Contributor Update: Alison Hawthorne Deming

Hello everybody! Today, we here at Superstition Review are thrilled to announce that past contributor Alison Hawthorne Deming, who read for us back in April of 2011, has just been named Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona, by the Arizona Board of Regents. To be named a Regents’ Professor is the highest honor that can be bestowed on a faculty member in the university system, and we can think of none more deserving than Alison Hawthorne Deming. You can read the full press release here, and if you’re interested in Alison’s work, check out her most recent publications: a new book of poetry titled”Stairway to Heaven,” out now from Penguin (found here), and her collaboration with photographer Stephen Strom, titled “Death Valley: Painted Light” (found here). Congratulations to Alison and the University of Arizona!

Congratulations!

Past contributor for Superstition Review and newly named Regents’ Professor Alison Hawthorne Deming.

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.

 

Authors Talk: Meghan McClure and Michael Schmeltzer

Meghan McClureToday we are pleased to feature authors Meghan McClure and Michael Schmeltzer as our Authors Talk series contributors. Meghan and Michael were brought together when they both had poems published in Issue 6; more recently, they collaborated on a work of creative nonfiction, A Single Throat Opens, which releases in June.

Michael Schmeltzer

In their podcast, the pair says that the best advice they can give to a writer who wants to improve their writing is to read. Meghan says, “I think that writers and just people in general should read widely until you want to read deeply.” Michael echoes this and adds, “Read what interests you, first and foremost.” Meghan and Michael then delve into book recommendations; not only are these books that they love, but they are books that they believe will help writers better their own craft. For example, they offer recommendations that will teach you how to be observant, how to look at family in a different way, how to read and write through the lens of obsession, how to put together a linked collection, and more!

You can access Meghan’s pieces in Issue 6 and Issue 18 of Superstition Review, and you can access Michael’s pieces in Issue 6 and Issue 10. You can also preorder A Single Throat Opens here.

Contributor Update: Victor Lodato Waxes Romantic In The Times

Hey there dear readers! Superstition Review is back after a brief hiatus with more good news: past contributor Victor Lodato’s essay “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship” has been published in The New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column. Lodato was featured in our Interview section of Issue 8 in an interview conducted by former intern Marie Lazaro. In addition to being a recipient of the PEN Center USA Award for fiction, Victor Lodato has also been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Institute as well as the National Endowment for the Arts.  His latest novel, “Edgar and Lucy” is out now from Macmillan, and can be found both online as well as at most major bookstores. Do yourself a favor and check out the essay here, and buy one (or two, or seven) copies of “Edgar and Lucy” here. Congratulations Victor, we couldn’t be happier to know you!

Read the essay and buy the book!

Victor Lodato, author of “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship” and “Edgar and Lucy.”

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.

Editorial Preferences in Nonfiction: Sophie Graham

When I read I want to be surprised- I want to see something new in the story that I have never seen before. I find myself drawn to more modern writing styles, the riskier and the more artful the better. How the author uses words to describe places, things, people, ideas or feelings is critical. Without art and skill in how a writer describes the concepts of the story, the writing falls flat as I am unable to really imagine what the writer is trying to describe and I can’t engage in the text. The writer should use words in a style unlike what I normally see, so the piece is entirely unique. The idea behind the words should be just as creative and original as the words themselves- I want to be lead to reflect on the piece long after I have finished reading. Presenting some new question, idea, or experience for me to read about always gets my attention.

In nonfiction, the author reigns supreme. You’re the main character of your own story in nonfiction, and it revolves around you. When I read a nonfiction piece, I want as much information and detail about the author as possible from every sense. The more detail and description the author gives in a story the more able I am to fully reflect on the story they just told me. The descriptions should not only be affective and creative- but artful, almost poetic. The more beautiful a piece is to read, and the longer I find myself thinking about it after I finish it, the better I judge the piece to be.

Bio:

Headshot for Sophie Graham

Sophie Graham, Nonfiction Editor for Superstition Review

Sophie Graham is a junior at Arizona State University double majoring in English Literature and Sociology, and minoring in Geography. She is currently the Nonfiction Editor for Superstition Review. She is also a Writing Tutor at the ASU Tutoring Center. Upon Graduation, she plans to pursue her interests in social work and education.

Guest Post, Mimi Schwartz: The Ethics of Writing True

Mimi Schwartz bio pictureWhat do I owe the people I write about? This concern is ongoing, whether I’m writing about family as in my marriage memoir, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, or about strangers I meet, as in Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s German Village.

Actually, I’m sometimes more concerned for strangers than for those I live with every day. Family can get mad at me. They can challenge my sense of truth. They can sue to keep me honest. Fortunately, none have—partly because, except for my sister, they are reasonable if I am reasonable; partly because I keep two caveats in my head while writing. One is Annie Dillard’s advice: “Writing memoir is an art, but not a martial art!” The other is from Kim Barnes after she discovered that, despite their battle scenes, her father, much to her surprise, liked her memoir In the Wilderness:

One thing that we always assume, wrongly, is that if we write about people honestly they will resent it and become angry. If you come at it for the right reasons and you treat people as you would your fictional characters—you know, you don’t allow them to be static—if you treat them with complexity and compassion, sometimes they will feel as though they’ve been honored, not because they’re presented in some ideal way but because they’re presented with understanding.

Both authors’ advice, however, was not enough help in the kitchens and living rooms of the Christians and Jews I met and interviewed about my father’s German village. Everyone was gracious; many served me homemade linzertorte. But unlike my family, I knew very little about them, and so had no context for processing what they were telling me about their memories and lives. Plus I had a built-in bias: these were Germans and I was Jewish, a child born in the US to parents who fled their country in the 1930s, so when they said, “Everyone got along before Hitler,” my struggles with fairness became part of the story. Finally, they were old people, unsophisticated, who thought I was only gathering the objective facts of their lives. And no matter how often I tried to explain narrative nonfiction, they did not understand that I was going to recreate them fully on the page, as I experienced what they said, thought, and did before, during, and after Nazi times.

One big question: Do I use real names? I had their written permission so I could—but should I? These people, as it turned out, were neither heroes nor villains, so were names ethically necessary or a bad idea? With my family, I had no choice; my husband Stu was my husband Stu. But in Good Neighbors, Bad Times, I could follow the tradition of other writers of nonfiction books about small villages—and use pseudonyms.

In the end, like Carlo Levi’s Christ Stops at Eboli and Lawrence Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse, I changed names. First, it universalized the story so people in other German villages couldn’t let themselves off the hook, saying, “Oh, that was X. We are Y.” Just like if you write “an Ivy League school,” Harvard can’t say, “Oh, that’s Princeton, not us!”  Second, and most important, the names were not essential to my story. Whether the postman was Herr Stolle or Herr Stoner had no consequence; he is still the young man in Hitler’s army who spent his retirement years researching the history of the village Jews.  His life is complicated, and as Kim Barnes advises, my challenge was to honor that complexity.

Since then, when I write nonfiction, I’m comfortable with this rule of thumb:  If people are neither famous nor infamous, they deserve privacy whenever possible. At the very least, they should not be hurt or embarrassed without good reason. I always let the reader know: sometimes with initials; sometimes with a “Let’s call her….” ‘ sometimes with a footnote, such as, “I’ve changed the name and some identifying details to honor requests for individual privacy.”

This rule has served me well. Friends continue meet for lunch, strangers still offer me linzertorte or the equivalent, and I feel I am writing true.