Guest Blog Post, Anne Colwell: What Writers Can Learn from Actors

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/7eVwrs

On Mondays, after our graduate Shakespeare seminar, we would get lunch at The Malt Shop on Main Street. Four tiny tables huddled in the rear of the store; a counter stretched across the front. Behind the counter was the chalkboard full of the day’s salads, soups, sandwiches, and also behind the counter, three or four of the most attractive young women at the University of Delaware. It was a very popular lunch spot.

Our Shakespeare seminar ended about fifteen minutes before the graduate acting seminars did, so when the actors came in, we had already snagged at least two of the four tables for their show. That’s what we used to whisper to each other as they entered to the jingling of the bell on the door, “Here comes the floor show.” It wasn’t just their clothes – the long, brightly colored scarves, the patchwork pants and Birkenstocks, the hats. It was everything. How they ordered a sandwich – “I would ADORE a tuna MELT” – that final “T” clear and ringing, bouncing off the chalkboards. How they stood in line – taking up space, gesturing to the ceiling and floor. How they each picked up their order and swept out the door, calling back to those waiting, the exit line hanging in the air. We writers and literary types found them amusing and a little absurd. I discovered later that the actors found us, when they found us, arrogant, and frankly, a little dull.

Ironically, of course, we had all spent our mornings falling in love with exactly the same plays, exactly the same characters. With Shakespeare. And we’d all been trying to discover the same things: character motivation, dramatic arcs, the symbols in the world of the play. As a young writer and a new teacher, all these things fascinated me, but especially Shakespeare’s genius at creating characters I felt I knew, even hundreds of years away, characters I believed. Falstaff deciding that “discretion is the better part of valor” and pretending to die. Ophelia, bereft and mad, passing out imaginary flowers and singing bawdy songs. But even though the acting students and I shared this fascination, we lived in different worlds. When the actors came in to The Malt Shop for lunch, they may as well have been speaking another language.

Fast forward a dozen years.

My husband, James Keegan, who’d attended that Shakespeare seminar with me and gotten a literary Ph. D, realized that the dream he’d put off when he was eighteen, the dream of going to Cal Arts and becoming an actor, could not be deferred any longer. Even in graduate school, he’d come as close as he could to uniting the two worlds, the world of the writer and the actor. He’d done his Ph. D. specialty exam in “Shakespeare in Performance,” a study of different stagings of Shakespeare’s plays. In 2003, he bridged the gap between the two worlds. He auditioned for the American Shakespeare Center (the ASC) in Staunton, Virginia and became a professional Shakespearean actor, all the while retaining his roles as a college teacher and a writer. He taught his literature and writing classes at the Georgetown Campus of the University of Delaware on Monday and Tuesday, and then drove five hours to be on the stage Wednesday through Sunday. He worked with some of the same people we used to gawk at in The Malt Shop. He spent his days rehearsing and performing, not reading and talking about the plays, but embodying the characters. That’s the crucial word, and the one I want to talk about here – embodying.

Because he became an actor, I had the tremendous opportunity of seeing the plays he was cast in, not just once, but sometimes over a dozen times during the ASC’s long summer/fall season. Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Henry IV and many, many more. I may be one of the few people in the world who has seen plays so often as a true audience member and not someone connected professionally to the production. I also had the opportunity to go to rehearsals and to live with the actors and listen to and watch them prepare to do their work. All of this has profoundly changed how I feel about myself as a writer and about the creation of character. Don’t get me wrong, the actors were often every bit as absurd and amusing as they had been when they came into The Malt Shop. But now I understood in a much more profound way how closely our worlds were related. Suddenly, I found critical lessons for my own writing in the actors’ craft and in their preparation.

One of the amazing things about watching an actor become a character is that they have to do it first in the flesh; they can’t think themselves into the character, they have to find the character in their bodies. Although actors might begin the process intellectually, memorizing text, talking about themes, when it comes to the stage and the performance, the actor must be in the body. In the house my husband shared with other actors, right across the street from the theater, everyone would come into the kitchen to make lunch or dinner before rehearsals or the evening show. They warmed up their voices as they microwaved leftovers or made sandwiches, and the kitchen and house filled with sound. They sang snatches of songs softly and then loudly, hummed strange high notes, yawned to warm up their facial muscles. In the hallway sometimes, you’d find an actor with a leg thrown over the bannister, talking to himself, or someone holding the bannister and leaning forward like the figure on the prow of a ship.

In just a little while, someone else would inhabit their bodies, and they to prepare their bodies to let them in. King Lear’s voice would be my husband’s voice. James, only forty-seven when he played Lear, an eighty-year-old king, would, as he and his director agreed, “not put on age, but remove youth.” He found the movements and the posture that made him young and set them aside. His shoulders and hips stiffened. He shortened his stride. When James played Macbeth, he had been certified in stage combat, and he planned the way Macbeth would hold himself in a fight –erect and forward, the way he would command space on the stage — central and large. All the actors did similar work for their roles.

So, if you are a playwright, you can count on trained actors to do this for you in every performance. The beautiful thing about writing for the stage is that your work will be literally embodied. I remember my friend and teacher, Jeanne Murray Walker, telling me that one of the most surprising things to her when she transitioned from being a poet to being a playwright was that the words that she wrote on the page became real in the world. When she said that a character wore pink Mickey Mouse sunglasses, someone went out and found pink Mickey Mouse sunglasses.

Ironically, then, it’s playwrights who have the least to do to bring their fictional worlds and their characters to life.

However, as a fiction writer, and even as a poet, I began to realize the extent to which I need and want to do the actor’s work on the page, to imagine myself into the body of the character that I am creating – or better said, the character that I am discovering as I write — and to ask myself a new set of questions. How does it feel to be in the body of this character at this moment? What is he doing with his hands? What aches or pains does she have? Do these pains change the way she walks? How long has she lived with them? Are his feet cold? What happens in her body when she gets angry?

What are you doing with your body right now? What are you aware of in your body?

These are questions that I think it’s easy to forget when we are writing. Sometimes even the best writers get so deeply consumed by the thoughts and emotions of a character that they all but forget the character’s physical existence. Not long ago, for example, James and I listened to Amor Towles’ novel Rules of Civility. It’s an excellent novel, and I appreciated his intelligent structure, his vivid description, and his strong sense of the voice of particular characters. However, one of the things that was missing for me was this sense of the embodiment of the character. In this paragraph from the novel, you can see Towle’s great clarity in his description of the Hotspot Nightclub in Greenwich Village, but you can also feel the absence of the body of the narrator, Katey Kontent:

“From a look around the club, you couldn’t tell that it was New Year’s Eve. There were no hats or streamers; no paper trumpets. At the back of the club, looming over a small empty dance floor, a jazz quartet was playing loved-me-and-left-me standards without a vocalist. The saxophonist, a mournful giant with skin as black as motor oil, had apparently lost his way in the labyrinth of one of his long, lonely solos. While the bass player, a coffee-and-cream mulatto with a small deferential mustache, was being careful not to hurry him. Boom, boom, boom, he went, at half the pace of a heartbeat.”

To be fair, a couple of paragraphs later, Katey does mention that she wears comfortable, flat shoes, but that’s it, and that’s it for pages and pages. It isn’t that the writing is bad – it’s detailed, careful, vivid – it’s that I am missing the sense of the body that an actor will give Katey when the book gets made into a movie.

Why is that important? As a writer, when I think deeply about the physical body of a fictional character, I have a chance to enter the world that character inhabits in a specific and unique human body, that is, in an imagined human form. And, as a reader, if I feel within a character’s body, I move through that specific and unique world with a depth of compassion that isn’t possible in any other way. It is our bodies that separate us, but it is also bodies and inhabiting a body that connects us.

I yawn when I see someone yawn. I have been cold, so when I write about a character trudging through snow who struggles to breathe the freezing air and can no longer feel her numb feet, I am connected to her humanity in a deeper way, and my connection becomes the reader’s connection.

A passage from Amy Tan’s book The Bonesetter’s Daughter comes to mind. This moment is from Part I, and here the main character, Ruth, a preteen, wrongly believes that she is pregnant:

“Now whenever Ruth saw Lance, she breathed so hard and fast her lungs seized up and she nearly fainted from lack of air. She had a constant stomachache. Sometimes her stomach went into spasm and she stood over the toilet heaving, but nothing came out. When she ate, she imagined the food falling into the baby frog’s mouth, and then her stomach felt like a gunky swamp and she had to run to the bathroom and make herself retch, hoping the frog would leap down the toilet and her troubles could be flushed away. . . . First she cried a lot in the bathroom, then sliced her wrist with a dinner knife. It left a row of plowed-up skin, no blood, and it hurt too much to cut any deeper.”

The beauty of this passage comes from how deeply we as readers are allowed into Ruth’s physical reality, and I think that the connection to her body, particularly to her body in this tense, human moment, allows us to feel her panic and have a kind of compassion for her that isn’t possible without imagining ourselves all the way into her situation. I’m also arguing that Amy Tan, as the writer, had to inhabit Ruth’s body first, to imagine what it might physically feel like to be an uninformed, terrified young girl staring down at the toilet and trying to throw up. We make the connection as readers because Tan made the connection as a writer. Through the character, we all overcome the loneliness of the individual body and imagine ourselves, writer and reader, into a shared humanity. Actors teach us that characters begin in bodies and move out into the world.

Guest Blog Post, M.L. Rio: We Shall Overcome (Someday?)

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The Vietnam War is closer to home for me than it is for most twenty-somethings in 2018, probably because our schools tend to gloss or ignore the conflict. What I remember of my American history classes is that the narrative came to a screeching halt after World War II. Nobody wanted to wade through the moral quagmires of Korea and Vietnam when it was so much easier to end on the high note of Allied triumph over the Nazis, with the unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s on the horizon. I’m sure this isn’t a universal experience, but from what I’ve learned in conversation with my peers, it’s a common one.

This war is entrenched in my family history—my grandparents were in the Foreign Service, my mother and her sister raised in Asia while their father worked at the U. S. Embassy in Saigon—so it’s something which has preoccupied, obsessed, and haunted me. I’ve read my grandfather’s letters from Tet. I’ve heard my mother describe waiting for her father to come home, while her mother tried to hide her fear that perhaps he never would. What tormented me most as I got older was how little I understood the conflict. So I did what I do best: research. I devoured books and newspapers, letters and interviews, movies and documentaries, music and memoirs and museum exhibits. The experience was unique in my archival pursuits in that the more I read and the more I learned, the more confused I became. But there’s some strange comfort in that, because that is the common thread running through so many different narratives of Vietnam: confusion and frustration of such agonizing magnitude that words simply cannot do it justice. But, as a writer, I am trying.

It is difficult to explain (especially to people like me who never talked about ’Nam in their history classes but unlike me had no reason to wonder about it) why I spend my scant spare time immersed in something so deeply, indefinitely disturbing. It is difficult to explain that this is something I feel tyrannically compelled to talk about, especially right now. The political climate of the United States is perhaps the most volatile it has been since the Vietnam War—which was ten months into its deadliest year exactly fifty years ago. Daily, anniversaries of deaths and battles and marches—at home and abroad—go by. On October 21, 2017, I walked the same route tens of thousands of anti-war protestors followed to the Pentagon in 1967. In the past two years, I’ve attended protests of my own, dragged out into the streets by a moral obligation to object to what I cannot countenance in this country of my birth: rampant gun violence, virulent misogyny, unchecked corruption, tax cuts for those already obscenely rich, the political legitimization of white supremacy. Since returning to the States from London immediately after the 2016 election, I have lived in a state of constant anger, fear, and confusion. And while I will never really know what it was like for the hundreds of thousands of men who fought for their lives or lost them in Vietnam, I am beginning to understand what it was like to live in a domestic American warzone, where families and friendships and illusions shattered under the pressure of such insurmountable conflict. I feel like I can never quite relax. Random crying jags while reading the Sunday paper have become the norm. Signs lettered with slogans are piled up in my coat closet. Every time I’m off to a protest I dress for a riot, a lesson learned from history and current events alike. Wear sneakers in case you have to run, tie a bandana around your neck to breathe through in case you get tear-gassed, keep your ID and cash in your pocket in case you’re arrested, and don’t forget to call your folks before you go and let you know you love them—just in case. But worse than anything, I think, is the feeling of desperate breathless exhaustion, like you’ve been screaming your lungs out for two straight years and nobody can hear you—or if they can, they’re not listening.

So. Where does that leave you? What do you do?

As historians are fond of pointing out, the Sixties witnessed socio-political unrest unseen since the Civil War. The Sixties also saw some of the most remarkable artistic achievement of the 20th century, and that is hardly a coincidence. Without the cultural revolution which was undeniably intensified by the Vietnam War, we would be bereft of a rich artistic groundswell which gave us freeform radio and music videos, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Slaughterhouse-Five, Bob Dylan and the Doors. Art has often been rebellious, sometimes revolutionary, and never apolitical. It has held a mirror up to nature, since Shakespeare coined the phrase (and long before). Art is one of the most powerful forms of protest we have, which is why artists are usually among the first to be exiled, arrested, punished, and persecuted when totalitarianism rears its ugly head.

For me, art is also a way to make some sense of senseless things. For the last year or so I have been working on a novel which follows the staff of a college radio station from 1967 to ’69. They are students and activists, lovers and fighters, poets and potheads, disc jockeys and GIs and draft dodgers, all dragged kicking and screaming into the chaos and turmoil of Vietnam. In their company I have marched on the Pentagon, watched the Tet Offensive unfold on television, felt crippling fear for a friend who just lost the draft lottery. I’ve also shared their wild delight at the vibrant life of the counterculture, their exhilaration at hearing “Purple Haze” for the first time and knowing it was something extraordinary, their contradictory conviction that peace is worth fighting for, their noble and naïve belief that they can arrest the forward momentum of a powerful political machine if only they, as Mario Savio so memorably put it in the days of Berkeley Free Speech, are brave enough to throw their bodies on the gears.

It’s not an easy story to tell when you know how it ends. The war dragged on until 1975, leaving almost 60,000 Americans dead—including four students killed at Kent State by the National Guard—and many more Vietnamese. It’s not an easy story to tell fifty years later when it couldn’t be plainer how little we’ve learned from the ugly parts of our history that nobody really wants to talk about. But that, of course, is exactly why I feel compelled to tell it.

Last week I marched with hundreds of other people from the U. S. Capitol to the steps of the Supreme Court to protest the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In light of Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high-school party with his hand clapped over her mouth, the analogy that we’re all screaming and no one can hear has become painfully, horribly real. Doubt eats away at me daily, and I can’t help wondering if all our efforts, all our marches and protests and outrage, will ultimately amount to nothing.

As I stood by the Capitol Reflecting Pool under gray skies and drizzling rain, an elegant older woman passed by me—dressed in black, with short gray hair and a face that was familiar, though I’d never met her before. When I realized she really was Joan Baez and not just someone who resembled her I thought, My God, she must be so tired of this. But then I felt a strange, unexpected stab of hope and realized how grateful I am for someone like her, someone who hasn’t given up fighting inequality and violence and war for fifty years, no matter how tired she is. Later I saw her standing under a tree (surprisingly not mobbed by people; perhaps other marchers my age and younger don’t know who she is) and managed to mutter a strangled, inadequate “Thank you.” Because I needed the reminder that apathy is not an option. Because now I can return to the story I’m trying to tell, a story of then and now, art and outrage, small hope and long odds that we’ll ever learn from our mistakes. Because no matter how small the hope or how long the odds, I refuse to fall silent. Of course, I’m no Joan Baez. I’ve only been marching around in the rain for two years and I’m already exhausted. But I will keep marching, and I will keep screaming, and I will keep writing, because just maybe someone will hear me, and just maybe, someday, it will matter.

Guest Blog Post, DJ Lee: The Looking Back

Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/spider-web-34225/

In August 2018, on hill overlooking the Salish Sea, I was walking through an old growth forest that grew suddenly dark and foreign. The other twenty members of the nature seminar seemed perfectly comfortable there. A few yards away, a woman with gray-blonde hair had placed her palm against a towering maple and was talking to it in low voice. Further away, a young man with a shadowy beard padded barefoot on the forest duff, then crouched next to a wild rose bush, eyeing it with loving intensity. Though I’d been anticipating a moment like this for an entire year, I somehow couldn’t do it.

I’d come here to Cortes Island, British Columbia, to join a class led by the geophilosopher David Abram, whose two books The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-Than-Human World and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology I’d read so many times the pages were falling from the spines. Though Abram isn’t the only one to talk about how we humans have wandered far from our animal selves and have lost touch with something vital in the process, he’s one of the most ardent. I thought that by taking his class I might learn to connect more meaningfully to the natural world and to translate that connection into my writing.

Earlier that day, Abram had led us to a grove of cedars and sat cross-legged on the forest floor. A fringe of brown hair peeked from under his leather hat. His brown vest and shirt hung on him like a silken tent, and he used big, sweeping gestures as he spoke. “In oral cultures,” he said, “human language was nothing other than shaped breath. For our ancestors, air carried the words and the meaning.” He spoke of the “beings” of the more-than-human world, the crows, ladybugs, kingfishers, salmon, antelope, grizzlies, rocks, and soil. At a certain level, he told us with boyish excitement in his voice, everything in nature speaks, from the guttural sound of a stream to the squeaky ridges on crickets’ wings. Their difference from us, he continued, is the very reason they matter so much. When we stare too long into human-created things, we deteriorate. He then sent us out to have an encounter with one of these beings.

But now that I was in the forest attempting to do as Abram had asked, something was holding me back. Possibly I felt exposed. Was it okay to talk candidly to a piece of sky with others listening in? Or maybe I felt the relationship was moving too fast. How long does one have to know a Ponderosa before stroking its butterscotch bark? I’m not someone to force intimacy on a person, so perhaps that’s why I was finding it difficult to do so with a sandpiper, a boulder, a patch of moss. I passed another student lying flat, back against the ground, eyes trained on a moving cloud.

I’d never felt such discomfort over an assignment.

Abram was still sitting twenty yards away under the cedars, a slight smile on his face, as if he knew exactly what he was doing, as if he even took some delight in the fact that some of us lept into this encounter while others struggled.

Even if I couldn’t connect, I told myself, I could at least walk in silence and notice the shine of the alder leaves, the chalky aspen, the rugged fir, the ear-like oyster shell. But I resolved not to disturb a thing.

Still, like most writers and storytellers, I’m enthralled with the double-take, the looking back, because it’s the moment after something happens when images collect themselves, events unfold as drama, meaning accrues, and story begins to weave its disparate threads.

And what I saw just then, and saw again, was a silken web silvering in the afternoon light, each spoke double-tied at each cross thread, strung between two sword ferns. Suddenly, I was caught. I reached out to touch it, but then hesitated. What if the spider was nearby? I searched the vicinity, studying each leaf, each stem, the air between. I waited. When she didn’t appear, I placed the tip of my index finger on one diaphanous thread and felt it in an almost way, which is to say, it gently stuck to my skin then pinged back into shape as I pulled away. Was this the encounter I was meant to have? The language I was meant to hear? That for every intimate touch there’s a lingering in the pulling away. Or was I meant to see that these strange, nearsighted creatures spin to live, catching what they need in their gluey mesh?

As if out of nowhere, she came, the orb weaver, or yellow sac, or whatever she was, with her eight legs and eight-fold eyes. A few inches from the first perfect web, I noticed another one. More opaque and less pristine, filled with bits of leaf and twig, this second web hung hammock-like from a branch. She slipped into that hammock and rested, tense and still, legs poised.

As I gazed on her speckled belly, I was pulled out of myself into my childhood bedroom at midnight in my dressing gown and hiking boots, standing on my bed screaming bloody murder, my mother flying down the hall saying, “What’s wrong!”

“A spider!” I said. “I stepped on it and it came up through my boot. Or I thought it did.” My mother rubbed the sleep from her eyes as we watched the spider creep from under the dresser. She scooped it up in her hand and put it out the back door, shaking her head as she left. I was tough by default, growing up the only sister in a house full of brothers, and my arachnophobia made no sense to her. I wasn’t even able to bear the glossy fibers laced through the forest behind our Seattle home, and would refuse to go on hiking trips for fear of encountering a web, though it was thinner than an eyelash.

The spider on Cortes Island made her way to the larger, perfect web, and it was then I noticed that my one slight touch had damaged it. A few strands had stuck to my finger, leaving a gaping hole in the mesh. Something like grief shot through me for what I’d done in my clumsy attempt at an encounter. I wanted to say something. Sorry? But I didn’t know how to speak spider language except through silence.

I remembered that my irrational fear of spiders eventually resolved. I couldn’t recall how, but it must have had something to do with the year I taught Greek mythology to middle schoolers. I would stand at the front of a classroom in Richland, Washington, retelling the oral tales as the students squirmed and fidgeted in their seats. No tale intrigued them more than that of Arachne, the girl who, having challenged Athena to a weaving contest, made a tapestry showing all the ways the gods abused mortals, and for such harsh truth in such a gorgeous form, Athena turned her into a spider.

Or was it that other myth, the one I found in graduate school through the poet John Keats, at a time when I needed it most, that of Philomela? Tereus, her brother-in-law, raped her and then violated her a second time by cutting out her tongue. He thought he had ensured her silence, but Philomela turned that silence into a grave spinneret from which she wove a robe that told her story of pain, whereupon the gods turned her into a nightingale, and so she became a sister in metamorphosis with Arachne, and, it seemed to me then, with the soundless spider there on Cortes Island.

As these things were winding through me, Abram called us back to the cedars with Tibetan prayer chimes. We sat in a circle among the roots. “In oral cultures,” he said, “land is the primary pneumonic for stories. And so stories are intimately tied to the places where they happen.” He then asked us to share our encounters. One person witnessed a mercurial blue reflection on a rock. One felt vibrations under a clod of dirt. One was healed by touching the scar of a fir tree. One heard a maple whispering through her arm. As each person spoke, I felt as if the air itself was multiplying, diversifying, thickening with meaning.

As for my own encounter, it was only later, when I looked back, that I understood how the more-than-human world confronted me with the very thing that makes me human, the ability to let memory unspool. But something else happened, too. In the days that followed the encounter, I noticed webs everywhere, and no wonder. As I learned when I consulted that other, shadow Web, there are over 700 spider species in the province of British Columbia, and on Cortes Island, I was never more than a meter away from an arachnid. I saw the strands under the eaves of the guest house and woven into a blackberry vine, in the silver hair of the other seminar students, and in the diamond chain dangling from a young girl’s neck as she danced to African drums on the last evening on the island. Every web was a double-take, a reminder of how story is built.

Guest Blog Post, Alice Lowe: About Chocolate Donuts

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Now and then, if we’re lucky, writing ideas burst onto the scene fully formed, like Botticelli’s Venus on the half-shell. More often they emerge from our routines of list-making, mind-mapping, trial and error. We’re offered prompts or we select them randomly, like choosing a vacation spot by sticking push pins in a map while blindfolded. It’s hit and miss, sometimes an arduous and tedious process, painful as prolonged labor. Will this brainchild ever be born?

We may develop a stockpile of ideas to be developed with the right impetus … or not. When I was invited to submit a guest post to Superstition Review I didn’t say, “Aha, I know just what I’ll write.” Nothing came to mind. I looked at my list of possibilities, hand-printed in alternating blue and purple ink on the dry-erase board over my desk. I eliminated them from consideration one by one: no, not that one; no; uh uh; no, that won’t work. My mind went blank. I explained my dilemma to my husband on one of our morning walks, five miles to Balboa Park and back. This was before breakfast or even coffee, and we’d agreed to stop at Donut Star on the way home, so perhaps he was a bit single-minded. “Write about chocolate donuts,” he said.  

I write creative nonfiction, personal essays—my own stories—so it isn’t as if I have to create new worlds out of wisps of cloud. I am my own protagonist, and the people and experiences I write about are real; I don’t have to design or disguise characters or events. Is this a blessing or a curse? On the one hand the raw material is there for the harvesting, even if it’s covered over with years of accumulated debris. On the other hand I can’t invent—I’m limited by the facts. If I don’t like the way an episode ends, I can’t change it. If I behaved badly, my choices are to tell it truthfully or not tell it at all.

I’ve written essays about family and childhood, about men and mistakes, fear and failure, success and sadness, about getting old (and older still). Extending beyond myself but still in the context of personal experience, I’ve written about crows and cats, sushi and shellfish, science and polar exploration (inspired by a folk song), about baseball and opera, writing and writers. The notes currently on my dry-erase board, potential themes waiting to materialize, include bookstores, boycotts, and breakfast (with donuts?).

My affinity for maps might not have struck me as a prospective topic if I hadn’t seen the blurb in an AARP bulletin that included glove box maps—along with land lines, desktop computers, and analog watches (all of which I continue to use)—among things likely to become extinct in the next fifty years. A lover of fold-out maps, for pleasure reading as well as directions, the idea of writing about them resonated. But what about them? I have a box of maps that I’ve collected from my travels, but I didn’t want to write a travel piece. I needed an in, a hook. The idea hibernated in the “ideas” file that preceded the white board. Periodically I would nudge it and its dormant companions to see if there were signs of life, if anything was ready to emerge into daylight.

My daughter and I went to New York last October to, among other things, run a 10K race. When I printed out a map of the race route, she teased me: “It’s Central Park—why do you need a map?” That was it, the opening of what became “Flȃneur with Baedeker, or, Student of the Map,” published this spring in Superstition Review. In the course of research and dredging my memory, I was able to pay homage to my Long Island birthplace and my Anglophilia, to some of my favorite literary works, and to my mentor/muse Virginia Woolf, and to weave them together into what I think of as a self-portrait in maps. The ingredients were waiting to be assembled, but it couldn’t happen without that first spark, the recognition that here was an idea I might be able to develop.

Perhaps there’s no difference in that respect between fiction and nonfiction. Authors of both are mining the real world as well as their memories and imaginations for themes and stories, for characters and settings, for detail and drama.

When I’m idea-starved and one doesn’t pad over to me like a well-trained terrier, I get a little anxious. I don’t believe in writer’s block, though I might if it was called “idea block.” These are the times when my mind feels a little stodgy, when I even get a little panicky, and I wonder “What am I going to write?” It’s always that initial catalyst that eludes me. Once an idea presents and plants itself, I’m fired up, ready to nurture and cultivate it. If it doesn’t germinate I put it away—that hibernation file—and see if a long winter’s rest might revive it.

Virginia Woolf would swirl her ideas around in her diary, test their validity on paper, often long before she knew what they might become. In a January 1920 entry she writes that she’s “happier today than I was yesterday having this afternoon arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel … I must still grope and experiment but this afternoon I had a gleam of light.” She goes on to describe the barest skeleton for what would become Jacob’s Room, her third novel and the first to delve into the modernist style that she would develop in subsequent work. A holiday in St. Ives, Cornwall, her family’s summer retreat during her childhood, prompted the inspiration for To the Lighthouse. She’d visited several times in her adult life—she might have written about it any number of times—but it was on this particular trip that she recognized it as a rich foundation for her novel.  

Food is a foundation—one of many but an especially evocative one—from which I’ve explored life and culture and history. I’ve written a number of food-themed essays, from the autobiographical sweep of an abecedarian to more focused pieces on assorted seafood, on noodles, New Orleans food, Cornish pasties, rutabagas, mom’s cooking, and cookbooks. It’s also a wellspring for sumptuous verbal displays, as many authors, including Virginia Woolf, have discovered. Writing about chocolate donuts isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Pastries I have known and loved? Muffins and biscuits and scones, oh my?

Guest Blog Post, Thomas Legendre: Researching the Stone

Photo Credit: www.migratingmiss.com

Many writers claim you don’t necessarily need to visit the settings depicted in your work, but for me, it’s a good excuse to travel. Perhaps my most memorable “excuse” came when I was researching a novel involving British prehistory and, for one chapter in particular (published as “Ultraviolet” in Superstition Review), some archaeological sites in Orkney.

I was warned about Orkney. “Gale force winds,” a Scottish friend told me. “Cold rain. Rough seas. The ferry ride alone will make you sick for a week. It’s not Hawaii, mate.”

But as an American resident of Edinburgh, known as “The Athens of the North” for its role in the Enlightenment, I had developed a tolerance for such extremes. And I was curious about Orkney, a group of over 70 islands teeming with prehistoric sites that are reputedly the best-preserved in Europe. I had seen photos of the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, less famous cousins of Stonehenge. I had heard stories about Neolithic tribes, Picts, Vikings, and, most fascinating of all, sailors from the Spanish Armada who had survived a shipwreck off the coast over 400 years ago and gone native, leaving behind a strain of conspicuously dark-eyed Orcadians.

There was history there. And prehistory. And legend and myth. And a couple of whisky distilleries. But what really put my motivation in gear? The Neolithic village of Skara Brae, known as “The Pompeii of the North.”

Pompeii? Ok, it wasn’t exactly Hawaii. But I imagined a volcano smoking on the horizon.

I loaded my bicycle into my car, drove it onto the ferry—let’s call it “The Pacific Princess of the North”—and braced myself for a seven-hour roller-coaster ride. My objective was to visit as many prehistoric sites as possible and, since it was late May, use my bike as much as possible while doing it. I had filled an entire suitcase with thermal layers and raingear. But as we left port, the sky was suspiciously clear. The sea was smooth as glass. Instead of clinging to the bulkhead for dear life, I was standing at the rail with a pint of ale watching the sunset at 10 pm.

The Mainland, as it is known, is the largest island and the home of the local government. The streets of Kirkwall, established by Norse invaders during their 600 year reign, were built narrow against the infamous wind. After some wandering, I managed to find my hotel only to discover Robert, one of the co-owners, tending the bar instead of the reception desk. His attitude, at least, was in the right place.

The next morning I woke to heavy rain, my enthusiasm slightly damp around the edges. At the reception desk a woman named Carol offered encouraging words about the weather. “It’ll lift by afternoon,” she said, in what sounded like a blend of Scottish and Norwegian accents. “The Farm Report on telly—that’s the one to watch. Ignore everything else. The BBC can’t really see this far.”

The accent made sense. And so did the outlook. I had been told that the inhabitants of Orkney, separated from the countries that governed them over the centuries, had a distinct sense of identity. They consider themselves Orcadians first, Scots second. What Americans might call The Texans of the North.

Except this wasn’t Texas weather. I glanced out the window again. I scanned my list of prehistoric sites and noticed one that was far away and relatively isolated from the others. An outlier. A distant target. A good excuse to drive instead of bike. It was called The Tomb of the Eagles:  a Neolithic chambered cairn that was found with over 16,000 human and 725 eagle bones inside. These weren’t intact skeletons, but remains that had been disarticulated by way of a prehistoric practice known as excarnation. In other words, the corpses had been left exposed until they were stripped by animals, then deliberately cracked apart and interred. Archaeologists are still puzzling over exactly what sort of religious practices were involved, let alone the beliefs they signified. Photos of the tomb at the time of discovery show skulls arranged on stone shelves, along with an ankle-deep mix of ribs and femurs and tarsals, not to mention eagle talons.

But this was still 22 miles away. Wipers clicking, I drove across several islands linked by causeways known as the Churchill Barriers, constructed to thwart the Germans during World War II and still displaying the occasional mast or rusting bulk of a ship scuttled to block passage. A different kind of excarnation, perhaps.

Signs pointed beyond sheep pastures to the visitor’s center, where I checked in for a hands-on tutorial of the various relics. The Tomb of the Eagles is privately owned, staffed by guides who take an interactive and somewhat playful approach. I was encouraged to hold stone tools, to feel the contours of ancient bones, and peer closely at the upper molars of a skull that had chewed its last meal 5000 years ago. Then I went off to the tomb itself. I followed the path through fields and along a headland with the North Sea churning at the cliffs below.

It was a grassy mound about the size of an RV. The passage into the tomb was low and narrow, requiring a hands-and-knees approach—a common Neolithic feature. In this case, though, the owners had strung a rope along the ceiling of the passage, with a trolley on the floor that a mechanic might use to slide underneath a car.

I glanced around nervously. I was alone. The sea crashed and heaved at the base of the cliff. Then I crouched down and pulled myself in.

It was empty, of course, with vacant side cells and a roped-off corner that was considered unsafe. And the original roof was gone, replaced by a concrete dome with skylights. It should have been a letdown. But I thought of all the hands that had stacked the stones, the regiment of skulls, the scree of bones on the floor. I imagined darkness, the air heavy with death. And those eagle talons.

Had bodies been exposed on the nearby cliffs for the eagles to pick at? And had those very same eagles been captured afterward and sealed in the tomb? I realized this was the nature of the Neolithic—or at least the nature of the Neolithic for us. They took everything apart without leaving instructions for putting it back together again. If you want your history intact and obvious, look elsewhere. This was an imaginative puzzle. Some assembly required.

As I walked back along the cliffs the weather began to lift. I checked my watch. Noon. With this confirmation of the farm report, I drove back toward the Mainland and my appointed tour at Maeshowe, the “finest chambered tomb in Orkney,” which turned out to be another grassy mound, but larger. I was beginning to get the picture.

Maeshowe, though, has special significance. It’s located on a low stretch of land surrounded by hills—a natural amphitheater—within sight of the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and the Neolithic village of Barnhouse. And it’s impressive.

A guide led a bunch of us down a passageway set with gigantic flagstones into a main chamber about 15 feet high. Still fresh from the Tomb of the Eagles, I recognized the look of the place. The same architect? This tomb, however, had been looted and vandalized long before discovery by our enlightened civilization. The chambers were completely empty, the walls covered in places with “runic inscriptions”—i.e., Viking graffiti. There are references to treasure and, shall we say, unprintable activities.

“Many a woman has gone stooping in here,” one of them reads. “Thorni bedded. Helgi carved,” reads another.

But probably the most remarkable feature of Maeshowe is the alignment of the tomb itself. For several weeks before and after the winter solstice, the sunset shines directly down the passage and illuminates the back wall of the chamber. Historic Scotland, which manages the site, maintains a webcam for those meek souls who want to witness it but don’t care to travel to Orkney at a time of year when dusk occurs during lunch.

I emerged to find it raining again. I pulled up my hood and hiked over to the Stones of Stenness. I crossed the bank and ditch and made my way over to the nearest of the slabs. Originally there had been 12 of them. Now there were only 4. But they had character—thin, sharp, with oblique angles that gave them a certain geological nobility. And there was a central hearth:  a stone box set in the ground, where fires had burned for ceremonial rituals and feasts. I looked down into it and imagined heat. The rain stopped. The clouds parted. The sun shone.

There was only one thing left to do. Skara Brae.

Can you handle the truth? It ain’t Pompeii. But consider this:  we’re closer in time to Pompeii than Pompeii was to Skara Brae. In other words, it’s more than twice as old. And there it was, built into a midden, which today serves as a kind of viewing platform surrounding the houses. The roofs are gone, allowing visitors to peer down into the structures. Walls, hearths, beds, dressers—all made of stone.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Tombs. Standing stones. The remains of Pictish or Viking (or both) hill forts. Wind-swept hills and roaring sea. And it was research. Really. These details are coming to you courtesy of copious notes and photos I took in the field, not to mention hours of additional writing at the hotel every night.

That said, it’s hard to claim any scholarly merit in visiting Highland Park Distillery or the restaurants of Kirkwall, one of which served a prime Orkney fillet steak with pan-seared queen scallops in a light whisky sauce, a kind of locavore extraordinaire, while another, called Dil Se, identified itself as “The Finest Indian Cuisine in Orkney,” which seemed like boasting the Best Mexican Food in Moscow. Or maybe the Tex-Mex of the North? But the saag balti and lamb tikka was worthy of any hemisphere, as was everything else about Orkney. As I boarded the ferry back home, I realized the last place I had enjoyed this much was another group of islands I had visited many years ago. What was the name? Ah yes. Hawaii. The Orkney of the South . . . But that would be a much more expensive novel to write.  

Guest Blog Post, Sherrie Flick: 11 Pieces of Good Advice and One I Should Have Ignored

  1. The high school classroom is standard issue. I’ve grown up in this mill town, but it’s really dying now. None of the students around me in this creative writing class have aspirations to become a writer. They want to go to college and get a job that they won’t get laid off from. My teacher Mr. Moore tells me: it doesn’t matter where you go to school. Anywhere you go, you’ll find great professors to work with. He says, yes, I think you have what it takes to become a writer.
  2. I’m in a standard issue professor’s office for my mid-semester conference in fiction 101. It’s probably the first workshop I’ve ever taken in my life. The professor looks up at me, squints, and says: The problem with you is that at some point in your life someone told you you were creative.
  3. I’m 23 years old and about to get into my boyfriend’s puke green Chevy. It’s parked in my parents’ driveway. We’ve stopped to visit them as we head west after I’ve graduated from the University of New Hampshire. We’ll travel across the country for months without any real destination, although we end up in San Francisco for 4 years. My parents don’t understand what in the hell I’m doing, although they wouldn’t say it that way. My dad tells me: always make sure you’re making enough money per month so that one week goes to rent, one goes to utilities and bills, one goes to savings, and one is for spending money. I follow this advice for years and in many ways it’s how I am able to write and work and live and be happy in many different places.
  4. My friend Pam on many different occasions: If you’re not having fun, leave.
  5. I’ve just met my roommate Mallory Tarses at Sewanee Writers’ Conference and by dinner time everyone thinks we’ve been friends forever. I write flash fiction, have been writing it for many years. Everyone tells me I need to write a novel. Everyone. Mallory says, or why not just get really, really good at writing flash fiction?
  6. At that same conference Tim O’Brien says: Don’t forget to look around while you’re in there writing the story, take the time to look around.
  7. My friend Jonah Winter: Knock it off.
  8. I’m four years out of graduate school and living in Pittsburgh with a real job working in museum education. It’s 40+ hours a week and stressful. I feel lost so I email my mentor Marly Swick (See #1) and tell her I’m ungrounded and out of touch with any kind of national writing community. She says, “Why don’t you apply to some writing residencies? I think it’s time for you to do that.”
  9. I’m at Atlantic Center for the Arts studying with Jim Crace and a great group of fiction writers. Armadillos rustle through the grasses below the boardwalks. Jim Crace says: “Slow down. Look at each sentence. Craft each sentence. Vary the length. Think about word choice. Avoid repeated words. Use active verbs. You already do this instinctually, now I want you to do it deliberately.”
  10. Pam Painter: Start with a list. A list is never intimidating.
  11. I’m running the Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh. The writer John Dalton gets up to read from his debut novel Heaven Lake. He finishes and immediately sells out of books. Later he tells me: Summarize the novel in your introduction and then read a strong section that doesn’t logically follow from the summary. People buy books because they want to find out how the two connect.
  12. There’s a big round table and 21 of us sit around it. The Creative Capital retreat is like a boot camp in professionalism for artists. They tell us: Always introduce yourself using your first and last name. They tell us: Have a 1-year plan and a 5-year plan. They tell us: If you’re not being rejected, you’re not working hard enough.

Guest Blog Post, Todd Robinson: Think Think Think

Guest Blog PostThink Think Think

I write most of my poems from a little room on the second floor of a crumbling Spanish colonial in an old neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska. Two wide windows face west, sky and tree-tops staring me down day after night after day after night. Powerlines and rooftops, rain and robins, and, once—though I was so high I doubted my bleary eyes—a showdown between thirty cardinals and three bluejays, which ended with a jay’s Stuka-dive calamitous slam three feet from my face. Sky must be reflected on the glass, because birds wham into it all the time. I notice with a start, then peer down to see a small, still form on a little sun-room roof one story below. If I look away, they disappear.

For all this weirdness and wonder, the swath of this vista usually bores me. I was very bored the January morning I wrote “Hard-Headed Mantra” (Superstition #20), leafless dark trees throwing up their hands to the wintry whiteout that swaddles Omaha four months of the year, my cold bones wrapped in flannel, brain ricocheting with restless cravings for something to do and to be. For years upon years I had filled those empty hours with intoxicants, churring through the lonely hours like a June-bug, sickly as a summer cold in any weather. But those draughts were done the day I wrote the poem. What to do, then?

My AA sponsor has always said if you have nothing to write about, write about nothing. He says Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for writing about nothing, so I might as well write about nothing, too. So there I was, restless and moody as any addict, with no salve for my jangled nerves. A poem, then.

Ted Kooser once told me he always reads a poem before he attempts to write, as a kind of mental calisthenics, so ever the dutiful acolyte, I soon found myself appraising C. Dale Young’s “Between the Dragon and the Phoenix”, which opens “Fire in the heart, fire in the sky, the sun just / a smallish smudge resting on the horizon / out beyond the reef that breaks the waves” before delving into memories of father and son and the ambiguities therein. I loved his roiling rhythm, his painterly images, the high-tension wire between generations thrumming, and thought I might launch out from his reef into my own, more wintry, reverie.

And so I did, conjuring the not-much around and within me that January of 2017 before leaping into the fraught past I share with a man I once hated but have come somewhat begrudgingly to love. The poem tells the story, so there’s not much need to elaborate, but in my emotion recollected in boredom I did make an epiphanic leap between the casual cruelties he larded upon my youthful head and the dazed drunk I eventually became. I mean to imply no causality, but surely the seeds of my later ruin were planted not by his hard hand, but by the lazing, mazing, dozing days of my youth, when I filled the idle hours with daydreams and space operas, comic books and candy. He seemed to find me and my methods contemptible, and perhaps, I now realize, I protested—to myself only, for he brooked no opposition—too much. I always thought I was unique, especially gifted, golden…but it turned out I was just a drifting boy who became a man adrift.

I haven’t dosed since September 30th, 2014, but still I struggle to incite myself into productive action, and find myself staring out that window at a world built for the whims of others. And eight miles to the west, my father does the very same nothing.