Guest Post: Patrick Madden, Some Notes on Expectations

My daughter loves this riddle I told her:

You are driving a bus. At the first stop, 7 people get on. At the next stop, 3 more get on. At the third, 2 get off and 5 get on. At the fourth, no one gets on and 2 get off. At the fifth, 7 get off and 1 gets on. At the sixth stop, 2 get on and 2 get off. At the seventh, 10 people get on and 3 get off. What is the bus driver’s name?

Reading it here, you can easily figure it out, because you can return to the text and reread, but aloud, this gets people (nearly) every time, because once they hear the numbers, they start trying to do arithmetic, thinking you’re going to ask them how many people are left on the bus. I apologize for stating the obvious. The point of the riddle is misdirection, a subversion of expectations that’s satisfying in its cleverness instead of frustrating. This is just one example of this principle in action. One might easily point to most Hollywood movies, for instance, with their twists and turns to keep viewers guessing. I know this, and you know this, but I hope it’s worth revisiting briefly here, as I retread some of my own path to realizing it (making it real), and applying it to essay writing, specifically.

Over the years, as I read and wrote and taught and critiqued thousands of essays, I formulated an observation into a theory. For context, you should know that, including graduate school, I’ve been at this essay thing semi-professionally for twenty years. Through reading and writing countless good and bad examples, I came to feel that the best essay endings worked their way backwards through the text to shift a reader’s understanding of the whole, to reconfigure interpretation from a new insight. Thus, the endings were a surprise that made sense; they granted an insight beyond what I would have come to on my own, but not beyond what was reasonable. I became fond of saying that this represented a surprising inevitability (or inevitable surprise).

While I never thought myself original for noticing this (and creating a handily chiastic catchphrase to describe it), it took me quite a while to discover that Aristotle had theorized essentially the same thing in the Poetics:

Such an effect [Tragedy inspiring fear or pity] is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. …

A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc or post hoc.

That is, “because of this” versus simply “after this.” We want causation, not simply correlation. “The king died and then the queen died” is not a proper story. No, wait. It is a story, according to Forster, but it’s not a plot. A plot requires not only “a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence,” but a sense of causality (“then the queen died of grief”). For context, you should know that Aristotle’s source texts were epic poems and plays, and Forster’s focus was the novel, primarily. And here we are talking of essays, mostly, though the principles, as I have said, apply broadly.

Expectations affect not only endings, influence not only twists of plot and action. When we read, we bring myriad expectations to the text, from the most basic (that it will be decipherable), through the conventional (that it will exemplify proper grammar), through the contextual (that it will present to us a world we recognize or, sometimes, characters that we “relate to”), to the transcendental (that it will satisfy in us a spiritual yearning we didn’t quite know we had). We read through our expectations at every turn, and every straightaway, too.

No one’s expectations are infallible; no reader is ideal. Yet I am paid to read others’ work and offer my honest critique, asking them questions and suggesting ways to improve. Perhaps the commonest category of misstep I find in draft work has to do with failing to meet or anticipate readers’ expectations, failing to consider the expansiveness of language and the way ambiguities can be detrimental, even antagonistic to readers. I tell my students that I am a lazy, impatient, intentional misreader. I expect them to do the work of considering their words and phrases and rooting out unintentional misreadings. Because I will misread them every chance they give me, I say. We laugh, but they know I’m serious.

I find such problems all the time, but I suppose I ought to include here an example. So I’ve asked permission of one of my students, whose recent essay caused me and her classmates a slight bit of consternated amusement. The essay was titled “Love Bursts,” which pressed play on my mental boom box with a two-song playlist of Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” and Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” each of which strings together a litany of bad things love does (scars, wounds, marks, bleeds, brings me to my knees, etc.). [I could, too, have remembered the Everly Brothers’ original “Love Hurts,” or covers by Roy Orbison or Cher or… and who can forget the J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks”? {rip J. Geils, who died a few days ago, and who was raised, I’ve just learned, the next town over from my hometown in New Jersey}]

Anyway. “Love Bursts” seemed obviously a sentence, subject-verb. Bursting was something love did. This determined my reading. And the first section did nothing to revise my expectation, as the author returned to her childhood, to a night she spent with her aunt and cousins in a hotel. Her mother had allowed her to go only on the condition that she not wet the bed. Uh oh. You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? Our narrative expectations are primed. But they’re also confirmed in their reading of the title. Love bursts… we’ve got a bladder ready to burst in the nighttime, so… It’s obvious.

Only it wasn’t. The section ends in a display of auntly love, with smiles and bubble bath and not a hint of anger or frustration. Only later in the essay, two-thirds of the way through, does the title reconfigure into an adjective-noun phrase. It’s been about bursts of love all along, but I didn’t know it. I felt a bit misled. The author, knowing from the get-go how to apprehend the titular phrase, was surprised at my (and most of the class’s) misreading. It’s important to note that I don’t believe her to be wrong with her title choice; I just want her to think more broadly about potential meanings.

The advice part of this essay will be brief and general (“feeling myself too ill-instructed to instruct others” — Montaigne): Try to be aware of the various readings and meanings readers may come to give your text. Understand language not as denotative but as accumulative and tentative, words in order forming constellations from which meaning emerges. Anticipate your readers’ questions and objections, and avoid problems or address them as you write (perhaps even in direct address; the essay is wonderfully open to such meta-textuality).

If I weren’t already past the respectable word limit for blog posts, I’d talk us through an expert example of managing expectations, but instead, among so many possible models, I will simply exhort you to read Brian Doyle’s “His Last Game,” which was a Best American Essay in 2013. Savor how it both confirms and subverts your expectations throughout. To wrap up, then:

I love this story my mother told us. For context, you should know that for many years she worked as a secretary at a law firm that handled lots of motor vehicle cases.

You need to have uninsured motorist insurance. With the cases I see every day… there’s a lot of people out there driving around without insurance, or without enough insurance. And if one of them hits you… you’ll be on the hook for the damages. For years I kept telling Chris Leone, “Chris, you need to get uninsured motorist insurance,” and she wouldn’t listen. “Liz,” she’d say. “You worry too much.” But I kept telling her, for years, and finally she got uninsured motorist insurance.

You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? And while you’re sad for Chris, at least you’re glad that she got uninsured motorist insurance just in time.

Except… in time for what? Nothing happened. Nobody hit Chris. Chris didn’t hit anybody. “Mom!” we laughed. “This is the part where an uninsured motorist hits Chris’s car, and…”

“No,” said Mom. “That’s it. She got the insurance. Now she’s covered.”

For context, you should know that almost exactly a year ago, my mother died of cancer. Because she had smoked almost her entire adult life, we long knew that the day would come, yet I echo what many have said: you’re never really prepared. Despite the disarming pain that still catches me unawares and plunges me into a deep melancholy, I am grateful that her whole family, her husband and all of her children and our spouses and her grandchildren, and many of her friends, gathered from near and very far to spend her last days with her, when she was still awake and aware and laughing and praying and telling us all how much she loved us. When she was gone, or nearly gone, I don’t quite remember, we told this story to each other and it was a salve to our wounds.

 

Guest Post, Robert Detman: The Real Risk is Writing

Robert Detman bio photoWriting anything worthwhile is an invitation to risk. Besides being largely subjective, risk is many faceted. Risk may be taking on the mantle of a writer, and foregoing a stable career. It can also be thought of as the effort you take to draw a reader in, or it may be what you are willing to do to your characters. Risk can also mean stretching oneself and tackling unfamiliar, outright uncomfortable, genres. But are any of these really risking all that much?

In his introduction to The Best American Essays 2016, guest editor and inveterate birder Jonathan Franzen explains how the writers in the collection have risked in their essays, and that this became the basis for his selection. Franzen writes: “[…] The risk I feel most grateful to a writer for taking: shame. As Arthur Miller once said, ‘The best work that anybody ever writes is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.’ […] Your material feels too hot, too shameful, to even think about? Therefore you must write about it.” Risk is fundamental to the writing process.

The writer faces potential humiliation for putting their thought into words. I occasionally feel a jolt of anxiety when I think too deeply about what thoughts I’ve put into words, though over time I’ve developed a thick skin. Once I reveal myself on the page, I try to move on. I sometimes confront the anguish of letting work get published and then finding typos, but I’m more likely to embarrass myself by failing to catch a clunker of a sentence, and then hope it goes unnoticed. I am always grateful to editors who ask about my intent before committing my words to print.

A rush to publish has probably caused its share of shame for writers. The writer never knows how her work is going to be received, and this is always the hump to overcome in submitting work. A lot of writers probably see writing in general as risky–which might explain why many don’t write beyond the comfort of a familiar genre. Some writers won’t send their work out to the world, and though fear of rejection is the typical reason, it may be that they are afraid that what they’ve written will be misconstrued. Every time I send work out, I wonder, “Will these editors think I’m crazy?”

Writing is a private act that one makes public, which then becomes a transaction with possibly countless unknown readers. Having an opinion and crafting an argument could be seen as hazardous, particularly if you live under a repressive government. But for many of us, it simply means we invoke the ire of those who might disagree with us. The anonymity of the internet’s comment streams seems to have made this possibility rampant; otherwise, it is foolish to be overly concerned with the reactions of trolls. There is the danger of alienating someone by writing about them in a memoir, and revealing their secrets. And there is the possibility of offending someone by your subject matter and how you deal with it. This last item is a risk that the writer takes every day.

Recently, there has been a call for “trigger warnings” on some works of literature at college campuses, to warn unsuspecting readers of a potential post-traumatic stress disorder reaction. Seeing how literature has been around for hundreds of years without the equivalent of an FDA label, this notion of endangerment seems oddly concocted out of a hyper-aware desire to not offend. This political correctness on steroids subtly wants to imply that writing about an event is akin to a writer perpetrating it.

A misconception about writing–often by those who aren’t writers–is that the writer exposes herself with every utterance, revealing her darkest secrets. But rarely does this occur. On the other hand, many of the essays in the Best Of American Essays 2016 have the feel of voyeuristic confessions. One essayist, Katherine E. Standefer, in the essay, “In Praise of Contempt,” writes of sexual emancipation at the hands of a man she does not like. Laura Kipnis, in “Sexual Paranoia”, details her attempts to challenge college campus harassment policies. In Richard M. Lange’s “Of Human Carnage,” the writer explores his witnessing a suicide, and an unwillingness to become further involved in the investigation. Many of the essays have clever shock value. Still, having written, published and had their work selected for the Best Of American Essays, I wonder if these writers believe they have risked in the way Franzen sees it. Perhaps our sense of risk lessens in proportion to the publicity of our work.

Writing about an event in my past, I could put someone I once knew in a compromising situation, by naming them in relation to this event. This person, I could argue, might deserve the attention I give them; on the other hand, is it really my right to expose someone, even if I think they deserve it?

I recently wrote a memoir about a period in college when I experienced a harrowing bout of depression. I initially felt uneasy submitting this to journals, but perhaps my piece might offer solace to someone who has gone through something similar (though maybe it would only trigger PTSD). Time and distance from the material made it easier to write the essay, but I had to consider repercussions. Though I altered names to avoid implicating some acquaintances, the story is about my own battle, and I can bear whatever outcome it entails. Writing this piece was oddly cathartic, by the way–the thrill of the risk?–though it might have been less problematic to write it as fiction.

One person’s risk is another’s voyeurism, particularly if one seeks the attention. But to be a writer is to demand attention, and writing about oneself puts the writer in welcome company. Even at a reading where the audience laughs at an awkward passage possibly not intended for a laugh, at least the writer was heard (in lieu of being read). For the most part, the writing community is supportive–after all, we’ve all risked attempting to be writers.

Whatever writing project you take on, it is really only yourself you are imperiling, and at that, you may be the only one who perceives the risk. Maybe the most valid claim is that, if you believe your writing is taking a risk, then it probably is. Ultimately, taking a risk in writing is what makes it worth the effort.

Contributor Update: BJ Hollars

Hello, readers! We are happy to announce that B.J. Hollars, a contributor featured in the Fiction Section of our 6th issue, has written a new book available here, titled Flock Together. A chapter preview is available here and provides a sobering glance at the ivory-billed woodpecker, now gone due to deforestation. The book follows a journey to investigate many of America’s now extinct bird population. Flock Together cover art

From Hollars’ website:

After stumbling upon a book of photographs depicting extinct animals, B.J. Hollars became fascinated by the creatures that are no longer with us; specifically, extinct North American birds. How, he wondered, could we preserve so beautifully on film what we’ve failed to preserve in life? And so begins his yearlong journey to find out, one that leads him from bogs to art museums, from archives to Christmas Counts, until he at last comes as close to extinct birds as he ever will during a behind-the-scenes visit at the Chicago Field Museum. Heartbroken by the birds we’ve lost, Hollars takes refuge in those that remain. Armed with binoculars, a field guide, and knowledgeable friends, he begins his transition from budding birder to environmentally conscious citizen, a first step on a longer journey toward understanding the true tragedy of a bird’s song silenced forever.

Told with charm and wit, Flock Together is a remarkable memoir that shows how “knowing” the natural world—even just a small part—illuminates what it means to be a global citizen and how only by embracing our ecological responsibilities do we ever become fully human. A moving elegy to birds we’ve lost, Hollars’s exploration of what we can learn from extinct species will resonate in the minds of readers long beyond the final page.

Contributor Update: Patrick Madden Is A Machine (With A Heart Of Gold)

Top of the afternoon, dearest readers! We here at Superstition Review  are rife with news from the Occident after a barn-burner of a conference at this year’s AWP, held in the belly of the beast in Washington, D.C. Past contributor Patrick Madden is co-editing the 21st Century Essays series with none other than David Lazar! 21st Century Essays is put out through Ohio State University Press, and they themselves have some great news: The 2017 Gournay Prize is taking submissions from now until March 15. If anyone out there has a book-length collection of essays, or knows someone who might, tell them to check out this link here. There’s a publication deal with a cash prize of $1,000 in it for ’em if they win!

"Oh yeah. We happy."

“What we imagine it might be like to win a book deal and get $1,000.”

And the proliferation doesn’t stop there: Madden also has provided us with the announcement for not one but TWO collections of essays, titled (respectively) “After Montaigne” (which was also co-edited with David Lazar), out from University of Georgia Press, and “Sublime Physick” (for which Patrick Madden is the sole progenitor), put out through University of Nebraska Press.

Buy these books!

Covers for both “After Montaigne” and “Sublime Physick.”

Suffice it to say, Patrick Madden keeps the hits comin’, and we here at Superstition Review are only too happy to share these with you, dear readers. Congratulations to Patrick Madden, and David Lazar, for all their hard work!

That about does it for us today, gang. Thanks for reading, and always, let us know what you think in the comments section below.

#ArtLitPhx: Aaron Gilbreath: Everything We Don’t Know

everything we don't know Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath will be reading at Changing Hands Bookstore at the Phoenix location 300 W Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85013 on Thursday, February 9th, 2017 at 7 p.m. He will be sharing his latest collection of essays Everything We Don’t Know which examines the false starts and free falls that often accompany growing up in contemporary America. Gilbreath is an essayist and journalist for New York Times, Harper’s, and Vice, as well as others. This event is free and open to the public. For more event information visit Changing Hands Bookstore’s website.

With keen journalistic instincts and his signature unrelenting curiosity, Gilbreath takes on topics both personal and prescient, such as mental illness, the environmental impact of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, his nostalgia for the demolished “Googie” architecture of his youth, drug use and addiction, interning at age 30, falling in love and breaking up, and more. Deftly crafted and surprisingly wise, Everything We Don’t Know is just the beginning of Gilbreath’s bold and bright career. Gilbreath is an essayist, journalist, and burrito enthusiast. His essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, New York Times, Paris Review, Vice, The Morning News, Saveur, Tin House, The Believer, Oxford American, Kenyon Review, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, Narratively, and Brick. His essay “\’ra-di-k?l\” from Hotel Amerika is a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, and “Dreams of the Atomic Era” from the Cincinnati Review is a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011.

Event: AZ Humanities

AUTHORS NIGHT WITH ROBERT ISENBERG EXPLORES TRAVEL WRITING, AND LIVING IN COSTA RICA

Kick off your summer with stories of travel inspiration June 7th in downtown Phoenix

Phoenix, AZ – The public is invited to join Arizona Humanities for a talk with local author Robert Isenberg. Isenberg will kick off your summer travels with stories and inspiration from his works, including his newest book, The Green Season about his life as a journalist in Costa Rica. The Authors Night takes place at the historic Ellis-Shackelford House in downtown Phoenix (1242 N. Central Avenue Phoenix, AZ 85004) on Tuesday, June 7th from 6:00-8:00pm. The program is free and light refreshments are included.

Isenberg describes his many years as a travel writer and journalist, scouring the globe for provocative stories. Hear about his rustic New England origins, life as a freelancer, and the evolving nature of long-form nonfiction. Considering a trip to Costa Rica? Ask him anything. This author night promises lively discussion about adventure in the age of the smartphone.

Seating is limited and guests are encouraged to RSVP at https://robertisenbergauthorsnight.eventbrite.com or call 602-257-0335.

Grean Season CoverAbout The Green Season: “A dynamic collection of essays and reportage, The Green Season illustrates daily life in Costa Rica, a tiny Central American nation dedicated to peace and teeming with tropical life. With his trademark humor and observation, Robert Isenberg describes the people, culture, and biodiversity that make Costa Rica so unique—from a centuries-old indigenous ceremony to a remote jungle crisscrossed by crocodile-filled canals. Isenberg explores the country head-on, fighting his way through San José traffic, mingling with venomous snakes, and even making a cameo in an epic soccer film at the height of World Cup fever. Richly detailed and tenderly written, The Green Season is one expat’s love letter to his adoptive homeland.”

Robert IsenbergAbout Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and stage performer. Most recently, he is the author of The Green Season, about his life as a journalist in Costa Rica. His work includes five books, 17 produced plays, dozens of short documentaries, and hundreds of articles for various magazines and newspapers. He created two one-man shows, The Archipelago (about his travels in postwar Bosnia) and One Million Elephants (about the Secret War in Laos). Isenberg is a past Whitford Fellow, Brackenridge Fellow, and recipient of two Golden Quill Awards, as well as a Pushcart Prize nominee. Visit him at robertisenberg.net.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Sheila Squillante

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Sheila Squillante.

sheila

Sheila Squillante is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and a full-length collection due out with Tiny Hardcore Press in 2014. Besides Superstition Review, her essays have appeared in places like Brevity, The Rumpus, Waccamaw, Sweet: A Literary ConfectionThe Inquisitive Eater, and Barrelhouse. This summer she joins the faculty of Chatham University in Pittsburgh as the associate director of their low-res MFA program in creative writing. You can find out more at her website, www.sheilasquillante.com.

You can read along with her work in Issue 10 of Superstition Review.

To subscribe to our iTunes U channel, go to https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/superstition-review-online/id552593273