Free Fall

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by Winona Winkler Wendth

On November 22, 2013, I rolled into a familiar parking space. I had been sitting there fifty years ago when an announcer crackled and hissed through an AM car radio that the president was dead.

This time, I sat in my car and looked across the campus where decades before I had attended school. The school had changed radically: the campus was bare, not only because of the tundra-like landscape, but also because the school had closed—no students, no teachers, only a single groundskeeper. Near desolation. But the essence of that place had remained: global warming notwithstanding, the air was as cold as it had been; the odor of early winter was still in the air, the ground frigid but not frozen; the sky was overcast. I could smell November—the end of the year, but not quite.

A sense of place is not so much a combination of memories and retrofitted significance as it is a sensibility, a re-creation of a moment that carries odor and temperature, texture, and a light peculiar to that place, regardless of what might have happened there. Sometimes, these sensory flashbacks come to us uninvited; sometimes we can encourage them. But we have little control over what they do with us.

My grandmother followed me while I walked past a bakery in Prague, long after she was no longer on this planet; the ghost of my mother was at my shoulder, not long ago when I sat by a wood fire in New Hampshire and caught a whiff of stale coffee reheating rooms away on a stove; damp straw almost always takes me back to the Orient and a tiny tatami-floored home crawling with cats and babies; just looking at a bottle of Mateus gives me a headache—not because it’s cheap booze, but because, entirely sober, I slipped on an icy stair, hit my head, and suffered a week-long headache around the Christmas I had discovered the stuff; sometimes, my back hurts, too—muscle memories of responsible porch shoveling through the remainder of that winter.

I must write about the buzz, the slip, the ache, not the endless, emotionally frozen months in Wentworth, New Hampshire.

A mouthful of the salty, mono-textured foodstuff that is a mainstay of institutional cafeterias takes me to my school lunches and then to next period’s algebra class with Mr. Wateverizhamewuz. And the boy whose name I’ll never forget who sat next to me, reeking of Jade East and failing the course. I must write about the boy, the cheap cologne, the scribbles on the desk in the hard-chaired classroom, not about feeling damaged by a romantic mistake.

Sometimes, the sting of those tiny, icy snowflakes typical of New England winters reminds me that I’m old and tired and sends me back into the house; but sometimes it invites me back into my childhood and for a few moments, at least, depending on half a dozen other impressions, I have all the energy in the world.

I must write about the sting, the sharp air.

On that day in November 1963, I admit that I thought little of the president, or Dallas; I was sixteen. However overcast and chilly the moment, I was sixteen and could count on new beginnings and possibilities, including the possibility of cutting English class.

I remembered what that felt like.

This is what a writer must open herself to—that instant that speaks itself, that place whose concrete information creates, then opens a trap door and drops us into a messy accumulation of sensory memories that make us who we are.

*****

Photo on 3-24-13 at 2.03 PMWinona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer’s Collaborative in Lancaster, Massachusetts, runs writing workshops, and mentors a wide assortment of writers, both published and (as yet) unpublished.  Both her fiction and essays are found online and in print in a variety of journals and has been featured on NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction.” Wendth holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.

 

18-Minute Chili

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by Jessica Danger

Who wouldn’t want to apply?

I did, after reading the description from the website at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony: “Dorland Mountain Arts Colony is a beautiful retreat where artists, writers, musicians and composers can create in a secluded, natural setting.”

I had the place to myself for a week. I was about 85% done with a memoir I had been working on in the years since my father died. Coincidentally, the week that I was at Dorland included my birthday as well as the third anniversary of my father’s death due to alcoholism, also the topic of the memoir. It was the perfect week to be there, in the middle of nothing, in a little cottage with no television, no husband, children, students, none of it.

I spent the first two days just clearing my head. I read a lot. I finished A Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing and started and finished a novel I found in the cottage. I re-read Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. I went for hikes, went grocery shopping. I slept A LOT.

It gets dark early out there, and the guidebook on my dining table encouraged me to let my body succumb to the natural cycle of the sun. So I did.

JessicaDangerI woke up with the sun and the cacophony of birdsong, passing leisurely mornings counting the quail out my kitchen door. I worked at the desk or read for a few hours over very strong coffee. I ate simple breakfasts then trained hard at the local CrossFit box in triple digit summer weather. I wrote all afternoon, furiously and without regard to editing or hurt feelings, still in my stinky gym clothes, the radio playing the whole time. In the evenings I mirrored the morning. I ate my dinner on the front porch, in a creaking rocking chair that I moved every twenty minutes or so to catch the sun. I watched the birds, looking them each up in the Birdwatchers Encyclopedia in the house. I counted the lizards, I scared off snakes. When the porch light could no longer suffice for reading, I went inside and simply went to bed.

Sometimes I sat on the hardwood floors, in the middle of the living room, and just cried. This stuff was so hard. The writing, the memories, the anniversary of his passing. The silence had a presence. One of my best girlfriends sent me a package, with a letterpress sign that reads, “You are doing a great fucking job.” I drank several bottles of wine, with disregard to the time of day.

I hiked a lot. I checked for ticks. I cried some more.
 I got back to work.

After a week at Dorland I did what all writers dream of doing: I left with a finished first draft of the memoir. I breathed a cavernous sigh of relief. It is finished. It has been done. I packed up my little borrowed cottage, said goodbye to the caretakers and blasted the radio on the way home, windows down.

Now all I have to do is revise it.
 No big deal, right? I mean the hard part is finished, no?

I went home to my dog and kids and home to the relentless list of things screaming and blinking at me like carnival lights on Labor Day. Things that zap your time, suck your energy, lust after you NOT TO WRITE.

My draft is piled very neatly in a plastic storage crate in an office I am borrowing from my boss until mid December.

The semester has started. I have welcomed my students. I am trying—desperately, desperately—to memorize their names and pronounce them correctly. To remind myself that I too at one time was a college freshman.

Oh yes, that pesky memoir.

Carolyn See, who sadly we just lost, offers guidance in her book Making a Literary Life. She charts two options, “Carolyn’s 18-Minute Chili” or “Carolyn’s 18-Hour Chili,” in her seemingly foolproof plan.

The one I am going to run with this semester is the 18-Minute option. Write a thousand words a day or two hours of revision every day and send off a nice note of appreciation, “five days a week for the rest of your life.” By this, she means a note of appreciation to an editor, writer, etc. See calls these “paper airplanes of affection.” (Today, from my borrowed office, I sent an email to Lily King, praising her novel Father of the Rain. Have you read it? Because you should, right now, and then you should ALSO send her a note of appreciation.)

How quickly we allow ourselves to be distracted. I repeat myself, telling my students that it is their responsibility to manage their time, just like I tell my children. I cannot do it for them. So why is it so difficult to do it myself? Why, as a mother and a teacher and a wife and friend and daughter and all the other hats we must wear, why do I allow the work to be put on the back burner? Every. Damn. Time.

Bukowski writes, in one of his many doodle crowded letters, “There is nothing more magic and beautiful than lines forming across paper. It’s all there is. It’s all there ever was.”

How easy it would be.

Why is it so impossible to duplicate the headspace I found at Dorland? Since then, I’ve found many other writers that tell me the same thing. That they cannot write in the house, they have to go somewhere else. Sometimes that means the library sometimes that means a place like Dorland. I know one author that can work right there at the kitchen table, in the afternoons, with his two beautiful daughters twirling around him in the after school madness every parent recognizes as they pull around the corner.

Me? I ignore my kids and spouse. I retreat. I shut the door. But I follow the steps. I write.
 I encourage and support the community in which I identify. That of writers.
 I send notes of gratitude.

What is your plan?

Jessica Danger lives, writes, and teaches in Southern California with her family. She holds an MFA from Bennington College in Vermont. Her work has been published in several journals, including Gold Man Review and Thin Air Magazine. She was recently shortlisted for the Iowa Review Nonfiction Prize.

The Socratic Conundrum or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Alphabet

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By Mark Nelson

Socrates never wrote anything down. Had Plato, his student, not diligently recorded his words, they would have been whisked away by the sands of time. A while back, I stumbled upon a fascinating tidbit, the fundamental reason why the great teacher eschewed writing. Socrates and Plato lived in Athens in the fifth century BC, a period commonly known as its golden age. This was a time when the Greek alphabet was taking hold. Plato embraced it. Socrates rejected it. Both had their reasons. I find myself fascinated by that fleeting yet remarkable period of time. Imagining their discussion is irresistible.

PLATO

You have such an amazing mind. It probes every subject imaginable. Aren’t you curious about this new invention, writing?

SOCRATES

Of course, I am. I questioned many of our citizens who have learned it and discovered a troubling phenomenon. It produces fundamental changes in their psyches by deceiving them.

PLATO

How is that?

SOCRATES

They confuse symbols with truth. They lose the distinction between representation and reality. That is why I’ve never written anything down.

PLATO

But can’t you—

SOCRATES

It’s not that I’m unable. I’m unwilling.

PLATO

I enjoy reading–

SOCRATES

I have no problem reading. How else would I realize a written account of a conversation is but a shadow of a conversation?

PLATO

Ah! The Cave analogy–

SOCRATES

Even more than that, relying on writing would diminish me.

PLATO

In what way?

SOCRATES

The seeking of knowledge, which is the pinnacle of our aspirations as we seek the divine, is no longer a true debate.

PLATO

How so?

SOCRATES

If one side has some writing to his advantage, is that not a form of cheating?

PLATO

Precedent as cheating? I don’t think–

SOCRATES

Even our memory is affected. Our ancestors could recite the words of Homer. Our children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Would you agree that a man who carries stones in order to build his house will become stronger than a man who merely orders another to do the work for him?

PLATO

Yes, most certainly.

SOCRATES

Would you agree that a man who orders another to do the work of such an important task is in danger of becoming soft and lazy?

PLATO

Not necessarily. The citizens of Athens could never have constructed this grand city only by the labor of their own hands.

SOCRATES

That is a fair point. Let us discuss the military. Is not every citizen also a Hoplite, bound by duty to defend Athens against its enemies?

PLATO

That’s true.

SOCRATES

What word would you use for a man who thought nothing of letting another perform such a sacred task?

PLATO

Parásitos.

SOCRATES

So would I. Would you agree a man’s mind is his greatest treasure?

PLATO

Yes.

SOCRATES

Does it not follow that if it makes some sense to delegate the construction of one’s house to another, no sense at all to delegate the protection of one’s polis to another, it should be inconceivable to delegate the nourishment of one’s psyche to another?

PLATO

It does.

SOCRATES

Is it not reasonable to conclude the youth of our city have been seduced by writing into relegating the care of that which they should cherish the most? Why should they bother with the labor of true thinking when another has already done the work for them?

PLATO

That does sound logical.

SOCRATES

If that is the case, why have you been scribbling on a scroll the whole time we have been talking?

PLATO

Because neither of us will live forever.

You’d think an argument from over two millennia ago would be settled by now. Not really. Around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical movable type printing set in motion a chain of events that he almost certainly didn’t foresee. He faced bankruptcy and was exiled. By the time of his death in 1468, his invention had achieved only a modicum of success. As we all know, his legacy hardly disappeared into obscurity. As the fifteenth century drew to a close, printing presses were in operation throughout Western Europe producing what we now call incunabula. For the first time, the common man had access to books. Intellectuals had access to even more of them. It’s hard to deny the argument that the printing press fueled the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution.

The old guard took notice of the impending threat to their monopoly on knowledge. Michael Servetus, a Spanish Renaissance humanist who lived during the first half of the sixteenth century, was well-versed in science, law and literature. He published books on science and theology, such as the first French translation of Ptolemy’s “Geography,” “Errors of the Trinity” and “The Restitution of Christianity.” The third work contains a groundbreaking discussion of pulmonary circulation. For his contributions, Servetus was rewarded with being burned at the stake in 1553 by order of Geneva’s city council. The Pope ordered Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible burned in Catholic-dominated areas of Germany in 1624. The impending threat certainly wasn’t lost on the Ottoman Empire, which banned the printing press from 1483-1727—that’s 244 years—with the death penalty imposed on lawbreakers. None of that stemmed the tide of change. So, why all the fuss over this particular invention, a machine that performed the simple task of rendering letters on paper? To answer that question, let’s resurrect Socrates and Plato once again and assume they have been filled in.

SOCRATES

First, in all fairness, I must give the citizens of Athens their due. Hemlock is a much easier passage to death than being roasted alive, like poor Servetus.

PLATO

Yes, yes…your ‘Apology’ was a great speech. Obviously, the citizens of Athens didn’t share my opinion. But for all men, is not a death sentence sufficient punishment?

SOCRATES

I warned you of the dangers of writing.

PLATO

I will admit I did not have the foresight to realize simple words could be put to such nefarious purposes.

SOCRATES

I suspected as much. That’s the difference between a disagreement, a fight and a feud. The first lasts a day, the second years and the third generations. The difference between the three is time, compounded by what we choose to remember. A flaw in our nature allows us to endure the pain of an injury without fostering a corresponding understanding of the cause. I have heard that our fellow Athenians have transformed ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ into this new invention you praise. Is it really a noble idea to turn oratories into letters on papyrus?

PLATO

Would you not agree that good has come of writing as well as evil?

SOCRATES

I do, but that is not my point. That good may come from murdering an evil man does not excuse the crime itself.

PLATO

That doesn’t answer my question.

SOCRATES

Allow me to elaborate. I feel responsible for my words. I do not want them to outlive me. If I am not present to explain their meaning, how can I ensure they are not misinterpreted?

That’s a reasonable question, which deserves a reasonable answer. I wish I had one. What I can say is: for all the entreaties by various schools to employ the Socratic Method, they can only emulate it. The original mode of storing experience, coalescing it and synthesizing thought has been obliterated. For better or worse, humankind has evolved intellectually in such a fashion that we are mentally incapable of replicating it. It’s no different than my using the materials and brush strokes of Botticelli and believing I’ve captured his creative essence. All I’ve done is mimic the old master by creating a painting which is basically an inspired forgery.

This conundrum within a conundrum is far from lost on me. The modern world would have little knowledge of Socrates without the writings of Plato. Plato wrote of a man who refused to write in order to convey the wisdom of a manner of obsolete intellectual discourse. And yet, the modern world is enriched because Plato did what he did for whatever reasons suited him at the time.

Fast forward to now: What would Plato or Gutenberg think of the Internet? For that matter, what would later generations of writers, such as Shakespeare, Twain or Hemingway think of Facebook? More importantly, what is the learning process of the youth of today? It’s clear Google is a disruptive technology. As a web developer, I use it on a daily basis. However, I’ve noticed a side effect. My memory has been compromised. I no longer have the need to retain information I can summon with the touch of a few buttons. I do wonder about what appears to be an involuntary rewiring of my brain. What must it be like to grow up in an environment where Google is ubiquitous, a world in which transient memory displaces long-term recall? I have to admit I don’t know but ask, “Is there a point where not enough is going on upstairs and true creativity stops or at least is greatly diminished? Should that occur, are the ideas coming forth merely derivative?”

Words are now commodities, mass-produced widgets accompanied by selfies. Professional journalism is fading into the past, like a palimpsest. Who needs it with the proliferation of blogs? In a way, it’s beneficial. The flow of information has become democratized. I’d say this line of thinking is great on paper, were not that very metaphor another indication of how out of step I am with the times. I will offer a bit of hard-earned wisdom about the human condition I learned from my wife. When we e-published our novel, The Dreamcrown, I embraced the marketing strategy of offering it at no cost for a trial period. She pointed out, “What people are given free, they often assume has no value.”

That got me thinking about the concept of value. What do you keep and what do you throw away? It all comes down to value—a cost/benefit analysis, if you will. By creating this fanciful, hypothetical dialogue, I’ve essentially dressed up a cost/benefit analysis as entertainment, hoping to point out both perspectives as valid. It’s easy to side with Plato. Writing was the way of the future. However, Socrates offered an insight which has been all but forgotten with the passage of time. A central tenet of history courses is the idea of progress. I don’t dispute the achievements that have led to the world in which we live today, nor that we live a fundamentally better existence than our predecessors. What I would like to note are the changes that have resulted from said progress, that it’s not all benefits. We have changed the notion of what it means to be human. We take in sights and sounds just as the ancient Greeks did, but the story we construct from them is different on a metaphysical level. Reality is a construct, not an absolute. Notions—I use that word in its Platonic sense—of being, knowing, time and space may seem abstract, but they factor into how we perceive and comprehend the world around us and change the fabric of what our minds weave. We have been enriched but diminished as well. Our capacity for recollection is a fraction of the ancients’. The form of communication Socrates practiced on the streets of Athens is lost to us. Most of us are unaware of what has been left behind. Others may consider these atrophied abilities as an acceptable price of moving forward.

I’m not so naïve as to believe our collective march to the future can or should be halted. I simply recommend that all of us pause, be aware of the tradeoffs inherent in the journey and ask ourselves, “Is what I’m giving up really worth what I’m getting?”

MarkNelsonMark Nelson is a computer and sci-fi nerd who enjoys yoga and nature walks with his friends. While his day job as a web developer pays the bills, in his spare time, he writes essays and co-writes sci-fi novels with his wife, Lisa. Together, they ePublished The Dreamcrown and are working on their second novel. 

 

Peripheral Vision

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by Winona Winkler Wendth

“Focus. Focus!” I heard a young mother counsel her daughter at the grocery store. The girl, six or seven years old, was snapping her head one way and another, giving attention to surrounding shoppers and the things they were shopping for: spotted apples, tall bottles of oil with silvery spouts, bright blue cans of fava and kidney beans, sunflowers, avocados that looked like alligator pears.

I wondered what the child was supposed to focus on—perhaps a shopping list, maybe her untied shoelace or where she saw her brother last. But she was having trouble.

The store was fragrant and musty: ripening bananas, tiny squares of pizza still warm from a toaster-oven, the late-summer heat pushing through the doorway, coffee being processed through a grinding machine as tall as most adults. And other sounds: wheezing old men, the intermittent blast of an air conditioner, babies calling, laughter, the beeps of the check-out process. She was taking it all in. If she was thinking about becoming a writer, she was right on track.

“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” says Annie Dillard. Close attention is necessary for any of us who don’t want to drive into telephone poles or trip on our shoelaces. But it hampers our ability to notice those details that make our writing vibrant and textured, those details that are in our peripheral vision, or hearing, or touch: A spring breeze. The prickle of cheap carpet under bare feet, The odor of an old book. Autumn.

Psychoneurologists tell us that if we gave even passing, nanosecond attention to every bit of sensory data that surrounds and bombards us, our brains would short-circuit, and we would lose our minds, go mad. Choosing what we hear, taste, and see keeps us mentally integrated, as well as safe. But too much focus can steal the rich details a writer needs to tell her story.

“Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you,” writes Alexandra Horowitz in On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. We must become “investigators of the ordinary.” If we don’t, we will depend on others to tell us what’s there—a condition neither safe nor satisfying. And, for a writer, a recipe for boredom—for both the writer and the reader.

Stop focusing, give attention to peripherals: Smell the coffee in the corner, listen for the grind, reach across the bin and hold the leathery ripe avocado. Pay attention to what doesn’t matter. Writers must let in as much as we can—without going mad. Or tripping on our shoelaces.

Photo on 3-24-13 at 2.03 PMWinona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer’s Collaborative in Lancaster, Massachusetts, runs writing workshops, and mentors a wide assortment of writers, both published and (as yet) unpublished.  Both her fiction and essays are found online and in print in a variety of journals and has been featured on NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction.” Wendth holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.

Ending Anxiety

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by Erin Lillo

Not knowing what I wanted to read, I recently grazed my bookshelves. This indecision—wanting to read, not knowing what to read; needing to write, not knowing what to write—is often a part of my writing process, especially when I approach the end of a project. Although the end may not be the right nominative for this moment as I’m likely to return to the same poems, scenes, stories, chapters again and again with a kind of restless tinkering that makes me wonder if I missed my calling as a watch maker or nervous mechanic. Early in my writing life, this ending anxiety unnerved me, but as I approach the final draft of my poetry thesis, I find myself resigned. The manuscript is done enough to fulfill degree requirements, but the manuscript isn’t complete. Anxiety marches on.

My grazing led me to Stephen Dunn’s essay collection, Walking Light, and in this spirit, I read Dunn’s essays in no particular order, beginning with “The Good and Not So Good.” I’m fascinated by these kinds of essays. The good poem versus the bad poem—is it like the Supreme Court’s definition of obscene: you know it when you see it? Is it quantifiable, like that bit of dialogue from Dead Poet’s Society, where the imminent Dr. Pritchard’s essay teaches prep school boys how to chart a poem’s greatness on a graph?

My instinct is to say not definable, not quantifiable and to embrace the playfulness in Dunn’s essay. Yet in my more cynical moments I wonder if this tendency derives from my ambivalence toward my almost (but not really) finished aforementioned work.

Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite lines from “The Good and Not So Good:”

The good poem is implicitly philosophical. The not so good poem, conversely,
may exquisitely describe a tree or loneliness, but if the description does not
suggest an attitude toward nature, or human nature, we are left with a kind of
dentist office art—devoted to decoration and the status quo.

The connection between sanitary art and the status quo reminds me of product jingles; think of all those poets and musicians colluding to sell us heartburn medication and upscale tequila. I’d much rather challenge the insanity of our contemporary moment, to witness the reality of voice and power. Dunn implies the good poem must reveal a complicated attitude toward its subject matter—not bitterness, but not indifference either. This attitude must also reveal the place where the poet’s voice and wounds rest edge-to-edge; otherwise, the poem tidies up reality to the point of sanitation or empty prettiness, which is a lie.

Here’s another excerpt and observation:

Not only must poets turn away from tired or dead language, they must be wary of
their best ideas and all the language that was available to them before the poem
began. That is, all the language that hasn’t been found by the language in the
poem. And then even that new language should be doubted and resisted.
Resistance leads to discovery. No, no, no, no, and then yes. The good poem offers
us a compelling, vibrant replacement for what, in our complacency, we allowed
ourselves to believe we knew and felt.

I discovered Fahrenheit 451 when I was a freshman in high school and ever since I’ve been drawn to literature that exposes how so many of our thoughts, emotions, and actions derive from untested belief. We can believe we’re happy, living lives we chose for ourselves, until someone asks, “Are you happy?” Test the belief, like Bradbury’s Guy Montag, and you never know what devastation you might find. With Dunn’s definition, however, this devastation becomes a source of creativity—resistance leading to discovery, a series of no’s followed by yes. A compelling, vibrant truth replaces a complacent lie when a poem is a good poem. Therefore, beware the pre-packaged and beribboned ending—too tidy, too complacent. And one of my most persistent writing habits.

Here’s one final example from Dunn:

The morality of the poet is to keep his/her tools sharp, always to be ready for the
convergence of deep concern with subject matter. In this sense, craft and care for
the integrity of language are the only things that separate the poet from the
obvious moralist.

The not so good moral poem often works against some abuse or injustice and in
its zeal gives content more attention than composition. This is the gift that
falls apart, the one years later you can’t seem to find when the giver comes to
visit.

I read this, thinking “Of course, language first.” On the one hand, the precision of language, its rhythms and sounds; on the other, language and its slippery, emotive fogginess—a poet’s toolbox must be versatile, indeed.

For me, a new and somewhat begrudged tool has to be patience. Part of writing the good poem is knowing when and how to return to the work with language best suited to converge deep disquiet with subject matter. It’s a psychic energy as much as anything else, I suspect, but I’m not sure how to recognize the symptoms of “obvious moralist” in my work.

Does developing this sensibility come through the submission-rejection-revision cycle of publication (also closely linked to patience)? When the poem (or story or essay) finds an editorial home, perhaps that’s a signal of completeness. Rejection is a signal of incompleteness, of the necessity for more work and more time. But if this is the case, why do I suspect a great deal of obvious moralizing receives acceptance notices?

Maybe the integrity of the poem is something you hear rather than see (this reminds me of a line from To Kill a Mockingbird, something about how recognizing truth in a witness’s testimony is more about listening than anything else). Could it be that the only ears tuned to hear the poem for what it really is belong to the writer? But then what’s the point of sending the piece into the world, if the music is for myself alone? Dunn’s essay left me with more questions than answers.

Regardless, this reminder about a poet’s integrity living in the individual words and the choices those words represent, all these unanswered questions, nourish me. I return to my tinkering, less anxious, more curious about what the next word might bring. For the moment, I forget about finishing the project. When there’s so much potential for discovery, why worry about the end?

In addition to writing, teaching, studying, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loudly. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently, she’s losing. Her short fiction has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review.

On God is Round, Metaphors, and Soccer

nami-1430508One of the things that has always been a mystery to me, as an American and as a soccer player and fan, is why soccer has been so long to take hold in the USA. I grew up “on the pitch.” I began playing the sport as a small child and quickly learned to love the movement, grace, skill, and camaraderie the game requires of all its participants. Mexican journalist and Professor of Literature Juan Villoro, in his book God is Round: Tackling the Giants, Villains, Triumphs, and Scandals of the World’s Favorite Game, (Restless Books, 2015), summates this, and so much more, in a compilation of essays about soccer and what the game and its traditions represent in the South American culture.

For South American soccer fans, and for the fans of Juan Villoro, who is not just a writer but also perhaps the most prolific, well-known, and well-respected writer and analyst of the game in Mexico and beyond, God is Round might be merely a collection of his works that readers are happy to have, keep on a shelf. But, I think, for the US American picking up the book, God is Round becomes a road map of sorts, a guide that not only explains the what of the game in South America, but also the why, the how, the passion.

I happened to be reading the book (for the second time) during the COPA Americano. In reading the essays in tandem with the events of the tournament, I developed a much deeper understanding of not just the game, but the teams, players, and the whys of the events that unfolded on the pitch.

As Villoro insists, the soccer field is an allegory of space and time and each match becomes a reflection of what is happening in our society. In taking this view, we can then begin to see how not only soccer, but all sports, and indeed, all past times can become a real reflection of who and what we’re becoming and who and what we are—as individuals and as a group.

Villoro’s writings in God is Round are these short clips, almost flash non-fiction, or poetic descriptors, of usually a small moment in a game, or a play, or about a move, or a player who makes a signature move. In these moments, Villoro is a poet who translates the soccer moments into something altogether more. God is Round is a work in translation (taken from Spanish to English by Thomas Bunstead), it is a collected works, and Villoro does repeat certain ideas, events, and subjects from time to time, essay to essay. These lyrical essays are about so much more than the game of soccer. Villoro attempts to unveil the connective tissue that lies beneath every play on the field, every match result. He aspires, in his vignettes, to capture the very essence of what it is to be human on this planet. It’s a broad gesture, but oh, so very close to being accomplished here. Yet, as a whole, God is Round accomplishes something remarkable.

Reading God is Round now, as we head into the Olympics, and as soccer becomes a more present and pronounced sport on the US athletics scene, makes me wish I had not only read it sooner, but also paid more attention—to the game, to the language, the sport of it all.

God is Round is, at its very least, a rare collection of good essays about soccer and, at its very best, a guidebook to understanding the ups and downs, mastery and disaster, irony and splendor, of what we love, fight for, appreciate and claim in this game called life.

Maura Snell is a poet and soccer fan, and the Poetry Editor for The Tishman Review.

On Emotional Resonance

Twitter Postby Alysia Sawchyn

I am not a crier.

This is not to say I have never cried, but that I do so very rarely. My consistently dry eyes are the stuff of legend, part of family history: “Even as a baby, you hardly cried,” my mother says.

***

The first creative writing class I took in college was in fiction. My teacher was acerbic and pointed, with long, dark hair and a gaunt face to match. He announced on the first day that if we earned As or Bs on our first stories for workshop, he would ask why we were in his course and not in the next of the sequence. If we did not like it, we could leave. Though his pedagogy was not the most nurturing, I crawled out a better writer. My prose was tighter, plot lines and images less cliché.

His first lesson for us baby writers: The most important characteristic of a piece of writing is that it be entertaining. The reader must enjoy the experience. This, he said, was our primary responsibility.

***

My lack out of outward expression extends beyond my interactions with others to my response to art of all kinds. I find this surprising because, though I engage deeply with characters, though I feel such emotions, those feelings rarely manifest.

The first book that brought me to tears was The Good Earth, a novel by Pearl S. Buck about a family in early 20th century China. It was a scene somewhere in the middle that did it:

A man, alongside others, robs a wealthy man’s house and comes away with jewels. Most he sells to buy land, but his wife, his hardworking and plain wife, asks if she can keep two pearls for herself. She does not set them into jewelry. Instead, she keeps them hidden away to look at and hold in her hands from time to time, a small luxury. As their family becomes wealthier, she does not work any less hard. Eventually, they are so wealthy that the man takes a concubine. To woo this new woman, he asks his wife for her pearls. She hands them over without complaint.

***

What my first creative writing professor did not cover (or if he did, I do not remember it) is that in addition to entertainment and escapism, we also read to identify. We read to find ourselves outside of ourselves. Finding glimpses of our character or experiences in the pages of books means that we are not unique, and thus, not alone.

It is only by reading, sometimes, that I am able to understand myself. The words on the page thrum chords inside my chest that sound like memory, that resonate like a tuning fork, and I say, quietly, “Oh.” This echoing feeling is one of the reasons why I write, why I try so hard to tell the truth about myself and my experiences, perilous and frightening though they may be. If I hadn’t known of others’ suffering when I was younger, if I hadn’t been able to find myself in the pages of books and read my way out of girlhood, I doubt I would’ve survived my teenage years or known that they were something that necessitated survival. For example: I learned from Sula how to feel abandoned and how to take that inside myself and churn back out equal parts rage and love. This combination led to an interesting adolescence, but it was better than the alternative disappearing.

***

There is something about suffering, about sacrifice, that affects me deeply. I notice this most often in female characters—Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, JoAnn Beard’s narrator in relation to her husband in “The Fourth State of Matter,” Marina in Let Me Explain You Something, are just a few more exampleseven when it is not the main concern of the writing. Perhaps I notice this because I am a woman. Or perhaps it is because of my mother. She gave up her family and country when she moved to America to attend graduate school with my father. She had a child she didn’t really want, but one whose birth convinced her family to speak to her again. This daughter, this mixed blessing, was consistently embarrassed by her mother for the first ten years of her life.

It’s likely my mother did not know about the heavy, leaden child-shame I carried, of being different, of having a different mother. It is my hope she did not because the reasons for it were petty, were couched in a child’s constant fear of rejection by other children:

  • My mother is beautiful with short, asymmetrical hair.
  • My mother and I have different last names.
  • My mother has arthritis that leaves her fingers permanently bent at the tip, that forces her to point with her middle finger.
  • My mother must always repeat her first name when introducing herself.

***

It is not easy to write prose or shape characters to be so realistic they are entertaining or identifiable. The creation of these requires pulling from life and experience, regardless of genre. Perhaps writing is selfish. We catch and translate the small, unguarded actions, voices, and expressions (invariably distorting something in the process), eliciting pleasure in their shaping into lines and curves across white space. If we are lucky, we gain materially from these secrets, becoming professional hunters of vulnerable moments.

***

I also cried while reading “Into the Country.” It is an essay about faking, then learning, to love bird watching, innocuously placed—the third piece in the second section—in the collection Southside Buddhist. The tuning fork sounded.

I am a vagrant. I have lived in a dozen cities, met hundreds of people, and never until the middle of a page, in an innocuous line of dialogue, had a met a woman, a parent, either real or imagined, who had the same name as my own mother. At the time, I assumed that this was the mother-in-the-book’s real name, but have since discovered that writers tweak in memoirs to protect the ones we love the most.

What is important is not the name.

This is a large, beautiful world, and surely there are thousands, maybe millions, of other women on this earth who share the same name as my mother. Many of them are likely mothers, too.

What is important is that I had forgotten until that moment how badly as a child I wanted to have a mother who was like my friends’, how badly I wanted to belong.

***

I recently read an essay from a collection of Buddhist writings—“The Art of Awareness” by Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche—that posited the following argument: Art is most effective, is most true to itself, when it is conceptualized by its creator as “an offering to the observer, rather than a statement of our ego’s own splendor.” I wrote it on a sticky note and taped it to my laptop.

Of course, the book was a gift from my mother.

Here: I will show you my life so that you can see yours more clearly. I will give you my family so you can love yours more.

Version 2

 

Alysia Sawchyn is a writer currently living in Tampa, Florida. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review and Midwestern Gothic. She is the managing editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art, and you can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther. 

Intention and Resistance in Writing

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by J.L. Cooper

A friend recently asked me if I consider myself a psychologist who writes, or a writer who thinks like a psychologist. I told him to knock it off, that it’s much more confusing, not either/or, just a matter of finding my way. But the small moment generated a large curiosity about the fate of intention in writing, whether it’s critical or even useful to stay loyal to the original idea for a story, the urge to tell it, knowing it’s going to be caressed and transformed, even shredded by internal forces, some of them hidden.

It begs the question: what opposes the freedom to let a story or a poem run away with itself?

The usual fear-based suspects appear: doubts over whether the writing is any good, fear of irrelevance, fear of exposing more than we’ve thought through, negative experiences in the past. In writing, we resist being pulled away from the path we know, even though we’re well aware of the need to surrender to exploration. Otherwise, we won’t be very engaged, and will forget the magic of writing means you can try anything that comes to mind, pay off some debt owed to an impulse, bargain with death, speculate, find a torn piece of cloth in a treasure chest that was looted, and make the cloth the greater treasure.

In writing, as in daily life, we venture in and out of quasi-dissociated states constantly, in mini-daydreams, private thoughts, and reveries. Why would our characters not be allowed to do the same, to roam the twilight greys of the mind?

I believe a first draft should be a beautiful unapologetic mess: a mess of intentions and discoveries. This is exactly where it gets interesting. The forces that reside in a character can also be represented in surprising places, like a setting, an object that keeps appearing, or a fantasy told by a lesser character.

Subjectivity is so intensely personal, so reticent to being reduced, so amazing and maddening, resistant to linear thought, it’s no wonder that much of our personal realities resides in sensations, not words. There’s a daunting sense of presence in the urge to write. This, I argue, is the bread that sustains literary characters and their interactions, and links the lines of a poem, much like other tensions we cannot name, but are in us nonetheless.

My hope is to write from this region.

I recently read, Writers [on Writing]: Collected Essays from the New York Times in which Joyce Carol Oates comments: “To write is to invade another’s space, if only to memorialize it.” And, “Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.”

The courage theme is always present. There’s more.

Too much resistance to spontaneity can flatten a story, diluting its flavor. I can say as a psychologist that everyone has a unique way of feeling stuck in his or her own subjectivity. One problem I have is thinking too hard about what I want a story to be. It reduces me to metaphors about cooking, more spice here, less salt there, and I’ve accepted I’m a lousy cook.

Poet Mark Doty, in The Art of Description: Word into World, discusses timelessness, linking it to lyric qualities. “In this lyric time, we cease to be aware of forward movement; lyric is concerned neither with the impingement of the past nor with anticipation of events to come.” I think he’s inviting us to write beyond the known intention, to free the mind from all the willful clamoring.

It is not the way I’m used to thinking about lyricism.

He goes on: “Such a state of mind is ‘lyric’ not because it is musical (though the representation of these states of mind usually is) but because we are seized by a moment that suddenly seems edgeless, unbounded.”

No matter how much I want to write about a past moment, the parallels to the present moment make appearances. The old conundrums come to visit. Everyone has tensions that have been internalized. In writing, we are supported by the internalized influence of friends, past triumphs, people who love and encourage us. But we are not completely free from the influence of the bullies in our lives, the cynics and abusers. The art of writing, in my opinion, is to express the tensions, not to be constrained to resolve them.

My own response is to make room for mental associations and images to visit freely in my writing, like I’ve given them a VIP pass to enter the page. It gets a little wild, as these can come from a narrative voice, a character, or projection into an object I’m describing. I sometimes delegate an inanimate object to be the container for something a character cannot see or know. This was my solution to the overflowing grief of my protagonist in “Path of the Ground Birds,” where the glow of a refrigerator light took over some of the narration when the character was too numb to speak.

The momentary loss of the external narrative is the most astonishing gift, perhaps in therapy as well as writing. It’s the moment when a client says something completely unexpected after talking about, say, persistent headaches, he says something like, “I never told my brother I loved him,” while looking at an vase in a bookshelf. It’s true we’ve lost one thread, but picked up another that’s far more important. This is what I strive to do in writing, to make room for what emerges.

Other masters I admire, such as Alice Munroe, Donna Tartt, Adam Johnson, Charles Baxter, to name just a few, seem to delve easily into the intimate worlds of characters and describe their attachments from within.

I may be in contradiction to writers advising that to be successful, a story needs constant twists of plot, a satisfying arc, an earthquake of a beginning, a clarifying ending, etc. I’m more inclined to settle in, appreciating a mix of tones. It’s why I never tire reading passages of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Maybe it comes to an acceptance of one’s mix, not a problem to be solved, since intentions are mixed as well.

For example, I was raised by a father who recited Rudyard Kipling and William Butler Yeats, and ballads by the dozens. He’d be transported by rhymes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When I think of his influence, I’m inclined to write a sentence like this: “There was dread in his voice when he said to his friends that he went for a loaf of bread.” There I am, summoning the rhythms from childhood listening.

My mother was reserved, careful, and kept her worries to herself. She rarely spoke in the first person. My parents departed long ago, but I can summon her influence too. I think of her way of saying things, and add my own spin. Now I’ll write it like this: “When he left, a loaf of bread was on his mind, sliced this time, though it was not his custom.” This way keeps my curiosity going.

I don’t think resistance as a concept is simply a barrier to creativity, since it’s just as linked to identity as the way a person walks: haltingly, or leaning slightly forward. It’s folly to think that the absence of resistance opens the door to genius. We can try to use the tension rather than be neutralized by it.

To write is to live in wonder.

James Cooper2(1)J.L Cooper is a writer, clinical psychologist in Sacramento, California, and winner of the Tupelo Quarterly prose open prize, TQ9, judged by Pulitzer winner Adam Johnson. (Read his winning piece, “Path of the Ground Birds,” here.) Additional awards include: First Place in Short Short Fiction in New Millennium Writings, 2013, and Second Place in Essay in Literal Latte, 2014. His short stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The Manhattan Review, Hippocampus, Oberon Poetry Magazine, Structo, Paper Swans Press (UK), Gold Man Review, KY Story, Folia Literary Magazine, The Sun (Reader’s Write), and in other journals and anthologies. A full-length collection of poetry is forthcoming from WordTech. For more information, go to: jlcooper.net

 

Paving the Personal Path to a Literary Life

123_1We’ve all travelled unique paths to the present. I found my way to this literary life a little later than most, after decades in information technology and corporate America, after extensively volunteering for non-profit organizations and freelancing as a business writer while raising a daughter. Computers, my fascination with them and the world they create and deliver, have been a constant thread throughout each of these opportunities.

Not many of you, and fewer as time goes on, will remember their first glimpse of a computer. I was eighteen, not long out of high school, soon to be married, and tucked into a windowless sliver of low-ceilinged room at the now-defunct First National Bank in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The soon-to-be-married status was unfortunate as was the fact that I was NOT one of the promising Central File Clerks chosen to digitally transform the department.

I befriended the chosen. They allowed me to look at their glowing monitors, only when our supervisor, Elsie, was out of the room. They tabbed and typed names and numbers into what I found out were fields, and, oh, I so wanted to also bask in the blue light of their IBMs.

I earned that chance after escaping the dungeon and the aforementioned dragon, and transferring to another department and a keyboard of my own. Eventually, I landed with a pre-public-access-Internet information service reached by external, screeching 300-, 1200-, then 2400-baud dial-up modem, some with acoustic couplers, cabled to computers with names like Commodore 64, RadioShack TRS 80, Apple II or Apple IIe. This service, through these computers, allowed the sharing of news archives (a radical notion at that time in that industry), and the retrieval (if you had enough time and money) of the full text of articles, one letter at a time, about as fast as the slightly-above average typist could type. Starting in the early 1980s, we distributed news stories from “The Daily Oklahoman” and “The Dallas Morning News” and a growing list of news sources from across the U.S. and eventually the world. Even without delivering a single graphic or photo, and nearly two decades away from a website or hotlink, we were hot shit! What nirvana.

From the technical side of the newsroom, I formed a fascination with the writers, their stories and storytelling, and after a magical sperm-meets-egg moment that created one life (my daughter’s) and transformed another (mine), I journeyed into that side of the world. I explored this fascination with writing, choosing to better myself, further my education, and become the mother I wanted for my daughter. I pursued an undergraduate degree in English with a creative writing specialization and an MFA in literature and nonfiction.

My current role as Craft Talk Editor of The Tishman Review, marries these things I love—computers, storytelling, improvement of self. It allows me to bring together disparate perspectives and interconnect a worldwide community of writers and readers in online conversation about other writers, writing processes, books, prose, and poetry, to encourage the sharing of hard-earned insight and wisdom and to help writers deliver their best work while expanding the possibilities of that work. Bottom line, my purpose is to serve the best interest of writers in order that each is richer in idea and craft and the world is richer for having heard what each has to say.

The online world, The Tishman Review, and I are ready for your ideas.

Charlie Lewis
Craft Talk Editor

[Submissions to the Tishman Review Craft Talk are made via Submittable. While I prefer pieces between 700 and 1,000 words, I will gladly read the longer.]

Hearing Voices

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By Gretchen Ayoub

My vision of a writing class was that of a group of lofty literates who held the trade secrets to the flawless essay, not easily accessible to me, a relatively shy newcomer. Until quite recently, my writing career consisted of one essay published in an unknown magazine and my reading tended toward books such as “Quiet: The Power of an Introvert in A World That Can’t Stop Talking,” while those literates, I was certain, had long lists of award-winning books that they had read.

Despite my self-perception as an outsider, I knew that the only way to become a better writer was to write more and let people other than close girlfriends read it. I have a friend who teaches at Grub Street, a writing program in Boston, and I decided that this program was the best place to start, after she assured me that Grub Street was not in the business of outing newcomers. Of course, she was right.

In the Six Weeks, Six Essays class, I was in the company of twelve talented writers with zero pretension. They were smart, supportive, and genuine. As our ages ranged from mid-twenties through mid-sixties, the essays represented a range of viewpoints on life experiences, from the everyday through the life changing. I certainly learned much about writing, such as the importance of having a narrative arc and not introducing characters only to have them hang out in a black hole. I discovered techniques for writing beginnings and endings and I learned of numerous places to submit my work, some with cool names like Tiny Buddha and The Hairpin.

One of the more valuable lessons introduced that elusive yet central part of writing called voice. This writer’s voice is a regular feature in the many writing magazines I subscribe to. I knew I had to develop my own voice, but it was a vague, borderless concept to me. It was actually the voices of class members, spoken and written, that helped me to understand what this meant. During class, each student, each week, read aloud his or her essay. The stories were funny, sad, compassionate, heartbreaking, and often a combination of all of the above, layered with rich sensory details. There was a genuineness and authenticity in each voice that cannot be explained in an article from Writer’s Digest, Poets and Writers, or Creative Non-Fiction, and there were many memorable take aways; here are a few.

  • Jellied cranberry sauce can be a very funny topic that can also speak poignantly to a daughter-father relationship over the years.
  • Dating opinions from the viewpoint of a Russian grandmother to her millennial granddaughter can be well expressed in a classic quote: “He should be international, but not foreign.”
  • Discovering a partner has cheated evokes moments of self-doubt, lack of worth, and fantasy revenge scenarios across all age groups.
  • The rich colors of fall against the backdrop of a white church provide an indelible setting for the tender relationship between a son and his mother that spans his roller-coaster adolescence through his adulthood years.
  • The new Uber driver, his “training” in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn and the creepy Norman Bates-like customers who sit directly behind him, provide a hilariously unsettling view of the world of rideshare users.
  • Slot canyons, azure blue skies, and church architecture loving atheists make for a unique vacation.
  • The girl in the “Daddy’s Little Princess” pink t-shirt living in squalor in Haiti is an understated, yet powerful, statement on contrast.
  • The financial and emotional mess made by my generation for our children can be best understood when seen through the eyes of a Thailand ESL teacher who also works long hours as a bookstore clerk.
  • The “Actor Out Alone” is a courageous piece quietly read by our incredibly competent class editor-in-residence.
  • In this Facebook world, no one wants to admit to being anything but happy and engaged.
  • Questions about sex from pre-adolescents are at the same time funny, sad, scary, and sweet.
  • A deeply compelling portrait of the emotionally complex journey of living as fully as possible while knowing the inevitable can be painted from the sacrifice, pain, and resolve of caring for a spouse with ALS.

Now, when friends ask me how the class went, I probably won’t tell them that I heard voices. I will say that learning to write well is about listening to the stories told by members of a valued community, and finding and trusting one’s own unique voice.

When not learning about writing, Gretchen Ayoub works as a school counselor at Needham High School, Needham, MA, with students from grades 9-12. This is her second published essay.