In Defense of I Don’t Know
January 14, 2014 – 2:00 pm
When I was five years old or so, I would purposely get myself lost in the clothing racks at department stores. I’d stand back, watching my mom slowly disappear—thinking I was following behind, and then I’d press open a rack of clothes and climb through. I don’t know what I’d think about in there. Probably that I was hiding, perhaps about a new family, or maybe I was just thinking about frozen Cokes. I don’t know. But what this all seemed to be for was the feeling that came when I emerged, looking for her: lost. I loved that sense of detachment and aloneness where I’d wonder if I’d ever find her or be found; in those moments I calmed myself, learning to simply embrace uncertainty.
That desire to navigate through the unknown is a curiosity I hope to never lose. This, of course, resurfaces in both my reading and writing as I seem to look for that feeling of stumbling into a line that I maybe can’t define, but instead am sort of flooded by. I find this in poets such as Barbara Guest or Aram Saroyan, as their work undoubtedly brings you somewhere, you just aren’t always sure where you are or why, providing an important autonomy for the reader.
Often times, however, I feel that we reject this, which seems like an unnecessary missed opportunity. Of course, I have to bring it up—negative capability, a term which haunts me, or maybe I haunt it. Keats’ definition is, “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” What seems important is the irritable reach, implying understanding as a sort of reflex; a desire to grab for something that maybe doesn’t need to be touched to be affirmed. Naming risks marginalization and is kind of just a daunting thing we put ourselves through, mainly for the sake of our comfort.
But isn’t it refreshing to not know? Poetry that seems in love with its own perfect nonsense (often categorized as “difficult”) reminds me to let go; though I’m often unsure what is being done to me, I think, “thank you,” as it is almost a detox of sorts, getting inside all of the corners of my consciousness illuminating them. It brings up memories, awakens hibernated parts of me, and most importantly creates space for places I hadn’t accessed. And though relieving, it is scary—maybe in the same way silence is scary, and maybe this awakens that same layer of our nervous system where it feels that we are in an unknown with possibly no return? The whole fight or flight scenario…
I always knew in the department store that being lost was an illusion; it was temporary. In those moments, I learned I wasn’t afraid of fear; I actually enjoyed it in my own strange, controlled way. Fear shouldn’t disappear as we get older because, thankfully, it has the ability to drag us back deeply to a familiar part of ourselves. We have to know our uncertainties, mysteries and doubts with their limitations and potentials, so that we aren’t ever reaching to get away, but rather continuously arriving and intact for what has been, or perhaps is about to be made. This should be a bit terrifying, though only amongst other things.
—Sara Lupita Olivares
December 17, 2013 – 10:00 am
When we were children, my brother and I loved decorating our Christmas tree with mahogany ornaments hand painted by my mother.
Too many moves during my childhood resulted in an eventual loss of the ornaments. Fast-forward to the bland world of adulthood: People sell these ornament kits, now mega-vintage 1970s, on EBay. Do not ask me how much money I have spent. Or how many glitter glue pens I own. No matter how kindly I am asked, I refuse to disclose the number of paint pots resting inside my craft case.
* * *
During my very first short story critique at a workshop in Chicago, a novelist asked, “Why is this story being told today?” The question haunted me for weeks. I read over and over the novelist’s suggestions for improving my story, but kept coming back to her question of why. The why was perfectly clear to me: woman’s boyfriend abandons her for a bachelor party in Vegas. Woman suspects infidelity. Woman is lonely. Woman pretends not to care and drinks herself into oblivion. Why? Because jerk guys shouldn’t cheat on their girlfriends with strippers, and nice women shouldn’t cry alone at home.
But this wasn’t the why.
Most of us would agree loneliness is a condition of being human. We cannot calculate the number of stories, essays, and novels that examine the consequences of human loneliness. The question of why was intended to make me consider what it was about this specific woman’s loneliness that warranted a story. Our humanity deems us creatures of curiosity. We want to come away from prose with answers concerning our struggles with loneliness and meaning, freedom and mortality. If we can’t be provided with answers, we at least need to be presented with perspectives our curious minds can take for exploratory test-drives.
* * *
How do writers create new perspectives on our tried and true conditions of humanity?
Think of ornaments as representing the human condition. Some of the stock shapes we would expect an ornament kit to include might be a Christmas tree, candy cane, Santa, and bow-topped gifts and bells. Now think of the colors red, blue, green, yellow, and white—the paint colors originally included in vintage ornament kits—as the boringly reliable perspectives on the human condition. We’ve still got candy cane and Santa ornaments hanging on our trees just like we still have plots woven from the human condition. If we want our stories to grab readers by their throats, we must upcycle the human condition by applying to it the stakes, standards, and consequences unique to the world we currently inhabit.
Upcycling the human condition means we must whip out the glitter glue and palettes full of pastel, metallic, glossy, matte, crackle, neon, and antiqued paints to add new color and dimension to our writing.
Perhaps for the woman in my story, her loneliness is compounded by the anonymity of an Internet chat room. And maybe, in that chat room, she discovers a new type of loneliness, unique to our world of digital acquaintances. Maybe the woman loses more than her two-timing boyfriend. Maybe she loses herself. And maybe readers invest in a character whose challenges echo their own.
From the Attic: I’ll Tell You Why
December 11, 2013 – 10:00 am
“Every Little Thing” by Sara Levine
Children of a certain age are relentlessly inquisitive about the world in which they live. They want to know why and how everything around them works. In this story from issue 5, Sara Levine drops her characters, a mother and a daughter, down a rabbit hole of “why” and “what if,” making for a fantastic read.
—Chelsea Lane Campbell, Fiction Editor
The Personal Essay: A Generative Act of Revealing Self
December 5, 2013 – 3:55 pm
Some critics of the personal essay argue it isn’t creative because we are retelling an actual event, not “giving birth” to an entire world like in fiction, where every detail has to be generated. To an extent, that’s true. A personal essay doesn’t construct a new reality—the location, people, and events are real; the writer doesn’t have to craft those elements. Drawing from memory doesn’t require invention—content-wise. However, I’ve come to realize that the personal essay is comparable to fiction writing in one fundamental way: it’s a generative, creative form of expression.
The personal essay is profoundly creative, for it reveals the writer’s essential self on the page—both to the reader and to the writer. As the author recalls events, she seeks to answer a question about herself and the experience. Here, the reflection is dual: focused on the thoughts the past self had at the time of the event, and exploring thoughts the present self has about the past self and the incident. In the process of writing, the author discovers a new truth about herself—something real, not a fabrication. This is the most intense type of creation: the revelation of self to others, unvarnished by fictive filters and techniques.
Recently, I wrote a personal essay about the death of my father, which occurred a decade ago. Upon beginning, I thought my essay would be about the rituals I performed for a year after his death to honor his memory. However, as I recalled the experience and detailed the rituals on paper, I began to realize that the emptiness I felt back then encompassed more than the death of my father, my daddy, my real-life Superman. I had also lost my heritage—the significant experiences, environments, and people that had shaped him and influenced me. When my father died, so did his memories, his stories, his future, and part of me—part of us. History and sentiment fade altogether over time and are lost forever, and with it, identity. I didn’t understand that until I wrote my essay. Discovering the self in a public arena is very personal, frightening; there’s no mask, no barrier. It’s real.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that fiction can reveal aspects of the artist’s essential self; it’s not just superficial fluff. Fiction has moved me; it’s changed me. By its very nature, art seeks to elevate, to connect, to move, and an artist can only do that if she is honest. Fiction’s inspiration springs from the self, but incorporates other elements into the final product.
Some might claim that fiction is harder to create because the writer must imagine the events, characters, and dialogue and, at the same time, conceal the artifice. This requires considerable focus and effort. Fiction is pure creation; world building takes a lot of work.
Still, the personal essay is equally demanding, but on a different level. For in a personal essay, the writer labors to bring the self into view—as real and flawed and evocative—and also, she seeks to discover an essential truth. It takes work and courage, the excavation of self, the public unraveling and reemergence. Without a doubt, the personal essay is the intensest rendezvous—the generation of self, unadorned and imperfect.
This post offers a counterpoint to Annie Shepard’s “Store-bought Essays Versus Homegrown Stories” posted in February of this year. You can read Shepherd’s post here. —Jennifer Whalen, Public Relations Manager
From the Attic: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Business
November 21, 2013 – 10:00 am
“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Business” by David Kiefaber
I love a good sports essay. Particularly when the sport featured is professional wrestling, or as David Kiefaber astutely calls it: “Shakespeare in bib overalls.” And who knew Roland Barthes was a fan of the likes of Hulk Hogan? Hold on to your spandex; this read, featured in issue 2, is a fun one.
—Sean Rose, Nonfiction Editor
Genre Poetry: It Doesn’t Have to Suck
November 5, 2013 – 8:14 pm
Genre is sometimes viewed as a dirty word in poetry. When a poem is classified by a genre, the piece is expected to follow certain tropes. In the case of science fiction, these tropes include artificial life, humanity’s relationship to technology, and traveling between seemingly impassable barriers. A thriving subculture exists in poetry under the umbrella of speculative poetry—the examination of reality that questions itself. Poems akin to Mary Coleridge’s “The Other Side of a Mirror” and Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market” fall into this category, as they create alternate worlds that invalidate our perceptions of truth.
What is it about that absence of certainty that appeals to me? Poetry is an exercise in exploring perception, and science gives humanity unique opportunities to examine its relationships to sensory data, cognition, and truth. Science fiction is all about the questions that arise from the division between technology and humanity. I’ve been exploring the abilities and experiences that make us uniquely human in order to understand what is impossible to replicate with technology. I am trying to discover how to address that line between perception and reality by way of poetry.
The human brain, upon hearing a sensory metaphor, reacts as if actual sense data is being received. If I describe something as being smooth or jagged, the part of the brain that controls textual sensation works with other parts of the brain to make sense of this concept. At first hearing this notion, my mind was boggled. Double boggled, in fact. If language can fool the brain, the most sophisticated computer we’ve ever seen, what do our senses really tell us at any given moment? Poets are taught the power of the image, but I never imagined that there was such a real reaction to those images on a neurological level.
Learning what the brain does with poetry led to more questions about the possibilities and frailties of language: If metaphors are perceived as real at the instant of creation, what makes reality real at all? What else is possible? One of the benchmarks in the development of true artificial intelligence is the understanding and use of metaphor and idiomatic language. It seems that our brains are unique in the ability to process this kind of symbolic language, to make intuitive leaps, but that won’t remain true forever. For instance, the IBM computer Watson is already beginning to process slang terminology, so technology’s ability to use metaphor could be developed within a few years.
If the human brain and a heuristic system with artificial intelligence can do the same things, how does that change our perception of what humanity is? Will it change how we write poetry? Does it even matter? I haven’t processed yet what any of this will mean for my writing, but these questions about humanity and technology are interesting enough to spend lifetimes writing about. I want the questions to keep coming, to keep blowing up my thought process so dramatically that I never stop being unsure about the difference between truth and perception. Because progress never occurs on stable ground. Certainty is overrated. Magic happens at the break.
From the Attic: This Is A Poem…
October 31, 2013 – 5:00 pm
“The False Mirror” by Julie Marie Wade
“The False Mirror,” from issue 18, shares more than its name with René Magritte’s reflective painting. Both ask: what do we see, believe, or understand when we turn our eye on itself? You can see the painting for yourself at Margritte’s current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and read Julie Marie Wade’s sound-full vision above.
—Dana Sprayberry-Thompson, Poetry Editor
From the Attic: Rising Above the Practical
October 24, 2013 – 10:00 am
“As Everything Has Three Parts, & We Divide Them However We Want,” “Advice to Passengers,” “Translation with Missing Original,” and “Your New Birthday” by John Gallagher
John Gallagher’s poems ascend over the practical to a place where what can be stated straightforwardly and simply is never actually straightforward or simple. These four poems, published in issue 7, give a new birth to the mundane, propelling the reader to a place far beyond the practical.
—Jennifer Whalen, Public Relations Manager
From the Attic: Place and the Body
October 17, 2013 – 5:00 pm
Interview with Bret Anthony Johnston
As Bret Anthony Johnston puts it in this interview from issue 5, “Place is story. Place is conflict. Place is character.” Johnston’s first novel, Remember Me Like This, will be released next year. The novel’s set in the Texan Gulf, and as a Gulf Coast native myself, I found this interview illuminating, as it piques my fascination with the relationship between place, fiction, and the individual.
—Reyes Ramirez, Copy Editor
October 15, 2013 – 10:00 am
I never wrote about my Persian heritage as a kid—unless you count a fascination with scimitars in grade school. Still, that was just the odd writing assignment, an excuse to draw curved blades in the margins of my paper. These days, I know a scimitar isn’t exclusively Persian, although the word itself comes from the Farsi shamshir. It’s a bit of trivia, a factoid that has yet to appear in my fiction about Persians and Iran. Herein lies my main issue with writing “culture”: which cultural details enrich a story, and which simply distract?
I’d argue we all write culture anyway, that fictionalizing my Persian grandmother’s arranged marriage in Tehran is no more “cultural” than writing about a Baptist private school in Texas. In either case, I see two sources of cultural information that prove more obvious when writing about a culture most readers find unfamiliar.
The first way we access culture is experiential, the personal culture we often filter, reshape, and recycle in our writing. When I write about Persian characters, I find myself drawing on childhood memories of family gatherings or conflicts. Such autobiographical elements make characters and settings feel more “real” as we write them, even as we fictionalize most of the details. What we consider wholly artistic inventions, however spontaneous, are generated from the same place. We may not notice our subconscious translating experiences via our imagination, but as writers, we do this “translation work” all the time.
The second source of information is research, finding those facts and details we haven’t experienced but feel necessary for a reader to believe our characters and the worlds they inhabit. Writing about Iran has shown me how problematic such research can be. Yes, my father was born in Iran and exposed me to Persian culture—but I’ve never been there. I’m not fluent in Farsi either. Any portrayal of Iran or its people requires frequent Internet searches, family interviews, and more than a little imagination. Even afterward, I inevitably get a comment asking for more atmosphere, more exotic detail.
Here’s where my internal critic reminds me that Adam Johnson went to North Korea to write The Orphan Master’s Son, and he’s not even Korean. That if I had the stones to visit Iran myself, I’d have real experience instead of Internet bookmarks. Maybe then my Iran stories wouldn’t suck. And maybe my internal critic’s right.
Then again, fiction has to surpass individual experience. Imagination always adds something in translation. Maybe it’s okay that my reach exceeds my grasp. For now.
Which leads back to the question of research. How do I explain, as my protagonist is beaten by basiji, that these zealots served as civilian militia in the Iran-Iraq War and now enforce proper Islamic behavior on Iran’s own citizens? The answer is: I don’t, at least not mid-scene. The soundest advice I’ve received about writing culture has been to “wear your research lightly,” and while this may seem like yet another trite writer’s motto, I’ve learned most research is for the writer, not the page. What will make a story resonate aren’t the “facts” you fit in, it’s those truly human experiences—love, struggle, and even violence—that we all share.