Guest Post, Robert Krut: Heroes Are Dead; Long Live Heroes

 

Robert Krut Bio PhotoI have a handwritten postcard from Allen Ginsberg. And not some random handwritten postcard I discovered in an antique desk drawer at a flea market, or bought online somewhere.  It is handwritten to me. It is, needless to say, one of my most prized possessionsAs you might imagine, it is framed and hanging within view of the computer I am typing on at this very moment.

Ginsberg was my first big literary hero—the person I read obsessively, rhapsodized about to others—I carried around my copy of his glorious red-covered Collected Poems everywhere I went.  I drove my high school English teacher crazy by insisting I share “America” with the class, “go fuck yourself” and all. I wanted to write like him, and if I am honest with myself, I wanted to be him—free, wild-bearded, hand to the sky and capturing the lightning of electric lines right to the page.

So, I wrote him a letter.  Certain I was the first teenager to ever write him and tell him how much his poems meant to me, and how my high school just “didn’t get it” (looking back now, my teacher was more than accommodating of my obsession), I told him how I was also from New Jersey and wanted to be a poet.  Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, a postcard was sitting on the kitchen table when I got home (my Mom was smiling when she said “well, you got a postcard today…”).  In a cruel twist of fate, he even suggested I come to a reading in the city and introduce myself—but the card arrived the day after the reading (cursed by slow mail over the December holidays).  But I had my postcard.  My handwritten postcard from my hero.  And that was more than enough.

Naturally, in the coming years, I discovered many literary heroes that led me to want to write, each one stepping into the hero role: Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Michael Burkard. . . they all became not only writers I admired, but those that lit fires, guided my own work (often leading to not-so-infrequent unintended homages).  With each new hero, the previous faded a bit into the background–needless to say, when my Carver obsession began, my attempts at poems were stripped-down affairs as opposed to the expansive, no-thought-should-be-discarded Ginsbergian approach.  Denis Johnson, of course, married those two approaches well, in a sort of tough visionary literature–his poem “The Veil” has remained on my office wall for twenty years.  I suppose this sort of admiration is human nature.

Ultimately, the sort of “hero worship” I had early on for Ginsberg was somewhat similar to that of other, earlier incarnations of fandom: my bedroom as a little kid was plastered with posters of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter; my early teenage years saw U2 and REM on those same walls.  Ultimately, they made room for Bob Dylan memorabilia; Dylan directly pointed me to Ginsberg, who took up the hero mantle.

When you admire someone so completely, of course, it is only natural to see them not only replaced, but also drift a bit back.  At times, we even have to discard them to move past their (encouraging, sparkling) grip.  For me, by the end of my undergraduate years, I would say things like “I’ll always love Ginsberg, but…” completing that sentence with phrases like “his Collected Poems could have been half as long” (my precious red book!), or “I’m realizing I can go straight to the source–Whitman!”  As time went on though, I kept a place for my hero in my heart–I had my list of lingering poems that still knocked me out, taught him periodically over the years (a visionary literature class here, a political poetry unit there, etc.), even thrilled at going to City Lights Books in San Francisco.  But it was never truly quite the same as those first few years in the rush of discovering his work.

Now, though, after a recent event, I realized that my love for Ginsberg was never only about the cult of personality or some cartoon of his “character.”  There was–is–real magic in his work, so it was only a matter of time that I would revisit my full force love of his poetry, and role as a poet.  In going back to him after all these years, I can appreciate him on a deeper level–embracing what I love, acknowledging any limitations, and feeling the rush of connecting with poetry for the first time again.  It’s a great feeling–I encourage all readers to go back to their first heroes and see if it happens for them, too.

My renewed fervor grew out of the most common of occurrences for those of us who write poems–a simple conversation where someone asks “who is your favorite poet?” Or, similarly, but with a bit more breathing room: “who are your favorite poets?”  It’s always nice when someone asks this at a party–particularly when you’re the only one there who may write (or publicly acknowledge writing) poems, as you see someone taking an interest in poetry–so often I am pleased to see a real interest out in the “non-poetry” and/or “non-academic” worlds about poems.

That being said, I have also learned over the years that, in those moments, breaking out truly contemporary, or even slightly obscure older, poets leads to blank stares–I have killed many a conversation over the years extolling the virtues of names that didn’t register in the conversation partner.  So, typically now I mention someone relatively well-known that I do love, but that will bridge the discussion.  Typically a response of “well, it all starts with Whitman and Dickinson” is a solid one, and allows for an engaging conversation.  Other names that have worked well in these moments include Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop (for reference, “One Art” and “The Moose” are very popular; “The Man-Moth” tends to unfortunately be a deal breaker).  It should be pointed out, though that mentioning these “classic names” provides a perfect chance to share newer ones, as common ground has been established. Last month I was at a bar where someone asked about poets and I followed up a Whitman reference by saying “and if you want to read some great contemporary work, go find Danez Smith.”  Later in the night, that same person came back to me and asked me to repeat the name so he could enter it into his phone for future reference.

But back to Ginsberg–at a recent party, sensing that my conversation partner might have loved the Beats back in the day, I mentioned my old hero.  To my shock, this was not met with a positive response–the person, laughing in a good natured way, let me know “Oh no!  I can’t stand Ginsberg!”  I was surprised at how quickly I snapped back into being that teenager again, with my Ginsberg love back front and center.  The good thing, though, as I now realize, is that my hero worship had been replaced with admiration–and in defending his legacy, I could feel myself reconnected with him, and what excites me about poetry, all over again.

I made my case.  In a world where everyone can be so cynical, isn’t it refreshing to have his poems out there, in all of their rambling, heart-on-sleeve glory?  In a time when it is so necessary, isn’t it exhilarating to read poems facing capital-A America straight on?  What lover of poetry didn’t want to break out “America” on November 9, 2016?  And have you read “Supermarket in California” recently?  It feels fresh and heartbreaking all over again–only now Ginsberg is the one we meet in the grocery store instead of Whitman.

And, if the poetry/politics intersection doesn’t do it for you, there is the personal and spiritual work.  The teenage version of me read “To Aunt Rose” and loved it.  But as we all get older, and lose people we love, good luck reading it, with its detailed and loving portrait, and not only marveling at its poetry but also tearing up at the emotions.  Additionally, the spirituality that runs through so much of the work, with its mix of Judaism and Buddhism, takes us out of the rough observations of the political work and places American life on a different plane–try listening to his reading of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” with Phillip Glass and not feeling like you are floating five feet above the ground.

All of this came out though that party conversation, and I was back in, full force.  In doing so, I reconnected with something I loved about poetry from when I first started writing.  That night I went home and wrote, and I did the next day, too.

We put our heroes away for a bit for a reason, and we certainly can’t sacrifice what is new in poetry to stay safe in our comfort zones–we would become boring if that happened.  At the right time, though, it is worth revisiting them once again, with the deeper understanding that comes from time as well as the larger world of literature. We see them with added depth, but lit by the spark that first excited us about writing.  In the end, it leaves us admiring them as writers, not heroes.  And I say that as I look up at Allen Ginsberg’s handwriting from 1990 on my wall.

Guest Post, Darrin Doyle: Get the Most Out of that Smile! Descriptions with Meaning and Purpose

SmileCreative writers know that physical description is among the most essential tools for establishing a character.  How a person walks and talks; the clothing they wear; their hairstyle; how they chew and fidget and fuss, or sit stoically; the way they smile, frown, or stare blankly.  These can provide terrific insights into our characters.  However, merely listing the gestures often isn’t enough.

In workshop stories, I often see exchanges like this one (which I invented):

“I’m really happy you could meet me today,” he said.  He gave her a small smile.

She looked up at him.  “I love this restaurant,” she answered.

In this brief moment, we have two gestures – a “small smile” and a “look.”  That’s a fine place to begin, but as written, these are simply stage directions.  It’s as if the writer is merely puppeteering the characters, giving us a visual.  The actions aren’t telling us anything about the characters, about the situation, about the emotional register of this moment.  Is this guy actually happy?  Is she happy?  Or are they sad?  Worried?  Are they flirting?  Are they ex-spouses who haven’t spoken in months, with a history of conflict between them?  Is there resentment, love, nervous excitement?  What are these gestures telling us?

Students often express hesitance about “slowing down” the action of the story in order to give backstory about the characters.  They say they don’t want to bog down the piece with paragraphs of explication about who these people are and what brought them to this moment.

My answer is this:  You don’t have to slow down the action.  Weave the backstory into the action.  Make it part of the scene.  Connect the gestures to the characters’ backstory.  Every gesture should reveal something: the character’s personality, psychology, desires, conflicts.  Make the gestures work for you.

Here’s a passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:

Mr. Willard eyed me kindly.  Then he cleared his throat and brushed a few last crumbs from his lap.  I could tell he was going to say something serious, because he was very shy, and I’d heard him clear his throat in that same way before giving an important economics lecture.

Notice that Mr. Willard doesn’t simply “eye” the narrator.  That might be misconstrued as creepy.  Instead, he eyes her “kindly.”  That’s helpful to the reader; it gives us something about the mood, the tone.  Next, he clears his throat and brushes crumbs from his lap.  Is he nervous?  Is he about to say something?  People tend to clear their throats when they want to say something.  Sure enough, Plath makes it clear with the next sentence.

But most importantly, she adds another line that connects Mr. Willard’s throat-clearing to the characters’ shared history.  We learn that he is shy (therefore, they know each other).  We learn that he was a teacher, specifically an economics teacher, and she must have been his student.  The gestures aren’t only stage direction; they forward the plot and deepen our understanding of the characters.  And they haven’t slowed down the scene.

Sometimes simply choosing a compelling verb can do wonders for establishing character.  Here’s an example from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Then, suddenly overclouding all his features, he scowled in a hoarsened rasping voice as he hewed again vigorously at the loaf:

                        ‘For old Mary Ann

                        She doesn’t care a damn

                        But hising up her petticoats…’

He crammed his mouth with a fry and munched and droned.

Notice how much work Joyce’s verbs are doing.  “Overclouding all his features” makes me think this guy is in a bad mood.  And then he “scowled” and “hewed . . . vigorously the loaf.”  He’s eating, but he’s not just eating:  he’s eating violently, piggishly.  He sings a dirty little ditty, and then he “crammed his mouth with a fry.”  There’s aggression in that verb.  He’s literally stuffing his face.

Overclouding, scowled, hewed, crammed, munched, droned. 

From those six words, I know quite a bit about what kind of dude this is.  And I’d rather eat over here, thank you.

Flannery O’Connor is among the best at giving gestures with meaning.  She often uses an “as if” structure, and it’s a technique you can easily apply to your own writing.  Quite simply, she describes a gesture or expression, but then she adds one – or two, even three – similes that start with “as if,” similes that develop the character and the conflict.

From The Violent Bear It Away:

Rayber continued to speak, his voice detached, as if he had no particular interest in the matter, and his were merely the voice of truth, as impersonal as air.

As a writer I would be tempted to quit after “his voice detached,” which gives us something important.  But O’Connor keeps pushing it.  In what way is his voice detached?  The first clause tells us Rayber is talking as if he doesn’t care about the topic.  Then the second part really elevates the simile:  he has “no particular interest” because his “voice of truth” is absolute.  He has no need to argue passionately.

And finally, still not satisfied, O’Connor pushes it once more: “as impersonal as air.”

To me, this last clause makes the whole gesture.  In his own mind, Rayber’s logic is like an invisible, ubiquitous, and necessary force.  No person can live without air; it is all around us at all times.  And now the reader truly sees the full extent of the character’s ego.

The most important habit a writer can develop is to read like a writer. So the next time you’re reading, pay special attention to the ways the author uses gesture and detail to build character, to bring us closer to their conflicts. And then, as always, don’t hesitate to rush to the keyboard (or pen and paper) and use their techniques in your own writing.

Guest Post, Dawn Abeita: Virginia and Flannery Together Again

Virginia Woolfflannery oconnor

Last year I went on two literary pilgrimages: Great Britain/Virginia Woolf, and Georgia/Flannery O’Connor.

The juxtaposition wasn’t intentional. My husband had work in London and I tagged along, walked around the tiny corner of Woolf’s London called Bloomsbury, then got a car and left him there working while I rambled around Sussex where she later lived. Which is to say that I drove down lanes with hedges that constantly swatted my side view mirrors to visit ramshackle houses with frowsy and riotous interiors.

As for Flannery, I’d long intended to visit her houses in tiny Milledgeville only an hour and a half through cotton fields from my house in Atlanta. Flannery grew up in one of its biggest homes, all white-columned plantation vernacular, and lived out her last Lupus-maimed years on a dairy farm outside town.

Inspired by my travels I reread them both. First Woolf, whose work struck me again with its (at the time) radically modern stream of consciousness and melancholy air: a sense that memory of the past flows over everything in the present, nearly obscuring it. Then O’Connor’s work where I was reminded of what gruesome, moral car wrecks they are (in one famous case, literally).

It may not come as a surprise to anyone else, but I was astonished to find that these two writers have something in common. It seems that both write mostly about cognitive dissonance, about people trying to fend off anything that threatens their sense of themselves as they believe themselves to be. In other words, the guarded space between what people think is true about themselves and what is true.

In Woolf, the characters are so involved in their interior world that the majority of the books Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse concern themselves almost exclusively with it. Out of curiosity, I sat down and pieced out how much dialogue there was in one long scene of Mrs Dalloway, the one where Peter Walsh stops by to see Clarissa upon his return to England from India. In my edition the scene runs for thirteen pages. Only about two hundred and fifty words (about a page’s worth) are dialogue that touches only on the surface of things. Like this:

Well, and what’s happened to you?
Millions of things. I am in love. In love. In love with a girl from India.
In love! And who is she?
A married woman, unfortunately. The wife of a Major in the Indian Army. She has two small children; a boy and a girl; and I have come over to see my lawyers about the divorce.
But what are you going to do?
Oh, the lawyers and solicitors, Messrs. Hubert and Gately at Lincoln’s Inn, they are going to do it. Tell me, are you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard…
Here is my Elizabeth.
How d’y do?
Hullo, Elizabeth! Goodbye, Clarissa.

Interspersed with this shallow conversation the remaining twelve pages contain the interior recounting of their respective dissonances – Peter’s that Clarissa had turned down his marriage proposal so many years ago and what she must think of his lack of success; and Clarissa’s that her life has not turned out well, that she is dry and useless whereas he is so alive and in love. The reader alone is privy to the clash between their various assumptions about themselves and each other.

In O’Connor’s work the characters are more involved in their exterior world, in trying to force it to cohere to their ideas of how it should be and their place in it. Their actions are determined by how forcefully they insist on their own assumptions, right up until those suppositions are revealed for the lie they are. It was part of O’Connor’s religious ideas that the world would provide a corrective to this misguided sense of self, that events would divinely grace the character with a realization of their true selves. Much of the time this grace is delivered ironically and only the reader realizes it.

Think about how in “Good Country People,” Hulga/Joy is full of noisy pride, seeing herself as different than her mother or the tenant farmer’s wife – that she is a more sophisticated, independent thinker – only to have the very assumptions she shares with them, such as that “good country people” are inherently trustworthy, lead to her literally and metaphorically losing both her false perspective and her false independence (ie: her glasses and her wooden leg).

This notion of cognitive dissonance may be useful as a key to understanding or creating character. Where does a character stands on this continuum of insight into the true nature of him or herself. And if false, does the character’s judgement turn outward, with little interior reflection? Or does it turn inward, with overly high regard for his or her own opinions. Or, perhaps, both. And more specifically, what contortions, mental or physical, do they perform to maintain their self-esteem?  Just something to think about.

PS: Despite this similarity in their concerns, the lives of Mrs. Woolf  and Ms. O’Connor could not have been more wildly divergent. One did her best work surrounded by the most inventive and amusing minds of her time and place. The other did her best work surrounded by screaming peacocks and lowing cows. I find their extraordinarily accented speech especially revealing of this divide.

Of course, being from the South, I find Flannery’s long A’s and swallowed O’s comforting. I only found this one recording of her, unfortunately not in conversation and so certainly the accent is flattened and so easy to understand.

And here the clipped and plummy voice of Mrs. Woolf also in a formal setting. When I listen to it, I have the feeling that I am translating from her English into my English, always lagging a word behind.

Guest Post, Sean Lovelace: To An End

aconfederacyofnachos

Photo by Bradley Werner, courtesy of http://nachosny.com

TO AN END:

…11 minutes later I walk out of the office, shaking the test results like a fistful of musty bills I’d won playing Go Fish off Ignatius J. Reilly (or some such literary hero) in a tight, rightful, terrible wager (terrible in that a loss would have been profound—no new disc golf discs off EBay this month, no new flash anthologies [such as this one!], the dog without chow, the kid’s frog [actually a fire-bellied toad {but what is genre?}] without crickets, even cheaper wine, possible shortages in frozen waffles, other such calamities) and I yelled out, “That’s it! That’s it! I will no longer eat walnuts! No walnuts unshelled or shelled! No toasty! No crunch! No easy, natural, toasty crunch! No walnuts, no walnuts, no walnuts! I’ve had it!”

(Note: In writing, you should use approximately three exclamation marks your entire life. Rule broken.)

“But you’re supposed to be eating walnuts,” she says, flatly as a credit card. “They said to add walnuts to your diet. Walnuts are the king of nuts.”

(Actually, that’s almondsbut pick your battles, pick your battles…And anyway her blue eyes are like a ceiling fan: stylish, highly effective, often spinning, with some potential ability to maim.)

I go outside, to the shed, grab a small hatchet and thunk the apple tree repeatedly, with no real effect on the apple tree (the gnarled bastard—it produces thousands of apples a year. Is that good? No. I have to deal with thousands of apples a year, hauling them out in a wheelbarrow [yes, it’s red, Carlos Williams], swatting off yellow jackets, listening all evening to the marsh rats slither up from the creek, across my back lawn, below the apple tree, munching on apples under the moon…How does a man sleep!? But I do digress.), but with real effect on my mood, a slight simmering down of the emotions, this thunking. I replace the hatchet on its handy bent nail, calm and reenter the house.

movie.jph

Photo courtesy of http://www.openculture.com

(Note: In writing, it’s best to balance your creative, mental work with a physical activity. Haruki Murakami enjoys a refreshing jog, for example. Lydia Davis dabbles in archery, an activity as precise as her sentences. Tennessee Williams swam every morning. Simone de Beauvoir liked to shoot rifles with her eyes closed, while Jean Paul Sartre looked on, regally, very much in the pose of a douche bag. O. Henry—in-between crafting his many stories—spent time as a shepherd, ranch hand, cook, baby-sitter, bank embezzler, and drunk. So: physical exercise is significant.)

I’m going back to nachos, I tell her.

Hail Ignacio!

Hail Rocha!

Hail Bradley Werner! (A man who makes amazing book covers featuring nachos.)

Hail Howard Cosell!

Hail Prince Fielder!

I tell her. (And when I say, tell, I mean I’m braying like a wildebeest.)

She ignores me, as is her manner.

Photo by Bradley Werner, courtesy of http://nachosny.com/2013/07/nacho-book-covers-hitchhikers-guide-great-gatsby/

Photo by Bradley Werner, courtesy of http://nachosny.com

Feelings bruised, I make a Cuban variation on traditional nachos (dollop of Swiss cheese, one jalapeno per chip, a smattering of black beans). Munch them. Take that last tortilla chip, hold it in the air and light to admire its structural integrity, and scream out, “Let the festivities begin!”

Then I swallow the last nacho chip and place my nacho bowl (carefully, I have a specific rotation of three handmade ceramic bowls of the upmost craftsmanship) in the sink, to rest in its cradle of bubbly bath.

That’s one way to end nachos.

Shall we discuss flash fiction, several finishing moves?

Like with relationships or dinner or spontaneous trips to the casino, some things are easier to begin than to end. Sometimes an idea forms, a flash fiction draft spirals out—click/click/click, your fingers dance like marionettes—and then you realize you’re running out of words, and you need to end. So.

THE CYCLICAL:

As a current Hoosier, I’d like you to recall that Breakfast of Champions opens with Kilgore Trout walking the streets of Midland, and ends with Kilgore Trout walking the streets of Midland. Everything in-between is satirical filler. Let’s examine Four Hard Facts by Damian Dressick, a devastating meditation of grief:

Note how it opens in a bar and ends in a bar. (Also note how appropriate the segmented form [episodic, like memory, like questioning], the use of second person (draws us into the theme), the effective use of objects [steak sauce is powerful here, its banality], the threads [water], but do primarily focus on the ending, cyclical.)

To end, look to the beginning. Check out “How He Felt” by Amelia Gray.

Billboard

Plane/song/sermon

Billboard.

Another flash technique might be what I’d call THE TWIST. Here, the last line is the core significance, a turn, not so unlike a sonnet volta, or O. Henry back in the day, but always remember this is flash, compression—make your turn hard and quick, a slap, a jab (or a legal summons—but I digress again), walking that keen line voiced so well by Flannery O’Connor, “Endings should be simultaneously surprising and inevitable.”

(She also said, “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” But that’s another blog post altogether…)

See “Dog” by Kyle Minor. (Note repetition, rhythm, couched within the minimalist.)

thenachosofhuckfinn

Photo by Bradley Werner, courtesy of http://nachosny.com

I once got drunk with Minor at an epic literary cave of a bar in Muncie, IN, and Minor argued for long form literature—Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn and Pride and Prejudice and whatnot—while I argued for short form, Palm-of-the-Hand Stories and Oh Baby and all those wonderful Latin American microficciones and whatnot and then here I go months later just surfing the hip flash mags for what’s fresh and see Kyle Minor flash fictions popping up the literary web and so I’m assuming mind changed, genre accepted, I’m assuming I won that argument and I so rarely win any argument, you know, I mean you should see my Tuesday mornings, my Sunday evening audio—splish and krunch and hiss and boom!—you should see my, my…what are you saying? What do you mean what am I doing? I’m writing a blog post. You did what? Threw all my books where? On the roof! Why? Are you drunk? Just a minute…Lord, I have to…what!?…Jesus…Yep, my books are on the roof. She threw my books on the roof. My Baudelaire and my Diane Williams, my Ultimate Nachos and my Jayne Anne Phillips [“Good one-page fictions have a spiral construction: the words circle out from a dense, packed core, and the spiral moves through the words, past the boundary of the page,” Phillips says. “Fast, precise, over. The one-page fiction should hang in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke.”], and my, even my sweet and lovely Suttree, even my Douglas Adams…And it’s raining.)

See “Bounty” by Dave Eggers. (Note how one line, the TWIST, transports the piece, from every day to philosophical.)

THE BOUNTY

In her kitchen, she saw many things she would like to eat. On the counter, there was a bunch of new bananas, yellow as a Van Gogh chair, and two apples, pristine. The cabinet was open and she saw a box of crackers, a new box of cereal, a tube of curved chips. She felt overwhelmed, seeing all of the food there, that it was all hers. And there was more in the refrigerator! There were juices, half a melon, a dozen bagels, salmon, a steak, yogurt in a dozen colors. It would take her a week to eat all of this food. She does not deserve this, she thought. It really isn’t fair, she thought. You’re correct, God said, and then struck dead 65,000 Malaysians.

All my favorite techniques, I steal from poets.

(Note: If you seriously want to write flash fictions, seriously steal from poets.)

Example, the FADEOUT, end on the visual, the sensory poem, the image…(I actually took this technique from my childhood in the 1980’s. See there was this channel called MTV and they played something called music videos [I know, I know, this sounds impossible] and these music videos would often end with a FADE OUT, a drifting off image, to fog, to gray, a dissolve, poetry really…)

Swimming naked butterfly

Night’s thick scent of peach blossoms

Dead bees

Photo by Bradley Werner, courtesy of http://nachosny.com

 

And a baseball player, with priorities intact…

(https://youtu.be/7uaMsJztm9I)

Hail Fielder!

Hail nachos!

Hail flash fiction!

Hail stepladders! (Hail stepladders?)

Yes, yes, now please excuse me. As I’ve intimated, things must end, even this blog post. Go eat nachos and please do write something, something flash, all the way to the finish. Me? I need to go get my books.

Guest Post, Matthew Blasi: The Many Lessons of Barry Hannah, Part 1: The Good Love

It is difficult—nigh impossible—for me to contain my surprise when, in heated talk of great American writers, Barry Hannah fails to surface. Such happened amidst a recent conversation with a friend. We were discussing at length great books and writers who have largely flown under the radar and when I broached Hannah my fellow conversant turned curious. She’d never heard of the man or his many good works. So I went into my routine. I thrashed and barked. I got guttural. Not only was Hannah one of the greatest American writers, I told her, he was perhaps the most loving. I handed over Hannah’s The Tennis Handsome and told her to let me know her thoughts. But since we’re on the subject, here are mine.

Barry Hannah Oxford AmericanA strong argument could be made for Hannah to be ranked among the very best America has ever cultivated if for nothing save the depth of love present in his stories. His characters need it, seek it against dire circumstances. The whupping Levaster puts on French Edward at the beginning of The Tennis Handsome is not purely selfish, productive. It’s as much about pity, remorse, as it is the clobbering of the soft-brained tennis pro. Levaster needs Edward as much as us. He’s less a foil than a co-conspirator in the comic drama, the conduit for Levaster’s electricity. No wonder lightning strikes him dead on, gives him strange new wits, canny thoughts. Edward acts on our impulses. We’re often Levaster, like it or not, prodding the tennis prodigy on to haphazard glory. We want him to win because we love the man regardless of the density of his soggy brain. Don’t we too often have heads full of river water, days of foggy acquiescence? There’s a little French Edward in us, too. Maybe more than a little. Hannah’s loving craft gets right down to the truth roots of fiction. His loving shapes us as much as his characters.

Even the most vile of Hannah’s characters—Man Mortimer, villain of Hannah’s last novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, for example—desire it, this love, the balm to their poisonous beings. But it is a warped love, deranged, stretched and rubbery over circus tent souls, folk who have no right idea how to get it across, communicate. Levaster’s late-night forays into Central Park, his burning need to confront villainy amidst the trees, the dirt, hearkens back to Southern fiction’s struggle to move from the rural to the urban. Edward’s dangerous play with the crossbow is little different. Love so potent runs the risk of spoiling, curdling like milk left sitting. It’s a journey perilous, the kind defined by the Snopes, by Hazel Motes. Yet unlike Faulkner’s and O’Connor’s characters, the journeys undertaken by Hannah’s characters are not voyages of destruction, pilgrimages of religious catharsis. Theirs are the movements of the loony in love, the moon smoochers who know, the great swaying love made possible through strife. They’re too real for me sometimes. I sit abashed that the man much less his characters might succeed when I often fail to find the words to communicate the pitch of my own combat.

Mostly it’s a warped love because it is not pure. I’m not sure a pure love exists in Southern fiction—it’s the tradition, the Antebellum promise, mythic. It’s present on Levaster despite his many shortcomings, his dark needs, and it’s certainly present on French Edward though the book might easily have treated him as nothing more than a buffoon. Yet he is held up to us, a model of sorts, not only in body but in simplicity of purpose and at times of generous feelings of the heart, a battery of good feelings. Both Edward and Levaster love and are loved by the author, by us. That was Hannah’s plan all along. He served it up, made sure we had our fill, and didn’t leave us wanting.

How about that? Hannah loves his readers as much as his characters.

Three days later my friend returned, book in hand. She told me she’d devoured it, wanted to know what she ought to next read. I was pleased, informed her that a strong dislike or even slight impartiality would have been grounds for immediate dissolution of the friendship. Just about meant it, too. That good love Hannah teaches, it’s not always easy to locate, nurture. I think that’s the point. We got to fight it out the way Baby Levaster and French Edward fought it out, got to get in the dirt and roll around to know what it is we’re mucking up with our ungainly wants, our bad habits. We chew our nails, we spit. We’re bad all through.

Guest Post, David Huddle: The Nine Strengths

David HuddleThe Nine Strengths: What a Story-Writer Possesses that He or She May Not Realize as Even Greater Strengths in Novel-Writing

You got to know that you know what you know.

–Michael Casey

“The Company Proficiency Test Average”

Obscenities

Beginning fiction-writers usually start with the short story–for the obvious reason that at least on the surface of it, shorter seems easier. But most story-writers also aspire eventually to write novels, and the conventional wisdom is that writing short stories is the apprentice work for writing novels. A stupid way that it’s often phrased is that writing short stories is for children, while writing novels is for grown-ups. However, the occasion of trying to write a novel turns out to be so intimidating for even accomplished story-writers that they can forget to use their most highly developed tools and most valuable habits of creative thinking. Something about all those pages, all those characters, and all that narrative time to be covered can make a would-be novelist panic, forget what he knows, and make unfortunate decisions he’d never make in writing a story.

This was the case with yours truly. I’d published five story collections and a novella before I managed to write a publishable novel. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. In the old computers asleep in my attic two complete novel-manuscripts have found their final resting places. The good news is that recently I’ve written a couple of novels, one of them in three months, the other in six months. Like everything else in writing, this productive phase was mostly just a matter of luck, but I also believe that I’ve finally come into possession of things I knew perfectly well forty years ago. I had the knowledge and the tools all along, but the monster that a novel appeared to be when I was trying to write one scared me out of using my strengths. Instead I tried to rely on my weaknesses–big thinking, abstractions, philosophizing, tricky plot moves, high drama, far-fetched characters, etc. What follows, out of my experience, is a brief discussion of some story-writing tools that I now understand to be even more well-suited for novel-writing than they are for story-writing:

1. A veteran story-writer learns when to leave off, i.e. when to tease, to engage the reader’s imagination by way of omission, to motivate the reader to keep going–in the story or in his or her imagination–in spite of frustration. This applies especially to story endings, but it also applies to sections of stories. Or even to sentences in the middle of a paragraph. E.g., the teasing withholding of how Curt Lemon died in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” makes a reader understand the deep significance of that death to the members of Lemon’s platoon.

2.  A first principle for story-writers–often so much an assumption that the writer him- or herself is no longer conscious of it–is that it is crucial not to be boring. “Leaving out the parts that most people skip” (as Tony Hillerman phrased it) is pretty natural for a short-story writer, but a beginning novelist will often foolishly feel compelled to fill in a lot of blank pages. The novel occasion can persuade one that one must throw everything into the narrative rather than judiciously leaving many things out.

3.  A story-writer often discovers both the pleasure and the narrative effectiveness of withholding something of narrative importance–of simply not overtly revealing a basic fact.  E.g., the narrative of J.D. Salinger’s “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” refuses to say straight out that the woman in bed with the gray-haired man is the wife of the poor fellow who calls the gray-haired man to ask if he knows where his wife is.  Everything in the text points to that being the case, but the absence of a factual assertion infuses the story with ominous possibility and tension. John Irving employs a similar strategy with the death of a beloved child character in The World According to Garp.

4. Because short stories are such a specialized and highly refined literary genre, their practitioners assume that their readers are adults who have little patience for the obvious. Thus, story-writers take pleasure in challenging their readers. People who aren’t serious and skilled readers are not inclined to read contemporary short stories. Those who do read them are literary gourmets. George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, T.C. Boyle, Amy Hempel, and Alice Munro expect their readers to bring background, imagination, a deeply ironic sensibility, and linguistic alertness to the reading occasion. But the high-end readers a story-writer wants are the exactly same readers he wants for the novel he might write if he is lucky.

5. Because the main characters of short stories are almost always “outsiders,” story-writers learn to trust their own strangeness, quirks & kinks, improper thoughts, obsessions, etc. as “the good stuff” of a narrative. This is not traditionally the case with novelists who are most often concerned with mainstream or regular citizens. (In The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor argues that “the short story more than any other genre involves a protagonist who is an outsider and operates on the periphery of society.”) Contemporary novels, however, are more and more inclined to “involve” oddball protagonists. Story-writers rely on the oddball protagonist who lives within them, but all too often they think that weirdo can’t possibly help them write a novel.

6.  You do not become a short story-writer unless you possess a natural inclination to narrow the scope, to rely on a very small picture to bring authority to a big picture–to use mostly detailed accounts of scenes as the stuff of narrative. In fact I’m certain that the little-picture method of composition is the path story-writers take to discover whatever truth their work has to offer. Story-writers become synecdoche specialists. However, when they attempt the longer form, they can lose faith in this sophisticated and long-cultivated talent. My experience has taught me what now seems obvious–that the impulse to focus minutely is of as much value in making novels as it is in story-making.

7. Story-writers become geniuses of narrative transitions–or the writing of transitionless narratives–stories that use white space to represent time-gaps instead of conventional phrasing like “A week later,” or “In the days that followed.” Dead space, or lifeless language, in novels is just as deadly as it is in stories, but the beginning novelist may not think so. By the way, my all-time favorite transitionless moments in fiction occurs in Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back:

…Sara Ruth agreed to take a ride in his truck. Parker parked it on a deserted road and suggested to her that they lie down together in the back of it.

“Not until after we’re married,” she said – just like that.

“Oh that ain’t necessary,” Parker said and as he reached for her, she thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her.

They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous.

8.  After Hemingway, “show, don’t tell,” became the story-writer’s mantra. Contemporary story-writers (most extravagantly and brilliantly, Harold Brodkey), however, have shown the way toward both showing and telling. The show-don’t-tell template, though, never leaves the story-writers’ thinking, whereas it often doesn’t show up at all in the efforts of a beginning novelist. And story-writers making early attempts at novel-writing–because they don’t believe it applies to making narratives ten or fifteen times longer than a short story–are all too often inclined to switch off that useful little interior mantra that never stops whispering “show, don’t tell.” They explicate too much of what they should dramatize. I advocate both telling and showing, but I think I do a better job of telling because my habit is to err on the side of showing.

9.  The dynamic nature of the interior lives of individual human beings is the bread and butter of fiction-writing. The interior life is what fiction brings to art that the other forms either can’t manage at all or else have to try to accomplish in unnatural ways–e.g. voice-over in movies. Both story-writers and novelists understand this perfectly well. What a story-writer brings to the novel-writing occasion is a refined sense of interior-life management. Which is to say that the story-writer is less inclined than the apprentice novelist to indulge a protagonist in pages and pages of soul searching and mental noodling. Naïve novelists can be wildly indulgent when they open up their characters’ thoughts and feelings, whereas story-writers bring speed, agility, and tact to their rendering of their characters’ thoughts and feelings. Novel readers may want more pages, but they also want narratives that intensely engage them from beginning to end. Which is to say that just because they’re reading a novel they’re no more tolerant of literary fooling around than a story reader is. They want what we all want–the dream that is so compelling we don’t want to wake up.

Meet the Review Crew: Jennie Ricks

Each week we will be featuring one of our many talented interns here at Superstition Review.

Jennie Ricks is a Nonfiction Editor at Superstition Review. She is majoring in Literature, Writing, and Film with an emphasis in Creative Writing at ASU. Jennie is currently a senior and will graduate in May 2012. After graduation, Jennie plans to find employment in the editing and publishing fields. She loves to write and will continue working on her novel, fiction, and nonfiction pieces. Jennie’s excited to be a part of Superstition Review and the opportunities it gives her to understand the hands on processes of editing and publishing.

Jennie is an avid reader and is drawn toward a range of works by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Aimee Bender, Flannery O’Connor, and Edgar Allan Poe. She likes stories that are thought provoking and in high school, she read Lord of the Flies, by William Golding which got her hooked on books that pushed her to think and analyze. Jennie has many stories and books she considers favorites. When reading, she wants something that will make her remember the writing or the concept of the work.

There are many hobbies and talents Jennie has incorporated into her life. The first is writing. Jennie prefers fictional pieces, although many of the stories she writes surround nonfiction examples from her own life. She loves to run and has been running since her middle school years. Jennie has run a marathon but prefers training and running in half marathons. She enjoys hiking, golfing, and eating good food.

Originally Jennie started her education in Behavioral Science but put things on hold to get married and have children. Since finding herself a single mom of four kids, she decided to go back to school and finish her education in what she felt most passionate about, reading and writing. She loves the direction her life is taking and the opportunities opening up for her.