October 18, 2017 § 2 Comments
Ellen Birkett Morris
I remember my first summer writing conference. It was set in a charming small town in Ohio. Workshops met in rooms that looked like something out of Hogwarts or in small cottages with inviting porches. The workshop leaders were smart, funny, and supportive and, oh, the students. Spending a full week with other writers was transformative. We talked about books and how hard writing was and writers and how hard writing was. After a few days it was as if we were all residents of a small island, a literary oasis.
I’ve kept up this habit of going to summer conferences over the years where I hear great writers read, gain insight into the craft and get that hit of writerly comradery that I crave. But this year finances and other circumstances made it hard for me to get away. This year I’ve spent the year writing—generating new work, revising, looking through my files for stories that were half-finished or abandoned and giving them a second look. I’ve also spent the year reading, not craft books but literature high and low. I’ve read international writers, popular writers, writers of every gender and background. I’ve read carefully and slowly, taking note of how they drew me in (if they did), how they kept me reading, and what made for a satisfying ending. I’ve eschewed the buzz of networking and reading for my peers in favor of getting back in touch with my instincts as a writer and broadening my sense of what stories can do.
It may be purely a coincidence, but I’ve found myself taking a different approach to my work. I am less satisfied with my first efforts. I am taking the time to explore the various paths a story can take and asking myself which of these paths is truest to my characters. I am pushing myself to take my stories further and questioning the story’s ending. I am asking if I have best exploited the dramatic potential of the story. (An insight gifted to me in a conversation with the writer Lee K. Abbott.)
In the quiet of my home office I am taking the information I have learned over years of summer conferences and integrating it into my writing practice. I feel my writing getting better.
I know that I will be drawn back into the warm fold of writing conferences again, but for now I am sitting alone doing my work at the intersection of where knowledge meets practice and this holds an excitement all its own.
Ellen Birkett Morris’ essays have appeared in The Butter, The Fem, The Writing Group Book, The Common, The Girls’ Book of Friendship and South Loop Review. Her fiction, poetry, reviews and interviews have appeared in Antioch Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, and The Rumpus. She is the author of Surrender (Finishing Line Press), a poetry chapbook.
October 13, 2017 § 11 Comments
By Caren Lissner
Each year around this time, as the temperature gets colder and the nights grow longer, I spend more time sequestered in my small fifth-story apartment, writing. Luckily, the neighbors always provide extra inspiration. It’s not that they stop up to visit or that I see them more often in the streets now that they’re back from their summers away. Rather, this is the time of year when they remove the air conditioners and fans from the narrow windows of their apartments and brownstones, and my view changes dramatically.
At night, I start to notice a beautiful contrast: rows and rows of glowing windows juxtaposed against a cobalt sky. But I notice something else: more clues to the occupants’ personalities, the decorations that were obscured by their hardware — the jaunty sports pennants, flags from other countries, swirling suncatchers.
I also notice much more, a glimpse of their daily routines, providing both a distraction from my solitude and a reminder of the types of quirks I need to include to deeply shade the characters in my work.
For instance, take the guy directly across the street, who lives on the fifth floor of a beige row-home. From January through April, I spy him up into the wee hours, hunched over a desk beneath a small metal lamp. He takes breaks to head to the kitchen, and then it’s back to work. Since he’s only up so late during tax season, I have a pretty good idea what he does for a living. When we’re both at our desks at 2 or 3 a.m., I feel a camaraderie with him, another soul who understands the value of being productive during the most quiet time of night.
I’ve seen neighbors go through family changes. A new pet appears, an orange kitten who climbs onto the sill to stretch in the sunshine, its eyes turning to contented slits. Or the side of a crib suddenly presses against the window like a temporary safety gate against the world.
A week ago, I noticed that all the shades and curtains disappeared from a window on the fourth floor of the building across the street, affording me a view of a cavernous room with shiny wood floors. Days later, a regiment of cleaning products lined the sill, and a young man moved in. I caught glimpses of him in his t-shirt and baseball cap. He’s probably one of the young people who flood this area to start their first job in Manhattan after college graduation, as I did two decades ago. Perhaps he doesn’t know anyone in this town yet, or maybe he has many friends who will fill his apartment this weekend for his first party. Perhaps he expects, as I once did, to be here only a few years before leaving for the suburbs. I may cross paths with him tomorrow when he’s dashing for the bus in suit and tie, and not even recognize him. But will he recognize me?
In the last few years, I’ve found out, through conversations on social media, that various childhood friends of mine lived in this town right after college, but moved to the suburbs before either of us realized that we were around the corner from each other. There was no social media to connect us then. It’s too bad that we didn’t at least meet up for a drink before our paths diverged. In fact, right now, there may be people all around me who have something deep inside that would amaze me, but we’re looking at each other’s glowing window and neither of us knows it. Perhaps we will never know.
As a writer, I often use my imagination to fill in the blanks of people’s lives, to make more sense of the world. But perhaps I should forsake imagination for a little initiative. Because I really don’t know enough of my neighbors. As the cold weather settles in, it’s tempting to hole up all weekend. The next time I go out, I’m going to say hello to a few more people I pass, perhaps ask questions about their dogs. If they don’t find it too much of a trespass in these isolated times, perhaps they’ll smile back. It might make autumn feel a bit warmer – that, and taking the fans out of the windows.
Caren Lissner is a novelist and essayist who’s been published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, LitHub, and McSweeney’s. Her humorous first book, Carrie Pilby, was made into a movie that premiered on Netflix in September. She’s presently finishing up a new novel and a funny memoir.
October 11, 2017 § 8 Comments
By Beth Ann Fennelly
After many years of a fairly monogamous relationship with poetry, I began a flirtation with prose. Now it’s a full-blown affair. My newest book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is a collection of little bite-sized stories about my life. Some of them are a sentence, some a paragraph, or a few. At times, when I was trying to publish them, my husband (also a writer) would call my attention to a prose poem contest, asking, “Why not send in your new pieces?” My refusal was knee-jerk: my pieces weren’t poetry. “Does it matter?” he’d ask, genuinely curious. It mattered, curiously. Memoir had allowed me access to material previously unavailable through poetry, and I wanted to credit the genre. Why, though, did writing in sentences as opposed to lines make a difference?
The line versus the sentence: this distinction would seem twee to those who aren’t obsessed with words, who assume lines are chopped-up sentences. But those of us who are obsessed with words know the distinction changes not only how but what we write. After all, if lines were merely chopped-up sentences, and line breaks merely visual, we could delete them with no change to the material. But when losing the line break, we lose the white space that shapes the way we process meaning. Line breaks provide a rest, so the words on either side of the rest can require more effort in the processing of lyricism, tropes, syntax, and sound. These resting places—like stair landings in a walk-up—interrupt the exertion with a breather (literally), and so give us the strength to keep climbing. Without them, too much is demanded of us, so our absorption is hindered.
The poetic line also affects the reader because it highlights the artfulness and artifice of the experience of reading, as opposed to the sentence, which distracts us from it. The line, followed by its white space, metes out comprehension, followed by its disruption. The power play of the line break is that of withholding. We’re never unaware that our experience is being modulated by another as we follow the choreographer’s orders to leap and rest, leap and rest. This is fundamentally different than how prose pours itself into the vase of the page. Here, says the line, Now we are here. Now we are here. But everywhere, says the sentence. You are everywhere and nowhere. The sentence is always pointing outside of itself. This is what Cole Swenson means, I believe, when she writes “Prose exists somewhere other than the page.”
And, lastly, the line’s tension is different from the sentence’s tension. Tension in the line occurs as the unfurling sentence is interrupted by caesura and line breaks. These two forces, the force that pushes and the one that retards, become the warp and weft on which the skilled poet manipulates rhythm. Let’s compare this to how the engine of the sentence moves us. With prose, the rhythms are steadier, the goal accumulation. Chris Forhan, another poet-turned-memoirist, says on LitHub that “When writing prose, I can often afford to work at a lower idle.” Indeed, the locomotive and the long distance car trip are frequent comparisons for prose, which feels horizontal, not vertical.
And all this influences the “what” we write. Without the push-and-pull of line breaks, the act of reading becomes less conscious. The physicality of reading–the eyes yanking back to the left margin, while the ear and brain rush toward comprehension–is lessened. As a result we’re less bolted to the moment, which is to say, the lyric impulse. The tension of prose takes place on a wider tapestry, the warp and weft tightening not over the course of a single line but as momentum builds toward and is delayed from its destination. Prose is more interested with the future, and sometimes the past, connected to the present, which is to say, plot. Prose is less about relating shifting parts of a sentence into a coherent now, and more about relating the shifting now to a coherent then, and then, and then, which better accommodates the narrative impulse.
So, how did the rhythm of the sentence allow me access to experiences I hadn’t accessed with poetry? I made that long-distance road trip into the past and stayed there longer than I would have with the line’s leaping insistence. By idling there, the past revealed its intricacies, fleshed out in a way that let me see how rich and detailed those memories were. The unfolding energy of the “and then” construction demanded these moments link up with a future, thus providing prospective. The person who lived those past moments, the “I of the then,” as Sven Birkerts terms it in The Art of Time in Memoir, intersected with “the I of the now.” For example, my whole life I’ve heard how, when I was two, my four-year-old sister cut off my curls and eyelashes with safety scissors. This oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote was not one I ever explored in poetry. But the fishing line of the sentence, cast back into the pool of 1973, lingering there, allowed me to sound the depths of that memory. As it turned out, there was something troubling about how that experience links up to our current relationship. There was a genuine question I needed to answer that the anecdote elided and the poetic line might have yanked me out of. The sentence got me there, inviting me to linger until I’d made the connection.
So I’m grateful to the sentence and all I’ve learned from it, all I continue to learn. Don’t tell poetry, but, at least for now, my love affair with the sentence shows no signs of fizzling.
Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi. Her book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is out this month from W.W. Norton.
October 9, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Amanda Avutu
I was 21 and the worst kind of poet. By which I mean, I wore black dresses and had silver cat eye glasses. So, when a poet came to speak to my undergraduate poetry class about her novel, you can well imagine the twist my black knit stockings were in.
“How do you move back and forth between poetry and fiction??” I inquired during the Q & A session. It was not so much a question as an indictment.
Baseball players don’t play football! Ballerinas don’t dance tap! Hip Hop artists don’t sing Country! Poets don’t write fiction! So went my absolutist 20-something Poet logic.
Poets made each word justify not only its existence, but its placement, musicality, and visual appeal.
Poets were Allison from my fifth-grade class, nibbling tiny bites out of a bologna and cheese sandwich.
Other writers were competitive eaters, swallowing bologna and cheese sandwiches whole, not caring about the white bread stuck to the roofs of their mouths.
After the seminar, the visiting writer graciously signed copies of her book. In mine, she thoughtfully inscribed, “To Amanda, Wishing you luck navigating seamlessly between fiction and poetry.” I remember thinking—rather uncharitably— that I would never need her “luck,” because the only thing I wrote and the only thing I would write was poetry.
I’m 40, and while I still wear black dresses and glasses, I no longer consider myself a Poet or even a poet. I’ve written plays and short stories, novels and essays. I’ve also had brief—dark moments—where I was completely wordless. My god, those were terrifying. Generally, though I’ve become, quite simply, omnivorous where words are concerned. I consume them and produce them with vigor, regardless of their classification. What I’ve learned is that each form allows me to explore, and to expose, different pieces of myself. When I was writing poetry, my truth bobbed just below the surface of abstractions; bits of cereal swimming in the plausible deniability of milk. In my fiction, I anchored my tiny truth and then launched my readers and myself into an alternate reality. These days, I primarily write narrative nonfiction and I tell my truth as my truth. Nothing, however opaque, protects me from my reader’s gaping maw. And as much as my younger self might scoff at the idea, I’ve learned that my truth is my truth is my truth, which becomes my art, regardless of how I tell it.
There was a sense, over these last two decades, of betrayal. My husband fell in love with the poet, my degree proclaimed my proficiencies as poetry centric, since junior high—when I began writing awful rhyming verse—poetry was my identity. Now, though, I realize my poet self is there, making sure there is room for catharsis and that there is the strength to be a conduit. Making sure each word in each sentence justifies its existence. She buries tiny, delicious, moments for my readers to happen upon and savor. She has always been there and will always be there to make sure that whatever I write, it sings.
Amanda Avutu’s nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, O, the Oprah Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, Bitter Southerner, and the New York Times’ Family Ties column.
October 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Mary Volmer
The obsessions of writers and athletes begin the same way, as play. In his memoir, Hoop Roots, John Edgar Wideman explains that his basketball obsession began, “as messing around…throw a ball through a hoop, a fun silly kind of trick at first, until you decide you want to do it better.” He might as well have been speaking about storytelling and writing.
Writing starts as novelty, as messing around, until you decide you want to do it better, and become willing, as Wideman says, to “learn the game’s ABC’s. Learn what it costs to play.” What follows is a period of joyful mimicry. Not yet aware of the limits of your ability, you are burdened only by your own evolving expectations. Try and fail and try again, until the ball begins to fall through the hoop with regularity–until the writing, once derivative, takes on its own life, and you become capable of original expression.
Because ultimately, expression is what athletes and authors crave. They live for those moments when body, soul, and mind operate in perfect unity, a kind of spiritual transcendence. Sports psychologists have named this transcendent experience “the Zone,” or, “The Zone of Optimal Performance.” Their perspective alters, so that nothing of consequence exists outside of the immediate action. Awareness expands to fill the moment. The game seems to slow, the goal grows wider and the body responds with uncalculated inventiveness to each unpredictable event.
Writers share similar experiences of altered time and heightened awareness. They, too, understand that discipline precedes transcendence. They, too, must be willing to show up and endure discomfort and labor every day, even on bad days. They, too, must find satisfaction in small daily victories, adapt to setbacks as the season or story progresses, and maintain faith in their purpose even when they have cause to doubt their abilities.
Writers and athletes recognize their pursuits to be, as Chad Hubbach writes so elegantly, an “apparently pointless affair…which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
Although at times marred by ego and that false god, glory, the desire to observe beauty and to have a hand in its creation, remains the noble center of both pursuits.
Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust (Soho Press, 2010) and Reliance, Illinois (Soho Press, 2016). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in various publications, including Mutha Magazine, Women’s Basketball Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Historical Novel Society Review, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and was the spring 2015 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s College (CA) where she now teaches.
October 5, 2017 § 14 Comments
By Nicole Piasecki
I’m a prose writer. I’ve been trying to write a story that explores a friendship breakup from 20 years ago, when I was a student at a tiny college in southeast Michigan and quietly questioning my sexuality. It is one of those stories where the narrator can only guess what went wrong.
I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours, days, months, and years trying to capture the emotion of that loss in my young life, and I have been ungracefully flailing.
My workshop group members told me they got lost/bored with the logistics of college life. They said the characterizations felt flat. It needed a more compelling narrative arc. The emotion I intended to communicate through scene and detail left them wanting.
I revised again—moved the ending to the beginning, cut long sections of dialogue, tried to bring the characters to life with gesture and action. I read volumes of CNF essays for ideas on how to improve the story. Despite my desire and relentless effort, a second-round of workshop revealed that I still hadn’t solved the story’s problems. I set it aside, hoping an epiphany would surface while I drove or showered, or even while I slept.
A few weeks later, I signed up for an eight-week poetry workshop at Denver’s literary hub, Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I was desperate for a change of pace from my long-form essays and thought poetry would offer a good mental shake-up.
During the first week, the workshop’s instructor, Andrea Rexilius prompted us to write a poetic response to a favorite poem and to focus on what Ezra Pound called “Melopoeia” or the “musical property” of language—the way sound collaborates with meaning.
I selected Ocean Vuong’s, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” from his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press). I wrote the beginning of a one-page poem, borrowing Vuong’s theme of impermanence.
I quickly became enthralled by the microscopic act of tinkering with language and experimenting with form. I liked the tidiness of a one-page composition surrounded by oceans of white space. It was like my eye was at a keyhole and could see an entire emotional landscape in a small, visible frame—such a stark contrast to my 17-page prose maze.
As a poetry beginner, I felt no pressure for my poems to be perfect, publishable, or even complete. It made me remember poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2016 interview with Chris Soto in LAMBDA Literary. Shaughnessy, a non-singer, started taking singing lessons. The act of doing something she wasn’t good at made her stop “wallowing in bullshit.” She said, “Really it’s neither difficult nor devastating to hit a wrong note or to write a bad line of poetry. Just write another. Sing another song. Big whoop.”
Writing poetry has been a welcome disruption; I’ve noticed a shift in myself, a loosening up in my creative process. I am having fun and not taking myself too seriously. I feel a freedom with poetry that I couldn’t quite articulate until a student in the workshop asked our instructor why she has pursued poetry over other forms of writing. Rexilius said:
I tend to remember my experiences on a more emotional, internal level (how something felt in terms of tone, or atmosphere, or mood–metaphorically), rather than remembering an experience in terms of its specific external details–literally, such as what a room looked like or whether or not my mother baked cakes. This interiority of memory, free of timeline, free of character (in a way), and of plot, is what I think makes me a poet.
Rexilius’s casual comment has stayed with me ever since. With my own story, I wanted to explore the intimacy of female friendships and the fuzzy boundaries between filial and romantic love. All along, I had been trying to prove to the reader, and maybe even myself, that the relationship embodied characteristics of both.
Through poetry, however, I breathed into the freedom from literality. I entered a writing space where I felt empowered to confidently define my own emotional experience through a collisions of disparate images, both literal and imagined without the same level of self-consciousness. In my poems, it didn’t matter who initiated our first hangout or what kind of cereal my friend ate for breakfast at the dining hall. It didn’t matter how our relationship progressed from A to B. Poetry freed me from the constraints of my memory and a clear narrative arc. I could, instead, distill the emotion of our relationship and its end by using any available means. The poems I wrote felt true, honest, raw—exhilarating.
When I first started this poetry workshop in August, I expected that the deep study of language would translate across genres. I saw poetry as a tool to help me improve as a prose writer and positively disrupt my writing process. The workshop has exceeded all of these expectations.
But I am also beginning to think beyond the workshop’s service to my essays and stories. It seems that some stories on my hard drive have been begging, all along, to be dismantled, set on fire, and rebuilt as poems.
Nicole Piasecki teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. She identifies mostly as a creative nonfiction writer but is intrigued by the possibilities of poetry. Her creative works have been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, Motherwell, Word Riot, Gertrude Press and other literary and professional journals. Nicole tweets about teaching, writing, and parenting @npiasecki.
October 4, 2017 § 28 Comments
By Dheepa R. Maturi
Long ago, my grandmother peeled oranges for me — and by peeled, I mean stripped bare of rind, fascia, fibers and membranes until the bulbous cells underneath lay exposed and quivering. When I began to submit my writing to journals, I, too, felt stripped and offered for casual consumption.
I’d been writing my whole life, but in unpredictable bursts recorded on post-it notes and backs of shopping lists and even paper plates — little releases of a pressure cooker valve allowing me to function again when my throat felt too tight, my stomach, too constricted. And then, the pressure would rebuild.
The gradual movement of my writing from disposable dinnerware into computer files and a daily practice challenged and provoked me, but also allowed me to choose proactively where in my life and mind to dig and explore, where to shine light and hope as I wrote. At long last, I felt I was occupying myself, stepping into integrity and knowingness.
While I felt wonderment at all this road granted me, a side path continued to catch my eye and beckon darkly. I disregarded it. I ignored it again and again.
But I knew what it called me to do: submit my work.
* * *
Did I really have to cross the line I’d circumscribed around my writing life? The very idea filled me with dread, conjured up tentacular beasts in my psyche and foretold bloody battles. But instinct told me the process would be worth it — if I could survive it.
At first, the lessons were benign, even universal. As I received my initial feedback, I began to comprehend the enormity of my learning curve with respect to the craft of writing. I began to understand the practice was more demanding and exhausting than I’d anticipated. I would need more endurance. More tenacity. A much, much thicker skin. I also found reserves of energy and optimism (not to mention skin) that I’d never known existed.
But then, more personal battles commenced. As rejections rapidly accumulated, I experienced a feeling of perpetual internal scrubbing. The act of submitting my work seemed to be wrestling my numerous neuroses simultaneously — I envisioned hundreds of nanites released into my brain, methodically correcting misfiring systems as they crawled. My head, my whole body, hurt all the time.
I saw my desperation for affirmation, realized that my sense of self-worth was dependent almost entirely on the approval of others — approval that was not forthcoming. Each rejection felt personal, visceral, like a judgment rendered upon me. I had to learn, for survival’s sake, that, despite my plethora of flaws, despite any dearth of talent and skill, I was nevertheless worthy of occupying space, of expressing what I needed to express.
I saw my pathological need for control. I wanted to hold each editor by the shoulders and explain what each line, each sentence meant and what incidents from my past had informed it. Eventually, I had to accept that my words might be disliked, brutally misinterpreted, or not understood at all, yet they needed to be released to the universe anyway.
I saw how well justified many of the rejections were. My own judgments upon others, my many and varied jealousies, my inability to achieve complete authenticity: all prevented me from translating my thoughts adequately into words, from harnessing and conveying truth.
Now, in the face of all of these beasts (whose heads are lopped off, only to grow back just when I believe them conquered), I feel a continuous impulse to close down and protect all of my vulnerable parts. The mother of all battles is to stay open, open, open in the face of all the defeats, to continue to submit, submit, submit.
Slowly, I have come to understand. To submit is not necessarily to surrender, tasting dust and defeat. Rather, it is an offering of one’s own particular concoction of shame and valor and pain and insight to others, as an act of love. I am not the orange, sacrificed to appease monsters unknown. Instead, I am the grandmother, offering all that I am capable of, in the best way I know, with hands open.
Dheepa R. Maturi is the director of an education grant program in Indianapolis and a graduate of the University of Michigan (A.B. English Literature) and the University of Chicago (J.D.). Her work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Every Day Poems, Tweetspeak Poetry, A Tea Reader, Mothers Always Write, Here Comes Everyone, Flying Island, Branches, Corium, and The Indianapolis Review. Her short story “Three Days” is a finalist in the Tiferet 2017 Writing Contest.