Guest Post, Scott Russell Morris: Uncommon Experience: Notes on Writing “The Common Area”

When I wrote the first draft of “The Common Area,” I was in a strange place, figuratively and literally. Having just broken up with and then made up with my girlfriend a few days prior and feeling insecure, I was also on the other side of the world, day one of a two-month study abroad, jet-lagged, hungry, and trying not to be too eager about my first excursion away from America.

That strangeness, the physical and emotional discomfort, made writing “The Common Area” one of the most unique in my writing life: Though I normally revise and revise and revise, never “confident that the phrase first seized is for [me] the phrase of inspiration”—h/t, Agnes Repplier—this essay’s final draft came out more-or-less how it did when I wrote it by hand at 3 a.m. in a basement in Edinburgh, describing in real time the eccentric interaction I had with a stoned Frenchman. Sure, I did clarify a few details, but for the most part, the essay remained true to its original form and content as I transposed it from journal to computer and revised it for publication.

To emphasize the point: this never happens to me. I agonize over drafts. I cut and paste. I kill all the darlings, only to resurrect and kill them again. I have files and files of failed attempts. My first drafts are clunky without regard for transitions or clever juxtapositions. When I finally send a draft out to journals, I agonize over each rejection, seeing what could make my essay tighter. And though “The Common Area” was certainly turned down by several journals, I never felt I could reasonably change much of its original form, content, or conclusions.

So, now, it found its home and I am left to wonder why this essay was such a different experience than the others? The strangeness, certainly, was an important part of it. Ander Monson talks about this in his essay on hacking, describing an exercise for his students where they must write in new places: “I want them to try to feed it [their brain] different stories, different stimuli, in an attempt to get it to generate different sorts of texts.” This new stimuli technique works to make us insecure, much like a child who experiences the world fresh, guileless, and eager to make connections (all reasons to travel regularly). Over the years, my best essays have been ones where I felt insecure in my own knowledge. Since this essay, I’ve written about teaching in Kazakhstan, watching a baby be born, trying to raise that baby with some measure of grace, eating a meal so perfect it could never be replicated, all experiences so odd I was completely unprepared for them. So this was perhaps one key to the “The Common Area’s” uncommon birth: I was grasping for new information, looking at all the new connections coming my way.

Of course, reaching for such ineffable understanding is implied in the word essay’s weighing and measuring, but normally, when I journal or essay, I have to work to get to that measurement. I must first get the facts down and then see how they might connect, but with this essay, I was already in what Amy Leach calls a “guessing mood”—guessing how to connect with others, guessing what I was going to experience while abroad, guessing what would happen with my tenuous girlfriend. And though I still preach and live the gospel of merciless revision, writing “The Common Area” has reminded me that to write an essay, you must be willing to move outside yourself and yet question everything about yourself. This is always what I strive for, but with this essay, it happened while I was also writing, struggling with real-life concerns. It was a reminder, too, that to essay is not just something you write, but a way of approaching the world, sometimes with needful urgency.

Authors Talk: Abby Horowitz

Abby HorowitzToday we are pleased to feature author Abby Horowitz as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Abby discusses the development of her piece, “I Want Her to Burn Me Forever,” published in Issue 18. She explains how it began as a very different (and much longer) story before she decided to shift the focus from the bride to her partner. With this shift in focus, she began to explore the question, “What does it mean to enter into this long-term relationship with someone who is complicated?”

Abby also discusses the value of writing shorter short stories, as well as the importance of detaching yourself from your piece in order to “get messy and play around and throw things away and cut…and just have fun.”

You can access Abby’s piece in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Authors Talk: Elizabeth Naranjo

Elizabeth NaranjoToday we are pleased to feature author Elizabeth Naranjo as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Elizabeth discusses “The Woman in Room 248” and reveals how some of Mary’s experiences are loosely based on her own nursing experiences. She also expands upon the characterizations of Mary and Shirley and shares how she can relate to both characters.

Elizabeth also discusses empathy in the piece and explains how she “wanted to explore how we often misjudge others.” She reveals, “I think the best fiction challenges our assumptions about people. It…should make us consider the motivations and the feelings of others who we wouldn’t normally look at twice or think about in a more compassionate way.” Finally, Elizabeth briefly discusses the piece’s evolution and submission history.

You can access Elizabeth’s piece, “The Woman in Room 248,” in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Authors Talk: Mathew Michael Hodges

Mathew Michael Hodges

Today we are pleased to feature author Mathew Michael Hodges as our Authors Talk series contributor. Interestingly, Mathew begins his podcast by discussing how he used to feel claustrophobic in the confines of the short story form, though he has now become “more comfortable in the cozy space of the short story.”

Mathew goes on to describe the variety of ways that his ideas come to him. Specifically, he discusses the process of building “A Sound Man,” which was featured in Issue 18 of Superstition Review. For Mathew, the story started with Rory’s job as a sound designer before the other layers of the story fell into place. Mathew also offers insights regarding the creative process and revision. He describes his “write-and-stash method,” which has helped him be more objective when revising.

You can access Mathew’s piece in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Jessica Marie Fletcher: The Process

The Process: Catharsis, Counseling, and Creative Writing

 

When talking about writing in literary crowds, I skirted away from using the word, “catharsis.” In an attempt to mask my youthful unknowingness—and to hopefully step into the realm of literariness (as if it were The Thing to attain)—I distinguished my stories as maturely lacking any cathartic-make-you-feel-better qualities. What an insecure snob I was!

With help, I have reworked this naïve snobbery into quality-mongering [meaning: verb: an attempt to look for quality; to go above and beyond; to go deeper; to refine; to grow; noun: quality mongers: those who practice quality mongering]. Can quality-mongering be petty? Sometimes. Is it honest? Always.

Writing short stories, for me, has included a constant flow of quality mongering. A constant reshaping and refining of something too raw. For some emotionally bloody and raw story starts, I would overcook and sterilize any cathartic, tender aspects of me that may still be on the page. I struggled with the thought of me entering the story. A writing no-no. I hadn’t considered my own self-protection also taking place.

Writing short stories involves creating mini realities—mini snapshots into a moment or a series of moments. In my own writing process, crafting a reality often derived from a source within me; a few friends can trace the crumbs of Jess scattered on the page and across my reoccurring themes. While trying to excise “me” out of the story, I would tell myself that I was inhabiting the world of another, writing outside of “what I knew,” and seeking quality by using structured writing. I insisted that any catharsis I experienced while writing never remained in the pieces I considered my art.

I wasn’t exactly wrong; I wasn’t exactly right.

After some growing up a bit and reworking my constructs about writing, I encountered this concept of catharsis and artistic healing increasingly. Now pursuing a career in mental health counseling, I can’t help but use my reader/writer brain to connect the dots between client stories and counseling processes—including catharsis.

Catharsis vs TherapyCatharsis followed me everywhere. As a volunteer creative writing teacher at a prison, I encountered the question of writing from hurt on my first day teaching a writing class.

I recall asking each of the orange-clad men sitting around me, “What do you want to learn in this class?”

In the small classroom, which looked like one of those WWII Quonset huts, I received an assortment of answers:

  • “To write good.”
  • “To write better.”
  • “To write home.”
  • “To write past the writer’s block.”

One student then said, “I want to know how to write, but like, write without it hurting too much. I think sometimes, if I write, it will just all come out and be too much. Hurt too much.”

There had been a collective nod—and sigh—as if we were all waiting for the air conditioning to turn on, to greet us, to remind us that we weren’t in a prison.

Hurt too much. What about writing for catharsis? I questioned my subjectivity, which I lumbered around while trying to hide it—could my own insistence to not use catharsis also stem from a fear of hurting? Was it about pain or about image? About art? About refining?

My writing and counseling worlds collided, and consideration of my student’s question was necessary.

Within my first few weeks of learning counseling theories and techniques, I easily adhered to the word, “phenomenological,” and the concept of the subjective reality in which each of us operates in the world. Our internal framework. Each person perceives their Truth from a separate, conscious mind. Writers and readers momentarily occupy the minds of others. But even stories are clipped snapshots of a phenomenological reality. Salience-focused movie-reel slides. Refined and revised to show a subjective experience.

After doing a mock therapy session, I noticed more parallels between writing and therapy: themes and patterns, language-fixation, subjective realities; meaning and feeling; images and metaphors.

As a counselor, though, I am no longer writer but rather reader of these salience-focused, sometimes refined/rehearsed, sometimes unfiltered/uncensored, mini-snapshots into clients’ phenomenological worlds. Their experiences. Their internal frameworks. While I can never fully inhabit each client’s consciousness and understand every nuance of their being, I can piecemeal their themed stories to better understand—to better connect with our shared humanity.

Woo woo? I sure hope so.

In counseling, there are various change processes applied to differing theoretical approaches including consciousness raising, choosing, catharsis, contingency control, and conditioned stimuli.

Often, therapy involves raising the awareness of those seeking help. Often, therapy involves choice—sometimes outside of decision. Often, therapy involves pairing stimuli. Often, therapy involves behavior/thought management.

Often—therapy involves catharsis.

Even within some counseling circles, the use of catharsis can elicit that same negative connotation I had applied with writing. Is it bad to write from a source of emotion? Of pain? Is it inferior to use a healing process based in releasing repressed emotions? Is it inferior to find relief? Is it unrefined and unsophisticated to write with catharsis? Is there valence at all?

Am I asking the right questions?

Then there’s my student’s question. How do you write without it hurting too much?

Should it not hurt? Hurt. Hurt. Hurt.

The healing process—whether attributed to counseling change processes, writing processes, reading processes, revision processes, whatever process—appears to be just that: a process.

What You Know GraphCould we quality mongers be searching for The Thing when we should be along for the active, growing journey? Is my subjectivity showing?

This realization—that maybe there is more than a black and white answer—showed me how truly youthfully unknowing I had been. And that was okay. In class, I have learned, that “you don’t know what you don’t know, until you know.”

With writing—and with healing—sometimes the consciousness raising and choosing occur alongside the cathartic journey, which includes sometimes pain and sometimes relief and sometimes emotion and sometimes ugly, messy beginnings. Shitty first drafts.

For me, writing derives from a self-actualizing delight in understanding another human’s phenomenological world, in rewriting my own, and in recognizing the holistic nuances of being human.

The Process no longer appears linear. Rather, aspects of catharsis may occur in all stages of writing, revising, and editing. Consciousness raising continually occurs—and thank goodness it does—and my thoughts, behaviors, and values continue to interplay within my counseling, my writing, and my way of being.

Slightly more aware, slightly less insecure, slightly less snobbish, slightly more honest, I see less fog in actively writing with sometimes cathartic beginnings and processes. I see the ways in which no three-pronged thesis could possibly support the dynamic writing and revision process and its human component.

There may be no perfect and mature answer to my student’s question. My awareness may only be raised slightly. This could be messy. But damn, it feels good.

The term, “Quality-Mongering,” can be credited to Christopher Greene.

Guest Post, Eileen Cunniffe: Revision, Like Launching a Marble Boat

Lately I find myself less intimidated by the blank page (screen), and more by the thought of revising something I’ve already written. Not something in the early stages—usually when I’ve got a new project underway, I can’t wait to get back to it. The revisions I dread—or at least postpone far longer than I should—are on work I’ve already sent out into the world, one way or another. Writing I’ve workshopped at a conference, with feedback that now must be weighed. Writing I’ve submitted to literary journals that has been rejected often enough—even if some rejections have been encouraging—that I know I must reopen the file, reread my own work and wrestle with my pages.

Of course the ease with which we make revisions these days—and here I am talking about the mechanical ease of editing a document through the magic of word-processing software, not the mental work that goes into rewriting—is something most of us take for granted. But it hasn’t always been that way. I used a manual typewriter—and gallons of whiteout—in high school. I pecked my way through college papers on an electric typewriter, which fortunately had a ribbon of corrective tape, because I’ve always been a lousy typist. My first job after college was as a medical writer in a teaching hospital, where I worked with staff physicians and visiting fellows and residents to polish their research papers, book chapters and presentations. We were lucky enough to have in our office one of the three word-processing machines in the hospital; it was about the size of a Mini Cooper, and only two people in our four-person department were even allowed to touch it. I wasn’t one of them—my job was to write on or mark up paper, sometimes to literally cut and paste (with scissors and tape), then turn the pages over to one of the girls whose job it was to type or revise documents. In the 1980s, this was cutting-edge technology. Our machine was a Vydec, and he (we four women all agreed the big lug was a “he”) was both a technological wonder and a highly temperamental co-worker. At least once a week, Vydec acted up and we had to call in a technician. Still, we cranked out a lot of medical papers on that old machine, and the doctors were not at all shy about asking for one more set of revisions before we sent their pages out into the world. They took to word processing like ducks to water.

With one exception—Tiger John, a surgeon from China who spent about three years with us as an international fellow. He was one of the first physicians permitted to leave China after the Cultural Revolution, and he was in the U.S. to learn about Western medicine so he could bring new knowledge back home. He couldn’t practice here, but he could watch surgeries, observe clinics, attend conferences. And since everyone around him was writing papers, he thought he’d try that, too.

Silk PictureEveryone loved Tiger, who was nothing like his name. He was gentle and polite. And he was constantly offering us small gifts from China. I’ve kept one of Tiger’s gifts for nearly 35 years, because in itself it is a treasure, but also because it holds a riddle it took me forever to solve. It’s a small rectangle of silk, printed with the image of a large marble boat. Tiger explained it was a real boat, made of marble, from a long time ago. But with his limited English (and my nonexistent Mandarin), he couldn’t make me understand how a marble boat could float. It was a marvel, for sure. But our conversation about it ended as many of our conversations did—with me nodding my head, him bowing, and both of us grinning, pretending we’d managed to communicate more than we actually had.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like making myself sit down to start a revision is like trying to make a marble boat float: impossible. The longer I wait, the more I convince myself I’ll be disappointed with my writing—and, because mostly I write personal essays—with my life.

Revision always reminds me of Tiger John—although not in the best way. Tiger took to word processing like a marble boat takes to water. He used a manual typewriter, and when he was satisfied with a draft, he would bring it to me, as if it were another of his gifts. His typing was worse than mine, and with little English at his command, his manuscripts were incomprehensible. I’d read through his pages, making edits and scribbling questions in the margins, drawing arrows to indicate which paragraphs might be moved where. We’d discuss—as best we could—what I had understood and what he had intended. Then I’d mark up the pages some more, and turn them over to one of my colleagues, who would sit down with Vydec and produce an almost-readable manuscript. Which I would proof, she would re-revise, and together we would present to Tiger—as if it were our gift to him.

Tiger, it seemed, had as much trouble grasping the concept of a word processor as I had with the concept of a marble boat. He just couldn’t make it float in his head. And so every time we gave him a neat new manuscript to review—and even after we’d let him stand near Vydec and watch as words were typed and came up on the screen and as pages with those very words were spit out of the printer—he’d go all the way back to the drawing board and spend days mistyping his next revision. Which he would deliver to me, smiling broadly. And we’d start all over again. If any of those papers ever got published, it was after he returned to China, and probably in his own language.

I’ve kept the little piece of silk with the marble boat—in a plain white ceramic frame—near at hand for all the years since I knew Tiger John. It’s a reminder of people I met in that hospital half a lifetime ago, people from across the country and around the globe. It’s also been a reminder that what seems impossible often can be done—I mean, if ancient Chinese engineers could figure out how to make a marble boat float, anything is possible, right?

Except that’s not exactly what happened. Not long ago while cleaning up my home office (a highly effective tactic for avoiding the work of revision), I dusted the frame around my silk marble boat and thought to myself, I should Google that. And I did, and discovered that while there is indeed such a structure on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing, originally built in 1755, it is a lakeside pavilion shaped like a boat, not a vessel that was ever meant to float. The Marble Boat is sometimes called the Boat of Purity and Ease, which is what one can only aspire to when it comes to writing—and revision.

So lately, I’ve been thinking about the marble boat in a whole new way. I’ve been using it as a reminder that Tiger John made revision so much harder than it had to be. Like I do, but in a different way. Because when I do finally get around to rereading myself, I almost always find some things to like about what I’ve written, even when I also see ways it could be improved. And so I sit with my pages and start marking them up, and eventually I head for my computer, open the file, and begin revising in earnest. Perhaps not with purity and ease, but with every intention of making the work better, making it sing, maybe even making it sail.

Intern Post, Kelly Vo: How Many Revisions Are Too Many?

howmany?

 

 

 

 

Let me clarify something first. My definition of revision:
Revision
[ri-vizh-uh n]
Noun
1. The act of completely revamping a previous version of a story.
2. When God looks down after creating the earth for six days and says, “Nope. Not so much.” And so He erases days two through six and starts again at day one. The general concept of creation wasn’t bad; it was everything that came after that was wrong.

Please understand that when I say revision, I don’t mean small edits. I mean that I trashed my previous story and started with a blank slate. That’s a revision in my world.

So, how many revisions are too many? I have asked myself this question countless times over the last six years. Six years. That number sounds frightening when I stop and realize that I’ve been working on the same story for over half a decade. Okay, so it’s not really the same story. In fact, in many respects it’s completely unrecognizable. But in my heart, it’s the same story.

Here’s how my novel began. It was my final semester of college, and I was on the top of my writing game. I wrote a short story as an assignment for my Advanced Fiction Writing course, and BAM, there it was—my future novel. Set in our world and a fantasy world, it was light-hearted, fun, meant for children, and I loved it. My classmates loved it too. And I thought, “I have the idea; that was the hard part, now to finish it. No problem!”

Two years later, college was long behind me and I hadn’t touched my story since graduation. I had thought about writing. I even broke it out now and then, but never with serious intent. So it sat, dormant but ready to be completed.

Then came NaNoWriMo 2010, and I decided to seriously attempt it. But my story couldn’t stay the same because I wasn’t the same. Suddenly within one month, it transformed from a child’s tale into a young adult novel. It was no longer light-hearted, but dark and complicated. And it was the beginning of a long journey of which I’m still caught in the middle.

Since NaNo 2010, I have revised my story over five times—until settling on an adult urban fantasy novel that’s still in the works. In some cases, my drafts have reached over 100,000 words. But inevitably, with every iteration, I reach a point where I scratch the entire thing. Whether I’m halfway through, a quarter of the way through, or even 75 percent completed, I always get to a chapter, a scene, or a character revelation where I get stuck.

Now, you might be thinking, “So, you get stuck. Figure it out and get back to work.” Well, I would love to do that. Unfortunately, when I get stuck, it’s because I find myself in a corner and even if I can, somehow, write myself out, that corner reveals something to me—that the story is not what I thought it was meant to be. Whenever I reach that point, I take a deep breath, shut my laptop, and make the decision to start over from word one and day one.
The amazing thing is, each time, my story has become better and better—more intricate and better thought out. The unfortunate aspect is, I have wasted so much time and scrapped so many stories. I have enough writing for two, if not three, books sitting on my computer, and yet I still continue to revise. At this point I fear I’ll never have a completed story, but I’m not sure how to fix it.

Can too much pickiness be a bad thing? Should I be more easily satisfied, or have each of my revisions been necessary to find the true story—wherever it is hiding?

I have to admit, there is a lot of frustration involved. I know the story is there, ready and waiting to be told, but where is it and how do I get it on paper?

When writing this blog, I asked myself the same question, “How many revisions are too many?” This is the fifth iteration of my blog, and as I write this sentence, I wonder if I’ll get to the next sentence or the next paragraph and decide, “No, this wasn’t the blog waiting to be told. I need to try again.”

Have you been here and faced these same struggles? How did you finally decide enough was enough, or are you still struggling like me?

For this blog at least, I’ve decided to suck it up and say, “Enough is enough.” I guess, you, my readers, will have to let me know if I made the right decision. And that’s the crux of the matter. At the end of the day, it’s not up to me. I could write the story that I know, I know, is the right story, but I’m the writer, not the reader. When all is said and done, the quality of my story, its effectiveness, and the joy it brings, is not only up to me. It’s up to you.

So be kind, dear reader. We pour our hearts and souls into our work and yet we are never fully satisfied, not until our writing makes it to you. When you read, remember that in your hands you not only hold the story you’re reading, but the endless revisions that helped it take shape. You can tell us if we did enough, if our writing passes muster, and that too many revisions were worth it in the end.

So, what do you think? How many revisions are too many?

Guest Post, Alan Cheuse: Revision

Revision
“I tend to scribble a lot” by Nic McPhee is licensed under CC by 2.0

I don’t want you to take this as bragging, because it isn’t. It’s a description of what can happen if you keep on writing decade after decade for the love of the work, with a little bit of luck, that touch we all need, of course.

And I don’t want you to think this is yet another hoarse exhortation to revise, revise!

My first writing workshop instructor, the poet John Ciardi, back at Rutgers in the early 1960s, exhorted me enough for a life time.

Revise, revise!

(He said this in the same intonation that we find at the end of Frost’s wonderfully playful poem on old age, “Provide, Provide”. Yes, you’ve got it—Provide, Provide.)

Revise, revise!

“Writing is revising,” Ciardi reminded us, a wayward band of juniors and seniors, six of us in a workshop he conducted in the basement of the old Rutgers English house, a former residence on College Avenue which the university had taken over decades before.

“Writing is revising.”

I can still hear his voice in this advice, a slightly patrician-ized South End Boston accent that Ciardi must have worked on while one of the few local Italian boys attending Harvard (where he worked as a writer in residence, of sorts, supplying essays of his own devising for lunk-headed legacies who had the patrician voices but not the supreme intelligence about poetry and fiction that should have come along with it. In other words, he worked his way through college writing papers for his betters.)

I can hear that too.

“For my bet-ters.”

By then I had done more than half the work toward becoming something like this new hero of mine, the Southie poet now in residence at Rutgers, living in near-by Metuchen, New Jersey and also writing a weekly column for “The Saturday Review of Literature.” I had lived for nineteen years in North Jersey, where after an empty, and sometimes violent, middle school so-called education, and while keeping up a certain (small) ability at softball and an even smaller one at basketball, I threw myself into the reading of novels and stories that lighted up my present life and glowed forcefully on the horizon as well.

I read sea stories in grade school and science fiction through eighth grade and by sophomore year of high school I was trying to read Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury (about which I understood almost nothing but loved the cadences of the lines) our chemistry teacher, a big doughy white-haired man named Pat White, tore from my hands during a study hour and never returned to me.

Something like happened to Ciardi and poetry early on in his working-class life in Boston.

So now all I had to do was write, and these two halves, living and art, might come together and make me a whole person. If you’re reading this you know the feeling. You live through immense sea-storms of language in books so great you barely grasp what’s going on inside them while at the same time plodding along in school, making fun of the feeble teachers who give you Julius Caesar to read or, worse, to listen to on recordings of “great performances.”

My greatest performance until then was to live as though I were a normal kid, even though now and then I would hole up with a science-fiction novel by Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, or Dubliners (confiscated from me by my home room teacher before I could read it half way through). Oh, and also play ball, and commit an occasional small larceny (stealing cases of Coke from a delivery truck), and brawl—verbally, only, thank the gods—with my father, and attend class and sink into a vortex of forceful apathy that convinced me that there was no such thing as education in New Jersey, only place-keeping until such time as you could join the armed forces or get a job as a clerk and then a manager—or, if you were as lucky as I was, assumed like some prince of the lower-middle-classes that college was your due.

College became the intellectual equivalent for revision.

My slovenly class room habits turned more strict, my near-sightedness about life’s possible pleasures turned into long-range vision, and I began, however haphazardly, to regard my origins and my family as something interesting rather than a burden. Revise, revise! Though I hand no idea that I was doing it, I was doing it. Fiction, poetry, music, painting, architecture, dance—all art came together into a single force and wrenched open my eyes, as in the stunning moment at the end of Rilke’s great poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”.

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Years went by, nearly twenty, before I found a toe-hold on the climb up the rocky mount of revision, but the more I worked at it, the more natural it became. The sense of where you must begin a story rather than where you have first begun it. The sense of where you must expand a novel—open it up to further exploration—rather than where it now stands. The necessity to write more and more scenes to make a character’s psychology become more than mere statement. The numerous attempts to make the raw beautiful rather than pretty, and take the beautiful closer to the sublime.

To say this eventually comes to us naturally may cover over the fact that as natural as it seems it never comes easily. When I edited a collection of Bernard Malamud’s essays along with my dear old friend and fellow novelist and story writer Nicholas Delbanco I discovered Malamud’s painstaking method for making the natural seem a common occurrence. Here’s how he worked on a short story. You can draw inferences from his about how he approached novels.

First he wrote a draft in long hand and then typed it over and made corrections in the typescript. Then he wrote a second draft in long hand and typed it up to make corrections that comprised another draft. And so on, sometimes up to a dozen times, to make a finished story. In the page proofs for a magazine version of the story he made corrections with a pen. When he had enough stories for a collection he made further corrections in the galley proofs, and then again in the page proofs. When he had a finished book on hand, it was never finished. When he read a story in public he made further changes as he went along in the reading of it.

Ciardi and Malamud—not a one-two punch, more like a one-one thousand punch to help me to see how to make art better and better.

As I write these words I have just about completed one of the most fortunate endeavors a novelist can undertake. A new publisher has come along to bring out a new edition—this would be the fourth!—of a novel I wrote thirty years ago and published almost that long ago. Back then I called it The Grandmothers’ Club and this remained its title through its first three iterations, its original hard cover, and then two paperback editions. At the urging of this publisher—Frederic Price of Fig Tree Books–I took the time to revise it after all these many decades, and recast the punctuation, particularly the quotation marks. When I first wrote it I was in the throes of modernism, as if caught up in a fever that had a fever, something that’s cooled down a bit for me by now, to, say, a steady boil with now and flares of flame like sunspots. The book changed enough so that we changed its title. Now called Prayers for the Living it comes out in a new trade paperback edition in March.

Revise, revise! Have I changed my life? I don’t know, I don’t know. Have I changed my art? I invite you to come and see.

Guest Blog Post, Jacob Oet: Cancer

Jacob OetMy grandmother died on December 15, 2003.

            To what extent is digital technology an alienating influence?

A Google search for “Gabriela Nudelman Hamden Connecticut” yields nothing pertinent but a webpage from Mylife.com, where another Gabriela Nudelman had set up a profile.

This is not my grandmother. My grandmother does not exist, according to the internet. She is null.

This is what society has to say about Gabriela Nudelman: She was a civil engineer. She was a Russian immigrant. She was Jewish. She was the wife of David Nudelman and the mother of my father and my aunt. She was buried in a Jewish cemetery in New Haven and her gravestone is in the shape of the Hebrew symbol “Chai.”

It means “living.”

This is what I have to say about a woman who grew stranger after her death: She was adopted. She wore a Chai on a golden chain around her neck until she died. She used to take me to work with her. She worked in a cubicle. I had my first experience with computers at her work. Her screensaver was “Deep Space.” It showed thousands of white dots blurring out from the center of the screen, which were meant to represent stars and the movement of a spaceship. Now that I think of it, “Deep Space” is emblematic of our extreme isolation in this digital age. I played my first computer game on her office-computer. It was pin-ball, the sci-fi deep-space pin-ball that has always been a facet of a Windows operating system.

She was killed by ovarian cancer, discovered too late to prevent.

This is what Google has to say about ovarian cancer: “Ovarian cancer is cancer that starts in the ovaries. The ovaries are the female reproductive organs that produce eggs.”

This description is difficult to read. Why? It is painfully disconnected. Like my own reaction to my grandmother’s death.

I was tough. I never cried, not once. I don’t remember the burial. Was I even there? My father cried in front of her grave one year later. It was wonderful and frightening.

I hated her after she died. I always thought that she was disappointed in me. My father kept her picture on his computer desk next to the living room. It was a black and white, candid setting, but she smiled as if posing, nervous and warm, as if caught in mid-twitch. I saw her in my dreams, but I didn’t want to. She was manifested in my poems. Truly, inextricable from my life story. Here are two of my many poems about my grandmother:

In December

Stuck in the blue other house,

my grandmother, croaking like floor,

said what a big boy.

I was.

Night my parents left

us in the house on the lake,

the air terribly.

Hands pressed dark for nothing.

My father’s face the next

morning and I knew

cold.

Blue the end of sound.

He said she didn’t open her eyes.

I said the entire body when that happens.

The head has an empty room.

 

Touch

In my father’s first house we are having dinner.

The dead grandmother

suddenly beside me.

She reaches over plates to touch faces.

When she touches my cheek

it’s cold.

When she left I was too young.

To be touched in a dream

is better.

 

The only way I can be “real” is through my writing. Who wants to be real? Raise your hand. The truth is, we were born into this digital age. And it sucks.

In ten years, I have not cried over my grandmother, except in dreams. Tears are a rare commodity. The last time I cried was one month ago. One of my favorite websites is Wouldhavesaid.com. Anonymous users upload letters of regret or thanks, addressed to entities who will never read them.

This is what the website has to say about itself: “Whether the person has passed away, contact was lost, or the strength needed at the time was lacking, this is a chance to say what you have always wanted them to know.” It is a good example of how the internet can be used for good, for storytelling, to evoke reality.

There is one letter on this site that I repeatedly read for catharsis, late at night, because it makes me cry. It is titled “Mr. Biggs.”

In it, Vincent, age 19, writes an apologetic but resolutely thankful letter to his first dog, the twelve-inch-tall and unappreciated friend who always loved him.

It is somewhat similar to my story. Ten years have passed. The writer gains a fulfilling understanding of the relationship through the catharsis of story-telling. He must have told the story ten times in his mind before it cleared enough for the page.

I’m telling this story: Baba Gala died of ovarian cancer. She lives again in this telling, but only so long as I am speaking.

I’m repeating this story, so you don’t forget it. So I don’t forget it.

Baba Gala lives. She dies. I change. I remain.

 

When revising a poem, I must distance myself from the emotion, to better understand the poem’s technical weaknesses.

This is well and good for the writer. Going over and over this story in my head for ten years, I have come to understand it better. But for my audience, or for any audience, once is simply not enough.

Gabriela Nudelman was my Yin; digital technology, my Yang—dualities in equilibrium; without the one, chaos. This is the difference between digital technology and story-telling. Digital technology seeks to inform. Facts cannot bring back my grandmother. Stories make her seem to live. Information is not evocation.

Computers are just another facet of a cancer which has been killing us since the beginning of recorded history. This cancer is the cancer of the once-told story, the story that is forgotten almost before it is read, and the story that entertains us only as long as it informs us.

Our lives are changing. I’m still telling this story. Our story. This story. Of a life, of the death of a loved one, and its emotional yield.

Breathe. Everyone. In, out.

Our lives are changing. I’m still telling this story.

Advice from Wingbeats Co-Editor, Scott Wiggerman

Wingbeats, photo courtesy of Dos Gatos Press.

If writing better poetry is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, then you’ll want to take a look into Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen’s new book, Wingbeats. Wiggerman and Meischen, an SR contributor from Issue 7, have compiled the wisdom and advice of 58 poets in order to create exercises that showcase the poetry writing process.

As a poet and former Poetry Columnist for the Texas Writer, Scott Wiggerman is no stranger to the world of  poetry. He has conducted a number of workshops for the WLT Poetry Study Group and his work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Wiggerman found he kept returning to poetry staples, like The Practice of Poetry (edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell), for reference, but what he really needed was something new that applied the same variety of techniques. Wiggerman writes that he was looking for something that “combined exercises and essays by poets who actually teach, both academics and non-academics, this time.  Since it didn’t seem to be forthcoming from anywhere, I asked my partner about creating and publishing such a book. I foolishly thought it would be a project that I could handle alone, but David came on board as co-editor almost immediately, thank goodness!”

From the simplest activities to the more involved tasks, Wingbeats provides aspiring poets with exercises along with real poems that show what these look like in action. “We wanted to create a book that poets would actually use, and I wanted a book that would work well for poets both in MFA programs and those, like myself and several of our Wingbeats contributors, who learn the craft of poetry on their own or through the occasional workshop,” wrote Wiggerman.

Wiggerman and Meischen’s new book not only covers standard poetic techniques, but also new strategies for revision, collaboration, and inspiration. If you’re looking for some hands-on experience in writing poetry, Wingbeats is a great resource.

Wiggerman also recommends that aspiring poets seek out workshops and writing groups for guidance: “The absolute best way to learn how to write is to write–and many books or MFA programs can ‘teach’ you this. But it takes feedback as well, and for this, one needs someone to share his or her work with. Of course, it also helps tremendously to read poetry. One of the adages of writing is to ‘show, don’t tell,’ and while Wingbeats does tell, it also shows through poem after poem. It’s the way I like to teach my workshops, letting poems speak for themselves by showing how they’re done.”

You can learn more about Wingbeats on the Dos Gatos Press website or on their new  Facebook page.