Wild Rice and Sea Shells: Image and Individuality
March 4, 2014 – 11:30 am
As poets and writers, we like to think we are inherently creative and individual, that we can conjure up ‘fresh images’ and new ways to see the world that no one has thought of. Or at least we think this is how we are supposed to feel. But let’s be honest: the harder we work to see the world in a ‘new way,’ the more our images feel forced and the more we began to doubt our own creativity.
In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot suggests that the poet is not so much an individual creative force, as much as he or she is a medium through which literary history and traditions pass. Eliot says the mature poet is acutely aware of his or her own “place in time” and his or her own “contemporaneity.” According to Eliot’s idea, writers are individuals not because they can create something out of nothing, but because of the way they create something beautiful out of the mayhem of time and history colliding around them.
Maybe what makes us individuals is not the new things that we bring to the art, but the way in which we interpret and reinvigorate our histories. Maybe the creative process is like the tree roots that hang into rivers catching the mud and grass and dead mosquitos that pass by. When we write, maybe the real action is to catch all the stimuli of our world in the tangled tree roots of the artistic mind, to rearrange it all into poems and stories. Our individual history and environment sticks to us, and our work is filled with the wild rice and seashells of our native sea.
According to Eliot, there is a sense of community that is essential to our uniqueness. which must be two-fold: one of shared experiences that comprise our families, tribes, ethnicities, and our places; and then there is the large universal community of human beings. The former has shaped us through the particulars of language, customs and beliefs, but also tie us tightly into the latter community through the shared emotions and music and mayhem that make us all human.
As writers, we are all clinging alike to a muddy river bank, dangling our roots into the cold water, hoping for inspiration. And yet, we all have different rivers, different seas; we pull up different leaves and different grasses. Our individuality is found in our personal histories and the way that our smaller communities have shaped us, but it is the elements of the universal that make our individualities significant.
Recently I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on image by Natalie Diaz. “Don’t just write about the moon,” she said, “write about your moon. What does your moon look like? Is it a flour tortilla, the white egg of an egret?” I learned two things from this workshop: 1) I write too much about the moon, 2) what makes me unique is not some creative force recently sprung up, but the places and histories I carry around: my grandmothers and their superstitions, the moss covered oak trees of my hometown.
Maybe when we feel the impulse to write with ‘fresh’ images, we do not need to make up something new, but just to show our world, in our own, ordinary way. This means that the path to ‘fresh’ images is more of a backward motion than a forward one. I am not only influenced by my own memories, but by my grandmother’s memories related to me in stories, and by my great-grandmother’s memories passed to me in rumors and whispers. I am made up of more than the twenty-something years of my life. I am made up of all the people who have come before me, all the people who live along side me. My job as a writer is to make something beautiful from what I have been given, not to create something out of nothing, but to introduce the world to the images and colors of my sea.
From the Attic: Close to Home
February 25, 2014 – 11:00 am
“Safekeeping” by Janie Hubschman
Parents bring children into a world full of dangers both small and large. Sometimes the dangers prove to be closer to home than one would like to think, like in Janis Hubschman’s story “Safekeeping,” from issue 8.
—Chelsea Lane Campbell, Fiction Editor
Imitation and Neuroses: A Complicated Relationship
February 18, 2014 – 11:00 am
Imitation seems (at least to me) to be a fear of writers I know, or at the very least, it’s a concern of mine. A friend, who’s working on a novel, claimed that he “stole” a commonly used and easily-read-over device of a popular literary writer. He hoped that he would never be “called out on it” either by friends, future readers, publishers, editors, etc., and I got to thinking about the issue of imitation as thievery as opposed to imitation as essential.
It wouldn’t be a revolutionary argument to say that imitation is essential and the only way to grow fiction (You don’t see car companies re-inventing the wheel often, do you?). Most of us probably believe this. Similarly, we recognize the fear of imitation as unnecessary. The biggest fear is in, as my acquaintance said, being “called out on it.” And this will happen frequently, especially when we give a story to a friend or colleague to critique, and they say something along the lines of, “I kind of like this, it reminds me of this story by _____.” And ______ is, it turns out, not only the writer who most informed the piece, but maybe that story in particular is even a personal touchstone.
Most would probably consider this experience somewhat embarrassing or shaming. Why it’s shaming is a little harder to pin point. Since most (or, if we’re being honest, all) writers must draw from what we’ve read, it seems obvious that, especially if we’ve read many of the same things as our colleagues and share similar interests (why else would they be the right reader for your stuff?), they will see those similarities in the writing (they wouldn’t be astute readers otherwise and so, again, why would they be the right reader for your stuff?).
Still, I think there’s a fear of being caught doing something we know everyone else does too. There’s a split between our intellect and our feelings where our deep, dark neuroses live that all writers seek to conquer. Maybe it’s because we spend so much time alone that eventually, we get worried about what people will think of us and what we’ve been doing with our time. We’re complicated creatures. This neurotic side never goes down without a fight. We can joke easily about spotting from 100 yards away the major influences of our friends’ writing, but we fear the discussion reaching us. “Will they choose right?” Are you as easily spotted as everyone else? (Let me break some suspense, if you’re less than a couple novels into your writing life [like me and most people I know], the answer is probably a big, old “yes.”) Or worse, when they get to deciding our influences, will they misinterpret our influences and prove us as failures in imitation? We fear the answer either way.
My conclusion though, is so simple it barely warrants mention: embrace it. If you write like Saunders, go with it. Maybe even write a story about a 600 pound CEO. One-up him. The reality, of course, is that only George Saunders can write like George Saunders and in your imitation, you’ll naturally start doing your own thing because I’ll break the suspense here: every writer is indebted to another writer (or more likely, writers) in the past. But the thing is, no matter how much we borrow (or more comfortingly, learn) from these writers, their writing will always be theirs and ours will be ours. So why worry? Just remember to add those extra 200 pounds to avoid copyright infringement.
From the Attic: You Cannot Know Yourself, but Someone Else Eventually Will
February 4, 2014 – 11:00 am
“Fernando Pessoa in Macau” by Emily Stone
Fernando Pessoa often wrote under the guise of several psychologically and stylistically distinct personas, and these heteronyms have long been the focus of the conversation surrounding his work. But Emily Stone is interested in the man or, more accurately, the man-as-cypher in this poem from issue 19. Stone promises us something seemingly simple (a short prose poem about a famous poet) and then proceeds to completely disorient us as quickly as possible (with as many dazzling non sequiturs as possible) before ending with a wink towards the wonderful “Maritime Ode” by Álvaro de Campos, Pessoa’s greatest heteronym.
—Ben Seanor, Interview Editor
Started From Her Dolls Now She’s Here: Outtakes from the Front Porch Interview with Nelly Reifler
January 28, 2014 – 10:00 am
Nelly Reifler was born in Poughkeepsie, NY and split her childhood between Europe, Manhattan, and rural New York State. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and teaches there now. She previously taught at the Pratt Institute. Her debut novel, Elect H. Mouse State Judge, was released in August 2013 and her short fiction can be found in publications such as McSweeney’s, Post Road, Lucky Peach, jubilat, Failbetter, The Barcelona Review, among others. In the spring of 2014, she will join the faculty of Western Michigan University as a visiting writer.
FP: The main characters in Elect H. Mouse State Judge are mice and dolls: Sunshine Family dolls are cult members and the detectives tracking them are Barbie and Ken. I understand that they are based on your childhood toys in the 1970s. Could you elaborate on the reasons you often use nonhuman or otherwise unlikely characters (I’m thinking of the baby in “Baby” here) to explore, what feel to me, like quite human emotions?
NR: These are the characters that come to me, the beings about whom I’m curious. It’s exciting for me to imagine what it would be like to live in bodies and minds that are different from my own, to imagine how states like desire, guilt, zealotry, and fear might manifest in them. Elect H. Mouse State Judge was based quite literally on the stories I told with my dolls when I was little; most children use nonhuman characters—their dolls, stuffed animals, monsters and superheroes, for instance—to tell stories. For a grownup writer it can be liberating.
FP: Many of the endings in See Through, and the ending in H. Mouse, took me by surprise. Your work has such a strong sense of structure. What is your revision process like? Do you have a sense of where the story is going when you sit down to write it?
NR: For me, finding a story’s structure is one of the most exciting parts of the process. Each story is different. Sometimes I start with a clear formal structure. For instance, “The Grove,” which was published in McSweeney’s a couple of years ago, began with a structure I’d given my grad students as a writing exercise: tell a life story backwards in twelve chapters. Sometimes I start with an image or hint of plot or voice, and the structure grows out of a need to form these things into narrative. Often there are a lot of false starts, a lot of wobbling around like a blind mole rat, to find the voice and structure and tone and everything before I click into the sweet spot. It’s rough going, and if I hadn’t been through it so many times, I’d probably give up.
I revise a lot, usually with the help of comments from trusted readers. I used to hate revising, but now it’s a treat—the reward I get for writing a rough draft with a beginning, middle, and end.
I like endings that are surprising. Life is fluid and the very idea of an ending is, in my mind, false. So I like to remind myself about the open-ended qualities of life with my endings. These are also the endings I like to read—ones that make you gasp because they daringly go somewhere new or just break off or ask a question. The last word of a story or novel is extremely important to me—I often find myself rewriting my students’ final sentences so that they end on a better word. I had this conversation with one of my brilliant grad students yesterday: should his story end with a character’s shrug? What did it leave us with, that shrug?
FP: You recently began writing memoir. What were the differences in your experience versus that of writing fiction?
NR: It was ridiculously hard—and of course, I chose the worst things that had ever happened in my life and packed them all into one long essay. I kept thinking, why didn’t I start with something normal about, you know, laundry or breastfeeding or something? The hardest part was forming a narrative out of things that had already happened. The experience of writing fiction is, for me, a bit like watching a movie: the images and scenes and character’s thoughts and feelings appear to me, and I find forms and language for them and write them down.
Sifting through life events and making them into a coherent thread felt almost impossible at first. It wound up taking a lot of the same imagining that I always do, though. But in this case, I was imagining what it was like to be me. In the end, it felt more direct. Melissa Febos, a wonderful writer, had warned me about nonfiction: watch out, it’s addictive, she said. And she was right. I’m a very shy person and don’t easily reveal myself to people, so it was freeing to get it out there. And of course, the information was still incredibly mediated. Not dishonest, I don’t think, but shaped and controlled.
FP: What led you to write?
NR: I always wrote—having a writer father and a lot of freedom and parents who read to me and tons of books around as a kid kind of led me there. But I feel like becoming a writer was a kind of long, almost accidental, fall down a rabbit hole for me. Even when I was an MFA student, even when I was starting to get published, I didn’t think, now I’m writing. I just went along and kept doing it because I liked it. It still feels that way, actually, though now I can’t figure out what else I’d do.
FP: Do you have any advice for beginning/emerging writers?
NR: Write what you need to write, what’s most fun or compelling; don’t think about what genre it is, whether it feels like you, or whether it’s too silly or easy or weird. Write toward your quirks and struggles with expression—the imperfections in your writing are what make it unique. If something is embarrassing or you think it’s inappropriate, write it—it needs to be written. Absolutely don’t think about publication while you write.
Also, actively engage with the technical aspects of language. You should be curious about grammar and punctuation, and study language with an understanding that you will never know all there is to know.
And don’t take advice too seriously.
From the Attic: Three Chords and the Truth
January 21, 2014 – 2:00 pm
“Three Chords and the Truth” by Richard Fulco
Richard Fulco’s “Three Chords and the Truth” from issue 16 is a coming-of-age story highlighted by the main character’s Aunt Betty, a heavyset woman whom the boys have dubbed “Two-Ton.” But Aunt Betty can wail. Despite having an abusive husband, as well as a strained relationship with her sister, the main character’s mother, Aunt Betty insists on teaching her nephew the rockingest anthems known to electric guitardom, giving him the ability to seek out his own self-esteem.
—Aaron M. Fortkamp, Webmaster
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