Guest Post, Dinah Cox: Hidden Insight in Early Drafts

scrambled eggsA commonplace among fiction writers is not to write about “themes” but to write about characters in such an easy and effortless way that both plot—if you still believe in plot—and any potential “themes” emerge organically, almost as if by magic. In general I agree with and even applaud this notion; if, for example, I set out to write a story about the dual themes of failing infrastructure in public education and the growing problem of students disrespecting their elders, I might end up with a grouchy jeremiad rather than a character-driven narrative with the potential to move and delight. Too often, however, this commonplace becomes an excuse for writers to steer clear of political subject matter in favor of some specious notion of the writer as an impartial observer of characters’ inner-lives, as if those characters exist in a vacuum, forever free to express their pure and holy human desires without the complications of cultural and historical forces. For this reason, I try, in my own fiction writing classes, to complicate the common advice “not to write about theme” and instead sometimes urge the opposite: write toward your obsessions, I say, but do not begin with them.

Take, for example, my story about failing infrastructure in public education and students disrespecting their elders. Let’s say I’ve been worrying about those issues—and maybe I have been—and let’s say, further, thinking about the broken furnace and the student who won’t buy any books both trouble me to the extent I find myself returning to images of decay and willful ignorance every time I set pen to paper. Should I reject these impulses? In fact, I should embrace them: if I wake up every morning in a rage—and often I do—because of the nefarious machinations of the executive branch, I should honor those impulses for the sake of my status as a citizen and the sake of my status as an artist; indeed, the true artist could hardly ignore them.

Back to my story about failing infrastructure and recalcitrant students: how to write such a wonderful story? Begin with an image. Begin with a character. Begin with a setting. Two students are eating scrambled eggs in a cold classroom at six in the morning. The professor has yet to arrive because class doesn’t start until 7:30. Why have the students arrived so early? Why are they eating scrambled eggs? Why is the classroom so cold they’re forced to keep their coats on? Perhaps I begin my story, and realize I’ve been worried to death about the implications of the historic budget shortfall in the Oklahoma State legislature. Writing further, I realize there’s an American flag hanging in the corner of the classroom. What happens? How does the student, who came to class wearing his coat and hat but did not bring along books or a notebook and certainly not a pen or a pencil, regard the feeling of cold scrambled eggs forming a rock in his stomach at the exact moment he pledges allegiance to the American flag? Perhaps I have some hidden insight into these problems that I didn’t know about until I began writing this story.

Here again, my advice to students is to write toward these insights, but not to begin with them. Whatever insights we might have before we begin writing our stories, poems, and essays might be good for a lark—they might even be good enough for a Facebook post or a pithy tweet—but until the story begins, until the character spits a mouthful of runny scrambled eggs onto the cold floor of the classroom, until the professor walks in and says, “what in the hell is going on here; this American flag wasn’t here yesterday,” until we observe the characters in action, we’re merely talking, talking, talking and not telling a story at all. But it’s a mistake to ignore these insights, these obsessions, these “themes” in favor of some higher standard for artistic creation that never existed to begin with; there’s a reason James Baldwin’s great essay, “The Creative Process” calls the artist “the incorrigible disturber of the peace” and not the high-minded keeper of the peace. We must disturb the peace. Begin with a character. Begin with an image. Begin with a setting. The student spits a mouthful of scrambled eggs at the professor. There’s a disturbance stirring, and we’re listening.

Guest Post, Kerry Cullen: On Heroes

One particularly boring day in 9th grade Chemistry, I wrote a story about my group of friends defeating our evil teacher. I folded it in a note, and passed it along the back row, where the story’s heroes read it one by one, stifling laughter and sneaking glances at the blissfully unaware teacher. We had recently decided we were all superheroes– vigilantes, to be specific. Everyone got a nickname and a power, debated among the group. I still didn’t have a name or power, and I was too self-conscious to make up my own, so I asked a friend.

He screwed up his face, thinking. “What are your skills?”

“I dunno.”

“Well, you’re good at writing. You could be the journalist that follows the superheroes around!”

“So like, a secret superhero disguised as a journalist?”

“No,” the boy said, already shaking his head. “No, that wouldn’t make any sense. If you had powers, you’d be fighting the bad guys with us. You can’t have powers.”

“So I’m not part of the team?”

“Not technically,” he said. “But without you, who would know about all the stuff we’re doing? You would give the townspeople hope! Someone has to do it.” I refused.

I’ve always wanted to be a hero. I’ve always wanted to be one of the people out there in the worlddoing the courageous work that ordinary people don’t have the guts for. When I was an Evangelical Christian kid, I wanted to go into international missions. I wanted to adventure, take risks, go tounusual places. I was excited for the Second Coming– I wanted to live in a time of upheaval, to defend my faith against monstrous beasts. If not that, then I wanted to be a nun, to live an extraordinary life of prayer. When I moved away from religion and into LGBTQ rights activism, I wanted to be a different kind of hero. I wanted to go on a hunger strike in prison. I wanted to chain myself to a building, to put myself in physical danger for a noble cause.

I’ve always wanted to be a fiction writer, too. The most common advice given to fiction writers is also the best: “Ass in chair.” Stay where you are; keep writing. Of course you need to live a life in order to write, and in order to be a healthy human being– an often underrated pursuit among artists, but a necessary one nevertheless. A good writer, though, should be perpetually conscious of the work, always ready to use their few solitary moments to sit down and dig into the deepest marrow oftheir soul. It doesn’t look romantic, sitting in a chair all day; it’s not a hunger strike or a sit-in or an exotic adventure.

But it certainly requires fortitude. In one of W.B. Yeats’s last poems, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” a writer near the end of his life ruminates on the stories that he used to write about, great tales of adventure and triumph, vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose. But in his age, the writer realizes that what he has left are not the mythical creatures and characters, the circus animals, all on show. Rather, it is the unglamorous murk of human emotion that he must write from. He concludes the poem, saying

I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

I asked a professor in college once: how do you dig into the darkest parts of yourself for writing, and also live a healthy life? He peered at me over his fingertips, with his uncanny pale blue eyes, and said, “I am always vigilant.”

To be a writer is to be vigilant. To be vigilant is to be watchful, awake. To keep a vigil is to stay awake in prayer. To be a vigilante is to be ‘a self-appointed doer of justice.’

These days, I want badly to be a self-appointed doer of justice. Villains are everywhere and multiplying, and a clamoring part of me wishes that I could abandon my work and my ordinary life and even my writing to go on some death-defying, valorous adventure– ideally somehow involving magic?– that would mold me into a true hero, capable of quickly and concretely changing the world. I want to single-handedly save lives. I want to do something noble and powerful, worthy of an incredible story. Of course, if my impulse for action is contingent on story, my underlying desire is probably more about the tale than the act.

I’m not talking about small acts of goodness: calling senators, writing letters, doing volunteer work in a community, being kind and attentive to the people in your life. All of those and more are humbler works that come from less glory-hungry urges, and that, if done consistently, don’t make up merely one adventurous plot arc to tell and retell. Rather, they make up a whole life of daily, mundane choices, like waking up every day, getting your ass in that chair, and putting pen to paper. The only thing I’ve wholeheartedly kept from my former Christianity is an immense respect for and love of prayer. A favorite author once called prayer an ‘act of love’ and I’ve felt that definition ring true more than any other. For me, writing and prayer are inextricably linked– both a deeply embedded part of my childhood, both a salvation, reconciliation, meditation. Both annoying, sometimes. Both easy to procrastinate on, both unglamorous, both private, both practices that everyone else seems to do with more ease, more beauty, more reward. Both practices that thrive in questions and not answers. Both vigils. Both staying awake.

To be a self-appointed doer of justice, vigilante-style, you need answers. You need clarity and security in the knowledge that what you’re doing is right, or at least mostly right, or at least pointed in the general direction of the greater good. We will always have heroes and villains in this world, self-appointed doers who believe that they are on the side of justice. Who have been told what the side of justice is, and have decided to fight for it. Some fight for the weak and downtrodden and under-served. Some fight for their god. Some fight for their money.

And following them are the journalists, the storytellers, the poets. The people with more questions than answers, the people whose job it is to give the townspeople hope, or fear. The people sifting through what their leaders are doing to find the truth under it. The people who lie down where all the ladders start.

This world needs heroes. It needs writers, too.

Authors Talk: Maria Martin

Today we are pleased to feature poet Maria Martin as our Authors Talk series contributor. Maria discusses her poetry’s subject matter and how it has evolved over time.

When she started writing Maria wrote “almost exclusively” about herself. Eventually she felt that she had exhausted her subject matter, that she “didn’t know how to write.” Maria ends her talk by explaining how prose poetry opened up her writing and how “Slow” is a turning point for her and her work.

You can read “Slow” and three more of Maria’s poems in Superstition Review, Issue 19.

Authors Talk: Anthony Mohr

Today we are pleased to welcome author Anthony Mohr as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this brief interview, Anthony speaks candidly about what inspired his essay, “Risk.”

Of all the memories that conglomerate in the essay, he says that the game itself is what primarily inspired this essay. Anthony then tells us that “98.5%” of everything in the essay is true, from the names of the characters to the dialogue from the military. In light of this, we discuss his friends’ reactions to the essay and their role in preserving the truth of the essay.

You can read and listen to “Risk” in Superstition Review, Issue 19.

Authors Talk: Timothy Reilly

Today we are pleased to welcome Timothy Reilly as our Authors Talk series contributor. Timothy talks about what inspired his story “Nosferatu” and what genre it might fit into.

The story takes its title from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That said, the story is not fantasy, nor “so-called magical realism.” Rather, Timothy evokes the vampire myth to put the reader in a particular and strange mindset. Timothy closes by briefly discussing the origins and benefits of this mindset.

You can read and listen to “Nosferatu” in Superstition Review, Issue 19.

Authors Talk: Kalani Pickhart

Today we are pleased to to feature author Kalani Pickhart as our Authors Talk series contributor. Kalani discusses the process and personal significance of “Little Mouse.” She concludes by offering a piece of advice for other young writers.

Kalani explains that “Little Mouse” is her first story that “did a lot with very, very little.” She explains her immediate affinity for this method because it allows the characters’ voices to be communicated more directly. Characters revealing themselves and being heard on their own terms and in their own tone is Kalani’s first priority. This is clear from her language throughout the talk.

You can read and listen to “Little Mouse” in Superstition Review, Issue 19.

Contributor Update: Michelle Menting

Leaves Surface Like SkinToday we are pleased to announce that past contributor Michelle Menting’s debut collection of poems, Leaves Surface Like Skin, has been recently released. The book has already received praise from poet Sandra Beasley, who says, “Menting has a gift for moody and luminous phrasing: ‘For some, the world is wood tick wicked.’ There’s magic to a collection that does such heavy lifting with a light touch.” Purchase your copy through Terrapin, Amazon, B&N, or through your local bookstore.

To read Michelle’s essay “On Becoming Vegan” in Issue 3 of Superstition Review click here.