SR Pod/Vod Series, Authors Talk: Author Megan Harlan

Megan HarlanToday we are pleased to feature author Megan Harlan as our thirtieth Authors Talk series contributor. Megan discusses the difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, and why she is drawn to writing creative nonfiction – despite it being a “poorly named genre.”

Creative nonfiction is narrative writing based on reality, on facts. Due to the genre’s name, it seems that the creative part might be lying. This isn’t the case, Megan argues, as she says “With creative nonfiction, once you get past your own personal fact checking department, the truth becomes the grounding element for any structure you want to build.” The process of building a structure from the truth is the creative part.

Fiction, on the other hand, is often largely built around a made-up hero’s journey. Creative nonfiction doesn’t have to be causal, based on a hero, or have an arc – unlike classically structured fiction. Calling to mind Oscar Wilde, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Like reality, creative nonfiction is not simple or straightforward, but filled with the challenges and possibilities of expressing the truth as we experience it.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes channel, podcast #221.

You can read Megan’s nonfiction essay in Superstition Review Issue 17, and hear her read it aloud in last week’s podcast, #220.

Guest Post, Cass Murphy: 10 Ways That Being a Writer is Like Being a Birder

Writing: to write; to passionately play with words.
Birding: to bird; to look for and watch birds passionately.

10.  In birding and writing, one devotes a lot of time to watching.
People who stare up at trees and make noises should be avoided. People who peer around houses and apartments with binoculars should be reported. That’s common knowledge, and I wouldn’t have argued with any of it until about three years ago, when I became a “birder.” Inconveniently, birds don’t recognize social conventions. They hop cheerily from neighbors’ trees into window boxes, and it’s up to the birder how to proceed. Imagine it with all the awkwardness of a writer researching neurotic characters at a family baptismal shower, plus. Whether bird-watching or people-watching, both may lead to the discomfiture of others.

9.  People in both hobbies are often regretted as airplane seat mates.
Not because people often characterize writers and birders as freakish iconoclasts who can’t relate to the typical world – that may or may not be true, and is generally a conclusion reached over a longer period of time. Rather, whether fictional or feathered, the respective background knowledge for each makes small talk either inaccessible or all-consuming.

8.  Both activities require the filtration of huge amounts of information.
Field marks, songs, and behavior belong to the birder just as the internal environment of story or scholarship belongs to the writer. Each of these fields require intimate knowledge and dedication to learn.

7.  Writing and birding require participants to describe their physical environment while balancing nuance and relevant detail.
The concise tightness of good writing strikes a balance between necessary information, included detail, and expediency. So too with birding. In a group, different birders see things at different times, and so must direct their fellows “onto” the bird. There’s a kind of art to this swift rendering:
“If you look straight ahead, there’s a saguaro that’s slightly taller than all the others. Count three saguaros to the left, and you’re on the one with the strange bulge. Now go down to its lowest right arm and follow it until you see a dark patch not quite halfway up – that’s actually a hole, and I just saw something move in there.”

6.  As suggested in #7, writing and birding require you to take direction: from editors, from more experienced birders, or from others who have simply seen something you haven’t.

5.  Both pursuits demand high levels of discernment, to pick out what one ought to pay attention to and focus on… either in a written piece or in the surrounding environment.

4. Both birding and writing involve complicated journeys of finding understood only by the participant.
Writers and birders search for things – stories or birds, words and information to complement either. One could argue pedantically that writers generate their own words, whereas birders must go out and find existing birds. However, I’ve been on birding excursions where I’ve spent most of my time looking and not finding any birds – I still call it ‘birding’ (usually, depending on frustration, snark, and presence of sensitive company) because birds are the object of the quest. And writers can’t just plop down any old word. They have to search for the right ones from all possible words, and then assemble them in the right order. Birds are similarly separated: nuisance Starlings take a backseat to almost anything else, and coveted Trogons beat out ‘anything else’ any day.

3.  Both activities are essentially free, yet I’ve heard both described as expensive.
Birding at its most basic requires only eyes and/or ears (binoculars are highly desirable eye-extenders); writing requires pencil, paper, and similar extensions of either. A keen brain is always nice too, though arguably not necessary for the most basic aspect of either hobby.
This oversimplification pertly glosses over the usual lack of monetary compensation from either activity, to say nothing of the expenditures for travel – to find new bird species – and time – to write well. Yet there is some truth here, and it counters the tendency to snap up high tech toys which may improve the experience – but which you don’t need to have a good time.

2.  ‘Using all the senses’ enhances both birding and writing.
As just one example, sometimes I wonder if smell might be superfluous… but then I inhale the damp greyness of a Michigan spring morning and know how much I’d lose in either pursuit if that were so.

1) Through both writing and birding, participants have the opportunity to know themselves by how they perceive the world around them.

Guest Post, Dmitry Borshch: Ways of Drawing

Loaded Kiss

Loaded Kiss

Ways of drawing: philosopher Patrick Maynard and artist Dmitry Borshch in conversation on art


Patrick Maynard describes his work thus: “Most of my publications and talks concern the nature, function, and perception of pictorial representations and similar expressive forms. They are theoretical, but argued from ‘real world’ engagement with things that matter to people, from the prehistoric to our own times. These discussions not only feature a broad variety of illustrations, but, as ‘substantive’ philosophy, are typically based on them. They are of interest not only to philosophers but also to artists, art critics and historians.” Dr. Maynard is the author of Drawing Distinctions (Cornell University Press, 2005), The Engine of Visualization (Cornell University Press, 1997), and other works.

Here is an excerpt from his conversation with Dmitry Borshch, a contributor to the twelfth issue of Superstition Review:

PM: To set some questions, may I begin by congratulating you on your work: that is, you have found a successful way of working. I think what we mean by “self-expression,” a term closely related to art, is one’s own way of making things which can somehow deal with unlimited ranges of life experience. That provides a basic freedom, one we associate with composers, poets, novelists. It is good to see it in drawing these days where you seem to have found a distinctive style.

Wildbirds Among Branches

Wildbirds Among Branches

DB: About finding one’s way… Many children are fearless drawers but they encounter professional illustrators in children’s books, become intimidated, and abandon drawing. I remember this intimidation; it drew me to writing and acting as a substitute for those illustrations – I was a teenage writer and tweenage actor. Frustrated with not being able to publish my writings, in English or Russian, I resumed drawing at twenty-seven. About four years later my first independent styles emerged – a drawing style first, then a sculpting one. They were both abstract, as I mentioned before, and influenced by Russian Constructivism, De Stijl, and Soviet Nonconformists. I was able to develop a style in two photographic series that followed those abstractions. Then another graphic series, closer to representational way of depicting but still abstract. While not monochromatic, its palette was restricted to three (a primary and two non-primary) colors. Maybe in 2006 I finally reached my current blue-ink style: “Will it contain you, this house I have built?” and “Wildbirds Among Branches” were the first to be drawn in it. So I moved from pure abstraction to balancing between the abstract and figurative, representational. For what period this balance will continue is unclear but in 20 years I may abandon figuration and return to geometric designs I started with.

PM: In contrast with traditional artists just mentioned, contemporary visual artists rarely work from direct assignments which provide specific context (and sustenance): jobs to do. Also they exist in an extremely heterogeneous sea of visual forms, including much marketing – the like of which had never been encountered – a daunting situation. Do you have advice for young artists, notably those who draw, regarding their finding their own ways, as you have done?

DB: The first advice to an artist who draws is to clarify his relationship to drawing: is he using it to record, visualize ideas that may later be translated into painting – as many painters do – or is he primarily a draftsman, someone for whom drawing is a “terminal” activity, no progress beyond which is anticipated? The second and final advice is to strive for coherence of his drawings’ message, style, geometry, lines’ phrasing, interaction among lines. That will enhance their presence: if a drawing is coherently drawn, it becomes present and available to the viewer for extended contemplation, but not yet as an artwork unless coherent matter is united with poetry. So, to younger and older artists, draftsmen or not, I wish many a contemplative viewer – who will be gained only if he perceives aesthetic, intellectual, sentimental or some other value in their drawing.


More of Dmitry’s drawings can be found here.

Guest Post, Beth Gilstrap: Letter

Beth GilstrapThe last time I did a guest post for s[r] blog, I wrote about writing, depression, and vulnerability. This week my second book—a chapbook called No Man’s Wild Laura—is out from Hyacinth Girl Press. All four pieces in the short collection are feminist-fueled stories about hopeful, disenchanted, grateful, damaged, and sometimes, angry women. At 39, I no longer believe these things are mutually exclusive. The following is a letter to my 17-year-old self inspired by my own struggles with mental illness and writing.

Dear You,


I see you have hunkered down in your bedroom again. Your black balloon shade is drawn, the door locked, candles lit, and opium incense burning. The window is barely cracked so the smoke drifts above you. A mixtape is playing as you doodle and write and copy down poems and songs and passages you like in your sketchbook. A guy who plays guitar made the tape for you. In a few months, he’ll make you a “fuck off” tape. You will feel a little bit sorry about it, but mostly relieved because you don’t tell people what’s happening in your brain unless circumstance forces you.


I want to tell you this is temporary.

I want to tell you this is the worst it will ever be.

I want to tell you that your difficulty maintaining friendships will wane.

I want to tell you the chest pains will cease.

I want to tell you the urge to stay under water in the tub or break open the disposable razor passes or when you finally do learn to drive at twenty-four that you won’t ever think about pressing down on the gas and pointing yourself at some large, immovable object.


But the best I can do is tell you to hang on, to keep doodling and playing with words. Keep reading. Read more. Write more. Forget the mean girls. Forget the guitar players. You won’t find your love at a show. You will find your love on a dilapidated porch and unlike most people in your life to date, he will ask questions when you look unwell, when you start pulling your hands and shoulders in as though you could make your body fold in on itself, become invisible. He will buy you bread when he learns you haven’t eaten for three days. He won’t give a damn about lactose or the cause you’ve slapped to your food issues. Hang on, girl. I can’t tell you it won’t be twenty years, but once you get there, you will know that all of this made you into the writer you become. The writing saves you. Again and again. It’s the only way you’ve found to release the valve of your malfunctioning brain.


I want to tell you you won’t need medication for the rest of your life.

I want to tell you you won’t stop taking it from time to time and let yourself drift into an almost speechless existence.

I want to tell you that all your people notice, that they come running to your rescue, that they don’t let you push them out of your life.

I want to tell you that having work published, books even, cures you.

I want to tell you you feel wanted and loved, but even when the rational side of your brain argues for the objective truth and counts the ways, you will always feel far away—like you watch those you care for from the dangling basket of a hot air balloon. This will never change, but it will make you observant, insightful. This is good for the work, if not for your well-being.


You already know your biggest truth. I see it from here as you ink lines from Their Eyes Were Watching God and Beloved and three-quarters of Emily Dickinson’s poems into your notebook. It is only in the repeated act of writing itself that you are free.


With love and hope that you can one day learn to look at yourself with kind eyes,



SR Pod/Vod Series, Recording: Author Megan Harlan

Megan HarlanThis Tuesday, we are proud to feature a podcast of s[r] contributor Megan Harlan reading her nonfiction essay from Issue 17.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes channel, podcast #220.

You can follow along with Megan’s nonfiction essay in Superstition Review, Issue 17.

More about the author:

Megan Harlan’s creative nonfiction essays have recently appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review and The Common. She is the author of Mapmaking (BkMk Press/New Letters), awarded the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her poems, short stories, and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, AGNI, TriQuarterly, The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, New Orleans Review, Meridian, and Arts & Letters, among other publications. She holds an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program and lives and works as a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Guest Post, Caroline Knox: Sound Mode

My heart and my brain are currently colluding to make me write poems in which sound is a main factor.  In the past few years, I’d made poems on a precise subject on purpose – a sculpture, an aromatic herb, a waterfall, a kimono, a collapsed shed.  But then I began to swerve away from choosing subjects beforehand, and toward writing poems where sound is foregrounded and seems a subject in itself.  I instance three poems, and wonder about why.  The first is called “Poem.”




The aoudad, a North

African sheep, doesn’t

eat the fruit of the

baobab tree, a South

African native.

“Chaos” and

“inchoate” sound

like words related

to one another,

but of course they

aren’t.  Totally

different roots.

American Heritage

says “inchoate” is

from Latin for “not

yet harnessed.”  It

says “chaos” is from

Latin (and Greek) for

“empty space.”  Well,

both words are lovely

noises to dramatize

confusion.  So are

ukes of koa wood,

a fine-textured

Hawaiian tree.

In Maori, the

particle noa means

all these words or

phrases:  only,

just, nearly, quite,

until, at random,

idly, fruitlessly,

in vain, and as soon as.

Noa sounds like

an adverb to me.

What is it with

O and A – alpha

and omega?

I logged onto

AOL to see.

Aonia is where

the Muses live,

in Helicon.  In

Italy, Aosta was

St. Anselm’s home

town.  The lifting

organ, the aorta,

carries blood for the heart.


gothic text A and OI’d always thought the words “chaos” and “inchoate” were weird and wonderful (and not very useful).  One day, digging around, I kept coming on other words in which O and A figured.  Who has heard of the aoudad sheep?  How many people know the versatility of the particle noa?  The items on my list clung together, together with the grand concept of A and O, alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.  It seemed good in a poem to have small things brought into a relation with higher things.  And there’s nothing small about the aorta or about what its job is.


Saints Partying


On the Santa Ana winds this elevated group

soars, and at night by the light of St. Elmo’s fire

they drift as far as San Domingo and beyond.  You should

see them gyrating to “The St. Louis Blues”

and “The St. James Infirmary”!  The opposite of St. Bernards.


On breaks, this one reads Four Saints in Three Acts, by Stein;

that one is reading Saint Joan, by Shaw.  A third is

reading MontSaintMichel and Chartres, by Henry James.  They are all

reading about themselves in The Lives of the Saints

in St.-Tropez or St.-Moritz, watering-places of glamour.


The saints make frequent use of the antidepressant and antioxidant St. John’s wort.

Settling in with cases of St.-Émilion, one of them retells

the riddle of “As I was going to St. Ives.”  Another recites

“The Eve of St. Agnes.”  One is immersed in Rumer Godden’s

lovely novel A Candle for St. Jude.  They dine on coquilles St.-Jacques.


And they think this is lots of fun, but extreme hedonism and extravagance

and cultural overload catch up with every one of them.  So they go on the

historic pilgrimage – mountain and valley, desert and plain and swamp – to Santiago de Campostela.


The use of the word “saint” in this poem is distant from that of the historical figures revered by churches.  Many uses here refer to geographical places named for saints; some to literature, to music, to an herb; to a wine, to a stately dog breed. The situation is slightly absurd.  It’s not that saints have attached themselves to the secular world; rather, the secular world has attached itself to them.

I chose this poem-making method:  I ransacked reference works to get names of saints; I collected these names and tried to unite them on a page in some sort of relationship dictated by the repeated use of the names.  It didn’t make logical sense, and I didn’t expect it to.  It was an “artificial” method.  But when I had finished, I thought it had become a poem.  Repeating the word “saint” throughout the poem makes it seem like a litany.  Is it a secular one?  Or not?  The saints in this poem seem to be living in the midst of joy and energy, peaceable, the way we’re supposed to be.



The third and final poem is a ghazal.  The form has the built-in sound repetition of the compulsory end words, repetitive whether you like it or not!  (I’ve only written one ghazal before.)  As I wrote, I heard the long O’s and short O’s make themselves known.  I thought they helped make the poem both unified and ridiculous (the latter especially, in that the poet thinks she would be any good at playing a horn).  “Bone Ghazal” praises “distinguished figures” with sonorous names – the Aldas, Marilynne Robinson, Goya.  (The Bonapartes are of course distinguished for warfare.)  All three poems were calling to me to pay careful attention to the aural presence.


Bone Ghazal


There is a handsome wildflower/weed, eupatorium perfoliatum, bone-

set, which I worked my fingers to the bone


trying to transplant, without success.  It bears white umbels –

umbrellas, really – and its blossom is the color of bone.


Alan Alda, they say, told a Columbia Physicians and Surgeons

commencement that “The headbone is connected to the heartbone.”


The brother of Napoleon, seated on the throne of Spain,

was painted by Francisco Goya:  this was Joseph Bon-


aparte, they say.  Glamour and privilege; in those circles

they dined on the delicate veal sauce and marrow-bone


flavor of osso bucco.  You wouldn’t find this dish in the

town of Robinson’s masterpiece, Housekeeping, Fingerbone,


Idaho.  Boneset was used in home remedies, teas to assuage

pain of ague, flu and colds, indigestion in the elderly, bone


fractures.  (Boneset tea!  Catlap!)  Alan and Arlene Alda gave so much

to help the world of poetry, I think there isn’t a mean bone


in the body of either one.  Goya painted masterpieces

galore, despite a tumor on the legbone.


This ghazal celebrates distinguished figures

whom I wish I had the musical talent to praise with the trombone.

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