Greetings, readers! One of Superstition Review’s favorite writers, the incredibly talented Geeta Kothari, has a new collection of stories titled “I Brake For Moose,” which is being published this coming February by the lovely Braddock Avenue Books. Geeta was featured in the Nonfiction section of our 11th issue of The Superstition Review with her piece titled “Listen,” available for your reading pleasure here.
If you find yourself in Pittsburgh, make your way over to the City of Asylum on February 16th with Asterix Reading Series (details here).
If you’ve already spent all your airfare budget, “I Brake For Moose” is available for preorder at the Braddock Avenue Books website, located here. Buy one! Buy seven! You’re going to love it, we already do.
In the Land of “If’s” and “Buts”:The Art of Empathy
When I was five years old, I told Santa Claus I wanted a model airplane for Christmas. I meant the gas-powered kind that would actually fly. To my disappointment, what Santa, aka my parents, left for me on Christmas morning was a metal toy plane that I could push along on its rubber tires, and lift into the air, and fly along with my hand while making the engine noises. Not what I had in mind at all. I whined and pouted and had a little tantrum, and my father said to me, as he so often did in those days, but perhaps never quite as appropriately, “If ‘if’s’ and ‘buts’ were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”
His point was, of course, that sometimes we don’t get what we want. Sometimes life disappoints us. Sometimes our loved ones do, too—our parents, our spouses, our friends, our siblings. The world has a way of diminishing joy, of threatening or harming, of leaving us fearful and angry. Life often falls short of what we want it to be.
Perhaps this has never been so true as now. It’s November when I write this, nearly two weeks past the election. Many of us are trying to make our way through a world that has drastically changed. Here at Ohio State University, where I teach, more than a thousand students—Muslim, Black, Latino, White, LGBT, and Asian—gathered at our multicultural center last night to express their fears and to share their stories of the threats they’ve endured since the election. Here on our campus, students have faced acts of racial, religious, cultural, and homophobic terrorism. They’ve been taunted with calls of “Build the wall,” and “Go back to Mexico.” They’ve been physically assaulted, threatened, and intimidated, even in their classrooms. A Black female student told the story of expressing a point in a class, and a White student responding to her by saying “It’s n—ers like you that are the problem in this country.” And the professor said nothing. At another university here in Columbus, a female student, out for an early-morning walk, was beaten by two young men wearing Trump shirts and hats. Needless to say, these are scary times. We woke up on November 9 with the stark realization that our world was going to be very different from the one in which we thought we were living.
I’ve seen the effects on the students in our MFA program. In fact, in my creative nonfiction workshop this week, a student-led writing activity brought up questions of the efficacy of our words. A number of students talked about not being able to write in the days after the election and questioning the purpose of their writing. One student said she wanted to be a writer so she could have an effect on the world. Don’t we all write because we want to make readers feel and/or think something? I told my students I’d hate to see what happened with the election silence them. I told them that we need all their voices, especially now.
It’s times like these that challenge us—times of uncertainty, times of struggle, times of fear. I’ve always believed that the act of writing is essentially an act of empathy. We do our best to understand the sources of others’ behaviors, to imagine what it’s like to be inside someone else’s skin, to see the world from their perspective. When someone or something comes along that’s so distant from our own experience, our own viewpoint, we find ourselves sorely challenged indeed. We need to use that challenge to ask ourselves whether the people we are match up with the writers we are. Do we only empathize on the page, or do we empathize in real life?
I grew up in the rural Midwest. An examination of the election returns from the precincts in my native county shows me what I suspected. Not a single precinct went for Hillary Clinton in the recent election. Worse than that, Donald Trump won by huge margins in every single precinct. This grieves me, not only because I don’t agree with the result of the election, but also because it places me on the divide between my values and the values of the people in the place I still consider home. Here’s a truth we may not want to accept right now. There are good people everywhere, even people who voted for Donald Trump. Do I think they’re complicit in Trump’s racism, classism, misogyny? Yes, I do. After all, they empowered him. But I also know the good hearts of people, who for a variety of reasons, truly believed, when they cast their votes, they were doing the right thing.
I grew up among them. My father, a life-long Democrat, was a farmer. My mother, a Republican, was a grade-school teacher. I grew up in the lower middle class. I grew up in the flyover zone. When I was a boy, I stood in line with my parents on Saturdays to receive government commodities: powered milk, sorghum, flour. I knew early on that we had little privilege in the world. Yes, we were White, and I was male, and that was something, but we had no status when it came to our soico-economic class, or the place where we lived, or the jobs that we held, or the schools we attended. I was one of the lucky ones. I had parents who believed in education, and I had a mother who loved books, and who taught me to love them, too. The one privilege I had came from the power of language.
Which brings me to the question of how we’re to use that power. My students wonder if words can make a difference. Here’s what we learn as we age. The tough times will come. We won’t always get what we want. But we’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, and no matter how dark things get, there will always be some measure of joy in the world. We may have to look for it in the small blessings of our everyday lives, but trust me, it’s there. And whether from the darkness or the light, we’ll keep making art. We have no choice. We’ve been called. We’ll keep telling our stories, writing our poems, our novels, our essays. Words matter. We know this better than anyone. In the land of “if’s” and “buts,” we can never have enough voices. Let the chorus rise up. Let it start now.
In December 2002, a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was castigated by his colleagues for delivering a legal opinion in quatrains.*
The case involved a woman who sought damages from her estranged, much older fiancé because he had lied to her about the nature of her engagement ring (not to mention its value). The majority of the court denied her claim, declaring that she, given the difference in their ages, had relied foolishly on his assurances.
But the poetic justice dissented. And thus sangeth:
A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium
When his spouse finds he’s given her cubic zirconium.
Given their history and Pygmalion relation
I find her reliance was with justification.
One of the justice’s colleagues observed that “every jurist has the right to express him or herself in a manner the jurist deems appropriate,” but he was concerned about “the perception that litigants and the public at large might form when an opinion of the court is reduced to rhyme.”
Reduced to rhyme.
Perhaps the offending justice is merely a bad poet (though he defended his work, accurately, I think, by declaring: “You have an obligation to be right, but you have no obligation to be dull.”)
His critics, however, seem to be suggesting that the musical properties of verse are insufficiently serious for the task at hand; and that the characteristic virtue of poetry—to condense and transmute whatever it wishes into memorable, indestructible language—somehow harms the facts, stripping them of the gravitas appropriate, in this instance, to an instrument of law.
Yet there is a venerable legacy of serious nonfiction in verse. For instance, Lucretius in his treatise On the Nature of Things, from the first century B.C., presents in hexameters a full-scale exposition of the Greek Philosopher Epicurus and the atomic theory of Democritus. There is also Ovid’s satirical but no less serious handbook of seduction, The Art of Love.
So maybe poetry, or even merely verse, is not the problem here. Maybe the justice’s quatrains—his creative nonfiction, if you will—are unsuitably creative because they employ the wrong poetic techniques. If he had written his dissent in a less galloping meter or even in verse libre, if he had chosen fewer polysyllabic rhymes, or had used slant rhymes, or had dispensed with rhyme altogether, perhaps his colleagues, and the guffawing public they imagine, would not think his verse a diminishment.
Poetry, in its official get-up, is a matter of lines and line breaks, of course, and the interplay of these with sentences draped down the page, through the stanzas, across the pauses. It’s a spectacular confinement, and at its best, a delicious, necessary unsettling of the language.
But we also know that poetry appears in prose, as prose, perhaps as often as it appears in verse, as verse. It’s something other than just lines. So we might assert, for the sake of argument, that verse is to poetry as nonfiction is to creative nonfiction.
Nonfiction prides itself on trafficking in facts. But many poets assert that poems should be factually accurate, even when fictive. So what happens to the status of a fact once it is introduced into a poem? Is there such a thing as a poetic fact? If there is, can it be introduced into nonfiction? How is its status changed by doing so? And how does it alter the status of nonfiction?
Poetic writing consorts with a lyric consciousness, of course, and with the metaphoric—saying one thing by saying another, saying one thing in terms of another but in a more controlled and sharpened way than the metaphoric slip-slop of ordinary speech. A poetic fact—not a fact made poetic—embodies more than one kind of perception. It registers more than one kind of measurement. And it inspires in us a devoted restlessness among those perceptions and measurements, because it also welcomes the possibility of discovery at its edges. It presents—and verges on presenting something more.
Let me give just one example of a poetic fact, though they abound, of course—a line from “Chimes” by the wonderful poet Robert Dana:
Every day I live I live forever.
The statement is true, undeniably factual in several ways but not like My heart beats sixty times a minute now.
Both lines might be verse, since they both scan, but only the first is poetic, or poetry.
We might wonder how, then, a poet would rewrite the versifying justice’s opinion in order to include poetic fact and whether the law would still be the law if that were to happen. We nod yes when Ezra Pound says poetry is news that stays news. But if the newspaper were poetry, we certainly wouldn’t need a daily edition. (And can you imagine the 11 o’clock news as a poetry reading?)
Consider now Norman Maclean’s masterpiece Young Men and Fire. It is a book of nonfiction fact, relating the story of the death of a dozen smokejumpers—and the unlikely survival of three others—in a forest fire blow-up at Mann Gulch, Montana, in 1949. Maclean meticulously replays, rethinks, re-imagines and researches the last thirty minutes of the doomed men’s lives—setting this quest for comprehension against the backdrop of what was known about fire at the time of the disaster and what has been learned in the 38 years afterward. The book brims with historical documentation and scientific data about fire fighting, about burn rates and the effects of wind; it contains maps and photographs, diagrams, transcripts and mathematical equations; and it also draws on his and others’ intimate knowledge of the local landscape, gleaned from lifetimes spent in the Montana woods.
As he writes: “In a modern tragedy you have to look out for the little details rather than big flaws.”
The word “tragedy” should cue us here. Maclean is also drawing on a lifetime of teaching Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, and this is where the poetry comes in. His book is haunted by the search for compassion and understanding about the earth and our place on it. While acting as a factual detective, Maclean is also confronting the problem of identity, which, even as he faces old age and his own mortality, remains unsolved for him—unsolvable for us all.
It is probably not surprising, then, that the book was left unfinished at his death, though it is, most assuredly, complete.
Maclean’s task lay beyond the power of nonfiction facts alone, so he turned to poetic facts, of which the book contains many. Consider, for instance, this passage from the concluding pages, which illustrates how he extends nonfiction fact with poetic fact. About the doomed men running up the steep mountainside from the fire that will consume them, he writes:
The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky.
This is as far as we are able to accompany them. When the fire struck their bodies, it blew their watches away. The two hands of a recovered watch had melted together at about four minutes to six. For them, that may be taken as the end of time.
If this were not enough, a few sentences later, Maclean writes, in what is the concluding passage of the book:
I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.
It is a thematic coda, of course, but at the very end of it something wholly unexpected flares up. Maclean has mentioned his wife only once before, briefly, telling us of her death from lung cancer, and that there is a valley near Mann Gulch named for her. (Another place where fire can make its strange appearance.)
These few details become supreme poetic facts because they allow the nonfiction facts about the nature of fire—and the facts about the smokejumpers’ deaths, the strange solitude of their deaths—to also stand metaphorically for the obscure solitude of Maclean’s grief at his wife’s lonely death. These poetic facts revise our understanding of the book by suddenly multiplying the dimensions of its assumed subject. The nonfiction book of nonfiction facts is called Young Men and Fire. But the poem it also becomes by virtue of that final passage could be called Old Man and Ashes.
Thus, we might assert that creative nonfiction—if we can now think of it as a form of poetry—is the most impure, and thus capacious, of poetic forms because it allows the broadest range of rhythms and “content.” It honors the nonfiction fact, reveres and seeks the clarity of definition that nonfiction fact aspires to, but, like Maclean’s fire, it knows and submits to the earthly reality that, in a moment, a fact of that sort can become quite something else.
Laurie Rachkus Uttich is a lecturer of creative writing at the University of Central Florida. Her prose has been published in Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction; River Teeth; Brain, Child (nominated for a Pushcart Prize); Sweet: A Literary Confection; Burrow Press Review; Poets and Writers; Iron Horse (fiction recipient of the Discovered Voices Award); So To Speak (recipient of the Creative Nonfiction Award); The Writers Chronicle; The Good Men Project; and others. Recently, she began writing poetry and has been published in Rattle and The Missouri Review. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU is proud to offer four creative writing classes through the Piper Writers Studio. Classes are taught by acclaimed and award-winning writers from the community, and cover topics such as first-draft novel writing, novel revisions, persona poetry, and creative non-fiction.
The faculty for the Fall 2016 session of the Piper Writers Studio are:
Michael A Stackpole, a New York Times best-selling author known for his extensive fantasy and science fiction work in the Stars Wars, Conan, and World of Warcraft universes. Stackpole will be teaching Winning NaNoWriMo Tuesdays, October 4 – 25, 2016 from 6 – 8 p.m.
Carol Test, an award-winning short-story writer and former editor in chief of the Sonora Review who has taught workshops for the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, Phoenix College, and Mesa Community College. Test will be teaching Remodel Your Novel: Five Key Scenes for Fiction Writers Wednesdays, October 5 – 26, 2016 from 6 – 8 p.m.
Marshall Terrill, veteran film, sports, music, history and popular culture writer with over 20 books to his credit, including bestselling biographies of Steve McQueen, Elvis Presley, and Pete Maravich. Terrill will be teaching Beyond the Facts: Writing Compelling Non-fiction Wednesdays, October 5 – 26, 2016 from 6 – 8 p.m.
Lois Roma-Deeley, an author with three collections of poetry and numerous publications in anthologies in journals who founded the creative writing program at Paradise Valley Community College and received an Artist Research and Development Grant from the Arizona State Commission on the Arts in 2016. Roma-Deeley will be teaching Another Voice: Creating Memorable Poetic Personas Saturday, October 22, 2016 from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Classes are open to individuals of all backgrounds, skill levels, and experiences, and are designed to fit around the schedules of working adults (taking place weekday evenings or weekend afternoons). Most classes are held at the Piper Writers House, the historic President’s Cottage on the ASU Tempe Campus. Class sizes range between 8 and 12 students in order to ensure an intimate, individualized educational experience, and start at $75 (with discounts for individuals who are members of the Piper Circle of Friends). Classes can also qualify for professional development credit with the Arizona Department of Education. Individuals can register for classes through the Piper Center’s website until Monday, October 3rd, 2016.
Today we are pleased to feature author Megan Harlan as our thirtieth Authors Talk series contributor. Megan discusses the difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, and why she is drawn to writing creative nonfiction – despite it being a “poorly named genre.”
Creative nonfiction is narrative writing based on reality, on facts. Due to the genre’s name, it seems that the creative part might be lying. This isn’t the case, Megan argues, as she says “With creative nonfiction, once you get past your own personal fact checking department, the truth becomes the grounding element for any structure you want to build.” The process of building a structure from the truth is the creative part.
Fiction, on the other hand, is often largely built around a made-up hero’s journey. Creative nonfiction doesn’t have to be causal, based on a hero, or have an arc – unlike classically structured fiction. Calling to mind Oscar Wilde, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Like reality, creative nonfiction is not simple or straightforward, but filled with the challenges and possibilities of expressing the truth as we experience it.
Today we’re proud to feature Jonathan Danielson as our thirteenth Authors Talk series contributor, discussing the writing of his essay “iTunes Playlist to Get You Through a Miscarriage.”
A scholarly approach to this craft talk “would be a disservice to the process of this essay’s construction,” Jonathan says early in his podcast. This idea perfectly mirrors the theme of the writer organically discovering his/her own answers that occurs both throughout Jonathan’s craft talk and in the emotionally-charged “iTunes Playlist to Get You Through a Miscarriage.”Both are reminders and illustrations of the potential of allowing writing to naturally reflect the experiences one has had.
You can read Jonathan Danielson’s essay in Superstition Review, Issue 15.
More About the Author:
Jonathan Danielson is a frequent contributor to the Feathertale Review, and his work has been published by The Saturday Evening Post, Juked, Superstition Review, Southern California Review, Five Quarterly, Monday Night, and others. He teaches writing for Arizona State University, fiction for The Eckleburg Workshops, and serves as Assistant Fiction Editor for Able Muse. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter at JonathanIn2k.
For several years, we have featured audio or video of Superstition Review contributors reading their work. We’ve now established a new series of podcasts called Authors Talk. The podcasts in this series take a broader scope and feature SR contributors discussing their own thoughts on writing, the creative process, and anything else they may want to share with listeners.
For an upcoming issue, Creative Nonfiction is seeking new essays about THE WEATHER. We’re not just making idle chit-chat; the weather affects us all, and talking about the weather is a fundamental human experience. Now, as we confront our changing climate, talking about the weather may be more important than ever.
Send us your true stories—personal, historical, reported—about fog, drought, flooding, tornado-chasing, blizzards, hurricanes, hail the size of golfballs, or whatever’s happening where you are. We’re looking for well-crafted essays that will change the way we see the world around us.
Essays must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with an informative or reflective element and reach beyond a strictly personal experience for some universal or deeper meaning. We’re looking for well-written prose, rich with detail and a distinctive voice; all essays must tell true stories and be factually accurate.
A note about fact-checking: Essays accepted for publication in Creative Nonfiction undergo a rigorous fact-checking process. To the extent your essay draws on research and/or reportage (and it should, at least to some degree), CNF editors will ask you to send documentation of your sources and to help with the fact-checking process. We do not require that citations be submitted with essays, but you may find it helpful to keep a file of your essay that includes footnotes and/or a bibliography.
Creative Nonfiction editors will award $1,000 for Best Essay and $500 for runner-up. All essays will be considered for publication in a special “Weather” issue of the magazine.
Guidelines: Essays must be previously unpublished and no longer than 4,000 words. There is a $20 reading fee, or $25 to include a 4-issue subscription to Creative Nonfiction (US addresses only). If you’re already a subscriber, you may use this option to extend your current subscription or give your new subscription as a gift. Multiple entries are welcome ($20/essay) as are entries from outside the United States (though due to shipping costs we cannot offer the subscription deal). All proceeds will go to prize pools and printing costs.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by writer Sean Prentiss.
Sean Prentiss is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave. Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an assistant professor at Norwich University.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by John Michael Flynn.
John Michael Flynn also writes as Basil Rosa. His second short story collection, Dreaming Rodin, was published in November, 2013 by Publerati. Two new poetry chapbooks were published in December, 2013: Additions To Our Essential Confusion from Kattywompus Press, and StatesAnd Items from Leaf Garden Press.