Contributor Update: “I Think You’re Totally Wrong” Is Totally Brilliant

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.

Read this book! See this movie!

Cover for the print version of “I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel”

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.

Guest Post, Marylee MacDonald: The Man in a Room Alone

The “Man In A Room Alone” Problem (And How to Solve It)

Marylee MacDonald bio pictureAll 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. 

Authorial Choices

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.

  1. “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.
  2. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway: (Annotated) (Kindle Locations 492-497). Unknown. Kindle Edition.

 

#ArtLitPhx: Piper Writers Studio Fall 2016 Courses

Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing - horizontal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

#ArtLitPhx: Changing Hands and the Piper Center Present Garth Risk Hallberg

Gary-Changing Hands

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 SchoonerThe New York TimesBest New American Voices 2008, and The Millions; a novellaA Field Guide to the North American Family, was published in 2007. He lives in New York with his wife and children.

Guest Post, Bill Gaythwaite: Any Particular Day

swimmerIt 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.

Guest Post, Charles Rafferty: Maxims and Observations on the Writing Life

Compression is achieved by leaving things out — useless details, obvious emotions. This is why I prefer espresso. Its blackness tells me there is just enough water. Consider the following maxims and observations on writing to be fifty cups of espresso:

  1. On the need to write every day: No one can shoot a nickel off the back of a galloping ox with just one bullet. The most one bullet will get you is a dead ox.
  2. On mistakes: There is a kind of progress we make when we trip and fall forward.
  3. The eye can see only by continuing to blink. This is an argument for stopping work when a poem gets stubborn and ceases to improve. Time in a dark drawer is always time well-spent.
  4. The critic has the blueprints, but the poet builds the palace.
  5. On my former aversion to prose poems: I used to think of them as mules — sterile hybrids. Now, I see the prose poem as a euglena — that cutthroat survivor with a foot in two kingdoms.
  6. There are works that I’m ashamed to have not read, and there are those that merely embarrass me. This is the difference between the greatness of the past and the enthusiasm of the present.
  7. Certain scenes are awkward because the characters don’t play well together — they are like dolls of different scales pushed into the same tea party.
  8. The painter with chopped-off hands will learn to sing better than the writer with inherited pitch.
  9. A good book should stay with you at least as long as your average tick bite. Reading it should make you itch.
  10. In a forest, the best poets think of axe handles and violins.
  11. On revisions: Don’t treat first drafts too preciously. Nobody carves a log before pushing it into the fireplace.
  12. Distancing yourself emotionally from the subject matter of your stories is important. But there’s a point at which the faces grow indistinct and we cease to have any stake in who dies or falls in love.
  13. On the popularity of confessional poems: The mirror always answers.
  14. The painter would make different choices if he began instead with a black canvas.
  15. On poems that refuse to get finished: It can be like carving your initials into the sea or digging up the shadow of your favorite spruce.
  16. I’m the kind of person who takes more pleasure in the novel he burned than he does in the novel he’s trying to finish. The former, at least, provides a good anecdote at a cocktail party.
  17. On the critic who tries to advance the careers of his friends by writing favorable reviews they don’t deserve: The dog is the planet to his fleas.
  18. On the charge of strangeness: The world is my materials. I won’t apologize for my materials.
  19. On ambition: Climbing the mountain doesn’t bring the stars any closer.
  20. Extra syllables at the end of a poem are like a squeaky piano stool as the final notes of a symphony try to evaporate.
  21. The dictionary is an anthology of one-word poems, footnotes included.
  22. A sonnet is a jail that lets us in.
  23. On the influence of dead poets: The wake of a swan continues long after it has taken flight.
  24. Trusting a poem is our first mistake. Living as if we had not read it is our second.
  25. That a poem means is more important than what a poem means.
  26. On obscurity: Poets in America are fourth magnitude stars, and everyone’s night vision has been ruined by sitcoms and football.
  27. On the growing number of people claiming to be poets: The tiniest flowers have no fragrance; America is full of tiny flowers.
  28. When I was young, if a poem wasn’t about being with a woman, it was about being apart from a woman — and all the great merits of either circumstance.
  29. On writer’s block: We need not fret about our occasional lack of inspiration. The guitar player needs to take a day off to let his calluses thicken and heal. A man needs a nap before screwing his woman a second time.
  30. On reading the lines I wrote when I was high: After the sunset, the pollution goes back to looking ordinary.
  31. Stories either start stable and become strange, or start strange and become stable. The ice is always melting or hardening.
  32. In defense of sonnets: The piano is an old instrument, but we can play new songs on it.
  33. On the charge of prettiness: Yes, the bell of the tulip is pretty, but it cannot rise without some dirt beneath it.
  34. The critic concerns himself with the parts of a poem the way a disreputable mechanic wants every piece to shine and be new. The poet simply wants the goddamned car to move.
  35. Nature poetry should be more than verbal postcards. In any glorious arrangement of mountains, we must find at least the shadow of a man.
  36. The poet transmutes the world into sound the way a bluejay turns trash into a nest.
  37. Don’t let your admiration of traditional forms override the notion of suitability. If the form doesn’t correspond to the subject, the poet will be accused of trying to fit a puppy inside a ringbox, of delivering a diamond inside an aircraft carrier.
  38. The will to criticism: It’s just the urge to have answers at a particularly severe cocktail party.
  39. We like listening to known liars. It’s the pleasure of hoping they’ll trip themselves up. A poem must proceed with the liar’s bravado. In this sense, a poem should leave the reader frustrated.
  40. On failed poems we can’t stop revising: There’s nothing so steady as a half-sunk canoe.
  41. On finding no one to publish a poem: It feels like a five-dollar bill with too much taped and missing.
  42. The worst poets treat their poems like puzzles — something merely to be figured out. In the most dire cases, they withhold several pieces, hiding them in their breast pockets, forcing us to come to them with questions we would rather not ask.
  43. Poems can fail in two ways: boredom or confusion. Boredom stems from too small a grasp — the ordinary sand grain in the palm of a hand. Confusion stems from extravagance — the attempt to palm a city. Given the choice, I prefer my poems to fail always by confusion.
  44. On self-promotion: A car can rev its engine just as loud whether the trunk is full of gold or horse shit.
  45. We are awestruck by actual sunsets, but embarrassed by their photographs. This is a proof that some beauty defies translation.
  46. On the need to take a break from the daily routine of writing: If a garden goes untended long enough, even the weeds come into flower.
  47. During the initial draft of a poem, when we are knocking on every door we come across, there is that moment when a peephole goes dark, and we know that the door must be kicked in.
  48. On inspiration: Sometimes, the girl is brought out of the marble by a single hammer tap.
  49. On our steadily fragmenting culture: At the rate things are going, someday even Jesus will require a footnote in the Norton Anthology.
  50. On ambition: I won’t be content to be called the American Shakespeare. I won’t be satisfied until Shakespeare is known as the English Rafferty.

Interview with Jocelyn Cullity

Jocelyn Cullity has published short fiction, creative nonfiction, documentary film and scholarship; she’s currently completing her first novel, set in 1857 India. Cullity teaches creative writing at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and also in the low-residency BFA program at Goddard College in Vermont.

Superstition Review: Your piece “Mutiny” takes place in India, and you’ve also co-written an analytical essay on female representation in Indian popular culture, specifically as perpetuated in media such as MTV India. What about India would you say inspires your writing?

Jocelyn Cullity: My British family on my mother’s side lived in India for five generations. The stories told to me by my mother and my great-aunts were more about India than anywhere else.

One of the most violent events in Indian history began in 1857 when Indian citizens revolted against the variety of injustices occurring during British rule. My ancestor, Ellen Huxham, was one of the women held hostage during a five-month siege in Lucknow during the “mutiny,” and she kept a diary during that time. When I was about 12, I transcribed her diary, and this event in particular stayed with me.

SR: Have you travelled to India and if so, were you inspired to write about it afterwards, or did you travel there because it inspired you?

JC: I have had the opportunity to visit India several times. I love India and I have gone when I can. I’ve gone to write, for research, but also just to visit family and friends. It was sometime after my last trip that I wrote the short story “Mutiny” as a part of my dissertation collection at Florida State University, and after that I began working on the novel.

SR: “Mutiny” begins, “India. May 24th, 1857.” What do you think it does for a story to have a concrete setting?

JC: Janet Burroway (the writer, teacher, and one of my mentors) has written that setting means more to writers than anything else. I do think that setting is everything, and that to establish an immediate concrete image of location in the reader’s mind is useful and most often necessary. When one is writing about a different country and a different century it’s crucial to establish time and place in the reader’s mind as soon as one can.

SR: There is an element of the supernatural in “Mutiny” that contrasts with the almost sparse narration. How did you envision your narrator when you began writing “Mutiny” and was this contrast your intention from the beginning, or did it develop after the fact?

JC: I don’t think I thought about this sort of contrast. The dead husband suddenly appeared in the doorway, and I wrote him down. To his wife, he is as real as the siege around her. However, I’m fascinated by the existence of supernatural elements in the short story, over the form’s history, so, as I think about it now, it doesn’t surprise me that the ghost character showed up.

SR: “Mutiny” is an excerpt from your forthcoming novel of the same name. How does it feel to see your work and your efforts coming together into a tangible form?

JC: I started the story “Mutiny” very tentatively. I had the feeling I should explore the character of Eva before embarking on a larger project; she is one of several important characters I’d been thinking of for the novel. Now it feels utterly inevitable to be writing the book. I’m almost finished and it is gratifying to see what I hope is coming together.

I should say that the title that I used for the short story — “Mutiny” – is used with a good dose of irony. The “mutiny of 1857” is still a phrase used by some; some others call it “India’s First War of Independence.” I have used the word “Mutiny” as a working title for the novel but I’m not completely sure yet if that’s what it will be called. I hope to decide that in the next months.