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!
Good afternoon, readers! We are absolutely thrilled to announce that Amanda Eyre Ward, a contributor featured in the Interview Section of our 7th issue, has a new novel available for preorder, titled “The Nearness of You,” which will be put out from the good people at Ballantine Books, an imprint of the literary titan Random House. Jodi Picoult calls the book “Wrenching, honest, painstakingly researched.,” while People Magazine calls “The Nearness of You” “Deeply affecting.” Ward has created a braiding of perspectives that offer the reader a number of intertwining narratives, all centered around the story of a family in its formation, meditating on ideas of motherhood, love, relationships, and what it means to be a family in this day and age. Don’t wait another moment to go out and preorder yourself a copy of Amanda Eyre Ward’s transformative new novel, “The Nearness of You.”
Hey there, campers! Have you found yourself wandering the dark recesses of your streaming video service of choice, looking for something to watch and coming up short every time? All caught up on Breaking Thrones and Boardwalks & Recreation? Perfect, then we’ve got something you’re going to want to watch; Superstition Review contributors David Shields and Caleb Powell co-wrote a book called “I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel,” which has been turned in to a feature-length film, directed by none other than the proverbial Renaissance Man himself, James Franco. Here’s the trailer:
“I Think You’re Totally Wrong” is currently available in select cities across the U.S.A., but we here Superstition Review got our hands on an advance copy of the film, so we can tell you with some authority: it’s good. The film combines the simmering tension and wit of two writers at the height of their argumentative powers, with the all the introspection and sincerity that one finds in conversations with their closest friends. Shields and Powell muse on the what it means to be engaged with a life well-lived and how that relates to craft and creation, the responsibilities of an artist with respect to honesty and vulnerability, and whether or not it’s possible, or even advisable, to stay out of trouble while being an artist. Raw, funny, and tender as all-get-out, this one is a “must-watch” for anyone who has ever found themselves wondering about the importance of art as it relates to the life of an artist, and conversely, what is the importance of the life of an artist as it relates to an artist’s life.
Covered by everybody from Elle Magazine to the Boston Globe, “I Think You’re Totally Wrong” is by any metric, a burgeoning critical hit. Do yourself the immense kindness of finding a screening near you (details can be found here), and as always, drop us a line in the comments section below.
The “Man In A Room Alone” Problem (And How to Solve It)
All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.— from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées
Writing teachers often tell students that it’s Death To Your Story to place “a man in a room alone.” Is this good advice, or, like “Show. Don’t tell,1” advice that is applied far more often than is warranted? Let’s look at the pros and cons.
Mrs. Dalloway and the Ticking Clock
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway time moves millisecond by millisecond while Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts flit from flowers to passersby to memories to the meaning of life. Many scenes in this literary novel have no dramatic action and no other characters or events to bump the protagonist off course. However, the author’s goal was not to write a page-turner. Woolf’s project as a writer was to capture the ephemeral moments of time.
Laying her brooch on the table, she had a sudden spasm, as if, while she mused, the icy claws had had the chance to fix in her. She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July, August! Each still remained almost whole, and, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there— the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings, seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself.2
Clarissa Dalloway is doing what Pascal says is nearly impossible. She sits—and forces us to sit—within the glass bell jar of her own thoughts. The novel is both wonderful and (for many of today’s readers) incredibly slow. We’re stuck in nondramatic scenes where there’s little overt conflict. Characters rarely strive to reach a goal.
The Man In Bed (Alone)
No man is more alone—and no scene less dramatic—than one with a character awakening from sleep. One of my favorite novels— Paul Bowles’s Sheltering Sky— opens with a man in a room alone.
He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had come. If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire.
If it’s truly a no-no to place a man in a room alone, how could I have read that novel and taken any pleasure from it? I’m not talking the movie version with John Malkovich, but the actual book from which the movie sprang.
But wait! Bowles’s 1949 novel about alienation and despair isn’t the only novel opening with a touseled-haired protagonist.
A Woman In Bed (Alone)
The High Road, by Irish writer Edna O’Brien begins with woman in a room alone in bed:
It rose, swelled, then burst and dispersed in a great clatter of sound. First it seemed to be a roar inside my head, a remembered roar, a remembered summons, but then through the warmth of sleep it became clear that it was a roar being uttered at that very moment, either in the room or on the landing outside. I thought I heard my name—Anna, Anna—being uttered with malice.
My hand went instinctively toward the bedside table only to find that there was no lamp, nor table where a lamp could be, and then slowly and unnervingly it came to me that I was not at home, that I had come to this place, this new place, and gradually I remembered my walk of the evening before, the strange town, a mountain, and now this intemperate roar while it was still dark.
Not only is this gal alone. She can barely remember how she got there.
An Epidemic of Amnesia
Walk down a bookstore’s aisles. Open novels at random. A good many (about an eighth by my count) begin with a character emerging from sleep. Not only that, but a frightening number of fictional characters have amnesia. I mean, really, how many people have you ever known who’ve had amnesia? None, I daresay.
Why do authors begin their novels this way? Two reasons:
- It’s efficient.
- We’re overly fascinated with our characters.
Let’s look at efficiency. When a book opens with only one character, readers have only one name to learn. The author can get the story rolling without the distraction of other characters and without over-much attention to setting. The reader watches the character’s teeth-brushing, hair-combing and staring-at-a-face-in-the-mirror. (That, too, has turned into a cliché.) Essentially, the author has one ball to juggle, not three or four.
But I think there’s another reason authors open with characters getting out of bed. Very likely we authors got to know our characters by yanking back the sheets and saying, “Wake up! Time to get moving.” Like nutmeg on cappuccino, we sprinkle on amnesia. It’s purpose? To add tension.
An author who kicks off a novel with a character in a room alone, or who writes scenes such as those in Mrs. Dalloway, risks losing the reader to boredom. (Sorry, Virginia Woolf.) Adding amnesia doesn’t help. Readers think, “I’ve read this before.”
Coming Up With A Plan
Once in a while, having a character in a room alone is exactly what the story demands. Just as in real life, fictional people need to make plans. Often they start planning right after an action scene, particularly if what they’d been planning before has failed.
In Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a novel about shell-shocked World War I vets, Dr. Rivers is desperately trying to figure out a strategy to fix soldiers’ psyches and return them to the battlefield. In this passage, he’s in his office considering what kinds of treatments might work best:
The change he demanded of them—and by implication of himself—was not trivial. Fear, tenderness—these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of what it meant to be a man. Not that Rivers’s treatment involved any encouragement of weakness or effeminacy. His patients might be encouraged to acknowledge their fears, their horror of the war—but they were still expected to do their duty and return to France.
After running through the difficulties of achieving his objectives, he comes up with a plan to try a new set of experiments. These involve “ice cubes, bristles, near-boiling water and pins.” If the reader hadn’t spent time with Rivers in a room alone, his new plan to try these experiments would strike us as cruel. Instead, when we witness his thought process, we understand that the experiments make ghastly good sense.
Calming Down and Processing
In the same novel the soldier/poet Sassoon has seen ghosts. He needs to process what he’s seen, and weighs the likelihood that Rivers will believe him or write him up as crazy.
The palms of his hands were sweating and his mouth was dry.
He needed to talk to Rivers, though he’d have to be careful what he said, since Rivers was a thorough-going rationalist who wouldn’t take kindly to tales of the supernatural, and might even decide the symptoms of a war neurosis were manifesting themselves at last. Perhaps they were.
Sasson goes to find Rivers, but an orderly tells him Rivers isn’t there and won’t return for three weeks. Sassoon, a man who ought to be talking to someone, faces this setback and must come up with a new plan. Again, he keeps his own counsel and makes his decision when he’s by himself.
Sasson went slowly upstairs, unable to account for his sense of loss. After all, he’d known Rivers was going…Sassoon collected his washbag and went along to the bathroom. He felt almost dazed. As usual he turned to lock the door, and as usual remembered there were no locks. At times like this the lack of privacy was almost intolerable. He filled the basin, and splashed his face and neck. Birds, sounding a little stunned as if they too needed to recover from the night, were beginning, cautiously, to sing.
As in real life, characters in fiction must let their feelings surface. It’s only when they’re alone—after the crisis has passed—that they can regain their equilibrium.
When characters have gone through an ordeal and we’ve seen that ordeal dramatized in real time, we should push them into a room alone. That’s when they can let their feelings surface, process what just happened, and plan what to do next.
Scene and Summary
Writers who want to capture a reader’s attention would do well to avoid the cliché of having an amnesiac character or one awakening from sleep. Similarly, if you write lengthy, nondramatic scenes with solitary characters, readers may lose interest. In summaries the opposite is true. Readers want to see how characters react and how they’re going to cope with what just happened.
Pascal was right about humankind’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. We can take it, but only when we’re not forced to sit for too long. Passages of soul-searching and rumination are better handled in narrative summary than in scene.
- “Show” refers to scenes. The action slows down and the clock ticks in real time. “Tell” refers to summary passages. These are also called narrative or expository passages. It means that the story is crunching events that take place over minutes, hours, or days into a compact ball. Summary passages don’t try to simulate real time.
- Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway: (Annotated) (Kindle Locations 492-497). Unknown. Kindle Edition.
The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU is proud to offer four creative writing classes through the Piper Writers Studio. Classes are taught by acclaimed and award-winning writers from the community, and cover topics such as first-draft novel writing, novel revisions, persona poetry, and creative non-fiction.
The faculty for the Fall 2016 session of the Piper Writers Studio are:
- Michael A Stackpole, a New York Times best-selling author known for his extensive fantasy and science fiction work in the Stars Wars, Conan, and World of Warcraft universes. Stackpole will be teaching Winning NaNoWriMo Tuesdays, October 4 – 25, 2016 from 6 – 8 p.m.
- Carol Test, an award-winning short-story writer and former editor in chief of the Sonora Review who has taught workshops for the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, Phoenix College, and Mesa Community College. Test will be teaching Remodel Your Novel: Five Key Scenes for Fiction Writers Wednesdays, October 5 – 26, 2016 from 6 – 8 p.m.
- Marshall Terrill, veteran film, sports, music, history and popular culture writer with over 20 books to his credit, including bestselling biographies of Steve McQueen, Elvis Presley, and Pete Maravich. Terrill will be teaching Beyond the Facts: Writing Compelling Non-fiction Wednesdays, October 5 – 26, 2016 from 6 – 8 p.m.
- Lois Roma-Deeley, an author with three collections of poetry and numerous publications in anthologies in journals who founded the creative writing program at Paradise Valley Community College and received an Artist Research and Development Grant from the Arizona State Commission on the Arts in 2016. Roma-Deeley will be teaching Another Voice: Creating Memorable Poetic Personas Saturday, October 22, 2016 from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Classes are open to individuals of all backgrounds, skill levels, and experiences, and are designed to fit around the schedules of working adults (taking place weekday evenings or weekend afternoons). Most classes are held at the Piper Writers House, the historic President’s Cottage on the ASU Tempe Campus. Class sizes range between 8 and 12 students in order to ensure an intimate, individualized educational experience, and start at $75 (with discounts for individuals who are members of the Piper Circle of Friends). Classes can also qualify for professional development credit with the Arizona Department of Education. Individuals can register for classes through the Piper Center’s website until Monday, October 3rd, 2016.
For more information, please visit the Piper Center’s website at http://piper.asu.edu/programs/piper-writers-studio/current-courses.
Garth Risk Hallberg will be visiting Changing Hands Phoenix with his debut novel, City on Fire. The event is co-presented by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU. The New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Vogue, Newsday, The Atlantic, and others named City on Fire the Best Book of the Year.
The event takes place on Wednesday, September 21st at 7 PM – 9 PM. For more information about the event, please visit the Facebook page or the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing page.
The author was born in Louisiana and grew up in North Carolina. His writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The New York Times, Best New American Voices 2008, and The Millions; a novella, A Field Guide to the North American Family, was published in 2007. He lives in New York with his wife and children.
It occurred to me recently, not for the first time, that my swimming reminds me of my writing process. I’m a lap swimmer in a community pool. I swim very long distances. My pool is not part of a fancy gym. The locker room is way too small. Sometimes it’s as crowded in there as a subway at rush hour. There’s a grungy gang shower too, with cracks in the tile and some broken fixtures. Hot water is more a hope than a reality. You have to bring your own towel to this place and last week someone pried open my combination lock and stole the money from my wallet while I was doing my laps. I was grateful they left the wallet though, and figured maybe they needed the $22 more than I did. Actually, I love this gym and I love the pool, which, unlike the locker room, is clean and well-maintained. The lifeguards are friendly. Now, writing has its challenges too. Sometimes the water isn’t hot and the fixtures are broken. And the most obvious comparison between the two is that lap swimming is this solitary effort, where you literally throw yourself into the deep end and just take off. Most writers understand that part. Personally, I’m not the flashiest swimmer or the fastest. My technique isn’t the prettiest either, but I do keep at it. That’s like my writing. And like writing, the benefits of swimming work best when you stick to a regular schedule or routine. You increase your stamina over time. Writing a short story is like a long swim for me. It’s tough to get started sometimes. You can struggle at first. You flail away. And then you eventually find a rhythm and you pace yourself. You don’t stop. You try not to lose steam before the finish. (If writing a short story is like a long swim for me, then working on my unpublished novel was more like running a marathon at a high altitude – but that’s another topic entirely.) I don’t think of lap swimming as only a metaphor. It has become part of my writing process too. Sometimes a swim will clear my head and get me back into a space where I can work. But I’ve also tackled plot problems, created back stories for characters and tried out dialogue as I thrash around in the pool, sometimes losing count of my laps as a result. I’m grateful for my time in the water and for my time at the computer too, when things come together and I have enough momentum to carry me through. I think my writing and lap swimming have become somewhat linked in my mind, the endurance part anyway, the personal challenge, the dogged persistence. As with anything, it comes down to commitment — that happy dedication to something that will eventually become part of who you really are, at any moment, on any particular day.