem is finished is the relationship between us, the poem and I. This perspective on poetry helps me to grow, helps me remember that I can be done with something and that it can be imperfect—it can be a shell with a hole in it—but that it might be precisely what someone else is looking for. 

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Thumbnail: Maximilian Paradiz 

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Oblique Strategies

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.15.19

This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.

The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.

When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”) 

The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that’s exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: “Unlikable” Characters

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.25.18

This is no. 36 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

As writers we all have specific goals when creating our fictional worlds. Some writers value plot, others value humor. Some prioritize beautiful sentences or abstract ruminations about the state of society. When I write, my goal is to construct characters full of depth and complexity. I don’t need readers to agree with my characters, but to understand the why behind their actions. 

When I created Haemi Lee, the female protagonist of my novel, If You Leave Me, I focused on developing this complexity so that my readers would know her intimately. At the beginning of the novel, Haemi is a sixteen-year-old refugee during the Korean War, and by the last pages she is a thirty-two-year-old mother in 1967. By covering a wide swath of time, I want readers to watch Haemi survive, mature, fall in love, make mistakes, become a mother, and grapple with the difficulties of life in post-war South Korea. I want Haemi to feel as real as possible, which meant that she would have to be imperfect, flawed. As I wrote, I considered how she would behave as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and lover. I considered her temperament. Growing up without means in a conservative time, there would be strict social and gendered guidelines placed on Haemi. I wanted her to bristle against those rules. The problem, I discovered, was that an imperfect female protagonist is often labeled unlikable. 

The first time I heard Haemi described this way was in workshop. I was surprised. It was a gendered remark, and I hadn’t been expecting it at the graduate school level. When did we ever question the likability of male characters? Complicating matters further, when did we question the likability of female characters when they were written by male writers? I simmered in silence as my classmates discussed Haemi Lee. (As the student being workshopped, I wasn’t allowed to speak.) Jisoo and Kyunghwan, my two male protagonists, were not always likable and yet the focus remained on Haemi. Why did she need to be likable when her male counterparts were not? Why were we concerned with the likability of women anyway? Who among us are always likable?

This conversation led me to consider the trope of the “unlikable female character.” I prickled at the phrase, the silly term that asserts female characters are valued for their docility and amiability. I decided that I couldn’t let other readers’ apprehensions about Haemi’s likability soften her. Haemi pushes against the social expectations of her time by not hiding her feelings, by wanting an education, and by speaking freely of the difficulties of motherhood. Haemi is giving and selfish, kind and callous. She is concerned with the welfare of everyone around her while also deeply concerned with her own happiness. If I succeeded in my writing goals, my readers will not always like Haemi, but they will feel deeply for her. They will want to guide her, argue with her, and root for her. 

When writing, our concern should not be a character’s likability, regardless of gender. As the writer, our focus should be on making the character feel true. When my students hesitate at revealing their character’s flaws, I encourage them to dig into the messy, ugly parts. Flaws are what make fiction interesting and realistic. Though we may not love our flaws, they are crucial for characters. When a student worries about the likability of their female characters in particular, this is what I tell them: We need more unlikable female protagonists to deepen the way we consider women in our society. Literature teaches us. Literature makes us question and broaden our understanding of the world. If “unlikable female” means a realistic, imperfect, complex woman, then we need to write as many of these characters as we can.

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Multiple Narrators

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.18.18

This is no. 35 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Before I became a writer, I was first an insatiable reader. From Curious George to Little Women to The Lover, I can mark the trajectory of my development as a writer against my reading choices. A particularly memorable turning point happened when I was eight years old. While at the library, I came across a chapter book called Morning Girl. The cover showed a young girl with dark brown hair and bare shoulders swimming in the open sea, and I picked it up because of the striking image. As I began reading, I fell for Morning Girl’s lush, bright voice as she described her fondness for waking early and searching the beach for seashells. I felt keenly for Morning Girl when her parents favored her younger brother. I had a younger sister, and I understood the mean yellow streaks of jealousy. 

The shock came when I turned to the next chapter. At the top of the page was the name Star Boy. This chapter, I realized as I read, was narrated not by the titular girl, but her younger brother. I remember the confusion I felt and how quickly it was replaced with giddy wonder. Up until that moment, I hadn’t known that a book could have multiple narrators. Morning Girl tore writing open for me: For the first time I recognized that writers were in control of how the story was told and that the possibilities were endless.

I’ve gravitated toward novels with multiple narrators ever since, so when I started writing If You Leave Me, I knew I wanted to try this format. However, I needed to make sure having multiple perspectives would serve my goals. My central character was Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee in Busan at the start of my novel. Did I really need the voices of her best friend Kyunghwan, her suitor Jisoo, her younger brother Hyunki, and eventually, her eldest daughter Solee? Thankfully, yes. After some examination, I realized that having multiple narrators allowed me to show the secrets characters were hiding not only from each other, but also from themselves. By alternating these voices, I was able to investigate how one event could be interpreted in various ways, depending on the character’s temperament and circumstance. For example, Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo all hungered in Busan during the Korean War, and yet their resulting traumas are each unique due to differences in class, gender, and family expectations. 

If You Leave Me spans sixteen years, from 1951 to 1967. Multiple perspectives also gave me the best means of capturing the landscape of Korea during this tumultuous time. Through my five alternating narrators, I was able to write about an ROK soldier in the Korean War; a college student in Seoul in the years afterward, when dictators ruled the nation; a factory worker forced to meet with a matchmaker; a mother yearning to escape her rural community; and a young daughter growing up in post-war Korea, when the vestiges of violence took on new forms.   

When my students say they want to write a novel with multiple perspectives, I’m secretly elated. However, I always remind them of the potential pitfalls. More voices may make your story feel fragmented, which can lead to readers preferring one character over another. In order to avoid this, it’s important to value each perspective equally. If you as the writer dislike one of your characters, the reader will feel that animosity in your words. The solution? Know your characters deeply on and off the page—know their desires, tics, fears, sexual preferences, favorite foods, secret dreams, worst habits. Develop them until you know them as intimately as a friend, in all of their complexities. In the end, I hope having multiple narrators in If You Leave Me enriches the reading experience. Haemi Lee’s voice is the center, but the four characters around her provide a lens not only into the larger history of Korea, but into Haemi’s complex, difficult temperament.

In my final Craft Capsule next week, I will talk more about Haemi and the necessity of “unlikable” female protagonists. 

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Tao Te Ching

by

Simon Van Booy

6.13.18

This is no. 30 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The biggest little book in China is called the Tao Te Ching. One of its most famous sayings is Wu Wei, 無爲, literally, doing nothing or non-doing.

Whereas some people have used this to imbue passivity or laziness with spiritual significance, I think it has something to do with wholeheartedness.

The child at play does not stop to ask herself, “Am I playing?” She is not aware of time, nor constrained by it. Imagine you get so deep into writing, that you forget you are writing. The story just flows from you, through you, and out into the world.

How can you get to that place? Where the act of writing is so much of part of you, it’s effortless. A process of instinct rather than thought—

The first step is to give up the idea you will ever fail, or ever succeed. Prepare to serve only the needs of the story. Then move your hands, breathe.  

Have faith.  

Laugh.  

Cry.

Sleep.

Dream.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Metaphor

by

Sandra Beasley

4.4.17

This is the seventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

A friend of mine, a poet, was trying to figure out what bothered him about a draft of my poem. “A poem should be like a wall,” he told me. “You build it brick by brick.” He pointed out that, in his opinion, key bricks were missing.

I didn’t share his vision, but I admired that he had one. I’ve come to value developing a metaphorical model for your genre. A model can help you identify your goals, name your struggles, and proceed toward success.

Perhaps you follow the lead of “stanza,” the Italian word for “room.” You come to think of each poem as a house. How do the rooms differ in function, size, and occupancy? Where does your central drama take place? What comprises your roof?

Perhaps you come to think of your essay as a harp. Each researched fact glimmers, an available string in a golden frame. But you can’t play them all at once. Only in choosing which notes to highlight, and how to sequence them, can you create music.

Personally, I always think of memoir as an egg. I’m protective of the inspiring memory, smooth and undisturbed in its surface. But I have to be prepared to break the egg. I have to make the idea messy before I can make a satisfying meal.

Perhaps your novel is a shark. Perhaps your villanelle is a waltz. Perhaps your short story is a baseball game. Don’t adopt my metaphors. Find one of your own.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Egg in My Pocket

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.21.17

This is the first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

As a project for school, my thirteen-year-old son, Will, spent several days carrying an egg around. His task was simple: Keep the egg from breaking.

The experiment was intended to show what it’s like to have a baby, to approximate the feeling of constant vigilance that never leaves you once you have a child. Ultimately, of course, it was supposed to make hormone-addled adolescents think twice before doing something stupid.

As a mother of three, though, I wasn’t convinced. A baby is nothing like an egg, unless it’s an egg that cries, wets itself, sucks on you constantly, and wakes you up four times a night. But as my son described the feeling of carrying his egg—he named it “Pablito”—I realized that it did remind me of something. “It’s always there,” Will said. “You can’t forget it or take it for granted. You feel protective and anxious all the time.”

Carrying an egg around is like writing a novel. No matter what else you’re doing, the fact of the novel is in the back of your mind. If you go too long without attending to it, you get nervous. It is always with you, a weight solid and yet fragile, in constant danger of being crushed. Like the egg, the weight of a book-in-progress is both literal and metaphorical. Within the accumulating pages, as inside the delicate eggshell, are the raw ingredients for something greater. Keeping it intact requires patience, time, attention—and, most of all, commitment. This concept applies to any stage of the process: The egg is both the idea that you nurture long before you begin to write, and the writing itself, which must be fostered and sustained.

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Tolstoy’s Short Chapters

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.28.17

This is the sixth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Anna Karenina is more than eight hundred pages long. So why does it feel shorter than many three-hundred-page books?

As I read this novel recently I noticed that Tolstoy cuts his long scenes into short chapters, usually no more than two or three pages. This makes sense, considering it was published in serial installments, from 1873 to 1877, in the Russian Messenger. Tolstoy often ends a chapter in a moment of suspense—a door opens, a provocative question is asked, a contentious group sits down to dinner, characters who’ve been circling each other finally begin to talk—which propels the reader forward into the next chapter.

The psychological effect of these short chapters is that this huge book is easy to get through. Reading in bed late at night (as I tend to do), I’m tempted to put it down, but then I riffle ahead to find that the next chapter is only three pages long. And I really want to find out who’s behind that door.

Three pages. I can do that—as a reader and as a writer. 

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Visual Prompts

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.21.17

This is the fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

For many writers, visual and tactile stimulation is an important component of the creative process. William Faulkner used to map his stories on the wall in his study. If you visit Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi, you can still see the notes for his 1954 novel, A Fable, in his precise, small handwriting. Edwidge Danticat has said that she has an evolving bulletin board in her workspace where she tacks up collages of photos of Haiti and images from magazines.

I, too, have a new board for each book I write. When I’m starting work on a novel I gather scraps like a magpie. My Orphan Train board was covered with postcards from the New York Tenement Museum depicting the interior of an immigrant Irish family’s cramped apartment, a black and white photograph of a young couple at Coney Island in the 1920s, a map of the village of Kinvara in Ireland. I hung a hand-carved Celtic cross on a green ribbon and a stone shamrock on a red ribbon from Galway; a Native American dreamcatcher from Maine; a silver train pin from a New York Train Riders’ reunion in Little Falls, Minnesota. I tacked up note cards: “Food in Ireland 1900s” was one (“wheatmeal, hung beef, tongue, barley”). Another listed ideas I wanted to explore (“links between misplaced and abandoned people with little in common”).

For A Piece of the World, I included a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World; photos I took, inside and out, of Christina’s home in Cushing, Maine; some Emily Dickinson poems (“This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me”); and postcards of other paintings Wyeth did at the Olson house, including Wind From the Sea and Christina Olson (both of which make appearances in my novel). I photocopied sketches Wyeth made for his portrait of Christina. I even included a small handful of grasses I’d plucked from the field Christina sat in.

I find these idea boards fun to assemble and inspiring as I work. My mantra, always: Find inspiration where you can.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

An outline of A Fable on the wall of William Faulkner’s study at Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi.

(Credit: Joe Bonomo)

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Beware the Indeterminate “It”

by

Sandra Beasley

4.11.17

This is the eighth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Beware the indeterminate “it,” I often say, when fine-tuning a draft.

But that word is so convenient. “It” carries the football from the previous sentence. Whatever “it” you just defined, you’re sticking with it for another ten yards, right?

Except that you’re fumbling the play. Too often, relying on “it” dissipates your language’s energy. Circle every “it” that leads off a sentence. Revising to avoid these instances will force your verbs into action, and clarify your intent.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes an indeterminate “it” will remain, one that has earned its place on the field. The pronoun can be strategic—signifying not just gender neutrality but an absence of comprehension or known name, a fumbling toward meaning, the building of suspense.

In the right hands, “It” can be a potent force. Just ask Stephen King.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: A Form of Salvation

by

Simon Van Booy

6.20.18

This is no. 31 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When you start thinking creatively, it’s like releasing a live animal—a new species of mischief that cannot be contained to just one area of your life. Creativity is not like a machine that can be switched on and off. And therefore it does not end when you stand up from your desk after a few solid hours of work.

Ever wondered why you feel the urge to roller skate through a shopping mall listening to Abba? Leave strange notes on the doorsteps of strangers? Eat apples standing up in the bath, naked, with the window open?

Now you know. Creativity is a form of salvation.  

If we could limit creativity to just one area of our lives—how would we ever manage to convince ourselves to climb back in the rocket, and blast off again and again and again, to those distant galaxies of unwritten narrative? 

And stop worrying about getting published. You write because you’re obsessed with telling a story in a way that no one else can. Focus on that. Only that. Everything else will take care of itself.  And, please, for my sake—don’t ever think buying a plastic skeleton from a medical supply store then holding it up to the window when people walk past is a waste of time.  

Being a writer means opening your whole life to creativity. It is a commitment to overpowering fear with imagination and compassion for yourself, as well as others. As a person who writes you’ll be a better mother, son, best friend, aunt, cousin, coach, or bank teller. Because learning to write is learning to see, and striving to see beyond is perhaps the only hope for our species.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Voice

by

Simon Van Booy

6.27.18

This is no. 32 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Would you agree that for the past forty years, automobiles have been evolving in such a way as they now all look alike? As though created from the same, basic mold? One of the most important things you can do for yourself as a writer is to find your voice. I don’t mean tone, which is another way of referring to how writing makes you feel. The tone of this piece for Poets & Writers is very different from the tone of my latest novel, or the tone of the philosophy books I edited several years ago.  

I’m talking about voice. My voice can be squeezed into a 19th century corset for one novel, or spewed from the bowels of a werewolf for another, but it’s essentially the same underneath.  

When I realized after writing a couple of early novels, that I hadn’t found my voice—that there was even something called a voice—I was devastated.  

Had my years of labor all been for nothing? If my goal was to be published then yes. A total waste of time. But if my aim was to grow as an artist and as a person, then I had reason to be proud of myself.  

Anyway, to spare you the same kind of pain, I’ve devised an exercise that will hopefully lead you closer than you’ve ever been to the fiery core of your own, utterly unique, narrative style.  

1. Pick five books (or poems) you love, and five books (or poems) you dislike intensely, for a total of ten works.

2. Read the first page (or poem) several times, then rewrite it in such a way that you think, in your opinion, it’s better. Sometimes this means changing the order of words, or cutting them, or adding to them, or changing the tone completely. Don’t worry about offending anyone, no one knows you’re doing this except me, and I won’t tell.

3. This exercise, if done properly should take a fair amount of time. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll start to get a sense of who you are as a writer, and how your writing voice differs from the voices of others. Rewriting sections from writers you love is perhaps the most fruitful, because instead of emulating—you’re forced to be different. We each love certain writers for our own reasons. Rewriting their work will illuminate the subtle differences between your voice and theirs. 

4. Once you find your voice, it will almost certainly evolve over time, the way we evolve naturally as artists. Look at the early work of Van Gogh, compared to his later work. Dubliners vs. Finnegans Wake.  Early Beethoven sounds a little like Hayden—while late Beethoven is characteristic of the sound we associate with him. The core will always remain. Your voice is a gift to the world, so find it, nurture it, develop it, work it like a machine, give it the freedom of a vine—but above all, share it. 

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Research

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.11.18

This is no. 34 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I began writing If You Leave Me, my forthcoming debut novel, I settled upon the premise quickly. Inspired by my family’s history, I knew I would open with Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee living in Busan during the Korean War. Though the story was rooted in truth, I was eager to let my imagination take over. Scenes came to me fully formed: Haemi on a hill overlooking the makeshift shacks of her village; Hyunki, her sickly younger brother, walking to the market alone; a network of aunties whispering about the front lines, fear prickling their voices raw. Through Haemi and the characters around her, I wanted to explore how years of devastating loss and violence could warp a person’s psyche, body, and view of the world.

How would I write about 1950s South Korea, when I was born in Queens, New York, in 1987? I wanted to represent this period accurately, so I began intensive research. In the library, I took dutiful notes about that critical day on June 25, 1950, when the North invaded the South. I learned about the political climate that had catalyzed the start of the war. I jotted down the different weapons each army used, the timeline of events. As I gathered these facts, I started to see a change in my writing. I was more specific, surer about the world that Haemi, Hyunki, her best friend Kyunghwan, and her suitor Jisoo were surviving in. 

In my graduate school workshops, I was pleased to find that my research created a strong foundation for my novel. The dates and facts were clear. However, a new problem arose. In my critiques I saw the same question asked in various forms: What does this refugee village look like? What is Haemi wearing? What materials are the makeshift shacks made of? Though my readers were not confused about the circumstances of the war, I wasn’t yet conveying what it felt like to live in this tumultuous time. 

On my next trip to Korea I interviewed my maternal grandmother, who had been a teenage refugee during the Korean War. With a notebook in my lap, I asked her when she fled her home, what she ate on the journey south, what she wore, where she lived, and more. Back in America, I returned to the library. This time, I read ROK soldiers’ memoirs so that I could develop Jisoo’s and Kyunghwan’s experiences. I pored over photographs of civilian refugees, of the markets that formed during the years-long stalemate, and of the shacks constructed from corrugated tin, cardboard, and plywood. My sentences became richer, laden with sensory details. I lingered over descriptions of food, clothing, the buildings in Seoul, the fields in the rural outskirts of South Korea. In workshop I was able to anticipate my classmates’ questions about the physical world. The novel was coming together, I thought. I had finally done enough.  

Or had I? The more I wrote, the more I became curious about Haemi’s psychology. I wanted to explore the way violence, gender expectations, poverty, and family circumstances shaped Haemi’s life in the years after the armistice. In order to do so, I needed to develop her interiority so that readers would empathize with her. I returned to the library, eager to read memoirs written by Korean women who had come of age in the 1950s. However, I found none. Where were all the women? The answer both frustrated and fueled me. They had not been valued during this period of history, and thus, their voices had not been preserved. 

What happens when there is no research to guide your way? Determined to continue, I got creative. I read studies about the history of social and gender hierarchy in South Korea; I watched movies and documentaries; I examined the linguistics of trauma and depression in the Korean language; I returned to my grandmother for her opinions on mental health. I also turned to fiction, reading novels about women living through conflict in other countries. Finally, I considered what would happen to me if I had experienced the trauma of Japanese colonialism, Korean independence, and war before the age of twenty. I imagined how my frustrations would manifest in the domestic sphere. I empathized until I knew Haemi completely.   

Over my journey of writing If You Leave Me, my research took many forms. From reference texts and history books to films and novels to my grandmother’s own experiences, the process was more diverse than I’d expected. My favorite part though, was ending where I began—with my writerly impulse to imagine, to create characters, to tell a story.    

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Research

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.11.18

This is no. 34 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I began writing If You Leave Me, my forthcoming debut novel, I settled upon the premise quickly. Inspired by my family’s history, I knew I would open with Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee living in Busan during the Korean War. Though the story was rooted in truth, I was eager to let my imagination take over. Scenes came to me fully formed: Haemi on a hill overlooking the makeshift shacks of her village; Hyunki, her sickly younger brother, walking to the market alone; a network of aunties whispering about the front lines, fear prickling their voices raw. Through Haemi and the characters around her, I wanted to explore how years of devastating loss and violence could warp a person’s psyche, body, and view of the world.

How would I write about 1950s South Korea, when I was born in Queens, New York, in 1987? I wanted to represent this period accurately, so I began intensive research. In the library, I took dutiful notes about that critical day on June 25, 1950, when the North invaded the South. I learned about the political climate that had catalyzed the start of the war. I jotted down the different weapons each army used, the timeline of events. As I gathered these facts, I started to see a change in my writing. I was more specific, surer about the world that Haemi, Hyunki, her best friend Kyunghwan, and her suitor Jisoo were surviving in. 

In my graduate school workshops, I was pleased to find that my research created a strong foundation for my novel. The dates and facts were clear. However, a new problem arose. In my critiques I saw the same question asked in various forms: What does this refugee village look like? What is Haemi wearing? What materials are the makeshift shacks made of? Though my readers were not confused about the circumstances of the war, I wasn’t yet conveying what it felt like to live in this tumultuous time. 

On my next trip to Korea I interviewed my maternal grandmother, who had been a teenage refugee during the Korean War. With a notebook in my lap, I asked her when she fled her home, what she ate on the journey south, what she wore, where she lived, and more. Back in America, I returned to the library. This time, I read ROK soldiers’ memoirs so that I could develop Jisoo’s and Kyunghwan’s experiences. I pored over photographs of civilian refugees, of the markets that formed during the years-long stalemate, and of the shacks constructed from corrugated tin, cardboard, and plywood. My sentences became richer, laden with sensory details. I lingered over descriptions of food, clothing, the buildings in Seoul, the fields in the rural outskirts of South Korea. In workshop I was able to anticipate my classmates’ questions about the physical world. The novel was coming together, I thought. I had finally done enough.  

Or had I? The more I wrote, the more I became curious about Haemi’s psychology. I wanted to explore the way violence, gender expectations, poverty, and family circumstances shaped Haemi’s life in the years after the armistice. In order to do so, I needed to develop her interiority so that readers would empathize with her. I returned to the library, eager to read memoirs written by Korean women who had come of age in the 1950s. However, I found none. Where were all the women? The answer both frustrated and fueled me. They had not been valued during this period of history, and thus, their voices had not been preserved. 

What happens when there is no research to guide your way? Determined to continue, I got creative. I read studies about the history of social and gender hierarchy in South Korea; I watched movies and documentaries; I examined the linguistics of trauma and depression in the Korean language; I returned to my grandmother for her opinions on mental health. I also turned to fiction, reading novels about women living through conflict in other countries. Finally, I considered what would happen to me if I had experienced the trauma of Japanese colonialism, Korean independence, and war before the age of twenty. I imagined how my frustrations would manifest in the domestic sphere. I empathized until I knew Haemi completely.   

Over my journey of writing If You Leave Me, my research took many forms. From reference texts and history books to films and novels to my grandmother’s own experiences, the process was more diverse than I’d expected. My favorite part though, was ending where I began—with my writerly impulse to imagine, to create characters, to tell a story.    

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

The Darkness Within: In Praise of the Unlikable

by

Steve Almond

12.13.17

Last summer I wrote a review of Who Is Rich? (Random House, 2017) by Matthew Klam. The novel is narrated by a man named Rich Fischer, a self-loathing husband and father who conducts an anguished and antic affair with an equally unhappy infidel.

Shortly after I turned in my review, I heard the book discussed on the radio. The segment opened on an odd note. “Rich is a hard man to like,” the host began. I sat back in astonishment—the notion hadn’t even occurred to me. But a quick survey of prepublication reviews revealed that this was, in fact, the consensus view: Rich was whiny, selfish, unsympathetic.

These complaints, it should be noted, weren’t generally directed at his adultery, about which he is so racked with guilt that he attempts to kill himself twice. No, his central offense is that he articulates the miseries of monogamy and parenthood with such tender precision. He’s hard to like, in other words, because he makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

And yet when I survey the books that inspired me to quit journalism and take up fiction two decades ago, every single one features protagonists who are “hard to like” in the exact same way: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Airships by Barry Hannah, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

My predilection for destructive and discomfiting characters arose, in part, from my years as an investigative reporter, which I spent tracking con men and corrupt cops, shady developers and sexual deviants.

In my reporting, the central danger was detection by the authorities. In literature, the danger was self-revelation. The question was why people messed up their lives and, when they got going, the lives of those around them.

This question began with the characters, but it extended to the reader. Spending time with folks who were morally flawed and ruthlessly candid, who had thrown all manner of caution to the wind, was thrilling specifically because they enacted my own repressed urges. I didn’t just want to rubberneck their misdeeds. I felt implicated by them.

As I turned all this over in my mind, I began to realize why I’d found the scolding critiques of Rich Fischer so vexing. They weren’t just sanctimonious or shallow. There was something cowardly in them, a mind-set that positioned fiction as a place we go to have our virtues affirmed rather than having the confused and wounded parts of ourselves exposed.

***

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few years on this question of likability, as well as an adjoining anxiety: how important it is that characters be “relatable.” One of the flash points of this debate emerged from the critical reception of Claire Messud’s fierce novel The Woman Upstairs (Knopf, 2013), whose narrator, Nora Eldridge, spends much of the book railing against the forms of feminine duty she has internalized.

When an interviewer for Publishers Weekly observed that she “wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora” because of her “unbearably grim” outlook, Messud’s reply lit up the Internet. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” she demanded. Messud went on to cite a dozen famously repellent male characters who are rarely, if ever, subjected to such a litmus test. “If you’re reading to find friends,” she concluded, “you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’”

Messud was hailed for confronting what we might call the fallacy of likability, and the ways in which female authors are expected to cleave to this notion.

One of the most fascinating reactions came from novelist Jennifer Weiner. In an essay published by Slate she noted, rightly, that many readers come to fiction hoping to spend time with characters they admire. And she argued that the creators and consumers of such characters shouldn’t be looked down upon.

But Weiner’s defense of likability was undermined by her own resentments. Likable, she insisted, was a code word “employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks.” Her response was to tell Messud that her work sucked.

“There’s no payoff,” Weiner wrote of The Woman Upstairs, “just a 300-page immersion in the acid bath of Nora’s misery, her jealousy, her lack of compassion, her towering sense of entitlement.” Weiner felt Messud had willfully crafted a character to whom no one can relate.

The irony was that Nora elicited such vehement reactions precisely because readers related to her too much. They felt implicated, both by her impotent rage and the despair lurking beneath her grievances. “Above all, in my anger, I was sad,” she confesses. “Isn’t that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying—valiantly, fruitlessly—to eradicate.”

What I’m getting at here is that the debate about likability ultimately boils down to sensibility. Nora Eldridge’s view of the world, and her place in it, is too dark and intense for some readers. When they pick up a book, they want to be transported to a sunnier precinct, or a more exotic one, with a friendlier companion. They seek a refuge from the anguish of their inner life.

There’s no right or wrong in any of this. It’s a function of what sort of experience we’re after as writers and readers.

***

There’s another unspoken factor in all this: the market. If you’re an unpublished writer seeking representation, and you submit a manuscript with an abrasive protagonist, chances are you’re going to hear from agents concerned about likability. The whole reason Lolita was originally published in France, and nearly three years later in the United States, is that Humbert Humbert’s panting hebephilia was abhorrent to American editors.

Cultural and literary standards evolve, of course. But financial anxieties are forever. Which is why agents and editors remain wary of characters they fear readers will find off-putting. In a world where reading books is itself a marginal activity, one performed in defiance of the perpetual racket of digital distraction, why risk losing sales?

I spent weeks, for instance, arguing with my editor about the section of my memoir, Candyfreak (Algonquin Books, 2004), in which I developed the irrational conviction that I had testicular cancer during a barnstorming tour of U.S. candy bar factories. My editor argued, quite sensibly, that this disclosure made me a lot less likable as a guide. What’s more, it dampened the giddy mood that prevailed elsewhere and guaranteed the book would never be adopted in school curriculums.

The reason I insisted on its inclusion was that I saw my self-diagnosis as an integral part of the story, a symptom of the depression that had reignited my childhood obsession with candy.

I don’t mean to imply that highlighting the repellent traits of a character is some shortcut to literary depth. That’s as foolish as the notion that scenes of graphic violence or sex will magically yield drama.

Some years ago I began a novel about a shameless right-wing demagogue who decides to run for president (I know). The response I got from readers was that my leading man, while fun to hang out with for a little while, was ultimately oppressive. It wasn’t that my leading man had the manners and conscience of a shark but that he had no subtext, no dreams or fears animating his outsize appetites. Nor did he hew to the path of so many unlikable protagonists, the Emma Woodhouses and Ebenezer Scrooges, who are forced to confront their flaws and wind up redeemed in the bargain. My man was self-regarding without being self-aware.

Such a figure might plausibly thrive in the world of politics (again, I know). On the page, he quickly degenerated into caricature. 

***

But what about those characters who refuse to evolve or offer up much in the way of vulnerability? I am thinking here of our most famous villains: Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden. These figures, though not technically protagonists, dominate their given worlds.

They do so because they’re willing to violate moral norms and thus wind up driving the action of the story. They’re also fearless in apprehending the nature of the world around them, even if they deny us access to their own inner lives. Most vitally, they embrace the transgressive aspects of their selfhood, the ones we anxiously inhibit so as to appear more likable.

Consider Melville’s Captain Ahab as he stands upon the deck of the Pequod, roaring out the true nature of his mission. “If man will strike, strike through the mask. How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me,” he tells his crew. “I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and…I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Tell us how you really feel, Ahab.

The reason readers like me gravitate toward characters like Ahab is that, not very deep down, we know ourselves to be equally charged with wrath, besieged by private doubts and grudges, and thus enthralled by those who dare to speak truth in a world overrun by personal forms of marketing.

The rise of Internet culture has only magnified the allure of such figures. Most social media platforms revolve around an elaborate effort to generate “likes” by presenting an airbrushed version of our lives and values. What grants trolls their magnetic power—whether they lurk online or in the White House—is the unacknowledged force of our own suppression.

Moral perfection is admirable, after all, but deadly dull in a literary character. I think here about the figure of Jesus Christ as we encounter him in the New Testament. He says and does all the right things. But he only comes alive as a character in those rarely cited verses when his revolutionary ire and human needs come into view.

The most shocking moment in the Gospels takes place a few days before his appointed end. On the way to Jerusalem, he stops in Bethany, where a woman lovingly anoints his head with perfumed oil.

The act angers some of those who witness it, including Judas Iscariot, who asks Jesus whether the expensive oil could have been put to better use if it was sold and the money given to the poor. “The poor you will always have,” Jesus replies. “But you will not always have me.”

It’s a moment of sensual indulgence and unvarnished pride that’s astonishingly out of character for Jesus. By my reckoning, he’s never more likable. 

***

I don’t expect this piece will do much to settle the question of likability. It’s one of those disputes into which writers will continue to pour their opinions and anxieties.

And that’s probably a good thing, if you think about it. Because we happen to be living in a historical moment ruled by unlikable characters. Take a look at our political and popular culture, at the angry voices emanating from our screens, at the seething violence in our discourse.

As writers, it can feel pointless to engage in literary endeavors when the world around us feels so combustible, so fragile. But I would argue that it has never been more important for writers to engage with the questions literature seeks to answer.

If we are to reclaim our country from the dark forces determined to divide us, to sow discord and cynicism among us, we must first seek to understand the darkness within ourselves. That means turning to stories in which we encounter characters actively engaged in the struggle—and sometimes failing—to contain their unbearable thoughts and feelings.

The urgent question isn’t whether we like these folks. It’s whether, in coming to know them, we come to know ourselves any better.

 

Steve Almond’s book Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country is forthcoming in April from Red Hen Press.

His central offense is that he articulates the miseries of monogamy and parenthood with such tender precision. He’s hard to like, in other words, because he makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

Polite Need Not Apply: A Q&A With Mary Gaitskill

by

Joseph Master

12.11.17

Mary Gaitskill doesn’t believe literature should have to be polite. Do a Google image search of the author and you’ll see a succession of penetrating gazes—pale, wide eyes you just can’t fend off. Gaitskill’s writing, which has earned a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a PEN/Faulkner nomination, has a similar effect. The author whose most recent book is a collection of personal and critical essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon, 2017), is best known for her fiction, having previously published three novels and three story collections. Gaitskill has been labeled “The Jane Austen of sickos,” a moniker that supposes her fiction—famous (and in some circles probably infamous) for its enjambment of sexual brutality with sensuous lyricism—is debauched. While her prose can at times appear as icy as her stare, waves of empathy, soul, and B-12 shots of humor course beneath the surface. From her first book of short stories, Bad Behavior (Simon & Schuster, 1988), which became widely known for “Secretary,” a story of sadomasochism and desire that was made into the 2002 indie film starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, to her most recent novel, The Mare (Pantheon, 2015)Gaitskill’s fiction has always been ferocious, but not for the sake of brutality. The fireworks are in the vulnerability of human connection, not just the spectacle of sex. When she talks about her craft, Gaitskill’s eyes brighten and she smiles often. If you are fortunate enough to speak to her about Chekhov or Nabokov, as I was, you feel thankful for her clairvoyant insights, for her mastery of opinion—for her energizing confidence in what makes a good writer.

In an interview you once said, “Literature is not a realm of politeness.” What’s your style in the classroom? Are you the conditionally supportive teacher or the unconditionally supportive teacher?
I’m sure most people would call me conditionally supportive. I don’t really know what I’m like. I mean, I can’t see myself from the outside. People have described me as blunt. I’m not always, actually. I mean, I’m not always as blunt as I—

As you want to be?
as I might be if I were actually being blunt [laughs]. I’m blunt if I think there is no other way to be. I think my teaching style has also somewhat changed. And again, it’s hard to see myself from the outside. But I think I’ve learned how to be critical in a better way than I used to. In the past, I was so uncomfortable in a position of authority. I had never had a job before where I had any authority at all. My generation is notoriously uncomfortable with authority. That’s why we are terrible parents. I mean, I’m not speaking personally. I am not a parent. But it’s a thing—my generation makes awful parents. Because they’re so busy trying to make their children happy and be a friend to their children and make everything in their life work out that they end up just smothering them, basically.

All unconditional! I guess psychologists would say you need one unconditional and one conditionally loving parent, right? There’s a balance.
I had a similar problem teaching. But, it didn’t show up in the same way. I was just so uncomfortable having to be the authority. And I knew that I had to be. So the things I would say would come out much more forcefully than I actually meant them. It translated into harshness. And it was actually coming from a place of real discomfort and insecurity. But I don’t think the students knew that. Maybe some of them did, some of the time.

I remember a former writing professor, Chuck Kinder, always driving home the principle of Chekhov’s smoking gun. This West Virginian drawl saying, “If there’s a gun, there had better be gun smoke.” What’s your smoking gun principle? Do you have a rule?
I don’t, actually. I think there are very few rules that can’t be broken. I think there is only one that is very difficult to break. I have seen it broken, but not very often. It’s that something has to change. From the beginning of the story to the end, something needs to be different. The only time I’ve ever seen it successfully broken was a Grace Paley story called “A Conversation With My Father.” But as a general rule, something has to change. There has to be some source of tension. And even that can be subtle. Even in the language itself. You know the Flannery O’Conner story “Everything That Rises Must Converge”?

Yes!
The blood pressure. It’s mentioned in, I think, the first or second sentence. The blood pressure is the number-one thing.

Earlier I asked you which short stories of yours I should read, and you immediately responded with “Secretary.” You said you considered it one of your best. So I started there with Bad Behavior. That was your first book. You were thirty-three when it was released. How long did it take you?
About six years.

A first book is like a band’s first record, right? You have your whole life up to that point to write that first collection of words. And you release it. And then people tell you who you are. They say, “Oh, you’re the masochism writer,” or  “you’re the next Dylan.” It can be kind of crushing. Then you have, what? A year? Five years? You have such a shorter time frame to follow it up. What was the difference between writing Bad Behavior and your second book, the 1991 novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin?
Well, there were a couple of things. I had actually started the novel before I sold the story collection. I had written maybe thirty-five pages and stopped, because I just didn’t know what to do. And the reason I picked it up again was because I was in a publisher’s office, and they didn’t know if they wanted to buy the collection or not. And the guy said, “So, do you have a novel?” And I said, “Yeah. Yeah I do.” And he said, “What’s it about?”

And I just started talking about these girls. And they were like, “Oh, ok.” And they wanted to do a two-book deal: the short story collection and the novel.

Well, that certainly worked out.
It didn’t have to do with the process, though. It was much more complicated. Because when I was writing Bad Behavior I could always say to myself, “It doesn’t have to be good. No one is going to see it.” That actually made it possible for me to go forward. I said that to myself literally every time I sat down, repeatedly. “It doesn’t have to be any good. No one will see it.”

Like The Basement Tapes. Dylan and his band didn’t mean for anyone to hear them. They were just hanging out in Woodstock, recording music they never thought would see daylight.
It’s a very helpful thing to say to yourself. And I didn’t have any expectation of how it would be received, either. Whereas with Two Girls I could not say that. I knew people were going to see it. And actually, for the first time, I was self-conscious about how it would be seen. And I felt a desire, an obligation almost, to please certain readers. Because I knew who had liked Bad Behavior and I knew why they liked it. So I was uncomfortable about disappointing those people, perhaps. I tried as hard as I could to put those feelings aside. But it was very difficult.

That had to be jarring.
It was.

Had you ever thought about your limitations as a writer when you were working on that first collection?
Oh, yeah! I thought I was terrible.

You thought you were terrible?
That was the other thing about Two Girls that was different. It was that I had never tried to write a novel before. Short stories are—some people say they are harder, but I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because it’s just a smaller space to deal with. I mean, some are quite capacious. It’s not that they are easy. I don’t find them easy. But a novel? It’s like I was a cat that had been in a house all of its life, and all of a sudden a door was flung open. And I was flooded with sights and smells and was crazily running over in one direction wondering what was going on there and getting distracted. And then running in the other direction. It was a total feeling of freedom. But I didn’t know what to do with it. It was very hard to figure out what I wanted to pay attention to and how to structure it. And stories are way more manageable that way.

Being flooded with sights and smells. Yes. So appropriate, because your fourth novel, Veronica (Pantheon, 2005), is flooded with sights and smells and senses that overlap and eclipse each other. Let’s start with the origin myth that opens the book —the dark folktale told to the narrator, Alison, by her mother. Alison revisits this story for the rest of her life. It haunts her. At one point she admits that she felt it more than she heard it. At what phase in the process of writing this novel did you write the beginning—this story that keeps coming back?
I added that later.

Was there a Lebowski’s Rug moment, when you arrived at this origin story and added it, and it really brought the whole room together?
Honestly, it was because someone who read a draft of the book said it reminded them of the tale The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf. It’s Hans Christian Anderson. And I said, “Really, what’s that?” And I went and looked it up. And I agreed. I thought it was perfect.

Those old tales are soul crushing and beautiful, but also scary as hell. It’s scary being a kid.
Right. Because everybody’s bigger than you. And they are weird! [Laughs.]

You’ve mentioned a soul-quality in writing. I’ve read interviews where you break it down to the molecular level. I guess it’s a voice quality, right? This energy. How did you find that? And how in the world do you teach that?
I don’t know. How did I arrive at the voice quality?

Yes. This energy in your writing, the music of it. The way you describe these grotesquely beautiful things. It’s your voice. What all MFA students want so badly to get, I think, is their own version of that.
I used to tell students, “I want to see it how only you can see it. I don’t want to see it how a hundred people would see it.” I was basically telling them not to rely on shared perception. There isn’t anything wrong with shared perception. It can be a beautiful thing, and I think music relies partly on shared perception, or it assumes a certain kind of shared perception, rightly or wrongly. Because you feel, in a group of people, that you are hearing it the same, although you’re probably not. You feel that commonality. Slang. Expressions. There are certain things that make shared perception beautiful. You can’t have a conversation without it. But when you’re reading a story, it’s a different thing. It’s much more intimate. It’s much more like…you’re wanting to get the pith of what that person feels and sees. It’s more like that.

Music plays a huge, great part in Veronica. What’s your soundtrack?
You mean, what music do I listen to?

Yes. When you’re writing, or on the train with your headphones. What are you listening to?
I’m really sorry to say this, but I don’t have those things. I don’t like that. I don’t want to walk around listening to music and not listening to what’s happening. It’s bad enough that I’m glued to my phone. I’m not going to go there with music. But right now I’m also at a disadvantage, because I don’t have a good sound system. So I’ve been listening to music on my computer and I just don’t like it as much. Like, when I had a good sound system, I used to put on music and just walk around, drinking a glass of wine, just listening to it.

In your writing, you slip in and out of time seamlessly. In Veronica, you’re like a time bandit. We’re talking a really adult version of Madeleine L’Engle. The book spans decades of Alison’s life—from her teenage years in Paris in the 70s to New York in the 80s, where she meets Veronica, and she’s narrating when she’s in her fifties. There are certain sentences that stretch between two different moments. Considering the amount of time the book covers, there has to be a level of trust—in your own ability to do that, but also that the reader will trust this time machine you’re driving. Was that hard to do? Did you question that?
Yeah, I did question if it was a good idea or not. I was afraid it would be too arty, or just too hard to follow. Yeah, I wondered about that.

For me, that kind of movement through time made everything move faster. It made my heart beat faster, especially as the book went on.
Well, thank you. I did it, for one thing, well, I felt like I had to blend the times because the book is focused on something in the past, and the narrator is in the present. But also because I was at an age where I felt like time was blending for me, personally, in a way that it hadn’t before.

How so?
I think when you get to a certain age, and for some people it may be in their forties or for other people it may be in their sixties—I’m not sure—but I think for everybody it happens that your relationship with time changes and you see the future or the present, and it becomes like a palimpsest for the past, and you just kind of blur things. And it’s not necessarily in a confused way, but sometimes it is. Like, you can talk to very old people and they’ll think something happened. Recently, my mother thought that her mother gave her the book, Born Free by Elsa the Lioness. And that’s not possible. My mother wasn’t alive when that book was written. But in her mind it absolutely must have been that way. She’s blending something. I think that starts to happen in middle age. Not in the sense that you’re confused, but that your connections of when things happen in time, spatially, are just different.

So, let’s talk about sexuality. Never have I read fiction regarding sexuality that made me feel quite the same way—that way I felt when reading Veronica.
When you say “that way,” what do you mean?

As a male, reading about sex—this beautifully painful account of health, illness, death, with all of this sometimes brutal sex—I felt my own mortality. I became very aware of my heartbeat and my breathing. Thinking about all the cigarettes I had smoked a long time ago. It made me anxious. It hurt. And I saw all of this through the eyes of Alison, a model, who is absolutely nothing like me. At all. I related to it. Absolutely, in the moment, related to it. And it’s hard enough for me to be in the moment, ever.
Me, too.

At one point Alison says she sees how men can look at pictures and feel things. She’s trying to see the world through the eyes of the other, and reading the book as a man, I was doing the same thing backwards, through her eyes. Have you found that the reaction to your writing has been starkly different along gender lines? That men have a different response? Like, me, how I am getting super uncomfortable talking about it with you right now?
Oh, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all. I don’t really know. Someone wrote an article about how horrible she thinks men are when they write about me. And it’s true that some male critics have been unusually nasty. But it’s also true that once, a long time ago, for my own curiosity, I went through all the reviews and divided them into male and female. And then I added up where the most negative ones came from. They came from women. So, I think women are more likely to relate to my writing in a superficial way, because most of my characters are women. I don’t really know if there is a predictable breakdown.

I thought my last book, The Mare, would not be read by men at all. The Mare is all female characters with specifically female issues. And there isn’t a whole lot of sex in it. Even the horses are female. But men read it and liked it. I mean I don’t know how many. I can’t really say for sure. I am thinking, though, that some men seem to view it with horror that seems gendered.

Recently, Veronica was republished in England and my editor decided to have a personal friend of hers write an introduction. I can’t remember the guy’s name. He’s an English writer whom she says is very respected, but I’ve never heard of him. And he spent a lot of time—and he was a fan, apparently—talking about the horrifying, degrading imagery that I use about men. In one of these horrifying examples, Alison was thinking about a guy, and I hope you don’t mind me using this language. She’s having sex with somebody, and she can feel his asshole tingling on the end of his spine. In the context of writing, that does not seem especially degrading or at all degrading to me. If you were saying that to someone, it might be different, depending on who they are and how you said it. But the idea of somebody thinking that, in private, in a fictional novel, I don’t understand. I scratched him doing the introduction and I did it myself. And I wrote back to [my editor] and said, “Has this guy ever read Philip Roth or Saul Bellow? What makes him so shocked by this?”

In conversation it might be a shocking remark, but not in a novel, in somebody’s head. And that’s what I mean by politeness not applying to literature. There’s a different standard than at a party. I really did wonder if he would have reacted that way if it was a male writing about a female he was having sex with.

Well, I think there is maybe a double standard when it comes to writing about sex. Men might get more of a pass, right? And I’ve never read anything about sex that was written quite like that.
Thanks. Except I would normally disagree with that. I think women get more of a pass. For sexist reasons, actually, sexuality is considered the purview of women. It’s like women’s area of authority. Women can write really dirty things without being criticized as much. Are you aware of Nicholson Baker’s book The Fermata?

No.
It’s a pretty dirty book. It’s a fantasy book. Have you read him at all?

No, I haven’t. I guess I should.
Beautiful writer. Line by line, probably the best writer in America, in my opinion.  Line by line, though, not by the whole content, necessarily. Well, The Fermata was one of his lighter books. He’s better known for Vox, because Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky read it together. Or for The Mezzanine. But The Fermata is about somebody who can stop time, and he uses it to take women’s clothes off…

Oh! Yes…he masturbates on their clothes?
He masturbates, but he doesn’t do it on their clothes. My, that book got outraged reviews. People said it was violent, degrading, disgusting. It was none of those things. It was a totally harmless fantasy. And I think if a woman had written it, it would have been different. Have you ever read Natsuo Kirino?

No. You know what? Not only have I probably not read any of the books you’re mentioning, I’m probably going to get a big complex about it. 
No. Don’t worry. I’ve hardly read anything. But Natsuo Kirino, one of her books that I really like, in one of the final scenes is this guy who has been stalking her and finally gets her tied up and he’s planning to torture her and he’s cutting her and he’s raping her. And she actually responds to him. But she’s actually tricking him. She ends up killing him. And he almost likes it. She cuts his throat and he dies slowly. I don’t remember the words, but it’s almost like he says, “I love you” in the end. If a man wrote that scene, he’d be considered the equivalent of a murderer. He wouldn’t be able to show his face in public.

Well, I guess I’ll have to read that now…
It’s true, though. I think women are allowed to be much more outrageous sexually, in general, than men. What some of the male critics, who have been nasty, are responding to—and this one guy said that reading me was like being sodomized by an icy dildo—

Um, does he know what that’s like?
[Laughs] Oh, I suspect he doesn’t. Because if he did, he would never make such a ridiculous comparison. But, in a way, it’s a huge compliment, because I have never read anyone in my life who would make me feel even remotely like that. So he must think I’m some kind of badass.

What I think makes people like that uncomfortable isn’t the level of sexual detail. I think it makes them feel emotionally uncomfortable. Because they feel emotionally exposed. Lots of people write about sex very graphically.

Switching gears, you really describe the beauty and sometimes ugliness of voices. The sound of them. And you do it visually, too. Alison will describe how something looks as a sound. Are you the kind of person who can be enthralled, or just totally turned off, by the timbre of someone’s voice?
Oh yeah. I’m really, really voice responsive. When I was very young, at home, in the other room doing homework, some guy came to see one of my sisters. And I was so revolted by his voice, I could hardly bare to listen to it. And when he left I walked in the room and I said, “Who was that?” And I said, “He’s a horrible person.”

It turned out he was, actually. He had sexually molested somebody and later he made obscene calls to one of my sisters. I’m not saying I can do that all the time, but I am very voice reactive. And I can even fall in love with somebody just by the sound of their voice. I mean, I may not stay in love with them [laughs]. And it might not mean they’re a wonderful person. Although, interestingly, when I first heard my husband’s voice, I didn’t like it. But that changed. I’m not completely wedded to that impression. But it does mean something.

I read you once say that Debbie from “Secretary” was no older than eighteen. And I thought, “Wow. What an erudite, literate eighteen-year-old.”
Really, you think?

Oh yeah. That first-person narrator in that third-person universe? Totally.
It’s pretty simple, I think.

But what we can get to here is the idea of the reliability of a narrator. In Veronica, you use the first-person narrator, and you nailed the trust—the narrator was so reliable. How do you confer that trust? What advice do you give students to find that place?
I’ve always found the concept of the reliable versus the unreliable narrator peculiar, because I think all narrators are unreliable [laughs]. People tell you what they saw or what they think or what they felt, and they may be telling you the truth, but it might not at all be what someone else saw happen. Like, people always call Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator. He’s very reliable. He’ll tell you exactly what he thought and felt in a lot of detail. And you also get a very clear sense of what Lolita is experiencing through him. But I don’t think of it as unreliable. I think more in terms, and this sounds really corny, I think more in terms of, “Do I care what this narrator thinks and feels? Can he engage me?”

With students, the problem I see most often is that I don’t get a sense of what their narrators care about. What they want. What matters to them. That’s a bigger issue to me than whether or not they’re reliable in some way.

Would you agree if I were to say that you are hard on your readers?
I don’t know [laughs]. It probably depends on the reader. I’m sure some people read my stuff and think it’s fun. And some people might think it’s boring.

Your writing? Boring?

Sure. I think Bad Behavior is boring, quite frankly. I had to read it for an audio book. I was just like, “Oh…”

For some readers it is hard. I guess I do know that for a fact. I’ve seen complaints. I’ve seen people talk about how hard it is. So it must be. But it’s not something I set out to do.

I guess we have a theme here, of conditional versus unconditional. Reading your work, I found it very hard on the reader. Not in a pejorative sense. I found it absolutely conditionally loving. It gives me everything I need, but as you once said, there is a thin line between absolute excitement and humiliation—and you thrive on that line.
I said that?

Yep.
Where?

I think in New York Times Magazine, actually.
Wow. I never read that one.

You’re tackling incredibly emotionally intense, sexually intense, illness, health, and death…
It’s true. That line.

It’s so interesting that you bring that up because a student of mine just workshopped a story; the ending is a scene in which the male character is really ashamed of his body and his girlfriend is really beautiful and she decides she wants him to pose naked for pictures. And it’s a potentially very powerful scene because it can potentially be a very horrible experience. And he’s just so uncomfortable. It would be very much a thin line. And it could be one of those things where it could be great or just really, really awful. Or both.

I’d say great and awful at the same time would be the goal, right?
Oh, yeah. For a lot of people, yeah. Because it’s the whole picture.

I think that’s what I would say about your writing. 
Well, thank you.

 

Joseph Master is the executive director of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His freelance work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, television commercials, and on tiny screens across the nation. He studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mary Gaitskill, whose most recent book is the essay collection Somebody With a Little Hammer

(Credit: Derek Shapton)

Where the Past Begins: An Interview With Amy Tan

by

Alison Singh Gee

10.13.17

This past summer, while speaking on a panel at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, Amy Tan surprised an audience full of aspiring authors with an admission: “There are times when I think to myself, ‘I’ve lost it completely,’” she said. “‘That’s it. It’s over. I will never write again.’” She shook her head and added, “It took me eight years to write the last novel. It seems like with every novel, it gets harder and harder.”

Tan, the author of six novels, including The Joy Luck Club (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989), as well as two children’s books, struggled with writing her last novel, The Valley of Amazement, first exploring one storyline for about five years, ditching much of it, and basically starting over, finally completing the book some three years later. Published by Ecco in 2013, the novel followed the odyssey of a young biracial courtesan as she searches for her American madam during the early twentieth-century in China.

As she grappled with her voice on the page, her public voice—on Facebook, notably—was becoming pointedly more personal and urgent, poking at topics that ranged from the whimsical (her beloved terriers and her latest sculptural haircuts) to the controversial (politicians she despises). In post after post on social media, Tan examined and confronted the world around her and the world within her. It was during this period that she began e-mailing with her editor, Daniel Halpern at Ecco, who she started working with on The Valley of Amazement, a little more than a decade after Faith Sales, her longtime editor at Putnam, died in 1999.

Halpern would send Tan a question, and the author would fire off a witty retort, or sometimes a very long missive. Once, for instance, Halpern asked the writer for a synopsis of her yet-to-be-written novel and Tan shot back a four-thousand-word response about why she hates writing synopses. All of these missives had a vital quality in common: spontaneity.

Buoyed by the vibrancy of their dashed-off e-mails, Tan decided to write a memoir, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, published this month by Ecco. The book collects Tan’s unguarded, free-flowing writing in response to family documents, personal photographs and journal entries she had collected throughout her life, which began in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she grew up the daughter of immigrant parents from China. The results of this personal research deeply surprised the author. In examining photographs of her grandmother and the clothing she wore, Tan discovered that her grandmother had most likely been a courtesan. In rereading letters she and her mother had exchanged before her death in 1999, the author realized they had remained close, even during the times that Tan tried to distance herself, and that her mother had felt that her daughter had truly understood her. The relationship between a mother and a daughter has formed the basis of much of Tan’s work, from The Joy Luck Club, which consists of stories about the experiences of four Chinese American mothers and their daughters, to The Bonesetter’s Daughter (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001), about an immigrant Chinese woman and her American-born daughter.

Tan, who readily admits that in writing her novels she labors over every sentence, discovered something vital about her writing process: that if she just shut out her self-conscious voice and wrote, she could capture something vital, intimate, and authentic on the page. “Writing this book was very painful,” she says. “But it was exhilarating, too.” 

I recently spoke with Tan about her approach to memoir and how this shift in process changed the way she views her fiction writing. 

You’ve written six novels, two children’s books, and one collection of essays. A memoir is a departure of sorts. Why did you decide to switch literary camps?
I would say I was lured into writing this book. It was the suggestion of my publisher, Dan Halpern, who thought I needed an in-between book—as in, between my novels. At first he thought we could put together a whole book of our e-mails. I said, “That’s a terrible idea.” But he kept insisting that it would be good. We could turn our e-mails from when we were first getting together into essays about writing. Then I looked at them and said, “This is never going to work.” And he finally agreed.

But by then this book had already been announced. And I was stuck writing it. At first I started writing something esoteric about language, but it was coming out all wrong and stiff. So I decided I was just going to write whatever comes to mind. It was going to be a memoir but it was going to be spontaneous.

But you’re known as a literary craftsperson, laboring over every sentence. How did you decide that spontaneity was the way forward?
This was one of the things I learned about creativity. You have to let go of self-consciousness. When I started thinking about this book, I knew that if I felt self-conscious while writing, it would probably come out bit by bit and it would not be as honest.

So I told Dan I would send him fifteen to twenty pages of writing every week. I imposed this crazy deadline on myself. I was just writing spontaneous sentences and not doing much in the way of revision. And this is what came out.

Throughout the writing of this book I was both excited and nervous. I didn’t know what I was going to find. It was like when you go to the circus and you’re about to see the next act. You’re looking forward to it but you’re also scared out of your mind. You’re worried that the trapeze artist is going to die. The process had a suspense to it. Even though I was writing about my life, here, I was writing about what I felt about certain experiences. There’s a difference between a narrative of facts and what happened in your life.

This was about what I felt about certain experiences and the association of that experience with another, and another beyond that. It was about who I am as an adult and reflecting on the core of these experiences.

What was your process? How did you organize the mining of these moments in your life?
I had collected all these things from my family and my own life, not ever thinking that I would write from them. I am sentimental; I have things from my high school, like my student-body card. I had like eighty boxes of this stuff in my garage. I kept them with the idea that I would one day go through them and get rid of a bunch and keep a couple of things. Then I thought, I will just pull something out of the boxes, and if it intrigues me I will write about it. So the process was: I stuck my hand in a box and what came out I wrote about.

It wasn’t as though I had it all lined up, like I wanted to write about this and this. The process was surprising, shocking. It was exhilarating, a mix of emotions. It brought about those things you get out of writing—you know, you have these epiphanies and discoveries. It was an affirmation of why we write.

How did this differ from writing your novels?
Writing fiction allows me the subterfuge of it being fiction. I can change things from real life. I can still go to an emotional core but not as intensely.

Fiction is a way to bring up emotions that I have and to get a better understanding of the situation. But I found that writing memoir brought up ten times the amount of emotion I have while writing fiction. This was truly an unexpected book. I kept telling Dan, “I hate this book.” It seems so personal, like an invasion of privacy. It’s as though I let people into my bedroom and into my darkest moments. I haven’t had time to really meditate over this as I would have liked—you know that word: process. I haven’t even had reflection time to sort out my emotions.

You seem to have lived a remarkably dramatic life and so did your mother, so did your grandmother. Your grandmother was likely a courtesan, one who committed suicide by swallowing raw opium. Your mother, in choosing to leave behind an abusive husband in China, also had to leave her daughters behind as she moved to America for a new life. And I read an article in which you mentioned that you had been sexually molested as a child, held up at gun point, experienced the death of both your father and older brother within six months of each other, and lived with a mother who threatened to kill herself on many occasions, and threatened to kill you with a cleaver on another occasion. In taking stock of this generational trajectory, did you have it in your head that you would one day make sense of all this as a writer?
Well, that’s what I was doing all along with my fiction. I was writing about things, and these moments would come up spontaneously, intuitively, naturally, as part of a narrative in which I was trying to make sense of a story.

For example, when I was writing The Joy Luck Club, I was writing to understand my mother more. But not to the extent that I did in writing this particular book—there was so much turmoil. When I examined for this memoir, in a very concentrated way, what it was like to live with my mother and her suicidal rages, it was so painful. The horror of seeing her put her leg out of a car and knowing that she might possibly die.

Is it meaningful to your memoir writing that your mother, who you’ve described as your muse, died almost two decades ago? How has that freed you to write autobiographically?
I wonder every once in a while what my mother would have thought about the things I wrote in this memoir. Would she have been upset or really happy? Would she be angry? When she was alive, anytime I wrote about her, even when I wrote terrible things, she was thrilled because it was about her. I could have written that she tried to kill me, and she would have been delighted. She’d say something like, “Now you understand how I feel.” My mother was an emotional exhibitionist.

My father, a minister, would have been wounded. In this book I wrote these things about him being sincere but shallow. He depended too much on the pat phrases of the Bible. Rather than truly feeling what somebody was going through, he wanted to solve things and be a good minister. He was so blind to what was going on in his own family. He didn’t have compassion for my little brother and me and what we might have been going through.

Was there difficult material that you left out of the book? If so, how do you feel about that decision now?
We took out about ten or twelve pieces and there was one, actually, that I debated over. Dan and I agreed that it was a little too risky. It was a letter I wrote to a minister based on having been abused when I was fifteen by their youth minister. This person I was writing to was not the minister when this happened. My point in the piece was that his church is a house of worship and it’s a continuous fellowship. I wrote that he is proud of the story of his church but he has to add this to its history. His house of worship has a stain on it.

I finally said, “We have to take this piece out. It goes off the path. It doesn’t enhance what I’m trying to write about.”

Are you happy with that decision or do you regret it?
I’m happy with the decision. Sometimes you write something and it becomes almost retribution, a desire to get even. In this memoir, I could have written about betrayal. I could have written about people who deeply wounded me, but why? I could have written about the fact that my mother went through her life feeling betrayed and that is a mark she put on me. I now have very strong feelings about betrayal and condescension. But I don’t want betrayals to be a dominant part of my life, and if I had written about them I would have given them more importance than I wanted to give them.

How did you push past your emotional blocks to include difficult information and lines of questioning?
In this book I say something about writing and honesty. And it has to do with spontaneity. If you are going to get to some emotional core and truth, you have to write spontaneously. You have to let go of that frontal lobe that says, “Oh, but my father will read this.” You can look at your writing later and say, “Oh my God, my father is going to kill me when he reads this, or he’s going to kill himself.” And then you will know what to leave in or take out. Or you wait until your father’s death. But if you start out in your writing having these concerns, maybe you are writing things that are vindictive. Or maybe you are not ready to write these scenes. Maybe you need to write them later. Maybe you need to take it from a different angle and it will come out in a different way. But I think that if you always write with compassion and understanding, then you stand a good chance of having that person understand why you are writing this. That you weren’t trying to be vindictive. Being vindictive is an automatic no.

Will you take this technique of spontaneity back to your fiction writing? How else will this foray into memoir affect your work as a novelist?
I always thought as I wrote fiction that I was making discoveries, deep discoveries. I was surprised by how much deeper these went as I was writing this memoir. How much more trouble the memories are and how much more risk I had to take to go into it.

Fiction offers us a subterfuge—I keep using this word—it’s almost similar to donning a costume when I go onstage as a ridiculous singer [as she does as a member of the literary rock band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, whose other members have included Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, and others]. If I wear the costume, I can do ridiculous singing because it’s supposed to be in the guise of a silly person.

I am much closer to who I am when I am writing fiction, but there is still a separation. I write my fiction in the first person but writing memoir is truly first person.

I wonder if, in writing fiction, I am going to be as close to the material now, as I was as writing the memoir. With fiction I will still have that protective mechanism. For my memoir I fell into this safety zone of fiction when I wrote that memory of being in the car with my mother as she threatened to commit suicide. I had to write that in the third person. At first, I wrote it in the first person and I had to take it in the third person because it was so painful. I could only get it out in the third person.

At the same time, I think that writing fiction can be very fun. It allows you to be reflective, and at the same time and there’s the art and craft of fiction that I like. So I don’t think I would ever continue to just write memoir.

You mention that you have a “messy narrative style,” that you might start a novel using one voice speaking from a particular period of time but then you shift to another voice speaking from another period of time. Does this have to do with the dual narrative you lived with your mother?
This seems to be true about every book I’ve written. I start in the present and then go into the past. I think this has to do with an interior sense that whatever is happening in one particular time has a connection to another. I’m really fascinated by what that connection might be.

It’s not always a direct connection. For example, my father was a Christian minister and very devout. That does not mean that the connection to me was that I became a Christian minister or very devout. But what it did do for me was made me question what I do believe and why. And also that I am interested in having a purpose in life, rather than a random one. 

At Squaw Valley you said something surprising—and probably very buoying to many writers—that sometimes you face a blank page and think that you have lost the ability to write another word. But then you start to write again. What’s gets you over that hump and onto writing the next page?
I sometimes have this existential dread that I will never write again. Or, I’m not a writer, or this book isn’t going anywhere. Everyone is going to be disappointed. It makes me sick. Then I just say, “Get over it, you are not the end of the world.”

I’m not a disciplined writer at all. I would never want to convey that and make other writers anxious.

What happened with this memoir is that I gave myself a self-imposed deadline—fifteen to twenty pages a week—and I allowed myself to write bad pages. That’s the thing. Allow yourself to write bad pages and just continue to write spontaneously and in that writer’s mind. Write as much as you can without self-consciousness over bad sentences. Write knowing it’s going to be imperfect—that’s important. Just press on. You might look at it later and maybe you have to throw everything away. But there might be something in there that is valuable, that you can keep.

What three or four qualities make a “literary writer”?
Ah, that’s a terrible term. It has triggered a response equal to what the word “liberals” has attracted from Trump supporters. Being a literary writer might mean that you think you’re better than everybody else, or what literary means is that you’re incomprehensible to about 90 percent of mainstream readers.

But, okay. A literary writer is serious about craft, and doing something original, writing a story that contains an important idea. Literary writing has an important theme and it comes through naturally, logically, imperatively.

What qualities make a superstar writer?
Luck. And some kind of style. There is a great deal of luck involved. You have to get recognized and read. You’re lucky if your book falls into the right hands and if it didn’t come out the day after 9/11. Beyond that, it is having established a voice that people enjoy or want to hear from and being able to provide that.

Superstar writers are not necessarily the best writers. Some have written the same book over and over again. They may have a formula that readers want. Superstar writers have that down. They can be depended upon to deliver what readers like to read. I’m not counting myself as a superstar writer, by the way.

What’s next for you?
My new book is a novel, The Memory of Desire. It’s a book that I dreamed up. The structure, the characters and the setting—they literally came to me in a dream. It is so gratifying to get the setting down. For me, it’s a major part of starting a book. But keep in mind, what works for me may not work for you. 

 

Alison Singh Gee is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Hong Kong-India memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing, about her comical and complicated relationship with her husband’s family palace in Northern India. She teaches creative nonfiction and literary travel writing at UCLA Extension. Find her at Facebook.com/AlisonSinghGee.

Amy Tan, whose new book is Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, published by Ecco in October.

(Credit: Julian Johnson)

The Heart of the Novel: Nicholas Montemarano and Eric Puchner

11.6.17

If you want to lose and then find yourself in stories of modern family life, look no further than the fiction of Nicholas Montemarano and Eric Puchner. Both authors peer into the beautiful messiness of contemporary America by way of its homes: the high stakes of our daily rituals, the turmoil beneath serenity, the white lies and longings that hold it all together. Puchner is author of the beloved story collections Last Day on Earth (Scribner, 2017) and Music Through the Floor (Scribner, 2005), as well as the novel Model Home (Scribner, 2010), which won the California Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Montemarano is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, The Book of Why (Little, Brown, 2013) and A Fine Place (Context Books, 2002), and the short story collection If the Sky Falls (Louisiana State University Press, 2005), a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Now he’s celebrating the release of his third novel, The Senator’s Children, published this month by Tin House Books. Centered on two sisters who have never met, it is an intimate family drama about a political scandal and the personal aftermath. Puchner read an advance copy and was enthralled. “This engrossing, brilliantly structured novel takes a familiar situation—the implosion of a presidential candidate’s career—and creates a thing of heartbreaking beauty out of it,” he writes. “By asking whether forgiveness can conquer blame, and whether we might even be able to treat strangers like family, The Senator’s Children feels like exactly the kind of novel we need.”

So Eric Puchner and Nicholas Montemarano got in touch, and what started as an e-mail exchange in the fall of 2017 turned into a literary deep-dive. The two discussed scandals and second chances, finding the heart of the novel, and blurring the personal and political.

Eric Puchner: The Senator’s Children feels like a departure for you in terms of material. One of the things I admire about it, in fact, is that you take a familiar subject, one that’s sort of ripped from the history books—the infidelity of a presidential candidate and its ramifications on his career and family—and find a brand new story to tell.  What compelled you to write about a political scandal?

Nicholas Montemarano: This novel does feel like a departure in some ways—I never expected to write about a political scandal—but in other ways, it continues a preoccupation of mine. So much of what I’ve written—I realized this only after I completed The Senator’s Children—is about families, specifically how they cope with the aftermath of tragedy. My first urge to write this novel came after listening to a late-night talk show host lampoon a politician whose career and life were falling apart. I was compelled less by the fact that this man was a politician and more that he was a public figure being mocked when privately he and his family must have been in great pain. I had an especially strong reaction to the audience’s laughter. I may have been the only person in America, for all I know, who felt sorry for this man, his wife, and his children. We like to see the mighty fall, and then we love the redemption story that often follows. But this politician—the one who was the butt of so many jokes—there wasn’t going to be a second act for him. Not a chance, not after what he did. I couldn’t help but wonder what the rest of life would be like for a person who had become such a pariah.

EP: That’s another thing I admire about the book, the sympathy you show each and every character—not only David, the disgraced senator, but also “the other woman” who in some ways conspires to take David down. Was there a particular character you found hard to empathize with at first? Who was the trickiest character to write your way into?

NM: David Christie was unfaithful to his wife while he was running for president—and while she was battling cancer. Can you feel sympathy for someone who did that? Well, that was one question I set out to ask in my novel. The answer, for me, was surprisingly immediate: yes, of course. The challenge, then, was to bring out those aspects of David that might evoke empathy in readers. On the other hand, Rae, the woman with whom David has the affair—she was more of a challenge. In early drafts, she wasn’t very sympathetic. She was too interested in cashing in on the affair; she wanted to write a book about it and still hoped, years after the affair, to win over David. But she struck me as a caricature, a cultural footnote you might see on a reality TV show (in fact, I had her on a reality TV show in the first draft). So I had to dig deeper and allow her to be flawed—she can be needy and self-absorbed—but sympathetic. In her case, her saving grace is that she loves her daughter.

EP: We’ve been talking about David and the other woman, but the novel’s called The Senator’s Children. For me the emotional heart of it is the story of the two sisters, Betsy and Avery, who don’t know each other because one of them is the living proof of their father’s scandal. It’s just such a fraught, thematically rich situation. Did you know from the beginning that you would focus on David’s two daughters and their very divergent trajectories in life? And that these trajectories would eventually cross?

NM: I was just talking about this last week with my students. I showed them the pages in my notebook from 2011 when I wrote down my first thoughts about this novel. It was called The Senator. But a few weeks later, the working title became The Senator’s Daughter because I decided that its focus—and its narrator—would be Avery, the daughter born from the affair. I wrote the first paragraph—which no longer exists in the novel—and then one page later in my notes, I wrote: The Senator’s Children. I could see myself changing my mind and discovering what the heart of the novel would be. Even at that early stage, I knew who David Christie’s three children were and that his two daughters, estranged from their father to varying degrees, would collide late in the novel. I wrote pages of notes about them. It’s amazing to me that, after five years and so many drafts, much of those first notes I wrote about them remain true. Some things we know from the very beginning, and other things we have to write our way towards knowing.

EP: I wonder about that in relation to the novel’s structure. Another thing that impresses me is the way it moves so unexpectedly through time, toggling between the mid-eighties, the early nineties, 2010, and (in the final section) 1977. I found this to be the source of a lot of the book’s poignancy and power. (In some ways, it feels like the real subject of the novel is time and its irrevocability.) Was the jumping-around-in-time structure something you knew you were going to have from the beginning, or is it something that evolved during the drafting process?   

NM: I really like what you just said about time and its irrevocability—yes! If I had to choose two words that seem to capture my books thus far, they would be: time and regret. What is the life span of a terrible mistake? Can time heal even our deepest wounds? Or do those wounds fester and multiply? I’ve written three novels, and all of them move around in time. It’s difficult for me to imagine writing a novel that doesn’t; it just feels natural to me. As a reader, I’m drawn to nonlinear narratives. Many of my favorite books—The Things They Carried, Jesus’ Son, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—jump around in time. Or skip ahead, like the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Or move backwards like Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things, one of my favorite novels in recent years, includes surprising flash-forwards. Time jumps can be so powerful. We’re here, then suddenly we’ve jumped ahead, or back, and important things happen in that white space. I remember turning the page to Part Two of your novel, Model Home, and seeing that time had jumped ahead a year—even a small time jump like that excites me. I’m like, what did I miss? What happened between those two pages? The ending of The Senator’s Children, the final jump back in time—as soon as it happened, it thrilled me; I knew it was right.

EP: I want to ask you about the language in the book, which feels whittled down to its very essence—there’s a kind of spareness to it that feels evocative and hard-boiled at the same time.  Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking of Babel’s dictum that “only a genius can afford two adjectives to a noun,” except that it seems to me you’ve decided to get rid of adjectives altogether. Is this ultra-spare voice something that comes easily and naturally to you? Or, like Isaac Babel, do you “go over each sentence, time and again,” taking out anything extraneous?

NM: Eventually, I had to give myself over to sparer prose. During revision, it won me over and convinced me that it would be best for the novel. The first draft was bigger, louder, stylistically and formally explosive, multiple narrators, very voice-driven. With each draft, more of that fell away. The aspects of the first draft I was most enamored with were exposed as just that—writing I was too enamored with and attached to. The revision process was one of whittling down me, so to speak. The novel couldn’t be about me being a good writer or making some interesting moves; everything had to be at the service of the story. And so with each revision the novel became quieter and more intimate. Whenever my editor and I spoke about the later drafts of the novel, we always came back to intimacy—that was the novel’s strength, she kept telling me, and I came to believe her. It’s amazing to see how much the novel changed through revision—more than any other book I’ve written.

EP: Speaking of change, the biggest change that happened between your writing of this novel and its publication was the election of Trump. You wrote the novel before Trump’s infamous Hollywood Access tape, which—unlike David’s indiscretion—didn’t end up crushing Trump’s chances at the presidency and makes the Monica Lewinski scandal seem almost quaint. Has Trump’s ascendancy changed your perspective on the novel in any way? Would you write the same book in 2017?

NM: I would. Trump, of course, has reset almost everything when it comes to politics. But families—it seems to me that they remain the same. And I really see The Senator’s Children as a family novel more than a political novel. I set David’s run for the presidency in 1991 and 1992 mostly by necessity: I needed Avery, his daughter outside his marriage, to be in college during the present narrative in 2010. But setting the political scandal twenty-five years ago turned out to be interesting. I had a chance to revisit some of the political sex scandals around that time. In the case of Gary Hart in 1987, a photograph brought down his run for the Democratic nomination. But during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was able to overcome allegations of infidelity and win his party’s nomination and the White House. David Christie’s fate was closer to Hart’s. Or John Edwards’s in 2008. Some readers of The Senator’s Children have told me that the political world depicted in my novel feels, in the Age of Trump, like a throwback to a more civil time. Politics, of course, has always been a rough sport—and a fascinating one. But I’m a writer more interested in the private—what happens behind closed doors when the shit hits the fan, how families cope, how people lose each other, or hold on.

Novelists Nicholas Montemarano (left), author of The Senator’s Children; and Eric Puchner.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Voice

by

Simon Van Booy

6.27.18

This is no. 32 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Would you agree that for the past forty years, automobiles have been evolving in such a way as they now all look alike? As though created from the same, basic mold? One of the most important things you can do for yourself as a writer is to find your voice. I don’t mean tone, which is another way of referring to how writing makes you feel. The tone of this piece for Poets & Writers is very different from the tone of my latest novel, or the tone of the philosophy books I edited several years ago.  

I’m talking about voice. My voice can be squeezed into a 19th century corset for one novel, or spewed from the bowels of a werewolf for another, but it’s essentially the same underneath.  

When I realized after writing a couple of early novels, that I hadn’t found my voice—that there was even something called a voice—I was devastated.  

Had my years of labor all been for nothing? If my goal was to be published then yes. A total waste of time. But if my aim was to grow as an artist and as a person, then I had reason to be proud of myself.  

Anyway, to spare you the same kind of pain, I’ve devised an exercise that will hopefully lead you closer than you’ve ever been to the fiery core of your own, utterly unique, narrative style.  

1. Pick five books (or poems) you love, and five books (or poems) you dislike intensely, for a total of ten works.

2. Read the first page (or poem) several times, then rewrite it in such a way that you think, in your opinion, it’s better. Sometimes this means changing the order of words, or cutting them, or adding to them, or changing the tone completely. Don’t worry about offending anyone, no one knows you’re doing this except me, and I won’t tell.

3. This exercise, if done properly should take a fair amount of time. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll start to get a sense of who you are as a writer, and how your writing voice differs from the voices of others. Rewriting sections from writers you love is perhaps the most fruitful, because instead of emulating—you’re forced to be different. We each love certain writers for our own reasons. Rewriting their work will illuminate the subtle differences between your voice and theirs. 

4. Once you find your voice, it will almost certainly evolve over time, the way we evolve naturally as artists. Look at the early work of Van Gogh, compared to his later work. Dubliners vs. Finnegans Wake.  Early Beethoven sounds a little like Hayden—while late Beethoven is characteristic of the sound we associate with him. The core will always remain. Your voice is a gift to the world, so find it, nurture it, develop it, work it like a machine, give it the freedom of a vine—but above all, share it. 

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Infinite Distance, or The Starry Archipelagoes

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

3.6.18

This is no. 28 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I remember being told a story when I was a student, though all these years later I wonder if it can be true. The course was in Modern Art History, and we were studying Bauhaus. My professor told us that on the first day of class, the Bauhaus teacher gave each one of his students a single sheet of paper. The assignment, he said, is to fold the paper in such a way that it can support the weight of your entire body. Some succeeded; some failed. But it is the assignment itself, the sudden and impossible challenge of it, that struck me—that one simple, blank page had to hold up the weight of your entire life. I then recognized something I’ve never recovered from, some true and awful thing about being a poet and a poet’s relationship, not to words or the beauties and meanings words offer, but to the blank space those words are written on, to the page: that one must learn to trust that its thin, near nothingness can bear the burden of a life. I realized that the poet has the simplest answer. You do not need to find the strongest method of folding, you do not need an intricate architecture of support; you just leave the page as it is and step onto the blankness.

Now I see that poetry intensifies the latent properties of the daily mundane into symbolic potency. The words on the chore list lend themselves to the desperate reverie of “Ode to a Nightingale.” A pencil makes its marks in the margins of the books I teach, and as the semester unspools day by day, and poem by poem, chapter by chapter, I sharpen the pencil and it grows shorter; I see this object of mere utility is also a mortal clock, and that the pencil’s beauty is a strange humility revealed in the seldom felt fact that it is, among all the objects I live my life among, one of the few that will disappear before I do. Walking to my Intro to Poetry course, I’ve come to realize—I hope, I fear—that the day’s lesson on some point of poetic craft is something other than what the definition in the Literary Dictionary holds, and is, instead, a complex consciousness, a vital form, a means of living a life. I know that sounds impossibly grand, but I think it’s true—that metaphor can be a philosophy, and metonymy a form of faith.

To help my students grasp such possibilities I ask them to take out a blank page of paper. The question is how to get from one corner to the opposite corner in the quickest way. The immediate reaction is to take a pencil and draw a straight line from corner to corner. But then some student figures it out and, leaving the pencil where its point stands, bends the opposite corner under its tip, letting the pencil ride across the distance without leaving a mark, for it has not “moved” at all. That is the discovery of metaphor. It helps us cross the distance we cannot imagine. And if it is as they say—those star-gazers, those physicists, those astronomers—that the earth isn’t the center of the universe, nor now is the sun, nor the Milky Way’s own black hole, but that all is in the red-shift, and flees from us in every direction at increasing speed into infinite distance, and between us and all we might love, as Emerson would have it, there is “an innavigable sea,” then metaphor becomes something other than the answer on the midterm, an implicit comparison between unlike things. It becomes a way to recognize the isolate nature of our condition, and a means of countering what otherwise could best be described as our cosmic loneliness. If the cost of the consciousness that language lends us is the inevitable sense of our separation from what it is we speak of, who it is we love, what it is we desire, then metaphor short-circuits that sad consequence and shuttles us—though we hardly feel the corner of the page slip under our feet—across the abyss of the universe. Is that hyperbole? Maybe. But sometimes the universe is just the living room. Sometimes the universe is nothing more than room A113 in Microbiology, where every Tuesday and Thursday from 12:30 to 1:45 I teach my class. That doesn’t mean the distance to cross is any less. If infinity has any lesson, it’s that every part of it is also infinite: chalkboard to student’s desk; word on a page to word in a mind. 

But that’s only one way to think, only one literary term, only metaphor. There are other terms to heap your faith inside. Like metonymy, that form of substitution of a name or attribute for something closely associated with it. Think of noble Queequeg in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Royal prince, the prophets of his tribe tattooed on his body the entire epistemology of his people; his body bore the signs and symbols that held the secrets of his tribe, prophecies and histories, facts and faith. It’s a beautiful image, the body as Holy Book—of course, Queequeg left his people before those prophets could teach him how to read what on his body was written. He was himself a book he could not open, illiterate to the answers he bore, outcast from the knowledge that marked him, unrecognizable to himself by the very marks that identified him. Queequeg gets very sick. He has the carpenter make him a coffin. Instead of resting in his hammock, Queequeg gets each day into his coffin, and looking at the symbols etched on his body, carves each one onto the wooden lid. Not knowing how to get to his people’s heaven, he trusts some divine spirit will be able to read those mystic marks on the coffin itself, and take him where he most wants to go, the starry archipelagoes. I know you’ve been told the earth is round; so have I, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Maybe Queequeg’s coffin would float out to the horizon, and there, where we assume one drops behind the curve of the earth to continue a ceaseless circumnavigation of the globe, the heavens reveal themselves as metonymic, and what seems like unbridgeable distance is actually not, but is continuous, contiguous, a near substitution for what once seemed impossibly far away, and the noble prince will find his way to heaven, not because his soul has been lifted there from the wreck of his body, but because that frigate-coffin has sailed all the way to the distant islands of those stars. Metonymy says that what seems apart is not apart at all, but is instead a part, as one tile is a part of the mosaic whole, and connected to the whole image of the world, though one can’t see the picture fully oneself.

Some other eyes can read it; some invisible hand can take you, too, to the starry archipelagoes.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: Hundreds of Eyes

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.20.18

This is the twenty-sixth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I practice two arts—the poem and the essay—and I’m not good at keeping them apart. There are times, I admit, when poetry feels to me the primary vehicle of thinking, an epistemological experiment in consciousness itself, demonstrating line by line the way in which those wondrous wounds of the senses inform the mind, and the mind must work to find a word that fits—not recognition, but cognition. In this sense, the poem is the thinking that can happen only outside the mind, and the poet is one, so paradoxically, eavesdropping on her own innermost self (though the innermost is no longer exactly inner). It’s monstrous work. I mean it’s work akin to Mary Shelley’s monster fleeing through the woods and, bending over a puddle there, seeing the moon in reflection, hearing the wind in the branches, and seeing for the first time his own face. The poem’s thinking is fateful in just such fundamental ways: It does not recognize, it realizes.

And the essay, that mode of taking measure, that rational or reasonable weighing of a life, has become for me beauty’s own labyrinth. I suppose a maze is monstrous work, too—knowing those myths of the Minotaur. But sometimes I think the essay is a maze with no center at all; it is instead a bewildered initiation into what John Keats calls, in “Ode to Psyche,” the “untrodden region of my mind,” that place one finds only by getting lost.

Such wonderings have led me to think much on what I consider the most fundamental aspect of craft in each art: the line of the poem, the sentence of the essay. (One might argue the word is the fundamental aspect of both, and that might be true, but a word is a world of syllable and breath, of potency and chance, and carries, as Leibniz describes the monad, its complexity all within. I’m not sure I know how to think about words—a strange thing, I know, for a writer to admit.)

 

I. Lines

Ralph Waldo Emerson, though I can’t remember where, wrote down a thought I’ve never been able to shake loose: “Every line of a poem must be a poem.” I find this to be awful advice, by which I mean, advice that is full of awe—awful because it is so true. I apologize to my students when I repeat it them. I fear it could so burden every moment in a poem that the poet feels paralyzed, unable to forge any path into the wild blank of the page. But maybe that is just how it should feel, just that helpless, but a helplessness mined through with some urge to make in nothingness a world entire, a poem.

Emerson’s insight has unfolded in a number of ways in my thinking about poetry. If every line of a poem is a poem itself it must mean that every single line in a poem truly written contains within it all it can say, has exhausted somehow the resource of its perception until, by the last word, there is some silence that cannot be spoken past. It means each line of the poem possesses a knowledge and vision that is, in its way, wholly revelatory—a means by which to see the world anew, a way to grow a new set of eyes. Each line is a plank upon which the mind builds its whole edifice of reason—and for the length of the line, it holds.

But then, as Emily Dickinson offers it,

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

That last stanza of her great poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” reads to me as the lived experience of reading a poem—that plunge through every line that is itself a world entire. And of the “Finished knowing—then—,” I’ve never known if it means she has ended in knowledge, or if knowing itself is at an end.

I suppose the answer may be both, for it reveals the most astonishing aspect of the line when every line is itself a poem: that each line of a poem makes a claim for some sense of the world entire, a sense of which that line is the primary example, and then that singular sense is subsumed into the larger vision of which it is but a part. Then the poem may be the place Emerson suggests it is, where we “stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and Unity into Variety.” I imagine the poem also this way: a peacock with tail outspread, and the phosphorescent circle on each feather an actual eye. The poem lets us see through every eye. Then it is, as Wallace Stevens has it, that art in which “hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.”

 

II. Sentences

Emerson’s own essays are exemplary of the next suggestion, an extension of his poetic insight: Every sentence of an essay must be an essay. It might be worth going further, and to alter Stevens’s lovely line, to make the essay that art in which “hundreds of minds, in one eye, think at once.” The bond between logos and logic that seems to drive the sentence through its argument to essay’s conclusion may be a more tenuous thread than one cares to admit. Keats knows this, as over and again he examines the fraught relationship between beauty and thought, summed up nowhere more succinctly than at the end of his letter, written in 1817, to his brothers, in which he defines negative capability. There he concludes: “This pursed through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” This obliteration of thought by beauty is something I’ve long pondered, but even more so as my own writing practice has turned to essays of lyric literary reverie and investigation. If Dickinson is right, and I think she is, that “This World is not Conclusion,” then the beautiful sentence might work to frustrate the considered logic of the essay’s larger aims, if not to obliterate them completely. I can imagine the mind as a knot trying to untie itself from within its own complexity, and though it may look from outside as if nothing’s changed, what’s inside has loosened its intricate ravel; I can see the sentences in an essay acting in just the same way.

Sometimes craft isn’t advice or technique, but simply a suggestion—a way of thinking, a method of approach. That is, craft can be revelatory of condition. When it is so, a poem teaches us what it is to think, and an essay teaches us what it is to see. We thought we’d entered into different lessons entirely when we picked up the book we’re reading, but when we put it down—whether it is essay or poem—we find both mind and eye opened. Not that it’s easy, in the end, to tell the two apart. 

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: The Craft of Humility, the Craft of Love

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.13.18

This is the twenty-fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I’m teaching a class called Introduction to Poetry; I’ve taught it many times before. On day one, knowing many students are there not wholly willingly (a requirement, for many, for better or worse) I make the same tired joke: “Class, this is Poetry. Poetry, this is the class. I hope you’ll both be friends.” A few laugh.

But I mean it, that joke. I feel my job as a poet is to bring them into poetry in such a way that its difficulty becomes the means of admitting to and encountering their own complex lives, of finding in those nearly unspeakable reaches of mind or heart some companionship they did not hope to have—like a good friend offers. I hope the same for those easier pleasures in life—the sun-bright leaf, the bee in the bud, a rose—that a poem might offer itself to bear within it the sweet moment’s memory that otherwise might drift away into oblivion.

For those hopes to come true, the students need to learn how a poem works; inevitably, much of our delving into any particular poem requires an investigation into craft. I take something Ludwig Wittgenstein says about the nature of philosophy, and alter it toward poetic ends. I suggest that our condition is to find ourselves at sea on a craft that leaks and must be repaired as we float in it—that craft is our craft, the very thing that keeps the poem from sinking, and us along with it. For the honest poem, craft isn’t some willful choice of form, or any set of decisions binding the freedom of the poem to particular tropes; rather, craft is the helpless acceptance of what work is needed to keep the poem intact despite the extremity of its position—hovering there on the white abyss of the blank page, silence all around it, and you, riding in the thing you’re writing.

It is in such light that I want to offer the two most significant introductions to poetry and its craft that happened in my younger, proto-poet life. They are aspects of craft not typically thought of as craft at all, and yet, they opened me to poetry in ways I’ve yet to recover from—which is to say, I’m happy to still be here, fixing a leak while crossing the ocean.

 

I. The Craft of Humility

I thought myself a smart kid in high school, already something of a poet, dumb-drunk on some sense of my own “giftedness,” and out to prove it. I had the remarkable fortune then of having a teacher, Ms. Porter, who loved poetry and, just as important, could teach it. She broke the class into groups, and gave each group one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My group was given number 173: “That time of year thou mays’t in me behold.” I lorded over the conversation, built some reading I cowed others into accepting, and when we presented to the class, of course, I was the one doing the speaking. I don’t remember—thank goodness—anything I said, or how it was I thought I saw that poem. What I do remember is the look on my teacher’s face—a teacher I loved. It wasn’t just disappointment, but a kind of anger. And I remember what she said, very loud, in front of everyone: That I had gotten the poem so wrong, I might as well have not read it.

I sat down and felt ashamed. That shame, the deep and burning sense of it, was my first true lesson in poetry. I realized that I’m not smarter than the poem I read, far from it; and that if I wanted, as I professed I did, to become a poet myself, then first I had to humble myself enough to know that I didn’t know much. I had to admit to myself my own insufficiency, that I needed a teacher to learn from, and the poem was both instructor and lesson itself.

Only years later did the true beauty of that poem find me: the bare ruined choir of those branches that, as the winter night darkens early with cold, become the fuel for the fire, those embers glowing and “consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.” Then I finally learned my lesson in craft, years after the hour in the classroom closed: that the poem is its own deepest resource, and the image it bears in the first lines, taken with all the literalness the imagination can muster, become the means of admitting to and countering crisis. For example: It is cold and dark and I’m getting old; but there’s a tree, and a fire, and a home. Even so late, the sweet birds sing.

 

II. The Craft of Love

Two years later, I had the same Ms. Porter again.

I had in the intervening years started reading and writing poems in earnest, and had started seeing a young woman, Kristy Beachy, who—. Well, who was everything to me.

We were reading John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Humbled enough now to admit the poem made little sense to me, I was curious to see how Ms. Porter would teach it.

Stanza by stanza she led us through the metaphors, those metaphysical conceits, of lovers parting for untold time. Midway through those nine quatrains, which move from death to storm to the quaking of the planetary spheres, their gentle insistence that absence is no true remove, Donne admits to the kind of humility I’d come to recognize:

But we by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, hands to miss.

Right there, at the very crux of a poem whose gentle fury of intellect seemed to cast it past my grasp, was the admission of not knowing exactly what is this thing one is in—this life, this love. I don’t know, those abashed, holy words, uttered in the very crucible of needing to know, that in their honest urgency, admit no defeat, but instead open the mind to its next vision.

That vision, Ms. Porter showed us, that “gold to airy thinness beat” of two souls that are one, depended upon gold beaten down to the micron of its leaf while remaining absolutely whole. But if these twin souls are two—and here, Ms. Porter pulled out her compass, familiar to us all from Geometry class—and demonstrated those last, astonishing lines:

If they be two, they are two so 
As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
To move, but doth, if the other do. 

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
And makes me end where I begun.

Then she held the paper up on which she’d drawn her perfect circle. I don’t know if I gasped. I might have. For I’d learned my other earliest lesson in craft: that metaphor in poetry isn’t difficult because of its abstraction, but because of its accuracy. And I thought I’d learned something of that sense of accuracy, those feelings so poignant in their utmost singularity that they verge on the unspeakable: There was Kristy Beachy, sitting one row over and two seats ahead of me, and I was Dan Quick, mind-struck behind her, deeply, deeply, in love—with Kristy, of course, and with poetry. Not that it’s so easy to tell such matters of craft apart.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: Left Brain, Right Brain

by

Sandra Beasley

4.25.17

This is the tenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

 

***

I attended a high school geared toward professions in science or technology, so I have an active analytical streak and crave objective rubrics for understanding the wildly creative poems, stories, and essays that I read. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

One of my mentors, Gregory Orr, articulated four “temperaments” of poetry in a 1988 essay titled “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” You can envision these facets of craft as quadrants, positioned on an X-Y axis. To the left, limiting impulses: “Story” in the upper quadrant and, below it, “Structure.” To the right, impulses that extend limitlessness: “Music” in the upper and, below it, “Imagination.” Though designed for poetry, I find these temperaments useful for prose as well. As writers, we each typically favor two of the four in our work. Which temperaments bring you to the page? Which come easiest to you? Which do you need to consciously strengthen in your work?

This system gives us a way to articulate differences in aesthetic without ranking them. I’m relieved to set aside presumptive hierarchies. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Targeted Revision

by

Sandra Beasley

4.18.17

This is the ninth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.

***

“Too many hours of revising—to no clear end!” my student complains. He is tired. He feels like the poem never really gets better. There’s always more work to do.

Welcome to revision: the arbitrary realm in which we debate “the” versus “an,” “this” versus “that.” Spend an hour putting a comma in. An hour later, take it out.

Part of the problem is that we complicate the revision process by making our aims abstract. One big revision, we promise ourselves, will make the poem “better.” Don’t privilege “better,” which is a meaningless term. Assign clear and objective tasks. Devote one round of revision exclusively to heightening your imagery, another to reconsidering your verb choices, a third to playing with lineation or tense.

Think of each revision as an experiment. Often these experiments will feel like evolutionary progress, and you’ll keep their results intact. Not always, especially as you near the end of the revision process. When the new version fails to appeal—when you find yourself resisting, reverting, defending an earlier choice—you are locating the poem’s true form. You are identifying what makes this poem yours, and yours alone.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Scourge of Technology

by

Tayari Jones

1.23.18

This is the twenty-second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The cell phone is the worst thing to ever happen to literature. Seriously. So many great fictional plots hinge on one detail: The characters can’t connect. Most famous is Romeo and Juliet. If she just could have texted him, “R, I might look dead, but I’m not. Lolz,” then none of this would have happened.

In my new novel, An American Marriage, both e-mail and cell phones threatened my plot. Here is a basic overview: A young couple, Celestial and Roy, married only eighteen months, are torn apart when the husband is wrongfully incarcerated and given a twelve-year prison sentence. After five years, he is released and wants to resume his old life with her.

A good chunk of the novel is correspondence between our separated lovers. In real life, they probably would have used e-mail. But the problem, plot-wise, is that e-mail is so off-the-cuff, and there is so little time between messages. I needed to use old-fashioned letters. Their messages needed to be deep and thoughtful, and I wanted them to have some time to stew between missives. But who in their right mind (besides me) uses paper and pen when e-mail is so much faster and easier?

The fix was that Roy uses his allocated computer time in prison to write e-mail for the other inmates, for pay. As he says, “It’s a little cottage industry.” He also explains that he likes to write letters to his wife at night when no one is looking over his shoulder or rushing him. 

So look how this fix worked: You see that even though he is incarcerated, his is still a man with a plan. The challenge was to figure out how to avoid e-mail in such a way that it didn’t read like I was just trying to come up with an excuse to write a Victorian-style epistolary novel.

The cell phone was harder to navigate. Spoiler: Celestial has taken up with another man, Andre, in the five years that her husband is incarcerated. A crucial plot point, which I will not spoil, involves Andre not being able get in touch with her. Well, in the present day there is no way to not be able to reach your bae, unless your bae doesn’t want to be reached. Trouble in paradise is not on the menu for the couple at this point, so what to do? I couldn’t very well have him drop his phone in a rest-stop commode!

To get around it, I had to put Andre in a situation in which he would agree not to call Celestial or take her calls—although he really wants to. Trust me. It’s killing him. But he makes an agreement with Roy’s father, who says, “Andre, you have had two years to let Celestial know how you feel.  Give my son one day.” Andre agrees and has to rely on faith that their relationship can survive. The scene is extremely tense and adds suspense to the novel. I had to get up and walk around while I wrote it.

I predict that future novelists will not grapple with this quite as much as we do, as technological advances will be seen as a feature rather than a bug. But for now, you can still write an old-fashioned plot that doesn’t involve texting or tweeting—you just have to figure out a work-around that enhances the plot and understanding of your characters.

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

 

 

Craft Capsule: Finding Your Story

by

Tayari Jones

1.16.18

This is the twenty-first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Like most thoughtful people, I have noticed that the world is on fire and I want to use my skills to help extinguish the flames. To this end, I set out five years ago to write a novel that addresses the injustice of wrongful incarceration. I applied for and received a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute and I became a dedicated researcher. I learned a lot, so much so that I got angry just watching Law & Order, my ex-favorite television show. I was informed, “woke,” and motivated, but I couldn’t write a novel because I had no story. The problem was that I was trying to write to the issue, and I can only write a story that is issue-adjacent.

I know I have a novel when I have a question to which I don’t know the moral/ethical answer. When it comes to wrongful incarceration, I am not torn. The state should not imprison innocent people. Full stop. Also without ambiguity: The prison system is cruel, corrupt, and in desperate need of reform, if not abolition.

So where was the novel?

The answer revealed itself in a food court where I spied a young couple. She was dressed in a lovely cashmere coat. He wore inexpensive khakis and a polo. They were clearly angry, and clearly in love. I overheard the woman say, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” He shot back, “What are you talking about? This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

Just then, I knew I had a novel. The reason is that I understood that they were both probably right. I didn’t know him, but I couldn’t quite picture him waiting chastely by for seven years. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine her behind bars. But did he have a right to demand her loyalty when both seem to agree she would be in no position to demand the same? Was this question moot since she would not likely face this challenge? Was this a kind of privilege? Could she mitigate this privilege by waiting like a modern-day Penelope? Should she?

So we have a couple with a conflict, and at stake between them are issues of reciprocity, duty, and love. Yes, there is the injustice of mass incarceration. And yes, this injustice is fueled by racism and prejudice. Neither of them doubt this, and neither do I. But the question of “will you wait for me” is foremost on his mind.

The result is my new novel, An American Marriage. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, married only eighteen months, when Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. When he is slapped with a twelve-year sentence, the questions of desire and responsibility are at the center of the characters’ lives. As a writer, I was genuinely torn: Roy needs Celestial to be a link to the life he left behind, and Celestial loves her husband, but she has only one life. I wrote this novel not only to satisfy my heart’s curiosity as to what they would do, but to also satisfy the part of my mind that wondered what should they do.

I realized that my passion for the issue of incarceration was the reason that I couldn’t write about it directly. A novel is not me, as a writer, telling the reader what I already know. And an honest novel is not about me pretending to take on “both sides” of an issue about which I have a clear opinion. I had to start with my issue and then walk away from it until I found the thing I didn’t know. To truly challenge the reader, I had to challenge myself as well.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Gin and Scotch Tape

by

Sandra Beasley

5.2.17

This is the eleventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Years ago a distinguished poet hosted our class’s workshops at her home in Virginia. The house was perched on an incline; down the hill was her writing cabin alongside a pond. We met at her dining room table and tried not to be distracted by the hawks swooping outside the windows.

A student brought in a draft that compared the scent of gin to Scotch tape. Setting aside all other matters of theme or craft, the discussion lingered on this comparison. The simile was bright and original. But was it accurate? That only a few in the room had ever sampled gin, and even then only of an aristrocrat variety, did not aid our analysis.

Reaching her limit, the professor sprang up from the table. “We’re settling this,” she said. She walked into the kitchen and retrieved a roll of Scotch tape. She went to a corner of the dining room, opened a cabinet, and pulled out a bottle. She walked the gin around the table so we could sniff accordingly.

Lesson one? To compare the scents of Scotch tape and gin doesn’t quite work, because the former obscures the latter’s floral qualities.

Lesson two? Always be prepared to have your simile put to the test.

Lesson three? Never let a turn of figurative language, no matter how vivid or clever, hijack what you’re trying to say. I can’t remember who wrote that poem, or where its heart lay. I only remember the gin and Scotch tape. 

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Real Time vs. Page Time

by

Wiley Cash

9.26.17

This is the twentieth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Several years ago I worked with a student who was writing a novel about a guy training for a career in the sport of mixed martial arts. The novel was exciting and interesting, and the writing was strong and compelling. Until the fighting began. The minute the bell rang and the fists and feet started flying, the pace of the narrative turned glacial.

This may come as a surprise to you; it certainly surprised me. The talented author was actually a former MMA fighter, so it seemed impossible that he was unable to write an exciting fight scene. Then I realized that fight scenes are rarely exciting on the page. I believe this is true for two reasons. First, a fistfight is a process, and processes rarely make for compelling reading. Second, fistfights are exciting because they unfold in real time, which is wholly different than page time.

I want to talk about process first. Process is part of our daily lives, and many of the processes we undertake are performed through rote memory: brushing our teeth, making coffee, pouring cereal. These processes aren’t very interesting, and they don’t really need to be written about in detail. Readers may need to know that your characters drink coffee, eat cereal, and brush their teeth, but they don’t need to see this happening. Telling them it happened is enough. This is an example of when telling should be privileged over showing. But sometimes you may want to show a process, especially if it proves a level of expertise. Perhaps you’re writing about a character who is skilled with firearms, and you want to show that level of knowledge and skill. Perhaps you should have a scene in which the character goes through the process of breaking down and cleaning a firearm.

Most often, when readers start down the road of reading about process they’re not interested in the process itself; they’re interested in the outcome. The fight scenes in my student’s mixed martial arts novel are a good example. While the scenes were very technical and showed the same level of skill and mastery that I just mentioned, as a reader I quickly became bogged down in the descriptions of the movements, and I lost a sense of the movements themselves. I found myself skipping through the process of the fight in order to discover whether or not our hero won the fight. I realized that as a reader I was more interested in the outcome than I was in the process. The scene hinged on the result of the fight as an event, not on the act of fighting.

Not only were the fight scenes weighed down by process, they were also slowed down by the act of reading. Let’s step out of the ring. Think about the fights or dustups or schoolyard shoving matches you’ve witnessed. How long did they last before someone stepped in or called the parents or the teachers came running? Thirty seconds? A minute? A few minutes, tops? These events almost always unfold very quickly. The movements are fast; words are exchanged at a rapid clip. Your eyes and ears are able to take in the movements and the verbal exchanges simultaneously. Now, imagine trying to portray these events verbatim on the page. Think about how many words would be required to nail down both the movements and the dialogue. It would take much longer to read that scene than it would to witness it.

There’s an old writerly saying that dialogue isn’t speech, but rather an approximation of speech. Sometimes, this is true of action, especially in terms of process. 

 

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last BalladA Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website is www.wileycash.com.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Active Dialogue

by

Wiley Cash

9.12.17

This is the nineteenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

When I work with new writers, one thing I often notice is their lack of faith in their dialogue: They don’t trust that it’s strong enough to stand on its own. They feel that they must add something to really get the point across. These writers add action words to their dialogue tags in an attempt to hide any flaws they fear may be hiding in their characters’ verbal interactions. In other words, they do everything they can to make certain that the reader gets the full import of what the characters are attempting, consciously or unconsciously, to communicate.

Often, and unfortunately, these action words take the form of gerunds. Let me follow this with a caveat: Gerunds in dialogue tags are not always a bad thing if they’re used purposefully and sparingly. I use them. Other writers I admire use them. But if I’ve used a gerund in a dialogue tag then I can defend it because I’ve already spent a good deal of time trying to consider whether or not to use it.

The gerunds in dialogue tags that bother me are the ones that are clearly there to underpin weakness in the dialogue. This happens when writers feel they need an action to complement a line of dialogue. Here’s an example:

“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders.

Let’s add an adverb and make that gerund really awful.

“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders nervously.

The writer (in this case, me) felt the need to add that gerund (and perhaps the adjective as well) because the dialogue itself was pretty weak. “What do you mean?” is a boring question. Anyone can ask this, but your character can’t just be anyone. He has to be a particular person with particular turns of phrase and particular movements (what are often called “beats” in dialogue) to flesh out what he means.

Let’s give it another try, and this time let’s write a better line of dialogue that essentially says the same thing as our original, just more clearly.

“What am I supposed to say to that?” He shrugged his shoulders. “What does that even mean?”

I tinkered a little with the original line and split it into two, but I divided the two lines with the beat of action. I feel like my two lines are pretty strong, and they seem particular to this person, whoever he is. Because my dialogue is strong, it doesn’t need the support of action. So my action can stand alone.

The action also does something the dialogue cannot do. It illustrates visually what the dialogue means verbally. The phrase “What am I supposed to say to that?” is a phrase of exasperation, so the action takes this a step further and shows exasperation. The follow-up question of “What does that even mean?” amplifies both the original question and the action.

If I had kept the gerund shrugging it would have combined the dialogue and the action, which crowds the reader’s mind in asking her or him to do two things at once: see and hear. Let’s focus on asking one thing of our reader at a time. The act of reading is not the act of movie watching, which often requires viewers both to see and hear at the same time. Literature and film cannot do the same things in the same ways.

The gerund shrugging is also a weak action word because it does not have a clearly demarcated time of beginning. How long has this guy been shrugging? After all, we enter the word “shrugging,” and presumably the dialogue, as the shrugging is already under way. On the other hand, when we read the line “He shrugged his shoulders” we are entering the action at the moment it begins. It has not been unfold-ing since an indeterminate moment in time. The action feels particular, as if it is caused by the line of dialogue that precedes it. It gives us a chance both to digest the dialogue and imagine the action. It does not ask us to do both at the same time with the confusion of wondering when the shrugging actually began. This is deliberate writing. We should all be deliberate writers.

I want to close with a few lines of dialogue from my upcoming novel, The Last Ballad. In this scene, a man has just come up a riverbank and met a small boy standing at a crossroad. The boy is staring down into a ditch where his injured dog is lying. The man asks the boy where they are.

The boy lifted his eyes from the ditch and looked around as if getting his bearings.

“Gaston,” the boy finally said.

“Gaston,” he repeated. He looked down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”

The boy shrugged.

“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here.’”

I worked really hard on this scene. I wanted it to communicate an edge of laconic strangeness. The boy’s poverty has rendered him a bit provincial. The man’s travels have rendered him a bit wistful. I purposefully separated the actions from the lines of dialogue and cordoned them off in their own sentences.

But what if I’d used gerunds?

“Gaston,” the boy finally said, lifting his eyes from the ditch and looking around as if getting his bearings.

“Gaston,” he repeated, looking down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”

“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here,’” the boy said, shrugging.

Written this way, the scene unfolds too quickly. The boy gives his answer about their location before getting his bearings. The man’s quizzical repetition of the word “Gaston” is marred by his deliberate action of looking down at the boy. The words and the actions do not go together. They must be separated and addresses and experienced on their own terms.

My advice is this: Trust your dialogue. If you don’t, make it stronger. Then, once your dialogue is strong, bring in action beats that amplify the speaker’s message, not messy gerunds that clutter it.

 

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last BalladA Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website is www.wileycash.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Rhyme and the Delay in Time

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.27.18

This is no. 27 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

It snowed last night. Not much. Just an inch or two. But this morning there’s a strange fog in the air. It isn’t like a spring fog, thick in the vision, obscuring the trees and houses across the small field. It must be frozen crystals in the air, some breath the dormant grass gathered and sighed out, or the wedding dress a cloud took off and let drop down to the ground—a dress that is no more than texture in the air. It faintly glows, like it’s holding light inside of it, like it’s slowing light down. It’s morning when I get to see what it is to see.

I’d also like to hear what it is to hear, to listen in on listening.

Over the course of many years of working on the page as best I could, reading wherever it was bliss took me, writing to catch up to those glimmers other poems taught me to see by, I began to distrust that divide I grew up being schooled in: tradition vs. experiment, conservative or “quiet” poetry vs. the avant-garde. Reading George Herbert, John Donne, and John Keats; reading Emily Dickinson, Sappho, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; reading Homer, Virgil, and the Greek pastoral traditions; reading anonymous poems for graves and for fields—all made me think that tradition might root itself down in the very humus of experiment. And, as humus and human are cognate, I began to suspect that the age-old tropes by which poetry functions—image, metaphor, metonymy, symbol; line, meter, music, rhyme—radically include us in that tradition of experiment that poetry might be described as. Trope, after all, comes from the Greek tropos, and means a turn, direction, a course, a way; but it also means the character of a person, the peculiar temper that makes one who one is; it also means the way the strong wind might move through a pine tree; it also means the way a winter morning’s fog might pause even the speed of light. I mean to suggest a simple thing, though I’ve learned the simple is often bewilderment’s own maze, that the tropes by which a poem moves through itself are not the musty pedantries of literary dictionaries, but are themselves fundamental forms of consciousness, the very means by which a poem comes to know itself, and by extension, the very means by which we come to know ourselves as well. The trope can wake us in the way the eye open wakes us—suddenly, there is light, and the first step of the day is into vision: an image. Or, take rhyme: Rhyme can make of the mind a wind-chime. 

I have no verifiable proof, just a sense from twenty years of teaching, more of reading and writing, that rhyme has become one of those aspects of tradition most easily derided. I can understand how it happened. Teaching now a lower-level poetry-writing workshop, I notice how often the weakest poems are strongest in rhyme, and the first advice, to not let the end sound of the line drive everything the line must do, inevitably makes the poem better. One of the unintended consequences of the workshop model may well be a drift away from the power of traditional tropes. The pressure put upon a single poem to achieve itself most successfully diminishes the larger work of thinking about what the work of poetry is—a work that requires the very failures, poem by poem, that necessitate thinking across the entire span of one’s efforts. The push, or the desire, to be “original,” to have a “voice,” to “make it new,” might deafen us to the latent, collective, anonymous consciousness that resides in something as simple-seeming as rhyme. There is something in rhyme—I think I can hear it, though it’s hard to describe—that speaks to the ongoing crisis of the human condition from the dawn of mind to now. It’s like an echo. But unlike that echo in stairwell or tunnel, in cave or gorge, it doesn’t get quieter as it moves through time. In rhyme, the echo gets louder.

So it is I often rhyme my poems, though it might not be obvious. I’ve come to trust there’s something in the ear’s own intelligence that leaps ahead of the conscious, analytic mind in a poem that rhymes, as if the hidden promise of a chiming sound sets forth in the poem a fate-like assurance that what is to come, though yet unseen, will welcome you. So quietly, but so familiarly, rhyme suggests that to move forward, as one must, into what one doesn’t know, will be okay. If so, rhyme offers itself as some form of existential assurance, is tuned in, and so attunes us, to fears and hopes so entwined with the human condition, we forget we even need to speak of them: that in what feels to be the chaos of the blank future, there is a cosmos, an order, into which we’ll fit. It is not exactly a means of survival, but a trust one will survive.

Rhyme also works within and against time. I can imagine in a poem heavily end-rhymed—say a Petrarchan sonnet with its octave of ABBAABBA, or Dante’s lovely, enveloping terza rima of ABA BCB CDC—that the surety of those sounds counters the awful, inevitable flow of mortal life in one direction. Then the poem that makes its claims about love’s immortality, or memory’s eternity, is no cloying euphemism, but an enacted audacity in the poem’s very fiber. That rhyme works as does mythic time, returning us ever again to a point we’ve never truly left—the day that is all one day, world’s onset, the syllable now, sun’s instant of light—even as, line by line, we recognize too that we do not get to remain in that golden light of origin. We can hear in the poem that mythic life of eternal return, and in hearing it, live within it, even as the poem accompanies us in that other recognition, that line by line we move to what end is ours. Rhyme puts a delay in time. It makes us understand what otherwise would feel an impossible paradox: that we live in time, and time doesn’t exist. And though I’m not exactly a religious man, it gives me one version of how heaven could work. It’s just a poem, just a rhyme, a single-syllable that, scanned, has no stress and rhymes AAAAAAAA…forever.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).           

Craft Capsule: The Craft of Humility, the Craft of Love

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.13.18

This is the twenty-fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I’m teaching a class called Introduction to Poetry; I’ve taught it many times before. On day one, knowing many students are there not wholly willingly (a requirement, for many, for better or worse) I make the same tired joke: “Class, this is Poetry. Poetry, this is the class. I hope you’ll both be friends.” A few laugh.

But I mean it, that joke. I feel my job as a poet is to bring them into poetry in such a way that its difficulty becomes the means of admitting to and encountering their own complex lives, of finding in those nearly unspeakable reaches of mind or heart some companionship they did not hope to have—like a good friend offers. I hope the same for those easier pleasures in life—the sun-bright leaf, the bee in the bud, a rose—that a poem might offer itself to bear within it the sweet moment’s memory that otherwise might drift away into oblivion.

For those hopes to come true, the students need to learn how a poem works; inevitably, much of our delving into any particular poem requires an investigation into craft. I take something Ludwig Wittgenstein says about the nature of philosophy, and alter it toward poetic ends. I suggest that our condition is to find ourselves at sea on a craft that leaks and must be repaired as we float in it—that craft is our craft, the very thing that keeps the poem from sinking, and us along with it. For the honest poem, craft isn’t some willful choice of form, or any set of decisions binding the freedom of the poem to particular tropes; rather, craft is the helpless acceptance of what work is needed to keep the poem intact despite the extremity of its position—hovering there on the white abyss of the blank page, silence all around it, and you, riding in the thing you’re writing.

It is in such light that I want to offer the two most significant introductions to poetry and its craft that happened in my younger, proto-poet life. They are aspects of craft not typically thought of as craft at all, and yet, they opened me to poetry in ways I’ve yet to recover from—which is to say, I’m happy to still be here, fixing a leak while crossing the ocean.

 

I. The Craft of Humility

I thought myself a smart kid in high school, already something of a poet, dumb-drunk on some sense of my own “giftedness,” and out to prove it. I had the remarkable fortune then of having a teacher, Ms. Porter, who loved poetry and, just as important, could teach it. She broke the class into groups, and gave each group one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My group was given number 173: “That time of year thou mays’t in me behold.” I lorded over the conversation, built some reading I cowed others into accepting, and when we presented to the class, of course, I was the one doing the speaking. I don’t remember—thank goodness—anything I said, or how it was I thought I saw that poem. What I do remember is the look on my teacher’s face—a teacher I loved. It wasn’t just disappointment, but a kind of anger. And I remember what she said, very loud, in front of everyone: That I had gotten the poem so wrong, I might as well have not read it.

I sat down and felt ashamed. That shame, the deep and burning sense of it, was my first true lesson in poetry. I realized that I’m not smarter than the poem I read, far from it; and that if I wanted, as I professed I did, to become a poet myself, then first I had to humble myself enough to know that I didn’t know much. I had to admit to myself my own insufficiency, that I needed a teacher to learn from, and the poem was both instructor and lesson itself.

Only years later did the true beauty of that poem find me: the bare ruined choir of those branches that, as the winter night darkens early with cold, become the fuel for the fire, those embers glowing and “consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.” Then I finally learned my lesson in craft, years after the hour in the classroom closed: that the poem is its own deepest resource, and the image it bears in the first lines, taken with all the literalness the imagination can muster, become the means of admitting to and countering crisis. For example: It is cold and dark and I’m getting old; but there’s a tree, and a fire, and a home. Even so late, the sweet birds sing.

 

II. The Craft of Love

Two years later, I had the same Ms. Porter again.

I had in the intervening years started reading and writing poems in earnest, and had started seeing a young woman, Kristy Beachy, who—. Well, who was everything to me.

We were reading John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Humbled enough now to admit the poem made little sense to me, I was curious to see how Ms. Porter would teach it.

Stanza by stanza she led us through the metaphors, those metaphysical conceits, of lovers parting for untold time. Midway through those nine quatrains, which move from death to storm to the quaking of the planetary spheres, their gentle insistence that absence is no true remove, Donne admits to the kind of humility I’d come to recognize:

But we by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, hands to miss.

Right there, at the very crux of a poem whose gentle fury of intellect seemed to cast it past my grasp, was the admission of not knowing exactly what is this thing one is in—this life, this love. I don’t know, those abashed, holy words, uttered in the very crucible of needing to know, that in their honest urgency, admit no defeat, but instead open the mind to its next vision.

That vision, Ms. Porter showed us, that “gold to airy thinness beat” of two souls that are one, depended upon gold beaten down to the micron of its leaf while remaining absolutely whole. But if these twin souls are two—and here, Ms. Porter pulled out her compass, familiar to us all from Geometry class—and demonstrated those last, astonishing lines:

If they be two, they are two so 
As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
To move, but doth, if the other do. 

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
And makes me end where I begun.

Then she held the paper up on which she’d drawn her perfect circle. I don’t know if I gasped. I might have. For I’d learned my other earliest lesson in craft: that metaphor in poetry isn’t difficult because of its abstraction, but because of its accuracy. And I thought I’d learned something of that sense of accuracy, those feelings so poignant in their utmost singularity that they verge on the unspeakable: There was Kristy Beachy, sitting one row over and two seats ahead of me, and I was Dan Quick, mind-struck behind her, deeply, deeply, in love—with Kristy, of course, and with poetry. Not that it’s so easy to tell such matters of craft apart.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: Every Novel Is a Journey

by

Tayari Jones

2.6.18

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Last week I wrote about how I came to make Roy the protagonist of my new novel, An American Marriage. The decision was frustrating because I came to this tale seeking to amplify the muffled voices of women who live on the margins of the crisis of mass incarceration. So imagine how hard it was for me to make the Roy’s story the main color of the take and relegate Celestial’s point of view to a mere accent wall. It nearly killed me. I was prepared to pull the novel from publication.

Luckily, I had a craft epiphany.

Roy is a great character. He’s like Odysseus, a brave and charismatic man returned home from a might battle. He just wants to get home and be taken care of by a loving wife and sheltered in a gracious house. His voice was very easy to write because he is easy to like; his desires and decisions make it easy to empathize with him. He is a wrongfully incarcerated black man. What decent person wouldn’t root for him?

Celestial was bit more challenging. She’s ambitious. She’s kind of stubborn. And most important, she isn’t really cut out to be a dutiful wife. Back when she was the protagonist of the novel, I used to say, “I am writing a novel about a woman whose husband is wrongfully incarcerated…” and everyone would expect the novel to be about her fight to free him. And it wasn’t. It was about her decision not to wait.

On the level of craft, it just didn’t work. For one thing, you can’t write a compelling novel about what someone doesn’t do. (There is a reason why Bartelby doesn’t get to narrate his own story.) Second, as I wrote last week, Roy’s crisis is just too intense and distracting for the reader to care about any other character as much.

So, what to do?

I foregrounded Roy. He is the protagonist and readers find him to be very “relatable” (my very least favorite word in the world). I took Roy on the journey, and I invite readers to accompany him. As the writer, I came to the table understanding that the expectations put on women to be “ride or die” are completely unreasonable; furthermore, there is no expectation of reciprocity.  But rather than use Celestial’s voice to amplify my position, I allowed Roy the hard work of interrogating his world view, and the reader, by proxy, must do the same.

The result is a novel that was a lot harder to write, but the questions I posed to myself and my readers were richer, more complex, and I hope, more satisfying.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

Craft Capsule: Finding the Center

by

Tayari Jones

1.30.18

This is the twenty-third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

My new novel, An American Marriage, involves a husband and wife with an unusual challenge: Eighteen months after exchanging their vows, he is arrested and incarcerated for a crime he does not commit.

I was equally interested in both their stories, but for some reason early readers of the manuscript were way more interested in him (Roy) than her (Celestial.) At first, I was convinced that this was sexism, plain and simple. Men’s stories are considered more compelling. To try and make Celestial more appealing, I tried to give her a more vibrant personality. But regardless of the details I added to embroider her, beta readers still felt that she was “undeveloped” and that Roy was the character who popped. It almost drove me crazy. Finally, I realized that Roy held the readers’ attention because his problem was so huge. (He’s wrongfully incarcerated, for goodness sake!)

Undaunted (well, maybe a little daunted), I read stories by my favorite women writers who write beautifully about women’s inner lives. I checked out Amy Bloom, Antonia Nelson, Jennifer Egan. How did they manage to make emotional turmoil so visceral? In these writers’ hands, a small social slight can feel like a dagger. Why couldn’t I do this in my own novel?

I found the answer in the work of Toni Morrison, for all answers can be found there. It’s a matter of scale. There is a scene in The Bluest Eye where the lady of the house is distraught because her brother hasn’t invited her to his party, although she sent him to dental school. By itself, this is terrible and totally worthy of a story. However, in the same frame is Pauline, the maid who has suffered all manner of indignities in an earlier chapter. In the face of Pauline’s troubles, the matter of the party seems frivolous.

With this, I discovered a fundamental truth of fiction and perhaps of life: The character with the most pressing material crisis will always be the center of the story. Although Celestial’s challenges as a woman trying to establish herself in the world of art is intense, the fact of Roy’s wrongful incarceration makes her troubles seem like high-class problems and to center them in the novel feels distasteful to the reader, like wearing a yellow dress to a funeral and fretting over a scuffed shoe.

The solution: I made Roy the protagonist. Celestial’s voice is still there, but she is a secondary narrator. It was a hard choice because I was drawn to her story in the first place, but it was being drowned out by Roy’s narrative. Finally, I had to stop fighting it. The protagonist of An American Marriage is Roy Othaniel Hamilton.

It took me five years to figure this out. Of course, every craft solution makes for new craft obstacles. I’ll talk about the fall-out from this shift in my next (and final) Craft Capsule, next Tuesday.

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Finding Your Story

by

Tayari Jones

1.16.18

This is the twenty-first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Like most thoughtful people, I have noticed that the world is on fire and I want to use my skills to help extinguish the flames. To this end, I set out five years ago to write a novel that addresses the injustice of wrongful incarceration. I applied for and received a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute and I became a dedicated researcher. I learned a lot, so much so that I got angry just watching Law & Order, my ex-favorite television show. I was informed, “woke,” and motivated, but I couldn’t write a novel because I had no story. The problem was that I was trying to write to the issue, and I can only write a story that is issue-adjacent.

I know I have a novel when I have a question to which I don’t know the moral/ethical answer. When it comes to wrongful incarceration, I am not torn. The state should not imprison innocent people. Full stop. Also without ambiguity: The prison system is cruel, corrupt, and in desperate need of reform, if not abolition.

So where was the novel?

The answer revealed itself in a food court where I spied a young couple. She was dressed in a lovely cashmere coat. He wore inexpensive khakis and a polo. They were clearly angry, and clearly in love. I overheard the woman say, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” He shot back, “What are you talking about? This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

Just then, I knew I had a novel. The reason is that I understood that they were both probably right. I didn’t know him, but I couldn’t quite picture him waiting chastely by for seven years. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine her behind bars. But did he have a right to demand her loyalty when both seem to agree she would be in no position to demand the same? Was this question moot since she would not likely face this challenge? Was this a kind of privilege? Could she mitigate this privilege by waiting like a modern-day Penelope? Should she?

So we have a couple with a conflict, and at stake between them are issues of reciprocity, duty, and love. Yes, there is the injustice of mass incarceration. And yes, this injustice is fueled by racism and prejudice. Neither of them doubt this, and neither do I. But the question of “will you wait for me” is foremost on his mind.

The result is my new novel, An American Marriage. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, married only eighteen months, when Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. When he is slapped with a twelve-year sentence, the questions of desire and responsibility are at the center of the characters’ lives. As a writer, I was genuinely torn: Roy needs Celestial to be a link to the life he left behind, and Celestial loves her husband, but she has only one life. I wrote this novel not only to satisfy my heart’s curiosity as to what they would do, but to also satisfy the part of my mind that wondered what should they do.

I realized that my passion for the issue of incarceration was the reason that I couldn’t write about it directly. A novel is not me, as a writer, telling the reader what I already know. And an honest novel is not about me pretending to take on “both sides” of an issue about which I have a clear opinion. I had to start with my issue and then walk away from it until I found the thing I didn’t know. To truly challenge the reader, I had to challenge myself as well.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Writing “After”

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.16.19

This is no. 43 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The day after the 2015 AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, another poet—seemingly out of nowhere—sent me a poem by Mary Oliver. They said it was because, when they read it out loud, the voice they made (or tried to make) was mine. Instantly I loved the poem, “October,” and I told them so. Still, because “October” made its way to me the day after terrible news, it also unsettled me. It moved me, but at the same time I felt the need to move against it. 

As in many Mary Oliver poems, the speaker attends to the natural world and her place in it. She asks, “What does the world / mean to you if you can’t trust it / to go on shining when you’re // not there?” By the end of the poem, it’s clear that the speaker has decided, at least for now, that in order to truly love the world, she has to be reconciled to the fact, the beautiful fact, that it will (that it ought to) go on without her. That the world will not at all be diminished by her not being there to witness it. The poem ends: “so this is the world. / I’m not in it. / It is beautiful.” 

The speaker of the poem wrestles with her own attachments to herself. She is trying to let go of her importance, to get out of the way. But by addressing a “you”—presumably a reader—in the poem, she makes an argument that extends beyond herself; she stakes out an ethical position. Most days it’s one I would agree with. Most days I would have left the poem unbothered. But on that day after the shooting, feeling acutely all of the ways in which the people I call mine are told they do not have a claim on the world in the first place—are dispossessed, are rubbed out—Oliver’s call for self-diminishment felt plainly, profoundly wrong. I wanted to see what would happen, therefore, if I used the structure of Oliver’s poem but turned the argument against itself. This experiment resulted in “Bad News, Again,” a poem that rewrites “October” but asks the first, urgent question embedded in Oliver’s longer one: “What does the world mean / if you can’t trust it to go on?” 

A handful of the poems in my new collection, Dispatch, perform similar experiments, insofar as they try to redirect contemporary poems I love to different ends. As a result I feel very anxious about the new iterations of old conversations about plagiarism, theft, and ‘after’ poems that have surfaced online in the past few years. Anxious, in part, because I did not have a developed sense of the ethics of such a practice when I first took it up. I still don’t. However, these conversations often seem to miss that there are multiple reasons one might “steal” or “borrow” or “deface” another’s work. There seems to be an assumption that the only potentially defensible motive for imitating another’s work is a sense of uncomplicated admiration. But when is admiration ever uncomplicated? What if, for example, you suspect the work you admire does not respect you, or cannot conceive of you? What if your admiration is not only enabling but also deeply injurious? What if, in this case, theft and/or defacement might be an ethical response? 

In an oft-cited passage from The Sacred Wood, T. S. Eliot insists: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In my defense, I do not think that I have written a better poem than Mary Oliver, not by any measure, but the point was to make her work consider me. It seems to me that is what love demands.  

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Ordering the Story Collection

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.22.19

This is no. 38 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I always read short story collections in order. Maybe this is because my earliest infatuations happened via mix tape (and by mix tape, I mean a CD that I burned or that someone burned for me, with songs meant to convey something deep and unspeakable). Unlike with a cassette, one could, in theory, set the CD player to random, but this would break an unspoken rule. The point was to put on your headphones, lie on your bed, and think about the person who made the mix for you. You’d hold the handwritten track list and listen to the songs in their intended order, so you could figure out what this person was trying to say. You paid close attention to the lyrics, the tone, the transitions. A successful mix tape meant never forgetting about the “author.” How exactly did they feel about you? Did you feel the same way? Maybe you hadn’t before, but now, alone in your room with all those perfectly chosen songs, maybe you were charmed. 

Assembling a short story collection is a daunting process: Often the individual pieces have been written as unique, standalone works, edited by staff with varying aesthetics at different literary journals, and published over a span of years. The earliest version of my collection, Black Light, wasn’t really a collection—it was just a bunch of stories I wrote and published between 2005 and 2017. It took my terrific agent to help me see that one of the stories was actually the beginning of a novel, that two others needed to be combined into a longer piece, and that one story had a voice too abstract and confrontational to fit in with the rest. Once these decisions were made, the stories that we kept had a kind of reverberation with each other. A musicality.

In an informal poll, my friends who read collections tell me they don’t read in order. They start with the shortest story, or the title story, or they read in reverse order or at random. This is all fine—unless the stories are linked, order shouldn’t make or break a collection—but when I was putting Black Light together, sequence became very important to me. I love the way my favorite collections bend time, pull me in and out of different worlds, immerse me in a situation for thirty pages and then toss me out. 

I had three very long stories and three very short ones and half a dozen in between. I liked the idea of giving moments of reprieve, little spaces to breathe, so flash pieces often came after the longest ones. Everybody knows how important the first track of a mix tape is, and I wanted to start my collection with my most affable narrator. In the story “Guts,” Sheila is bewildered by new circumstance: She’s recently fallen for a medical student, and suddenly she sees sickness and beauty everywhere she looks. This newfound empathy overwhelms her, and in that way she’s a great proxy for a reader entering the strange world of the collection. All my stories deal with similar themes—game playing, escapism, desire—but I had strong ideas about how to move through the different voices of the remaining narrators (urban and rural, child and adult, male and female, queer and straight) in a way that felt balanced and varied to me.

On the first call with my editor, before we’d even made a deal, she talked about her vision for the collection. She liked the order, the way the stories “sang” to one another. She compared her favorite collections to music: She wanted this book to feel cohesive and unified, but never repetitive. Like a perfect mix tape, she said, a book of short stories should make the reader fall in love. I knew then that I’d found the right person for my project.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Elegy

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.23.19

This is no. 44 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Elegies speak to both [the living and the dead], forced to negotiate the impossible ethical demands of a genre that strives neither to disrespect the memory of the dead nor to ignore the needs of the living.

Diana Fuss

Each November, for nearly a decade, I have written a poem marking Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR), an annual day of mourning for trans people lost to anti-trans violence. These poems are almost uniformly bad, but the most recent one, “Anti-Elegy,” made its way into Dispatch. I hope it will be the last of them. 

I find this occasional writing practice a confusing one—shameful, consoling, deadening, and, somehow, like feeding a tiny fire. From the beginning, I have known all of the critiques of TDoR: It has historically enabled white activists to extract political capital from the deaths of primarily Black trans women; the frame of “anti-trans” violence obscures more than it explains about the curtailing of trans feminine life; TDoR circulates “the trans woman of color” as a dead figure and therefore strips her of her life, her worlds. Still, it also is true that I came to understand trans as something it was possible for me to be when my high school’s tiny gay-straight alliance erected cardboard tombstones in the hallway to mark those trans women who had been lost. Trans became an intimate possibility in reference to strangers’ deaths. For this reason, trans has always felt, to me, entangled with elegy. 

The classic elegy—at least as I understand it—has a three-part structure: lament, praise, consolation. First you express deep sorrow over someone’s passing; then you praise their life, usually in idealized terms; then you provide some consolation for the living. Poets and scholars have long debated the ethics of elegy—whether an elegy can ever provide the consolation it promises, whether and under what circumstances we ought to make use of the dead, whether mourning enables or precludes political action. The answer to each of these questions is, of course, it depends. Still, there were two sentences from Diana Fuss’s Dying Modern: A Meditation on Modern Elegy on my mind the November I wrote “Anti-Elegy,” sentences that prompted me to return to my own questions about for whom and to what ends the elegy works. In the first, Fuss argues that the effect of elegy is “not merely to recognize the dead but also to bring them back to life.” In the second, she affirms R. Clifton Spargo’s claim that “ethics and elegy…both typically view every death as an injustice.” 

TDoR, too, is structured by these general claims: that it is important to keep the memory of individuals alive—to keep them with us—and that each entry on the list of the dead is an injustice. Undoubtedly each death on the list is the outcome of an injustice, but I’ve become increasingly suspicious of the idea that death itself is unjust. Often what is unjust is everything that preceded the end. What is unjust is the terms of living. There is something deeply unsettling, that is, to the insistence that someone ought to be alive in a world that did little to support that life. There is something deeply unsettling, therefore, about Fuss’s characterization of the elegy as a genre that strives to reanimate the dead, to bring them back. 

I find “Anti-Elegy,” as the product of these reflections, to be unsettling; its questioning of the elegy inevitably involves questioning the terms by which I came to understand myself as trans, by which I came to understand myself. Perhaps for this reason “Anti-Elegy” is formally an unsettled poem; it asks question after question and does not ever arrive at answers: “Who am I to say rise?…who am I to say, dance // with me here a little longer?” Driving this accumulation of questions is another question just beneath the surface—the poem is really asking, over and over, Should this poem exist? Should this poem exist? It depends. But this is, for all of us, an important question to ask of our work before we put it into the world. 

If we’re lucky, one poem leads us to the next. In this case, “Anti-Elegy” led me to write “All My Friends Are Sad & Bright,” a poem that is technically an elegy, but which leaves the dead in peace. Certainly this isn’t an answer to the “impossible ethical demands” of elegy, but there is something to be said for a poetics of trans/Black/queer life that takes death as its impetus, but not its object, that mourns but also (and because of this) hopes. 

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: In Praise of Writing in Longhand

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.29.19

This is no. 39 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

This sounds made up, but in my high school you could substitute a typing class for gym. As a bookish, lazy teenager, this was perfect for me. The class was called Fundamentals of Keyboarding, and we spent all semester doing home-key practices and speed drills. Near the end of each session the teacher would hand us some random page of text—it might be instructions for building a birdhouse or a page of a novel—and it was our job to type it, print it, and staple it to the original. I wasn’t great at a lot of things in high school, but I turned out to be a terrifically fast typist who rarely made mistakes; I loved holding the papers up to the light, seeing my words perfectly overlap with those on the handout. 

As an exercise in my first fiction workshop, the professor asked us to type a short story by our favorite writer. The idea was to feel the words come through our fingers, to pound out the rhythm of those admirable sentences ourselves. I still find typing immensely satisfying—it’s relaxing, almost a form of meditation. I like the mechanics of it, the way each letter translates to a physical movement, to a clicking sound, to a shape on the screen. I also have terrible handwriting. It’s barely legible and embarrassing, like someone has dared me to use my non-dominant hand. 

When I’m writing fiction, I’m typing on my laptop into a document, using the features meant to make things easy: cut, copy and paste, backspace. It’s convenient, it’s fast, and it’s the preferred method for most of the writers I know. I do a lot of pre-work in my head, by sound, so by the time I sit down to write, I have at least a few sentences ready. In the completely new sections, I’ll get into a flow, typing as fast as I can think, then doubling back and reading each sentence aloud. I’m constantly making changes as I go: correcting errors, substituting or cutting words, shifting whole sections around on the page.

But every once in a while I’ll get stuck, hung up on some fundamental, propulsive element of the story, like I’ve reached the end of the thread. Maybe I’m insecure about what comes next, paralyzed by doubt. Or maybe there’s a problem with a sentence I can’t work out on the screen, something tangled about the rhythm or syntax. As much as I hate it, the best thing I can do in this situation is pull the problem out of the computer and write it down.

All the usual disadvantages of writing in longhand become advantages: It’s slow, it requires more mechanical effort, the words must come in order with no easy erasures. I also have rules for myself: no crossing things out or moving/inserting words. If what I’ve written is wrong, I have to skip a line and write it again. If I realize halfway through a paragraph that a sentence belongs at some earlier point, I start the whole section over. When I’m writing things down, I press too hard and my hand cramps, so I have to take frequent breaks. This slow-building repetition lets me see the work differently. Writing in longhand is also uniquely tactile—there’s the feeling of the pen in my grip, my hand drifting across the page. I’m forcing my brain and body to connect with the story in a new way. 

Once I solve the problem, I’m eager to open the document on my computer. I’ll type in the revised section and move on, fast at the keyboard, back to the easy rhythm and familiar feel, until, inevitably, I come to the next snag. 

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Multiple Narrators

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.18.18

This is no. 35 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Before I became a writer, I was first an insatiable reader. From Curious George to Little Women to The Lover, I can mark the trajectory of my development as a writer against my reading choices. A particularly memorable turning point happened when I was eight years old. While at the library, I came across a chapter book called Morning Girl. The cover showed a young girl with dark brown hair and bare shoulders swimming in the open sea, and I picked it up because of the striking image. As I began reading, I fell for Morning Girl’s lush, bright voice as she described her fondness for waking early and searching the beach for seashells. I felt keenly for Morning Girl when her parents favored her younger brother. I had a younger sister, and I understood the mean yellow streaks of jealousy. 

The shock came when I turned to the next chapter. At the top of the page was the name Star Boy. This chapter, I realized as I read, was narrated not by the titular girl, but her younger brother. I remember the confusion I felt and how quickly it was replaced with giddy wonder. Up until that moment, I hadn’t known that a book could have multiple narrators. Morning Girl tore writing open for me: For the first time I recognized that writers were in control of how the story was told and that the possibilities were endless.

I’ve gravitated toward novels with multiple narrators ever since, so when I started writing If You Leave Me, I knew I wanted to try this format. However, I needed to make sure having multiple perspectives would serve my goals. My central character was Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee in Busan at the start of my novel. Did I really need the voices of her best friend Kyunghwan, her suitor Jisoo, her younger brother Hyunki, and eventually, her eldest daughter Solee? Thankfully, yes. After some examination, I realized that having multiple narrators allowed me to show the secrets characters were hiding not only from each other, but also from themselves. By alternating these voices, I was able to investigate how one event could be interpreted in various ways, depending on the character’s temperament and circumstance. For example, Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo all hungered in Busan during the Korean War, and yet their resulting traumas are each unique due to differences in class, gender, and family expectations. 

If You Leave Me spans sixteen years, from 1951 to 1967. Multiple perspectives also gave me the best means of capturing the landscape of Korea during this tumultuous time. Through my five alternating narrators, I was able to write about an ROK soldier in the Korean War; a college student in Seoul in the years afterward, when dictators ruled the nation; a factory worker forced to meet with a matchmaker; a mother yearning to escape her rural community; and a young daughter growing up in post-war Korea, when the vestiges of violence took on new forms.   

When my students say they want to write a novel with multiple perspectives, I’m secretly elated. However, I always remind them of the potential pitfalls. More voices may make your story feel fragmented, which can lead to readers preferring one character over another. In order to avoid this, it’s important to value each perspective equally. If you as the writer dislike one of your characters, the reader will feel that animosity in your words. The solution? Know your characters deeply on and off the page—know their desires, tics, fears, sexual preferences, favorite foods, secret dreams, worst habits. Develop them until you know them as intimately as a friend, in all of their complexities. In the end, I hope having multiple narrators in If You Leave Me enriches the reading experience. Haemi Lee’s voice is the center, but the four characters around her provide a lens not only into the larger history of Korea, but into Haemi’s complex, difficult temperament.

In my final Craft Capsule next week, I will talk more about Haemi and the necessity of “unlikable” female protagonists. 

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: A Form of Salvation

by

Simon Van Booy

6.20.18

This is no. 31 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When you start thinking creatively, it’s like releasing a live animal—a new species of mischief that cannot be contained to just one area of your life. Creativity is not like a machine that can be switched on and off. And therefore it does not end when you stand up from your desk after a few solid hours of work.

Ever wondered why you feel the urge to roller skate through a shopping mall listening to Abba? Leave strange notes on the doorsteps of strangers? Eat apples standing up in the bath, naked, with the window open?

Now you know. Creativity is a form of salvation.  

If we could limit creativity to just one area of our lives—how would we ever manage to convince ourselves to climb back in the rocket, and blast off again and again and again, to those distant galaxies of unwritten narrative? 

And stop worrying about getting published. You write because you’re obsessed with telling a story in a way that no one else can. Focus on that. Only that. Everything else will take care of itself.  And, please, for my sake—don’t ever think buying a plastic skeleton from a medical supply store then holding it up to the window when people walk past is a waste of time.  

Being a writer means opening your whole life to creativity. It is a commitment to overpowering fear with imagination and compassion for yourself, as well as others. As a person who writes you’ll be a better mother, son, best friend, aunt, cousin, coach, or bank teller. Because learning to write is learning to see, and striving to see beyond is perhaps the only hope for our species.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Oblique Strategies

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.15.19

This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.

The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.

When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”) 

The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that’s exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Oblique Strategies

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.15.19

This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.

The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.

When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”) 

The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that’s exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Consulting the Tarot

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

2.24.20

This is no. 50 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was raised in a house of reason where there was no God, no witchcraft, no science fiction, no astrology, and certainly no tarot. These things were for the weak, and we were not weak. But I’ll never forget when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dawned on me why Tom prayed so much: He was just trying to get through the day. I was weak, I knew. To make it from dawn to dusk, I too needed all the help I could get. 

Tarot came into my life through the friend, the friend I lost, and it is the thing she gave me more than any other for which I offer her my supreme gratitude. To be fair, I acquired the deck itself—The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans—much earlier; I bought it on impulse late one night on the gushing recommendation of someone I’d met at a party. You are not supposed to buy a tarot deck for yourself, I learned later, perhaps because without the blessing of someone you love to imbue the paper and images with power, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

I cannot now separate tarot from the friend, and I cannot separate tarot from writing. She and I became friends during the period when the card of the moon, which according to my deck “encompasses the idea of the Wild Unknown,” was my near constant companion. She taught me how to do the simplest spread—past, present, future—and led me to Michelle Tea’s book on tarot, life, and writing, Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards. Past, present, future; beginning, middle, and end. My friend and I began to draw a single card to set the mood for our writing sessions together, held at a ramshackle coworking space in the neighborhood where we lived.

What I like about drawing a single card before writing is that it allows me a single place to put my feelings about that day’s words—all my fear that the words won’t come and all my fear that they will. Drawing a single card, the mother of pentacles, for instance, which offers an image of a deer and her fawn, gives me a door at which to knock when I can’t see any of that paragraph’s architecture. She excels in the home, the card says: Perhaps I’ll turn my scent diffuser on, or I’ll have a character bake a scone, or I’ll think about why some person in my book moved around so much from place to place. It’s not so much a place to start writing but rather a way to give the day’s writing a particular mood or scent or inflection. Draw the death card, which in The Wild Unknown simply means that “something in your life needs to end…something is trying to find closure,” and the idea of ending and closure will start bonking around in my brain until it hits something in my writing that needed either to finish or to begin. Each card is like a prompt I suppose, except instead of being wacky and contrived, it feels like a prompt I gave myself from the darkest recesses of my unconscious, a shortcut to the place I was trying to go. 

I drew a card every day while writing The Third Rainbow Girl, which explores a mysterious act of violence in Pocahontas County, West Virginia in 1980, the Appalachian community where it transpired, and my own time in the place as a national service worker. For nearly the entirety of the fifteen months when I was most actively engaged, sentence by sentence, in writing the book, I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night. Then every morning I went to the deck and chose a card. I am not exaggerating when I say that I chose the moon card almost every time, no matter how well I shuffled. The card’s overall theme: vivid dreams and fears. I read the card’s description so many times I can recite it by heart:

[The moon] is the shadow realm, the place where dreams, fears, and mysteries are born. Much darkness can linger here, and if you aren’t careful, this can lead to periods of anxiety and self-doubt almost as if you’ve lost your way in a house of mirrors. Many great artists have roamed this inner landscape. It’s where imagination and creativity drift freely upon the midnight air.

That about summed it up. Fuck the fucking moon, I began to say aloud each time I drew it. Fuck this fucking book.

But the moon would not be fucked and neither would the book I was writing; they would not go away until they went away and maybe not even then. Eventually, I finished the book and I lost the friend. I’m drawing new cards these days—a lot of pentacles, the suit of home and hearth. I hope I drift less and dig more in the next book, but of course, it’s not up to me. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Altınay Dinç

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Minor Characters

by

Carter Sickels

4.27.20

This is no. 58 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Families, however troubled, have their own unique way of functioning, like a single organism that holds its secrets, memories, habits, and narratives close. In my new novel, The Prettiest Star, the central story is about the Jacksons, who are learning to be with one another again after twenty-four-year-old Brian, who has recently found out he is HIV-positive, returns home after six years away in New York City. I wanted the novel—which is told from the perspectives of Brian, his younger sister, and his mother—to wrestle with internal family dynamics, but I quickly realized, in order to understand the Jacksons individually and as a family, I also needed them to engage with characters outside their immediate circle. 

Early on, I sent Brian’s younger sister, fourteen-year-old Jess, to the public swimming pool with a couple girls on her softball team. I had to get her away from her parents, brother, and relatives in order to understand how much the family secrets weigh on every moment of her life, but also to see Jess with more clarity—what makes her tick, what is she like? At the swimming pool, Jess feels both bored and uncomfortable around her teammates, who are only interested in impressing boys. When a couple of boys approach the girls, the scene also reveals a spark of resistance and sass in Jess I didn’t know she had. These minor characters brought tension and texture to the narrative, but also gave me insight into one of my major characters.

Sometimes, minor characters develop into key players—perhaps not quite major characters, but close. When Nick Marshall showed up in my novel, he was a minor character who quickly grew into one of my favorites and earned more time on the playing field. Nick is an outsider—a loner, a hood. He’s from a poor family, his parents are divorced, he smokes and drinks beer, and he’s a talented artist. Nick engages Jess outside of the sealed family, where she forms another life. When she’s with Nick, she shows a side of herself her family doesn’t see: rebellious, talkative, and flirtatious. Jess and Nick discuss death, dreams, disappointments. Without Nick, not only would major plot points vanish, but also Jess’s complexities and layers would recede. And in order for Nick to be believable, I had to spend time with him, I had to develop him the same way I did the central characters—figuring out his background, his personality and hobbies, his dreams and fears and joys.

Not all characters must change, and in fact, many of them won’t. But they still demand attention and need to be written with specificity and precision. Maybe readers will only catch a glimpse of their true depths because in this particular novel, these minor characters exist in order to reveal another facet of the protagonist, advance the narrative, or build tension—but we also sense they are complex, mysterious beings who could easily walk out of the pages of this book into a different one that tells their story, in which they are the stars. 

I tell my students to make their characters talk to and mingle with one other—don’t let your characters exist in a vacuum. If you’re stuck, or need a different way of looking at your story, bring in a cranky neighbor, an old flame, a great-aunt, a salesman, a bad date. How does your protagonist engage with this person? What do they say, what do they think? What’s their body language? Often it’s the minor characters who reveal something unexpected and surprising about the central characters, and sometimes, these minor figures catch the light in way that makes you want to listen closer, to follow them home and learn more.

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including GuernicaBellevue Literary ReviewGreen Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Joel Filipe

Craft Capsule: Catalogues, Cetaceans, and Casey Kasem

by

Carter Sickels

4.20.20

This is no. 57 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

My second novel, The Prettiest Star, examines America during the time of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when the U.S. government, churches, schools, and families turned their backs on gay men who were dying. I was a young teenager during that time. I remember Ryan White on TV, the jokes at school, the rampant homophobia. For my research I read many books, newspapers, magazines, oral histories. I watched feature films and documentaries. I talked to friends. Much of the research was difficult and heavy and sad. 

But I also needed to study and compile those seemingly more frivolous details that are actually crucial to capturing a specific time and place: the clothes, music, movies, hairstyles, and so on. My personal memories of the 1980s helped, but for inspiration, accuracy, and veracity, I knew I had to explore a variety of archives to lead me into the past.   

If you grew up in the 1980s, you may remember the JCPenney and Sears catalogues. The size of phone books, they arrived in the mail with each new season. The most important was the Christmas catalogue; when I was a kid, I pored over the newspaper-print pages of toys and wrote up a detailed list for Santa. My parents had thrown out our copies years ago, so I ordered a few from eBay. When the catalogues arrived, they smelled faintly of cigarette smoke. One of them featured model Cheryl Tiegs wearing a safari-style jumpsuit and cuddling with a Bengal tiger kitten. The catalogues made excellent coffee table books—my guests flipped nostalgically through the pages, laughing at the absurdity. 

There were pages and pages of fashion: watches with bright bands, women posing in leotards and leg warmers, very serious men in silk pajamas. I studied the clothes and shoes my characters would wear, hairstyles. I learned the cost of things: men’s warm-up suit, $37.99; sheepskin car-seat cover, $99.99; answering machine, $179.00. The pictures helped me design my characters’ homes, too: the heavy peach drapes, the harvest-gold oven. Which objects would show up in my characters’ rooms and closets? One of my narrators, Jess, who’s fourteen, wears a Walkman to escape family tension and secrecy. I remembered the art of making mixed tapes, the sound of the rewinding cassette, the feeling of the foam on my ears. 

At antique and secondhand stores, I hunted for old magazines and found copies of TV Guide, People, and Life. Online research opened up a world of music videos and TV commercials, sound bites from Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40, and eighties photographs of malls, SeaWorld, and high schools. On a wall in my office, I hung a picture of a tape store at a mall next to a found photo of an old woman in her kitchen, which reminded me of one of my characters. Along with all the found photos, I hung xeroxes of Nan Goldin’s brilliant photographs documenting the queer and artist community of 1980s New York—all the pain and loss, and love; Alvin Baltrop’s photographs of queer life and the West Side Piers in the seventies and eighties; and William Yang’s heartbreaking portraits of gay, HIV-positive men. And, because Jess loves whales, I tacked images of orcas that I’d cut out of the issue of National Geographic she would have read in 1984. 

It’s easy to get lost in the writing. I enjoy the hours and hours of research and immersing myself in the world of the novel. For me, the pictures on the walls and photographs and catalogues create a collage of visual reminders, a kind of map that inspires me to step inside. 

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including GuernicaBellevue Literary ReviewGreen Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Daniel Schludi

Craft Capsule: Multiple Points of View

by

Carter Sickels

4.13.20

This is no. 56 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, The Poisonwood Diaries by Barbara Kingsolver, The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson, People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman, There There by Tommy Orange. All of these wonderful novels use multiple points of view and weave a tapestry of voices, with each character relaying their own version of the story to tell a broader narrative of family, place, or community.

My novel The Prettiest Star, set in 1986, follows Brian Jackson, a young, gay, HIV-positive man, who leaves New York City to return to the rural small town where he grew up and where his family still lives. When I first started writing, I wrote from the point of view of Jess, Brian’s fourteen-year-old sister, about the day Brian returns. Then I wrote sections from Brian’s perspective: What was it like to come back to the home he couldn’t wait to escape? A few months in I wrote a chapter from their mother Sharon’s perspective and suddenly realized I would need all three voices to tell this story of shame, secrets, and silences, and the complicated ties of familial love and betrayal. Writing from Sharon’s point of view gave me another angle into the story—a complicated, troubling one. Sharon is the voice of restraint and denial. She loves her son, but her worry about what neighbors and God will think get in the way.

Despite its reputation, first-person point of view is not easy to pull off. My first creative writing teacher, the brilliant Eve Shelnutt, had very strong opinions about writing, and she warned me to not even try first-person narration until I’d written at least twenty or thirty stories in third person. First-person narration seems easy to write because when it’s done well, the voice sounds intimate and authentic—we believe. But as the writer, you’re making particular choices about diction, syntax, and rhythm, so that you create a voice that sounds natural, but isn’t, most likely, exactly how that character would talk. 

Juggling multiple first-person narrators created another challenge: The individual voices must sound unique and separate, yet their differences should not be so obvious that they draw attention to the artifice of first person. For my three characters, in addition to trying to capture their voices through word choices and syntax, I paid attention to their interior lives: How do they think and feel, how do they view the world, and what is important to them? Their emotional timbre and interiority led me to their voices: Sharon’s denial, Jess’s youthful savviness, and Brian’s hurt, fear, and anger. Brian is the anchor of the novel, and his sections were the most difficult to write. A couple years into the process, I figured out that if I framed Brian’s sections as video diaries—he uses a video camera to document his last summer, and directly addresses the viewer/reader about his experiences as a queer man living during the AIDS epidemic—I could set his chapters apart, and reveal him at his most vulnerable, artistic, and honest. Moreover, the dated video diaries serve as a ticking clock; like so many young gay men, Brian will not survive this plague, but he wants to bear witness and document for posterity.

Alternating between characters chapter by chapter also informed my approach to the writing process. Some days, I switched between characters—an hour with Jess, then an hour with Brian. This approach gave me a better sense of how the novel worked as a whole. And it was sometimes a relief to move from one character to another, to get out of one character’s head and dive into another’s. On other days, I spent the hours intensely focused on a single character—immersed in one voice, one side of the story. I followed a similar approach when I printed out a full draft to revise—I read aloud all the Sharon chapters together, then all the Brian chapters, then all of Jess’s. Did the characters’ voices sound consistent? Did they carry their sections? Did the characters have their own individual narrative arcs? Then I arranged the chapters in the correct order and read my novel from beginning to end, paying close attention to how the alternating voices built tension and created momentum. 

Writing a novel with multiple first-person narrators was challenging, but it also brought me a lot of pleasure and joy. I tried to fully inhabit my characters—to write from a place of empathy while digging deep into their flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities.  

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including GuernicaBellevue Literary ReviewGreen Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Jason Leung

Craft Capsule: Cut for Time

by

Carter Sickels

4.6.20

This is no. 55 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When you’re reading a good novel, you’re not usually thinking about the passages the author cut, the intense revision process, or all the pages the author wrote in order to get to The Writing. These sweaty, often clumsy and inelegant pages don’t show up in the book you’re holding, but they were essential to finishing the novel.

My first novel, The Evening Hour, about Cole Freeman, a small-time drug dealer and nurse’s home aide living in the coalfields of West Virginia, took six years to write. The novel uses third-person limited narration, but in order to figure out Cole, I filled up notebooks with him speaking in first person—this voice wasn’t strong enough to carry the novel, but it revealed his innermost thoughts and feelings. I also wrote monologues for the other characters to learn how people viewed Cole. I did not intend for any of this “extra” writing to go into the novel, but it was invaluable—a way for me to gather information about Cole’s family and community, and better understand his conflicts, secrets, and desires. 

I’ve kept writing journals for years; they’re a hodgepodge of personal memories, ideas, quotes, observations. A few years ago, when I team-taught a novel writing class with the author Alexis Smith, she wisely suggested keeping a journal dedicated solely and entirely to your novel—nothing goes in unless novel-related. 

My new novel, The Prettiest Star, took around four and a half years to write. Most of this time, I was sitting at my desk, typing on my laptop. But I also filled up four Decomposition Books with material. These novel-notebooks are raw and intimate, brewing with my questions, concerns, ideas. They contain crucial writing around and behind the novel, the words and scraps of ideas and shimmers of light that spill beyond the pages of the manuscript. They’re a form of play, and all writers need time to play. Now that the novel is finished, they’re an archive, and a reminder of how messy, exhilarating, joyful, and confounding the writing process is, a mix of hard work and faith and a little bit of magic. 

Found in the pages of my notebooks:

• Lists of scenes to write
• Character sketches
• Character freewrites and monologues: their dreams, hopes, fears, memories
• Chapter outlines
• Lists of clothing, movies, TV shows, music 
• Descriptions of characters’ rooms
• Hypotheticals: What would happen if this happened, or that
• Timelines
• Blueprints of houses
• Maps of the town
• Early working titles 
• Lists of character names, street names, restaurants
• Lists of objects from the eighties (sticker books, Rubik’s Cube, etc.) 
• Notes on important events, imagery, or places to return to (i.e. the abandoned drive-in)
• Questions, questions, questions—about characters, plot, structure, themes. How does Jess find out Brian has AIDS? How do the rumors get started?

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Jon Tyson

Craft Capsule: Researching IRL

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

3.2.20

This is no. 51 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“I was slow to realize that if we write what we know,” writes Margot Livesey in her book The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing, “research could help me know more.” I retweet this quote, but add the comment: “So can reporting.” 

I never wanted to be a reporter or a journalist. The word journalist had always conjured the image of someone in black dress pants and sensible shoes. Journalists, if femme, definitely carry purses, and all of my purses are collecting massive cat-fur bunnies at the bottom of a closet that mostly houses an air conditioning duct. But there came a time when I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the hellmouth of the culture wars that were to become the forces that shaped the 2016 election opened, and all around me I saw things I could not explain—the Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia’s culture of rape was released, then “debunked.” A Black UVA student leader was badly beaten and the campus was flooded, not with empathy, but with racist celebration. Two girls, one white and cis, the other Black and trans, went missing to vastly different results. The fiction I was working on began to seem limp and pointless in the face of such blatant evil and abject confusion. I began—as any good millennial might—on my phone. I Googled murder and why people do it, I Googled white supremacy and why people do it. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that the answers I sought weren’t there, not on that screen and not in that small enclosed car interior that held only me. They were somewhere else, with someone else. 

This is what reporting means: You pick up the phone and dial a number and ask the person on the other side some questions and write down or record what they say. Or you get in a car and drive to where that person lives. They let you in and you look around at their house and taste what their water tastes like and then you ask them questions and write down or record what they say. That’s it. That’s the magic. 

For it is magic. You ask the right person the right question at the right time, and they’ll tell you something that has never before been told in the history of the world. Where do we think the information on the internet comes from? At some point, some person who knew a true thing told that information to another person, and they wrote it down. Of course, many people may say many true things that contradict each other, but that is true too. You write down or record what they all say. 

I am not sure why so many literary writers who otherwise enjoy making truth eschew reporting—so hard! So scary! And I could write a whole other screed on the dangers of what so many of us often do: link to a story that links to another story that links to another story the original basis of which is maybe untrue or maybe just a single source that nobody bothered to fact-check—but that is for another day. Suffice it to say, reporting has become a key tool in my nonfiction, not because I have any particular skill for the process, but because I don’t mind picking up the phone (Jewish upward mobility patterns) and seeing what happens. There is a particular joy in knowing you don’t know, in acknowledging that your imagination and experience do not contain what is necessary to say the truest possible thing. If you are not careful, reporting may, as it has for me, become a kind of addiction because once you start knowing what you don’t know, it is nearly impossible to stop.

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’sGranta, the Los Angeles Review of BooksAmerican Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Sylvie Rosokoff

Craft Capsule: Stillness and Silence

by

Mimi Lok

1.20.20

This is no. 47 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I am one of those people who enjoys reading articles about the rituals and habits of writers. Partly because the articles acknowledge the work and commitment that goes into writing a story or a book, and partly because they demystify the process a little. But I’ll admit that I’m also reading because, in the same way that I’ve clicked on BuzzFeed listicles of household items that promise to magically increase my happiness quotient, I’m often hoping for a quick fix when I feel stuck or unproductive. 

I’ve repeatedly thrown myself too eagerly into a new writing ritual, hoping it will unlock something and then inspiration will flow. I’ve tried only writing at certain times of day or night. I’ve tried maintaining an immaculately organized desk, pens and notebook neatly lined up along the table’s edge. I’ve tried writing in the dark cave of a closet, and in front of a window, the view ideally green and leafy, though a view of a brick wall, it turns out, is fine too. One writer I know cannot work without the bustle of people around her, which becomes a reassuring sort of white noise. I often like a quietish room with faint sounds of human life, but have also been able to write with a teenager playing video games next to me. Total isolation, I’ve discovered, feels claustrophobic and lonely. 

I’ve come to realize that, rather than striving to create the best atmosphere for writing, what really matters is creating the conditions for pre-writing. Silence. And by silence I don’t mean the absence of external noise, but of internal noise. As Kimberlee Pérez describes it, silence is “a point of entry into deep listening.” 

So how does one create silence? One way is through meditation.  

I consider myself a lousy meditator. Not that it’s a competitive sport or anything, but I am the first to admit I could do it more often, and for longer. Still, more than taking a walk, or going for a run, or taking a shower, or eating a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits, I’ve found that meditating helps my writing. When I meditate, I’m definitely not turning over a writing problem in my mind. I’m just trying to pay attention—trying being the operative word—to nothing but my breath. In, out. In, out. It’s bloody difficult to do. Only when I invite stillness do I have to contend with how cluttered and hectic my mind really is, like a monkey on amphetamines jumping from branch to vine to branch, ooh what’s that over there, I’ll swing onto that roof as well, oh no! I’ve landed in pigeon shit, oh well, look, banana! (This is what 99 percent of meditating is like. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.) And I never expect epiphanies, but sometimes in that monkey mess or in very rare moments of equanimity, thoughts will shoot up from the depths and break the surface. 

Afterwards, I am most definitely not full of clarity or calm. But I usually find I have a little bit more space in my head, and I’m a little bit more alert. I might not return to the writing straight away. I might make a cup of tea first, or leave it until later that day, or the next day. But when I do return to the page, I encounter the work, more often than not, in a slightly different way, the path ahead cleared of whatever obstacles were previously blocking it. Or maybe the obstacles were previously invisible to me and now I can identify them. 

Meditation is not a quick fix, or a hotline to call up in a moment of crisis. Like writing, it requires practice so that the mind gets used to stilling and quieting itself enough to listen. It’s like going to a mental gym, and even if 99 percent of the time my thoughts fly all over the place, the practice does eventually translate into a kind of discipline of the mind when I’m writing, and helps me to stay in the moment of the story—to focus and immerse myself, and to listen for what comes next.  

How to meditate:

  1. Turn off or silence your phone and put it in another room.
     
  2. Set an analog timer for fifteen minutes.
     
  3. Find a sitting position (chair, cushion, stool, etcetera) that you think you’ll be comfortable in for that duration.
     
  4. Close your eyes and focus on your breath in the space between your nostrils and your upper lip. (Sometimes I like to count my breaths up to ten, then start over so that it doesn’t feel as if I’m breathing into the howling abyss of eternity.)
     
  5. If you feel your mind stray, breathe in and out more deeply for a few breaths, then return to normal breathing.
     
  6. If you feel your mind stray, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just return to your breath with the gentleness and patience you might employ if you had to guide a lamb or a small child away from a cliff edge.
     
  7. Rinse and repeat until the timer goes off. 

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Thumbnail: Chi Tranter

Craft Capsule: Stillness and Silence

by

Mimi Lok

1.20.20

This is no. 47 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I am one of those people who enjoys reading articles about the rituals and habits of writers. Partly because the articles acknowledge the work and commitment that goes into writing a story or a book, and partly because they demystify the process a little. But I’ll admit that I’m also reading because, in the same way that I’ve clicked on BuzzFeed listicles of household items that promise to magically increase my happiness quotient, I’m often hoping for a quick fix when I feel stuck or unproductive. 

I’ve repeatedly thrown myself too eagerly into a new writing ritual, hoping it will unlock something and then inspiration will flow. I’ve tried only writing at certain times of day or night. I’ve tried maintaining an immaculately organized desk, pens and notebook neatly lined up along the table’s edge. I’ve tried writing in the dark cave of a closet, and in front of a window, the view ideally green and leafy, though a view of a brick wall, it turns out, is fine too. One writer I know cannot work without the bustle of people around her, which becomes a reassuring sort of white noise. I often like a quietish room with faint sounds of human life, but have also been able to write with a teenager playing video games next to me. Total isolation, I’ve discovered, feels claustrophobic and lonely. 

I’ve come to realize that, rather than striving to create the best atmosphere for writing, what really matters is creating the conditions for pre-writing. Silence. And by silence I don’t mean the absence of external noise, but of internal noise. As Kimberlee Pérez describes it, silence is “a point of entry into deep listening.” 

So how does one create silence? One way is through meditation.  

I consider myself a lousy meditator. Not that it’s a competitive sport or anything, but I am the first to admit I could do it more often, and for longer. Still, more than taking a walk, or going for a run, or taking a shower, or eating a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits, I’ve found that meditating helps my writing. When I meditate, I’m definitely not turning over a writing problem in my mind. I’m just trying to pay attention—trying being the operative word—to nothing but my breath. In, out. In, out. It’s bloody difficult to do. Only when I invite stillness do I have to contend with how cluttered and hectic my mind really is, like a monkey on amphetamines jumping from branch to vine to branch, ooh what’s that over there, I’ll swing onto that roof as well, oh no! I’ve landed in pigeon shit, oh well, look, banana! (This is what 99 percent of meditating is like. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.) And I never expect epiphanies, but sometimes in that monkey mess or in very rare moments of equanimity, thoughts will shoot up from the depths and break the surface. 

Afterwards, I am most definitely not full of clarity or calm. But I usually find I have a little bit more space in my head, and I’m a little bit more alert. I might not return to the writing straight away. I might make a cup of tea first, or leave it until later that day, or the next day. But when I do return to the page, I encounter the work, more often than not, in a slightly different way, the path ahead cleared of whatever obstacles were previously blocking it. Or maybe the obstacles were previously invisible to me and now I can identify them. 

Meditation is not a quick fix, or a hotline to call up in a moment of crisis. Like writing, it requires practice so that the mind gets used to stilling and quieting itself enough to listen. It’s like going to a mental gym, and even if 99 percent of the time my thoughts fly all over the place, the practice does eventually translate into a kind of discipline of the mind when I’m writing, and helps me to stay in the moment of the story—to focus and immerse myself, and to listen for what comes next.  

How to meditate:

  1. Turn off or silence your phone and put it in another room.
     
  2. Set an analog timer for fifteen minutes.
     
  3. Find a sitting position (chair, cushion, stool, etcetera) that you think you’ll be comfortable in for that duration.
     
  4. Close your eyes and focus on your breath in the space between your nostrils and your upper lip. (Sometimes I like to count my breaths up to ten, then start over so that it doesn’t feel as if I’m breathing into the howling abyss of eternity.)
     
  5. If you feel your mind stray, breathe in and out more deeply for a few breaths, then return to normal breathing.
     
  6. If you feel your mind stray, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just return to your breath with the gentleness and patience you might employ if you had to guide a lamb or a small child away from a cliff edge.
     
  7. Rinse and repeat until the timer goes off. 

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Thumbnail: Chi Tranter

Craft Capsule: Living Images

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

3.9.20

This is no. 52 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Lynda Barry has this thing about images; she says they’re alive. The writer and comics artist’s philosophy on making art is difficult to explain because it’s so true—but I’ll try. Find an image from your memory that’s alive and then draw or write it, she says, whichever is more your thing. Anything can be an image. Your first phone number when you say it out loud, a flash of an old notebook with a snowman in it, a brick wall you saw yesterday. 

Almost all of my projects have started from images. For my nonfiction book, The Third Rainbow Girl, it was the image of three women hitchhikers: two on one side of the road, the third on the other side and heading in the opposite direction. For my short story “Fat Swim,” it was the image of a little fat girl looking through a chain-link fence to watch a group of fat women in bathing suits happily playing together in a pool. I cannot remember if Lynda Barry says this or if I say this, but the key to turning an image into a narrative is to ask: Into what life does this image come? For whom is this image urgent?

It doesn’t sound like something Lynda Barry would say. It sounds too pragmatic, and too focused on making an image into something, something you can package and sell, and LB isn’t usually that into somethings. Her books on the craft of writing and drawing, What It Is, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, and Making Comics, are much more focused on the nothings than the somethings: the places where memory crashes up onto the sand of the present and leaves a shadow impression once it’s retreated, the spaces in childhood for abject despair that just never get filled in, the ways that ghosts of childhood play can morph and change and haunt us, telling us our ideas and feelings are not even worth recording. Of all these books, What It Is has the most to say about images and the craft of writing. I know exactly where this book is in my house at all times. I can see it now, downstairs on the biggest bottom bookshelf nestled up against the fancy Aperture catalogue, with its big smooth cover and its slick pages, once textured collages LB made with her own hands but now the regular thickness of regular paper. 

For a while I kept a notebook of three images from my day and made my writing students do the same. They could be images from the present or from the past: a red sneaker against a silver background on Philly’s El train, the look on my old cat’s face when he stuck his nose in my ear to wake me up, or whatever else came up that day. When I was empty sitting down to write at my desk, I could flip through this image catalogue and see what caught, what still felt alive. I should probably start doing that again. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’sGranta, the Los Angeles Review of BooksAmerican Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Guillaume Paumier

Craft Capsule: In Praise of Drastic Measures

by

Mimi Lok

2.3.20

This is no. 49 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

It can be helpful, at a certain point in a writing project, to change up elements that previously felt off limits. One of these elements is setting. 

About ten years ago I came across a short news article about a woman in Japan who’d been arrested for sneaking into a man’s home and living in his closet. When the police asked why she’d done it, she said that she had nowhere else to live. I tried to find out more, but every piece I found recycled the same couple of paragraphs. It didn’t make sense to me that there wasn’t more to the story—there was so much more I wanted to know. I kept thinking, Who is this woman? 

Her story became the basis for my novella “The Woman in the Closet”—the final story in my debut collection, Last of Her Name. For the longest time I’d kept the setting faithful to the article, to both honor the inspiration for the story and to help ground my fictional extrapolations in a culturally and socially specific context. But when I was working on the manuscript with my editor, Sunyoung Lee, we grappled with a couple of issues with the story. First: The other stories in the collection focused on Chinese characters. This story, with its Japanese protagonist and setting, was an outlier in that sense, and I twisted myself into knots trying to connect it to the rest of the collection. Maybe the protagonist, Granny Ito, was half Chinese? Or maybe she was Chinese and immigrated to Japan? It all felt rather strained. The other issue with the story was that, as careful as I’d tried to be, I’d still tripped up on certain details that Sunyoung, whose husband is Japanese, pointed out were culturally inaccurate, such as the kind of soup one would serve a guest in a certain situation. The casual reader wouldn’t have caught it, but someone familiar with Japanese culture and customs would, and I didn’t want to have anything in there that would be a distraction. I was prepared to go through the story again with a fine-tooth comb to try and catch other inaccuracies, but then Sunyoung asked, “Is there a particular reason why it’s set in Japan?” I bristled at the notion that it could be set anywhere but Japan, but at the same time my defense of the choice sounded, well, defensive, when said aloud. Sunyoung asked me to consider changing the setting, and if it didn’t feel right then we’d stick to the original and figure out how to make it work.

I relocated the story to Hong Kong, changing the names, locations, cultural references, and so on. Almost immediately I felt the story clicking along with more ease. But I soon encountered a different issue: Hong Kong, unlike Japan, doesn’t have tent villages, and tent villages feature prominently in the story. Then I thought, But it could…in the future. Given the increasing wealth disparity in Hong Kong and the city’s ongoing instability—though the current protests hadn’t started yet when I wrote this story—I decided it wasn’t at all beyond the realm of possibility. So the story moved from Japan to Hong Kong, from the present to the near-future, and Granny Ito became Granny Ng. Just like that, the story was infused with a different, subtly futuristic kind of energy that rippled back through the other stories in the collection—stories that also jumped around in time and place, but which all occupied the past or present. Ending the collection with a story set in the future felt right. Even now, when I imagine the two versions of the story next to each other, I see the original through a slightly dim, faded Polaroid filter, and the final version with the clarity of a bright, blue sky.                   

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: Voice in the Epistolary Story

by

Mimi Lok

1.27.20

This is no. 48 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Epistolary stories can be tricky to pull off—they can seem contrived, awkward, or precious. There’s often a delicate balance at play when calibrating the reader’s awareness of the form and their immersion in the world of the story. In the case of letters, the letter writer’s voice, in this regard, is crucial. It’s a bit like being driven by a guide through an unfamiliar landscape—you’re looking at the scenery and at people going about their business, aware that you can only see so much through the windscreen and passenger side window, but you’re okay with that because you know you’re in a car. But what you don’t want to be thinking about is how broken-down or fancy the car is, or how your guide is driving, because you only tend to notice someone’s driving when you’re worried they don’t have full control of the vehicle.

I wrestled with voice a lot in my epistolary story “The Wrong Dave,” which appeared in my debut collection, Last of Her Name. The protagonist, Dave, a soon-to-be-married man in London, embarks upon an illicit correspondence with Yi, a wedding crasher he briefly met several years ago in Hong Kong. Yi contacts him out of the blue, grief-stricken after a death in her family, and Dave suspects she’s writing to the wrong Dave. Still, he decides to continue writing to her. From this point in the story on, the reader, like Dave, sees Yi entirely through her e-mail exchanges with Dave, who becomes increasingly infatuated with her.

Writing this story, I considered how letters allow for absence and omission, and how those elements can help fuel a fantasy of someone you don’t know that well. E-mail is such a strange, inadequate medium of communication, and because so much is left out and what remains is magnified, sometimes way out of proportion, it becomes fertile ground for misunderstanding and obsession. So while we see the various external and internal aspects of Dave’s life and follow him around a fair bit, I wanted the reader to have limited access to Yi. I wanted her to be tantalizing to the reader as well as to Dave—not exactly in the same way, but enough to believe why Dave would be so drawn to her. 

The e-mails brought out the very different ways in which Dave and Yi express themselves and what that says about why they’re writing to the other person. Yi’s e-mails are almost an unfiltered stream of consciousness—you get the feeling she’s not even thinking about what she’s writing—but Dave is extremely neurotic and careful about every word, as if he’s worried he’s going to expose himself in some way. For Yi, she wants to be seen—she uses the e-mails to try and make a human connection—but she’s also screaming her grief and anger into the void. It was really freeing for me, someone who tends more towards Dave’s type of e-mail neurosis, to write in Yi’s voice. Dave, however, definitely hides behind the medium. Its remove from the physical world, combined with its immediacy, lets him continue to feed his secret correspondence and romanticizing of Yi, completely free of consequence—or so he thinks.

The limited access to Yi leads the reader, like Dave, to project various ideas about the kind of person she might be, or the kind of person Dave might want her to be—the difference being that the reader is more aware of this projection than Dave himself is. She says so much, but to what is Dave really paying attention? And in Dave’s case, there’s the dissonance between the insight the reader has into his life and the vastness of what he chooses not to reveal about himself in his e-mails. 

So, in the case of epistolary stories based on letters, it’s important to understand why the characters are writing to each other, what kind of language is particular to them, and what the form reveals or hides—and how that squares with what you want revealed, or hidden from, your reader.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Thumbnail: Joanna Kosinska

Craft Capsule: Voice in the Epistolary Story

by

Mimi Lok

1.27.20

This is no. 48 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Epistolary stories can be tricky to pull off—they can seem contrived, awkward, or precious. There’s often a delicate balance at play when calibrating the reader’s awareness of the form and their immersion in the world of the story. In the case of letters, the letter writer’s voice, in this regard, is crucial. It’s a bit like being driven by a guide through an unfamiliar landscape—you’re looking at the scenery and at people going about their business, aware that you can only see so much through the windscreen and passenger side window, but you’re okay with that because you know you’re in a car. But what you don’t want to be thinking about is how broken-down or fancy the car is, or how your guide is driving, because you only tend to notice someone’s driving when you’re worried they don’t have full control of the vehicle.

I wrestled with voice a lot in my epistolary story “The Wrong Dave,” which appeared in my debut collection, Last of Her Name. The protagonist, Dave, a soon-to-be-married man in London, embarks upon an illicit correspondence with Yi, a wedding crasher he briefly met several years ago in Hong Kong. Yi contacts him out of the blue, grief-stricken after a death in her family, and Dave suspects she’s writing to the wrong Dave. Still, he decides to continue writing to her. From this point in the story on, the reader, like Dave, sees Yi entirely through her e-mail exchanges with Dave, who becomes increasingly infatuated with her.

Writing this story, I considered how letters allow for absence and omission, and how those elements can help fuel a fantasy of someone you don’t know that well. E-mail is such a strange, inadequate medium of communication, and because so much is left out and what remains is magnified, sometimes way out of proportion, it becomes fertile ground for misunderstanding and obsession. So while we see the various external and internal aspects of Dave’s life and follow him around a fair bit, I wanted the reader to have limited access to Yi. I wanted her to be tantalizing to the reader as well as to Dave—not exactly in the same way, but enough to believe why Dave would be so drawn to her. 

The e-mails brought out the very different ways in which Dave and Yi express themselves and what that says about why they’re writing to the other person. Yi’s e-mails are almost an unfiltered stream of consciousness—you get the feeling she’s not even thinking about what she’s writing—but Dave is extremely neurotic and careful about every word, as if he’s worried he’s going to expose himself in some way. For Yi, she wants to be seen—she uses the e-mails to try and make a human connection—but she’s also screaming her grief and anger into the void. It was really freeing for me, someone who tends more towards Dave’s type of e-mail neurosis, to write in Yi’s voice. Dave, however, definitely hides behind the medium. Its remove from the physical world, combined with its immediacy, lets him continue to feed his secret correspondence and romanticizing of Yi, completely free of consequence—or so he thinks.

The limited access to Yi leads the reader, like Dave, to project various ideas about the kind of person she might be, or the kind of person Dave might want her to be—the difference being that the reader is more aware of this projection than Dave himself is. She says so much, but to what is Dave really paying attention? And in Dave’s case, there’s the dissonance between the insight the reader has into his life and the vastness of what he chooses not to reveal about himself in his e-mails. 

So, in the case of epistolary stories based on letters, it’s important to understand why the characters are writing to each other, what kind of language is particular to them, and what the form reveals or hides—and how that squares with what you want revealed, or hidden from, your reader.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Thumbnail: Joanna Kosinska

Craft Capsule: Voice in the Epistolary Story

by

Mimi Lok

1.27.20

This is no. 48 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Epistolary stories can be tricky to pull off—they can seem contrived, awkward, or precious. There’s often a delicate balance at play when calibrating the reader’s awareness of the form and their immersion in the world of the story. In the case of letters, the letter writer’s voice, in this regard, is crucial. It’s a bit like being driven by a guide through an unfamiliar landscape—you’re looking at the scenery and at people going about their business, aware that you can only see so much through the windscreen and passenger side window, but you’re okay with that because you know you’re in a car. But what you don’t want to be thinking about is how broken-down or fancy the car is, or how your guide is driving, because you only tend to notice someone’s driving when you’re worried they don’t have full control of the vehicle.

I wrestled with voice a lot in my epistolary story “The Wrong Dave,” which appeared in my debut collection, Last of Her Name. The protagonist, Dave, a soon-to-be-married man in London, embarks upon an illicit correspondence with Yi, a wedding crasher he briefly met several years ago in Hong Kong. Yi contacts him out of the blue, grief-stricken after a death in her family, and Dave suspects she’s writing to the wrong Dave. Still, he decides to continue writing to her. From this point in the story on, the reader, like Dave, sees Yi entirely through her e-mail exchanges with Dave, who becomes increasingly infatuated with her.

Writing this story, I considered how letters allow for absence and omission, and how those elements can help fuel a fantasy of someone you don’t know that well. E-mail is such a strange, inadequate medium of communication, and because so much is left out and what remains is magnified, sometimes way out of proportion, it becomes fertile ground for misunderstanding and obsession. So while we see the various external and internal aspects of Dave’s life and follow him around a fair bit, I wanted the reader to have limited access to Yi. I wanted her to be tantalizing to the reader as well as to Dave—not exactly in the same way, but enough to believe why Dave would be so drawn to her. 

The e-mails brought out the very different ways in which Dave and Yi express themselves and what that says about why they’re writing to the other person. Yi’s e-mails are almost an unfiltered stream of consciousness—you get the feeling she’s not even thinking about what she’s writing—but Dave is extremely neurotic and careful about every word, as if he’s worried he’s going to expose himself in some way. For Yi, she wants to be seen—she uses the e-mails to try and make a human connection—but she’s also screaming her grief and anger into the void. It was really freeing for me, someone who tends more towards Dave’s type of e-mail neurosis, to write in Yi’s voice. Dave, however, definitely hides behind the medium. Its remove from the physical world, combined with its immediacy, lets him continue to feed his secret correspondence and romanticizing of Yi, completely free of consequence—or so he thinks.

The limited access to Yi leads the reader, like Dave, to project various ideas about the kind of person she might be, or the kind of person Dave might want her to be—the difference being that the reader is more aware of this projection than Dave himself is. She says so much, but to what is Dave really paying attention? And in Dave’s case, there’s the dissonance between the insight the reader has into his life and the vastness of what he chooses not to reveal about himself in his e-mails. 

So, in the case of epistolary stories based on letters, it’s important to understand why the characters are writing to each other, what kind of language is particular to them, and what the form reveals or hides—and how that squares with what you want revealed, or hidden from, your reader.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Thumbnail: Joanna Kosinska

Craft Capsule: Cut for Time

by

Carter Sickels

4.6.20

This is no. 55 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When you’re reading a good novel, you’re not usually thinking about the passages the author cut, the intense revision process, or all the pages the author wrote in order to get to The Writing. These sweaty, often clumsy and inelegant pages don’t show up in the book you’re holding, but they were essential to finishing the novel.

My first novel, The Evening Hour, about Cole Freeman, a small-time drug dealer and nurse’s home aide living in the coalfields of West Virginia, took six years to write. The novel uses third-person limited narration, but in order to figure out Cole, I filled up notebooks with him speaking in first person—this voice wasn’t strong enough to carry the novel, but it revealed his innermost thoughts and feelings. I also wrote monologues for the other characters to learn how people viewed Cole. I did not intend for any of this “extra” writing to go into the novel, but it was invaluable—a way for me to gather information about Cole’s family and community, and better understand his conflicts, secrets, and desires. 

I’ve kept writing journals for years; they’re a hodgepodge of personal memories, ideas, quotes, observations. A few years ago, when I team-taught a novel writing class with the author Alexis Smith, she wisely suggested keeping a journal dedicated solely and entirely to your novel—nothing goes in unless novel-related. 

My new novel, The Prettiest Star, took around four and a half years to write. Most of this time, I was sitting at my desk, typing on my laptop. But I also filled up four Decomposition Books with material. These novel-notebooks are raw and intimate, brewing with my questions, concerns, ideas. They contain crucial writing around and behind the novel, the words and scraps of ideas and shimmers of light that spill beyond the pages of the manuscript. They’re a form of play, and all writers need time to play. Now that the novel is finished, they’re an archive, and a reminder of how messy, exhilarating, joyful, and confounding the writing process is, a mix of hard work and faith and a little bit of magic. 

Found in the pages of my notebooks:

• Lists of scenes to write
• Character sketches
• Character freewrites and monologues: their dreams, hopes, fears, memories
• Chapter outlines
• Lists of clothing, movies, TV shows, music 
• Descriptions of characters’ rooms
• Hypotheticals: What would happen if this happened, or that
• Timelines
• Blueprints of houses
• Maps of the town
• Early working titles 
• Lists of character names, street names, restaurants
• Lists of objects from the eighties (sticker books, Rubik’s Cube, etc.) 
• Notes on important events, imagery, or places to return to (i.e. the abandoned drive-in)
• Questions, questions, questions—about characters, plot, structure, themes. How does Jess find out Brian has AIDS? How do the rumors get started?

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Jon Tyson

Craft Capsule: Metabolizing

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

3.16.20

This is no. 53 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The writer and comics artist Lynda Barry says that the mind is at its most relaxed and creative when the body (hands, usually) are engaged in something mindless and repetitive. She suggests drawing, of course. In her “Writing the Unthinkable” workshop, she has participants draw a spiral while they listen, urging them to try to keep the concentric circles as close together as possible. 

I like drawing for this purpose, but I prefer driving. The hands go on the wheel, the windshield opens the eyes up, the foot lifts up and down. The sun is bright and you unclip the sun visor from its little holder and rotate it to a more pleasing position. You turn the radio up or scan until you find something nice or hard or whatever it is that matches your mood. I like to sip from the straw of my water bottle as I drive, and I like to use the turn signal. I probably turn my head too much to check my blind spot, but the movement of it feels both careful and good. 

What is it about these small movements and the feeling of the world rushing past that makes bits of language, sentences, phrases, whole paragraphs sometimes, rush fully formed into the mind? Fairly often, I have to pull over at a welcome station or scenic view turnoff to type them into my phone. People have told me I could dictate, record my voice, but I don’t—it’s not the same. It’s not the sound of my voice I want to record; it’s the rhythm of the words and the way they look next to one another. 

In 2011, after I packed up my 1997 white Toyota Tacoma, equipped with a platform bed in the back and fitted with West Virginia wildlife plates that I’d purchased with two identical post-office money orders, I drove away from the place where I’d been living for the past eighteen months or so, a place I didn’t yet have any language to describe. All I knew was that for a while I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t talk to anyone and I couldn’t live anywhere else. What I could do was drive. I drove more than ten thousand miles in about three months, making a great oval through the upper middle, west coast, lower middle, and east coast of the United States. 

Very little language, very few sentences came to me during that drive, as they usually do now. I wasn’t a writer yet. But what did come to me as I drove across the prairies and past the football fields in Kansas, toward the crashing sunset in Denver, through the storms of Oregon Route 1, and down the snowy Grand Canyon BLM roads was understanding, insight. I processed as I drove; if you will, I metabolized, taking in sadness and confusion and spitting out miles. What had I done and what had they done and who even was I? Certain answers presented themselves in the form of a gay cowboy bar in West Texas and the parking lot of Faulkner’s Rowan Oaks. It would take me ten more years to write them down, but driving released them from my bloodstream. It was a start. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’sGranta, the Los Angeles Review of BooksAmerican Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Jason Abdilla

Craft Capsule: Multiple Points of View

by

Carter Sickels

4.13.20

This is no. 56 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, The Poisonwood Diaries by Barbara Kingsolver, The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson, People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman, There There by Tommy Orange. All of these wonderful novels use multiple points of view and weave a tapestry of voices, with each character relaying their own version of the story to tell a broader narrative of family, place, or community.

My novel The Prettiest Star, set in 1986, follows Brian Jackson, a young, gay, HIV-positive man, who leaves New York City to return to the rural small town where he grew up and where his family still lives. When I first started writing, I wrote from the point of view of Jess, Brian’s fourteen-year-old sister, about the day Brian returns. Then I wrote sections from Brian’s perspective: What was it like to come back to the home he couldn’t wait to escape? A few months in I wrote a chapter from their mother Sharon’s perspective and suddenly realized I would need all three voices to tell this story of shame, secrets, and silences, and the complicated ties of familial love and betrayal. Writing from Sharon’s point of view gave me another angle into the story—a complicated, troubling one. Sharon is the voice of restraint and denial. She loves her son, but her worry about what neighbors and God will think get in the way.

Despite its reputation, first-person point of view is not easy to pull off. My first creative writing teacher, the brilliant Eve Shelnutt, had very strong opinions about writing, and she warned me to not even try first-person narration until I’d written at least twenty or thirty stories in third person. First-person narration seems easy to write because when it’s done well, the voice sounds intimate and authentic—we believe. But as the writer, you’re making particular choices about diction, syntax, and rhythm, so that you create a voice that sounds natural, but isn’t, most likely, exactly how that character would talk. 

Juggling multiple first-person narrators created another challenge: The individual voices must sound unique and separate, yet their differences should not be so obvious that they draw attention to the artifice of first person. For my three characters, in addition to trying to capture their voices through word choices and syntax, I paid attention to their interior lives: How do they think and feel, how do they view the world, and what is important to them? Their emotional timbre and interiority led me to their voices: Sharon’s denial, Jess’s youthful savviness, and Brian’s hurt, fear, and anger. Brian is the anchor of the novel, and his sections were the most difficult to write. A couple years into the process, I figured out that if I framed Brian’s sections as video diaries—he uses a video camera to document his last summer, and directly addresses the viewer/reader about his experiences as a queer man living during the AIDS epidemic—I could set his chapters apart, and reveal him at his most vulnerable, artistic, and honest. Moreover, the dated video diaries serve as a ticking clock; like so many young gay men, Brian will not survive this plague, but he wants to bear witness and document for posterity.

Alternating between characters chapter by chapter also informed my approach to the writing process. Some days, I switched between characters—an hour with Jess, then an hour with Brian. This approach gave me a better sense of how the novel worked as a whole. And it was sometimes a relief to move from one character to another, to get out of one character’s head and dive into another’s. On other days, I spent the hours intensely focused on a single character—immersed in one voice, one side of the story. I followed a similar approach when I printed out a full draft to revise—I read aloud all the Sharon chapters together, then all the Brian chapters, then all of Jess’s. Did the characters’ voices sound consistent? Did they carry their sections? Did the characters have their own individual narrative arcs? Then I arranged the chapters in the correct order and read my novel from beginning to end, paying close attention to how the alternating voices built tension and created momentum. 

Writing a novel with multiple first-person narrators was challenging, but it also brought me a lot of pleasure and joy. I tried to fully inhabit my characters—to write from a place of empathy while digging deep into their flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities.  

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including GuernicaBellevue Literary ReviewGreen Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Jason Leung

Craft Capsule: Cut for Time

by

Carter Sickels

4.6.20

This is no. 55 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When you’re reading a good novel, you’re not usually thinking about the passages the author cut, the intense revision process, or all the pages the author wrote in order to get to The Writing. These sweaty, often clumsy and inelegant pages don’t show up in the book you’re holding, but they were essential to finishing the novel.

My first novel, The Evening Hour, about Cole Freeman, a small-time drug dealer and nurse’s home aide living in the coalfields of West Virginia, took six years to write. The novel uses third-person limited narration, but in order to figure out Cole, I filled up notebooks with him speaking in first person—this voice wasn’t strong enough to carry the novel, but it revealed his innermost thoughts and feelings. I also wrote monologues for the other characters to learn how people viewed Cole. I did not intend for any of this “extra” writing to go into the novel, but it was invaluable—a way for me to gather information about Cole’s family and community, and better understand his conflicts, secrets, and desires. 

I’ve kept writing journals for years; they’re a hodgepodge of personal memories, ideas, quotes, observations. A few years ago, when I team-taught a novel writing class with the author Alexis Smith, she wisely suggested keeping a journal dedicated solely and entirely to your novel—nothing goes in unless novel-related. 

My new novel, The Prettiest Star, took around four and a half years to write. Most of this time, I was sitting at my desk, typing on my laptop. But I also filled up four Decomposition Books with material. These novel-notebooks are raw and intimate, brewing with my questions, concerns, ideas. They contain crucial writing around and behind the novel, the words and scraps of ideas and shimmers of light that spill beyond the pages of the manuscript. They’re a form of play, and all writers need time to play. Now that the novel is finished, they’re an archive, and a reminder of how messy, exhilarating, joyful, and confounding the writing process is, a mix of hard work and faith and a little bit of magic. 

Found in the pages of my notebooks:

• Lists of scenes to write
• Character sketches
• Character freewrites and monologues: their dreams, hopes, fears, memories
• Chapter outlines
• Lists of clothing, movies, TV shows, music 
• Descriptions of characters’ rooms
• Hypotheticals: What would happen if this happened, or that
• Timelines
• Blueprints of houses
• Maps of the town
• Early working titles 
• Lists of character names, street names, restaurants
• Lists of objects from the eighties (sticker books, Rubik’s Cube, etc.) 
• Notes on important events, imagery, or places to return to (i.e. the abandoned drive-in)
• Questions, questions, questions—about characters, plot, structure, themes. How does Jess find out Brian has AIDS? How do the rumors get started?

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Jon Tyson

Craft Capsule: Consulting the Tarot

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

2.24.20

This is no. 50 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was raised in a house of reason where there was no God, no witchcraft, no science fiction, no astrology, and certainly no tarot. These things were for the weak, and we were not weak. But I’ll never forget when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dawned on me why Tom prayed so much: He was just trying to get through the day. I was weak, I knew. To make it from dawn to dusk, I too needed all the help I could get. 

Tarot came into my life through the friend, the friend I lost, and it is the thing she gave me more than any other for which I offer her my supreme gratitude. To be fair, I acquired the deck itself—The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans—much earlier; I bought it on impulse late one night on the gushing recommendation of someone I’d met at a party. You are not supposed to buy a tarot deck for yourself, I learned later, perhaps because without the blessing of someone you love to imbue the paper and images with power, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

I cannot now separate tarot from the friend, and I cannot separate tarot from writing. She and I became friends during the period when the card of the moon, which according to my deck “encompasses the idea of the Wild Unknown,” was my near constant companion. She taught me how to do the simplest spread—past, present, future—and led me to Michelle Tea’s book on tarot, life, and writing, Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards. Past, present, future; beginning, middle, and end. My friend and I began to draw a single card to set the mood for our writing sessions together, held at a ramshackle coworking space in the neighborhood where we lived.

What I like about drawing a single card before writing is that it allows me a single place to put my feelings about that day’s words—all my fear that the words won’t come and all my fear that they will. Drawing a single card, the mother of pentacles, for instance, which offers an image of a deer and her fawn, gives me a door at which to knock when I can’t see any of that paragraph’s architecture. She excels in the home, the card says: Perhaps I’ll turn my scent diffuser on, or I’ll have a character bake a scone, or I’ll think about why some person in my book moved around so much from place to place. It’s not so much a place to start writing but rather a way to give the day’s writing a particular mood or scent or inflection. Draw the death card, which in The Wild Unknown simply means that “something in your life needs to end…something is trying to find closure,” and the idea of ending and closure will start bonking around in my brain until it hits something in my writing that needed either to finish or to begin. Each card is like a prompt I suppose, except instead of being wacky and contrived, it feels like a prompt I gave myself from the darkest recesses of my unconscious, a shortcut to the place I was trying to go. 

I drew a card every day while writing The Third Rainbow Girl, which explores a mysterious act of violence in Pocahontas County, West Virginia in 1980, the Appalachian community where it transpired, and my own time in the place as a national service worker. For nearly the entirety of the fifteen months when I was most actively engaged, sentence by sentence, in writing the book, I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night. Then every morning I went to the deck and chose a card. I am not exaggerating when I say that I chose the moon card almost every time, no matter how well I shuffled. The card’s overall theme: vivid dreams and fears. I read the card’s description so many times I can recite it by heart:

[The moon] is the shadow realm, the place where dreams, fears, and mysteries are born. Much darkness can linger here, and if you aren’t careful, this can lead to periods of anxiety and self-doubt almost as if you’ve lost your way in a house of mirrors. Many great artists have roamed this inner landscape. It’s where imagination and creativity drift freely upon the midnight air.

That about summed it up. Fuck the fucking moon, I began to say aloud each time I drew it. Fuck this fucking book.

But the moon would not be fucked and neither would the book I was writing; they would not go away until they went away and maybe not even then. Eventually, I finished the book and I lost the friend. I’m drawing new cards these days—a lot of pentacles, the suit of home and hearth. I hope I drift less and dig more in the next book, but of course, it’s not up to me. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Altınay Dinç

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: Notes From the Cutting Room Floor

by

Sejal Shah

5.18.20

This is no. 60 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

An essay collection consists of more than several pieces between two covers. There is always the ghost manuscript: what is cut, what has been moved, shaped, revised. In my first book, This Is One Way to Dance, there are notes at the end of the text—they are narrative, include sources for quoted material, acknowledge readers and editors, and are not numbered. This essay is another kind of commentary. Each piece rewrites what came before. In a way, I am still rewriting my book and its notes—notes to oneself, to one’s reader, you; they are a conversation. 

I wrote the first draft of this essay in longhand; later, I typed it. At some point, I began numbering my thoughts as a way of keeping track. When I cut and pasted different sections of the text, I preserved the original numbers to trace the movement of information. In doing so, I attempt to show my writing process in the tradition of visible mending.

1. In Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, there are footnotes. There are three epigraphs at the beginning, each on a different page (I love this, the space). Many of the footnotes lead to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. The chapters are short, sometimes only a page, and the footnotes don’t feel like an interruption, but pleasurable, recursive reading. There is an overture disavowing prologues. After the overture is a gorgeous prologue: “The memoir is at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists…manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.” If I had read In the Dreamhouse while working on my book, I might have written a different prologue. So many beats to a book, architecture, a tonal range, a key. All of these elements are questions that ask: Who is your audience? To whom and how do I wish to explain myself?1 

3. Are prologues and codas forms of notes? Is an introduction?

20. Here is a ghost note, something I cut from the introduction of my book: “I grew up seeing and later studying with Garth Fagan Dance. A noted choreographer, Fagan is associated with the Black Arts Movement. Fagan technique draws from ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance. I learned: You could invent your own language. You didn’t have to fit yourself into someone else’s forms. You didn’t have to explain yourself.”

4. I wanted my notes to go before the acknowledgments, to be part of the body of This Is One Way to Dance. In the published copy, my notes follow the acknowledgments, per the press’s house style, which is The Chicago Manual of Style. I realize I don’t believe in style manuals.

17. Somewhere in a book (an introduction) or outside it (an interview), you will have to explain why you wrote your book. At each stage of the publishing process you use a different form: a proposal, a press sheet, a preface, a prologue, an afterward, a Q&A. Sometimes I still stumble. From the preface of Sonja Livingston’s memoir, Ghostbread: “I wrote this book because the pain and power and beauty of childhood inspire me. I wrote it selfishly, to make sense of chaos. I wrote it unselfishly, to bear witness. For houses and gardens and children most of us never see.” 

Part of me wants to never explain anything. Part of me worries I have explained too much and still missed what is most important. The settling and unsettling of the self. Navigating, meditating, mediating. Not identity, but movement. A book, through architecture or by words, must instruct the reader in how to read it. Both are important.

2. For a book review, I remember finding out, after already reading far into the text, that a glossary and notes existed at the back. This changed my reading of the book. With no table of contents and no superscript numbers, how would you know to look for notes and a glossary? Do you flip to the back of the book to see what happens, in case you die before you finish reading,2 in order to know what something means?

4. (a) My book ends with the last sentence of the notes: “And there are many reasons to dance.” 

5. I am talking to my friend Prageeta Sharma, a poet, about notes. She mentions Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which begins with a section called “[A Note].” Blanchfield writes, “At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called ‘Correction.’ It sets right much—almost certainly not all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs to twenty-one pages. It may still be running.” This feels true to me about writing a book. Trying to right it, but in the end, it’s a series of notations and corrections, assertions and deletions. Traces.

6. The poet Rick Barot told me his second book had notes. Not his first and third. And not his fourth, the most recent, The Galleons. He says he is anti-notes now.3 I get that.

28. Are notes like parentheses? (Say it clearly or not at all.) 

7. The writer Michael Martone wrote a book called Michael Martone, and the chapters are written in the style of “Contributors’ Notes” and his contributors’ notes are stories. Contributors’ notes are stories we tell about ourselves; they are fictions. 

10. How are notes different than sources? I wrote notes for many of my essays, but not all of them. Notes were sometimes meant to be a place to credit sources, but they also became their own commentary. They sprawled. I credit writing prompts, editors, readers, and books. Some of that could have been folded into acknowledgments. I credited sources for titles and images. I wrote about the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage during the time and day of our ceremony and why this mattered to me. Actually, that was a kind of afterward.

13. I am writing for the kind of people who read notes. Those are my readers, my people. 

16. (a) In my book there is a coda titled “Voice Texting With My Mother.” I did not title it a coda. At some point I lost track of what needed a classification or title and what could exist as part of the invisible architecture of the book.

18. In her short “A Note from the Author,” Tyrese Coleman writes: “How to Sit [a Memoir in Stories and Essays] challenges the concept that a distinction needs to be made when the work is memory-based, because memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.” 

9. This winter I read Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays, Minor Feelings. I realized, when I reached the end of the book, I had been expecting notes. Her essays are muscular, theoretical, personal, and include history, cultural commentary, friendships, family, and literature—a whole essay on the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her cross-genre memoir, Dictée. It surprised me to learn I liked the lack of notes in her book. It meant theorists and sources were often foregrounded in the essays themselves. In Hong’s work I saw a different model—the essay as a “coalitional form.” A model that foregrounds voices and perspectives beyond the essayist’s own—one that she credits writers in the tradition of Hilton Als, James Baldwin, and Maggie Nelson. 

19. An introduction is like a toast at a wedding. No, I cannot satisfactorily address so many audiences—pivot—who is an introduction for? Why not just begin? Whose job is it to host?

27. I read the acknowledgments and the notes in most books. I want to know how a book came together.

22. Sometimes I skim the notes.

14. I have to be honest: I am intrigued by the idea of no notes. Maybe for the next book.

 

ENDNOTES

1. After I turned in my proofs last December, I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Hong writes about Myung Mi Kim, “the first poet who said I [Hong] didn’t need to sound like a white poet nor did I have to ‘translate’ my experiences so that they sounded accessible to a white audience…Illegibility was a political act.” Yes. I believe this.
2. What Harry does in
When Harry Met Sally.
3. [E-mail from Rick] “When I say I’m now ‘anti-notes,’ this mostly refers to my last book, 
The Galleons. There’s a lot of background research in the book, but I didn’t want a notes section to make the book seem like a ‘project’ book.  After all, my research for the book was driven by lyrical sentiment and opportunity—it wasn’t systematic…”

 

Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Judith Browne

Craft Capsule: Reading Backwards

by

Carter Sickels

3.30.20

This is no. 54 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA many years ago, a member of the workshop passed on a piece of advice he’d once heard: Read your manuscript backwards. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention (he was a bit of a know-it-all), but the advice stuck with me, clanging around in my brain, and I’ve since turned to it when line editing and hammering out bigger structural issues.

Reading backwards doesn’t mean you read from right to left, or from the bottom of the page to the top. What I do is print out the manuscript, start with the top of the last page, and work my way back to page one. This exercise works differently for me depending on where I am in the process. When I have a final draft, reading backwards helps with line editing. When I read backwards, I use my brain in a different way, and it slows down my reading. I focus on the words, not the story, and spot repetition and unnecessary words.

Reading backwards has also helped me resolve structural issues and build narrative tension. I was struggling with a short story I’d been trying to write for months. It wasn’t working but I couldn’t figure out why. I let the manuscript sit and cool, like a hot potato; when I returned to it after a few more months, I tried the backwards reading trick. The ending of the story worked, but how did I get there? There were holes in the plot, and too much exposition that glossed over important information. The first-person narrator, so focused on his lover, never stepped up or revealed any insight into his own interior. I hadn’t written any scenes with him alone or with other characters. These backwards-reading discoveries helped me restructure and revise the story; I cut exposition, wrote new scenes, and rearranged the scenes I already had to amplify the tension. 

When I’m stuck I’ll try looking at the story from a fresh angle—whether reading backwards, changing the font, hanging pages on the wall or spreading them out on the floor. I read the entire manuscript aloud. I retype. These are all ways to trick myself into approaching the novel from a different place. Sometimes it works. And when it does, it’s like seeing the project with a new pair of eyes—catching what I missed, or discovering a hidden door that leads me to the true story. 

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Amie LeeKing

Craft Capsule: Consulting the Tarot

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

2.24.20

This is no. 50 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was raised in a house of reason where there was no God, no witchcraft, no science fiction, no astrology, and certainly no tarot. These things were for the weak, and we were not weak. But I’ll never forget when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dawned on me why Tom prayed so much: He was just trying to get through the day. I was weak, I knew. To make it from dawn to dusk, I too needed all the help I could get. 

Tarot came into my life through the friend, the friend I lost, and it is the thing she gave me more than any other for which I offer her my supreme gratitude. To be fair, I acquired the deck itself—The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans—much earlier; I bought it on impulse late one night on the gushing recommendation of someone I’d met at a party. You are not supposed to buy a tarot deck for yourself, I learned later, perhaps because without the blessing of someone you love to imbue the paper and images with power, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

I cannot now separate tarot from the friend, and I cannot separate tarot from writing. She and I became friends during the period when the card of the moon, which according to my deck “encompasses the idea of the Wild Unknown,” was my near constant companion. She taught me how to do the simplest spread—past, present, future—and led me to Michelle Tea’s book on tarot, life, and writing, Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards. Past, present, future; beginning, middle, and end. My friend and I began to draw a single card to set the mood for our writing sessions together, held at a ramshackle coworking space in the neighborhood where we lived.

What I like about drawing a single card before writing is that it allows me a single place to put my feelings about that day’s words—all my fear that the words won’t come and all my fear that they will. Drawing a single card, the mother of pentacles, for instance, which offers an image of a deer and her fawn, gives me a door at which to knock when I can’t see any of that paragraph’s architecture. She excels in the home, the card says: Perhaps I’ll turn my scent diffuser on, or I’ll have a character bake a scone, or I’ll think about why some person in my book moved around so much from place to place. It’s not so much a place to start writing but rather a way to give the day’s writing a particular mood or scent or inflection. Draw the death card, which in The Wild Unknown simply means that “something in your life needs to end…something is trying to find closure,” and the idea of ending and closure will start bonking around in my brain until it hits something in my writing that needed either to finish or to begin. Each card is like a prompt I suppose, except instead of being wacky and contrived, it feels like a prompt I gave myself from the darkest recesses of my unconscious, a shortcut to the place I was trying to go. 

I drew a card every day while writing The Third Rainbow Girl, which explores a mysterious act of violence in Pocahontas County, West Virginia in 1980, the Appalachian community where it transpired, and my own time in the place as a national service worker. For nearly the entirety of the fifteen months when I was most actively engaged, sentence by sentence, in writing the book, I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night. Then every morning I went to the deck and chose a card. I am not exaggerating when I say that I chose the moon card almost every time, no matter how well I shuffled. The card’s overall theme: vivid dreams and fears. I read the card’s description so many times I can recite it by heart:

[The moon] is the shadow realm, the place where dreams, fears, and mysteries are born. Much darkness can linger here, and if you aren’t careful, this can lead to periods of anxiety and self-doubt almost as if you’ve lost your way in a house of mirrors. Many great artists have roamed this inner landscape. It’s where imagination and creativity drift freely upon the midnight air.

That about summed it up. Fuck the fucking moon, I began to say aloud each time I drew it. Fuck this fucking book.

But the moon would not be fucked and neither would the book I was writing; they would not go away until they went away and maybe not even then. Eventually, I finished the book and I lost the friend. I’m drawing new cards these days—a lot of pentacles, the suit of home and hearth. I hope I drift less and dig more in the next book, but of course, it’s not up to me. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Altınay Dinç

Craft Capsule: The Authority of Black Childhood

by

Joy Priest

7.6.20

This is no. 64 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Outside / its case, the mind is a beehive / fallen in the wild grasses / of an abandoned playground.

— from “Ars Poetica” by Joy Priest

It’s January 2, 2020. I’m traveling by car with a painter back to the artists’ compound that I’m staying at for a seven-month residency—a blip-stage between the MFA I finished in May 2019 and the PhD I will start in August 2020, a deliberate detour in the longer academic-poet road on which I find myself. About it, slightly in mourning. Alone in study, but wholeheartedly wanting to be closer to the people in this poetry thing.

The painter has found a way to subsist outside the university engine, working in the residency office, leading Zumba classes in the morning, painting in her studio at night. We’re talking about what academia does to artists, and, as we’re riding—from Wellfleet back to Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape, isolated at the end of the land—she says, “I really do feel like this chapter for me has been about unlearning.”

*

“Sometimes a moment of liberation is suspended by the tight grip of contradiction,” my friend Bernardo says, which captures this moment I have in the car with the painter, as well as the larger social context we’re sailing through like a tiny, mobile dot on the periphery of the U.S. map. I was liberated by the painter’s articulation but jealous that I hadn’t pulled it out of my subconscious first: unlearning. This had been my project for the first three months of the fellowship, but I’d thought I was wasting time because that project had not yet been named. Wasting time—a feeling shaped by the values of academia, a microcosm of our larger society and its ailing imagination, which burdens artists and writers with paradigms of productivity and surplus contributions to an inaccessible archive. I had been unlearning that.

*

Usually, when stuck in a vehicle, poetry-talk is boring at worst, frustrating at best. A Lyft driver or seatmate on a plane will inevitably ask, “When did you start writing poetry?” I find this frustrating because I haven’t yet crafted a creative approach to the question, but, more importantly, because such a question precludes the true answer.

*

I was a better poet when I was a child.

During the nineties in Kentucky, I was a child in solitude. There was a lack of artificial stimuli, my technology limited to a Sega Genesis that I spent more time blowing dust from than playing. My single mother was at work. The only other person in the house was my grandfather, a man in his seventies, who—I didn’t know at the time—was white. He defined our relationship with board games, puzzles, basketball, or boxing on a box TV set—the technology of his time. With his racist perspectives, he attempted to define my identity, which I didn’t yet understand, but felt, intuitively. 

In place of understanding, in place of the internet, I cultivated a practice in noticing. This is how I developed my approach to the page, before I had an awareness of “craft.” Poetry wasn’t what I did or what I started doing in a single moment from the past onward, it was the way I thought, who I had to be in my grandfather’s household, the way my mind worked to make sense of something.

There isn’t a single event that led to me becoming a poet. There isn’t a beginning to me writing poetry—there is only the beginner’s mind. This is what I find myself trying to get back to in my unlearning: the authority of a child’s imagination—what we possess before we are fully indoctrinated into adulthood and the accepted ways of making sense of things. 

*

I spent a lot of time outside of my grandfather’s house, in the backyard. My mind was a beehive. A chaotic, intuitive knot of thought-impulses that I needed to wrest apart, investigate, ruminate on, understand. I found myself watching the ants at ground-level, making a daily visit to the carpenter bees and their perfectly round holes in the rotting wood. 

When I was inside, I noticed the difference between my grandfather’s skin and mine. I knew my hair was more like the hair of darker people, who he was always saying bad things about. I knew that he didn’t want me to be like them, but I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand why, but I could notice. I kept a record of these little noticings as a substitute for clarity around what I was noticing. This conversation with myself as a Black child supplemented what I learned, or what adults sought to teach me (what a white child learns or is taught by white adults). This practice of noticing, or overhearing, was my seminal craft approach. 

*

Pulling away the scaffolding of craft “knowledge,” which I’ve accumulated as an adult poet, has led me to this—notebooks full of little noticings and meditations, overhearings and mishearings, notions that haunt me, lines that keep coming up. Writing a poem this way becomes less strained: that accumulation of craft had become a cheesecloth through which I struggled to write. 

These little noticings are the only way I wish to start a poem, or any conversation about craft. It is how I get closer to an understanding of what something or someone—my imaginary friend, my ancestors, my intuition, the flora and fauna—is trying to tell me, and I embrace this as a spiritual craft as well as a technical one. It is my resistance to the limits of the U.S. popular imagination, which condescends to the childhood imagination in tropes and shorthand, which does not know, can no longer remember, what the child knows.

 

Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.

Thumbnail: Dustin Humes

Craft Capsule: Breaking Genre

by

Sejal Shah

6.15.20

This is no. 63 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I.

I’ve always been drawn to hybrid forms, but I didn’t think of them as hybrid until I had to describe my writing to someone else. To say “hybrid” means that you accept genre classifications and other people’s designations. I don’t. I also don’t walk around thinking of myself as hyphenated.1 I’m just me. Some of us don’t fit in the lines someone else drew. 

Like all writers, I am a combination of where I grew up, what I read, who my parents are, the languages I spoke, how safe it is for me to walk at night, my brain chemistry, the number of countries in which my parents grew up, the number of times you told me that I got the job/award/prize because I don’t look like you, the number of ways I learned to duck and weave when you blocked the door. Like all of us, I am a product of how I learned formally or informally what was what—what counts, who counts, and to whom. 

My undergraduate thesis was half poetry, half stories. I wrote and read poetry in high school and college, but then began writing prose. My lines got longer, and line breaks began to feel arbitrary. In my just-released book, This Is One Way to Dance, five of the twenty-three essays were once called stories. There is also an opening poem and a closing poem, which I think of as a lyrical coda. I cannibalized parts of what had once been the nonfiction introduction to my MFA fiction thesis to find the sounds to open and close the essays.2 

Where did my stories go? Where did my poetry go? Even as I pivoted to more nonfiction work, these forms were still there, buried, or sometimes not buried at all. In one essay3 last year, I included fiction in marked, indented sections. In writing about neurodiversity, institutional racism, and sexual harassment, I used excerpts of published short stories of mine to offer a counternarrative and voice—what the nonfiction narrator could not say in her essay. In nonfiction, I was recounting an event. In fiction, I could go to a distressing place without having to explain it. I looked for places where the language needed a different pitch, for example, when I was describing mania: 

I wanted to return to the ocean, I wanted to get cooked. I wrote on the walls in charcoal because all of the other surfaces could move and then I wouldn’t find them. I might not find you.4

Stories allowed me to say what I could not have otherwise said, at least at the time of writing. In the period in which I wrote those stories, I could not have written, as nonfiction, about the reality of being diagnosed with manic depression, adjusting to psychiatric meds that had a severe side-effect of aphasia and cognitive dampening:

They said take this pill. This one or that one, two before sleep. Take four: in the morning or at night. It’s best to avoid alcohol…These things, they said, happen sometimes. There is no relief.5

There is magic in fiction, in not having everything you write be attached directly to you. In my stories I draw from a wilder field, and I’m not worried about how something sounds, if it would make my public self cringe. If you grow up in a deeply private, Hindu, conservative, traditional family as I did, fiction and poetry offered a different code, a cover. I missed that cover when I tried to move to straight nonfiction.6 So why force it? Why choose? I want whatever genre allows me to speak the deepest truth. 

 

II.

Of course, in attempting to make a book, I encountered how the publishing and academic industries enforce limitations, rules, and expectations on writers of color, particularly in regard to genre. We are formless, but to be published you have to choose a form.

My original manuscript for what became This Is One Way to Dance was half stories, half essays, but I did not label them. Most of the pieces had already been published in print journals or online. They had been worked on, vetted, polished, edited. Several agents contacted me over the years, but no one wanted to represent the essay collection as it looks now or my (still) unpublished story collection. I learned that some editors who considered the hybrid manuscript read the stories as nonfiction. Because I wrote either in first or second person, because my narrators were women, because they were South Asian American, because I wrote about Rochester and Brooklyn and New York City and Massachusetts, the unspoken assumption was that I was writing about me.

I published my book without an agent. I still don’t have one. If you are a woman, if you are a writer of color, publishing can only imagine you in a certain box, in a narrative that makes sense to them. There’s a lack of imagination and perspective. There’s racism. At some point I got tired of readers assuming what happens in my stories actually happened. (If you need to know: I don’t have a sister who killed herself; I did grow up in Rochester; I never lived in Ithaca; I did not sleep with my professor. I write essays. If I’m calling it fiction, it’s for a reason). 

Let’s talk about two male writers both named John. John Updike and John Edgar Wideman have both drawn from some autobiographical material in their novels, but their work is accepted and reviewed as fiction. And yet most publishers don’t know how to market, let alone perceive, work by a woman of color as imagined. Our work is seen as ethnographic, dictation, not crafted, not composite, not fiction. White publishing can’t imagine that we too can create, can imagine, can make a story, can make believe. Can make money. Can be of worth, of value. They don’t believe some stories are worth advances, are worth the suspension of disbelief. 

 

III.

In her essay “Genre and Genre Theory,” my graduate school classmate, poet and scholar Dawn Lundy Martin, describes the memory of writing a poem in response to the murder of Yusef Hawkins, a Black teenager murdered by a mob of white men in 1989. It was one of the first times she knew she might be a poet, she says, describing the rightness of the form: “Poetry was the genre that allowed for a manipulation of language so that it could be stretched beyond its everyday capacity to accommodate horrific realities that make up human experience. It creates an illogic, an appropriate response to the rational narratives that attempted, with little success, to provide language for Yusef Hawkins’s murder.”

She goes on to argue for leaning into this “illogic”: poetry’s capacity to stretch, its capacity to defy genre, to create space for the unruly: “If we cannot communicate across a genre ‘divide,’ then perhaps we cannot communicate across a race ‘divide.’” In other words, how we think about writing and genre has urgent implications in real life. 

Martin’s words on poetry—her belief in a genre that breaks genre—are a comfort in and of themselves, but more than that, I was struck by the range of her essay—how the form and content of the essay made the case for crossing boundaries. I saw her place and connect a young Black man killed in 1989 and the newspaper account of it and academia and unsafe neighborhoods and genre and her position as the director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh. I saw her write about power and get paid. I saw the academy implicated through language. I want to do that. I am already—writing in this tradition of unsettling genre, of fashioning queer texts. In a blurb for This Is One Way to Dance, Martin wrote: “If a queer text is an unsettled one, crossing cultures, crossing genres, then this book of essays rescripts what we think we know about identity.”

Ultimately, I had to choose a classification for my first book. At the fork in the road, I chose nonfiction; I chose what granted me the most space: essays. Editor and writer Valerie Boyd solicited my work for Crux, the literary nonfiction series she coedits at University of Georgia Press. I made a new manuscript, cutting most of the stories and replacing them with essays. 

Even as I claim a genre, I step outside it.7 It says “essays” on the cover of This Is One Way to Dance, but this word will always contain a more complicated truth—the history and movement and genre slippage and time woven into my text and its history, which I hope offers some kind of challenge to power, to the intent to classify, to discipline. I began sending out my hybrid manuscript in 2016. I sent the first iteration of the nonfiction manuscript in 2017. Then, life: #MeToo, PTSD, a move, an illness, a resettling and evaluating of the manuscript, two rounds of academic peer review (nothing is fast in the academy, and I’m not fast either). My book was published in 2020. In a global pandemic, mass protests and mourning, executions and terror, a reckoning—enough—some movement toward what looks like change.  

Language fractures, is further fractured by others, in its attempt to be spoken. I understand the difficulty and the contortion. I am speaking anyways.

 

IV.

I read my work aloud when I am working on it, when I am revising. My husband read aloud This Is One Way to Dance when I was going through proofs. The sentences have to land; the sounds have to hit a certain note. I’m thinking of when you tune a violin and the string next to it needs to vibrate. That is how I work in most any genre when I am most true to myself. I don’t think about labels. I don’t care about what to call it, what it will be called. We are called. I listen for the sound.

 

ENDNOTES

1. I had a girlhood. It was American because I was in America. I once wrote on Facebook: “I don’t hate Indian [as a qualifier] and I do use it—I just hate the assumptions that writer = white and the rest of us need to have who we are qualified. There’s a writer and then a woman writer. Or a Black writer. Or an Indian American writer. Why not just say writer?” 
2. I always go by sound, which engenders its own accidental hybrid forms. I think of voice-texting and autocorrect. For years if I said my husband’s name, “Raj,” the phone wrote down “Roger.” “Saris” became “sorrows.”
3. “Even If You Can’t See It: Invisible Disability & Neurodiversity” in the Kenyon Review Online.
4. From my story “Watch Over Me; Turn a Blind Eye” in the
Asian American Literary Review.
5. From my story “Climate, Man, Vegetation” in Drunken Boat.
6. In 2011 my friend the poet Philip White told me he thought “Street Scene,” an essay in my book, could be called a lyric essay. I looked up the definition and agreed this rang true: My essay had qualities of both poetry and the essay. It was the first time I had heard this term. 
7. I asked two poets of color, Sarah Gambito and Cathy Park Hong, to help me launch my book. During my virtual launch, they spoke about my books not only as essays, but also claimed and named them as prose poems, meditations. I didn’t know why I asked them and not fiction writers—in my academic career I was a fiction writer through graduate school, visiting professorships, fellowships, and a tenure-track job—but it was a relief to be legible to poets who were always my first tribe.

 

Sejal Shah is the author of This Is One Way to Dance (University of Georgia Press). Her writing can be found in BrevityConjunctionsGuernicaKenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Michele Bitetto

Craft Capsule: Break It Down or Shorter Forms

by

Sejal Shah

6.1.20

This is no. 62 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Working right now—in the twenty-first century, in the pandemic—I find my attention is even more fragmented than usual. It’s splintered. I’ve had to connect to people via Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom, and send messages via e-mail, Twitter, Instagram, and—the grandfather of social media—Facebook. Each platform presents itself differently, and I present myself differently. Then there’s the distractions of the phone itself: A text comes in, then another notification. I cannot remember my name after switching from one portal to another all day. I forget passwords. I forgot my neighbor’s name. 

With my attention so dispersed, I find myself writing in shorter forms, using fragments to build a larger structure. My debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, is composed of twenty-three essays—some are more traditional and longform, but others are short lyric essays, segmented essays, varying in length. There is a list essay, too. 

Making a book means figuring out the binding, the connective tissue, but the scale of that task can be daunting. Using shorter forms, smaller canvases—and markers and signposts in the longer essays—helped me not feel overwhelmed by the subject matter: racism, immigration, depression, mental health, neurodivergence, the lack of basic geography and knowledge Americans have about most other cultures (even writing that out feels exhausting). Using numbers in a list essay, subheadings in a segmented essay, breaking up my own words with words from other writers, an asterisk or ornament to signal a pause—all this somehow gave my work more space, breath, silence, and pauses, especially in painful matters. 

*

This week I picked up my copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which I bought in 1995 and read in my twenties during my first trip to England and Italy. I only saw today that the binding had split. I’ve referred to it a lot over the years, often in teaching. In the chapter “Short Assignments,” Lamott writes: “Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of—oh, say—say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier…then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives.” In that same chapter she refers to an object that steadies her: “I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.”

When I write, sometimes I think of that one-inch picture frame: its visual representation of Bird by Bird and short assignments. My version of the short assignment is writing four hundred words or four sentences for The Grind, a peer e-mail accountability group for writers. It’s using timers, for fifteen minutes or an hour, or doing coworking sessions with writer friends.

Sometimes I feel we all are telling the same story again and again, but it’s an important story and the thing is to be able to hear it. I sometimes find it easier to see the story—to hold the different threads of an essay—if I divide up the text, if there are visual breaks and spaces, numbers. 

Later in Bird by Bird, Lamott reminds us of another object, another tool of the short form that might be especially useful: index cards. When I reread her description of keeping the cards everywhere, all over the house, I thought, Now, that’s the problem. I forgot about index cards! I sometimes remember to type notes into my phone or record a voice memo, but then don’t do anything with them. But paper: That helps. To see it. This is a problem with the phone.

*

My attraction to scaffolding and shorter forms comes partially from how I think. I was formally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in my forties—unusually late. When I was in graduate school in my twenties, my doctor thought I had attention deficit disorder. I could get evaluated for free through our graduate student health insurance, but I kept losing the slip of paper. We used to laugh about this. I didn’t pursue a diagnosis, because I didn’t think having one would help me. Either way I had to figure out how to get my work done. Asian Americans are supposed to be good at school. (I was good at some parts of it, but not others.) Just try harder. I present as normal or as high-functioning. The doctor I’ve known longest in my life, my father, always said doctors can’t do anything for you. You have to help yourself. 

The doctor before my most recent one would not prescribe ADHD medication to me because he said, “You should have been diagnosed by age nine.” (My report cards read, “Talks too much, reads too much, easily distracted, not trying to the best of her ability.” But I didn’t disrupt the class by jumping around—girls don’t present in the way boys do and our medical and educational systems use white men as the standard. I wasn’t throwing erasers, so of course I wasn’t diagnosed.) My husband teaches middle school. To him, it’s very clear I have ADHD. I live with my brain and he lives with me. I spend a lot of time trying to organize papers, e-mails, to-dos, grocery lists. And thinking of where I last left that list or notebook. I think associatively, not in a linear way. Numbers and subheadings help me to translate or render those associative leaps to a reader, or to make them legible: a visual signal we are shifting gears.

This is part of why it took a long time to figure out the structure for my book. A book is a long form. It requires stepping back to see the forest. Left to my own devices, I see leaves and trees. Shorter forms, dividing up longer essays, bird by bird, restored a sense of agency. They granted me permission to not say everything—or to say just enough. There is a learning curve to know how and when to choose a particular short form or how to divide something and break it down. Not all subjects will be unlocked by fragments or subheadings, numbers or lists. But as I practice—found my one-inch picture frame, index cards, list essays, the thing that worked for my brain—I began to speak on my own terms.

 

Sejal Shah is the author of This Is One Way to Dance (University of Georgia Press). Her writing can be found in BrevityConjunctionsGuernicaKenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Hassan Pasha

Craft Capsule: Feel Your Way

by

Sejal Shah

5.25.20

This is no. 61 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1.
During the last year I lived in New York, I started dancing again at a Sunday morning class in the West Village called “Sweat Your Prayers.” An old boyfriend told me I should go. I was stuck on him, not great, but he did bring some good things into my life and this was one of them. The class was in the style of 5Rhythms, an ecstatic dance and movement meditation practice: 11:00 AM, no talking, a DJ, flowy clothes, everyone moving. A lot of white people, some people of color. They danced; we danced. The music sets changed, but the pattern remained steady, following the five rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness. Shapes emerge from movement, unbidden, in an intuitive way. Not speaking opened up another way of communicating with one’s self and the other dancers in the room—through the repetition of movement, in how we dodged some people and were drawn to others. 

2.
I moved intuitively in dance class. It was a class based on improvisation, not a final performance. Making a book involves intuition, too, but then you have to stop and think: How can I make sense of this for a reader? A book is a performance, a gathering, a repetition, a ritual, and a thing, an object. There is an end point.

3.
My first book will be published next week, but it took me twenty years to write. The essays that comprise This Is One Way to Dance were written, revised, then collected and stitched together in what proved to be a long process of encountering and attempting to contain and shape a lot of life, stylistic choices, and past selves—as much as the work—between two covers. A few essays began as short stories but as I worked, they became legible as essays through editing, shaping, metamorphosis. 

The process of finding a form for my book produced a tension between my instinctive sense of how the essays were connected, and the pressure I felt to utilize some kind of discernible structure or concept to link them. Framework often emerges slowly, an invisible labor. 

In my book, one way I created structure was through the use of dates, timestamps. I followed Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem as an example and placed timestamps at the end of each piece: the year I wrote it and, if relevant, the year I revised it. The stamps offer me—and the reader—a moment to consider time: its mysterious nature and passing.

4.
I learned the term “front matter” from Tom, my book’s project editor. Before this, I had not considered how the beginning of a book is put together, how it unfolds. The front matter includes the title page, copyright page, dedication, epigraph, table of contents, preface or introduction. It can include acknowledgments, too.

After the front matter in my book is an opening poem, a prologue. I called it “Prelude” after “Prelude: Discipline is Freedom,” a dance choreographed by the artist Garth Fagan many years ago, a piece I grew up seeing. The dance is an invocation of sorts, with parts of a dance class woven within: the repetition of fundamental movements, foundational exercises, floor sequences, four women passing here, four men there, now slow, now speedy, now ratcheting up, now a solo. 

Before the introduction, before the poem, is the title page: the book’s title, the author’s name, the publisher’s name, the place of publication. There is also a childhood photo of me, dressed up to dance, in front of our old house wearing a chuniya chori my grandmother sewed, with Ba standing a ways behind me, visible in the glass door. 

“Prelude” begins with brackets, “[ ],” then my name in Gujarati. Then the first line in English: “I am trying to describe what it feels like //.” Working on the frontmatter, and the book as a whole, meant conversations with Tom and the designer Erin: deliberations about the language of captions, Gujarati script, typeface, size, margins, ornaments, headings. The permission to quote from Toni Morrison’s essay, “The Site of Memory,” is on the copyright page as per the agreement. All of this was new to me—this level of detail that belongs to a book. 

5.
I bought Martha Graham’s Blood Memory: An Autobiography last year, because I wanted structure and language and forms from the world of dance. I was searching for a connection to something fundamental; a structure I could rely on as I shaped my book from so many pieces. Classifications, levels, subgenres, terminology. I didn’t find my book’s structure there, but I found these words: “There are always ancestral footsteps behind me, pushing me, when I am creating a new dance, and gestures are flowing through me.” This movement.

6.
My book’s internal architecture began with academic fields of study, disciplines. I organized essays under subheadings of American Studies, Area Studies, Cultural Studies, and Women’s Studies. School had been my house for many years, but I no longer live there. I live somewhere else now. 

7.
Another try: I took the title of one of my lyric essays, “Castle, Fort, Lookout, House,” and divided my book into four sections: Castle, Fort, Lookout, House. The essay itself is one of my favorites: It’s an incantation built from years of reading fairy tales and love stories, romances, epics. Where is home? What is the journey? Who do you love? But it felt artificial to classify the other essays under these images, as they are.

8.
A third try. These categories from dance: Space, Time, Direction. Too abstract. 

9. 
Ultimately, I realized that my book is a series of gestural movements, beginning from its spine, the tree. An old photograph to place us, to bring the past into now, though the whole book is a weaving of this time into that time, the way we carry the past with us in our bones, in our cells. 

10.
There has to be movement and stretching, shapes, a direction. I thought of mudras, which I learned from studying Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, two styles of classical Indian dance. Anjali mudra is one used often at the end of yoga and dance classes. Palms pressed together: a balancing. So much of writing is what has been cut away. A book is a series of choices; it is what remains.  

 11.
To dance is a way to integrate: to shed for a moment the weight and sense of being seen. It’s not lost, exactly, but being seen does not dominate. To move through the world, there is no leaving race behind. Not in this country. But to dance is to allow yourself to feel out through your arms, the sensation of being held in space, moving in a direction, grounded in a place. To be a person and not only a girl, not only a brown body, but to be embodied and therefore the subject, the I. In my “Prelude,” my opening poem, I borrow a line from a poem by Kamala Das: “I too call myself I.” I use different punctuation: “[(I, too, call myself I)].”

Working this way—in both dance and writing—takes time, to feel your way into the structure by sound. I look for my glasses on a morning bedside table cluttered with books, a glass of water, pens, a lamp, hand lotion, a weighted lavender eye pillow. How can you find your glasses if you can’t see? You feel your way.

 

Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Nikoline Arns

Craft Capsule: Feel Your Way

by

Sejal Shah

5.25.20

This is no. 61 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1.
During the last year I lived in New York, I started dancing again at a Sunday morning class in the West Village called “Sweat Your Prayers.” An old boyfriend told me I should go. I was stuck on him, not great, but he did bring some good things into my life and this was one of them. The class was in the style of 5Rhythms, an ecstatic dance and movement meditation practice: 11:00 AM, no talking, a DJ, flowy clothes, everyone moving. A lot of white people, some people of color. They danced; we danced. The music sets changed, but the pattern remained steady, following the five rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness. Shapes emerge from movement, unbidden, in an intuitive way. Not speaking opened up another way of communicating with one’s self and the other dancers in the room—through the repetition of movement, in how we dodged some people and were drawn to others. 

2.
I moved intuitively in dance class. It was a class based on improvisation, not a final performance. Making a book involves intuition, too, but then you have to stop and think: How can I make sense of this for a reader? A book is a performance, a gathering, a repetition, a ritual, and a thing, an object. There is an end point.

3.
My first book will be published next week, but it took me twenty years to write. The essays that comprise This Is One Way to Dance were written, revised, then collected and stitched together in what proved to be a long process of encountering and attempting to contain and shape a lot of life, stylistic choices, and past selves—as much as the work—between two covers. A few essays began as short stories but as I worked, they became legible as essays through editing, shaping, metamorphosis. 

The process of finding a form for my book produced a tension between my instinctive sense of how the essays were connected, and the pressure I felt to utilize some kind of discernible structure or concept to link them. Framework often emerges slowly, an invisible labor. 

In my book, one way I created structure was through the use of dates, timestamps. I followed Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem as an example and placed timestamps at the end of each piece: the year I wrote it and, if relevant, the year I revised it. The stamps offer me—and the reader—a moment to consider time: its mysterious nature and passing.

4.
I learned the term “front matter” from Tom, my book’s project editor. Before this, I had not considered how the beginning of a book is put together, how it unfolds. The front matter includes the title page, copyright page, dedication, epigraph, table of contents, preface or introduction. It can include acknowledgments, too.

After the front matter in my book is an opening poem, a prologue. I called it “Prelude” after “Prelude: Discipline is Freedom,” a dance choreographed by the artist Garth Fagan many years ago, a piece I grew up seeing. The dance is an invocation of sorts, with parts of a dance class woven within: the repetition of fundamental movements, foundational exercises, floor sequences, four women passing here, four men there, now slow, now speedy, now ratcheting up, now a solo. 

Before the introduction, before the poem, is the title page: the book’s title, the author’s name, the publisher’s name, the place of publication. There is also a childhood photo of me, dressed up to dance, in front of our old house wearing a chuniya chori my grandmother sewed, with Ba standing a ways behind me, visible in the glass door. 

“Prelude” begins with brackets, “[ ],” then my name in Gujarati. Then the first line in English: “I am trying to describe what it feels like //.” Working on the frontmatter, and the book as a whole, meant conversations with Tom and the designer Erin: deliberations about the language of captions, Gujarati script, typeface, size, margins, ornaments, headings. The permission to quote from Toni Morrison’s essay, “The Site of Memory,” is on the copyright page as per the agreement. All of this was new to me—this level of detail that belongs to a book. 

5.
I bought Martha Graham’s Blood Memory: An Autobiography last year, because I wanted structure and language and forms from the world of dance. I was searching for a connection to something fundamental; a structure I could rely on as I shaped my book from so many pieces. Classifications, levels, subgenres, terminology. I didn’t find my book’s structure there, but I found these words: “There are always ancestral footsteps behind me, pushing me, when I am creating a new dance, and gestures are flowing through me.” This movement.

6.
My book’s internal architecture began with academic fields of study, disciplines. I organized essays under subheadings of American Studies, Area Studies, Cultural Studies, and Women’s Studies. School had been my house for many years, but I no longer live there. I live somewhere else now. 

7.
Another try: I took the title of one of my lyric essays, “Castle, Fort, Lookout, House,” and divided my book into four sections: Castle, Fort, Lookout, House. The essay itself is one of my favorites: It’s an incantation built from years of reading fairy tales and love stories, romances, epics. Where is home? What is the journey? Who do you love? But it felt artificial to classify the other essays under these images, as they are.

8.
A third try. These categories from dance: Space, Time, Direction. Too abstract. 

9. 
Ultimately, I realized that my book is a series of gestural movements, beginning from its spine, the tree. An old photograph to place us, to bring the past into now, though the whole book is a weaving of this time into that time, the way we carry the past with us in our bones, in our cells. 

10.
There has to be movement and stretching, shapes, a direction. I thought of mudras, which I learned from studying Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, two styles of classical Indian dance. Anjali mudra is one used often at the end of yoga and dance classes. Palms pressed together: a balancing. So much of writing is what has been cut away. A book is a series of choices; it is what remains.  

 11.
To dance is a way to integrate: to shed for a moment the weight and sense of being seen. It’s not lost, exactly, but being seen does not dominate. To move through the world, there is no leaving race behind. Not in this country. But to dance is to allow yourself to feel out through your arms, the sensation of being held in space, moving in a direction, grounded in a place. To be a person and not only a girl, not only a brown body, but to be embodied and therefore the subject, the I. In my “Prelude,” my opening poem, I borrow a line from a poem by Kamala Das: “I too call myself I.” I use different punctuation: “[(I, too, call myself I)].”

Working this way—in both dance and writing—takes time, to feel your way into the structure by sound. I look for my glasses on a morning bedside table cluttered with books, a glass of water, pens, a lamp, hand lotion, a weighted lavender eye pillow. How can you find your glasses if you can’t see? You feel your way.

 

Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Nikoline Arns

Craft Capsule: Obsessions, Hobbies, Dreams

by

Carter Sickels

5.4.20

This is no. 59 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Early in the writing of my second novel, The Prettiest Star, I thought about what TV shows one of the protagonists, Jess, a fourteen-year-old girl, would be watching in 1986, when the novel begins. MTV, of course, and a lot of sitcoms. But what about when she was younger, what shaped her? I grew up in the eighties, and before my family had cable or a satellite dish, we had four channels from which to choose. Like most kids from that time, I watched a lot of PBS. In addition to Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and The Electric Company, a nature show always seemed to be on: Nova or Wild America. While I was thinking about Jess’s TV habits, I also watched the 2013 documentary Blackfish, a heartbreaking indictment of SeaWorld’s practice of raising orcas in captivity, and remembered when I visited SeaWorld Ohio as a kid. (Yes, they actually had whales in Ohio; the park closed in 2000.)

What if Jess watched a lot of nature shows? What if she fell in love with killer whales, the way some kids do with horses? Maybe she goes to SeaWorld Ohio, and since she’s never been to the ocean, the shows and books she reads about whales transport her from small-town Ohio to the wildness and mystery of the sea. As I did more research, I started to hear Jess’s voice—and her brainy knowledge of whale facts and details worked their way into the novel. Before this, I didn’t know much about whales, except that they were beautiful and spectacular and mysterious. This is something I love about writing fiction—entering, if only briefly, other worlds, and learning about topics and places and people you may never encounter in real life. 

The killer whales also began to resonate thematically, which surprised me—the orcas’ relationships to family, matriarchy, and mourning the dead reflected and deepened some of my explorations in my novel of how my human characters relate to one another. The Prettiest Star revolves around Jess’s older brother, Brian Jackson, a young gay man diagnosed with AIDs, who has returned to his family’s home in the small, conservative town where he grew up, and asks how his family will, or will not, care for him. Similarly, like Jess’s love for whales, Brian’s love for David Bowie reverberates throughout the novel, even influencing the title. For Brian, a queer kid growing up in a small conservative town in Appalachia, Bowie’s music represented hope and magic and possibility.

What interests your characters, what obsesses them? What are their hobbies? What do they dream about, what do they love? Maybe they play basketball, read tarot cards, collect matchbooks, idolize Dolly Parton, dream about outer space. What is that thing that lights your character up, and gives you a way inside—so that you’re not writing from the outside, but inhabiting the character from within? A hobby, a gesture, a dream may help you understand and develop your characters, and just may deepen the novel’s ideas, building stronger connections between characters, themes, and imagery.  

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including GuernicaBellevue Literary ReviewGreen Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Bart van meele

Craft Capsule: Obsessions, Hobbies, Dreams

by

Carter Sickels

5.4.20

This is no. 59 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Early in the writing of my second novel, The Prettiest Star, I thought about what TV shows one of the protagonists, Jess, a fourteen-year-old girl, would be watching in 1986, when the novel begins. MTV, of course, and a lot of sitcoms. But what about when she was younger, what shaped her? I grew up in the eighties, and before my family had cable or a satellite dish, we had four channels from which to choose. Like most kids from that time, I watched a lot of PBS. In addition to Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and The Electric Company, a nature show always seemed to be on: Nova or Wild America. While I was thinking about Jess’s TV habits, I also watched the 2013 documentary Blackfish, a heartbreaking indictment of SeaWorld’s practice of raising orcas in captivity, and remembered when I visited SeaWorld Ohio as a kid. (Yes, they actually had whales in Ohio; the park closed in 2000.)

What if Jess watched a lot of nature shows? What if she fell in love with killer whales, the way some kids do with horses? Maybe she goes to SeaWorld Ohio, and since she’s never been to the ocean, the shows and books she reads about whales transport her from small-town Ohio to the wildness and mystery of the sea. As I did more research, I started to hear Jess’s voice—and her brainy knowledge of whale facts and details worked their way into the novel. Before this, I didn’t know much about whales, except that they were beautiful and spectacular and mysterious. This is something I love about writing fiction—entering, if only briefly, other worlds, and learning about topics and places and people you may never encounter in real life. 

The killer whales also began to resonate thematically, which surprised me—the orcas’ relationships to family, matriarchy, and mourning the dead reflected and deepened some of my explorations in my novel of how my human characters relate to one another. The Prettiest Star revolves around Jess’s older brother, Brian Jackson, a young gay man diagnosed with AIDs, who has returned to his family’s home in the small, conservative town where he grew up, and asks how his family will, or will not, care for him. Similarly, like Jess’s love for whales, Brian’s love for David Bowie reverberates throughout the novel, even influencing the title. For Brian, a queer kid growing up in a small conservative town in Appalachia, Bowie’s music represented hope and magic and possibility.

What interests your characters, what obsesses them? What are their hobbies? What do they dream about, what do they love? Maybe they play basketball, read tarot cards, collect matchbooks, idolize Dolly Parton, dream about outer space. What is that thing that lights your character up, and gives you a way inside—so that you’re not writing from the outside, but inhabiting the character from within? A hobby, a gesture, a dream may help you understand and develop your characters, and just may deepen the novel’s ideas, building stronger connections between characters, themes, and imagery.  

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including GuernicaBellevue Literary ReviewGreen Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Bart van meele

Craft Capsule: Doors vs. Corridors

by

Will Harris

8.17.20

This is no. 68 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

During the pandemic, with so many doors locked and shuttered, I lived in the corridors of my house. Thom Gunn describes the corridor as a “separate place between the thought and felt”—a place of uncertainty, where thoughts are unformed and feelings suppressed. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the few poems I managed to eke out were meandering, confused, and muffled.

As the architecture of my house extended into what I wrote, I started looking for poems about houses—either set indoors or using the “house” as a metaphor for the craft of poetry. I was trying to work out what kind of house poetry should be, and how much confusion that house might be able to contain. Soon enough I turned to Emily Dickinson: 

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

I always read this stanza with the ironic hint of the estate agent in her tone (“Superior—for Doors” is particularly funny), which seems to mock the idea you could ever really compare poetry to a house. Though it can feel like using a conceit means committing to it entirely, here the analogy is loosely held, self-consciously tenuous: “If you look to your right, you’ll see some windows. How many? Numerous. And if you look down there, yup, superior doors. You won’t get that with Prose.” The lightness of tone is part of the image she projects about poetry. 

But I read it with another, darker Dickinson poem in the back of my head, this one taking the house less as a metaphor for poetry than for the poet’s interior life:

One need not be a Chamber – to be haunted – 
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing 
Material Place

These lines suggest that when you forgo “Material Place” and build your house in “Possibility” you open yourself up to a particular danger: being haunted. Where the other poem began with a confident assertion of habitation—“I dwell”—here the speaker expresses horror at the idea of being dwelt in: “The Brain has Corridors.” The tone is repetitious, fevered, as though the speaker has been running up and down their internal corridors for hours. The effect of this is compounded by the use of the impersonal pronoun “One” and that definite article before “Brain”—not my brain but the brain—which suggests a traumatic detachment from the body; and “surpassing,” hanging at the end of the line makes it feel like those brain corridors are only getting bigger, longer, more labyrinthine. 

What’s missing from the second poem is a door of the kind Dickinson thought made poetry so superior—and without one, there’s no means of escape. Door and corridor may sound related but there’s no etymological link between them. The word door comes from the Old English duru and has always meant the same thing. Corridor is from the Italian corridoio, referring to a “running-place.” They represent two forms of possibility, each reliant on the other: The door is a portal, signifying insight, while the corridor is an in-between place, signifying uncertainty and confusion. 

An important way to understand the corridor might be via the horror film in which a shadowy figure always seems to be lurking at the other end, or the protagonist is trapped, running down an endless dark passage full of locked doors. Where the corridor represents terror, the door is freedom.

*

During lockdown I also turned to Bhanu Kapil’s book How to Wash a Heart and stopped at this section:

When what you perform 
At the threshold
Is at odds 
With what happens
When the front door is closed,
Then you are burning
The toast 
And you are letting the butter
Fester.

The front door is where the internal becomes public, even if briefly. But in order for an act to be meaningful, what you “perform” at the threshold must have some relationship to what happens behind it. Kapil’s lines make me think of those people in expensive houses who voted to privatize Britain’s National Health Service last December and then stepped out onto their doorsteps this spring to clap enthusiastically in support of nurses and carers. They make me think of what the threshold can conceal. The door only has meaning in relation to the corridor.

In early July, Bhanu and I did a reading together on Zoom. She began hers by lighting a small candle. She had some shallots next to her that she’d picked from Wittgenstein’s garden in Cambridge. The effect of these gestures wasn’t just to welcome the listener in. It was to create an open space into which the poem could emerge, where we could meet it. In trying to harmonize inner and outer, in letting out what festers, the distance between our two screens fell away.

After the reading, I thought back to Dickinson’s haunted house poem. It’s driven by a claustrophobic fear of the internal. Even the “External Ghost” or hidden “Assassin” (other threats that feature in Dickinson’s poem) are less terrifying than the prospect of “self encounter.” The self is a more ambiguous, volatile element. It could stay hidden forever: “Ourself, behind ourself concealed,” reads one line in the poem. You might think you’ve turned a corner, the front door in sight, only to find yourself lost down another passageway. 

But this is only a nightmare if you’re looking for a door. The beauty of Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart lies in its openness: “I want to be split / Into two parts / Or a thousand pieces.” The self that’s been split into a thousand pieces has nothing to lose. What’s not whole cannot be broken. Likewise, the poem doesn’t have to form a coherent whole—a portal to insight. It doesn’t have to involve finding the right door and standing outside of it proudly. It can also mean walking the corridors, afraid and confused.

 

Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Kilarov Zaneit

Craft Capsule: The Authority of Black Childhood

by

Joy Priest

7.6.20

This is no. 64 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Outside / its case, the mind is a beehive / fallen in the wild grasses / of an abandoned playground.

— from “Ars Poetica” by Joy Priest

It’s January 2, 2020. I’m traveling by car with a painter back to the artists’ compound that I’m staying at for a seven-month residency—a blip-stage between the MFA I finished in May 2019 and the PhD I will start in August 2020, a deliberate detour in the longer academic-poet road on which I find myself. About it, slightly in mourning. Alone in study, but wholeheartedly wanting to be closer to the people in this poetry thing.

The painter has found a way to subsist outside the university engine, working in the residency office, leading Zumba classes in the morning, painting in her studio at night. We’re talking about what academia does to artists, and, as we’re riding—from Wellfleet back to Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape, isolated at the end of the land—she says, “I really do feel like this chapter for me has been about unlearning.”

*

“Sometimes a moment of liberation is suspended by the tight grip of contradiction,” my friend Bernardo says, which captures this moment I have in the car with the painter, as well as the larger social context we’re sailing through like a tiny, mobile dot on the periphery of the U.S. map. I was liberated by the painter’s articulation but jealous that I hadn’t pulled it out of my subconscious first: unlearning. This had been my project for the first three months of the fellowship, but I’d thought I was wasting time because that project had not yet been named. Wasting time—a feeling shaped by the values of academia, a microcosm of our larger society and its ailing imagination, which burdens artists and writers with paradigms of productivity and surplus contributions to an inaccessible archive. I had been unlearning that.

*

Usually, when stuck in a vehicle, poetry-talk is boring at worst, frustrating at best. A Lyft driver or seatmate on a plane will inevitably ask, “When did you start writing poetry?” I find this frustrating because I haven’t yet crafted a creative approach to the question, but, more importantly, because such a question precludes the true answer.

*

I was a better poet when I was a child.

During the nineties in Kentucky, I was a child in solitude. There was a lack of artificial stimuli, my technology limited to a Sega Genesis that I spent more time blowing dust from than playing. My single mother was at work. The only other person in the house was my grandfather, a man in his seventies, who—I didn’t know at the time—was white. He defined our relationship with board games, puzzles, basketball, or boxing on a box TV set—the technology of his time. With his racist perspectives, he attempted to define my identity, which I didn’t yet understand, but felt, intuitively. 

In place of understanding, in place of the internet, I cultivated a practice in noticing. This is how I developed my approach to the page, before I had an awareness of “craft.” Poetry wasn’t what I did or what I started doing in a single moment from the past onward, it was the way I thought, who I had to be in my grandfather’s household, the way my mind worked to make sense of something.

There isn’t a single event that led to me becoming a poet. There isn’t a beginning to me writing poetry—there is only the beginner’s mind. This is what I find myself trying to get back to in my unlearning: the authority of a child’s imagination—what we possess before we are fully indoctrinated into adulthood and the accepted ways of making sense of things. 

*

I spent a lot of time outside of my grandfather’s house, in the backyard. My mind was a beehive. A chaotic, intuitive knot of thought-impulses that I needed to wrest apart, investigate, ruminate on, understand. I found myself watching the ants at ground-level, making a daily visit to the carpenter bees and their perfectly round holes in the rotting wood. 

When I was inside, I noticed the difference between my grandfather’s skin and mine. I knew my hair was more like the hair of darker people, who he was always saying bad things about. I knew that he didn’t want me to be like them, but I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand why, but I could notice. I kept a record of these little noticings as a substitute for clarity around what I was noticing. This conversation with myself as a Black child supplemented what I learned, or what adults sought to teach me (what a white child learns or is taught by white adults). This practice of noticing, or overhearing, was my seminal craft approach. 

*

Pulling away the scaffolding of craft “knowledge,” which I’ve accumulated as an adult poet, has led me to this—notebooks full of little noticings and meditations, overhearings and mishearings, notions that haunt me, lines that keep coming up. Writing a poem this way becomes less strained: that accumulation of craft had become a cheesecloth through which I struggled to write. 

These little noticings are the only way I wish to start a poem, or any conversation about craft. It is how I get closer to an understanding of what something or someone—my imaginary friend, my ancestors, my intuition, the flora and fauna—is trying to tell me, and I embrace this as a spiritual craft as well as a technical one. It is my resistance to the limits of the U.S. popular imagination, which condescends to the childhood imagination in tropes and shorthand, which does not know, can no longer remember, what the child knows.

 

Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.

Thumbnail: Dustin Humes

Craft Capsule: Notes From the Cutting Room Floor

by

Sejal Shah

5.18.20

This is no. 60 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

An essay collection consists of more than several pieces between two covers. There is always the ghost manuscript: what is cut, what has been moved, shaped, revised. In my first book, This Is One Way to Dance, there are notes at the end of the text—they are narrative, include sources for quoted material, acknowledge readers and editors, and are not numbered. This essay is another kind of commentary. Each piece rewrites what came before. In a way, I am still rewriting my book and its notes—notes to oneself, to one’s reader, you; they are a conversation. 

I wrote the first draft of this essay in longhand; later, I typed it. At some point, I began numbering my thoughts as a way of keeping track. When I cut and pasted different sections of the text, I preserved the original numbers to trace the movement of information. In doing so, I attempt to show my writing process in the tradition of visible mending.

1. In Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, there are footnotes. There are three epigraphs at the beginning, each on a different page (I love this, the space). Many of the footnotes lead to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. The chapters are short, sometimes only a page, and the footnotes don’t feel like an interruption, but pleasurable, recursive reading. There is an overture disavowing prologues. After the overture is a gorgeous prologue: “The memoir is at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists…manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.” If I had read In the Dreamhouse while working on my book, I might have written a different prologue. So many beats to a book, architecture, a tonal range, a key. All of these elements are questions that ask: Who is your audience? To whom and how do I wish to explain myself?1 

3. Are prologues and codas forms of notes? Is an introduction?

20. Here is a ghost note, something I cut from the introduction of my book: “I grew up seeing and later studying with Garth Fagan Dance. A noted choreographer, Fagan is associated with the Black Arts Movement. Fagan technique draws from ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance. I learned: You could invent your own language. You didn’t have to fit yourself into someone else’s forms. You didn’t have to explain yourself.”

4. I wanted my notes to go before the acknowledgments, to be part of the body of This Is One Way to Dance. In the published copy, my notes follow the acknowledgments, per the press’s house style, which is The Chicago Manual of Style. I realize I don’t believe in style manuals.

17. Somewhere in a book (an introduction) or outside it (an interview), you will have to explain why you wrote your book. At each stage of the publishing process you use a different form: a proposal, a press sheet, a preface, a prologue, an afterward, a Q&A. Sometimes I still stumble. From the preface of Sonja Livingston’s memoir, Ghostbread: “I wrote this book because the pain and power and beauty of childhood inspire me. I wrote it selfishly, to make sense of chaos. I wrote it unselfishly, to bear witness. For houses and gardens and children most of us never see.” 

Part of me wants to never explain anything. Part of me worries I have explained too much and still missed what is most important. The settling and unsettling of the self. Navigating, meditating, mediating. Not identity, but movement. A book, through architecture or by words, must instruct the reader in how to read it. Both are important.

2. For a book review, I remember finding out, after already reading far into the text, that a glossary and notes existed at the back. This changed my reading of the book. With no table of contents and no superscript numbers, how would you know to look for notes and a glossary? Do you flip to the back of the book to see what happens, in case you die before you finish reading,2 in order to know what something means?

4. (a) My book ends with the last sentence of the notes: “And there are many reasons to dance.” 

5. I am talking to my friend Prageeta Sharma, a poet, about notes. She mentions Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which begins with a section called “[A Note].” Blanchfield writes, “At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called ‘Correction.’ It sets right much—almost certainly not all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs to twenty-one pages. It may still be running.” This feels true to me about writing a book. Trying to right it, but in the end, it’s a series of notations and corrections, assertions and deletions. Traces.

6. The poet Rick Barot told me his second book had notes. Not his first and third. And not his fourth, the most recent, The Galleons. He says he is anti-notes now.3 I get that.

28. Are notes like parentheses? (Say it clearly or not at all.) 

7. The writer Michael Martone wrote a book called Michael Martone, and the chapters are written in the style of “Contributors’ Notes” and his contributors’ notes are stories. Contributors’ notes are stories we tell about ourselves; they are fictions. 

10. How are notes different than sources? I wrote notes for many of my essays, but not all of them. Notes were sometimes meant to be a place to credit sources, but they also became their own commentary. They sprawled. I credit writing prompts, editors, readers, and books. Some of that could have been folded into acknowledgments. I credited sources for titles and images. I wrote about the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage during the time and day of our ceremony and why this mattered to me. Actually, that was a kind of afterward.

13. I am writing for the kind of people who read notes. Those are my readers, my people. 

16. (a) In my book there is a coda titled “Voice Texting With My Mother.” I did not title it a coda. At some point I lost track of what needed a classification or title and what could exist as part of the invisible architecture of the book.

18. In her short “A Note from the Author,” Tyrese Coleman writes: “How to Sit [a Memoir in Stories and Essays] challenges the concept that a distinction needs to be made when the work is memory-based, because memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.” 

9. This winter I read Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays, Minor Feelings. I realized, when I reached the end of the book, I had been expecting notes. Her essays are muscular, theoretical, personal, and include history, cultural commentary, friendships, family, and literature—a whole essay on the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her cross-genre memoir, Dictée. It surprised me to learn I liked the lack of notes in her book. It meant theorists and sources were often foregrounded in the essays themselves. In Hong’s work I saw a different model—the essay as a “coalitional form.” A model that foregrounds voices and perspectives beyond the essayist’s own—one that she credits writers in the tradition of Hilton Als, James Baldwin, and Maggie Nelson. 

19. An introduction is like a toast at a wedding. No, I cannot satisfactorily address so many audiences—pivot—who is an introduction for? Why not just begin? Whose job is it to host?

27. I read the acknowledgments and the notes in most books. I want to know how a book came together.

22. Sometimes I skim the notes.

14. I have to be honest: I am intrigued by the idea of no notes. Maybe for the next book.

 

ENDNOTES

1. After I turned in my proofs last December, I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Hong writes about Myung Mi Kim, “the first poet who said I [Hong] didn’t need to sound like a white poet nor did I have to ‘translate’ my experiences so that they sounded accessible to a white audience…Illegibility was a political act.” Yes. I believe this.
2. What Harry does in
When Harry Met Sally.
3. [E-mail from Rick] “When I say I’m now ‘anti-notes,’ this mostly refers to my last book, 
The Galleons. There’s a lot of background research in the book, but I didn’t want a notes section to make the book seem like a ‘project’ book.  After all, my research for the book was driven by lyrical sentiment and opportunity—it wasn’t systematic…”

 

Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Judith Browne

Craft Capsule: We Are All Translators

by

Jenny Bhatt

9.21.20

This is no. 73 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Literary translation is about being a close reader in the source language and a skilled writer in the target language. Of course, a language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, diction, and syntax. Languages contain entire cultures within them, entire ways of thinking and being, too. Those of us who translate other writers’ works do so because we want to dive deep and fully immerse ourselves in another world—to pay attention to more than the literal content and preserve the emotions, cultural nuances, and humor from the source to target language.  

This is not unlike how, as readers and writers, we seek to inhabit the worlds of fictional characters. We are all translators. The process of reading involves translating and interpreting the writer’s meaning and intent. The process of writing involves interpreting and giving voice to our own thoughts, which are guided by the things we have read, seen, heard, and experienced. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously wrote, “No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the nonverbal world and secondly, since every sign and every phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase.”

Due to the accretions of traditions and culture over centuries, it is not possible to seamlessly transpose two languages when translating. Similarly, due to our conditioning and subjectivity, it is not possible for two readers to read the same text entirely the same way. And it is not possible for two writers to create entirely the same story. A single piece of writing can have multiple acceptable readings and translations due to the flexibility of language, suppleness of imagination, and versatility of craft techniques. 

I was a writer before I became a translator. But I learned to appreciate linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural diversity more profoundly because of translation work. There are ten key practices of the discipline that pull me in each time:

1. Reading a work closely and repetitively to know it, sometimes even better than the original writer.

2. Listening to the tonalities, textures, rhythms, cadences, and diction in both languages to capture the writer’s voice as fully as possible.

3. Learning nuanced meanings of words and phrases in the target language by seeing them used with different specificity and significance in the source language.

4. Hunting for le mot juste that honors the complexities of both languages.

5. Discovering aesthetic reinterpretations of an original work to suit a new readership or audience linguistically, intellectually, and intuitively. 

6. Deliberating over the subtexts, cultural implications, and stylistic choices made by the original writer in the source language to recreate them in the target language without losing any literary merit.

7. Interrogating the politics of the writer, their text, and the source and target languages.

8. Meditating on the original writer’s themes to convey them with the proper intentions and emotions.

9. Deepening my understanding of the world, past and present, by transforming something foreign into something familiar.

10. Negotiating with what remains untranslatable.

With only one book of translation and a handful of shorter works completed, I am still developing these practices into technical proficiencies. However, as each translation project helps me hone and refine my skills, I am also leveraging these lessons more frequently in my reading and writing. Literary translation is, in the end, about actively co-creating a text with its original writer by adding more shape, context, nuance, and texture to it. Aren’t we all better off as readers if we learn to do the same? And aren’t we stronger writers when we draw from, build onto, and expand upon the world of literature that has come before us?

 

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.

Thumbnail: Patrick Tomasso

Craft Capsule: Doors vs. Corridors

by

Will Harris

8.17.20

This is no. 68 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

During the pandemic, with so many doors locked and shuttered, I lived in the corridors of my house. Thom Gunn describes the corridor as a “separate place between the thought and felt”—a place of uncertainty, where thoughts are unformed and feelings suppressed. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the few poems I managed to eke out were meandering, confused, and muffled.

As the architecture of my house extended into what I wrote, I started looking for poems about houses—either set indoors or using the “house” as a metaphor for the craft of poetry. I was trying to work out what kind of house poetry should be, and how much confusion that house might be able to contain. Soon enough I turned to Emily Dickinson: 

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

I always read this stanza with the ironic hint of the estate agent in her tone (“Superior—for Doors” is particularly funny), which seems to mock the idea you could ever really compare poetry to a house. Though it can feel like using a conceit means committing to it entirely, here the analogy is loosely held, self-consciously tenuous: “If you look to your right, you’ll see some windows. How many? Numerous. And if you look down there, yup, superior doors. You won’t get that with Prose.” The lightness of tone is part of the image she projects about poetry. 

But I read it with another, darker Dickinson poem in the back of my head, this one taking the house less as a metaphor for poetry than for the poet’s interior life:

One need not be a Chamber – to be haunted – 
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing 
Material Place

These lines suggest that when you forgo “Material Place” and build your house in “Possibility” you open yourself up to a particular danger: being haunted. Where the other poem began with a confident assertion of habitation—“I dwell”—here the speaker expresses horror at the idea of being dwelt in: “The Brain has Corridors.” The tone is repetitious, fevered, as though the speaker has been running up and down their internal corridors for hours. The effect of this is compounded by the use of the impersonal pronoun “One” and that definite article before “Brain”—not my brain but the brain—which suggests a traumatic detachment from the body; and “surpassing,” hanging at the end of the line makes it feel like those brain corridors are only getting bigger, longer, more labyrinthine. 

What’s missing from the second poem is a door of the kind Dickinson thought made poetry so superior—and without one, there’s no means of escape. Door and corridor may sound related but there’s no etymological link between them. The word door comes from the Old English duru and has always meant the same thing. Corridor is from the Italian corridoio, referring to a “running-place.” They represent two forms of possibility, each reliant on the other: The door is a portal, signifying insight, while the corridor is an in-between place, signifying uncertainty and confusion. 

An important way to understand the corridor might be via the horror film in which a shadowy figure always seems to be lurking at the other end, or the protagonist is trapped, running down an endless dark passage full of locked doors. Where the corridor represents terror, the door is freedom.

*

During lockdown I also turned to Bhanu Kapil’s book How to Wash a Heart and stopped at this section:

When what you perform 
At the threshold
Is at odds 
With what happens
When the front door is closed,
Then you are burning
The toast 
And you are letting the butter
Fester.

The front door is where the internal becomes public, even if briefly. But in order for an act to be meaningful, what you “perform” at the threshold must have some relationship to what happens behind it. Kapil’s lines make me think of those people in expensive houses who voted to privatize Britain’s National Health Service last December and then stepped out onto their doorsteps this spring to clap enthusiastically in support of nurses and carers. They make me think of what the threshold can conceal. The door only has meaning in relation to the corridor.

In early July, Bhanu and I did a reading together on Zoom. She began hers by lighting a small candle. She had some shallots next to her that she’d picked from Wittgenstein’s garden in Cambridge. The effect of these gestures wasn’t just to welcome the listener in. It was to create an open space into which the poem could emerge, where we could meet it. In trying to harmonize inner and outer, in letting out what festers, the distance between our two screens fell away.

After the reading, I thought back to Dickinson’s haunted house poem. It’s driven by a claustrophobic fear of the internal. Even the “External Ghost” or hidden “Assassin” (other threats that feature in Dickinson’s poem) are less terrifying than the prospect of “self encounter.” The self is a more ambiguous, volatile element. It could stay hidden forever: “Ourself, behind ourself concealed,” reads one line in the poem. You might think you’ve turned a corner, the front door in sight, only to find yourself lost down another passageway. 

But this is only a nightmare if you’re looking for a door. The beauty of Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart lies in its openness: “I want to be split / Into two parts / Or a thousand pieces.” The self that’s been split into a thousand pieces has nothing to lose. What’s not whole cannot be broken. Likewise, the poem doesn’t have to form a coherent whole—a portal to insight. It doesn’t have to involve finding the right door and standing outside of it proudly. It can also mean walking the corridors, afraid and confused.

 

Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Kilarov Zaneit

Craft Capsule: The Authority of Black Childhood

by

Joy Priest

7.6.20

This is no. 64 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Outside / its case, the mind is a beehive / fallen in the wild grasses / of an abandoned playground.

— from “Ars Poetica” by Joy Priest

It’s January 2, 2020. I’m traveling by car with a painter back to the artists’ compound that I’m staying at for a seven-month residency—a blip-stage between the MFA I finished in May 2019 and the PhD I will start in August 2020, a deliberate detour in the longer academic-poet road on which I find myself. About it, slightly in mourning. Alone in study, but wholeheartedly wanting to be closer to the people in this poetry thing.

The painter has found a way to subsist outside the university engine, working in the residency office, leading Zumba classes in the morning, painting in her studio at night. We’re talking about what academia does to artists, and, as we’re riding—from Wellfleet back to Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape, isolated at the end of the land—she says, “I really do feel like this chapter for me has been about unlearning.”

*

“Sometimes a moment of liberation is suspended by the tight grip of contradiction,” my friend Bernardo says, which captures this moment I have in the car with the painter, as well as the larger social context we’re sailing through like a tiny, mobile dot on the periphery of the U.S. map. I was liberated by the painter’s articulation but jealous that I hadn’t pulled it out of my subconscious first: unlearning. This had been my project for the first three months of the fellowship, but I’d thought I was wasting time because that project had not yet been named. Wasting time—a feeling shaped by the values of academia, a microcosm of our larger society and its ailing imagination, which burdens artists and writers with paradigms of productivity and surplus contributions to an inaccessible archive. I had been unlearning that.

*

Usually, when stuck in a vehicle, poetry-talk is boring at worst, frustrating at best. A Lyft driver or seatmate on a plane will inevitably ask, “When did you start writing poetry?” I find this frustrating because I haven’t yet crafted a creative approach to the question, but, more importantly, because such a question precludes the true answer.

*

I was a better poet when I was a child.

During the nineties in Kentucky, I was a child in solitude. There was a lack of artificial stimuli, my technology limited to a Sega Genesis that I spent more time blowing dust from than playing. My single mother was at work. The only other person in the house was my grandfather, a man in his seventies, who—I didn’t know at the time—was white. He defined our relationship with board games, puzzles, basketball, or boxing on a box TV set—the technology of his time. With his racist perspectives, he attempted to define my identity, which I didn’t yet understand, but felt, intuitively. 

In place of understanding, in place of the internet, I cultivated a practice in noticing. This is how I developed my approach to the page, before I had an awareness of “craft.” Poetry wasn’t what I did or what I started doing in a single moment from the past onward, it was the way I thought, who I had to be in my grandfather’s household, the way my mind worked to make sense of something.

There isn’t a single event that led to me becoming a poet. There isn’t a beginning to me writing poetry—there is only the beginner’s mind. This is what I find myself trying to get back to in my unlearning: the authority of a child’s imagination—what we possess before we are fully indoctrinated into adulthood and the accepted ways of making sense of things. 

*

I spent a lot of time outside of my grandfather’s house, in the backyard. My mind was a beehive. A chaotic, intuitive knot of thought-impulses that I needed to wrest apart, investigate, ruminate on, understand. I found myself watching the ants at ground-level, making a daily visit to the carpenter bees and their perfectly round holes in the rotting wood. 

When I was inside, I noticed the difference between my grandfather’s skin and mine. I knew my hair was more like the hair of darker people, who he was always saying bad things about. I knew that he didn’t want me to be like them, but I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand why, but I could notice. I kept a record of these little noticings as a substitute for clarity around what I was noticing. This conversation with myself as a Black child supplemented what I learned, or what adults sought to teach me (what a white child learns or is taught by white adults). This practice of noticing, or overhearing, was my seminal craft approach. 

*

Pulling away the scaffolding of craft “knowledge,” which I’ve accumulated as an adult poet, has led me to this—notebooks full of little noticings and meditations, overhearings and mishearings, notions that haunt me, lines that keep coming up. Writing a poem this way becomes less strained: that accumulation of craft had become a cheesecloth through which I struggled to write. 

These little noticings are the only way I wish to start a poem, or any conversation about craft. It is how I get closer to an understanding of what something or someone—my imaginary friend, my ancestors, my intuition, the flora and fauna—is trying to tell me, and I embrace this as a spiritual craft as well as a technical one. It is my resistance to the limits of the U.S. popular imagination, which condescends to the childhood imagination in tropes and shorthand, which does not know, can no longer remember, what the child knows.

 

Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.

Thumbnail: Dustin Humes

Craft Capsule: On Becoming a Pop Star, I Mean, a Poet

by

Chen Chen

11.2.20

This is no. 77 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1. I started to write poetry because of a secret that I had trouble sharing even with myself.

2. I continue to write poetry because, in the fifth grade, my short story about a pregnant witch living in Venice received the following peer critique: “You do know it takes nine months for the baby to grow inside the mom, not two?” I write poetry because I wish I’d responded, “You do know this is a witch baby???” 

3. I knew I would always be a poet after a barely audible “goodbye” in the doorway of a tenth-floor apartment. How there was no elevator and it was the middle of summer and I had to walk down and down those stairs. 

4. I wake up craving poetry because Sawako Nakayasu once said, “I work mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor nonfiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it.”1 

5. Poetry because French class, Russian class. Because Mandarin and English and Hokkien at home. Because English. Because I learn and learn, then forget so much Mandarin. Because I forgot all my Hokkien2 by age seven. Poetry because my first-year advisor in college, a professor of Russian Studies, asked me why all my three-page Tolstoy responses were so late. “Go on,” she said, “give us your narrative.” Poems because I loved how her prompt was a comment on the expected form of my response. Poet because I said, “Time management’s an issue,” which really meant I wanted every paper to be about everything and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character in Chungking Express and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro and was rewatching the film over and over and Googling stills. 

6. In eighth grade I began writing poetry outside of school assignments because I couldn’t keep imitating Robert Frost. I kept writing poetry because it seemed no one else with a secret like this looked like me.

7. Poet because I am a failed musician. Failed painter. Failed scientist obsessed with the moon.3 Failed gymnast, though once I was very, very good at cartwheeling. Poetry because my favorite scenes in Power Rangers were when, instead of running, they all backflipped and backflipped to where the fighting would take place.

8. The violence of the state. The silence of the h in French words, like homme. How violent, many homes. To ask, “Where is home?” as if it’s ever a simple question. To say, “I have a home” as if it’s an unremarkable statement. To say “I have” in Russian, you use a genitive construction that translates to the awkward English, “At me there is.” At home the adults asked, “Why did you get an A-?” in three different languages; there were no questions about whether I would ever start hating myself for what and whom I loved.   

9. I continue to read poetry because it seems every poem has a big secret at its core and I always want to know if it’s a big gay secret. Because Anna Akhmatova wrote, “Sunset in the ethereal waves: / I cannot tell if the day / is ending, or the world, or if / the secret of secrets is inside me again”4 and that seems pretty gay to me. Because Denise Levertov wrote, “Two girls discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry”5 and that sounds definitely gay. 

Because for years I had to settle for subtext and total projection. 

Because when I found Justin Chin’s Bite Hard in a college library, I glanced at just one poem then added the book to my stack to check out. Because I moved it to the middle of the stack, as if hiding it from both the sky and the ground. Because I was so moved to see both “Chinese New Year” and “ex-boyfriends” in one poem. Because was it hide or protect, and do I know the difference now? 

10. In English, I still have trouble with lie versus lay, which I always feel ashamed to admit, though I know English is a troublesome, troubling language that makes one want to lay down, to lie one’s body on its side till all one’s lies have tumbled out from one’s head and belly, and are lain out like one single shadow-body of a liar on the grass. 

11. I started off as a fiction writer. 

12.  I started as a reader of fantastical literature, a writer of both fantasy and science fiction. I started on the playground, telling friends that the jungle gym was a spaceship and we’d better hurry onboard before it took off: “Danny, you’re new to the cause, like me. Amanda, you’re the chosen one, our only hope.” I couldn’t get enough of the galactic, magic, any-kind-of-epic mission; the dueling-with-lasers-or-wands journey. I acted them out, wrote them down. 

Moments of poetry occurred in my stories when I stayed too long in the pocket dimension of an emotion; when I strayed too far into the magic of an image; when I mismanaged the time and leapt through the wormhole/plot-hole back to my implausible Venice and its witch baby. Poetry erupted when I couldn’t keep performing the narrative I was supposed to—that of a boy who liked Amandas, not Dannys. 

13. Looking back, dueling with lasers or wands sounds definitely phallic. 

14. I became a poet after my friends no longer wanted to play the games we made up. After they decided to only play games that would help them grow up. But growing up, for me, meant no longer just playing at, dancing around what I desired. And some days I wanted to grow up. And some days I wanted to die. 

15. I had to Google “coming out.” I had to Google “lie vs. lay.” I had to Google “gay and Asian” and found mainly what white men had to say about bodies like mine. I had to Google “gay Asian American literature.” I had to Google “queer.” I had to Google “fag.” I had to search for one sentence with “I” that eventually I could say out loud. 

16. Poems became my favorite way of telling stories because poems can tell a secret and talk about telling that secret and along the way become another secret.

17. Of course, all this can and does happen in other genres too. And when I write poems I’m drawing on aspects of fantastical fiction, autobiography, realist fiction, standup comedy, Tolstoy as much as Takeshi Kaneshiro, TV shows that got way too many seasons, and elements I don’t want to be able to name. In recent years, lots of prose poems and lyric essay–esque pieces have been showing their blocky faces to me. And very recently, a teensy spoonful of fiction. To call myself poet just makes the most sense, personally, creatively. Poet is where I feel freest to do this and that and wtf.

18. Some nights I just want to be an international sex symbol/pop star with Grammy-worthy vocal chops but still a ton of totally relatable habits, like eating bread. I envy the pop song that can end simply6 by repeating its chorus over and over, slowly fading out yet also burrowing itself into your ear. 

19. A barely audible “hey” in the collapsed year. The violence of state-sanctioned language. My own unbroken, snowy silences. To ask “Where is home?” as if there is one answer. To write home in a poem, like a poem could be a home—is this happy or sad? Strange yet not uncommon, to weep with and into joy. A form of power, a kind of language: to weep and disobey silence. My favorite silence is a space for thought, is spaciousness. A wormhole named Maybe. A parallel galaxy called Another Way. 

20. I continue to poet because now I have all these poet friends who’ll text me to ask what poems I’m writing and I have to start writing again so they’ll stop bugging me and I never want them to stop. 

I continue to poet because I’m not satisfied with the definitions behind, the narratives around “coming out,” “lie vs. lay,” “gay and Asian,” “gay Asian American literature,” “queer,” “fag.” I am always trying to say the everything I’ve lived, am living, but I never want to feel like I’ve said it all. 

For years I believed poetry was the only place where I could be all my selves, any self. I wrote, trying to answer the question, “How can a poem hold the myriad me’s and realms and loves and ferocities and shards and velocities—this whole multiverse that the life cannot, yet?” But can a poem do this? A book of poems? Is poetry a place? 

I am a poet because I ask poetry to do too much, and then it does it. 

 

ENDNOTES

1. From a working note that prefaced a set of Nakayasu’s poems published in How2
2. Except what my parents call each other. 
3. What joy! Poets! Not caring one bit how annoying we are when we go on and on about the moon!
4. “A land not mine,” translated by Jane Kenyon in
From Room to Room (Alice James Books, 1978). 
5. “The Secret” in
O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964). 
6. With the best pop music, this is no simple feat; the chorus has to be excellent.

 

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Publishing Triangle Thom Gunn Award. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and the 2015 and 2019 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence. 

Thumbnail: Romain Gille

Craft Capsule: We Are All Translators

by

Jenny Bhatt

9.21.20

This is no. 73 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Literary translation is about being a close reader in the source language and a skilled writer in the target language. Of course, a language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, diction, and syntax. Languages contain entire cultures within them, entire ways of thinking and being, too. Those of us who translate other writers’ works do so because we want to dive deep and fully immerse ourselves in another world—to pay attention to more than the literal content and preserve the emotions, cultural nuances, and humor from the source to target language.  

This is not unlike how, as readers and writers, we seek to inhabit the worlds of fictional characters. We are all translators. The process of reading involves translating and interpreting the writer’s meaning and intent. The process of writing involves interpreting and giving voice to our own thoughts, which are guided by the things we have read, seen, heard, and experienced. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously wrote, “No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the nonverbal world and secondly, since every sign and every phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase.”

Due to the accretions of traditions and culture over centuries, it is not possible to seamlessly transpose two languages when translating. Similarly, due to our conditioning and subjectivity, it is not possible for two readers to read the same text entirely the same way. And it is not possible for two writers to create entirely the same story. A single piece of writing can have multiple acceptable readings and translations due to the flexibility of language, suppleness of imagination, and versatility of craft techniques. 

I was a writer before I became a translator. But I learned to appreciate linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural diversity more profoundly because of translation work. There are ten key practices of the discipline that pull me in each time:

1. Reading a work closely and repetitively to know it, sometimes even better than the original writer.

2. Listening to the tonalities, textures, rhythms, cadences, and diction in both languages to capture the writer’s voice as fully as possible.

3. Learning nuanced meanings of words and phrases in the target language by seeing them used with different specificity and significance in the source language.

4. Hunting for le mot juste that honors the complexities of both languages.

5. Discovering aesthetic reinterpretations of an original work to suit a new readership or audience linguistically, intellectually, and intuitively. 

6. Deliberating over the subtexts, cultural implications, and stylistic choices made by the original writer in the source language to recreate them in the target language without losing any literary merit.

7. Interrogating the politics of the writer, their text, and the source and target languages.

8. Meditating on the original writer’s themes to convey them with the proper intentions and emotions.

9. Deepening my understanding of the world, past and present, by transforming something foreign into something familiar.

10. Negotiating with what remains untranslatable.

With only one book of translation and a handful of shorter works completed, I am still developing these practices into technical proficiencies. However, as each translation project helps me hone and refine my skills, I am also leveraging these lessons more frequently in my reading and writing. Literary translation is, in the end, about actively co-creating a text with its original writer by adding more shape, context, nuance, and texture to it. Aren’t we all better off as readers if we learn to do the same? And aren’t we stronger writers when we draw from, build onto, and expand upon the world of literature that has come before us?

 

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.

Thumbnail: Patrick Tomasso

Craft Capsule: Doors vs. Corridors

by

Will Harris

8.17.20

This is no. 68 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

During the pandemic, with so many doors locked and shuttered, I lived in the corridors of my house. Thom Gunn describes the corridor as a “separate place between the thought and felt”—a place of uncertainty, where thoughts are unformed and feelings suppressed. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the few poems I managed to eke out were meandering, confused, and muffled.

As the architecture of my house extended into what I wrote, I started looking for poems about houses—either set indoors or using the “house” as a metaphor for the craft of poetry. I was trying to work out what kind of house poetry should be, and how much confusion that house might be able to contain. Soon enough I turned to Emily Dickinson: 

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

I always read this stanza with the ironic hint of the estate agent in her tone (“Superior—for Doors” is particularly funny), which seems to mock the idea you could ever really compare poetry to a house. Though it can feel like using a conceit means committing to it entirely, here the analogy is loosely held, self-consciously tenuous: “If you look to your right, you’ll see some windows. How many? Numerous. And if you look down there, yup, superior doors. You won’t get that with Prose.” The lightness of tone is part of the image she projects about poetry. 

But I read it with another, darker Dickinson poem in the back of my head, this one taking the house less as a metaphor for poetry than for the poet’s interior life:

One need not be a Chamber – to be haunted – 
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing 
Material Place

These lines suggest that when you forgo “Material Place” and build your house in “Possibility” you open yourself up to a particular danger: being haunted. Where the other poem began with a confident assertion of habitation—“I dwell”—here the speaker expresses horror at the idea of being dwelt in: “The Brain has Corridors.” The tone is repetitious, fevered, as though the speaker has been running up and down their internal corridors for hours. The effect of this is compounded by the use of the impersonal pronoun “One” and that definite article before “Brain”—not my brain but the brain—which suggests a traumatic detachment from the body; and “surpassing,” hanging at the end of the line makes it feel like those brain corridors are only getting bigger, longer, more labyrinthine. 

What’s missing from the second poem is a door of the kind Dickinson thought made poetry so superior—and without one, there’s no means of escape. Door and corridor may sound related but there’s no etymological link between them. The word door comes from the Old English duru and has always meant the same thing. Corridor is from the Italian corridoio, referring to a “running-place.” They represent two forms of possibility, each reliant on the other: The door is a portal, signifying insight, while the corridor is an in-between place, signifying uncertainty and confusion. 

An important way to understand the corridor might be via the horror film in which a shadowy figure always seems to be lurking at the other end, or the protagonist is trapped, running down an endless dark passage full of locked doors. Where the corridor represents terror, the door is freedom.

*

During lockdown I also turned to Bhanu Kapil’s book How to Wash a Heart and stopped at this section:

When what you perform 
At the threshold
Is at odds 
With what happens
When the front door is closed,
Then you are burning
The toast 
And you are letting the butter
Fester.

The front door is where the internal becomes public, even if briefly. But in order for an act to be meaningful, what you “perform” at the threshold must have some relationship to what happens behind it. Kapil’s lines make me think of those people in expensive houses who voted to privatize Britain’s National Health Service last December and then stepped out onto their doorsteps this spring to clap enthusiastically in support of nurses and carers. They make me think of what the threshold can conceal. The door only has meaning in relation to the corridor.

In early July, Bhanu and I did a reading together on Zoom. She began hers by lighting a small candle. She had some shallots next to her that she’d picked from Wittgenstein’s garden in Cambridge. The effect of these gestures wasn’t just to welcome the listener in. It was to create an open space into which the poem could emerge, where we could meet it. In trying to harmonize inner and outer, in letting out what festers, the distance between our two screens fell away.

After the reading, I thought back to Dickinson’s haunted house poem. It’s driven by a claustrophobic fear of the internal. Even the “External Ghost” or hidden “Assassin” (other threats that feature in Dickinson’s poem) are less terrifying than the prospect of “self encounter.” The self is a more ambiguous, volatile element. It could stay hidden forever: “Ourself, behind ourself concealed,” reads one line in the poem. You might think you’ve turned a corner, the front door in sight, only to find yourself lost down another passageway. 

But this is only a nightmare if you’re looking for a door. The beauty of Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart lies in its openness: “I want to be split / Into two parts / Or a thousand pieces.” The self that’s been split into a thousand pieces has nothing to lose. What’s not whole cannot be broken. Likewise, the poem doesn’t have to form a coherent whole—a portal to insight. It doesn’t have to involve finding the right door and standing outside of it proudly. It can also mean walking the corridors, afraid and confused.

 

Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Kilarov Zaneit

Craft Capsule: The Arc of Epiphany

by

Jordan Kisner

12.7.20

This is no. 81 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I continually puzzle over something the essayist Amy Benson said during a seminar on “the lyric essay.” Or maybe she didn’t say it but alluded to it by the structure of her syllabus. This was a while ago, but essentially she proposed that essays might follow one of a few types of arcs: the arc of narrative, the arc of argument, the arc of epiphany.

This concept made intuitive sense to me. The feeling of the word arc—which for me always conjures the bowing of a ship’s prow, something sturdy and flexible, something constructed but buoyant, something that cuts through water and ice but is smooth enough to run your hand over—matches the feeling of an essay. The arc of narrative seems clear enough: The essay uses as its keel the rising and falling action of story. Its end point is coterminous with a feeling of resolution, or maybe just arrival, in the narrative. The arc of argument shapes an essay around an idea that needs advancing, a thought that needs interrogating and articulating—whether it’s clearly an argument or just a notion the writer is toying with. 

But what is an essay that follows the arc of epiphany?

I don’t remember how Benson defined it, and I prefer it that way. This way the arc of epiphany is something I get to imagine, to theorize, to puzzle over, to strive within. Is it an essay that provokes an epiphany? An essay that finds its arrival point in a moment of epiphany or bright realization? Does it replicate, structurally, the feeling of epiphany: total confusion followed by rupture and maybe rapture, followed by reassessment of everything that came before in light of the new knowledge, followed, perhaps, by disillusionment or fading fervor? Is it an essay that completely upends itself part of the way through and starts over on new premises? Does it just go right ahead and manifest the divine, as the word’s earliest uses in English (first, to describe Christ’s appearance to the Magi; and then to denote the revelation of a divinity more generally) would indicate?

When I wrote my first book, Thin Places, I toyed with creating an arc of epiphany not only within a single essay but through an arrangement of essays—or, to put it in geometric terms, a major arc produced by a series of minor arcs. I wanted to make a collection of essays that each individually riffed on the epiphanic (say, by ending with the appearance of a holy orange; or by putting the reader in a prolonged confrontation with death; or by pulling a U-turn halfway through a piece about debutante balls to talk about queerness) but also collectively and gradually, through sequential reading, crested into something like the epiphanic. I wanted that big inrush of air, that clearer picture, that sudden recognition of pattern. 

This is an extremely lofty goal, I realize, and I didn’t necessarily think such a thing would be possible (not least because I still wonder what “arc of epiphany” means), but it gave me something to play with and push against. Most writing that I like—of my own or by other people—is written as a genuine and urgent attempt to understand something inscrutable. When the writer stretches to comprehend something just out of their reach, or to articulate something for which they have no words—that’s when the air begins to crackle. It feels like a goal worth reaching for, even and especially if you have to make up its rubric yourself.

 

Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardiann+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas.

Thumbnail: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library

Craft Capsule: On Nightmares

by

Chen Chen

11.9.20

This is no. 78 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1.
A nightmare: realizing I need to restructure this essay, again, and it’s due tomorrow. 

A nightmare: COVID-19 cases on the rise again all across the country. 

A nightmare: how often essayists, especially poets-turned-essayists, like to remind everyone that essay comes from the French verb essayer, meaning to try, to attempt, to test. 

Not a nightmare: I love the try, the attempt. 

A nightmare: the test. The test freaks me out. 

A nightmare: how long it’s taken in the United States for COVID tests to become more accessible. 

Why do I prefer the nightmare of being dreadfully stuck, working on a poem, over the nightmare of being dreadfully stuck, working on an essay? 

A collective, ongoing nightmare: the pandemic. 

2.
Working on my essays for this series has been both a welcome distraction and (as I knew would happen) a dive into the deep end of my anxieties. The process feels nightmarish because my preferred method of exploring and articulating craft ideas is writing poems (and it seems I’ve gotten to the point in my poetry writing where I can befriend the dread, the stuck-ness). Or through conversation: engaging with students and connecting with friends, all of which happens these days over the shared nightmare known as Zoom. 

Also, I hate paragraphs. The blocky-ness of paragraphs makes me anxious, like I’m trapped in a box and, in the essay form, can only move from one box to another. I feel I have to make sense. Too much sense. I like paragraphs in prose poems, because I’m freer to do—I know better how to do—weird things with sentences. Or not write sentences at all. 

I think of Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave Books, 2012), a collection of essays based on lectures she was required to give as a teacher—at one point, Ruefle describes lectures as “bad dreams.” Ruefle has commented frequently on the fact that this one volume on poetry has far outsold her books of poetry; that people would rather read about poetry, than read a poem. That for many, poetry remains a nightmare. 

Poetry, to me, is the best dreaming. 

A form of breaking out of the Zoom room or the chain of paragraphs, into an expanse of fresh blooms,1 a field bursting with sunflowers. 

Still I’m drawn to essays for how they document a thought process, an attempt to think clearly and deeply. And I love good essays on poetry. I love Madness, Rack, and Honey. I’d like to write craft essays like Ruefle’s. I’m not sure that is possible, given our very different brains. But maybe my brain can do something else and figure out ways to enjoy writing an essay, or at least dislike it less. 

Could it be that my fear of the essay draws me to it? I’m afraid I won’t write as well in this genre, but the challenge entices. I’m nervous to delve into new subjects and discover scary truths, but surprise is also one of the key reasons I write anything. After all, in poetry it’s usually the door I don’t want to open that leads me to the room I most need to investigate.2

3.
I’ve long wanted to examine nightmares in my poetry. I’m intrigued by how fear can act as a signpost on the path to truth; how terror can mean getting closer to a complicated reality. I’ve written poems based on dreams—wild dreams that contain some frightening revelation at their core—but I have yet to write a poem based on a straight-up nightmare. Specifically, I’ve been itching to write a poem about my two recurring nightmares involving high school French teachers. 

One nightmare stars my sophomore year instructor, my favorite one, as a highly trained assassin. Her weapon of choice: one of my mother’s beloved Chinese cleavers. Somehow she manages very clean kills. In the nightmare I admire her and am also terrified. Sometimes I am the target, for getting a B on a quiz, say, and before the final blow she reminds me, “Cravate is a feminine noun, despite it referring to men’s neckties! It’s LA cravate, UNE cravate, SA cravate!” If I experience this again, I hope I remember to respond, “But anyone can wear a necktie!” Other times the nightmare gets loftier and the target is a corrupt politician, usually French. One time I am the corrupt French politician. 

I haven’t had this nightmare in a while, and I miss it—perhaps because 2020 is a global waking nightmare. What sleeping nightmare of mine could compare with Trump, COVID, and the police? I hesitate to type it out, but I miss this assassin nightmare because I wish there were worse consequences for the Trump administration. I wish there were consequences at all. As someone invested in abolition, I can’t advocate for prison. I have to imagine and help build other types of justice and accountability, ones that don’t rely on punishment and vengeance. At the same time, the part of me that misses the assassin nightmare would love for something nightmarish to visit these leaders who’ve abandoned all duty to the people. 

Another part of me misses this nightmare because seeing my mother’s cleaver in it is like seeing a part of her. I also associate high school language study with her because she teaches Mandarin at that level. I haven’t seen my mother since this pandemic was declared a pandemic. She’s immunocompromised and has been taking every precaution. Every call with her begins with her asking, “Have you been staying at home?” and ends with her command, “Keep staying at home.” My father, who never texts, texted me last week to say, “Avoid travel to any hot spots,” while travel ads pop up on my TV. Back in March my partner’s father was quarantined in a hospital in upstate New York after experiencing COVID-like symptoms. It was four days, but it felt like a year before the test results came back: negative. 

I check the news and check the news. I check social media, texts. I pick up the phone. The friends of friends with the virus. The friends with the virus. 

4.
Perhaps my fear of writing essays has to do with how my brain always associates the act with an academic assignment, a requirement, a grammar test that I might fail. It doesn’t help that so far most of the essays I write have in fact been