One of the most important realizations of my life was that people are not one way, that they often do and say conflicting things not out of malice or to deceit, but because it a necessary part of the ever-changing human condition. There is a sort of dialectic behavioral therapy that must take place within all of our minds when we consider that good people can do very bad things and bad people can do very good things. This is the dynamic nature of humanity. It is unavoidable. It might be the only unchanging and shared characteristic of humanity.
And it is for this reason that I am drawn to literary fiction. There often isn’t a clear line between good and bad. The characters in literary fiction make terrible choices and deal with the repercussions. As a reader and editor, I want to read stories that sink deep into these chasms between right and wrong, stories that teach us something about what it means to be fallible and imperfect. I want to read stories that challenge me, that make me so angry I hold my breath until the final sentence, so sad that I think of the characters long after I finish the stories. I want to see myself and my flaws laid out before me. I want to read narratives that do not pass judgement but present a situation and ask me to consider a point of view I may never have arrived at myself.
Literary fiction is a conversation between all of the writers in the world, constantly arriving at theses only to have them blown up and reordered by the next. Show me a side of humanity only you can construct, the things that make your perception unique.
But above everything, I want to feel something. I want to finish a story, let take root in my brain and change my long-held beliefs. Whether it is characters, setting, plot, language, form, it doesn’t matter. The stories that stick with me are the ones that make me think about life in a way I couldn’t or wouldn’t. This is the goal of fiction, and this is the fiction I want to see adding to the literary conversation.
Spencer Litman is the fiction editor for Issue 23. He is a fiction writer and essayist living in Phoenix with his wife, Kristine, and his two children, Jayden and Aubrey. He is finishing his undergraduate degree in English with a creative writing concentration and hopes to attend an MFA program somewhere cold, with pine needles and snow.
There are two qualities that every good nonfiction story – every story that stands out to me, every story that I can’t stop thinking about, that I enjoy rereading again and again – shares, and those qualities are intentionality and subjectivity.
Intentionality is about construction. I want to read stories that are expressed with clarity and ease, stories in which each scene serves a purpose in the narrative and each word perfectly captures the scene the author wants to convey. Intentional writing is simple and unforced. An intentional story has everything it needs to feel complete, nothing excessive, unresolved or unnecessary.
I come from a background in journalism, and the newsroom is where I’ve gotten some of the best writing advice for news articles and for creative nonfiction alike. An editor recently told me: I don’t want obvious details, I want poignant details. Tell me what moved you, what caught your attention: those are the details I want to read. Another editor’s advice: don’t be afraid to declutter a story. Cut scenes or details that don’t serve a purpose or that don’t ‘spark joy’, in the parlance of Marie Kondo.
The second quality, subjectivity, is about content. I don’t just want to know what happened, but how it affected the author. No two people see the same event or person or place the same way, and I want to feel a writer’s unique perspective. I want to know: how was she affected by the events in the story? What relationship does she have with the people and places in the story? Where do they fit in her personal narrative?
Our relationships make us human. We change and define ourselves in relation to them, and we seek connection with and acceptance from them. Our subjectivity makes us human, too. We can never experience what it’s like to be anyone other than ourselves, but stories allow us to imagine and to empathize. That’s what I want out of a good story: not just to know that something happened, but to feel how it affected the person who experienced it.
Ellen O’Brien is the nonfiction editor for Issue 23. She’s a senior at Arizona State University pursuing a double major in journalism and philosophy with a minor in Arabic. She’s passionate about photography, literature, foreign policy and epistemology. After graduation, she plans to pursue a job in photojournalism or news editing and to attend law school.
Today we are happy to share the news of past contributor Pam Houston. Pam’s memoir “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country” was just published by W. W. Norton & Company in January of 2019. Reminiscing about her life living in the Colorado Rockies, Pam discusses the beauty and pain of human life and her ties to the earth, specifically her 120-acre ranch. The memoir not only includes her essays but also 12 of the author’s own black and white photographs.
The book can be purchased here, and information about her signing event at Bookshop Santa Cruz can be found here.
Last week, I had a conversation with a visual artist about the challenges of making art as we age. I’ll turn forty-six in December, and my friend is near there. I’ve read the statistics: the average poet peaks in her twenties; artists tend to be more in line with novelists, creating their best work in their forties (lucky guy). Still, with modern life and its distractions (see Anthony Varallo’s good post on interruption), finding inspiration tends to become more problematic with age.
The artist and I briefly discussed strategies we’ve tried to keep the wheels turning. He’s a pro: a gifted painter who reinvented his artistic identity by trying—and mastering—a new genre (video). He’s secured artist residencies. He’s earned a sabbatical. Yet he juggles a full-time teaching gig with a brilliant, lively family, which is to say, he drinks a lot of coffee. He’s constantly weighing appropriate balance and space—responsibilities galore, but good ones, ones crackling with depth and possibility. I struggle to find space—and inspiration within that space—for art in similar ways. In recent years, it’s been in the playgrounds of other art mediums, which sometimes means excellent live music shows, but often means wherever fresh contemporary visual art can be found locally; when on the Flagler College campus, where I teach, I frequent CEAM (the Crisp Ellert Art Museum). This is nothing new: poets have written ekphrastic poems since the beginning, many of them great and lasting (ie. Auden’s “Musee Des Beaux Arts”). And this is perhaps because there’s a certain kind of attention required of visual art—how color works to convey mood, for instance, or how vital a fresh concept to the work’s success—that helps remind us of important elements in poem-making. Not every poet has the same hurdles when it comes to making poems, but one of mine tends to be getting hyper-focused on the linear argument—that which I find most interesting, chasing the a-ha! moment—and therefore getting lazy about filling in with lush details. Or filling in the details, but not presenting them in strange or original ways. Another challenge is finding new themes: my obsessions have gone through the wash twenty times; all that hot water has faded and shrunk them. Spending a few hours with a visual artist’s work tends to get fresh angles spinning. For instance, one of my more recent riffs came courtesy of Anna Von Mertens, a highly-accomplished multi-media artist, currently living in New Hampshire. In this series, she’s taking well-known portraits (often self-portraits by artists like Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo) and from them, creating auras, using cloth, stitching, and homemade dye. Gorgeous. Mind-blowing. When I saw some of these in a CEAM exhibit, I immediately wanted to talk back to them, create a kind of tribute to them in poems. The result was a series of “aura” poems, using largely the Confessional poets. Here’s one:
aura: james wright
the head and torso shape that of a supplicant,
a nonbeliever in prayer, the eyes closed below
their frames, hands clasped at the heart, but the heart’s
red is the opposite of the dominant pigment, green: sap green
that breaks into flowering, o, Monet’s fields and water lilies
seeding and bursting beneath surfaces, all grown-blessed
in permanent green light . . . . Jenny the muse in hooker’s green:
river-rising just enough to be seen, he will wade in over
his head into the snake’s viridian venom, in the background
Van Gogh’s mother portrait, where the world’s players
smash against each other, competing terribly–
who wouldn’t waste a life for the naive green just breaking
into gallop? the wild fields blossoming?
As you can see, I’ve selected a dominant color palette that represents the poet/his work (green, with nods to significant painters who worked famously in green) and made allusions to Wright’s most well-known poems. What I’m most interested in is the conversation, the stimulation that arose from it. A familiar paradox, but one that bears repeating: artists must carve out vacuums in order to make art, yet art is not inspired by such vacuums, but life itself. In support of the collaboration of visual art and poetic inspiration, I bring my students to CEAM every semester, to view what riches our director has procured and to respond in poems; part of my own making process comes in designing prompts unique to the artist’s work. This experience is for them, for me, the dominant lesson: that the art-making engine runs on nouvelles idées, that we must constantly see potential inspiration everywhere and seek it out. If we’re young, the challenge comes in developing the habit; if we’re older, it’s in sustaining it. The irony, of course, with this particular mode: that the new ideas come from ideas already examined, though differently, by other makers. Another paradox (the soul of poetry).
I confess that when I first wrote this poem, I was thinking about lovers. About the way those we love leave their marks on us — on our skin, our mouths, our hearts — and the way those marks fade but do not disappear as time passes and love fades and may or may not disappear.
The more I sat with the image, though, the more I realized my body is covered in the words of so many others — friends I’ve cared for, enemies I’ve cursed, strangers who loitered long enough to leave traces. Some were written in indelible ink, others with a lighter touch, but my hide has been dried under tension, and washing with milk and oat bran will never get this parchment completely clean.
In the right light, I can read it all.
On my feet I see action words, reminders that I can wait or run, stand or fall. My knees say please and up my thighs are lines of lyrics (or are they limericks?). Across my belly sits the word empty. No matter how hard I scrub it with pumice, the curves and tails of those letters remain. My chest bears remnants of an animal’s fear and a surgeon’s signature, and the writing on my breasts, well, that I choose not to share with you.
My back is covered with what looks like court stenographers’ notes — each scribble symbolizing my exact whereabouts on the dates in question and the precise lengths of each of my sentences. Over my shoulders are my first doctor’s orders: the pain will never go away. Twenty years later, a different doctor drew a line through his diagnosis, but she did not rewrite it. The pain is still there under the skin — all she did was take away its name. The marks on my throat are my music teacher’s words. They’re too blurry now to read, but I know they are the reason I only sing when I’m alone.
Every day my face reveals more lines. There are jokes around my mouth and riddles on my forehead. Farewells trail from the corners of my eyes. Along my limbal rings are the details of my birth, and deep in one pupil, there’s a no, in the other, a yes. My scalp says fuck you. I occasionally clip my hair to let those words get some air.
My hands are a bit different. They’re my manuscript. They are the one place on my person I’ve never let someone else’s pen tip touch. They are scarred by my words alone. My wrist says try.
In the mirror, I see my story. Like Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Sand, it is without beginning or end, impossible, and terribly infinite. Perhaps there is some beauty there, too.
I grew up believing that there was a distinct line separating the body and the mind. The body was the physical — the domain of science, a subject I was never very interested in. I had nothing against science; I trusted it and was frequently amazed by it. In terms of interest, though . . . no.
I was more into the mind: the mental, emotional, intellectual. The mind was my passion — I loved learning and teaching, discussing and arguing, reading and writing. I wrote about my thoughts and emotions and made up characters with their own thoughts and emotions. In this realm, there could be pleasure or pain, ecstasy or anguish. If a feeling was confusing or a thought distressing, with my pen in hand, I believed I could make it better. The consequences of this were both comfort and power. I wrote what I thought I could never say. I wrote what I thought no one would know until they’d read what I’d written.
As I’ve grown older, though, I realize the errors of my thinking. The body and the mind are not separate. What goes on in one goes on in the other. Every thought I’ve ever had lives in my bloodstream and my brain, my memories in my muscles and my mind.
This concept might be stupidly obvious to others, but to me, it was an epiphany. This body was not just a thing I lugged around each day; it had meaning. Or rather, meanings — different parts meant different things in different contexts, like page-long entries in a dictionary, like feelings that feel good and also bad. I thought I’d been writing my life on paper in poetry, but I’d also been doing it on my skin and in my bones.
Of course, this means sometimes that I am weary. Depression makes a mind muddled and a body heavy. I can no longer pretend that one’s all right when the other one is clearly not. However, it also means that my bibliography is longer and more varied than I’d previously thought. It appears I’m quite prolific.
Because my body is a palimpsest. It is tattooed with others’ words as well as my own, and the layers are deep and permanent. There are lines in my fingerprint, they are lines of poetry. All that writing will tell you who I am.
Reading submissions for Superstition Review allowed me to think about the stories I love to read. I’ve found that the best stories have a character I can connect with, and also an interesting problem.
There are so many elements that can make a piece of writing good. The first thing that comes to mind is characterization, which means creating round characters, with both internal and external struggles, and a full life that exists outside the page. My sister says that when she finishes a good book, she sometimes misses the characters and the time that she’s spent with them. One of my professors will always remind us in class not to say the word character, because writers are actually creating souls.
But it’s not enough to have an interesting character sitting in a room doing nothing. What makes a character truly endearing and relatable is their problems and how they choose to deal with them. Even Nick Carroway and Jay Gatsby without their dramatic love affairs would likely not hold a reader’s attention very long.
This is where I feel we get the human experience: when we read about someone relatable that has a problem foreign to us. Or someone that is completely foreign to us, and how they’ve overcome their problems (or not). Stories are about what a character wants and what they are willing to go through to get it. These struggles create an empathetic connection between the reader and the outside world.
Scientific American recently highlighted a study that found reading literary fiction helps young students to learn empathy. The experiment presented young groups with various types of reading; literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, and nothing. The young readers that read literary fiction were significantly stronger at inferring others’ thoughts and emotions. Through seeing someone else’s trials and tribulations, a person is able to learn better how to interpret other people.
Interesting souls with interesting problems create the basis of fiction that empathetically moves readers. These are the kinds of stories that I love; stories that help to build an understanding of the world around us.
Bio: John Chakravarty is an undergraduate student at ASU majoring in English and Creative Writing. He is the Fiction Editor at Superstition Review. He also interns at Four Chambers Press reading submissions. When he graduates he hopes to write, edit, and publish for the comic book industry.
I realized I wasn’t ready to write a poem about decorum when I couldn’t tell how an epigraph from the Budd Dwyer suicide video would play to the average person. In particular, I wanted to quote the press secretary’s plea for onlookers to “show a little decorum, please,” since it made me realize how strange the act of demanding/measuring civility is. That use of such a line might come off as disrespectful did occur to me, though, and I was forced to do some measuring myself.
With tastefulness just out of reach, I couldn’t plan any further until I eliminated all of the other weighted words that might muddy my understanding of the one. “Aesthetic” was out, since it brought too broad of a focus, and since I‘d lost Eco’s “On Ugliness” to a basement flood. The same went for “Ethics,” which should be a part of everything, and so should be the cedar dinner table, and not woodchips in the meal. “Taboo,” as a near-synonym for “bad taste,” might provide me with the dangerous shelter of circular reasoning. Gone too were excuses; I vowed not to namedrop or allude to Bataille in some attempt to blame my own lack of taste on a literary precedent.
I then thought of others’ approaches to decorum, and of the way I tended to process them, and turn them out in the cold in various states of dress. For instance, when processing a friend’s death, I had made a list of drug overdose scenes in films of all kinds. When I returned to it later, I considered how the scenes ranged from visceral bursts of close-up special effects to a single shot of a shoeless foot in a doorway. I found myself shopping the list for certain types of impacts, and was struck most by a scene from In a Glass Cage, in which the director instructed the child actor to behave like a fish out of water after his character had been injected with gasoline. This scene, I felt, defied good taste in an interesting way, as any apologetic attempt I might make to soften its imagery by adding context (“Don’t worry; it’s another child who administers the injection,” or “he does it to impress his adult captive, a paralyzed doctor”) only deepened the tastelessness. That I feel the need to apologize after describing this scene, which I did not create, says as much about decorum as does the scene itself.
Therefore, apology seems to be what holds decorum together. If I get caught mouthing a scream into a restroom mirror, I might apologize for doing it and the observer might apologize for seeing, even though he’s not done anything socially wrong. Some people even push apology into the realm of atonement, like Sarah Winchester, designer of the labyrinthine Winchester house. She required builders to continually add on to the house to appease the ghosts of those who were killed by Winchester firearms, until the house became a hodgepodge of doors to nowhere and staircases into solid ceiling. It’s what “I’m sorry for everyone else” might look like in concrete form.
Though this didn’t put me off decorum altogether, I was (and am now) more inclined to risk tastelessness if the alternative is a thousand doors to nowhere. I plan to continue to use the line from the suicide video, though probably not as an epigraph; I’d want to control the context, so that it worked to honor truth, instead of repulsing readers with irreverence. I could think of it as mapping the terrain: Identifying the staircases that always lead to a bloody nose, only using them when I need a bloody nose, stumbling down uncharted ones. I might practice my quiet scream in the restroom mirror (my late friend, of course, not there to excuse me), and see what dialogue comes in absence of an apology.
Paralysis is so often a metaphor. A simile to express shock or fear. It is a word you use, but you probably don’t mean it the way that I mean it. I mean to say my spinal column was damaged after my six-year-old body jackknifed during an automobile accident and that was the last moment I felt the skin below my chest or moved my legs of my own volition. Unless you count feeling my skin with my fingers and lifting my legs with my arms to move them where I would have them go. I do count this. Do not discount this.
I liked to write as a child. My words took me everywhere my body could not. I lived lifetimes amongst the stars. I visited the depths of the oceans and made my home in Scottish castles. I am the first person to set foot on Mars. I was a writer, my family told me.
My high school guidance counselor asked my mother if perhaps I would consider a career in radio. No one would have to see me. No one would have to know. The failures of my body would not matter. I could transcend my physical form through language. And in the beginning were my words and my words were with me but they were not me. They were only a part of me.
I fell twice this year exiting the shower. I almost didn’t call for help. My words failed me. My legs were twisted, my strength dwindling, my abdomen sore. My body threatened to break if I lost the half-grip I maintained on my chair, suspended. I couldn’t pull up. I couldn’t fall down. Instead I called out. My friend came. She raised my naked body from this in-between to its proper place again, seated. I never touched the floor. I don’t know if my tears did. You can’t understand. But let me try to explain myself to you.
I hold fast to the arms of my friends so I do not lose my balance. I read the news and I imagine the end of the world. I know my body has no place in it.
Mine is not one of those paralyzed bodies that found a way to do all things, extending itself beyond its limit. My rotator cuffs are worn and they ache. My legs spasm, seemingly without cause and without remedy. My fingers grasp and stretch and feel, even if what they feel is pain.
Paralyzed in the same manner, in the same second as I, my brother James’ body fails him too. He told me about a game he played with his friends. Everyone in the room was to select the person whose life they would never want. They all pointed at my brother. They pointed at the body that would ruin them. It was supposed to be a joke.
I’ve hated my body more than you’ve hated my body. But I need you to know something. My body is not an anchor or a prison. My body is not a metaphor. You don’t get to call it a metaphor. I am the only one who gets to do that.
Look at me. My life is not a ruined life. My brother’s life is not a ruined life, even though you don’t want it. My flesh is numb, but it is still here. I am beautiful even when you don’t believe it. Even when I don’t believe it. I may be the person you carry from the burning building, down flight after flight before the walls crumble in on us. You may want to discount me. But I am alive. My lungs fill with air and my chest expands and my palms press into the tread of my tires and I keep pushing. My body propels me forward in ways my words alone cannot.
My whole diaphragm shook with laughter until tears fell the day my father and I staged pet robots for a scavenger hunt photo op. In 7th grade, my arms wrestled the boys and won, pinning their wrists to the desk. My mouth savored sweet cherry after sweet cherry until my stomach churned, overfull. My knuckles grazed the walls of the Colosseum in Rome, making me a part of its history. My head was covered with prayers and hands anointed me with oil before a surgeon spread my back open like a book. My body hurtled through the heavens in the corkscrew curl of a rollercoaster and all I remember thinking is This is delightful. My face was kissed by Conan O’Brien at a taping of his show, beloved by me since I was girl. He told me I looked really beautiful and I believed him. My older siblings carried my body in my bathing suit across the sand and I floated in the ocean, waves rolling over my shoulders. At Epcot, the Mission: Space centrifuge spun, compressing me, simulating a force of gravity two-and-a-half times beyond that of our Earth, holding me down until the pressure relented and I was not sick like my cousins were; my body was well. It understood how to break free from the atmosphere even while their able bodies did not.
I am not nothing. I am more than the words you are reading. I am somebody, not nobody. A body. My body. The only body I have. It needs so much care but has given me so much in return. Inconvenient and alive. I hate it and I love it and I wish I were just my words but I am not and I am so grateful to be more.
Good afternoon, dear readers! Today, we are thrilled beyond reason to announce that former contributor and fan favorite Tayari Jones has a new novel coming out next year, titled “An American Marriage,” which will be put out by Algonquin Books. Jones has previously penned the novel titled “Silver Sparrow,” and was featured in the Interview section of our 2nd issue here at Superstition Review. “An American Marriage” is available for pre-order here, and the aforementioned interview can be read here. If you’d like to get the news straight from Tayari herself, sign up for her mailing list here.
Hey there, folks! We’re proud as all get out to announce that past contributor Hannah Lee Jones was recently featured on Copper Canyon Press’ Official Facebook Page as part of their #MeetTheInternMonday segment. The whole Q&A can be viewed here. Hannah Lee Jones’ work was featured in the Poetry section of our 16th issue, and can be read here. Jones is also responsible for the blog Primalschool.org, a wonderful community resource for poets and writers pursuing their craft outside of the MFA system. Check out her work and her website as well, and drop us a line in the comments section below!