Guest Post, Faye Rapoport DesPres: The Lost Words

I haven’t written a “creative” word in a month. That might be an odd way to start a blog post about writing, but it’s the truth—and wherever there is truth, there is a puzzle for a writer to examine.

I can point to several reasons why I haven’t been writing, of course. Aren’t there always reasons? First, I just returned from a two-week trip to Alaska, so I was away for two weeks of the month in question. Second, every moment of the two weeks before the trip felt busy with preparations and tinged with anxiety—after all, my husband and I would be traveling on four flights, a train, a bus, two small boats, and a medium-sized cruise ship.

A third reason goes like this: feeling relieved at the opportunity to disconnect from the Internet, I left behind my laptop, which would have been difficult to tote on and off planes and from one place to another on the ground or at sea. I did pack a small, handmade notebook from a Tanzanian craft shop that employs people who live with physical challenges. I thought the notebook’s history would motivate me to write, but its pages remained blank throughout the trip.

All of these reasons sound good when I write them down, but the truth is I can’t explain the lack of writing. I have never before traveled to such an inspiring place without writing a single word while I was there. Each day I thought about writing (and I did dictate journal entries into my iPhone), but day after day I avoided that little notebook and wondered, in the back of my mind, why I was doing it.

Seal on Rock
Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

What I was doing was taking photographs. My camera, I’d always known, was coming with me to Alaska regardless of how awkward it would be to carry it. From the moment our plane landed in an Anchorage flooded with daylight at 11 o’clock at night, I snapped photo after photo after photo. I captured images of snow-covered mountains, of rivers carrying glacial silt through scenic valleys, of seagulls chasing the spouts of humpback whales, and of seals resting on ice caps recently calved from retreating glaciers. I took photos of a wolf tailing a grizzly bear across a mountainside, of a herd of caribou on a hilltop, of 20,310-foot-tall Denali on a rare sunny day. And the bald eagles! I had only seen four in the wild before this trip, but in Alaska, the sky and the trees and even the rooftops seemed filled with them, and I couldn’t stop clicking at their magnificence.

A number of writers I admire also take photographs. As I captured image after image in Alaska, I wondered about this impulse. Why was I obsessed with my camera, while the little notebook languished, unopened, in my suitcase?

Eagle with Wings Open
Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Somewhere between Anchorage and Denali and Seward and Skagway and Hoonah and Ketchikan, it occurred to me that my goal with a camera is pretty much the same as my goal with a pen. I’m trying to capture the world around me in all its beauty, its glory, its sadness, and its grit so that I can save and relive the moments, and then share them with others. Like any writer or photographer or artist in any media, I can’t recreate the world as it actually exists. I can only interpret it through the filter that is—for better or worse—me. A bald eagle exists in all its magnificence in and of itself. All I can do is try to capture its essence and the wonder I feel when I see it. Then I can show it to others with an unspoken question: “Do you see what I see?” I want someone else to see it, too, so I can share the experience—and also so I’m not alone in that wonder.

With creative writing (whether it’s fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or dramatic writing) the process, I think, is much the same. The writer observes something or feels something or experiences an event, and then captures, frames, interprets, recreates, or re-imagines it based on a personal understanding and sensibility. Through this process, the story is infused with the meaning the writer attaches to it. Finding the right sharpness or clarity or beauty in the delivery is what requires click after click after click of the pen or keyboard.

Of course, there is one central difference between photography and writing. Photographs are visual images made up of (or at least based on) shapes and colors and light that exist outside the photographer, out there in the world at the moment when the shutter is snapped. How the photographer perceives those images and frames and interprets them with a camera is, of course, the art. Written texts, on the other hand, are born of observations of the outside world that become stories when they merge with the ideas, memories, and imagination in the mind of the writer. The texts won’t exist unless the writer makes use of that complicated, beautiful, difficult, and (for me) often dreaded tool: words.

Words. There are so many words! And writers have to choose just the right ones every time! And the choice of which words to use makes all the difference.

South Sawyer Glacier
Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Sometimes, for me, the words just don’t come. While I was in the great, vast, wild state of Alaska, they eluded me completely. The wilderness was so stunning that words failed me. One definition of the word “stunning,” by the way, is to be “able or likely to make a person senseless or confused.” That is what Alaska did to me. It stunned me. It left me senseless and confused…wordless. But, I have to say, happily, ecstatically so.

Now I am home. Now, as a writer, my job is to make sense of what struck me senseless. The weeks, months, and maybe even years of translation and interpretation through the imperfect filter that is me must begin.

But why? Why not leave Alaska to be remembered through the hundreds of photographs I came home with, the eagles and the glaciers, the mountains and the waterfalls, the seals and the wolf and the whales? I certainly love the photos, and if I were a better photographer, photos would rightfully be enough.

But for better or worse, I’m a writer. And ever since I was a little girl, all I wanted was to find the right words.

Guest Post, John Messick: Remarks on a Jar of Squirrel

I didn’t become a trapper during my first winter in Alaska because I aspired to be the last mountain man. I lived in Fairbanks, and about halfway through December a family of squirrels started to eat the insulation out of my roof.

It gets cold in Fairbanks in the winter. Really cold. My fiancé, Mollie, who is also a writer, says that the winter can be hallucinatory. The only time I’ve ever been colder came during the season I spent at South Pole Station, Antarctica. There are no squirrels at the South Pole.

The damn squirrels burrowed into my eaves. They scattered pink insulation onto the snow like confetti. At three in the morning, the whole family scampered to a spot just over my head and scratched woodchips down onto my face. More than once, I woke up with hives because chunks of fiberglass had found their way onto my sheets. The squirrels chittered and chattered and systematically replaced my perfectly good insulation with a spruce cone cache. Spruce cones, you should know, are not very warm.

I had to do something—I was desperate. So, I borrowed a crate of number one marten traps from a guy at work, baited my sets with a smear of peanut butter, and pretty soon the bodies started to pile up.

I started getting more sleep. My heating bill stabilized. But something about a killing those squirrels didn’t feel right, and I couldn’t bring myself to toss the bodies into a dumpster. I left them dead and frozen in a bucket on my porch. I guess it had something to do with use value, with wanton waste.

Even in death, even though they’re just squirrels, I imagined they might still have some worth. I thought: life isn’t confined to a singular purpose—and that also applies to tree-dwelling rodents. The meaningful steps of existence branch outward, downward, to leaves and roots and connected sinews, shifting and expanding, taking on new roles and titles, just as I am not merely a ‘writer,’ but am also a teacher, a hunter, a gatherer, a meaning-maker, a preservator. It occurred to me, as I contemplated what to do with those squirrels, that all creatures carry a multiplicity of talents, and so I couldn’t throw the bodies into the dumpster.

Instead, I opened a copy of the University of Georgia Extension canning cookbook and found a recipe for canned squirrel: “Soak meat one hour in brine made by dissolving one tablespoon salt per quart of water,” the book said. “Rinse. Use preparation procedures and processing times recommended for poultry, omitting the salt.”

In Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, I found no fewer than five recipes for prepared squirrel. I asked around to see if anyone had ever eaten squirrel.

“Down south I have. Up here, not even the pine marten eat them. They probably taste like a spruce cone,” said the guy who had loaned me the traps.

I wasn’t deterred. When I had a halred-squirrel-1248232f-dozen squirrels in the bucket, I brought them inside and set about the task of turning a nuisance into a meal.

You should know that these were not the fat and fearless squirrels that inhabit university quads across the lower 48. The red squirrels in my roof were smaller, chipmunk size at best, with thick fur and muscles made for life at 50 below zero.

It took two hours to finish the skinning and deboning. When I was done, I hadn’t even harvested enough usable meat to fill a pint jar. My plan was a bust. I tossed the meat scraps in a Ziploc and they spent the next two years getting freezer burned. Eventually, I did what I had tried so hard to avoid. I threw the meat away.

It’s been half a decade since my first winter in Alaska, and the need to reconcile those things that must, by necessity, be destroyed has only clarified with the passing seasons. I’ve discovered that my attempts at preservation aren’t so much efforts in sustainability, but part of the practice of discovering diversity. If only the garden’s harvest will help me remember last summer, if only the fur hat can help me retain warmth, if only my essays can teach me to understand my own motivations, then I will know that balance is possible.

Like the failed attempt to can those squirrels, I don’t always find a way to that perfect place where everything becomes multi-functional. But I try, and some of it seems to work. Mollie is an avid gardener, and even the flowers she grows –nasturtiums—are edible. The trees in our yard, which must be cut as a fire buffer, become winter firewood. This fall, our cupboard is filled with jars of smoked salmon, and halibut spills from our freezer. When possible, we render the unused fish heads into winter food for our dogs. Weekend hiking trips have begun to double as berry-picking expeditions.

When everything must have some pragmatic value, it’s easy to lose track of the deeper impact of language. As a new English teacher at a small college up here, I don’t always balance the needs of my students with the demands of my own writing. I struggle constantly to find the space where the story I want to tell and the poetics of describing it fit together properly.

The last image: the inside of our cupboard in winter. The smoked red salmon jars cascading into the orange of canned carrots. Piles of raspberry jam, blueberry jam, rosehip jelly, wild cranberry sauce, canned chickpeas. Pickled things—fiddleheads, cucumbers, sauerkraut, zucchini, mustards. Mollie’s tinctures and balms and herbal teas, things she made from dried wild plants.

Often, before I go to bed, I will open the cupboard and marvel, not at what we have preserved, but at the array of colors, at the beauty of food encased in glass. Standing there, I imagine a world where everything becomes useful, becomes beautiful, a world where I will have time to write and still manage the thousand other activities I have taken on, where I can find a way to make positive use of the troubled parts of myself.

To find symmetry amid such diversity is an act of almost religious significance. Like finishing the last stitch of a quilt and panning outward to discover a work of astonishing complexity, I believe these connections can draw together the limitless parts of myself. Still, the fact remains: there is no jar of squirrel on those shelves. One does not achieve balance without casualties.

Past Intern Updates: Timothy Allen

Timothy Allen from Issues 3 and 4 gives us an update on his whereabouts.

After my time with Superstition Review, I graduated from ASU magna cum laude in 2010 and was accepted to ASU’s law school for the fall of that same year. During my first summer as a law student I was accepted to the Blackstone Fellowship – a prestigious program put on by the Alliance Defending Freedom to train young law students. As a part of that program I spent the summer in Alaska working for a law firm up there before I was successfully commissioned a Blackstone Fellow in the Fall of 2011. Now, in my third year of law school, I am desperately looking forward to graduation next spring, and working as a legal intern for an air ambulance company in North Scottsdale. I plan to work in healthcare law after graduation (if I can find work), but will not be limiting myself to Arizona employers – I also plan to look for work in Florida (Disney (of course)), Texas, and Washington state.

Launch of Issue 7: Interviews

Superstition Review Issue 7 has launched and to celebrate we will be featuring blog posts about our artists and authors. Today we will be highlighting a few of the interviews featured in Issue 7.

A native of Detroit, John Grogan spent more than 20 years as an investigative reporter and columnist, most recently at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also is the former editor of Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine. His first book, Marley & Me, was a #1 New York Times bestseller with six million copies in print in more than 30 languages. It was made into a movie starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. Grogan’s second book, The Longest Trip Home, also a national bestseller, explores the author’s loving but complicated relationship with his devout Irish Catholic parents. John lives with his wife and three children in eastern Pennsylvania. Read the interview featured in issue 7. John Grogan’s Website

Sloane Crosley is the author of The New York Times bestsellers I Was Told There’d Be Cake, which was a finalist for The Thurber Prize, and How Did You Get This Number. She is also a weekly columnist for The Independent in the UK and editor of The Best American Travel Essays 2011. She lives in Manhattan, where she is a regular contributor to GQThe New York Times, National Public Radio and the inexplicably vast and varied collection of granolas in her kitchen cabinet. Read the interview from issue 7. Sloane Crosley’s Website

Jenifer Rae Vernon’s first book of poetry Rock Candy was published by West End Press in 2009. Rock Candy received the “Tillie Olsen Award” as the best book of creative writing that insightfully represents working class life and culture from the Working Class Studies Association, SUNY, Stony Brook, in June of 2010. In August of 2009, Garrison Keillor selected a poem from the collection, “Blackberry Pie” to perform on Writer’s Almanac. And in October of 2010, Keillor selected a second poem from the book, “Ketchican Wrestling” for Writer’s Almanac. Currently, Vernon lives in Juneau, Alaska with her husband and teaches Communication at the University of Alaska Southeast. Read the interview featured in issue 7 here.

Diana Joseph is the author of the short story collection Happy or Otherwise (Carnegie Mellon UP 2003) and I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man and Dog (Putnam 2009.) Her work has appeared in Threepenny ReviewWillow Springs, Marie ClaireCountry Living and Best Sex Writing 2009. She teaches in the MFA program at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota. Read the interview in issue 7. Diana Joseph’s Website

Beverly Lowry was born in Memphis, grew up in Greenville, Mississippi and now lives in Austin where she is working on a book about another case of multiple murder, the unsolved killings of four young girls in an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop, in Austin in 1991. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA fellowship and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, she is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction, she teaches at George Mason University and is currently Writer-in-Residence at Goucher College in Baltimore. Read the interview in issue 7. Beverly Lowry’s Website


The full magazine with featured art and artists from issue 7 can be found here. Check back tomorrow to read about the nonfiction authors featured in issue 7.