Today we are pleased to announce that future contributor Rebecca Hazelton has been recently featured in The New Yorker. Rebecca’s poem “Generic Husband” can be read on their website and will appear in the November 13, 2017 Issue.
We are glad to feature Rebecca in our upcoming Issue 20 of Superstition Review.
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert will be talking about her latest work, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, at Tempe Center for the Arts. The author will also present on the role human beings have played in climate change. The event takes place on Thursday, October 20 at 7 p.m. A Q&A and book signing will take place after the presentation. This event is free and open to the public.
Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999. Her series on global warming, “The Climate of Man,” appeared in The New Yorker in the spring of 2005 and won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine award, among numerous other accolades. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Mother Jones, and has been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best American Political Writing. She edited The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009. A collection of her work, The Prophet of Love and Other Tales of Power and Deceit, was published in 2004. Prior to joining the staff of The New Yorker, Kolbert was a political reporter for The New York Times.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, was a New York Times 2014 Top Ten Best Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle awards for the best books of 2014. Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year in 2006 by The New York Times Book Review.
The finish line appeared before me like the gilded gate to some fabled city (only a slight exaggeration). In the recovery area I collected my medal and t-shirt, downed some Gatorade, reunited with my family, and now, a few blocks later, the Gatorade lay pooled by my running shoes. “Dad, it’s green,” my son pointed out. He was right. It looked like a vehicle with a bad radiator leak had just pulled away. My wife, realizing my state, went to fetch the car, so I leaned against the side of a building as my kids hovered around me on an overcast morning in Duluth. Race finishers and spectators strolled past, beginning the steep ascent from the harbor. They eyed the puddle of vomit, then me. Some understood my situation, I think, and some were confused or even repelled, but no one said anything. I herded the kids toward the far side of the alley, distancing us as though from the pooled blood at a crime scene.
This was my second marathon. The first had been a more low-key affair in my home city, little more than an experiment. I just wanted to see if I could finish without walking. Duluth had been a lesson in humility. For my kids the episode in the alleyway remains a fond memory, and four years later they still bring it up, that time they watched their dad spew greenish gunk like a guy in a sci-fi film. That morning I dehydrated myself to the point of sickness in an effort to better the time from my first marathon, ultimately finishing fifteen seconds faster. Months of training, often in wind, rain, snow, sometimes on ice-sheeted sidewalks. Entry fees, hours of driving, hotel and food and gas expenditures, and a race that left me pondering the efficacy of an IV, all culminating in this. Fifteen seconds.
Since that overcast day I’ve run thirteen more marathons, and as many times I’ve vowed, publicly and privately, never to run another. “Yeah, right,” my wife always replies, smirking. The smirk is galling but justified. As of the writing of this, I’ve registered for two more marathons and am eyeing two more beyond that. My wife is mystified by my perpetual cycle of training and racing. She, a non-runner, would prefer her getaways adorned with palm trees, white sand, and a steady parade of rum drinks with little umbrellas in them. She does not care to spend her few allotted vacation days in Wichita or Fargo or Toledo (all great marathon cities). She’d like for us to sit on our deck on warm Saturday evenings and enjoy a beer or two without me worrying about how it might impact my training run the next morning.
It would probably surprise no one when I say I’m uncertain marathoning has led to greater contentment, happiness, a newfound kinship with the almighty, or any of that rigmarole. I can’t even characterize the races as fun. If fun is rolling surf and suntan oil, marathons are, at least sometimes, white-out frostbite-inducing blizzards. There’s the nausea, the dehydration. I’ve been chafed to the point of shower yowling. I’ve been bone tired and plagued by body aches. I’ve suffered IT Band syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis. During my last race I looked down to realize I’d bled through my shoe, which I later found to have been caused by two ruptured blisters. My toenails have blackened like overripe bananas, though not until recently did I actually lose one. It’s difficult to reconcile the swell of pride I felt when the nail came off in my fingers. I was quick to show the kids, knowing they’d appreciate this grim development the same way they admired my Linda Blair routine in the Duluth alleyway.
The pain I felt was primarily physical, and while there were tricks—training, Bodyglide, compression socks, electrolyte drinks—to diminish the discomfort, there was no way to circumvent it. The last few miles of a marathon become a study in pain management. This pain is different in character than the feeling that accompanies a 5K or 10K. The miseries of those races are quick and brutal, flash fires. The marathon is a slow burn. Throughout the race you’ve been consuming water, Gatorade, and energy chews or gels. This liquefied sugar combo leaves your mouth filmed with a sticky, unpleasant residue. Condensed sweat leaves salt on your skin in wavering lines like an EKG printout. At mile fifteen or sixteen, your feet start to ache, or your toes, maybe your calves or quads, maybe all of the above. Your sunglasses are sweat-streaked. Your singlet clings to you. You can’t seem to quench your thirst. In your head you’ve been splitting the race into manageable sums. Six miles down, only twenty to go. Ten miles, I’m at double digits. Thirteen miles, the halfway point! Sixteen miles, only ten left. At twenty or twenty-one miles, the steps grow heavier, ponderous. A simple incline from pavement to curb can seem taxing. As you sailed through the opening miles, you read the funny signs held by scattered spectators and you smiled, full of nervous energy and goodwill toward man (and woman). You high-fived a couple kids. Now your eyes are too tired to pass smoothly over the landscape, and instead you catch lurching snapshots. A volunteer sweeping up empty cups. A dog patiently licking its hindquarters. A discarded banana peel. The awkward form of a passing runner. A policeman waving traffic past. You hear a song, and its refrain loops endlessly in your head. You fixate. Why’s that guy with the weird gait faster than me? Is this what it feels like when convicts escape from prison? Where’d that juggler come from? You develop tunnel vision, eyeing only the road ahead. It isn’t focus but self-preservation, the way sailors jettison excess items from a sinking vessel. The scattered spectators slide away, becoming immaterial, except for those who call out something to distract you, maybe the name printed on your bib, and you’re grateful for those few seconds of diversion. You observe everything from a couch in the black-walled depths of your skull. Whereas with out-of-body experiences you’re lifted skyward to observe yourself dispassionately, here you’re being tucked more deeply into yourself. Meanwhile your mind keeps firing paltry distress flares. Go ahead and stop, just for a minute, it’s okay. No one will hold it against you. There’ll be other races. Walk through this aid station, lie down in that grassy area over there, take off your shoes and socks, rub your feet, find a t-bone and some beer.
This is your mind’s subterfuge, and you’ve got to short-circuit it somehow. You start counting each breath, each footstep. You get to a hundred and start over. Numbers, just numbers. Instinctive. Steps stretch out over distance and time in some unknowable, constantly shifting equation. Stay upright, press forward. Endure. Then the finish line, hastily erected to remind you how arbitrary the whole thing is. The gates of the gilded city.
I tried holding certain thoughts at bay:
The distance, arrived upon (incidentally) so the runners in the 1908 Olympics might pass Queen Alexandra in her regal box seat.
The time it took to cover that distance, whether five hours or three hours or fast enough to qualify for Boston. Ultimately, what did it matter? There were so many who ran the event faster. Why push myself to near-collapse when the end result reeked of mediocrity and obscurity? Even the elite marathoners, all but a handful, barely eked out a living. It was not a sport that commanded a following but rather an irritation for those motorists who happened upon closed streets on a Sunday morning.
Adam Alter wrote a piece on long-distance runners that appeared in the December 2015 issue of The New Yorker. The question Alter hoped to answer, or at least investigate—the question I’d been asked repeatedly, by others and by myself—was “Why?” Why put yourself through it? And voluntarily, no less. Why pay money for the privilege? Why, when the most someone like myself could hope for was perhaps a small gift certificate or a plaque or a pint glass? What caught my attention in Alter’s piece was the distinction he drew between happiness—what he defined as “a positive, momentary emotional tone” (i.e. fleeting)—and meaningfulness, “the sense that one’s life has broad value and purpose.” Alter pointed out the arbitrary nature of running and the paradox of trying to find meaning in something so inherently meaningless. The conclusion he came to, with which I agree, was that the event itself didn’t have any inherent meaning. Meaningfulness came from making, pursuing, and (hopefully) attaining a goal. Runners are goal-oriented people. We are planners, as evidenced by our spreadsheets detailing proposed races. When our plans don’t work out, which in running is about ninety percent of the time, we make new ones.
As one of the runners in Alter’s article explained (and I paraphrase), the goal should be a bit scary if it’s worth trying. I will never argue that the local charity 5K is a cakewalk, but as I grew more serious about running, I found myself less anxious the night before such events. These were my gateway drugs, and I was building a tolerance. I needed something to mainline. The marathon was the new opiate, providing the requisite level of fear. I slept fitfully the night before a race and woke with butterflies in my stomach, barely able to choke down yogurt or a bagel. That anxiety has not diminished, and I think it’s because with marathons there are no guarantees of success. My times have fluctuated, sometimes wildly, along with the state of my body. I’ve finished marathons feeling tired but unscathed, and I’ve finished with blisters, aching muscles, and an overwhelming urge to splatter an alleyway with recycled Gatorade.
Maybe it’s thrill-seeking, a way to quicken the heart rate, an activity to be lumped in with snowboarding and bungee jumping and motorcycling. Maybe a midlife crisis. But pain is the word I keep dancing around. I say I run marathons because I like setting goals, I like training and competing, I enjoy feeling like an athlete even in middle age. I crave the anticipation of the event before me, the jittery feeling. But I’m not really scared of failure, I’m scared of hurting. And if I’m truly honest with myself, I don’t just fear pain: I crave it. There are those of us who’ve reached the point where the pulse of our lives has slowed to a rhythmic beat. Monthly paycheck, mortgage, a job that requires us to spend the bulk of our waking hours tethered to a monitor. We need a jolt of voltage to free us from the waking dream. We seek out pain because after awhile even pain trumps monotony. The pain tells us we’re alive.
I don’t know how many marathoners are fiction writers or poets, but I’m guessing there are plenty, Haruki Murakami being perhaps the most famous example. I keep returning to his What I Think About When I Think About Running when I need to see how another writer approaches this inward and socially dubious pastime (by which I mean running, although creative writing might also qualify). Maybe now in the age of social media it’s easier to stumble across the writing/distance-running set, but I don’t think as a rule we do much self-promotion. While we like being patted on the back for our accomplishments, that’s not why we take up such sports. Most of us will never climb any podiums, but we keep toiling regardless, often under the apprehension we will fail (“Fail again. Fail better.”) but resolved to persevere anyway.
In fact, those looking for instant recognition are probably going to drift toward other pursuits, because the ones I’m describing here require long, slow trudging in isolated terrains. There are no YouTube shortcuts to overnight success. These are sports that take years, with progress coming in fits and starts. A story is taken by a prestigious journal and we think we’re set for literary stardom, only to endure twenty subsequent rejections and a plummet back to earth, back to the day job and the bills and the crippling self-doubt. The same is true of running. We set a personal record in March and expect our upcoming season to be filled with more of the same. Then we run a couple more races and find ourselves unaccountably slower. Then we over-train and pull a muscle. We can’t measure our success against other runners any more than we can determine the quality of our writing by the external reactions to it. We find our rewards in the process. I’ve come to enjoy the training, the lead-up, more than the race itself, to the point where the finish feels like a letdown and the week or two afterward I slip into a funk. In much the same way, the pleasure of writing for me comes with drafting and revising. Once the story or poem leaves my desk, making its way into the hands of editors, I’ve already squeezed every drop of pleasure from it. After the long courtship, I’ve lost interest, which is the way it must be.
And so I return to the question: Why do it? Why these particular pursuits, story writing and marathon running? Why, when success is so illusory? Why, when the apprenticeship takes years? Decades? When there’s no certainty you’ll ever master your craft? It all seems masochistic and a bit antisocial. The long, solitary runs; the hours spent at the keyboard while your loved ones are elsewhere.
I have no universal answers and can only attempt to describe my own mind. I lead what is in many ways a clouded existence. The work I perform at my day job is oftentimes unfocused. I’m distracted by the song playing on my headphones or the email I just received or the coworker stopping by to talk about his aphid problem or the latest Marvel movie. My home life is more of the same. The dishwasher needs to be loaded, the dog tore a hole in the window screen, my son is waiting for me to take him to baseball practice, my daughter is asking to play at the neighbor’s. Meanwhile I’m checking my Twitter feed and the Times headlines and fixing myself some cereal and wondering what I’m going to stream on TV later.
While running I might listen to a book or some music, but mostly I’m focused on my breathing, my form, my pace, to the extent that if you asked me what I thought about during my workout I probably wouldn’t be able to recall. It’s a mind-clearing exercise, spirituality without the handbooks and other paraphernalia. This becomes even more true in marathons, where these tertiary concerns slip away. In so many aspects of my life, I’m expending only a portion of myself, but with marathons and writing, the effort is absolute. It’s gratifying to finish a race and be able to say honestly that you pushed yourself to your limits. We often claim we did our best, often to salve the sting of failure, but how often is it the truth? In this sedentary age, where the act of walking to the vending machine seems greater than the reward, full-tilt effort is a rarity.
Writing offers that same opportunity. Whereas no piece of writing is perfect, just as no race is, there’s a thrilling sense of accomplishment when we’ve worked a story or poem to the point of comma-quibbling, brushing against the ceiling of our potential. I purposely use adjectives like “gratifying” rather than “fun” to describe the process. It’s mentally taxing, after all, but by that same token, I’ve always cringed when I’ve heard it called “work.” Anyone who’s spent even a single day laying sod or pouring concrete would agree that typing on a keyboard is something altogether different. If we wanted fleeting happiness, we’d go jet-skiing. When we write, we’re seeking what Alter described in relation to ultra-runners: meaningfulness, the ongoing passions and pursuits that shape our lives. Reaching the limits of our talents can be depressing, but only when we allow ourselves to gauge our efforts in relation to other people.
I avoid running groups and clubs, preferring the untethered feeling of solitary runs, where there’s no need to match anyone else’s pace or worry about making small talk or obsess about how loudly I’m breathing. In running as in writing, there is generally no collaboration. We might run with others from time to time, but the work we do is our own, just as with writing, where the ideas and the execution are ours alone. This increases the fear of failure because we’re solely accountable. Many teachers ask their students, with regard to a story or poem, what’s at stake. I don’t know that every piece of writing needs to answer this question, but I do imagine there should be enough danger in a good story or poem to scare its writer a little, a jittery feeling as the final sentences come about, the same way a marathoner feels on race morning. When we’re young, the risks occur naturally, when our relationships and financial standing and sense of self and burgeoning careers are all teetering. Writing isn’t a pleasant diversion or a habit formed over many years, like a callous. More often it’s the inflatable life vest on the plummeting airliner, a means of surviving in a world, adulthood, that is still largely uncharted. It’s a way of focusing, like counting to a hundred over and over to numb the pain that accompanies the final miles of a marathon.
If we’re fortunate, privileged, we might start to find what we’re seeking—a safe environment, a companion, steady work, health insurance—and the ground on which we stand becomes firmer. The uncertainty that characterized our youth starts to evaporate, but we keep writing, perhaps seeing it as a way to make money (yes, we’re still naïve) or advance our careers or because we’re compelled or because it’s something we’ve done ever since we were kids composing stories by hand in pencil, with great care, on lined sheets of paper. We send our most polished work to little magazines, ever hopeful. But here the purity of the act—whether putting words down on paper or running as fast as possible—gives way to the seeming randomness of the larger world. The arbitrary nature of the submission process can be maddening. Our best story is rejected by a third-tier journal only to be accepted later by a first-tier one. We send a batch of poems to an editor who takes the worst while declining the others. We vacillate between condemnation of the editor (obviously clueless!) and dejection over the incompetence of our own work. Maybe we’re the clueless one. Though I’ve tried to brush aside such judgments, considering them the opinions of editors whose tastes simply didn’t jibe with mine, I’ll admit they’ve had a cumulative effect on me, a wearying, calcifying effect. Maybe it’s just the accretion of so many rejections, but they’ve come to seem like stones in a wall separating me from the pleasure of writing. I’ve ignored my own advice to tune out the noise.
Even though the distances are arbitrary, there’s a truth to running. Each competitor in a given race must cover the same ground, so if someone beats you it’s not because of a third-party espousing his tastes or pushing an agenda, it’s because that runner was faster. I appreciate the simplicity in that. There are no referees interpreting rules, no coaches playing favorites, just sweaty folks straining for the finish line. It’s fair, it’s democratic. Effort prevails. I think this is why I find myself spending more and more time these days browsing running websites and magazines rather than literary ones. I’m more careful not to skip a track workout than a writing session. I’ve grown tired of watching writers jockey for position and trade favors and flatter and attempt to commodify something that isn’t much of a commodity. Running is what holds me aloft these days while writing feels at times like the ballast, the chore. I’m searching for a way to make it new and fun again, a way to filter the outside expectations, because there aren’t any, not really.
The advantages of online submission over standard mail are so numerous, so obvious, so clear, so superior in nearly every way; still, sometimes I miss waiting in line at the post office, where no one else seemed to be sending overlong stories to The New Yorker. I miss holding the envelopes against my side so no one might see that I was also simultaneously submitting to The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. I always feared someone in line turning to me and saying, “Don’t you think that’s a little bit unrealistic?” But there was a pleasure in placing the envelopes on a scale and finding out—surprise!—how much it costs to send a thirty-two-page story to Boston. I miss buying a book of stamps for my next round of SASEs. I miss the receipt I always kept for no reason whatsoever.
There were other pleasures, too. I had a ritual for writing out SASEs, a problem for me, since my handwriting is terrible, but I could cover well enough by printing in all caps. I would set a stack of #10 envelopes on my writing desk and print my name and address so many times, over and over again, until my name seemed alien to me, my address some foreign port I’d yet to visit. After, I would place a stamp in the top right hand corner with the same studied care I used whenever I had to affix a registration decal to my license plate. Next, I would paper clip the SASE to the back of my submission and cover letter—it was part of the ritual that the SASE must be hidden from immediate view since I didn’t want the editor thinking about rejecting my story before encountering the first page—and slide it into the envelope, where I hoped I would never see it again.
For the manuscript, I preferred staples to paper clips, and sort of miss the days when “staples or paper clips?” was as familiar a question at AWP panels as “how do I get an agent?” or “where do you get your ideas from?” Another loss: the feeling of reloading my stapler with a fresh, gleaming row of staples. Testing the first staple, always a misfire, so that the next staple might pass through.
I liked to send my stories from the post office, even if I had sufficient postage at home, since I believed that a postmarked story had a better chance of getting accepted than a stamped one. I refused to use commemorative stamps, worried that some editor might start thinking about Edith Wharton or Ernest Hemingway or Mark Twain or some other vastly superior writer, rather than my homely stuff. I always used brown manila envelopes, never white, never Tyvek. Never priority mail: too desperate.
For a while, I had a preference for specific postal employees at my local post office (this is embarrassing to admit) since I believed that some of them were “lucky” while others were not so lucky. Part of the ritual was to stand in line and hope to get a “lucky” employee without deliberately changing my position in line, a game so dumb and meaningless I can barely stand to write this; still, it was kind of fun. My favorite “lucky” employee was a kind, middle-aged woman with gray hair who would always stamp a bright red first-class stamp as close to the editor’s name as possible so that, as she explained it, they would think they were “first class people.”
But there’s one ritual I miss more than any other: opening a rejection slip from some distinguished magazine I had no hope in the world of getting accepted by, and finding even the slightest written note. Sorry, not this one, or, Try us again? I would read those notes more times than I’d like to admit, hieroglyphs, I believed, to my certain future.
The ASU regents poetry professor and PEN USA poetry prize-winner presents his twenty-ninth collection of poetry.
In his twenty-ninth collection of poems, Norman Dubie returns to a rich, color-soaked vision of the world. Strangeness becomes a parable for compassion, each poem leading the reader to an uncommon way of understanding human capacities. In the futuristic sphere of The Quotations of Bone, the mind wanders meditatively into an imaginative and uncontainable history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NORMAN DUBIE was born in Barre, Vermont, in April 1945. He teaches at Arizona State University. His poems have appeared in many magazines, including American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Poetry, He has won the Bess Hokin Award of the Modern Poetry Association and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Dubie won the PEN USA prize for best poetry collection in 2001.
TUCSON (April 1, 2015) —Continuing on a successful collaboration from the fall 2014 – spring 2015 season that brought artists and poets of national acclaim to Phoenix audiences, the University of Arizona Poetry Center and Phoenix Art Museum will again partner to offer a reading and lecture series this spring, next up to feature visual artist and poet Jen Bervin.
Jen Bervin will give an artist talk on Friday, May 1 at at 7 p.m. at the Phoenix Art Museum about her work Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, a facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s “envelope poems,” co-edited with the scholar Marta Werner. Bervin’s works are held in more than thirty national collections including the Walker Art Center and The J. Paul Getty Museum. She has published four books with Granary Books and three others with Ugly Duckling Presse. Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings was selected as a Best Book of the Year for 2013 from Times Literary Supplement, Hyperallergic and The New Yorker.
About Phoenix Art Museum
Phoenix Art Museum is located at 1625 N. Central Ave. in Phoenix, AZ. The Museum has provided access to visual arts and educational programs in Arizona for more than 50 years and is the largest art museum in the Southwestern United States. Top national and international exhibitions are shown alongside the museum’s collection of more than 18,000 objects of American, Asian, European, Latin American, Western American, modern and contemporary art, photography and fashion design. The museum hosts photography exhibitions through its landmark partnership with The University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. Visitors can also enjoy the PhxArtKids gallery, the Dorrance Sculpture Garden, the Thorne Miniature Rooms of historic interiors, and a collection of works by renowned Arizona artist Philip C. Curtis. For additional information about Phoenix Art Museum please visit phxart.org or call 602-257-1880.
About The University of Arizona Poetry Center
The University of Arizona Poetry Center is housed in one of three landmark buildings for poetry in the nation. In addition to its world-renowned collection of contemporary poetry, the Poetry Center is known for its readings and lecture series, international symposia, classes and workshops, writers’ residencies, and a wide range of programs for children and youth. The Poetry Center was most recently recognized with a 2014 Governors Arts Award.
For additional information about these events please visit poetry.arizona.edu.
The University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Phoenix Art Museum present:
Artist’s Talk from Jen Bervin, co-editor of The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, which was recognized as a 2013 best book of the year by The New Yorker and Times Literary Supplement.
This event is FREE and will be followed by a Q & A, with books available for purchase. Learn more at poetry.arizona.edu or phxart.org.
Date: Friday, May 1, 7:00 PM
Location: The Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave, Phoenix, Arizona
The book is printed in a facsimile edition, and the poems are unique–each is composed on the flap of an envelope. You can learn more about the book in the NYTimes review and New Yorker pieces below:
For even more information you can check out these links to reviews on the book:
NPR: “Readers always seem to want to get to closer to Emily Dickinson, the godmother of American poetry. Paging through her poems feels like burrowing nose-deep in her 19th century backyard – where ‘the grass divides as with a comb,’ as she writes in…”
An essay response in Jacket2: “‘The world will not rest satisfied,’ wrote a reviewer of Emily Dickinson’s poems in 1982, ’till every scrap of writings, letters as well as literature, has been published.’ Here is how The Gorgeous Nothings, a provocation, satisfies…”
LA Times: “In 2012, a daguerreotype surfaced that was thought to be of a midlife Emily Dickinson, causing an Internet frenzy. As far as we (the frenzied) knew, there was only one known…”
New Republic: “It turns out that for a not insignificant fee, literary museums and author’s homes will often let guests handle the artifacts, materials, and manuscripts of long-deceased writers. On a chilly, windblown visit to…”
Summer 2012 Social Networking intern John S. Martinson shares how Superstition Review gave him the impetus to pursue his interest in creative nonfiction writing.
My stint as Summer Blogger for Superstition Review was the impetus I needed to move forward toward finding a graduate degree program. I have always enjoyed writing, but other than English 102, a blogging course taught by Trish, research reports in Sustainability, and weekly posts in Sociology and Rhetorical Studies, I have had no assignments to write. I had thought about applying for a Masters of Arts in the School of Sustainability because I found the subject matter compelling—the kind of science policy I could rap about. I had started a sustainability blog in the blogging class (ecocanyon.org) and fed it a few posts, but, alas, it has wallowed since. Nevertheless, working in a literary environment, albeit an online environment, was stimulating. I was especially drawn to creative nonfiction. For years, I have been an avid of reader The Sun Magazine and The New Yorker.
The other kick in the pants came from a gentleman I met on Facebook (a friend of a friend), Marvin Kupfer, a professional TV writer who lives here in the Valley. We had lunch on September 13 of last year where we discussed my search for a graduate program. I explained my dilemma: although I was interested in sustainability, I did not see myself as a scientist. My real passion lay in writing, especially creative nonfiction. Marvin encouraged me to follow my passion; I could always write about sustainability. This echoed encouragement from my wife in the same direction.
After our lunch, I immediately searched writing programs at ASU. I have a business and
I am a hands-on Dad so a full-time program like an MFA was out of the question, especially with my wife working on a Masters of Gifted Education at the same time. I needed flexibility. So, I decided on a Master of Liberal Studies with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction Writing at ASU Online. I started the program in January, with a course in Memoir Writing from SR Nonfiction Advisor Rebecca Byrkit. I have written six memoir assignments so far. I am home.
Narrative Magazine, one of the nation’s most prominent literary venues, is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding. The magazine’s founders note that the years have been but a breath and a heartbeat but also a long sustained burning of midnight oil. So the editors and staff are really looking forward to the anniversary celebrations, to take place in San Francisco in April and in NYC in the autumn. Many good and dedicated people helped create and build Narrative, and the celebrations promise to bring together the magazine’s friends, old and new, to raise a glass to writers and great writing.
When Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks started the magazine in 2003, there were no online or digital platforms for first-rank literary work—The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s, the Paris Review, none of them, nor any other quality publisher of literature, had an online presence. And, according to studies done by the NEA, readers were falling away from literature by the millions, and certainly the rise of technological media was a big part of the shift away from reading. A general sense of depression and indirection was overtaking the literary community, and Edgarian and Jenks wanted to show what quality literature could look like online. They started with six authors and about a thousand readers. (The contents of the first issue are available here.) And the founders recall that when they started the magazine, no one—friends and authors—seemed to understand what an online magazine would be, though observers were all cheerful enough about it, as if to humor Edgarian and Jenks by saying, Sure, why not?
Today, of course, everyone grasps the challenge and opportunity that technology presents for literature, but until Amazon launched Kindle in 2007, the handwriting on the wall wasn’t read by many publishers and litterateurs, who should have been reading it much sooner. Change, especially the kind of radical change that has taken place in publishing, is always met with resistance, and existing book and magazine content was less immediately available to be digitized than were film and music files. Old-line publishers, clinging to print rights, sunk costs, and traditional bona fides (a digital publication was not considered a “real” publication), harbored reluctance and denial, though the shift from bricks-and-mortar to digital was inevitable once the technological revolution started and the Internet caught the collective imagination. In the early stages of this shift, Douglas Coupland observed that the Internet had begun to look like a cross between a shopping mall and a bordello, and today online commercialism remains a big challenge to literary values. Amazon’s “the readers decide” is a great consumer-oriented retail credo, but as a literary value it’s akin to a popularity contest. Narrative began and continues as an example of excellence, combining old-school values with new media technology. Narrative was one of the first two periodicals to release an iPhone/iPad Application (it’s free) and was one of the first periodicals available on Kindle. The magazine has 150,000 readers and publishes several hundred writers and artists each year. Narrative has been much watched and imitated by other periodicals with vastly greater resources, and now in an environment in which technology and business investment seek scalability and ROI above all, Narrative continues to look for ways to co-opt the means of production for the sake of literature. “We can’t take its existence for granted,” Jenks notes, “or think that the free market values it as we do.”
He also notes that the constant readership for good writing forms a small subculture within mass-culture. Sometimes a book or author crosses over from the small world to the large, most often in the case of a film adaptation. Cormac McCarthy’s first five books sold about three thousand copies each. Then came the film version of All the Pretty Horses. There are other examples, but the point is that all who care deeply about literature and its generative effect on society recognize that anything and everything that can be done to encourage good writing and reading needs to be done. Narrative has sought to reach as many readers as possible, to put forth the best work by the best writers, to engender an intelligent and respectful level of discourse, and to further the best of traditional literary values into the new age.
With Narrative the editors offer as transparent a medium as possible to connect readers and writers. The magazine aims to advance no editorial stamp or personality such that anyone might say that a particular work is a “Narrative Magazine” sort of piece; rather, the editors’ interest is in good writing and narratives that are entertaining, unpredictable, and charged with the shock of recognition that occurs when the human significance of the work is made manifest. The editors look for pieces in which the effects of language, situation, and insight are intense and total. Many of the authors featured in Narrative are well-known, but the magazine is also dedicated to presenting new and emerging writers and features many first-time authors.
Asked about the magazine’s name, Edgarian reported, “In 2003, a friend of ours, the essayist Susan L. Feldman, knowing we were preparing to launch a new magazine called Narrative, sent us a one-line quote from a Paul Baumann review of a Thomas Keneally novel. Baumann, the editor of Commonweal, wrote, ‘Only myth, only narrative . . . can capture the mystery of human goodness and evil.’ A few years later, at a Narrative Night event, Robert Stone noted, “Stories are as necessary to us as bread. There is no sense or order to experience outside of narrative. Whether in prose or poetry, writers continually revivify the myths that illuminate our lives as we move from the known into the unknown.”
Looking ahead to what the next 10 years may bring for Narrative, Jenks said, “Ha! Where’s my crystal ball? As a kid growing up in the 1950s and ’60s and hearing about the Soviet Union, the five-year plan always struck me as a good model, provided you didn’t have to adhere to it rigidly. That is, you can chart the future, knowing that as you reach each milestone the landscape looks somewhat different than imagined, and the chart must be adjusted again and again as you go forward. But Narrative’s primary goals remain the same as when we started: Expand the readership for good writing; support writers by paying them as well as possible and by providing keen editorial encouragement; train young publishing professionals in the best traditional values and new practices; help shape the future of literature within the new media.”
The longtime editor also had some advice for writers looking to publish. “About 70 percent of unsolicited manuscripts begin with someone waking up, or with someone taking a drink, or with a phone call. Sometimes all three of these motifs are combined, as in, ‘I woke with a dreadful hangover to the incessant ringing of the phone.’ The clichéd waking beginning tends to be an unconscious metaphor for the dawning consciousness of the writer. I’m not saying not to use a waking beginning, but it’s well to be aware of the odds against it and, if using it, then to do something original and essential with it. The opening of Anna Karenina offers an inspiring example.”
For writers thinking about submitting work to Narrative, Jenks said, “You should submit to Narrative only if you have taken the time to read the magazine and to know its cast. If the magazine appeals to you, and if you have assayed your work in relation to the work you see in the magazine, then a submission may be in order. An unfortunate perennial circumstance is that many more people tend to send their work to any magazine than actually trouble to read the magazine with any accurate attention. We give Narrative away for free to encourage reading first.”
Lately, I’ve been getting stuck while writing short stories. I’ll be working on a promising idea with a good set-up and characters, and suddenly I’ll hit a wall. I simply won’t know how to make the story work. What do I do with this thing? I’ll think. What happens next?
This is a lonely feeling. After all, if I, the writer, don’t know what happens next in the story, who does?
The Internet is not helpful. Do a search on this topic, and you’ll get advice like, “Try a prompt. Where does your character like to go on vacation?” But this problem I’m having is more than just plotting. It’s about figuring out meaning.
I write first drafts quickly and then take forever editing them. The first draft is a movie in my head, the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind, and the joy of rampant imagination and wordplay. These drafts, as you might expect, are messy. They may or may not have an ending. They may have gaps with brackets that say [fill in details]. They may start one way, shift point-of-view or tense, and then go in the opposite direction. Editing is a process of finding meaning through untangling the first draft—who are these characters, what are they doing, why did I write that, and what is the point of this story, anyway?
Meaning is tricky. You’ve got to be careful with it. You don’t want to choke the life out of your story by imposing what you think you’re trying to say onto it. That’s a shifting landscape anyway, what you are trying to say. You may not know what you think or what you believe until the fiction shows you. Every time I have tried to write a story about a preconceived moral or the Truth About Life, the story hasn’t cooperated.
Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it—and so things have to be ramped up. Einstein said (or, at least, I am always quoting him as having said), “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” … These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language.
This seems to be the answer to my problem: not prompts, not tricks, not the addition of new characters, but “line-by-line progress through the story.” Some writers love the careful examination that comes with the editing process. For me, editing takes patience and time, and I’m usually short on patience and time. It also faith. You have to hope that something shadowy and mysterious—that part of your brain that knows why you wrote what you wrote—will come to the rescue and redeem this gobbledygook in the form of a worthwhile story.
And of course, sometimes it doesn’t. Stories fail. There’s always risk with writing.
In a recent interview with The Paris Review, EL Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This is true, but man, isn’t that kind of a terrifying drive? No wonder writers get so anxious and despairing. But I, for one, am becoming more comfortable with this particular brand of discomfort. You can get used to almost anything in life, I guess. You just have to put your butt in the driver’s seat and hope that the headlights won’t burn out and that the road will continue to emerge. In fact, don’t think about all the things that can go wrong. Even though you know that sometimes you will drive into a cow pasture and have to turn around and go back to the beginning, and sometimes you will have to turn around multiple times before you’re through, you just have to keep going until you reach the end of your journey and pull into a full, satisfying parking job.
And then, of course, you start down a new road altogether.