Finding the Right Code
April 22, 2014 – 10:00 am
I have a mathematical mind. I’m the guy who can split the check evenly at a restaurant without pen and paper. So when I started to read theory to better my writing, many of the concepts didn’t make sense at first. I had difficulty grasping the abstract sense of the sublime and the sensation it evokes. But things clicked once I read Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, including this:
“Poetry = Prose + a + b + c
Prose = Poetry – a – b- c”
I began to understand theory in my own terms—a more mathematical sense. From Nietzsche, I learned how the construction of ideas is a science and the weight of each word as a concept linked to opposites and relationships. Reading Kenneth Burke taught me about creating patterns out of exasperating and satisfying the audience, pushing and pulling them at their will.
In my own work, I heightened realities because I became more conscious of balance and symmetry when creating characters, structure, setting, themes, and plot. I pursued words that tightly fit the context of the situation. And I was making work I was proud of because my pieces followed my aesthetic impulses.
However, the schemes I had for stories began to falter. I blamed lack of balance and inert characters. I started stories, wrote pages, and then stopped because the words were too static. And then, unsatisfied with the way I added words into sentences, I stopped writing altogether.
I turned my focus away from writing. I considered teaching, but had no experience. So I joined Austin Bat Cave, a nonprofit organization that works with Austin’s public schools to promote expository and creative writing skills. My co-teachers and I run a 90-minute skills development and workshop session in an eighth-grade class once a week. We pose scenarios based on the day’s lesson ranging from teaching students to incorporate dialogue and voice when making characters to using sensual details to describe their ideal home.
The work they shared was occasionally artful and resounding. They made subliminal linkages without Barthes’s theory on what the sublime is. These students, focused on the lesson’s objective, shined a light on their vivid perspective of the world. Working on place, one student emphasized the eeriness of a basement—the creaking fan that spun off balance; the bed that sagged to one side. When we worked on creating and developing characters, another student shared her idea of a giraffe who wanted to be respected, while everyone else developed human characters.
The students created by digging through their imagination freely and involuntarily and reaching conclusions by putting together elements at random. The students’ method seemed unorthodox—without contemplation of the large scale or formulation of a linked conceit to balance parts, roles and symbols—yet they yielded successful results.
My experiences reminded me that people naturally and uncannily created stories and that sometimes, the best stories are written without a precise plan. I learned that letting go of all my preconceived notions can create the best results. But I had to start with reaching into my imagination and trusting myself.
From the Attic: The Nest
April 1, 2014 – 10:05 am
From A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, by Joyce Carol Oates
In this baldly honest essay, Joyce Carol Oates seems to not want to glamorize or glorify her “posthumous life,” or her new life as a widow. With journalistic integrity, she seeks merely to detail the changes in a career writer’s day-to-day—and night-to-night—existence after a husband of forty years has unexpectedly died. Though at times this piece is affecting, it doesn’t try to be, and this only makes the lasting influence of the essay even more haunting.
—Aaron M. Fortkamp, Webmaster
Restart or Continue?
March 18, 2014 – 11:00 am
Video games are a guilty pleasure of mine. The more elaborate, the better. I mostly prefer role-playing games, those that allow players to customize a cast of unique characters and guide them through adventures in intricate worlds. I’ll admit my gaming hobby (or habit) has sometimes taken time from more creative pursuits, but the reason I play these games comes from the same place of imagination that makes me write fiction. The games I like most, in fact, are those in which I have the most control over character and story.
Of course, writers have far more creative control than any game. We single-handedly develop our characters and the worlds they inhabit. Our creations aren’t limited by someone else’s choices—they may after we’ve shared them and submitted them to publish—but until then, the creative process can feel wide open for us to play in and shape narratives around our characters’ lives.
Then, once a setting and characters are fleshed out, we find that our creations have limitations of their own. Characters must act like themselves, and the world in our stories must seem more or less consistent. The longer the work of fiction, the more complex plotlines and conflicts can become. In the midst of these difficulties, we might wish for that earlier time when creation was freer, more “play” with language and ideas than labor. We might also realize that the early draft that led us to our currently underdeveloped characters and yet-to-be-resolved plotlines, the beginning we were so excited about, needs intense revision to accommodate whatever we’ve written after it.
Playing video games, I’ve often restarted a game once I realize I’ve done something “wrong.” Hours in, I’ll see that I’ve failed to shape my characters well enough to face the challenges the game offers, and I decide starting over would be easier and more fun than trudging toward the game’s finale without all the benefits I could gain in a new beginning. I’ve had the same temptation—and given into it—with fiction. Especially longer fiction.
More than once I’ve restarted, or even shelved, an unfinished novel or novella after months of writing because plotlines became too unwieldy or the characters weren’t as developed as I would have liked. And since I prefer my fiction to have an element of mystery or suspense, the longer the piece gets, the more complex and interdependent scenes and clues tend to be. So, I keep arriving at the same problem: an endless cycle of restarting, of polishing the beginning for style or a more strategic starting point instead of writing the project through to some degree of completion. There’s always a newer, unexplored way to begin, and this often keeps me from truly finishing a first draft that might reveal the complete scope and trajectory of my story.
Not so with my latest piece. I’m currently revising a novella that incorporates mystery and lost memories, and the way in which information is revealed—both to characters and the reader—remains crucial. Issues with placing clues and maintaining suspense have led to problems in my previous writing. I hoped to avoid these obstacles by outlining in greater detail, and rather than trying to keep the threads of plot or character development perfectly arranged during the drafting process, I gave myself permission to finish the first draft, however flawed or rushed it felt to me at the time.
Now that I’m revising, it’s like I’m replaying a game I’ve already beaten. New choices are clearer, and missed opportunities are more obvious. Knowing the entire scope and shape of the narrative makes the revision process, if not exactly easy, then at least more productive than if I’d tried to revise before I’d seen the end. And just as in the games I like best, playing again may yield a completely different experience and ending from the first, hopefully a deeper and more fulfilling one.
From the Attic: What’s Good for the Gander, Is Good for Us
March 11, 2014 – 1:00 pm
“The Breeze” and “The Posture of the Trees” by Coral Bracho, translated by Forrest Gander
I like to think that despite language barriers, beauty is beauty. And whenever I get a chance, I’ll read something in another tongue that I can pronounce and maybe feel what’s being said before I know what it all means. Forrest Gander, who last year was nominated for a Pulitzer, exemplifies this cross-language exchange in two poems he translated from Mexican poet Coral Bracho in issue 2.
—Reyes Ramirez, Copy Editor
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