In Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett says, “Sick of the either, try the other.” To write, or to live and to love is to exist in the either. When is it time to try something else? How long must we wait? How many others are there?
When we write, if we scrawl a story, scribble a poem, even if we use a keyboard, we bring something to life, we invite others (do these others include the other I seek) to love as we have loved, to live as we have lived, to rethink our thoughts. Should I say imagination? Should I remind us that the root of the word imagination is image? The images we live are the real sensory experiences the world offers. The images we write create another possibility, a sensory experience made of words. Nothing works harder than words, but when we look closer, they are only words. Is this the other?
Something written is not a lived experience, but it is a version. It may be something that has never happened, and as we write, it happens. Anything we write, it happens. Maybe the other arrives.
Twelve years ago, I found my best friend dead. I have tried to write about it. I lived it, and many times, I have tried to write about it. Version after version, it doesn’t hold together. It is all either. Not enough other.
I knock. No answer.
I stand on the porch of my friend Tom’s trailer house, the trailer where I lived when I was in grad school. Tom let me live there for four years in his spare bedroom, rent free.
I knock again. No answer.
I turn the key, walk in. I say his name. I walk through the kitchen. He is in the hallway on his back on the floor. His eyes are open. He wears a dirty, old t-shirt and boxer shorts. The soles of his feet are toward me. His genitals spill from the right leg of his shorts. I look away. I suppose he was walking to the kitchen, got light-headed, and sat down on the floor. Then, he laid back. Maybe he knew he was dying. Maybe he just wanted to rest.
I say his name again. I bend down, take his cold wrist. I feel his neck. No pulse. I stand. I walk back out the door.
I enter again. He is still on the floor, still dead.
The evening before, I begged him to let me take him back to the doctor. He’d been there earlier in the week. They’d said he had a sinus infection. Does it matter? Do you need to know what his death certificate said? Now, as a metaphor, does he live again? If I had stayed with him that night, if I had refused to leave until he went to the doctor, would I be telling a different story? Where is the other when you need it?
Should I tell a different story now? I call his name, and Tom sits up, adjusts his boxers, and says, “Weldon Kees’ death wasn’t a suicide.” An angel breaks through the floor with a crowbar, climbs up into the room, and takes us all out to get ice cream.
Ok. Fine. People die, but what happens to our writing? Is it either or other? How many drafts have I let go too soon? Do I diminish my old friend by using his death as a figure? Am I grieving? Where is the other now?
I sit and wait. Will something worth saving appear on this page?
Location: Ventana Ballroom, Memorial Union, 301 E Orange St, Tempe, AZ 85281
Join award winning journalist and author Omar El Akkad for his talk, The Story of the American War, on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at the ASU Memorial Union in the Ventana Ballroom (301 E Orange St, Tempe, AZ 85281) at 6:00 p.m. A Q&A and book signing will follow the talk.
In this talk, El Akkad talks about how he came to write his debut novel – the events that inspired it, the references buried throughout the text and the places he visited to research the book. This lecture covers the writing and editing process, the story of how the book came to be published, and the wildly different reactions it has prompted inside and outside the United States.
While encouraged, RSVPs are purely for the purposes of monitoring attendance, gauging interest, and communicating information about parking, directions, and other aspects of the event. You do not have to register or RSVP to attend this event. This event is open to the public and free.
Presented by the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative at Arizona State University, a partnership between the Center for Science and the Imagination and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.
About the Author
Omar El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt and grew up in Doha, Qatar before moving to Canada with his family. An award-winning journalist and author, El Akkad has traveled around the world to cover many of the most important news stories of the last decade. His reporting includes dispatches from the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials in Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. El Akkad is a recipient of Canada’s National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting and the Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Canadian Journalists, as well as three National Magazine Award honorable mentions. His critically acclaimed debut American War, published in 2017, is a post-apocalyptic novel set during the second American Civil War in the year 2074. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
About the Book
An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.
Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike. (Penguin Random House)
Today we are pleased to feature author John Clayton as our Authors Talk series contributor. In the podcast, John discusses the subjectivity of memory and the dynamic nature of family as seen in his short story, “Memory Loss.” “Memory Loss” describes the journey of a son to understand the truth of his own experience in the midst of family members attempting to “rewrite the narrative” of their own history. Thus the question is, as John states: “Who is truly distorting the past? Whose memory has gotten ‘lost?'”
John notes that we “don’t remember our lives by means of a clear, objective lens,” and that everything in our lives is seen through the prism of our own subjectivity. He states that “observation is filtered by memory, and memory is always distorted.” However, he concludes by saying that, when authors make the choice to share these distorted and sometimes-painful memories, the memories are “given shape, sweetened, and made tender. The author stands apart from them, and the pain is temporarily assuaged.”
You can read John’s story, “Memory Loss,” in Issue 21 of Superstition Review.
Today we are pleased to feature author Claire Polders as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Claire discusses her short story “Fistfuls” and the various ways she starts a story. Sometimes she starts with a philosophical question, other times the story is based around a true event that she experienced, and sometimes (in the case of “Fistfuls”) she writes from curiosity and allows the story to guide her.
You can read Claire’s story “Fistfuls” in Issue 17 of Superstition Review here.
Today we are pleased to feature author Molly Giles as our Authors Talk series contributor. She reads her story from Issue 17, “Cleaning Deposit.” After the reading, she talks about where she got the idea for the story and the real story it’s based on.
I teach 11th grade English at a high school located in downtown Portland, Oregon. I see my students every day, and as you might imagine, I have my ups and downs. Some days, when the lesson plan is solid and I’m properly caffeinated, I feel like I’m nailing it. The conversation is great, kids are forming opinions and getting passionate about the subject matter, and any minute my trophy will arrive for teacher of the year. But other times, I can’t help but wonder why somebody hasn’t come along and yanked me off the stage already.
I do a lot of talking to the students, and in turn the students do a lot of talking with me and with each other. Mostly, we talk about literature and writing. Stuff like tone, character, plot structure, symbolism, the works. How we feel about the characters. How we feel about the author. How we suspect the author might want us to feel about the characters. I really do love it, and I consider myself incredibly lucky that I get to have these conversations all the time with people who are engaged and informed and excited to learn.
But when it comes to writing, there’s a limit to the value of talking. At a certain point, I truly believe, you have to shut up and listen, and not just to other people, but to the world itself.
So on one particular afternoon, when I saw that the conversation was dragging, the eyelids were getting heavy, and the post-lunch yawns were on the creep, I decided that it was no longer time to yap. It was time to take a walk, as a class, around the neighborhood.
Before we set out, I laid down the rules. No talking. No cell phones. Avoid forms of nonverbal communication with each other (e.g. poking, tripping, massaging, mouthing curse words, etc.). We were going to shut up and walk, taking note of anything that we might come across. This, I hoped, was going to be an important lesson on writing.
A few nightmare scenarios ran through my mind just as we set out. The sky might suddenly open up and cast down rain, hail, lightning, brimstone, etc. upon us, sending my tightly organized and mindful class into a frenzied, save-your-own-ass stampede. One of the many disenfranchised individuals camping on the street might decide it’s the right time to take issue with my face. A student might get so absorbed in the present moment that she wanders into the middle of traffic. Or, more realistically, the whole thing will feel weird and just…kind of silly.
But there we were, walking out of the school building and onto the busy sidewalk. We made our way through the city streets silently, a slow-moving mass emitting no sounds except maybe the rhythmic pads and clicks of our shoes against the pavement. On the first block, we carried with us a kind of shrugging sheepishness; we’d pass by people and greet their puzzled expressions with half-smiles, all too aware of our unusual noiselessness. This was a new thing, to simply observe without the distraction of conversation or the filter of a Spotify playlist or podcast in our earbuds. It felt awkward.
Gradually, we settled into it. It’s a totally bizarre and worthwhile feeling to move in a silent group. You feel calm, reflective, but also sort of badass. Based on their quizzical expressions, the people we passed by on the street were unnerved by us. How often do you see a group of 20 teenagers just walking? Not talking, not looking at their phones. Just walking. Were we some kind of cult?
As we waited for the walk signal at an intersection, a blue BMW with tinted windows boomed and rattled past us. From its slightly cracked windows blasted UB40’s “Red, Red Wine.” The car’s presence was enormous. We resisted the immediate urges to laugh, dance, sing along, or scoff. Instead, we just watched as it trundled down the avenue, rippling its effects across the afternoon.
When you’re doing nothing but observing, every movement in the world becomes a story, and every image becomes a composition: construction workers framed by the cubic bones of an unfinished apartment building; the catch and release of cars at a four-way intersection; the violent hock-hock-spit of a red-faced jogger. And, to me at least, an ineffable humor becomes apparent. From a detached eye, the disparate elements of an urban street corner can come together in a cosmic and gentle punchline.
Now, in full disclosure, I have no idea what my students felt about this exercise. I kind of lost track of time, and when we finally arrived back to the classroom the period was just ending. I dismissed the students with a thank you and a nod. Maybe some of them were wondering why we just wasted fifteen minutes of class time. Maybe some of them were just happy to get outside for a little bit. But I prefer to think that a few of them, at least, were genuinely moved by the experience. Maybe they saw the same old neighborhood with a completely new perspective. And that is as good a place as any to begin writing.
Recently, I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s (“Eat, Pray, Love”) new book on creativity, called “Big Magic.” In a chapter on resistance, she tells the story of how, starting out, she got a great rejection letter from the late fiction journal Story, written by the editor-in-chief (something to cheer about right there), who said she really liked Gilbert’s story, but that the ending fell a bit short, and they wouldn’t be taking it. Rather than be discouraged, Gilbert was elated, and let’s face it, who among us has not been cheered by an encouraging note (even one penned on a form rejection slip)? Or, who among us has not had this conversation, the one where we compare rejection notes with another writer?
Back to Gilbert, who fast-forwards a couple of years—now she has an agent. The agent sends the same story out and about, then calls her with good news. The same short story is now going to be published. And guess who’s going to take it? That’s right, the same editor at Story! Who calls Gilbert up a few days later. Gilbert asks her, “You even liked the ending?” and the editor replies, “Of course. I adored the ending.” Which goes to show a couple of things. Maybe this tale has to do with fame and connections—when Gilbert was an unknown and in the slush pile, her work was read differently than when an agent respected in the industry submitted it. Or maybe the Story editor read it after a bad day or when she’d had a fight with her husband, and maybe when the agent submitted it she’d just had good news or the sun was finally shining after days and days of rain. Who knows?
I know the same thing happened to me—an editor, who’d taken at least one poem every time I submitted to his journal (and this was a journal I admired) appeared in another magazine with me. He sent me a note (before the internet—a note is something handwritten on paper, put in an envelope, sealed with a stamp) to tell me how very much he liked my poem in there, with one caveat. Why hadn’t I sent it to him first? I should have known he’d like it. Which sent me back to my 3 x 5 cards, where I tracked submissions (remember, this was back in the ancient of days), and where I found out, guess what? I did. His journal was the first place I’d sent it to, and he’d turned it down.
What can we take away from both of these stories, Gilbert’s and mine? I think it’s this: all we can do is write, as best as we can, each time we sit down to the paper/typewriter/keyboard. That’s the only thing we can control. The rest is luck and circumstance—the right journal or the right publisher, at the right time. That’s where things get random. We might send THE best poem ever about, say, kumquats, only to submit to a place that just used a Best American Poem on kumquats, and that’s it for them in this lifetime. And there’s no way we can ever know this. So all we can do is keep trying. I liken the whole submission process to a bizarre game of badminton. Poems go out, poems come back. But the racquet’s in my hand, and it’s up to me to hit the metaphoric birdie back over the net. Keep trying. Keep trying.
I argue that it is more: Law, without formula or exact method, is art; in its practice and its teaching, in its briefs and motions and casebooks, and in its words upon words, Law is Story.
As a future attorney (i.e., a weary-eyed and anxiety-laden law student), and as a reluctant writer (i.e., an accidental eavesdropper who scribbles half-sentences onto wrinkled, butter-yellow notes that disappear into the abyss that is my desk), I realize how deeply Law and Story are interwoven in theme, structure, and essence. This connection is surely the reason for all those courtroom dramas on television, on stage, and in film.
On a grand scale, Law encompasses ideals such as justice, fairness, liberty, equity, and truth—not dissimilar from themes embodied in the classic works of Dickens, Dumas, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, among others. Law and Story are reflections of one another.
The artistry of Law is present in the works of every opinion handed down from the courts. Each legal opinion has its own built-in Freytag triangle of facts (exposition), issue (inciting incident), procedural history (rising conflict), legal discussion (climax), and disposition (dénouement).
Certainly, some legal writing is terrible—run-on sentences, needless adverbs, and misplaced antecedents. But good legal writing is a concise and compelling story. The best legal writers somehow incorporate words (or gems) like punctilio, sacrosanct, or charlatan into the most serious of legal discussions, thus enriching and elevating legal writing into a form of literature. Despite his occasionally baffling legal conclusions, one such elegant storyteller is late Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, who should be considered among the likes of Faulkner and Fitzgerald as one of the all-time-American-Greats. [See People v. Zackowitz, 254 N.Y. 192, 194, (1930): “The pistol came from the pocket, and from the pistol a single shot, which did its deadly work.”].
Law and Story are more than the Oxford commas that separate clauses, the vocabulary or syntax that they articulate, and the ideals they preserve and promote. Law and Story are connected in their very cores.
The most elementary rule of Story—in all its forms—is about one thing: conflict. In most every story, characters are forced into uncomfortable or unexpected situations and must take action. These characters make decisions that highlight their true selves, and no flaw or vulnerability escapes the strict scrutiny of a narrator’s watchful eye.
Law is no different. Characters are those human beings—plaintiffs, petitioners, defendants, respondents—with diverse backgrounds and unique needs and desires, who are faced with conflict, usually adversarial in nature, and they (and their agents/attorneys), are forced into action, be it a proactive or reactive sort.
Stakes and emotions are high. Every character is in need. There is a deadline, a ticking clock. The character only has so much control and relents to a form of fate: the statutes, the judge, the jury.
Defendants are punished; sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, sometimes not at all. Victims are vindicated or further victimized. The “good guy” wins. The “bad guy” wins. Somebody loses. Everybody loses. Justice does, or does not, prevail. In Story, “only the human is interesting.” Every aspect of Law derives from the human, in conflict or in need, and it is always interesting.
As a law student, I have already seen many of these individuals in varying levels of conflict: the law student slumping in his seat, head bowed as if in prayer, attempting to hide his irritation with a classmate’s answer; the near-tears-petitioner biting the insides of her cheeks, stopping herself from glancing at her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s cliché of a girlfriend seated in the back of the wood-paneled courtroom; the young female lawyer whispering to herself that she is a noble judge, an upright judge, a learned judge, a judge worthy of the mountainous role she is about to portray.
If you are a writer, pick up a casebook. Wander the halls of a court. Sit in on a hearing (for some courtroom drama). Spend time in the rotunda of a law school. Meet the characters. Pay attention to the facts. Listen to the unique plotlines. Observe the mannerisms. A day in such an environment reveals intimate details of human nature. These environments are what Story is made of.
See if you are not compelled, and if you cannot find Story in the Law.
Nails bent and hammered into the wood. Another careful trip around the narrow landing, down the stairs, through the front door, down the driveway. Another long plank deposited beside the telephone pole. Back up the stairs.
Bang, bang, bang.
It felt good to be swinging a hammer, good to be working my body, giving my mind a rest. I felt busy, productive. And oddly satisfied to be breaking things down, splintering wood and dismantling the dark-stained desk, the uneven shelves, the flimsy cabinets. Out with the old.
I knew my next-door neighbors would be curious about the growing heap of lumber near the curb. Good. Maybe that would keep long-retired, well-intentioned George from asking about my job search or commenting on how much I seemed to enjoy spending time on my porch.
A few months earlier, I’d given myself permission to take the summer off after leaving a company where I’d worked for 18 years. I knew I had to get serious about finding a new job. But first, I had to face up to the 11×14-foot disaster area that was my home office. I’d intended to remodel that room when I’d moved in four years earlier, but somehow the project never made it to the top of my home-improvement list. Now, before I pushed myself back out into the world, I had to take that room apart and put it back together again. At the outset, I didn’t appreciate how much the room makeover had to do with the process of reinventing myself and—at long last—carving out the space for my writing life to begin in earnest. And not just the physical space.
When I’d first seen the house, I’d fallen for the built-in bookshelves in the living room. A ready-made office in one of the four small bedrooms—with a built-in desk in one corner and floor-to-ceiling shelves on three walls—seemed too good to be true. But now, lopsided stacks of books, boxes of photographs and seemingly every scrap of paper I’d amassed in nearly half a century of living had overtaken the office.
I’d started clearing out the room in July, when it was too hot for the demolition work. I’d dragged countless boxes and bags across the small upstairs hallway, covering virtually every inch of available floor space in two other rooms.
In July, I still half-believed I could salvage the built-ins with a fresh coat of paint, maybe some new trim. I soon discovered that like every other project in my 1923 house, there were no quick fixes. Once I’d begun, it was like pulling at a loose thread on a sweater—the entire room began to unravel. Empty, the shelves sagged and tilted. Exposed, the plaster walls had hairline fractures and deep gouges. And cleared of debris, the homemade desk from another era was an ergonomic nightmare for a computer.
And that’s just what was going on in the room; in my head, things were tilting and unraveling, too, exposing damaged surfaces and occasionally giving me nightmares.
By August, it was clear I’d have to demolish the built-ins and invest in new furniture.
By September, renovating the room—as exhausting as it was physically—had become the easy part of the project.
Bang, bang, bang.
It had been a long, hot summer, as evidenced by my sweat-soaked clothes, my damp hair, and the blazing sun that beat down on my freckled arms with every trip I made down the driveway with an armful of broken-up furniture.
All summer I’d been working out in my head—or trying to—who I wanted to be at the end of my mid-life respite from work. I’d been reading books and attending “outplacement” classes funded by my former employer. I was almost certain I wanted to find my next job in the nonprofit sector, although I hadn’t entirely ruled out starting a freelance writing business. I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want to do next—virtually anything I had done up to that point. In August, I attended a nonfiction writing conference, although I felt like an imposter identifying myself as an actual writer; never mind that my summer of discontent had been punctuated with happy fits of writing, and I knew whatever I did next would have to allow for that to continue.
Still, I had more questions than answers about what my next chapter would look like. Until that September, it never occurred to me that some of the answers might be hiding under all that clutter from my office, or what I’d come to think of as The Museum of Me.
I dismantled the built-ins little by little. Early on each of my demolition mornings—before it got too hot in my un-air-conditioned house—I’d start with quiet tasks. I’d unscrew hinges or use a crowbar to coax strips of lumber and particleboard away from the floor and the interior walls of the cabinets below the desk. I’d tape paint swatches to the yellowed walls or browse online for new, functional furniture. Then, once it was a respectable hour to start making noise, I’d let the hammer ring out against the wood, working as long as I could.
Then I’d shower, slip into clean shorts and a fresh t-shirt, and grab a pile of artifacts from one of the other rooms. I’d plunk myself down on the bare hardwood floor in the middle of the mess I was both making and unmaking. I’d wedge open a dusty box, a creaky binder or a long-forgotten journal—and there I’d stay for an hour, maybe three, right in the middle of some earlier version of myself.
Sometimes I felt guilty about all the time I was spending sorting through my archives. I should be writing, I’d think, as I flipped through speeches I’d written for other people, pictures of long-lost friends, copies of invoices from my days as a freelance medical editor. I should be looking for a job, I’d worry, as I sifted through airline ticket stubs, old performance reviews, or notes a younger me had made in the margins of her books. I should be getting out of the house more, I’d chide myself, as I reread papers I’d written in graduate school, flipped through postcards I’d collected while traveling, thumbed through the high-school and college yearbooks I’d helped to edit.
Yet day after day I stayed there, deciding what to keep, what to toss, what to shred; sometimes the shredding was practical (old pay stubs), other times cathartic (old boyfriends). Some items I kept to remind me of who or where I didn’t want to be anymore—a box of crayons from an absurd management meeting near the end of my corporate tenure. Some I saved because they made me laugh—a photograph of me and two co-workers in our 1980s business attire, on roller skates (it’s a long story); or because they made me cry—letters, obituaries cut from the newspaper; or because they helped me remember who I’d been—old business cards; or who I’d meant to be—scraps of poems I’d started, newsletter articles I’d written, words that had my name attached to them.
Bang, bang, bang.
All those exposed surfaces to spackle and sand. All the possibilities contained in a can paint. All the October days spent dragging newly delivered furniture pieces up the stairs and around the narrow landing to make a new desk, new bookshelves, new file cabinets. Some assembly required. All the nails driven into four freshly painted walls to hang photographs and artwork carefully curated from my collections—or purchased for my new space—to surround me, remind me, inspire me. All the talismans artfully arranged to keep me true to myself until I found my way back into the world again; and again, after that.
If anyone had asked about all the hammering—say my neighbor George—I would have said I was up to my eyeballs in yet another home-improvement project. Only I knew what had really been going on up there, under all that paper, over all that splintered wood and plaster dust.