Guest Post, Michael Schmeltzer: In Every Word a Wardrobe

Michael SchmeltzerYears ago, a professor in my MFA program asked us to identify the most important word in Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays.” I chose “cold” because it changed from stanza to stanza, from blueblack to splintering to driven out. One word in various garbs, a new form in each line.

From then on I knew within every word there was a wardrobe, and in every wardrobe a dozen outfits. Rejection is no different; it can shift from shirt to suit in the span of a sentence.

~

Form rejections are marked most often by the simple accessory of “unfortunately.” No matter how many layers the response wears, we are quick to pick up that single word. We recognize the form no matter the source.

But unfortunately does not belong solely to the literary realm. For instance, unfortunately, there’s nothing more we can do. Maybe we are with a sick pet at the vet’s office or at home watching a courtroom drama. Maybe we are at an auto shop, the staccato speech of an impact wrench like an alien tongue. One word can waltz from room to room and still belong. One word can cinch around our throats like a belt.

The next time you receive a rejection, pay attention to what it wears. This will tell you where you are, and how devastated you should be.

~

Rejection: to refuse, throw out, rebuff. To fail to accept (as in an organ transplant).

Devastation: the termination of something caused by so much damage it cannot be repaired or no longer exists.

As writers we know rejection. As humans we will know devastation.

~

My friend Merced was born June 11, 1985. She was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis eleven months later. Beginning in 2010 she would need oxygen full time.

In three sentences we travelled twenty five years. Unfortunately, we are unable to travel much further. Look carefully. Do you notice for what occasion “unfortunately” has dressed?

~

On November 1st Merced was listed for a double-lung transplant. On November 7th they found a set and rushed her into surgery. The speed in which they found a match was nothing short of miraculous.

Double-lung transplant. Miracle. Merced. Brightly robed and ethereal, all of them.

~

Rank the rejections in order from least to most devastating:

1) Rejection: literary.

2) Rejection: form.

3) Rejection: acute.

If you acknowledge either of the first two as devastating, you have already failed.

~

Periodically an article will come out showcasing famous authors who were rejected: Stein to Orwell, Faulkner to L’Engle. Plath. Le Guin. Nabokov. We are meant to identify with the rejected, and at the same time find encouragement.

There are articles on ways to cope with rejection. There is even a website devoted to helping writers “persevere through rejection.” And yet I am sure none of these (a)dress it correctly. In truth, most rejections dress the way children do on Halloween: silly villains and cartoon monsters. So many writers jumping at shadows.

~

If you’ve been devastated by a form rejection, you are using the word devastated incorrectly.

If you’ve been devastated by the body, yours or another, then I am with you. I grieve.

~

June 11, 1985 – October 11, 2011

~

Dear Merced,

How are you? I always like to imagine you are well and taken care of. Tell me this is so and my world would be a little brighter.

*

I love you guys and hope I will be able to visit you again!

Love always,
Merced

~

After I heard the news, nothing matched or made sense. The form rejections kept coming, a blur of boring costumes. Unfortunately, sorry to inform you, we regret, we’re going to pass.

Pass as in throw, as in so much of life is out of our hands. Pass which immediately becomes passed. And now all of it past, irretrievable. Sorry to say it’s not the right fit. Like receiving gifts from an acquaintance, everything was the wrong size.

~

Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:

I, with no rights in this matter,

Neither father nor lover.

– from “Elegy for Jane” by Theodore Roethke

I too was neither father nor lover so where are my rights in this matter? To be honest, I am not exactly sure but I have read repeatedly all sorrows can be borne if you make them into a story; here is mine about the one rejection with a veil over its face.

But today there is a stretch of sky like blue fabric unrolled, the sun like the crash of a cymbal, loud and absolute in its understanding of light. For a moment all I want is to tailor words with the proper attire. I want to match the heat of this world.

Sky, sun, fire. Language and radiance. It is enough to remind me what most rejections look like. Small things, really, naked and harmless.

About Shipwrights

ShipwrightsShipwrights is the online magazine of decentered English: a review of new writing from beyond the Anglosphere. The magazine’s goal is to publish the best new short fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction coming out of the global second- and foreign-language English writing communities.

Since the combined number of speakers in these groups now triples that of native English speakers (1.2 billion to 375 million respectively), the number of decentered authors is also staggering.

Shipwrights hopes to be a showcase for the best of these writers. Because it is geographically located in Sweden, at Malmö University, Shipwrights also features work by Anglophone expatriate writers living in Scandinavia.

Shipwrights is home to the Conrad-Nabokov Prize, awarded every other issue to the most promising second- or foreign-language writer who submits work.

Detailed instructions on how to submit work can be found at Submission Guidelines.

Shipwrights is published online at the beginning of each calendar year and can be found here.

Imaginative Skeptics

Ian McEwanAuthor Ian McEwan recently visited ASU for a lecture in partnership with the ASU Origins Project and the Center for Science and the Imagination. At this co-sponsored event, Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Sweet Tooth and winner of the Man Booker Prize, and Lawrence Krauss, cosmologist and theoretical physicist at ASU, discussed doubt and skepticism in relationship to writing, as well as the interplay between science and literature.

The first question posed to McEwan and Krauss contained the overarching theme of the discussion: what is doubt and skepticism and how is it approached in writing both fiction and nonfiction?

McEwan began by defining doubt as “someone hesitating before a problem or outcome…pausing before a moral choice.”  He explained that the novel is a secular form which is invested in individuals and is at the heart of doubt and skepticism. Using Hamlet as the quintessential example of a self-examining and moralizing character embodied by doubt, McEwan described literature as reflective of the relation between consciousness and doubt in examining human actions and motives.

In reply, Krauss examined uncertainty in nonfiction, the scientific version of doubt. According to Krauss, uncertainty quantifies science because it imparts a worth on scientific discovery and establishes a value of correctness or probability. Although uncertainty is valuable to science, Krauss discussed how in writing scientific articles, his copy editor eliminates uncertainty and ambiguity even though “there is no absolute truth in science…it’s either very very very likely or very very very unlikely or in between.”  While uncertainty is crucial to scientific discovery, he explained that the human condition does not allow for doubt in something we like to accept as pure fact and truth.

In discussing the place of the scientific account in the narrative spectrum, McEwan commented that “science invades the territory of land held by the novel.” He explained that as science progresses, it seeks to quantify how we as humans make our choices. Understanding human action, as defined by science, forces the novel into a position of doubt as it must change its set of approaches in human emotional analysis. The novel, McEwan argued, is in a position of vague threat due to the increasing advancements of science because “if [science] changes the novel, it will change everyday lives.”

The moderator asked both lecturers to discuss how each conveys skepticism and doubt in a narrative. McEwan characterized his approach as a bottom-up–not a top-down–matter. In paraphrasing a 1953 lecture by Nabokov, McEwan said that one’s job as an author is to find the details; what a novelist has to do is build a world where skepticism is possible.

In contrast, Krauss’s approach to skepticism in nonfiction is a top-down approach, which to him is the best tool a scientist can use. For Krauss, skepticism is best utilized by conveying shock to the reader because “the easiest person to fool is yourself.” By getting someone to make the discovery that what they believe is wrong, it opens up the possibility that everything else could be wrong and leads to a questioning everything.  Krauss argued that it is vitally important for a scientist to be brutally honest as “little accidents can have a profound impact.”

In their examination of doubt and skepticism, McEwan and Krauss spent a substantial amount of time examining the vitality of the novel and writing. Writing doubt takes different forms in each genre, and as science alters humans’ understanding, fiction writing will alter as well in a continued attempt to clarify the human condition. This intimate discussion between two prominent masters of their field stirred a thought-provoking lecture in the exploration of how these two fields affect and alter one another.

Guest Blog Post, Dinah Lenney: On Finding a Palette In Just the Right Key

Dinah LenneyA confession: I am—in the car, for instance, or on my stationery bike—likely to listen to oldies stations; what’s more, I’m inclined to sing along, and not very well (pity my husband and children), with the likes of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bonnie Raitt, and the Doobie Brothers. Also Paul Simon. Also Etta. And Chaka. And Mel Tormé. In this way, I’m starring in my-life-the-musical, and it’s mostly a comedy, mostly a slice of domestic pie. Not that a good song can’t make me teary (“Try a Little Tenderness”), but I’m scoring the ordinary here: trips back and forth to campus, to Trader Joe’s, to the post office, to the dry cleaner; or a cycling break between folding the laundry and starting dinner. I mean to say it’s only every so often that I’m after something loftier—not for lofty reasons, mind you—it’s when my soul is roughed up in one way or another, and lyrics won’t do: rather, they distract or annoy—they get in the way and that’s when I opt for the local classical station, KUSC.

So—all that preamble—the point is, you know Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”? Of course you do, I promise you do—I’m not putting on airs, really not: it’s not like I knew what I was hearing when it came on Pandora a few weeks back—me pedaling away, not in the mood for words, tuned into Vivaldi Radio therefore (which is one of my stations). I had to shift in my seat to see my computer screen on the floor beside me, to put a name to the music that was turning me inside out—the real me, exposed and on display—those strings (violins, violas, cellos) pulling me along, and up and up. The stakes started high and they just kept rising—taking me to the edge of something important, some recognition, precious and momentous (and sad), unnameable and inevitable—
and here’s what I wound up asking myself: Who wouldn’t want to write something like that? Who wouldn’t want to make that happen on the page, with prose?

See, used to be, I had this idea that writers could do for painters and musicians what neither could do for us. As if writing had something on the other arts—

writing as descriptive—writers straining to describe, getting as close as we can, every once in a while managing to pin the thing down, whatever it is; although, more often than not, as soon as the moment is writ, it’s lost to us, isn’t it? Whereas music and fine art, I suddenly realized, inform the moment over and over—are the moment, in fact—the moment we writers can only approximate. Music and art don’t aspire to sentences and paragraphs—don’t concern themselves with the ekphrastic, for instance; describing art is a writerly preoccupation, whereas painting and music, I decided, have a better shot at the real deal. O woe.

This discovery, when it happened, had something to do with the Adagio, sure, and everything to do with my own frustration; my inability to put this life to words—my longing for colors just outside my imagination, and the ability to diminish or augment a phrase (like a chord), and so fill it with hope, or sorrow, or joy (or all three at once).

Here I’d been lording it over the others—those other disciplines—as if they don’t generally transcend my own efforts. Now I realized—now I considered: What is Chagall’s “The Birthday” if not a poem; and Hopper’s “Nighthawks” tells so many stories; “Christina’s World” by Wyeth feels like memoir, doesn’t it?; and what about De Kooning’s “Self Portrait with Imaginary Brother,” what is that—some wonderful blurring of genres there, right? And with music: consider Ravel’s “Pavane on the Death of a Child”; “The Poet’s Heart” by Grieg; what about Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”—I’m going to do better? I’m going to describe to you how Beethoven contains the moon in the sky? As if he needs me to translate; as if, having heard his sonata, I have anything new and worthy to say about the light of the moon. Deeper I plunged into my funk.

But then. A few days after my brush with Barber, on my way to the market, still tuned intoVan Gogh's Mulberry Tree classical, I heard Erik Satie: “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear.” A composer—a pianist—with still life on his mind. And a few weeks after that, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, I found myself rooted for a very long time in front of van Gogh’s “The Mulberry Tree,” in which he intended for the brushstrokes to be “firm and interwoven with feelings like a piece of music played with emotion.”

Turns out, we’re all on the same team, right? All rooting for art in the broadest sense, all wanting and willing to beg, borrow, and steal from nature and each other, since, so wrote Nabokov, “Both [are] a form of magic, both [are] a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”

And so. I’m back at it—back to work, I mean. Determined to compose an essay in Bb for piano and bass: it will maybe feature a piccolo; cymbals, too, perhaps, I’m not certain just yet. I will paint with a palette of blues and greens not found in nature—or only found in nature: that would be something, wouldn’t it? The canvas will have texture; and the song will take my reader right to the edge; and he’ll want to cry out —to get as close as he can and reach into the frame and touch…

Guest Blog Post, Darrin Doyle: What’s Not to Like?

Darrin DoyleOne of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.”  The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”

When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”

Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.

In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.

In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.

The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!

Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?

The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.

So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.

I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.

Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.

But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.

Guest Blog Post, Rikki Lux: New Superstition Review Goodreads Account

GoodreadsAs an English Literature major, I’ve studied Hemingway, Nabokov, Bronte, Chaucer, Shakespeare…and the list goes on. There’s something all of these writers have in common: they aren’t living. Their voices are frozen in the past.

Can you think of any living authors that you love to read? There was a time when I couldn’t list many. On the Superstition Review intern application, our editor Patricia Murphy asks for three of your favorite living authors. When I saw that I thought, “Living? Why? All the good ones are dead!” Looking back, I can’t believe all of the authors I was missing out on reading. If you browse through the contemporary authors in Superstition Review’s Goodreads bookshelves, you’ll see these authors are writing lots of books and they are all a part of a thriving literary community. If only we would put down Faulkner, Fitzgerald, or Frost, pick up one of their books, and join the conversation. When I began to use Goodreads, the social networking site for readers, I found that Margaret Atwood, along with some of my other favorite authors, has an account there as well.

Contemporary authors are not only writing books: they’re tweeting, collaborating with a publisher on a Q & A session, or speaking to college students. Simon J. Ortiz is speaking to my Literature of Immigration and Diaspora class this semester. Michael Ondaatje came to ASU’s Tempe campus to hold a public discussion. Margaret Atwood is an activist of environmental preservation in Canada, and she uses Twitter and Goodreads to connect with her fans and promote environmental awareness. Alice Munro is the literary voice of the Canadian middle class – she is referred to as “the Canadian Chekhov” – and her new collection of stories was just published. Dickens or Dickinson can’t fulfill that kind of presence.

When I joined Twitter, I was delighted by the presence of authors, literary magazines, and book presses. It was like browsing through a virtual bookstore: I followed Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Anne Lamott, Sherman Alexie, Roxane Gay…and that’s just the writers. Almost every university literary review is on Twitter, plus Tin House, Willow Springs, McSweeney’s, and The Paris Review. I followed The Penguin Press, Red Hen Press, Random House, and Graywolf Press. Authors, magazines, and presses are tweeting like they aren’t worried about censoring themselves or fulfilling an image of distant formality. They talk; their followers talk back.

Every time the little blue mark pops up on the bottom of my Twitter feed, it means I have connected with someone. One time, that blue mark appeared because Margaret Atwood had retweeted my tweet. It was incredible – an accomplished, famous writer who has over 300,000 Twitter followers took the time to retweet my tweet. I took a screenshot of my tweet on her profile, uploaded it to Instagram, and updated my Facebook status (it read: One of my tweets was retweeted by Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite authors. No big deal…just kidding, it is!). In my 15 minutes of Twitter fame (at least, it felt like fame to be on Margaret Atwood’s profile for, literally, 15 minutes before I was lost in her sea of tweets) I experienced how literary culture powered by social media makes writers and literary organizations accessible.

One of my projects this semester was to add to our SR Goodreads bookshelves all of the books by SR Contributors from all of our nine issues. I created bookshelves that hold fiction, nonfiction, and poetry written by Superstition Review contributors. With nine issues of Superstition Review released to date, the number of books quickly rose to well over 1,000. I became better acquainted with so many contemporary authors.

Some Superstition Review contributors have a vast list of published works, such as Sherman Alexie, T.C. Boyle, Adrian C. Louis, and Madison Smartt Bell. Other contributors have a smaller list of works on Goodreads, but their readership is growing as they use Goodreads and other social networking sites to create an online presence. The SR Goodreads account is a great way to follow their careers.

As I worked on a Goodreads project for Superstition Review, I noticed that literary magazines and presses are also using Goodreads, like other social networking sites, to extend their online presence. Goodreads’ target audience is passionate readers, so the site can be used to showcase works that magazines and presses have published while making connections with readers and other literary organizations.

Willow Springs and Featherproof Books have bookshelves titled “we published it,” The Paris Review has their blog connected to their Goodreads account, and Superstition Review includes all of their various social networking links on their Goodreads profile. The Goodreads literary community shares the goal of extending readership of their magazine, blog, and the authors they have published, while increasing traffic to their other social networking sites.

With the emergence of Goodreads, the options for following and connecting with authors, literary magazines, and presses is vast. Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, and Goodreads are all channels of communication within the literary community: which do you prefer and how do you use them?

You can visit our social networks here:

Blog: http://superstitionreview.asu.edu/blog/
Facebook: http://facebook.com/superstitionreview
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/SuperstitionRev
Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/0/111992497499045277021
iTunes U: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/superstition-review/id552593273
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Superstition-Review-4195480
Tumblr: http://superstitionrev.tumblr.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/SuperstitionRev

Desert Cred: Sleeping with Books

Concept by Christine Truong, Cartoon by boyfriend Jack Conway. Inspired by these comments on SR‘s Facebook page:

Caitlin Demo I trip over books all the time. I never have enough room for them all. Generally, my bed is 83% devoted to book storage and 17% devoted to sleeping….
February 16 at 1:45pm

Christine Truong I’m going to draw a cartoon of books sleeping on a bed, and a person sleeping trying to sleep on a book shelf.
Friday at 9:42am